The Challenge of Fascism and the German Evangelical

Central and Eastern Europe are morally adrift.  The surge of fascist rock groups is one indication of the present ideo­logical vacuum among the young.  Germany boasts at least 50 fascist-oriented rock groups; a record of the group "Bösen Onkelz", though declared illegal, recently attained number five on the hit charts.  The Hungarian band "CPG" is harmoni­zing with the text: "A flamethrower is the only weapon with which I can win.  Eliminate every gypsy, adult and child."


Rudi Pahnke, a Lutheran official and former East German dissident, believes the rightist world view has stabilized many persons without a new moral orientation.  But past guilt is being ignored.  "We project upon others that which we have ourselves helped create.  Then, the problem doesn't trouble us anymore, instead, we trouble others.  We don't care to be con­fronted with the real causes."


Most observers agree that political issues are not the primary cause of the rightward surge among the young.  Bishop Johannes Hempel of Dresden concludes that today's young received too little love at home.  They consequently possess "a deep anger towards virtually everything."  Herbert Weimer, a charismatic and evangelical based in Oranienburg near Berlin, agrees:  "Their frustration is not primarily aimed at society.  It rather is directed towards those adult superiors with whom they deal daily."


One is told that youth seek in their leisure time what they are missing at home:  human warmth, solidarity, clear structures, and ready answers.  Skinheads "counter their own weaknesses by relying on the strength of the group".          


Johannes Rosemann, a Baptist pastor in the formerly East German city of Plauen, recognizes a clear preference for authoritarian structures.  "The group makes personal decisions for them.  This gives them a feeling of home and of belonging, precisely that which they are missing in the new [Western] society."


According to Weimer, who heads a successful youth ministry, work among the socially-disadvantaged leads inadvertently to contact with fascists.  Yet, 90-95% of those who dress in such a way, "are not members of the radical right, they are instead simply without orientation."  Most of those with whom he has contact have a criminal record; Weimer claims to be more worried about an increase in criminality than about an increase in fascism.  He insists that materialism is the greatest enemy of all.


Interestingly, even Nazi parties appear to be having problems with the rowdy and young:  They are often regarded as being undisciplined, interested only in "having fun."  A teachers' periodical points out that the Nazi elite does not include social outcasts.  Only the Nazi sheep, not their shepherds, stem from the ranks of the socially disadvantaged.


Herbert Weimer asserts the time has come to "roll up our sleeves and begin acting."  Legions of discussion groups on the topic of fascism have changed little.  "Let's not curse the darkness, but rather illuminate a light."


Uwe Siemon-Netto writes in the "Idea" news service:  "If the evangelical church wants to understand its godly mandate properly, then it must now evangelize aggressively among the least palatable Germans.  Jesus did not self-righteously distance himself from the haters, instead, he mixed in with them."


A Lutheran pastor active among Neofascists in South Germany's Sindelfingen, Dietmar Seiler, concludes:  "We talk too much about others instead of with them."  Where is there a church youth work attempting to "reason patiently" with the skinheads?  Another pastor adds:  "If we would speak with the Neonazis, we could spare ourselves a lot of police."


Weimer reports that some young people enter the Oranienburg youth center and inform the workers that they're leftists or "hooligans."  "But we cut them short and say, 'No, you're just regular, decent kids.'  We need to get behind their masks." He adds that a number of so-called fascists have dropped their facade in a back room and wept during counseling.  "It's very important that we treat them normally, and not demonize them.  They also need to know that we do not fear them.  It's ok if they come in high boots and butch haircuts, we just take their weapons from them at the door.  My wife always does that, she's just a little thing.  We give the weapons back when they leave.  They sit here in full regalia and drink yoghurt milk.  We've experienced scenes straight out of 'The Cross and the Switchblade'.  It's uncanny!"


Political discussions with "skins" are usually fruitless.  Barbara Dreifert reports they "are less interested in politics than in being entertained and in proving their masculinity."  Adventure, camaraderie, sports, and survival training are important to them.  A parachute course arranged by a social worker was blessed with roaring success.  The human closeness achieved through the common challenge was apparently at least as thrilling as the plunge.


A disheartened high school religion teacher in West Berlin finds that dialogue with his students has become useless.  "They need to be put on a long-distance sailboat for a year or two," he maintains.  "That may be the only way they can still learn the lessons of life."


Similar attempts are in the offing.  Michael Hainisch, a church-sponsored social worker, has helped radical right youths to rent and restore an apartment house in Berlin-Lichtenberg.  Rev. Pahnke reports:  "These youths needed to prove to themselves that they could create something of value with their own hands.  Until now they had felt totally unneeded by society."


Hainisch and others stress the need to differentiate between the endangered and the hardcore, between the "show-offs" and the truly militant.  Weimer reports that he "prefers to work with those on the fringe.  One can still achieve something with such persons."  Party officials can most readily be left to the police; the church is attempting to keep the union between the parties and the endangered young from solidifying.


Ironically, Hainisch is being attacked by militants on both fronts.  In November, he was beaten up by militant leftists who saw him as a Nazi.  Pahnke labels this "a stupid blindness of the radical left.  The Jews were the victims of a final solution [the Endlösung], we want no final solution for the Nazis.  We cannot stick all these young people into concentration camps."


Despite the benefits of his non-intellectual message, both Pahnke and Weimer doubt whether the Billy Graham campaign in March will lead to significant change.  Pahnke concedes: "Many persons may come forward and confess their sins and then want to join a congregation.  But if the churches don't open themselves, the bubble will burst."  Though he realizes that church revival is not the intent of the Graham organization, Herbert Weimer hopes primarily for an awakening among Christians.  "Christians need to wake up and learn how to evangelize."


Uwe Dammann, a Baptist pastor in Berlin, states: "We are viewing social developments with great fear, surprise and distance.  We have become middle class, and the rightist movement stems from the working class."  A colleague describes his own church as "living on an island in a pious sea.  The issue of fascism does not touch the lives of our congregations."


Pahnke calls openness for the young a matter of life and death for every congregation.  "Do we give them room to participate?  Do we take time to talk, do we pay people to work with them, or are they strictly a bother for us?   Will God open the hearts of the fathers and mothers, the grandfathers and the grandmothers, for the young?"


Undoubtedly, the evangelical Christians of Germany cannot solve the problem alone:  The silent majority will need to activated.  In September, a Jewish museum barracks was de­stroyed by Nazi arsonists at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Oranienburg.  In protest, Weimer's group of acti­vists knotted a German and Jewish flag together and collected signatures.  Unfortunately, only 500 local citizens signed.


Siemon-Netto protests:  "It won't suffice for the church to be one societal group among others, joining them in a com­mon front against the Neonazis and thereafter complacently sunning ourselves in the glow of the self-justified."  Indeed, declarations and street protests are intervention from a di­stance, retaining a safe distance from Germany's most soiled offspring.  Yet street demonstrations remain one of the best means of reaching the silent majority.  Concrete church pro­jects for the endangered young remain minuscule and expensive.  The danger can only be banned if all persons of good will be­come involved.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, January 10, 1993


Written for “Christianity Today” in Carol Stream/USA, 1,350 words


Note from December 2020: Billy Graham lived from 1918-2018, Johannes Hempel from 1929-2020.