An inspiring story
From WAR AND GRACE – Short biographies from the World Wars, by Don Stephens.
Throughout 1915 the First World War raged in both western and eastern Europe. In the German onslaught in the east against Russia, Paul Robert Schneider, an eighteen-year-old German soldier, received a serious wound in the stomach. For his bravery he was awarded the Iron Cross.
After surgery and recovery from it, Paul Schneider fought in the artillery against Britain and France. His courage did not go unrecognized. By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of lieutenant. At about the same time another German soldier ended the war as a corporal. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler is now regarded as one of the most evil men who has ever lived. For twelve years, from 1933 to 1945, his political party, the National Socialists, or Nazis, dominated the life of Germany. For many years after 1933 his following among the German people was almost complete. Cheering crowds greeted him with rapturous enthusiasm whenever he appeared in public. He was idolized like a god. His power was so great that he led his people into an aggressive war in which millions died. His legacy to the country he ruled as a dictator was ruin and shame.
During those fateful years, the opposition to Hitler within Germany was so small that it was crushed with ease. Those who openly protested against Nazi ideology or policies paid a heavy price. The great scientist Einstein pointed out the origins of the most effective resistance. ‘Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign to suppress truth…’
When Germany was defeated in 1918, Paul Schneider decided to give up his original plan to be a physician. His father, Gustav-Adolph, was a pastor in the German Evangelische Reformierte Kirche, a church that is Presbyterian in organization and belief. Paul’s decision to study theology at this time probably had a great deal to do with the influence of his family background.
It is not surprising the years immediately after the war were a time of mental turmoil for him. Since schooldays he had been taught the critical view of the Bible. This held that it was full of mistakes and could not be trusted.
He was also troubled by the appeal of Communism and Socialism. As a German, he did not like the parts of the Treaty of Versailles that allegedly humiliated his country. He struggled spiritually, yet it was clear to him that, unless people’s hearts were changed, a new tyranny would merely replace an old one like that of the Kaiser.
Just before Christmas in 1921, as his theological studies began, his spiritual struggles came to an end.
He rejected his positive view of human nature, which he realized was derived form nineteenth-century optimism. The Reformers Luther and Calvin were right: man is a sinner in need of redemption. The Bible is not just religious folklore; it is the Word of God. Gretel, the young lady who was to become his wife, recorded: Eternal life entered his soul and he was filled with great joy.
From his diaries and letters we know that he experienced a definite personal conversion to Christ. Now he had a message to preach: the biblical gospel that salvation is by repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Christ. He could see the Reformation confessions of his church not just as historical documents, but also as statements of his faith. Later on, when in prison, he asked his wife to let him have the Belgic confession and the Heidelberg Catechism to study alongside his Bible. Paul Schneider had become a Reformed evangelical Christian.
During the demanding preparation to be a pastor, he felt the need to experience the life of an ordinary workingman. An uncle heard of his plan to work in a factory for a while, and offered him a comfortable, well-paid job. But he did not want a ‘soft’ job. So throughout most of 1922 Paul Schneider became part of a gang of workers at a blast furnace near Dortmund. He said that he needed to understand the demands of the daily grind such men face. They showed him their respect and on the day he left said, ‘You are one of us. Try to stay like that.’ He did.
The years before his ordination were filled with study at university and theological college. For nine months up to July 1924 he worked for the Berlin City Mission, becoming acquainted with poor and wretched men and women, some of them addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Ordination followed in 1925. For a time he was an assistant pastor in Essen. In 1926 his father suffered a stroke while preaching and died three days later. His father’s church at Hochelheim unanimously called Paul to succeed him as pastor. He had been married less than a month when he was installed as pastor in September 1926. His first sermon was based on 2 Timothy 3:14-17, the heart of which declares that all Scripture is God-breathed, which means that it is without error – that is, infallible. The choice of this passage indicates his belief in the authority of the Bible alone. He was Reformed in his faith and his ministry was Bible-based. All surviving accounts indicate that he was a bold and powerful preacher.
He also had a real loving concern for the people. There are descriptions in existence of the sick listening for the distinctive whine of his motorcycle on his way to visit them. Gretel, his wife, records that in their dying moments some testified that Paul Schneider was the one used by God to bring peace through leading them to faith in Christ.
Paul Schneider was an example of a minister who was rarely off duty. His work was his life. We see him trying to win young people to Christ by playing sports or going on rambles with them. Older folk working in the fields would find him joining the work of harvesting or haymaking. He built up his relationships with the local people. Yet within his congregation he believed in applying Biblical church discipline to a few who had scandalous lifestyles and came to the Lord’s Table as though they were doing nothing wrong.
