Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The German Church Under Nazism

After my last post concerning the movie Valkyrie, I looked for some information about Christianity under Adolph Hitler's rule. Here is a quote from Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity (pages 576-578):

"Conservative churchmen felt that if Nazism were treated with understanding, it would grow out of its faults (such as racialism) and bring about national regeneration. Many Protestants welcomed Hitler's overthrow of democracy in 1933 as a first step toward replacing the 'Marxist' republic with 'Christian' rulers. