James Luther Adams, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, traveled to Germany in 1927 to study at the University of Heidelberg. While visiting Nuremberg, he attended a Nazi rally. He later recalled:
[Perhaps] I went there because I had read the Nazis were having a big rally and it was said that about 150,000 youth came for this particular rally in Nuremberg and it was claimed that none of them rode for one step in order to show German vigor and show that they were genuine Germans – echt Deutsch. Each youth was to walk from whatever part of Germany he lived to Nuremberg for this conference and there was a rally and there was a parade that lasted about three or four hours. It was on a Sunday and singing Nazi songs and carrying banners and the crowds were very dense and here I was standing right in the front as these Nazis were marching by. These youth goose-stepping and I asked a couple of people standing with me, knowing what the answer should be. I asked, “Well what’s the meaning of the swastika?” And these fellows gave me a typical Nazi answer about superiority of the German race and the necessity to purify Germany of Jewish blood and [in] the course of the conversation I asked them where are they [the Jews] going to go? “Well, we will put them out. They can find out where they’re going to go.”
The conversation became a little more intense and we were beginning to raise our voices. At this moment I was seized from behind. I, being a callow theological student, was inadequate for the situation, I couldn’t get away. A fellow had seized me by both elbows from behind and pulled me out. I tried to get away and nobody paid any attention to me and I couldn’t get away from him. He pushed me through that dense crowd and down the street into a side street and from there up into a dead-end alley marching me all the way. Nobody was interested in stopping him or anything and we got up to the end of the dead-end alley… and I didn’t know, of course, what was going to happen to me. Was he going to beat me up because of what I had been saying and he wheeled me around and shouted at me in German, “You damn fool, don’t you know that in Germany today you keep your mouth shut or you’ll get your head bashed in.” Well, I thought that was the next item on the agenda from his point of view and then he changed mood and smiled and he said, “You know what I have done. I’ve saved you from getting beaten up. They were not going to continue arguing with you. You were going to be lying flat on the pavement and I saw that coming and I grabbed you.”
“Well,“ I said, “thank you very much. Why did you do that?”
“Well,” he said, “I was in the General Merchant Marines and I’ve been in New York City several times and while the ship was there got acquainted with New Yorkers. I never, never in my life (I’m just an ordinary sailor) had such wonderful hospitality and you know what came to my mind – think of that – I watched you getting in trouble. I said look at all the hospitality I received from Americans and I never paid them back. I’m doing it today. I’m inviting you home to Sunday dinner and I want you to see what a typical Sunday dinner is.”
So I went with him to a tenement house where some of the banisters were out of repair and so on and he was an unemployed anti-Nazi worker, a member of a trade union which was anti-Nazi, and we climbed four flights to get to his barren tenement… An unemployed worker in a dilapidated tenement house and there was his wife and three children and we had Sunday dinner together and he gave me the first bottom line description of Nazi philosophy.1
A videotaped interview with James Luther Adams is available from the Facing History Resource Center. In it, he recalls his experiences as a theology student in Germany during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Adams was amazed to learn that many theologians supported Hitler. What aspects of Hitler’s philosophy might appeal to a religious leader?
- 1 : James Luther Adams, interview, No Authority But From God, vol. 1 (video), James Luther Adams Foundation.