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Feature from the Winter 2014 Epistle:

Stewart W. Herman, Jr.—Eyewitness to History

by Philip Hefner, LSTC professor emeritus of systematic theology and senior fellow of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science


Stewart Herman always saw his personal interest in Hitler’s Third Reich as “more accidental than intentional.” His six year incumbency as pastor of the American Church in Berlin (1936 - December 7, 1941), he said was an “unpremeditated pastorate” (see note i). The 25-year-old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Gettysburg College, and 1934 graduate of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, was a child of the parsonage and son of a distinguished Lutheran pastor in Harrisburg, Penn. As he set out in the summer of 1934, following ordination, for graduate study in Europe he could scarcely have guessed what adventures lay in store for him.

The young Pennsylvanian was doubtless anticipating a teaching career. After a year of study at the University of Strasbourg – where he had the good fortune of getting to know the famed Dr. Albert Schweitzer – he planned to spend a second year at the University of Göttingen on a study fellowship for doctoral studies.

During the winter of 1936, while a student at Göttingen, he was serendipitously invited to supply preach at the American Church in Berlin by its vacationing pastor.  The congregation liked him so well that they called him to return as their regular pastor, replacing the vacationing pastor who had decided not to return. Herman left Göttingen in the hope of continuing his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin while serving in his first call as pastor to the American community.

The young pastor, in the heart of the Nazi capital, now found himself caught up in a dizzying vortex of changes and political activities for which life in Central Pennsylvania had not quite prepared him. As pastor to the American Protestant community, he inherited a public role as religious representative of that community (notwithstanding the American separation of church and state.) He was expected to attend, and sometimes offer prayers at, official diplomatic functions. His challenge was quickly to get to know and relate to the spiritual needs and stresses of his American parishioners while discerning the fast changing situation of the German people, Nazi officialdom, and the Evangelical Churches.

His sermons (often monitored by Nazi spies), but especially his letters home to his parents and his personal diaries, reflect the deep impression which events made on him. A ringside seat as an eyewitness to history and the habit of recording in detail and reflecting on each day’s happenings sharpened his journalistic skills. Herman very quickly made his own spiritual diagnosis of the dangers facing the German nation, its people and especially its youth, captive to a demonic Nazi ideology:

Every Sunday morning I could hear the bells of the surrounding steeples ringing out at church time. And almost every Sunday morning when the bells were inviting people to service I would hear the sound of trampling feet and singing voices marching down the converging streets into the nearby squar….columns of boys in brown shirts and dark-blue shorts...with heavy boots on their feet were parading along under banners and flags…They were not marching to church, as they frequently used to do before Hitler came to power. These were the Hitler boys and they were going into the movie theatre just across the street to practice singing their songs of hatred and war and to be exhorted once more that to live and die for Germany - the greatest nation on earth - is the noblest aim in life. (see note ii)

To Herman there was no longer any doubt that the two faiths - historic Christianity and Nazi ideology with its neo-pagan cultus - existed side by side, and that “one of them must be destroyed if the other is to exist” (see note iii). He felt an urgency about communicating this threat to Christians in America because deep down he was beginning to wonder whether American Christians, faced with a similar challenge, could survive such an ordeal.

Herman entitled his first published work on the German religious struggle, It’s Your Souls We Want, echoing the tag line of a pro-Nazi poem that appeared in a German newspaper. He was deeply troubled by the widening use of insidious neo-pagan ceremonies for youth confirmation, weddings and funerals, all designed to supplant Christian rituals. The unanswered question which he believed would determine the future of the German people was:

In whom shall we put our faith? Reduced to its lowest common denominator this question is, Christ or Hitler? (see note iv)

Herman was not ignorant of the tension created in 1934 by the adoption by the Pastors’ Emergency League of the Barmen Declaration, authored by Karl Barth.   The Declaration unambiguously reasserted the doctrines of the creeds and confessions, erected barriers against accommodation to Nazi teachings, and led to the formation of the German Confessing Church. The most prominent leader of the Confessing Church, Pastor Martin Niemoeller, was arrested in 1937. The Nazi leadership, exasperated by its failure to rid Germany of Christian influence altogether,  resorted to the fall-back strategy of trying to co-opt the existing institutional churches by creating a new national “German Church” under a Nazi bishop and administrator. Herman wrote that the Nazis were trying to “stampede the Protestant church into the Fascist camp.” (see note v) Yet this strategy, too, proved a failure. Of all the national institutions, said Herman, “the church was the sole stubborn citadel still holding out against the encroachments of the regime.” (see note vi)  He credited this resistance to the courage of some 7000 pastors who signed the Barmen Declaration and represented the vanguard of the Confessing Church.

