What is Hitler doing in stained glass windows of some German churches?

Hitler glass windows of some German churches

Curious and controversial: several churches in Germany have stained glass windows depicting Adolf Hitler. Who were the artists and what are these works about?

Weil der Stadt is a city of about 20,000 inhabitants located in southern Germany, west of Stuttgart. In the Catholic Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish priest Anton Gruber has been receiving his parishioners and many curious visitors for 11 years.

Some people come to the church because it’s right around the corner from a popular bike trail, while others come to look at a particular window display. They often say that “Hitler’s features are recognizable,” Gruber tells DW. “Most people are just curious, no more and no less,” says the clergyman of the stained glass window dating from 1939/40.

Evil personified

It is part of a larger stained glass window with nine panels depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. The top right panel depicts the temptation, with the devil testing Jesus’ faith, and artist JoKarl Huber clearly gave Hitler’s facial features to his depiction of the devil. The devil’s costume is yellow, a color that represents envy and possession.

Getting Rid of Idols: A Stained Glass Window in Vasperviller, France

Most visitors have no problem understanding and contextualizing the depiction of the dictator as evil personified, Gruber says, adding that the artist never commented on his work, so it can only be assumed that he wanted to portray Hitler as a figure of the evil. The work was created in 1939, at the height of the Nazi regime. Knowing the history of the artist helps to understand the image, says Gruber. “In 1936, the Nazis called JoKarl Huber’s art ‘degenerate,’ and he was no longer allowed to work,” he says.

The parish priest of San Pedro y San Pablo at the time, August Uhl, granted the artist asylum, along with a commission to renovate the temple. Uhl’s sermons were often anti-Nazi, so the Gestapo often showed up at his house, says Gruber.

Controversial works of art

There is no doubt that “the stained glass window represents an unequivocal and courageous statement against National Socialism and its leaders,” German historian Michael Kuderna told DW. His most recent book deals with those portraits of Hitler in churches.

In the course of his research, he found five images of Hitler before 1945 and nine after. In the case of the first ones, it can be difficult to verify that they really show the dictator, but the later images clearly show Hitler, for example as an executioner, or a villain burning in hell.

“After the war, depicting Hitler in churches was no longer as problematic as it was before 1945, when people feared reprisals,” explains the historian.

Over time, the images changed: “Hitler was increasingly shown in other contexts, treated in a more distanced way, even to the point of becoming a caricature,” adds Kuderna.

His research began 20 years ago at the church in Vasperviller, France. Created after 1945, a stained glass window depicts a biblical story from the Old Testament: Rachel, Laban’s daughter, steals her father’s household gods.

The artist, Gabriele Kütemeyer, gave one of the gods the face of Hitler. “The artist’s father was a staunch opponent of the Nazis. He was in Gestapo custody in Berlin for a while,” explains Kuderna, adding that the artist often heard her father say that the Germans followed false idols. “That gave him the idea to look for that connection in the artwork.”

Among the 14 illustrations Kuderna identified as clearly depicting Hitler, one – showing Hitler with Paul von Hindenburg, the German president who played a key role in the Nazi takeover – was removed after 1945.

The historian points out that just after the war, “people did not like to talk about these things, they felt ashamed.” As a consequence, some of the images were blacked out and others were vandalized.

Difficult mission

Kuderna mentions the case of a window in Munich, by the artist Max Lacher, which portrays Hitler as some kind of torturer. At first it was splashed with ink, but later it was protected with a barrier.

The same artist created a much more famous image in the town of Landshut, a stained glass window in St. Martin’s Church showing Hitler and his fellow Nazis Goebbels and Göring torturing St. Castulus.

After World War II, the Americans demanded his removal, but changed their minds when told that the artist was a resistance fighter in the last weeks of the war.

Obviously, these images should not be hidden or eliminated, says Kuderna, as they can serve as a basis for dealing with the past. “Although it is difficult, because to this day there are many things that we have not processed.”

The fools of the world: A work of art on an altar in the church of San Pedro y Pablo.

Testimony of contemporary history

The parish priest Anton Gruber is also in favor of an open and transparent debate on these representations. “The images that were created during the Nazi era are a testament to history,” he says.

Gruber believes that it is important for the church to be alive and present works of art from different eras; It should not be just a museum of the past. “In my church, for example, we have objects from 1500, 1750, from 1939/40, but also works of art from 2020.”

One of the most recent depictions of Hitler in the Gruber church is a painting by Dieter Gross, added in 2018 to the back of the wings of the Epiphany altar. It shows Jesus Christ surrounded by a crowd of people who supposedly represent the fools of the world. Among them are Donald Trump and, further back, Adolf Hitler.

“The question is: how can I represent Hitler as a simple idiot among many, next to everyone else?” the pastor asks. “It’s about making people think: Where would I stand among the crowd of fools in the painting? How stupid am I?”

Historian Kuderna says this latest depiction of Hitler is the strangest he has come across in his research. “It’s funny and beautiful, but it makes you think.” However, he is still not sure if the image works or if such a representation does not end up trivializing Hitler.

Anton Gruber, the parish priest of the church, leaves the interpretation and discussion to his faithful and visitors.