Ernst Lohmeyer

Ernst Lohmeyer       

A few of us might have seen the name Ernst Lohmeyer listed among those who resisted the Nazi regime. Scholars remember him for his studies on the Lord’s Prayer and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which confirmed the early existence of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Most people, however, have never heard his name.

            What puzzled James R. Edwards, author of Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer, was Lohmeyer’s disappearance not only from East Germany, but from the collective memory. Apparently, the Soviet government was not satisfied with killing Lohmeyer. They were determined to erase records about his life.

A Bright Scholar

            Lohmeyer was born into a pastor’s family in Dorsten, Germany, on July 7, 1890. The fourth of nine children, he excelled in his studies from a very young age, showing an unusual interest in ancient languages.

            Music was also very important in the Lohmeyer home, with every member of the family playing an instrument and holding a family “concert” every Sunday. Ernst played the violin and the piano, sometimes improvising a four-hand piece with his father.

            The Lohmeyers carefully instructed their children in the Christian faith. When Ernst turned fifteen, he was confirmed in the local Lutheran church. As it was customary, he had to choose a Bible verse. He chose 2 Timothy 2:1: “Be strong, my son, in the grace which is in Christ Jesus.” Little did he know how much that verse was going to characterize his life.

            His progress in the classical languages allowed him to enter the prestigious Friedrichs-Gymnasium in Herford, fifteen miles away from Vlotho, where his family had moved. By the time he enrolled at the university in Tubingen, he was fluent in Latin and Greek and eager to study Assyrian, Babylonian, and Aramaic. He continued his studies in Berlin, where he completed a doctorate in theology with a thesis on God’s covenant.

             He had barely finished his year of mandatory military service when World War I broke out, and he was re-enlisted. He was seriously wounded but recovered. Throughout the war, he kept a copy of the Greek New Testament at his side.

            He also found great comfort in his relationship with Amalie (Melie) Seyberth, an intelligent young woman with a passion for music and poetry. He met her in Berlin and married her in July 1916. While they were apart, they wrote to each other, sometimes several times a day.

            After the war, he worked as professor of New Testament Theology at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Breslau (now Wrocław). During this time, he became particularly interested in the history of early Christianity and martyrdom (another uncanny preview of things to come).

            He didn’t write poetry, but his prose was endued with a poetic quality his readers readily noticed. It might have been this poetic sensitivity that allowed him to notice the presence of preexisting Christian hymns in the writings of New Testament authors, particularly in Philippians 2:5-11. If these insights are correct, Christians had been singing of Christ’s divinity long before Paul’s writings – debunking some critics’ conjecture that it was a late doctrine.

A Matter of Conscience

            Ernst and Melie had a daughter, Beate Dorothee, in 1920, while he was teaching at Breslau. But the baby died one year later, “after bravely enduring five weeks of agony” (possibly from the influenza pandemic that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths all over the world.

            During the following years, the Lohmeyers had three more children: Ernst-Helge, Hermann-Hartmut, and Gundrun-Richarda. While the children grew, Melie continued to develop her musical talents by singing at various concerts.

            Lohmeyer’s appointment, in 1930, to Rector of the University of Breslau was quite surprising, since he was relatively young. At that time, rectors were elected by the faculty, so his appointment was a proof of how highly he was esteemed.

            But his rectorship was cut short because of his strong anti-nazi views and his solidarity with Jewish colleagues at a time of strong antisemitism. This open defense of the Jews distinguishes him from most of the anti-nazi heroes we normally remember, who tended to be quiet on the Jewish question. Lohmeyer also refused to endorse the increasingly popular anti-Semitic interpretations of the Bible, while he insisted on the unity of the Old and New Testament.

            Removed from Breslau in 1932, he was sent to the University of Greifswald, a lesser institution where the authorities thought he could do less harm. While teaching New Testament studies at Greifswald, Lohmeyer continued to write important scholarly works, including his masterly exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, and a commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

            Lohmeyer served for some time in World War II, fighting as an officer in the German occupation of Russia. Unlike other officers, he treated the people of the occupied areas with integrity and mercy.

            After the war, he was elected Rector of the University of Greifswald. At that time, the university was being re-organized by the Soviet government that had taken over East Germany. Once again, Lohmeyer couldn’t simply go along with the new regime. His open advocacy of academic freedom and his refusal to allow the university to become an instrument of Communist propaganda brought him to the attention of the Soviet authorities.

            During the night of February 15, 1946, immediately before the re-opening ceremony of the university, when his appointment as rector was to become official, some agents of the Soviet NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) stormed into his home and abducted him without any explanation, under the eyes of his stunned wife.

Regrets and Grace

            Melie received one last final letter from Ernst, written while he was imprisoned. It was a long review of his life and a moving confession of his failures, his doubts as a German officer in occupied territories, and his lacks as a husband and father.

            “Through these long years I have often sought God, but my search was only one search among others, not the one and only search,” he wrote. He also realized what many Christians take time to discover – that love for God cannot be divorced from love for others, especially those who are nearest.

            In God’s mercy, Lohmeyer’s imprisonment ended up reducing, rather than increasing, his distance from his wife. “[God] made me as one fettered, in order to fetter me to himself and to you, and in so doing he gave me the gift of inner freedom from all the mortal burdens of my life. He did all this to me, an innocent victim in the world’s eyes, the martyr of a good cause—and only he and you know that in doing so he was truly just and truly consoling. I am now a prisoner, and yet I have everything I have longed for…. In everything I am free and inwardly certain, no longer because of myself but because of the bond of unity that binds me to God and to you.”[1]

            Melie never heard again from Ernst. It was only in 1958 that she learned he had been executed on September 19, 1946.

            “No one knows where Ernst Lohmeyer's final resting place is,” Günter Haufe, Lohmeyer's successor as New Testament professor at Greifswald, commented. “But we all know who he was and what he always will be for us: a preeminent theologian, a great man of integrity and innocence, a martyr for the freedom of the university, in the words of Israel, ‘a righteous man among the nations.’”[2]

[1] James R. Edwards, Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer, Eerdmans, 2019,  270-271.

[2] Ibid., 1.


Simonetta Carr