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Remembering World War II 75 Years Later

An Unexpected Visit

75 years ago the most terrible of all world wars ended in Europe…

A personal reflection by the The Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council


It was at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Gross Oesingen, one of our congregations in the Lüneburg Heath region of northern Germany. A few months after the unconditional surrender of the German army some pastors of the then Evangelical Lutheran Free Church had assembled. It was November 1 of the year 1945. Among them was the local Pastor Martin Hein, as well as the Pastor from Hannover, Hans Kirsten. The worst war that ever emanated from German territory had ended with a resounding defeat and the signing of the instruments of capitulation just a few months earlier.

Perplexity and a sense of helplessness was keenly felt by all the pastors. All around them there were refugees on the farms and in emergency housing in the cities. There were still some food supplies, especially from the reserves of the military, but hunger and the first post-war winter were approaching.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door of Farmer Käppel’s house next to the church. Pastor Hein got up to open the door. A tall, lanky man appeared, dressed in suit and hat, accompanied by a GI in uniform, who had driven the American military limousine; they were obviously US-Americans. The visitor introduced himself, speaking German with a Texan accent, as the President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). “How can we help you?” John William Behnken (1884-1968) asked. “What can we do for you and your congregations?” He was LCMS President from 1935 to 1962. President Behnken was the first American church representative who was allowed to visit Germany. After his trip he personally reported to the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman.

Even today we can still feel the emotions of that moment. Not much earlier American troops and their allies had paid a bloody toll as they invaded Normandy in France in order to end the ravages of war by force. And just a few weeks later the question: “How can we help you?” The German pastors had not expected that.

It is a fact that The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod provided considerable help in the reconstruction and re-organization of the independent Lutheran confessional churches in Germany. The foundation of our Lutheran Seminary (now in Oberursel) was made possible in large part by the LCMS. Many congregations of the LCMS participated massively by sending Care Packages very soon after the war. The 75th Anniversary of Germany’s liberation provides opportunity to remember in gratitude the help offered so soon after the war

A change of scenery: In 2018 I visited one of the Lutheran congregations in London, England. My friend, the Rev. John Ehlers, had invited me to preach in the service. After worship Pastor Ehlers introduced me to an elderly lady and informed me that during World War II she had served as a nurse, and she frequently she had to take care of the victims caused by the German air raids. The lady said to me: “You’re the first German to preach in this church. It is good that our peoples are now so close to one another.” I have never forgotten this.

Without doubt May 8, 1945 was a day of liberation. All the horror which German refugees, the victim of the bombings, and the soldiers had to endure had its origin in that ideological dictatorship that caused this war and not the final outcome. In 1945 the full extent of the horror and the utter monstrosity of the mass murder of the Jews was not yet fully revealed, but almost everyone knew what was going on.

An American philosopher of Spanish descent, George Santayana (1863 – 1952), said: “He who learns nothing from history is condemned to repeat its mistakes.” I do not know know whether this is true in all cases. But it is one of the strengths of Germany’s policy of remembrance not to suppress the shameful crimes of the past but to keep them in our collective memory. President Behnken’s visit and the readiness to forgive on the part of that nurse in London I regard as more than just a sign for the power of Christian reconciliation. That reconciliation is based on Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.


Hans-Jörg Voigt

Commemorating the Outbreak of World War I and the 70th Anniversary of the Assassination Attempt on Adolf Hitler

by Hans-Jörg Voigt


Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt

On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia, just one month after the Austrian heir-apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was murdered by members of the revolutionary underground organization Mlada Bosna in the City of Sarajevo. The major catastrophe of the 20th century ran its course, and it bears the seeds of the beginnings of World War II.

At the end of the European Lutheran Conference (ELC) on May 25, 2014, I and some of the other attendees visited the site of the concentration camp Bergen–Belsen. The camp is in close proximity to Bleckmar, where we had held the conference at SELK’s church mission centre, spending days of very intensive discussions with one another. I had been at the concentration camp several times before, visiting with vicars of our church, but never was it a visit that hit so close to home emotionally in the company of these international guests. On several occasions I was moved to tears in view of the documented heaps of corpses, while a brother from Great Britain and one from Denmark stood next to me. All of this had its beginnings in the events 100 years ago.

