The Real Story Behind the Nazi Establishment’s Use of 'Romans 13'

Historians weigh in on Jeff Sessions’ use of Paul’s letter to the Romans to justify the Trump administration’s immigration policy, and its connections with Hitler, slaveholders and apartheid regimes

People protesting against the recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in Tornillo, Texas, June 17, 2018.
\ STRINGER/ REUTERS

In July 1933, during Hitler’s first summer in power, a young German pastor named Joachim Hossenfelder preached a sermon in the towering Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin’s most important church. He used the words of Romans 13 to remind worshippers of the importance of obedience to those in authority. The church was festooned with Nazi banners and Stormtrooper flags, its pews packed with the Nazi Party faithful – including men in the brown shirts of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazis’ paramilitary movement.

This is one of the most explicit examples in which the German Protestant Church invoked Romans 13. Indeed, following an attempt to assassinate Hitler, a plotter blamed Romans 13 as a reason why there was not more resistance to the Fuhrer within the Third Reich.

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Of course, the subject of Romans 13 has become headline news in recent days following U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ reference to Paul’s letter to the Romans to defend the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their undocumented immigrant families. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful,” Sessions said last Thursday.

But in subsequent news stories and on social media, many have highlighted that the Nazis also used Romans 13 to justify obedience to the law.

For example, a tweet by Rev. David Simmons, an Episcopalian priest from Wisconsin, went viral after he wrote: “Dear Jeff Sessions, are you aware that the argument you made today from Romans 13 was a central argument of the German Christian (Pro-Nazi) movement over and against the Confessing Church? I’m not saying you are a Nazi, but you’re interpreting the Bible like one.”

Doris Bergen, a professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, tells Haaretz that there was never a need “to exhort Germans to be obedient to the regime, because it never occurred to most of them to do otherwise.”

Woven into the very fabric of the German Christian belief was the idea that state rule was supreme and not to be questioned, she notes.

Bergen, the author of “Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich,” explains that people who say the Nazis used this verse to justify obeying power “are both correct and, in a way, off-mark because the whole Nazi system rested on approval of the Christian population, which was 98 percent of the population.”

But the story of how it was used in Nazi Germany is more nuanced than is being presented, she and other historians say.

“The idea some Americans have that there was a faction of Christians opposing Nazis – it was not like that,” Bergen notes. “Most Christians were Nazis and Nazis were Christians, and that’s just the way it was.”

Although there were some division between the Protestant factions in Nazi Germany, Bergen says they all remained inside the official Protestant Church, which was tied of the state. And Hitler and other Nazis officials did not cite biblical passages – Romans 13 included. They had a complicated relationship with religion, but knew it served their purpose for maintaining public support for the regime.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking at the National Sheriffs' Association convention in New Orleans, June 18, 2018.
Gerald Herbert/AP

Ties with Hitler

Another German sermon that alluded to Romans 13 took place on March 21, 1933, when Friedrich Karl Otto Dibelius – a German bishop and one of the highest Protestant officials in the country – spoke to new members of the German Reichstag about the paramount powers of state authority in neighboring Potsdam.

German historian Thomas Weber describes the impact of the sermon. “Here, the principles of Romans 13 were invoked by the Protestant Church explicitly in front of the nation and newly elected members of parliament, in order to justify the Nazi seizure of power and all the policies the Nazis had implemented following the seizing of power.” It was also in anticipation of the ‘Enabling Law’ that took place just three days later, “in which the German parliament dissolved itself and passed all legislative powers to the executive – Adolf Hitler,” adds Weber, a professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Dibelius referenced Protestant theologian Martin Luther when he said in his sermon, “From Rev. Martin Luther we learned that the church should not be allowed to interfere with legitimate state power if it does what it is called to do. Even if it turns hard and ruthless.”

Weber, the author of “Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi,” says that Dibelius later turned against the Nazis. But the damage was done. “He helped let the genie out of the bottle,” says Weber.

Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, a member of what is known as the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, reportedly told a cousin in a conversation before he was executed that Romans 13 was part of the reason it was difficult for him and others to form a resistance.

Lehndorff-Steinort came from an old Prussian family and, as an officer in the German army, had witnessed the massacre of 7,000 Jews in Belarus in 1941. According to Weber, this spurred him to seek a way to stop the regime.

Slaveholders and apartheid states

Over the years, the biblical passage has also been cited by American slaveholders and the apartheid government in South Africa.

“The deeper point of why people are so angered by Jeff Sessions quoting this is because the verse is a symptom of a taint on the whole history of Christianity,” says Bergen. “Not just Romans 13, but all of Christian tradition has served to justify slavery, imperialism, and cultural and physical genocide, and is symptomatic of a deeper question: Whose side have the Christian churches been on?”

Rev. Simmons tells Haaretz he is also aghast that Sessions used the verse as a person in power, not noting the context in which Paul had been speaking – to a community of Christians who were being persecuted, to “keep their heads down so the authorities will stay off of us,” he recounts.

He says Sessions “twisted” the words and the context, and describes the whole episode as being “too much to bear.”

“American Christians are almost unanimously against this usage,” and the policy it is supporting, Simmons says, adding: “We need to take action because it’s morally bankrupt.”

Yehuda Bauer, a professor at Hebrew University, where he is a historian and scholar of the Holocaust – and himself a refugee from the Nazis – has been observing the fallout from Sessions’ comment with interest.

“American culture in my view has two contrasting elements: the liberal tribe; and a tradition of violence based on the annihilation of American Indians and the history of black slavery, where separation of children and parents was customary.

“If Mr. Sessions wants to reinstate American slavery, that is his problem. But the problem of putting children in a Walmart shed in Texas is something no government [should] do, not even a radically conservative, violently nationalist government. I cannot imagine any government in Europe or South America doing a thing like this. It is going back to slavery. The fact that conservative Americans like Laura Bush are speaking out shows it’s no longer an issue of liberals or conservatives, but of simple humanity.”