Nearly eight decades after a disrobed Lutheran pastor died in disgrace, his church has cleared his name and asked forgiveness for participating in a Nazi-era persecution campaign against him.
The move to honour Berlin pastor Friedrich Klein is a first for a German church and part of a wider push to address outstanding injustices linked to the country’s notorious Paragraph 175 of the criminal code that legalised the persecution of homosexuals and was abolished only in 1994.
Bishop Christian Stäblein, of Berlin-Brandenburg’s Lutheran church, told a ceremony in the Immanuelkirche church, where Rev Klein served from 1935, that stripping him of his ordination rights in 1943 – in response to a Nazi military court conviction – was “an injustice and is declared null and void”.
“The rehabilitation comes too late but, and I say this carefully, it is a step in the other direction,” he said. “What’s clear is, it wasn’t just the Nazis alone who discriminated same-sex love, even going as far as murder.”
Friedrich Klein was born in 1905 in Homburg, in the western Saarland and moved to Berlin in the 1930s.
In June 1933, six months after Hitler took power, the pastor joined the Nazi party. In the early days of the fascist regime, he was reportedly an enthusiastic supporter of the “German Christians”, a racist and anti-Semitic wing of German Protestantism that pledged loyalty to Adolf Hitler.
He later appears to have reconsidered and, in 1938, held a mass for a fellow pastor of the Immanuelkirche church who was attacked for speaking out against discrimination against Jews and other minorities.
His more critical views brought Rev Klein on to the radar of Nazi authorities. In 1941 he was drafted into the Wehrmacht army and served as a interpreter. The same year, on a home visit to Berlin, he was arrested and appeared before a local military court on charges of “unnatural fornication” with a 19-year-old corporal.
In a first hearing, Rev Klein was acquitted due to lack of evidence. But, after intervention from senior Nazis, the case was brought before the highest military court. In 1942 he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Following the conviction his church dismissed him, stripping him of his “right to all official payments and welfare as well as rights of and permission to carry the title of clergyman”.
After two years in prison he was offered early release in 1944 if he went to the eastern front, then considered a death sentence. Klein went missing in action near Leningrad, today’s St Petersburg, in August and declared dead in 1975.
The case came to light by chance when the current pastor of the Immanuelkirche, seeking material for the church’s 125th anniversary in 2018, discovered Klein’s case in church archives.
In a memorial mass, Bishop Stäblein called on Germany’s 20 Lutheran churches to conduct greater research into the period. Next summer the Berlin-Brandenburg church will prepare a theological statement on the issue and set up a contact body for queries and information about other such cases.