Introduction K.H. Miskotte


[1] [2]

[3] I. The Need of ‘Better Resistance’ in the Netherlands, 1940-1941

[4] In the early nocturnal hours of May 10, 1940, the German Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands. The bombardment of the City of Rotterdam compelled the government to capitulate on May 15. Two days later, Hitler proclaimed a decree by which he appointed the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as the Reichskommissar for the occupied territories. In the beginning, the German administration tried to pacify the Dutch people “decently” as a “Germanic Brudervolk,” and with some success.

[5] Many (too many!) officials complied with the first measures of Nazification such as signing the Arierparagraph for civil servants. In the autumn of 1940, the first protests arose. Jan Koopmans, a Reformed theologian, wrote an anonymous pamphlet Bijna te laat! (Almost too late!) to warn the many that had already signed. This pamphlet was published illegally and distributed by the so-called Lunterse kring, a group of persons from the church that had maintained relations with the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany.

[6] A second pamphlet by the same underground group was published after the strike at the end of February 1941, that was organized mainly by communist working men in Amsterdam and its environment in protest of the Nazis’ first anti-Jewish raid. The anonymous author was a friend and meanwhile colleague of Koopmans as referend of the Reformed Congregation in Amsterdam, Kornelis Heiko Miskotte—although stylistically his text was much too easy to identify and so required radical revision by other members of the underground group. Its title was Betere weerstand (Better Resistance), and it was meant to warn against an activist demonstration of anti-German feelings because of only injured national pride. Instead, it urged the importance of knowing the spiritual grounds for resistance and the indispensability of values such as justice and the search for humanity against the totalitarian state.

[7] So, Koopmans and Miskotte felt obliged to contribute to this better resistance of the population. Remarkably, it was a grassroots movement for Bible-reading that gave them the opportunity. In an announcement in the church journal that listed preachers for the next Sunday, dated to May 16, 1941, Miskotte [see the copy, top right] promotes a course on “the basics (grondlijnen, ground-lines) of the biblical message,” to be held in the New Church, the central medieval church at Dam square; the goal of the course was to equip its attendees to lead Bible-reading groups afterwards in neighbourhoods all over the city.

[8] Miskotte explains: “it should not become a series of apologetic lectures; thus, one does not have to expect edification or a defence of Truth—it will simply be a matter of instruction. We will convene as a beit-hammidrash, a house of learning.” Of course, it is significant that Miskotte uses here a Jewish expression for a meeting that is not in, but alongside the synagogue. It may well be that he had in mind the “Free Jewish Learning House” of Franz Rosenzweig and others in Frankfurt when he wrote this notice. At any rate, he meant for this course to host a common effort of learning without presuppositions—except for the presupposition that it makes sense to read the Bible together, because the Bible is a good book.

[9] Soon after his announcement, Miskotte evidently provided a hall for this course in the New Church, and in the late summer 1941 he expanded his lessons into a booklet entitled Bijbelsch ABC. The appearance of this manuscript in print implies that German authorities permitted its dissemination. Other books by Miskotte from the same period received a negative assessment from the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands and its censors. And one may wonder how the association (in Chapter 10) of sanctification with sabotage (usually an act of a militant resistance!) could pass the censor. Nonetheless: Miskotte clearly aimed in 1941to offer the spiritual foundations for resistance, without openly criticizing the propaganda and the terrible measures of the Occupation force and its accomplices.

[10] In the learning house, Biblical ABCs concentrates on making acquaintance with the Bible’s language, in expectation that this specific language will bring a specific message and a specific way of life to light. For Miskotte is convinced, that it makes sense to trust phenomenology (as the art of observing) and that it doesn’t belong to the range of human knowledge to discern what God is doing with the hearts and minds of those who read Scripture. As a result, Miskotte’s concentration on biblical language leads to a predominant concentration on the language of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. And as such, this concentration implicitly expresses solidarity with the Jewish people, who were extremely threatened in 1941. More than 100,000 members of the Jewish people from the Netherlands – probably some 60,000 of them from Amsterdam alone – would not, in the end, survive the Shoah.

