Book Review: James Edwards, Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer

Edwards, James R. Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 341 pp. Hb; $30.   Link to Eerdmans

James Edwards is a New Testament scholar with major commentaries on the Gospels of Mark (2001) and Luke (2015) in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series and Romans in the New International Biblical Commentary (1992). Between the Swastika and the Sickle recounts Edwards’s fascination with a “baffling reference” in the introduction to Lohmeyer’s German commentary on Mark in the Meyer Commentary (first published in 1936). Edwards read the 1967 edition which included a fifty page Ergänzungsheft (a short supplement updating the original commentary) written by Gerhard Sass in 1950. Sass enigmatically says Lohmeyer was not able to update the commentary himself because “a higher power carried him off to a still-unresolved fate” (p. 8). Edwards could find nothing on this “unresolved fate” but remained fascinated with the mystery after he completed his PhD and began his first teaching assignment in North Dakota. In the late 1970s he became active in a ministry which supported believers in East Germany and found himself in Greifswald where he learned Lohmeyer was executed by the communists as an enemy of the state. Over the next twenty years Edwards continued to research Lohmeyer’s life, resulting in a 1996 article on Lohmeyer in the journal Evangelische Theologie and this new book, Between the Swastika and the Sickle.

Who was Ernst Lohmeyer? Lohmeyer (1890-1946) was a prominent German New Testament scholar who resisted the Nazis before World War II. Edward’s description of Lohmeyer’s academic output before and during World War I is impressive. Unfortunately, very little of Lohmeyer’s work has been translated into English. Had his life not been cut short, his scholarly reputation may have risen to the level of other German scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann.

Edwards traces Lohmeyer’s life as a scholar and pastor, focusing especially on his years at the University of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland). Edwards does include many of the details one expects in a biography, but he is more interested in Lohmeyer’s intellectual development. He briefly summarizes Lohmeyer’s many publications and tracks his relationship with other intellectual movements in Germany between the wars.

Lohmeyer’s opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism is the important element of the book. While at Breslau Lohmeyer publically clashed with both university administration and students over the treatment of Jewish professors and the developing Ungeist (antispirit) of National Socialism. Lohmeyer wrote to Martin Buber in 1933 that “the Christian faith is only Christian as long as it retains in its heart the Jewish faith”

In 1933 Gustav Walz, a “staunch National Socialist” according to Edwards, was appointed president of the university. After several clashes with the administration, Walz wrote to the minister of science, art and public education demanding the unconditional dismissal of Lohmeyer. The student body also demanded his immediate termination. As a result of his anti-Nazi activity, Lohmeyer lost his professorship at Breslau and was transferred to University of Greifswald. Although far less prestigious, than Breslau Lohmeyer continued to opposed Nazism while producing solid academic work.

During World War II Lohmeyer served in the Wehrmacht as an officer on the German East front 1939 to 1943. As Edwards narrates this period of his life, Lohmeyer was put into an impossible situation. He was German officer on the Eastern front, but also a Christian opposed to the war and the government which waged the war. He had to balance being a commander and helping those who were deeply affected by the ravages of war. By Edwards accounting, Lohmeyer was not guilty of any war crimes even if he was haunted by his participation in the war.

After the war Lohmeyer was selected as president of University of Greifswald now in the communist German Democratic Republic. He worked tirelessly to re-open the university after the war and thought he was relatively safe since he supported the city of Greifswald’s capitulation to the Russians at the end of the war. To his great shock, he was arrested on the eve of the re-opening of the university and executed on September 19, 1946 after several months in Soviet custody. Although his death was not confirmed by the Soviets until 1957 and his case was not rehabilitated by the Russian government until 1996.

Edwards’s account of the mystery of Lohmeyer’s death in a compelling and engaging fashion. He includes several personal stories and reflections on his own journey tracking down the truth about Lohmeyer. Lohmeyer’s stand against Nazism and anti-Semitism is an important challenge in the present climate of Western Christianity. Christian theologians and biblical scholars must stand up against anti-biblical trends in the culture even though it costs them prestige. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the struggle of faithful Christians against National socialism and the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Sadly, this book is still relevant in the early twenty-first century.