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Before fascism takes root, churches must speak up

Lessons for today from the Dutch Calvinist Christians who believed Hitler’s ‘Big Lie.’

During the 1930s, when Hitler destroyed Germany’s democratic institutions and turned his country into a Nazi superpower, he used the force of his government to spread Nazi lies to the rest of Europe and around the world. Goebbels, his propaganda wizard, made sure that all his words and images were tailored to exploit the differing social, religious and political strengths and weaknesses of other countries.

A major building block in Goebel’s pyramid of propaganda was the claim that Hitler had taken on a two-sided godly task. He promised not only to protect the Christian faith of the followers of Christ from the onslaught of Moscow-based atheistic Communism, but he also promised to bring renewal to the Christian Church. He claimed that, as a champion of “positive Christianity,” he would give voice to the Christian spirit which was, he argued, deeply embedded within the very heart of the Germanic or Aryan human race and, by extension, in the inner soul of the German nation.

More than any of the other Nazi falsehoods, this swindle, in the words of Kenneth Burke, was the congealing glue that gave a militant strength to Hitler’s National Socialistic empire. This Big Lie about Hitler’s almost divine status is what turned normal German pastors and theologians into rabid nationalists or “German Christians,” in the nomenclature of those days. This deeply demonic myth also helped turn normal church-going believers in Germany into militant zealots who, in WWII, offered up their lives on the battlefields of Europe, Africa and the USSR for what they believed was a God-inspired leader.

Hitler’s Big Lie in the Netherlands

When Hitler’s Big fascist Lie first took root in Germany, 85 percent of the Dutch population in the Netherlands was still church-going. Most people belonged to a one of many Calvinist denominations as Protestants, or to the Roman Catholic church.

Between 1933 and 1945, Dutch church-going Calvinists responded in three opposing ways to the religious core of Hitler’s Big Lie. Those differing views of National Socialism, ranging between admiration and rejection, stirred up much church conflict. The nature of the conflict only becomes clear if we break the years 1933-1945 into three smaller units of time: the ideological conflict years (1933-1936), the church conflict years (1936-1940), and the war years (1940-1945).

Conflicting ideologies: 1933-1936

When the fascist leader Anton Mussert established his Dutch Nazi party in 1932 (NSB – Nationaal Socialistische Bond), he set up what he grandiosely called his “Department of Religious Affairs.” It was, in fact, nothing more than a small club of prominent leaders from different churches who peddled Nazi propaganda through books, newspapers, sermons and public lectures. Most club members belonged to the Dutch para-religious organization called “The Order of those who are the Witnesses of Jesus Christ.” Its stated mission was to convince Christians in the Netherlands that Hitler’s Big Lie was the gospel truth.

Two pastors named Boissevain and Ekering were the most successful salesmen of the Big Nazi Lie within the larger Calvinist church (HKN). Within the neo-Calvinist church, started by Abraham Kuyper (GKN), theologian, pastor and journalist van der Vaart Smit was its most tireless promoter. Boissevain and Vaart Smit were also founding members of the OGC and regularly published articles in the bi-weekly publication produced by that organization (Evangelie en Volk).

While Boissevain and Vaart Smit belonged to a group of Calvinists who had a strong pro-fascist perspective, there was also a group of Calvinists that had an equally powerful anti-fascist perspective. This group, consisting of theologians and pastors such as Klaas Schilder, J. J. Buskes and K. H. Miscotte, was fiercely opposed to National Socialism. These church leaders wrote articles and books in which they argued that the fascist ideology of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco was not saving Christianity from Communism but, because of its anti-Christian roots, was both destroying the Christian Church and undermining western democratic countries.

Rift between Kuyper and Schilder: 1936-1940

By the middle of the 1930’s it became clear to many Calvinist church leaders that Nazi ideology was taking root in their respective churches; members of their own congregations were joining Mussert’s NSB political party and promoting Nazi ideology.

Pastors who had been influenced by the writings of anti-fascists like Klaas Schilder believed that Mussert’s movement was a dangerous political and religious movement that, like a wildfire, must not be ignored. These anti-fascists argued that, to protect the church, it was important to expel hard-core NSB members; one could not, they argued, be both a faithful follower of Christ and accept the anti-Christian Nazi teachings promoted by the cult-like NSB movement.

But most Dutch Calvinist church leaders had, by 1936, decided that National Socialism was not all bad; surely it included both good and bad elements. They liked Hitler’s militant anti-communism and, consequently, readily overlooked his fierce Anti-Semitism and the fact that he was turning the Lutheran Church in Germany into a Nazi prop. Because they half-heartedly accepted Hitler’s Big Lie, these middle-of-the-road Calvinists had no problem thinking that Dutch NSB members, like German Nazis, were very sincere Christians whose faith should not be questioned.