[11] In the now following section of this Introduction that follows, I will sketch the factors in Miskotte’s life and work that made him the right person to lay the foundations for resistance during that moment and in this way (Part II). After that, I will also describe some aspects of the book’s first reception (Part III) and indicate the character of the additions that the author himself would make to the book in its post-war edition of 1966 (Part IV). Therefore, we begin with:

II. Miskotte’s Vigilance in the 1930s: A Sketch of Four Steps towards Biblical ABCs

[12] The first step. Miskotte, at that moment 38 years old,defended his Ph.D. thesis on December 17, 1932, at the University of Groningen, nearly two months before Hitler came to power in the Netherland’s eastern neighbour. The subject of this was quite unusual. It dealt with Judaism, not in its classical Talmudic expression but as reflected in a range of its contemporary philosophical representatives. Its title, Het wezen der joodse religie (The Essence of Jewish Religion), indicates the use of the phenomenological method of Wesensschau, the “intuition of essences.” In an analysis of the thinking of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig, Miskotte systematically sketched the characteristics of Judaism, with some attention also to extreme positions such as those of Franz Kafka (exceptional as a Jewish adherent of original sin) and Ernst Bloch (utopian and messianic). In Miskotte’s eyes, the most important witness in this company was Franz Rosenzweig, whose Star of Redemption he had bought from the bookstand of the local Jewish congregation at the Pressa, an international press exhibition in Cologne in 1928. He read it intensively and assessed it as the writing of a great thinker and a great theologian, too.

[13] The last chapters compare Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Bible with a Christian reading of the Old Testament, specifically one shaped by the nineteenth-century Christian preacher H.F. Kohlbrugge. Kohlbrugge had deeply influenced the spiritual atmosphere in Miskotte’s parental house, especially the piety of his mother. In agreement with Hermann Cohen, Miskotte’s dissertation describes Judaism as a religion of “correlation,” where the Godhead makes itself dependent on the human covenant-partner, i.e., on the moral action of the people of Israel. By contrast, for Kohlbrugge, sanctification always is and remains a divine gift, passively received by the human sinner. Therefore, for the Miskotte of 1932, there is a dispute between the Jewish and the Christian (or Reformation) reading of the same Scripture. This would remain his opinion, including in the Biblical ABCs, but through the dramatic developments of the following years, this aspect would gradually recede.

[15] The third step. A month later, in April 1934, another Miskotte article appeared, a chapter contribution for a volume in which some so-called dialectical theologians in the Netherlands introduced themselves. It would later feature in German translation in the Festschrift for Karl Barth’s fiftieth birthday in 1936, under the title “The Problem of Theological Exegesis.” This article is important for understanding Miskotte’s whole theological development, because in it he lays out his view on the contribution of the phenomenological method to biblical exegesis; Biblical ABCs entirely presupposes this earlier work. Miskotte distinguishes three dimensions within the exegetical enterprise: to look—to see—to hear. Looking is the task of the modern historical-critical method: we must carefully acknowledge the text in the contextual-historical conditions of its origins. Hearing is the task of faith, which obediently and attentively tries to learn and to do what God through God’s Word is asking of us today. However, between looking and hearing there exists a tension: between a scientific and an ecclesial vantage, respectively. In both the past and in the present, the two tasks tend towards polarization and mutual incomprehension. According to Miskotte, such tension is inevitable, but polarization is undesirable.

[16] The approach of the middle category, seeing, can offer room for a better encounter between the outer two approaches that are more extreme in character. Seeing designates the task of asking for meaning, but without the immediate need to transpose the acquired insight as to the meaning of the text into an existential decision on the part of the reading and interpreting subject. That is the implication of the Husserlian category of epochē, “suspension of judgement.” One can acknowledge some “structures” in texts and in the cultural environment (or in the Lebensgefühl) by which texts express themselves—but without directly adhering to their implications for one’s own life. Here we can recognize the method of the later Biblical ABCs, which stresses the language and the grammar of the biblical text while suspending the question of its truth. In comparison with his dissertation, a new element in this article on “theological exegesis” is its reference to the Bible translation by Buber and Rosenzweig, as well as to some lectures in which they explain and defend their translation procedure. Miskotte’s dissertation presents these two Jewish witnesses only as systematic thinkers, but the article honors their contributions to exegesis. For example, Miskotte takes up from them an enriched understanding of dabar, Hebrew for “word” or “thing,” as a correction of the usual Christian conviction about the Word. So, too, he finds inspiration in Rosenzweig for reconsidering the unity of the canon and the significance of the connections between texts through “lead words” (Leitwörter).

