The church founded by Christ and established by the apostles exists in a fallen, sinful world. As a consequence of this Christians have played a significant part in some of the darkest and most tragic periods of human history. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the oppression of indigenous peoples in colonial times are some examples of historical events in which Christians have been involved. The modern period is no different.
In Europe, the aftermath of the First World War and the Great Depression saw the advent of Nazism and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. His Third Reich was only to hold power for twelve years from 1933 to 1945, but through the Second World War (1939-1945) and the Jewish Holocaust, it caused massive devastation to millions of people around the world. The consequences of these dark years remain with us more than six decades later. It is helpful to explore how Hitler was able to assume power, and then to examine the initial response of the German church, both Catholic and Protestant, to the Third Reich during Hitler’s first two years in power in 1933 and 1934.
A nation in turmoil
The first few decades of the 20th century were tumultuous for Germany. Its defeat in the First World War (1914-1918) led to the end of its imperial government, and the advent of parliamentary democracy under the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Although it was only one of the defeated powers in that conflict, the victorious Allies forced Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Under this excessively punitive treaty, although it was only one of the defeated powers, the victors forced Germany to accept most of the responsibility for starting the war. Accordingly, it was stripped of many of its key imperial territories, had restrictions placed on its military, and was forced to pay massive war reparations to the Allies.
This severely weakened the German economy, resulting in massive inflation, high unemployment, poverty, and civil unrest. Germany suffered under a series of weak and unstable governments. It was in this climate that the National Socialist German Worker’s Party or Nazi Party, formed in 1919 under the leadership of Adolf Hitler emerged. In the late 1920s, Germany began to recover from these problems, but it was once again destabilised by the Great Depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash. Having earlier tried to seize power by force in the abortive November 1923 putsch in the Bavarian city of Munich, the Nazis now sought power through more conventional means, contesting elections in the Reichstag, Germany’s national parliament. Its militaristic nationalism, expressed in promises to bring about economic revival and restore German prestige and power, resonated with large numbers of German voters. Despite their widespread electoral appeal, which gradually made them the largest party in the Reichstag, the Nazis fell short of forming a government in their own right. Germany still lacked the workable government it needed.
Seeing this as the only means to bring this political instability to an end, President Paul Von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as German Chancellor in January 1933. Soon after, under Hitler’s leadership, the Nazis gradually turned Germany into a one-party dictatorship, banning all opposition parties, suspending civil liberties, and reforming the constitution to centralise power in the federal government, with its power concentrated in the office of the Fuehrer. The Third Reich was born. With Hitler having achieved his goal of absolute power, the Nazis then sought to reform all of German society according to their philosophies. Even the church could not evade their grasp.
The church responds
After years of turmoil, many church leaders, concerned about societal decay, the threat of atheistic Communism, and supporting the abolition of the Treaty of Versailles, mostly welcomed the stability and order that the Nazi regime offered, with the promise of the regeneration of German society. That is not to say that they didn’t hold some reservations about Nazism. Hitler was a nominal Catholic, but for pragmatic reasons he claimed to support the important contribution that churches made to German national life. He actively courted both the Catholic and Protestant branches of the church.
For the most part, Germany's Catholic bishops endorsed the Nazi regime, and by coercion, Catholic trade unions and political parties dissolved themselves. In return, Hitler reached an agreement with the Vatican, known as the Reichskoncordat, which in principle guaranteed the right of Catholics to profess and practice their faith, and the independence of the church. Under this treaty, it would continue to receive public funds and the Catholic education system was protected. It was free to continue to provide pastoral care in the army, prisons, and hospitals, and to operate non-political religious organisations. Similarly, all clergy political activity was forbidden. In practice, the actual outcome was far different, and the Nazi regime failed to uphold its part of this agreement, destroying and repressing national Catholic organisations, the press, and Catholic schools.
The German Christians and the Confessing Church
Hitler’s seizure of power drew a range of responses from German Protestants. The Faith Movement of German Christians (Die Glaubenswegung Deutscher Christen) or German Christians wanted to consolidate all of the regional Protestant bodies (Landeskirchen) into a Nazified state church (Reichskirche) for all of Germany. In April 1933, they met in Berlin to demand that this drastic reorganisation take place, with all churches under the authority of a single Reichsbishop. In keeping with Nazi ideology, it would be a race-based church, in which “non-Aryans” would be excluded from holding church office or membership. They revered Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. This movement was beset by factionalism, partially because the regional churches wanted to retain their autonomy. As early as January 1933, a group of Protestant pastors met and issued a declaration that stated the principle that God had instituted the church, and also the state, with the purpose of human government being in part to regulate sinful human passions. A person’s first loyalty could only be to God, and not the state, and the church could never be subordinate to the state. Another issue of contention was the election of a Reichsbishop. Eventually Ludwig Muller, a former army chaplain and Nazi sympathiser, was elected to this position in September 1933.