The simmering dispute between the anti-fascist Calvinists and the middle-of-the-road Calvinists burst out in the open within the neo-Calvinist church during the summer of 1936. The anti-fascist faction wanted the national church council to pass a resolution stating that local GKN churches must expel hard core NSB member from their midst. The middle-of-the-roaders opposed that proposal.

In that controversy Dr. H.H. Kuyper, a professor of theology at the Free University and the son of Abraham Kuyper, became the leading middle-of-the-roader who fought for a mild treatment of church-going Nazis. Kuyper had the full support of his colleague Dr. Hepp.

In the end what came out of the ecclesiastical sausage machine was a compromise resolution. The synod announced that NSB church members should be reprimanded by local church leaders but could not actually be expelled from their church if they continued, in their public behavior, to act like Christians.

When the Rubber Hit the Road: 1940-1945

In May 1940, the Netherland’s armed forces were destroyed by Hitler’s powerful war machine and the Dutch nation became an occupied Nazi country. In this new environment only information supporting Hitler’s Big Lie was officially allowed to circulate.

The ways that the Calvinist (and other) church leaders responded to the so-called “new order” was consistent with their pre-war approaches to National Socialism. A relatively small cohort of fierce anti-fascists Calvinists, like Klaas Schilder, quietly or openly resisted the totalitarian rulers who now controlled the streets of the Netherlands. Members from this group ultimately set up underground newspapers, helped find hiding places for Jews and, in some cases, were imprisoned or killed by the Germans.

There was, secondly, a small group of Fascist Calvinists who reacted quite differently. These leaders were enthusiastic about the arrival Hitler’s armies in the Netherlands and, as sympathizers, offered their services to the new rulers. These Nazi collaborators, like Vaart Smit, often had access to food and well-paying jobs during the war but, after 1945, had to face Dutch tribunals and, in some cases, do prison time.

Thirdly there were the middle-of-the-road Calvinists who had seen both good and bad in the Nazi movement before the war. Many people in this group started out by cooperating with Hitler and his minions. Some even went so far as to argue that Hitler was the “rightful” ruler of the Netherlands and that all those who resisted the new rulers were unchristian “terrorists” who did not obey God’s commanded as articulated in Romans 13.

Before the end of the war this group of Calvinists discovered that the middle-of-the-road position that they had earlier taken was untenable. Travelling on that road was impossible because it was covered by nothing more than slippery Nazi lies. By the time that these Calvinist woke up and saw the full nature of Hitler’s Big Lie, the war was almost over, and it was too late to help their Jewish countrymen who were either in hiding or had already been sent off to Hitler’s death camps.

The troubling interplay between the above three groups within Dutch Calvinism, before and during WWII, has left deep tracks in modern Dutch history – as well as in modern historical research dealing with the issues relating to the connections between the Christian church and the Holocaust.

Fascist ideals, such as those promoted these days by Orbañ in Hungary, Kaczyñaski in Poland and dedicated Trump supporters in the U.S., are again taking root in many Christian communities throughout the world. Given that fact, all Christian believers are well advised to fully understand how and why, in the 1930’s, those same basic lies took root the minds of some Dutch Christians and were rejected by others. We must, as Frans van Lier has argued in his web posting “Lessons from my Grandfather,” pay attention to dark warnings of anti-fascists from the past. Even a little part of the Big Fascist Lie is still a Big Lie and, as such, corrupts the living Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as taught in the Scriptures.

A shorter version of this article appeared in our print May issue, without the following Bibliography (due to space constraints).


Bibliographic Details

Hitler’s Big Lie in Germany (1933-1945)

There is a vast amount of research done on this topic. A classic statement is still Kenneth Burke’s 1939 essay. The way that Hitler was worshipped by the common soldiers in Hitler’s army is clear from their letters – as sketched by N. Stargardt (2015). The large book by J. Bank (2016) is a good summary statement of how the church struggle played out in Germany and elsewhere during and before WWII. See also the term “clerical fascism” in Feldman 2007.

The (anti-fascist) Dutch Calvinist theologians Buskes (1937) followed the church situation in Germany with deep worry while the pro-fascist Calvinist theologian Vaart Smit (1935) saw a new revival of Christianity in Germany.

Conflicting ideologies (1933-1936)

During the years 1933-1936 there was a kind of “battle-of-the-books” going on between Fascist Calvinists in the Netherlands and anti-Fascist Calvinists.

