Greetings dear Friends! This is Pendle Hill, once again, with Another Quaker's View. In this column, we investigate the work of Friends in Nazi Germany. For a more thorough discussion of this topic, I direct readers to Quakers and Nazis: Inner Light and Outer Darkness, a book published in 1997 by Hans Schmitt.
By the time World War I erupted, Friends had already established a long history of war-relief. During the Crimean War (which took place half a century prior to WWI), Quakers in England raised money to assist Finnish fishermen -- people who's livelihood had been disrupted by the actions of the British navy. Since then, providing relief to the citizens of 'enemy' nations has become something of a Quaker tradition.
After World War I, Quakers from England and America traveled to Germany. They came to proclaim that 'No human being may be viewed as an enemy,' and to alleviate the sufferings of war. By 1920, Friends were providing a daily meal to 630,000 mothers and children in Berlin. The Germans labeled this massive effort, Quakerspeisungen: "Quaker Feedings." Quite literally, this work saved thousands of lives.
The Treaty of Versailles (which brought WWI to an end), was imposed upon Germany by the victorious allies. Having surrendered without condition, the Germans were forced to accept the loss of colonies and territory along its borders, "full and total blame" for the war itself, restrictions to the size and composition of its armed forces and a fine of 6,600 million pounds sterling. The Germans considered the terms of the treaty unjust, and many Quakers were inclined to agree.
By the time the Nazis came to power in Germany (Hitler became Chancellor in 1933), Quakers had established themselves as a benevolent presence in that country. This legacy of compassion earned Friends an unparalleled measure of tolerance during the Nazi regime. Although Gestapo agents maintained an intimidating presence at many Quaker meetings, Friends were harassed far less severely than other groups.
In fact, Friends worked with the support of the Nazi government to evacuate Jews from Germany.
Friends in the United States lobbied American leaders to receive Jewish immigrants in large numbers. In general, however, Americans were reluctant to receive so many refugees. For one thing, their horrible experiences might have left the Jews with "distorted minds and warped economic viewpoints" -- a prospect that could undermine American prosperity. Citing this very concern, one American leader declared he would rather "give $10.00 to find places for those children in some other land than ten cents to bring them here."
Despite the indifference of many world leaders, Quakers were able to evacuate thousands of Jews.
Quakers also lent support to German pacifists and opposition leaders. Friends were able to win the release of some prisoners and help others leave the country. This effort, too, was of limited success. Friends were often denied access to prisoners of conscience.
It is hardly surprising that the Nazis would limit the benevolent work of Friends. Far more surprising is how much the Quakers were able to accomplish.
Friends did not censor their criticism of Nazism. The German Yearly meeting printed leaflets advocating "Decency over Patriotism." Gestapo observers noted "derogatory remarks about General Goring," and expressions of hatred towards Hitler during Quaker gatherings.
For many, these observations would have meant imprisonment or even death. But English and American Friends continued their work in Germany until their respective countries entered the war. German Friends met throughout the war years (although their meeting house was commandeered by the Hitler Youth).
Friends were able to operate relatively unhindered because of their history of service (as mentioned above), and because -- As a delegation of Quakers once informed Nazi leaders -- Friends had come "to help not to blame."
Friends were not interested in supporting one nation over another, or one political movement over another. Friends were only interested in the relief of human suffering. To that end, they were willing to work with anyone.
Friends and Nazis did work together for humanitarian ends. Jews were delivered from danger. Relief packages were delivered to Sudeten and Poland. Books and supplies were delivered to POWs.
Here are some questions:
1. As Friends, where should we be building a legacy of service today in order to mitigate against an even greater tragedy tomorrow? Does this principle have interpersonal applications (as well as international ones)?
2. On the interpersonal level, do you agree with the principle, "Help not Blame?" How about on the international level? Can you think of any examples were we, as a nation, have pursued this policy?
3. When is honest criticism, "Help?"