Saving a Nazi Church Aryans on the Altar; Swastikas on the Church Bells

A Protestant parish in Berlin has grabbed an ethical dilemma by the horns with an appeal for funds to save Germany's last Nazi era church. The building's interior is full of Third Reich symbols. The aim is to turn it into a place of remembrance.

By in Berlin

The Third Reich collapsed 61 years ago but you wouldn't know it if you walk into the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin. The stark entrance hall is lit by a black chandelier in the shape of an iron cross. The pulpit has a wooden carving of a muscular Jesus leading a helmeted Wehrmacht soldier and surrounded by an Aryan family. The baptismal font is guarded  by a wooden statue of a stormtrooper from Adolf Hitler's paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA) unit clutching his cap.

Friezes depicting the eagle of the Reich and helmeted soldiers' heads have been carved into a giant stone arch framing the chancel. The organ was used at the 1935 Nuremberg rally of the Nazi party and egend has it that the church was originally meant to be named after Adolf Hitler. Indeed, the only thing that might irk the Führer were he to inspect the building now is the absence of swastikas -- there used to be plenty, but they have been scratched out from the walls because the Nazi symbol is illegal in Germany.

The church bells -- which were also embossed in swastikas -- are likewise missing. They were removed and melted down in 1942 to forge much-needed guns and ammunition.

It is the country's last surviving Nazi era church with an interior still dominated by fascist symbols. Consecrated in 1935 two years after Hitler seized power, its exterior was designed in the Bauhaus style in 1929, before the reign of the Nazis began. Brown-tiled and cavernous, it is foreboding and devoid of grace, yet religious services took place here regularly until just a year ago when the church was deemed unsafe because tiles started falling off the façade.

"When you hold sermons in this church your words clash with the symbols around you," Isolde Böhm, dean of the parish, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's hard work talking about human dignity when you're constantly aware that your surroundings evoke a system that trampled on dignity. Sometimes I had the feeling that the symbols overpowered the words."

Despite the remnants of Nazism in the church though, Böhm and other priests and parishioners are trying to raise the €3.5 million needed to rescue the church from collapse. It's an ethical dilemma, but one they regard as worth tackling. The building could serve as a warning to future generations and as a reminder of how the German church aligned itself with the Nazis in the 1930s, they say.

In the early 1930s the Protestant church came under the influence of a racist and fascist movement called the "German Christians" -- called "stormtroopers of Jesus," by the group's leader and founder Rev. Joachim Hossenfelder.

"The people who designed this interior wanted to show that religion and the Nazi philosophy could merge into one. But it can't," said Böhm. "The church highlights a problem religion always has -- the need to adapt to prevailing culture, and the dangers of doing so."

She said she was relieved that it had so far not been discovered by neo-Nazis as a place of pilgrimage.

Even if the church is repaired, it will never be used for regular services again because it isn't needed. The large nave is too big for Protestant congregations in the Tempelhof parish of southern Berlin.

But Böhm said it could be used for special religious services on important anniversaries such as the January 27, 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz death camp or the November 9, 1938 attacks on Jewish property across Germany -- known as the "Night of the Broken Glass."

The cash-strapped city of Berlin and the Protestant Church have ruled out making anything but symbolic donations but the the regional parish hopes the building will be officially classified as a historic monument. That would make it easier to gain funds from various memorial foundations such as the one that oversees the Holocaust memorial in central Berlin or the Plötzensee prison where nearly 3,000 people were executed by the Nazis.

The parish has asked two historians to work out a plan for presenting the history of the church.

"The only way we'll preserve the church is by finding various different uses for it," said Böhm. "I hope we'll manage to keep its interior as a warning and supplement it with a documentation center.  But it may be that it just turns into a ruin and that the generations after us will decide how to deal with it."

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