As we passed through the site’s remains and remnants of the prisoners’ barracks we engaged in some intensive discussions. Some of the points were the following:

1. To consider your guilt and to confess it is not a sign of weakness but of strength

The Australian historian Christopher Clark has published a book entitled The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914. It is by now a bestseller in Germany—probably, because in it someone finally says that Germany was not the only country that bears fault for the outbreak of World War I. But I consider this question irrelevant, because from the viewpoint of the Christian faith it is not a weakness but a strength to confess one’s guilt.

My brother works as a master craftsman. His whole life consists of repeated measurements and correcting mistakes previously made; no one has ever accused him of a negative view of life because he corrects his errors. Every day our own life is to be measured by the will of God. Asking for forgiveness through Jesus Christ leads us on the right path. And if that is true for the life of each individual Christian, then it is also true for society as a whole, including in politics. The fact that Germany, at first reluctantly but then increasingly in the open, dealt with the topic of and admitted the horrendous injustice perpetrated by the nation, is a sign of strength and not of weakness, however incomplete that process may still be.

2. Admitting guilt is quite different from accepting responsibility

For Lutheran Christians it is important to speak of guilt in as precise a meaning of the term as possible. Particularly in considering historical complexities we should not use the term

flippantly. I personally am not at fault for the outbreak and consequences of two world wars and the incomprehensible destruction of the Jewish people. I bear no guilt because I did not live at that time. I have to confess enough of my own faults, and Jesus Christ is at work daily to deal with my sins.

But at the same time we Germans bear an ongoing responsibility for the consequences of German history in the 20th century. That responsibility implies that we help relieve whatever sufferings resulted from that history and wherever we face any other sufferings. And we need to remind others of this responsibility. There has been little research to date about what our originally German-speaking sister churches in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia had to contend with during those wars. The mistrust they faced from their fellow countrymen in the new homes and the resulting loss of the German language as well as expressions of enmity are part of that.

3. Nationalism is still a problem today

The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars mark the advance of various forms of nationalism. Now the concept of the nation supplants the concept of the Christian religion. Nationalism is one of the main causes for the outbreak of World War I. It was nationalism that blinded churches of various denominations. For example, Roman-Catholic bishops of French and German dioceses both engaged in war-mongering against one another, even though they belonged to the same church. And the Protestant churches were no better. But the soldiers on the battlefields were completely surprised when they found a Bible or a crucifix in the pockets of their fallen opponents.

Nationalism and national egotisms are still quite prevalent in Europe and the rest of the world. Nationalism has not been eradicated and must still be considered to be competing with the Christian faith.

4. The danger of pseudo-scientific convictions

Pseudo-scientific convictions are dangerous. We see that in the Nazi ideology of National Socialism and its devastating consequences. This ideology attempted to use the theory of evolution to establish, by a process of natural selection and the law of survival of the fittest, a racial theory of social Darwinism. But pseudo-scientific notions can still be encountered today, in certain economic and sociological theories. They are in crass opposition to the Christian faith where love of the neighbor is a major tenet. Christ says: “What you have done to one of the least of these my brethren, that you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40).

5. Majorities can be wrong

These days when I see pictures of cheering crowds and soldiers like those that were sent to face a cruel death in 1914, then I often try to convince my children of the following: “Majorities can be wrong.” Those men and women who tried on July 20, 1944, to end the trauma of the Nazi dictatorship by their attempt on Hitler’s life, were courageous enough to stand against majority opinion. 70 years ago they paid for it with their lives. Christian conscience—because of original sin, often an erring conscience—must always be sharpened by attending to God’s word.

Our democratic societies stand in danger of always accepting a majority opinion as truth. German history teaches that the outbreak of the World War I was a mass supported event, and that the election to the German Reichstag in 1933 took place under generally democratic conditions. The result was the Nazi dictatorship. Majorities can be wrong—to know this is today more important than ever, particularly when the majority opinions in today’s society stand more and more in opposition to the Christian faith.


Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).

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