On 30 January 1933 Hitler came to power, and life in Germany began to change.
Of the one thousand people in Schneider’s rural Rhineland parish of Hochelheim, half freely voted for the Nazis. Nevertheless, from an early stage of Nazi rule, Paul Schneider spoke out against wrong policies and actions. He would never use the greeting, ‘Heil Hitler’, quite reasonably considering it a form of idolatry.
So-called ‘Christians’ who accepted Nazism were known as ‘German Christians.’
Schneider would have nothing to do with them because they accepted Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. Eventually Paul Schneider put some criticisms of Nazism on his church bulletin board and was forced to account for what he said to a ‘German Christian’ leader. This man was dressed in Nazi uniform and had a huge cross dangling on his chest. Paul could see that these people were trying to force the church to adopt Nazi ideas. Sadly, the leaders of the Hochelheim Church would not support him in his stand. As a result, he was forced to take a new pastorate with two churches, one in Dickenschied and the other nearby in Womrath.
Paul Schneider was installed as minister in May 1934, at the age of thirty-six. He had been in his new pastorate for only a few weeks when faithful men who thought as he did issued a declaration. Part of the wording of this declaration defiantly asserted:
‘Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.’
Just over a month after he began his new ministry a completely unexpected incident occurred.
Tuesday, 12 June, dawned as just another beautiful early summer day in rural Rhineland. As Schneider travelled to nearby Gemünden to stand in for another pastor at a funeral service, he had no idea of the trouble that lay ahead.
Wearing his simple black clerical robe, Paul Schneider walked in front of the bearers of the coffin towards the open grave. Ahead of him could be seen a parade of the Hitler Youth organization with bands and flags. He recalled that the dead seventeen-year-old youth had told him that he was the first young man in Gemünden to join the Hitler Youth. Paul conducted the graveside service, but before the committal and without asking permission, the local Nazi leader, Heinrich Nadig, spoke at some length and then asserted, ‘Comrade Karl Moog, you have now been enlisted in Horst Wessel’s battalion in heaven.’
As Paul stepped forward to pronounce the benediction, he knew that something must be said to make it clear to the hundreds of youthful Nazis that Horst Wessel was not part of a Christian burial. As reasonably as he could he explained the truth of the gospel and rejected the idea that there is a Horst Wessel group in heaven.
The local Nazi leader then approached the coffin and half addressing the crowd and half addressing the dead youth, he insisted, ‘Comrade, whatever they say, you are now enlisted in Horst Wessel’s battalion.’ Paul Schneider protested and reminded the Nazi leader that he was at a church service. The Nazi stormed away and the parade broke up.
The day after the funeral Schneider was arrested and imprisoned for a week. On his release he was given a strong warning to stop opposing the wishes of the state.
What was the Nazi thinking in all this? They had revived old pagan legends, one being the Viking myth that at death the individual joins other departed warriors. They idolized various folk heroes. Horst Wessel was a Nazi who had been shot in a street fight with political enemies in 1930. He became a Nazi folk hero, and was glorified as a martyr. The Horst Wessel song, full of pagan sentiments, was often sung at rallies when Hitler was present.
When the pastor made his graveside protest against Nazi ideology, he was holding to the right of the church to defend the purity of Christian truth. While in prison he informed the Nazi officials that he did not intend to be antagonistic to the state, but if there was to be harmony between church and state, the Nazis should respect the rights of the church to maintain the truth of the gospel. He had embarked, single-handed for all he knew, on a collision course with an increasingly dominant police state.
During the winter of 1935-36 the Nazis rebuked Paul Schneider on twelve occasions.
They resented the fact that faithful Christians had organized themselves into the ‘Confessing Church’. This body issued a statement that was intended to be read openly in faithful gospel churches. The Gestapo, the State Secret Police, visited Paul and put pressure on him to sign a document agreeing not to read it publicly. True to his principles, he refused. For that, he was imprisoned for four days.
Paul Schneider also resisted the pressure that was put on Christian youth movements to integrate into the Hitler Youth. Somebody reported him for not using the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute at his confirmation classes. He considered the salute as idolatry and would not use it on principle. Schneider particularly loathed the hate propaganda against the Jews. His church had an organization that was a mission to German Jews. When he went ahead with his usual collection for the mission to the Jews, Nazi feelings were inflamed against him. Later this Nazi anti-Semitism would lead to the Holocaust, an undisguised attempt at total genocide.
In the early hours of 7 March 1936 Hitler ordered German troops to occupy the Rhineland.
