Friedrich Karl Otto Dibelius was born in Berlin on 15th May 1880. He was related to Protestant theologian Martin Dibelius. He studied at the Frederick William University (1899-1903). He received his PhD in 1902. From 1904–1906, he studied at the Preachers' Seminary in Wittenberg. (1)
After the First World War he became executive secretary of the Mutual Trust Council in the Evangelical Supreme Ecclesiastical Council. He was an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. In 1928 he wrote about the "solution" to the "Jewish Problem". He argued that all Jewish immigration from eastern Europe should be prohibited. As soon as this prohibition takes effect, the decline of Jewry would set in. "The number of children of the Jewish families is small. The process of dying out occurs surprisingly rapidly." (2)
Before the Nazis came to power it was common for leading Protestants to make anti-semitic statements. Lutheran bishops urged people to vote for Hitler. Before the 1932 Presidential election, Otto Dibelius, the Bishop of Kurmark stated that in the past he had always encouraged people to vote for Protestant candidates. However, this time he urged the people to vote for Adolf Hitler: "Among the candidates there is once again a Catholic, namely Hitler. But he is not a candidate of the Roman Catholic Church, rather the leader of the great national movement, to which millions of the Protestants belong." (3)
Once in power Adolf Hitler began to openly express anti-Semitic ideas. Based on his readings of how blacks were denied civil rights in the southern states in America, Hitler attempted to make life so unpleasant for Jews in Germany that they would emigrate. The day after the March, 1933, election, stormtroopers hunted down Jews in Berlin and gave them savage beatings. Synagogues were trashed and all over Germany gangs of brownshirts attacked Jews. In the first three months of Hitler rule, over forty Jews were murdered. (4)
The campaign started on 1st April, 1933, when a one-day boycott of Jewish-owned shops took place. Members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) picketed the shops to ensure the boycott was successful. Otto Dibelius, stated that he had always been "an anti-semite" and that "one cannot fail to appreciate that in all of the corrosive manifestations of modern civilization Jewry plays a leading role". (5) It has been claimed that Dibelius' anti-semitic sentiments were "well nigh representative of German Christendom in the beginning of 1933". (6)
After gaining power Hitler selected Ludwig Müller to become the new leader of the Reich Church. "Hitler's choice - on whose advice is unclear - had no obvious qualifications for the positions except a high regard for his own importance and an ardent admiration for the Reich Chancellor and his Movement." (7) Joseph Goebbels began a massive propaganda campaign and he was duly elected as Reich bishop on 23rd July, 1933. (8)
Müller was strongly supported by Professor Ernst Bergmann, who in 1934 issued the Twenty-Five Points of the German Religion. This included the following: (i) The Jewish Old Testament as well as parts of the New Testament are not suitable for the new Germany. (ii) Christ was not Jewish but a Nordic martyr put to death by the Jews, a warrior whose death rescued the world from Jewish influence. (iii) Adolf Hitler is the new Messiah sent to earth to save the world from the Jews. (9)
Susan Ottaway has argued that many Protestants saw Bergmann's theories as "utter drivel". She points out: "The second point alone high-lights the inconsistency of the doctrine. If Christ's death rescued the world from Jewish influence, why did the Nazis find it necessary to persecute them? The entire document was complete nonsense and utterly at odds with any conventional view of Christianity." (10)
Otto Dibelius was one of those who refused to accept the leadership of Bishop Ludwig Müller that was described as "Nazified Christianity." (11) He made it clear that he would not submit to control by the government in the exercise of his spiritual and pastoral functions. (12) Over the next few years he became associated with what became known as the Confessing Church. Leaders of this movement included Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoffer. (13) During this period he also met Kurt Gerstein, who later claimed that he worked as a spy within the SS for the movement. (14)
In March 1937 he wrote an open letter to Hans Kerrl, the Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs: "The Church must be a church and not a state within the state. But the doctrine which you proclaim would have the effect of making the state into the Church in so far as the state, supported by its coercive powers, comes to decision with regard to the sermons that are preached and the faith that is confessed. Here lies the root of the whole struggle between the state and the Evangelical Church.... As soon as the state endeavors to become Church and assumes power over the souls of men... then we are bound by Luther's word to offer resistance in God's name. And that is what we shall do." (15)
Bishop Dibelius was brought before a special court, on a charge of treasonable attacks on the government. His acquittal upset the leaders of the German Christian movement. Adolf Hitler asked the court for a copy of its reasons for the judgment, but decided not to take action against his former allay.
