This article is about Hitler's view of church and state, his treatment of the clergy in the national church and the Barmen declaration 1934. This article is a part of German church history from 1930-1945.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1996. 5 pages.

German Resistance Frustrated Fuhrer How Hitler Beat Clergy into Submission after Losing Battle over Church and Bible

On VE-Day, on May 5th, 1945, much of Europe lay in ruins. The war had displaced millions of people. Worse, millions on land and at sea died while fighting, or in shellings and bombings. World War II extracted a high cost in civilian lives. Millions more were slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps as a result of Hitler's misguided political dreams of a “pure,” Aryan super race, and his false notion of one people, one nation and one Fuhrer.

How could such a disaster be caused upon mankind by a nation known for its rich culture and tradition? Indeed, many scholars have asked this very question, and most people are still looking for a satisfactory answer. Where were people of good will to do battle with Hitler's totalitarian regime and fight his demonic ideas? Let us take a look at Germany's churches and how they responded to their country's new chancellor and the rise of National Socialism.

In 1918, Germany had suffered what it considered “deep humiliation” at the hands of the Allies. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all of its overseas colonies and parts of its territory to formerly hostile neighbours. The size of its army was restricted to 100,000 men while reparations were put at $33 billion, a phenomenal amount. The following years – known as the Weimar era, Germany's first experiment with democracy – were marked by political chaos and strife, pitting conservative monarchists and, radical communists against each another. By the mid 1920s, these factions were joined by Nazis who quickly became known for their violence-prone marches and rallies. While the monarchists were mere authoritarians, the latter two groups wanted to enforce a totalitarian rule.

With its high unemployment, the German social fabric had become unglued. The legacy of the Weimar Republic was one of extreme inflation, strikes, violent political rallies, shortages of all kinds of goods, rampant crime, abandonment of children, pornography, prostitution and homelessness of many. Germany had lost its sense of direction.

Hunger for Restoration🔗

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Hitler and his National Socialist ideology found a fertile soil in German society. People longed for the restoration of order and former greatness. The “Fuhrer” preached a blend of political hope and restoration which was embraced by the largely conservative, Protestant middle class, the industrialists, the nobility, the intelligentsia and the clergy. Particularly the latter loathed Weimar's chaos and initially supported Hitler's goals enthusiastically.

Bizarre as this may sound today, large groups of disillusioned people viewed Hitler as an angel of light. In laying out his platform, Hitler used organised religion as a pawn to obtain broader public sympathy. Unlike communists, his foremost rivals, who branded religion the “opium of the people,” Hitler let it be known that he would respect the churches as institutions, and even reinforce them. The press went as far as to report that Hitler always carried a New Testament with him, a story also repeated by well-known journalist Mary Pos in the illustrated Dutch periodical De Spiegel. After he was appointed chancellor in January 1933, Hitler, in his first official policy statement, confirmed that his government would support the place of the Christian confession in school and family. His government, he said, sincerely desired cooperation between church and state.

Centuries earlier, relationships between German baronies, counties, duchies, protectorates and principalities and their provincial church groups reached a new threshold with the Treaty of Augsburg. The 1555 covenant – which was hammered out at the end of a great upheaval in German history – gave each prince the right to choose whether he and his subjects would thereafter be Lutheran, Reformed or Roman Catholic. The consequence of this compromise has coloured Germany ever since. Evenly split between the two main religions, German Christianity became ecclesiastically regionalised with the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches being organized in independent, regional churches or federations. The Protestant churches became virtual agencies of the state, and the princes, to quote Luther, “bishops by necessity.” The model church ordinance made the civil ruler the “summus episcopus” with complete authority over church property, with total ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and with the decisive word in dogma.

From this course came some of the main features of German history: the religious division of the nation, the confessional-geographical pattern of society, and the intermingling of religion and politics. Germany never succeeded in fully liberating itself of these characteristics. German Protestantism became completely tied to the status quo and taught an ultra-conservative social ethic. Over time, the relationship between throne and altar, caused Protestantism as a religious force to increasingly fall out of step with the social trends of modern industrial life. Eventually, the workers and the urban masses turned their backs on the church, while the middle and upper classes had little contact with the church apart from ceremonial events such as christenings, confirmations, weddings and burials. Only three per cent of Protestants regularly attended church services during Kaiser Wilhelm's rule.

The 1918 collapse of the Hohenzollern rule was a blow to the Lutheran leadership which largely consisted of ministers, lawyers and the lower nobility. Weimar's subsequent chaos made these men long for a restoration of the monarchy and of order in society.

A Search for Equality🔗

The Treaty of Augsburg also had a great impact upon German Catholicism. While Roman Catholic princes accepted Rome's dogmatic supremacy, in reality they followed the example of their Protestant counterparts. They long appointed priests and bishops alike while some of the latter also served as temporal princes. In 1806, Napoleon decreed drastic changes to German society by abolishing such ecclesiastical states, confiscating church property, and reducing the number of principalities. The Treaty of Vienna complicated things further when it left Roman Catholics as a body disadvantaged, leaderless and insecure. After 1815, only Bavaria and Saxony had Roman Catholic rulers.