One of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles was that part of the Rhineland was to be demilitarized. By sending German soldiers to seize it back, Hitler was openly defying the peace treaty. The world held its breath. Rather than cause another war, Hitler was allowed to win. He was jubilant at his success. Most Germans agreed with him. Many historians now think that if the Allies had resisted Hitler over the Rhineland incident, he might have acted differently when it came to seizing lands that were not German territory.
The Nazis organized a ballot supposedly to indicate whether citizens approved of Hitler’s illegal action. The ballot paper had no place to say ‘No’, so the inevitable result was ninety-nine percent in favour of Hitler. On the day of the vote, Nazi police visited Paul and Gretel to try to persuade them to vote.
Their decision not to vote was one more major accusation that was levelled against the rebel pastor.
To be a Nazi and to be a German patriot had become the same thing for most people in the land.
The sermons he preached were powerful. Often they included passages like this: ‘Do not deceive yourselves, you cannot participate in Jesus’ glory and victory unless you, for his sake, take up the holy cross and go with him along the path of suffering and death.’
By the summer of 1936 the Schneiders had a family of four boys and a girl – and their education intensified his troubles. Both his churches had single-class church schools attached to them. The two teachers had joined the Nazi party and used their positions to indoctrinate the children. Paul Schneider tried to intervene. After all, they were church-based schools, and he was the father of five of the pupils.
As a result, Nazi police searched his house.
Papers and sermon notes were taken away and not returned. Doubtless this was because some of his sermons contained references to ways in which Nazism and the Bible were in disagreement. The Gestapo dossier of his opposition to Nazi beliefs and policies grew ever bigger.
On most days he was out and about using his motorcycle for pastoral visits. One evening in March 1937, he was returning home after taking a confirmation class at Womrath. He did not arrive at the expected time. Gretel received the news that in the dense fog he had collided with an unlit farm trailer carelessly parked on the road. His left leg was broken in three places and had to be put in a plaster cast. He was kept in hospital.
A little while later his sixth child was born. Paul wrote a poem, as he often did to celebrate important events. Interestingly, they named the child Ernst Wilhelm, the names of two of Gretel’s brothers killed while fighting the British at the Battle of Somme in 1916.
On 3 May 1937 two Gestapo agents burst into his study and arrested him. His general health was not good because his leg had only been out of plaster for a few days. They gave him no time to pack any belongings. Gretel was informed that he would be taken to nearby Koblenz for questioning.
He was held in an underground cell. There was no charge, no questioning and no trial. The reason given for his arrest was that he was a danger to public order. In the world of the Gestapo he became ‘Prisoner Schneider’, not ‘Pastor Schneider’. In an attempt to intimidate him, he was treated like a common criminal by having his photograph taken from every angle and his fingerprints recorded. Eventually he was allowed to write to Gretel. She was urged not to worry about him because ‘All is in God’s hands and he will use the matter…’ Although he would be present only in spirit, he urged Gretel to go ahead with the baptism of the sixth child. Another long poem celebrated the birth of the child and the baptism.
After eight weeks he was released. However, there was a condition. He must accept an expulsion order from the Rhineland.
Paul made it absolutely clear that he could not accept the legality of such an order that would separate him from his home and his churches. After all, there had been no trial, just the so-called ‘law’ of the Gestapo. To make their point, the Nazis bundled him into a car, drove him fifty miles to Wiesbaden, just over the Rhineland border, and left him there. To make his point Paul put the illegal banishment papers in a rubbish bin and caught the first train home. He was taking a big risk.
When he arrived home he looked ill; he was exhausted and his leg needed medical attention. Friends persuaded him to go for treatment and convalescence at Baden Baden, which lay outside the Rhineland. Here he was safe. Outwardly it appeared that he accepted the banishment order.
After a week Gretel joined him. Her hope was that he would give in to the Gestapo and find a church outside the Rhineland. Paul, however, had made a firm decision while in the Gestapo prison at Koblenz. He would resist unjustified bullying. With questioning in her mind, Gretel reminded him that if he went back to his Dickenschied pulpit, he would be rearrested. Paul quoted some words from a Bible verse to her. They came from Judges 5:18 and said, translated literally, ‘Zebulun…and Naphtali…risked their lives to the point of death.’
Hearing him quote this, Gretel hung her head in despair. Her voice quivered as she asked, ‘Paul, don’t you think about the children and me? Paul, don’t you love us?‘
Paul’s eyes filled with tears. With powerful arms he hugged Gretel to his chest. ‘My darling’, he sobbed, ‘I have never loved you or the children more than on that night of decision. I wept for you.’
With those words, spoken with such deep emotion, pathos and conviction, Gretel knew that her only choice was to indentify herself with her husband.
To continue see Messianic Good News, Paul Schneider – German opponent of Hitler