For our Mid-Week Lenten Bible Study this year, here at Holy Trinity we have been studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible.
Last week as we were walking out of a different church meeting, one of my friends asked me, “Why weren’t all German Christians part of the Confessing Church, along with Bonhoeffer?” It’s a simple question, and one answer is short: The short answer is Evil always comes dressed up as something Good, as “an angel of light” scripture says. Your heart tells you it’s what you’ve always hoped for — but it doesn’t square with the Word of God. So listen to the Word of God instead of your heart, or Evil will snare you every time. Most of the German Christians listened to their heart instead of the Word of God — World War Two, the Holocaust, and the destruction of much of Europe was the result. The other answer to the question of “Why weren’t all German Christians part of the Confessing Church? is longer … but the conclusion is the same:
In Hitler’s Germany, most churches went along with the Nazis. Some did so reluctantly but many were enthusiastic. But there was also dramatic resistance by (far too few) churches and religious leaders who opposed Hitler at great personal risk. No one spoke more eloquently on behalf of the civil liberties of Jews than the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He became a prominent voice in “the Confessing Church” that was founded when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors (not all were Lutheran) broke off from the main religious body in protest. Bonhoeffer reminds us that there are people of conscience and moral courage everywhere — there are just too few of them.
Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Most Christians in Germany welcomed the rise of Nazism. They were persuaded by the statement on “positive Christianity”, in Article 24 OF THE 1920 Nazi Party Platform which read: “WE DEMAND THE FREEDOM OF ALL RELIGIOUS CONFESSIONS IN THE STATE, INSOFAR AS THEY DO NOT JEOPARDIZE THE STATE’S EXISTENCE OR CONFLICT WITH THE MANNERS AND MORAL SENTIMENTS OF THE GERMANIC RACE. THE PARTY AS SUCH UPHOLDS THE POINT OF VIEW OF A POSITIVE CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT TYING ITSELF CONFESSIONALLY TO ANY ONE CONFESSION. IT COMBATS JEWISH-MATERIALISTIC SPIRIT AT HOME AND ABROAD AND IS CONVINCED THAT A PERMANENT RECOVERY OF OUR PEOPLE CAN ONLY BE ACHIEVED FROM WITHIN ON THE BASIS OF THE COMMON GOOD BEFORE INDIVIDUAL GOOD.” Despite the open antisemitism of this statement and its linkage between “confessional freedom” and a nationalistic, racialized understanding of morality, many Christians in Germany at the time read this as an affirmation of Christian values. (All sorts of red flags go up for us today as we read this, but in the 1920s and 30s, Jim Crow laws were in effect throughout the United States, not just in the Confederate South.) The German Protestant Church became a battleground between the majority, who supported the Nazis, and a minority who resisted them. At the core of the conflict was the question of how the church should respond to the “Jewish Question.”
Hitler was born and raised as a Roman Catholic, but he later developed a non-Christian philosophy based upon Nietzsche, Darwin. and Gobineau which became the philosophy of the National Socialist party. Hitler believed that race was a biological substance in the blood which determined a person intellectually, spiritually, and physically. He believed the supreme race was the Aryan race, which was destined to rule over all the other races, for the only purpose of the other races was to serve the Aryans.
According to Hitler, the Jews were parasites who should be exterminated. He blamed them for all the troubles of Germany, for starting the First World War, for making Germany lose this war, for being the force behind the Treaty of Versailles which caused Germany so much suffering, and for being behind the two forces that most threatened Germany at the time: International Bolshevism (Communism) and International Capitalism. Hitler believed that Germany needed to be changed into a powerful military state, but individualism and democracy were not compatible with this new state. Once the state was militarized, the armed forces would move to the east to create living space (Lebensraum) for the German people.
Many Germans shared with Hitler the bitterness and resentment that resulted from World War One, and so they were very receptive to his ideas — especially the idea of German superiority. Nazism was readily accepted because it filled a vacuum left in the hearts of countless Germans after World War One. Nazism offered in emotional and semi-religious language a dynamic political creed and a plausible explanation of Germany’s post-war predicament. Nazism was not just an alternative political party; it was, in Hitler’s own words, “a form of conversion, a new faith.”
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Two months later he publicly assured both Catholics and Protestants that he would respect their rights and work “for genuine harmony between Church and State.” Hitler always portrayed himself as a religious supporter, but one who was above the fray of denominational squabbles. He never officially renounced his Roman Catholicism and was not excommunicated until his death. He paid church taxes and listed himself as a Catholic in the party handbook right to the end. Other than Judaism, Hitler wrote favorably of religion in Mein Kampf wherever he mentioned it. Publicly he expressed his support of Christianity and he never publicly revealed his private anti-church attitudes.
However, in private Hitler shared his true feelings. In responding to the anti-Christian campaign of one of his co-conspirators in his 1923 coup attempt, Hitler said “I entirely agree with His Excellency [General Erich Ludendorff], but His Excellency can afford to announce to his opponents that he will strike them dead. But I need for the building up of a great political movement, the Catholics of Bavaria and the Protestants of Prussia. The rest can come later.” (J. S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945, (c) 1968) Because of Hitler’s duplicity, many churchmen were unaware of his anti-church bias and they supported him because of the conservative nature of his programs, such as combating Bolshevism.