In Prussia, the future of German Catholicism was secured because they were forced to defend their interests in a struggle for equal opportunities in public life. This resulted in their association with constitutionalism, and their demand for civil liberties, and campaigns for limits on state power. Intrusion in their affairs made this religious faction a politically conscious group. With his authoritarian policies, Bismarck made Roman Catholics a cohesive group with clout beyond their numbers.

Unlike their Protestant counterparts, Roman Catholic workers largely remained faithful to the church and felt less disenfranchised by Weimar's upheaval: they never had felt they were really part of the process anyway.

Under these circumstances, Hitler appealed to both religious factions but for different reasons. One group wanted restoration of social order, the other wanted recognition and equality. Hitler brought the Roman Catholics quickly aboard by regulating his government's relationship with the Vatican. The Nazis promised Rome freedom of religion for its adherents, freedom in religious education, and freedom for its religious, cultural and relief organizations. However, there were some conditions which were to haunt the Vatican hierarchy:

  1. the appointments of bishops needed state approval;
  2. they were to pledge allegiance to Hitler;
  3. on public holidays the church was expected to pray for Germany's prosperity;
  4. rights of Roman Catholic institutions were relinquished; and
  5. priests could not be involved in politics.

It is noteworthy that the July 1933 agreement was concluded after Hitler's first anti-clerical measures were introduced, the Catholic political party had been dissolved and the Nazis had committed their first murders. In spite of these happenings, Germany's Cardinal Faulhaber sent Hitler a personal note of thanks for bringing about the Vatican accord.

The much touted cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the state unravelled within days when the Reichstag adopted a bill regulating sterilization, a policy strongly opposed by Roman Catholics. A few days later, Erich Klauberer, the leader of the Roman Catholic action movement, was murdered.

Meanwhile, church leaders and theologians had a broad range of responses to Hitler's ascension to power. While some opposed Nazi policies outright, most of these leaders supported Hitler, but not necessarily his dealings with the churches.

A Unified National Church🔗

Less circumspect was the German Christian Faith Movement, a relatively obscure group which clung to Hitler's coat-tails and advocated a united Protestant church for the country, based on Nazi ideals. Made up of mostly nominal church members, it ran slates of candidates in church elections in over twenty independent regional churches. The movement was forced to accept defeat even though it received widespread support.

Thanks to Hitler's intervention in church affairs, a committee of three, along with Hitler's appointee, army chaplain Ludwig Muller, produced a constitution for a unified national church. Several months later, Muller, aided by Stormtroopers, occupied the offices of the German Evangelical Church League (DEK). Claiming that the crisis demanded a new constitution, one was written and subsequently unanimously approved by the regional churches.

The church elections which followed produced a 60 to 80 per cent majority for the German Christian slate. Interestingly, Hitler endorsed the German Christians' slate one day before voting day, when numerous brown-shirted members packed the pews. A new conservative group, “Gospel and Church,” only controlled the churches in Bavaria and Westphalia and could not stop synod from appointing Muller as Reichsbisschoff of the national church.

The rise of the German Christians in the church and Muller's ascent to the bishopric caused dissatisfaction among leaders who otherwise supported the Nazis. This new elite blundered in Prussia, where they rid themselves of moderate officials and introduced the “Aryan clause” which denied office to anyone with Jewish ancestry. One observer protested and was shouted down. Members of the “Gospel and Church” faction, including conservative preacher Martin Niemoller, then walked out of the assembly. Two weeks later, the Pastor's Emergency League (Notbund) was born. Within months, about half the active Protestant ministers in the country had registered their membership with the new group.

If conservative Protestants had failed to notice the extent of Nazi plans, statements at a huge rally in Berlin should have opened their eyes. Guest speaker Dr. R. Krause of the German Christian Faith movement at the November 1933 Sportpalast rally called for the Nazification of the Bible. Krause wanted the Old Testament removed from the Bible and the deletion of references to the Jewishness of Apostle Paul in New Testament letters. The Bible needed to be purged of all non-German elements, he stated. “What appealed to the German heart could be salvaged from the Bible – then the essence of the Jesus-doctrine would be evident and in harmony with National Socialism,” Krause declared. He went on to discourage his audience from displaying the cross, wanting a heroic fighter rather than a distant God. Hero worship could evolve into god worship.

Even Reichsbisschoff Muller condemned Krause's speech and soon resigned from the German Christian movement. While Muller remained powerful as bishop, the controversial rally speaker Krause put support for the reorganised German church structure on skids.