In 1939, when it was no longer feasible for Herman to continue academic studies at the university, the U.S. State Department drafted him to join the “Foreign Representation Section” of the American Embassy Staff in Berlin. Alongside his role as pastor to the American community, Herman now became a diplomat. In conjunction with the International Red Cross, his job was to organize inspection and relief tours of German concentration camps and to arrange for communication between allied prisoners and their home countries. He also handled requests by foreign nationals stranded in Germany after their embassies had closed. This activity foreshadowed his later ecumenical work in Geneva on behalf of refugees and displaced persons. Simultaneously, he tried as he could to lift the spirits of his own distraught American parishioners.

On December 7, 1941, the doors of the American Church were finally sealed and its congregation disbanded. Thanks to his diplomatic status, Herman was interned (rather than arrested and imprisoned) along with other members of the American diplomatic corps at Bad Nauheim, where he remained for five months until being repatriated on June 1, 1942. On June 7, 1942, he was able to enter the pulpit of his father’s church, Zion Lutheran in Harrisburg, Penn.

Following his homecoming, we observe Herman’s pastor-cum-diplomat role leading into a succession of new roles. His status as an eyewitness to history in Berlin made his services invaluable as an ecumenical reporter and intermediary.  In 1942 he did a brief stint as visiting professor at Hamma Divinity School. In 1943 he accepted an invitation from the British Council of Churches to undertake a speaking tour. He dined with Archbishop William Temple in Lambeth Palace. He completed work on the manuscript of It’s Your Souls We Want for publication. In 1944 he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (later to become the CIA) for service as an intelligence officer in London.

Shortly before “V-E Day”  Herman married Ethelyn (“Lyn”) Cantrell in Atlanta, then promptly took his new bride to Geneva, Switzerland where he worked as Associate Director for the Department of Reconstruction of the World Council of Churches (still being formed at that time.) In 1948 he was appointed Director of Refugee Services for the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva (organized in 1947.) This would later lead to other important roles in New York on the staff of the National Lutheran Council and the NLC’s Department for Lutheran World Federation Affairs.

The dramatic conclusion of his relationship with the German Protestant church needs to be told. Following his six year “unpremeditated pastorate” in Berlin and the succeeding interval, Herman was given a dramatic assignment by the World Council of Churches.

I was appointed to blaze a trail toward the reestablishment of relations with the German churches. Shortly after arriving in Geneva, I plunged across the border and spent the next several months traveling by jeep, command car, army sedan, train and plane all over the prostrate country...I was the first foreign civilian to reach various German churchmen with news of the outside world. (see note vii)

In his July 1945 visit to Germany after the collapse of Hitler, Herman brought a message of reconciliation. He believed that all nations had sinned and all needed to repent. He assured his hosts that they were “surrounded on all sides by a cloud of witnesses who have tried to keep faith with you”, and affirmed his belief that it was “the example of the resisting church in Germany which has helped to phrase a world-wide prayer that the Church of Jesus Christ may become the cornerstone of a new world-community.”  (see note viii)

Stewart W. Herman, Jr., eyewitness to history and bearer of the good news of reconciliation to the German church, was able to redeem a failed doctoral studies program by transforming his accidental involvement in the German church struggle into a catalyst for launching the modern ecumenical movement. He observed first hand the appalling condition of the German clergy, their ruined buildings and congregations. He reported in detail on the “cleansing” of church leadership posts of wartime Nazi sympathizers. He listened as German church leaders acknowledged their crushing burden of guilt and responsibility. He was one of a handful of ecumenical statesmen, representing the World Council of Churches, present at the solemn admission of German responsibility, and the call for repentance, by leading churchmen at Stuttgart, October 18-19, 1945:

Through us endless suffering has been brought to many peoples and countries...we accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously and for not loving more ardently...That in this new beginning we may be aware of our wholehearted unity with the other churches of the ecumenical fellowship fills us with great joy.(see note ix)

The man from central Pennsylvania had providentially stumbled into an “accidental pastorate” in Berlin. In so doing he played an historic role in healing ruptured relationships and overcoming barriers to international fellowship and mutual trust essential for a world wide community of Christians.

Major Sources

Stewart W. Herman, Jr., It’s Your Souls We Want. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1943

--------------------------- , The Rebirth of the German Church. New York & London: Harper,1946

Stephen R. Herr & Matthew L. Riegel, “Stewart W. Herman, Jr.:From Nazi Berlin to International Envoy”, in Witnesses at the Crossroads: Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary

Servants in the Public Life, pp. 159-171, ed. Frederick K. Wentz.  Gettysburg, 2001

References Cited

i. Rebirth of the German Church, xii, xiv.

ii. It’s Your Souls We Want, xiv.

iii. It’s Your Souls We Want, xv.

iv. It’s Your Souls We Want, 12. Italics in original.

v. Rebirth of the German Church, xiv.

vi. It’s Your Souls We Want, 4.

vii. Rebirth of the German Church, xiv.

viii. Rebirth of the German Church, 287-288.

ix. Rebirth of the German Church, 140-141.

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