Fascist Calvinists like Boissevain, (1935), Roskam (1937) and Vaart Smit (1935) wrote books arguing that God was working through Nazi Germany. In their propaganda they were supported by the Anabaptist (Mennonite) writer C.B. Hylkema whose book on Dutch Fascism (1935) went through nine printings. Hylkema not only peddled Nazi propaganda about the place of women in society (1938) but, as late as 1944, came out with a booklet on the issue of race relations. It was published (1944) in conjunction with his son.

For a biography on fascist Calvinist theologian Boissevain see Tijssen (2008) and for a biography of the Nazi Calvinist Pastor Ekering see the later Tijssen (2018) book.

During the battle-of-the-book years the anti-fascist Calvinists writers were publishing booklets warning about the dangers of Nazi ideology. These authors included the writers Schilder (1936), Miskotte (1939), and the three works of A. Janse (1933), (1934) and (1935?).

Church Rifts (1936-1940)

For a biography on Schilder see De Jong (2019). For a detailed history of that GKN church rift see Ridderbos (1995).

When the Rubber Hits the Road (1940-1945)

When the Germans first invaded the Netherlands, it was assumed by most Christian leaders (Colijn, 1940; Bosma, 2015) that followers of Christ should accept Hitler as the new God appointed ruler of the land. A minority of Christian believers disagreed with that position from the start (Schilder, 1945).

Van Riessen (1950) was one of the editors of one of the earlier publications dealing with the Dutch resistance. Those in that resistance were, at first, viewed as terrorists. About the Dutch pastors who joined the resistance see Ridderbos (2015).

In the concluding paragraph of the article there is a reference to the term “fascism” in a generic sense (see Eco, 1994, Stanley, 2020 & Stanley, 2017). There is also a statement about fascism in Hungary, Poland (see Applebaum, 2020) as well as in the USA (see Fea, 2020, Dias 2020 & Churchwell, 2020).

Bibliography

Note: Entries marked with an asterix * are available at the Dutch web site DBLN which includes the full text of a vast number of Dutch books. There is also a translation into English possible [right click and select English]. A word of caution: the translations to English are amazing, given that they are mechanical, but must be taken with a grain of salt. J.J. Buskes writings are quite well translated but those of Schilder are imperfect translations because of his dense writing style.

Entries marked with a double asterix ** can be found at Delpher online. A lot of Dutch journal articles are available there for free. The site is searchable in a wide variety of ways.

Some entries are PDF files available online from other sources; those are hyperlinked in the bibliography.

Applebaum-Sikorska, Anna. 2020. Twilight of democracy: The seductive lure of authoritarianism. New York: Doubleday.

Bank, Jan, Lieve Gevers, and Brian Doyle. 2016. Churches and religion in the Second World War. London: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Boissevain, Wilhelm Theodor. 1935. Een christelijke staat, uit de nalatenschap van Ph. J. Hoedemaker. Amsterdam: Uitgeversmij. Holland.

Bosma, E. G. 2015. Oude waarheid en nieuwe orde: bevindelijk gereformeerden en het nationaalsocialisme 1920-1950.

Burke, Kenneth. (1939) “The rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘battle.’” Originally published in Southern Review (Summer 1939), pp. 1-21. [Found online at ww2.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f12/burke-kampf.pdf.]

*Buskes, Johannes Jacobus. 1960. Hoera voor het leven. Amsterdam: De Brug [Full text at DBLN].

*Buskes, J.J. 1937. Het nationaalsocialisme als bedreiging van de kerk: de les van Duitschland! Assen: Van Gorcum [Full text at DBLN]

Churchwell, Sarah. 6-22-2020. “American Fascism: It has happened here.” New York Review.

Colijn, Hendrikus. 1940. Op de grens van twee werelden. Amsterdam: N.v. Dagblad en drukkerij De Standaard.

Dias, Elizabeth, 8-9-2020. “Christianity will have power.” New York Times.

De, Jong de. 9-15-2017’ “Kerk leiders keken weg” Reformatorishe Dagblad,.

Jong, Marinus de. 2019. The church is the means, the world is the end: the development of Klaas Schilder’s thought on the relationship between the church and the world.

Eco, Umberto, 6-22-1994 “Ur-Fascism.” New York Times Review of Books, [14 points of generic fascism].

Fea, John. 2020. Believe me: The evangelical road to Donald Trump. William B. Eerdmans Publishers. [Also see Fea’s podcast dealing with religion and politics in the USA at Current].

Feldman, Matthew. 2007 “Clerical Fascism’ in Interwar Europe: An Introduction.” [Chapter one in Matthew Feldman & Marius Turda (2007) Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions]

Happe, Katja, and Fred Reurs. 2018. Veel valse hoop: de jodenvervolging in Nederland 1940-1945. [Most recent book on the Dutch chapter of the Jewish Holocaust.]