During the Second World War, Dibelius's friend, Kurt Gerstein, joined the Waffen SS in order "to see things from the inside", to try to change the direction of policies, and to publicize the crimes being committed. (16) In a letter to his wife he told her that he had joined the SS as an "agent of the Confessing Church." (17) Gerstein later claimed he was working for Martin Niemöller. (18)
Gerstein was sent to Belzec Extermination Camp to meet with Christian Wirth. While there he witnessed the killing of an entire trainload of Jews: "When the train arrived many were already dead, having been packed into the train with no room to move or lie down. The survivors were told that they were being sent to the bathhouse to be disinfected. They were assured that they would come to no harm and that they should breathe deeply to ensure that infectious diseases were prevented. The people were herded naked into the gas chamber. Families still clung together, children holding their parents' hands, husbands putting protective arms around their wives. The doors were slammed shut and the diesel pumping engine was started. Almost immediately it broke down.... The minutes passed while engineers were brought in to mend the faulty engine. From inside the gas chamber the sound of crying could be heard. Periodically an SS officer peered through the glass window in the door of the chamber to see what was happening inside. He reported that they were wailing like they did in the synagogue. This officer seemed to feel no sorrow or pity for the wretched souls squashed inside the small chamber, bodies pressed so tightly together that there was no room to turn or shift their weight from one leg to the other; no room for a mother to bend to comfort the small child clinging to her legs. Eventually, after being trapped for more than two hours, the diesel engine croaked into life, but it took another thirty minutes of pumping the deadly carbon monoxide into the chamber before everyone inside was dead." (19)
Gerstein also told his contacts in the Confessional Church. This included Bishop Otto Dibelius and Martin Niemöller. He also passed the information to Diego Cesare Orsenigo, the representative of the Vatican in Berlin. However, he was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and refused to take any action. He told Pope Pius XI that he advocated conciliation out of a fear that if the Church came into conflict with the Nazi government it would lead to "lapsed religiosity among German Catholics". He argued that "unless the clergy appeased the regime and relieved members of the church of a conflict of conscience". (20)
Gerstein later reported: "My attempt to report all this to the head of the Legation of the Holy See had no great success. I was asked if I was a soldier. Then I was denied any kind of interview and was requested to leave the legation forthwith. I relate this to show how difficult it was, even for a German who was a bitter enemy of the Nazis, to succeed in discrediting this criminal government.... I continued to inform hundreds of people of these horrible massacres. Among them were the Niemöller family; Dr Hochstrasser, the press attaché at the Swiss legation in Berlin; Dr Winter, the coadjutor of the Catholic Bishop of Berlin - so that he could transmit my information to the Bishop and to the Pope; Dr Dibelius, and many others. In this way thousands of people were informed by me." (21)
Bishop Dibelius did nothing with this information. (22) After the war he claimed that he was not aware of the "full implications" of the final solution. "There was no evidence which would have stood up in a court of law; no cardinal or bishop was ever permitted to visit Auschwitz, Sobibor or Treblinka. Their knowledge was based on hearsay, but it is unlikely that they had any doubts as to the authoritative character of this information." (23)
In December 1946 Bishop Dibelius spent two weeks visiting prisoner-of-war camps in England, Scotland and Wales, at the request of Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury. On Christmas Eve he conducted a service at Sheffield Cathedral, attended by over 1,000 German prisoners of war. In 1949 Dibelius became chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. From 1954 to 1961 he was one of the five presidents of the World Council of Churches, the first German to hold this office. (24)
Friedrich Karl Otto Dibelius died in Berlin on 31st January 1967.
Let me ask you one question, Herr Reichsminister. If, in the morning's religious instruction, the children are told that the Bible is God's word that speaks to us in the Old and New Testaments and when, in the afternoon, young people have to memorize: "Which is our Bible? Our Bible is Hitler's Mein Kampf," who is to change his doctrine here? This is the decisive point. When you demand that the Evangelical Church shall not be a state within a state, every Evangelical Christian will agree. The Church must be a church and not a state within the state. But the doctrine which you proclaim would have the effect of making the state into the Church in so far as the state, supported by its coercive powers, comes to decision with regard to the sermons that are preached and the faith that is confessed. Here lies the root of the whole struggle between the state and the Evangelical Church.... As soon as the state endeavors to become Church and assumes power over the souls of men... then we are bound by Luther's word to offer resistance in God's name. And that is what we shall do.
Both Catholic and Protestant church leaders (such as the German Bishop Dibelius) have claimed after the war that until the very end they were not aware of the full implications of the final solution. This may well be true if the stress is put on the "full implications". There was no evidence which would have stood up in a court of law; no cardinal or bishop was ever permitted to visit Auschwitz, Sobibor or Treblinka. Their knowledge was based on hearsay, but it is unlikely that they had any doubts as to the authoritative character of this information.