Confessions of a German Soldier

Dietrich Karsten was a Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime in the 1930s but died for Hitler as a soldier in the war. His granddaughter, Lena Karsten, enlisted the help of film-maker Tony Wilson and historian Gabriel Fawcett to find his grave and tell his story. The result is a powerful feature documentary Confessions of a German Soldier. Lena Karsten gives an insight into what she discovered.

Millions of Germans met their deaths in the war on the soil of countries they were invading, wearing swastikas on their chests. But my grandfather’s calling as a Christian minister and his strong anti-Nazi convictions made his story all the more incomprehensible to me – that he, of all people, should give his life for such a cause.

Remarkably, Dietrich Karsten left over 300 letters, written from 1932-42 – the decade that separated Dietrich the theology student from Leutnant Karsten who directed machine-gun fire on a frozen lake in Russia. These letters  offer the possibility of gaining some deeper understanding of Dietrich. They also throw up questions. Is it so surprising that numerous Christian Germans saw Hitler’s seizure of power as heaven-sent?

Many in the Protestant Church were enthusiastic for the Nazi-led national revival, which they thought would bring a renewed spirituality and strength to the country. These Christians were tired of years of humility and uncertainty since 1918. Some went further, acknowledging the Nazi leader as their supreme authority and embraced German nationalism and Nazi ideology as integral parts of their faith, calling themselves the ‘German Christians’. They developed a hybrid religion which paganized their Christianity. These German Christians were not satisfied with following their own brand of religion but tried to take over the Church entirely. Pastor Dietrich Karsten’s eventual death in Hitler’s service would begin to make sense if he had taken a wrong turn here and joined this popular faction, as so many did. But he did not, writing to his mother on Ascension Day, 1933:
I don’t think that the Church will get much further if it doesn’t know whom to believe in. And only if there is no talk of race and national identity but – surprisingly – of Jesus Christ, then and only then is it seriously trying to be what it ought to be.

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