Hylkema, C.B. 1937. Het Nederlandsch fascisme: wat het is, wat het leert, hoe het geworden is. Utrecht: Nederlandsche Nationaal Socialistische Uitg.

Hylkema, C. B. 1934. Het Nederlandsch fascisme. (Haarlem): Literbo.

Hylkema, Govert Willem, and C. B. Hylkema. 1944. Ras en toekomst. Amsterdam: De Amsterdamsche keurkamer.

Hylkema, C.B. 1938. De vrouw in de nieuwe maatschappij. Utrecht: Nederlandsche Nationaal Socialistische uitgeverij (NENASU.)

Janse, A. 1933. Nationaal-socialistische fascisten-politiek: gezien in den levensgang van Mussolini en in de propaganda zijner geestverwanten in Nederland. Aalten: De Graafschap.

Janse, A. 1934. De nieuwe geest van de N(ationaal- )S(ocialistische) B(eweging). Aalten: De Graafschap.

**Janse, A. (1934?) “De nieuwe vorm van nominalistische wereldbeschouwing in het Nationaal-Socialisme “

Jong, Marinus de. 2019. The church is the means, the world is the end: the development of Klaas Schilder’s thought on the relationship between the church and the world Ede: GVO Drukkerrs en Vormgevers.

Miskotte, Kornelis Heiko. 1939. Edda en Thora, een vergeljking van Germaansche en Israelitische religie. Nijkerk: G.F. Callenbach.

Overeem, Evert, and Jan Ridderbos. 1995. Een kerk in beroering: gereformeerden tussen 1933 en 1945. Kampen: Kok.

Ridderbos, J., and Geert C. Hovingh. 2015. Predikanten in de frontlinie: de gevolgen van deelname aan het (kerkelijk) verzet in Nederland tijdens WO II.

Ridderbos, Jan. 1995. Strijd op twee fronten: Schilder en de gereformeerde “elite” in de jaren 1933-1945 tussen aanpassing, collaboratie en verzet op kerkelijk en politiek terrein. Kampen: Kok.

Riessen, H. van. 1951. Het grote gebod: gedenkboek van het verzet in LO en LKP Gedenkboekcommissie: H. van Riessen … [et al.]. Kampen: Uitg. in opdracht van de LO-LKP-Stichting door J.J. Kok.

Roon, Ger van. 1990. Protestants Nederland en Duitsland 1933-1941. Kampen: J.H. Kok.

Roskam, E. J. 1937. Het Calvinisme, de N.S.B. en de Gereformeerde kerken. Utrecht: Nenasu.

*Schilder, Klaas., and Herman Knoop. 1945. Bezet bezit: artikelen van de hand van Prof. Dr. K. Schilder, opgenomen in de nummers van “De Reformatie” uit de eerste maanden na de bezetting van Nederland – juni-augustus 1940. [Nederland]: Het “Schilder-Comité [Full text available at DBLN.]

*Schilder, Klaas. 1936. “Geen duimbreed”!: een synodaal besluit inzake ‘t lidmaatschap van N.S.B. en C.D.U. [Full text available at DBLN]

Stargardt, Nicholas. 2015. The German war: A nation under arms, 1939-1945. London: The Bodley Head.

Stanley, Jason. 2020. How fascism works: The politics of us and them. New York: Random House,

Stanley, Jason. 2017. “How Fascism Works.”

Steigmann-Gall, Richard. 2004. The Holy Reich: Nazi conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tijssen, Henk. 2019. NSB-predikant Ekering. Ds. mr. L.C.W. Ekering (1889-1964) en zijn keuze voor het nationaalsocialisme. Soesterberg: Aspekt.

Tijssen, H. 2008. Tussen avondrood en zonsondergang: Dr. W. Th. Boissevain (1880-1945) discipel van Hoedemaker op eigen wijs. Kampen: Tijssen]

Vaart Smit, H. W. van der. 1935. De Duitsche kerkstrijd. Amsterdam: Uitgeversmaatschappij Holland.

  • Richard is a Dutch Historian and retired library Director (NWC, Iowa). He lives, with his wife Margie, in Rock Rapids, IA.

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One Comment

  1. Richard,
    Thank you for this thought provoking article. When you say that the “troubling interplay” between these 3 groups of Calvinism before and during WWII left deep tracks in modern Dutch history, it prompts me to wonder how that inter-play has evolved in post war Dutch immigrant communities around the world up until the present moment. I realize some may wish to keep the past buried, but I have sense this past still haunts our communities.

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