[17] The fourth step. From 1932 onwards, Miskotte’s diaries very accurately follow developments in politics and in the churches of Germany. He was extremely anxious about the increasing anti-Semitism, and he held no illusions about the disgraceful methods of the Nazis towards their enemies. Given the profile of his mind, there is some cause for amazement about this. For from his youth onwards, Miskotte possessed a deeply felt nature mysticism; he had a romantic disposition and a preference for dark and earthy German poetry. All those characteristics might have been made him sympathetic to the conservative revolution, especially in Germany. But apparently, he escaped that danger and was saved from it—perhaps exactly by studying the prophetic voices of contemporary Judaism. In this way, he became one of the earliest, most sensible, and most vigilant figures in the cause of antifascism in the Netherlands.

The category within which Miskotte perceived the reactionary spirit of the 1930s was that of paganism, in the sense that Max Brod used the term. One faction in the Nazi Party of Germany sought a revival of “native” Germanic religion (of course in what we now call a “reinvented” way). If some in the orbit of National Socialism saw in the old twelfth-century mythological-poetic Icelandic epic, the Edda, imitations of their own spirit, Miskotte determined to take the gesture seriously, not as a mere ideological invention.

[18] For a better understanding of this current, Miskotte read many books of reactionary thinkers—⁠such as Ludwig Klages, Janko Janeff, Friedrich Hielscher or Leopold Ziegler⁠—, who argued that the Jewish spirit had tried to intoxicate the people of Europe, and that Christianity in that sense derived from this blameworthy Judaism. For Miskotte, Christians in Europe are pagans who have been disturbed (gestoord) by the proclamation of Israel’s message in their context. As such, Miskotte’s definition of a Christian is a disturbed pagan. It is, consequently, not just rhetorical flourish but a true self-confession when Miskotte says: “we must honor paganism, because we have to acknowledge that we are pagans ourselves.” That insight explains Miskotte’s great project of the late thirties: Edda and Torah: A Comparison of Germanic and Israelite Religion. That book that appeared at the beginning of October 1939, when the double invasion of Poland had already begun the Second World War, though the Netherlands still strove (delusively) to maintain its neutrality. Some critics of Miskotte’s project hold, that in this approach he overestimated the religious component in the Nazi-ideology. On the other hand, many extreme thinkers of the “conservative revolution” from that time are intensively studied and discussed nowadays on neo-Nazi websites; they are increasingly influential again, or still.

[19] Miskotte’s use of the Edda, once published, elicited well-founded criticism on historical and philological grounds from the Germanist Professor Jan de Vries, who personally sympathised with National Socialism. However, the feelings and the attitude toward life of his fascist contemporaries, which Miskotte recognized in these old texts, show their own coherence: life is dominated by fate, the beginning of all things is chaos, and in the end, all gods and all humans go to ruin; in between, only struggle takes place, where the strongest are heroes and the weak are held in contempt. Miskotte did not contrast the Edda with a Christian basic text – for given its character as paganism disturbed by Israel, Christendom represents a syncretistic entity –, but with the Torah: the latter is the witness of an encounter between a speaking God and a responding people. It testifies of a good Creation at the beginning and a completed Kingdom at the end, and since it aims at justice, it commends the person who protects weak people. In this way, standing up for the foundational text of Judaism was the best way to defend the values of humanity, and in the end to defend the Church under the threat of oppression. Miskotte was convinced that this threat would come, and that it would come soon.

[20] III. Miskotte during the German Occupation of the Netherlands

[21] Miskotte worried that he would be arrested and punished because of having written Edda and Torah. Also, his public debate with the reverend Lodewijk Ekering, member of the National Socialist Movement, at a special meeting of the council of the Amsterdam Reformed Church on February 27, 1939—after which meeting the Church council refused to take a clear position—could have made the German authorities suspicious of him. Later during the war, Miskotte willingly jeopardized himself and his family by illegally hiding Jewish people in his house. Furthermore, the activities of the resistance group the Lunterse kring continued; they instigated the Synod to protest shameless injustice more clearly, and they sent couriers (such as Hebe Kohlbrugge) to Switzerland (via Barth and via Visser ’t Hooft) to keep in contact with the Dutch government-in-exile in London. But apparently, none of these were grounds enough to arrest Miskotte. Although the Nazi censors immediately forbade his Edda and Torah, by May of 1940 nearly all copies had already sold out. The occupying forces prohibited only Miskotte’s appointment to a professorship in Groningen, thereby menacing the theological faculty. There is no reason to regret that outcome, though, because the universities were soon closed, and the church appointed Miskotte to pursue Bible work amid an educated public in the southern quarters of Amsterdam. This special appointment gave him opportunity to develop the catechetical program that Biblical ABCs would expand: to equip people for a “better resistance” in favor of justice and humanity over against the advancing forces of death.