That same month, the Pastor’s Emergency League (Pfaffernotbund) was formed under the leadership of Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor in a suburb of Berlin. Whilst Niemoller himself held anti-Semitic views at this time, and was initially a supporter of Hitler, as the Nazis began to interfere in church affairs, his views changed. The league brought together various pastor’s organisations. Again, its concern was not with the policies of the Nazi regime, but its 4000 members held in common an objection to the race prejudice and the theological distortions of the German Christian movement. Despite Muller’s attempts to muzzle it, the League continued to express its opposition to the German Christians.
Niemoller was later to become one of the most prominent leaders of what became known as the Confessing Church movement. This movement began to take its form in January 1934 at a meeting of a synod at Barmen in the city of Wuppertal, in which 320 elders and preachers and 167 congregational representatives gathered. The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, then teaching at the University of Bonn, addressed the gathering, which adopted a statement pointing out what it deemed as the errors that were being introduced into the church by the German Christians. The government dismissed Barth from his post, but this was no impediment to the fledgling movement. In February of that year it met in the Rhineland to adopt the Barmen Declaration. Drafted by Barth and the Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, with some input from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other Confessing Church congregations and leaders, this statement was to form the theological basis of the movement. In late May 1934, representatives from United, Reformed, and Lutheran churches gathered in Barmen as the Synod of the Confessing Church, and it was there that the declaration was formally ratified. It was not intended as a statement of political opposition against or resistance to Nazism and what it stood for. Its objections were theological, and echoing the earlier declaration of January 1933, it set out to reassert Christian orthodoxy against the syncretistic distortions of the German Christians. The document set out to reassert the Lordship of Christ against the idolatry of the state.
Even though it was not intended as a resistance movement, the formation of the Confessing Church was met with repression from the apparatus of the Nazi state. Its leaders were banned from preaching, had their papers seized, and were imprisoned. Members of the clergy who supported the Confessing Church were among those who were considered disloyal to the regime and found themselves imprisoned or conscripted into the military. For refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler, Barth was forced from his teaching post and moved to Basle, Switzerland, where he continued his work in the Confessing Church. For his opposition to the Nazis, Neimoller was arrested and imprisoned, where despite international outcry, he remained until the end of the Second World War. While only playing a marginal role in the Confessing Church at the time, after the Second World War began, Bonhoeffer became involved in the German resistance movement. In April 1945, he was executed for participating in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler.
In examining this period, we cannot avoid asking the question of why German churches largely failed to oppose Nazism more stridently than they did. The Nazis’ goal of forming a Reich church was ultimately unsuccessful, and the idea was later abandoned. The fact remains that the spiritual beliefs of many Christians involved in Nazism were sincerely held. They saw no incompatibility between their anti-Semitism, which had long been a part of German Christian theology, and their faith. To them, Nazism was a Christian movement, and represented the restoration of pure, undefiled Christianity, or positive Christianity, as it was known. Subconciously drawing on the influence of Montanism and liberal Protestantism, they rejected the Old Testament and those portions of the New Testament they considered to be corrupted by Judaism. This ideology of positive Christianity held that the faith was intended to be an anti-Jewish movement whose doctrine was corrupted by the apostle Paul.
Both the Catholic and Protestant churches did speak up on behalf of Jewish converts to Christianity, or for the Jewish spouses of members of their churches, saving some lives. In addition, the churches protested strongly against the Nazi Euthanasia Program and succeeded in limiting its scope, but failed to end it completely, because it continued in secret. Even so, the action of the churches on this issue demonstrated that protest could make an impact on Nazi policy. Towards the end of the 1930s, Jewish persecution intensified, and the true nature of the Third Reich was revealed. Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant leadership officially protested the persecution of Jews or the horrors of the "Final Solution."
After years of turmoil caused by war, revolution, and economic upheaval, Hitler’s rhetoric of restoring Germany to its former strength and power must have appealed to millions of ordinary citizens, including its Christians who felt threatened by what they saw as the evils of liberalism, communism, atheism, and Judaism. To them, Germany was a Christian society, and in Hitler they saw a way of safeguarding this society against these perceived threats. The injustices Hitler perpetrated against the German people, and then against much of Europe, was at least partially committed in the name of a form of Christianity, as they understood it. During the Third Reich, both German church leadership and laity were divided between those who supported Hitler and those who opposed him. In both instances, they were acting according to their Christian convictions, either seeing Nazism as something to be supported or opposed. To them were added the majority of Protestant clergy, who passively acceded to the regime. Despite the efforts of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niemoller, and other Confessing Church leaders, for the most part, this movement didn’t challenge the tyranny of the Third Reich, regardless of the persecution it experienced. This was one of the most tragic episodes of recent human history, and regrettably, one in which Christians have a mixed record.