Christians should have been able to figure what the Nazis intended however, because the rabid anti-Semitism of the National Socialists made it inevitable that they would eventually attack Christianity. Anti-Semitism is a hatred of the people chosen by God, whose very existence is evidence of God’s desire for a relationship with humanity. Rejection of the Jews means rejection of the salvation offered by God through the Jews in Jesus of Nazareth. Anti-Semitism is a form of hatred of God. As it manifests itself in the form of the intense hatred of Jews, it will naturally lead to a hatred of Christianity and from there, all freedom and justice.(Arthur Cochrane, The Church’s Confession under Hitler, (C) 1962)
In reality, the Church in Nazi Germany was subjected to as much pressure as any other organization in Germany. Any perceived threat to Hitler could not be tolerated, and the churches of Germany potentially presented the Nazis with numerous threats.
In 1933, the Catholic Church had favorably viewed the Nazis as a barrier to the spread of communism from Russia. So in that year, Hitler and the Catholic Church signed an agreement that he would not interfere with the Catholic Church while the Catholic Church would not comment on politics — although Hitler began arresting Catholic priests in 1937. However although Pope Pius VI was filled “with burning anxiety” over what was going on in Germany, the Nazis never totally clamped down on the Catholics because the Catholic Church was (and is) a world-wide movement with much international support.
The Protestant Church was easier to deal with because it was a federation of several denominations: Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Reformed and United Territorial churches. In 1931, a subgroup known as “the German Christians” arose within Protestantism in Germany. This group was fanatically pro-Nazi. They wanted to abandon the Old Testament and they recast Jesus Christ as an Aryan, not a Jew. These German Christians emphasized the need to respect the secular authority of the state. They had the explicit goal of dominating the important 1932 election within the hierarchy of the Protestant federation. And the leader of the German Christians, Ludwig Muller, was Hitler’s personal adviser on religious matters. In 1932, this sub-group established a powerful foothold in the elections within the hierarchy of the Protestant federation. The German Christians pushed for a new Protestant constitution to create a centralized national church to replace the existing federation. Centralization would facilitate the co-joining of Protestantism with Nazism, the enforcement of conformity, and give Hitler someone in charge to whom he could give orders.
In 1933, the federation leaders agreed to draft a new constitution to establish a national church called the German Evangelical Church. Ludwig Muller was elected “Reichsbischof” (Imperial Bishop). With aggressive Nazi support, the German Christians easily won a majority of leadership positions in the national church — and all subsequent church elections during the Nazi reign.
In opposition to the German Christians, the “Confessing Church” was formed later in 1933. Approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors (not all of them Lutheran) broke off from the main religious body in protest. One of these pastors was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Confessing Church movement was led by Pastor Martin Niemoller. He was famous in Germany as he had been a World War One U-Boat captain. Therefore he was a potentially embarrassing foe to the Nazis. Thus, in practice, there were now two Protestant churches in Germany: one under state control and the Confessing Church, which the state did not recognize. The Confessing Church remained particularly active in protesting against euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews. Nazi pressure was gradually intensified, and increasingly the Confessing Church was forced underground. In spite of Pastor Niemoller’s hero status from World War One, not even he was safe from the Gestapo. In 1937, Pastor Niemoller and many other Confessing Church clergy were arrested by the Gestapo for opposing Hitler. Pastor Niemoller was sent to a concentration camp for 7 years, where he was kept in solitary confinement.
Astonishingly enough, in 1936, the Reich Church was created from the German Christian church. It did not have the Christian cross as its symbol but the swastika. The Bible was replaced by “Mein Kampf”, which was placed on the altar. By it was a sword. Only invited Nazis were allowed to give sermons in a Reich Church.
In 1938, following the annexation of Austria, Hitler was incredibly popular throughout Germany. Public figures were “outdoing each other in contorted calisthenics of sycophancy”. In ecclesiastical circles, Bishop Sasse of Thuringia was first in line, aching to say ‘thank you’ to his Fuhrer, and doing so by demanding that all of the pastors under him take a personal “oath of loyalty” to Hitler. In short order other bishops, afraid to be left out of the riot of gratitude, demanded the same from all of the pastors under them. On April 20 of that year, the head of the Reich church demanded that every single pastor in Germany take an oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler: In the recognition that only those may hold office in the church who are unswervingly loyal to the Fuhrer, the people and the Reich, it is hereby decreed: Anyone who is called to a spiritual office is to affirm his loyal duty with the following oath: “I swear that I will be faithful and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, that I will conscientiously observe the laws and carry out the duties of my office, so help me God” … Anyone who refuses to take the oath of allegiance is to be dismissed. (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.)
After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Confessing Church continued, although it was seriously handicapped by the conscription of clergy and laity. In 1948, the Confessing Church ceased to exist when the post-war Protestant bodies formed the reorganized Evangelical Church in Germany.
This is an ABBREVIATED version of the very long, complicated (huge) answer to the question: “Why weren’t all German Christians part of the Confessing Church, along with Bonhoeffer?” But there is a short answer. If the Christians of Germany had known their Bibles, they would have been more familiar with the Word of God than they were. They would have known that the Jews are the apple of God’s eye and that anti-Semitism is ultimately hatred of God Himself. So the lesson here is that we need to know what the Word of God says. God’s people know what God’s Word means. Then the question becomes, shall we believe what He says and act on what we say we believe?