[22] From April 1944 onwards, Miskotte hid himself during the nights at other addresses than his own home, and so did his friend Koopmans. Together, both comrades could suddenly appear among their colleagues, to encourage the irresolute and to admonish the cowards. On March 12, 1945, the Germans shot twenty-four persons dead in reprisal for the gunning down of a member of their security force (Sicherheitsdienst) by the armed resistance. One of the bullets moved over the head of the victims and struck Koopmans, who was watching from behind the window of his hiding place. After twelve days he died because of his wounds.

[23] It was the same, much-mourned Koopmans who wrote the (in my perception) most impressive review of the Biblical ABCs, for the Amsterdam church journal of February 13, 1942. He remembered another famous work in the history of Dutch theology: Herschepping (Recreation), a very original dogmatics for laypeople by Oepke Noordmans, written in 1934. “That book,” Koopmans said,

was an outcome of the First World War. It tried to understand the doctrine of the Church in a new way. But meanwhile, seven years later, a storm rages over Europe. And now we have been thrown back to the most elementary datum, i.e. to the reading of the Bible itself, and therewith to the question of how the structure of learning has to be in a biblical sense.

Koopmans closes his review of Biblical ABCs with these words:

Through this war, God teaches us to ask for the Bible. In the meanwhile, the basics of our existence have become considerably narrower. We almost don’t have a Church anymore, apart from the form in which it can be found in the Bible. And perhaps we must release what we do have that is more than that. In that situation, it is of great importance to have been instructed how to read the Bible.

I wonder whether many of the problems we deal with nowadays in theology will fade away in the perspective of an urgency such as Koopmans expressed.

[24] IV. The Post-war Edition of 1966

After the Second World War, the effort to reconstruct the country generally suppressed attention to the spiritual struggles that took place during the war. In the Netherlands, it was not until the 1960s that a revival of interest in the years of the German Occupation would begin.

[25] After his retirement in December 1959, Miskotte began to work on a new edition of his former publications. All the titles mentioned in this Introduction received a reedition, and often at the same time a revision also. In the case of Biblical ABCs, Miskotte remembered his words  in the Foreword of the 1941 edition:

We have no time to lose. I would like to quietly write a book in loftly prose, to venture further from the coast and descend into the deep. But everything has its appointed time.

In 1966, he determined that this study had already appeared. It was When the Gods are Silent: On the Meaning of the Old Testament (Dutch 1956; English translation 1967). For him, the publication of this work made the task of rewriting the ABCs easier.

[26] Besides the addition of poems, hymns, and stanzas from the new Dutch rhymed version of the Genevan Psalms, and some larger excurses on biblical language, in 1966 it was possible to be more explicit about the circumstances of oppression and resistance that marked the book in its first edition. Miskotte could now more openly express the deep connection between the readers of this book and the people of Israel. He could mention the initial intuition that reading the Bible could help to resist the menace of the Third Reich; and he could refer to the SS, the Confessing Church, and so on.

[27] Besides, Miskotte now alluded to the typical debates of the 1960s. In this way, he discusses the anti-authoritarian atmosphere of those days—remarking that the Dutch word that indicates authority (gezag) is related to the word for “saying” (zeggen, het gezegde), and, in good Reformation fashion, that precisely the Word that God is speaking to me generates my liberation and my “emancipation” (Mündigkeit). Furthermore, he hints at the newly revived discussion of the “death of God,” and hence discusses atheism in a more extensive way. And finally, on the last page of the book, he responds to the new movements in literary criticism to regard the Bible as literature. This assertion is not incorrect, Miskotte says, but at the same time it is easier: for the sense of humanity that the Bible communicates is not a literary motif, but a deep feeling; a feeling of simplicity arising from the particularity of the Name, and at the same time, with a universal tendency.

[28] I conclude that the translators of this book did not deprive its English-speaking readers of essential insights by their decision to omit these additions from 1966, striving as they preserve the atmosphere of the historical circumstances under which the book of 1941 was written.

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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