Hitler once more interfered, striking a blow against the Notbund. He revealed that Niemoller had conspired against Muller. Niemoller's telephone had been tapped and Niemoller was heard suggesting that Germany's aging president Von Hindenburg might put pressure on Hitler to stave off more government interference in the church. The accusation caused Niemoller to lose support in the Notbund and seriously undermined his position. Effectively March 1, 1934, Niemoller was removed from his pastorate: his activities did not stroke with the intent of Prussia's “political reliability clause.”

Opposition to Hitler's Plan🔗

Meanwhile, the Free Reformed Synod of Barmen was fanning the flames of opposition to Hitler's drive for one national church. Swiss-born theologian Karl Barth, who taught at a German university, wrote a declaration refuting the German Christian movement and its fight for control of the churches, and reminding the Nazis that the Church has certain rights and prerogatives that limit the state. This synod, which was held January 3-4, 1934, adopted the declaration. Six weeks later, the Free Protestant Church in the Rhineland followed suit.

The battle got nastier in March, when the police dissolved the Westphalian Synod; its leaders reconvened as the Westphalian Confessing Synod to approve the Barmen declaration. Next three regional Lutheran churches moved against Hitler. Bishops from Bavaria and Wurttemberg visited Hitler to withdraw their support of Reichsbisschoff Muller. Hanover thwarted all attempts by Muller to assume control there, as local pastors and membership rallied around bishop Marahrens. A similar attempt in Wurttemburg to “unseat” bishop Wurm also failed, while the Barmen declaration gained further endorsements.

The authority Reichsbisschoff Muller needed to put his stamp of Nazi ideology on German churches further eroded in May 1934, when the constellation known as the Confessing Church – Lutherans, Reformed and the United – convened its synod at Barmen. Headed by Barth, a three-man committee drafted the basic principles for a German Protestant Church: a document to confront and oppose Muller and his alien ideas.

The Reichsbisschoff made one more attempt to wrest his opponents to the ground. He had the bishops of Bavaria and Wurttemberg placed under house arrest and their congregations were forced into the national church structure. However, Muller had now overplayed his hand. He was forced to abandon his plans when he was met by a groundswell of popular opposition.

In October 1934, the Synod of Dahlem declared the Confessing Church to be the legitimate national church, arguing that Muller's violation of the church constitution had disqualified his claim to lead a legally constituted church government. Again Hitler intervened. This time he dropped Muller and “re-established” the bishops of Bavaria, Hanover and Wurttemberg.

The Nazis Strike Back🔗

The Confessing Church had won a battle but could they win the war? As events later proved, they only had overcome their weakest enemy, Muller and the German Christian movement. The Nazis struck back by banishing Karl Barth to Switzerland, and continued to harass Confessing Church leaders and undermine the denomination through the regime's influence over university theological faculties.

Numerous pastors were arrested, including Niemoller who was kept in a concentration camp for ten years. The number of arrests in 1937 alone stood at about 800. In two years' time, the German churches lost in this way about 1,500 ministers. During the Third Reich era, 3,000 were imprisoned for a time, 125 were sent to concentration camps and 22 were executed for their opposition. Many other ministers, Confessing Churchmen, were conscripted and served as chaplains in the Wehrmacht. Hitler's need for chaplains at the same time robbed the churches of their leaders. By 1941, 45 per cent of the clergy was serving in the Wehrmacht.

Much more should be written about this sordid period in history. Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to what one theologian once called, “the war behind the war.” In conclusion, the following points should be considered:

  • Confessional Christian influence on German public policy was largely absent, since the church had been increasingly marginalized over a long period of time. A low percentage of the population bothered to attend church, which by default had become a social institution.
  • The chaos of the Weimar Republic created a great desire for stability in German affairs. Although Hitler and the Nazis failed to gain majority electoral support, it seems that no one closely examined the underpinnings of Nazism. Germany's religious leaders were more interested in general political stability then in proclaiming the Gospel's normative role for all of life.
  • Hitler's plan for a national church under government control only generated vehement opposition from the conservative leadership in Germany's churches when it became apparent an Aryan-origin prohibition would apply to the clergy and that the Gospel itself was in danger of being purged of its Jewish roots. Persecution of the Jews and general state-sanctioned violence in society hardly generated a protest.
  • The pastors' opposition to Nazi interference in church and doctrine was easily overcome by Hitler who was able to suppress it, and to keep it from spilling over into general society. At the same time it also must be stated that Hitler did not try to Nazify churches in occupied countries during World War II or demand an oath of allegiance from the clergy.
  • Aside from Confessing Church opposition, German resistance to Nazidom was largely restricted to individuals or small groups (who tended to focus on the question of governing Germany once Hitler had been removed). The oath of allegiance to Hitler – pastors joined other professionals swearing it – later prevented many from resisting Nazi policies.
  • In wanting to establish a national church under government control, Hitler in essence saw himself as a “bishop by necessity,” as had nobility before him. The princes decided on religious affiliation but stayed within a broadly defined Christian tradition whereas Hitler attempted to revise it in a German nationalistic model.

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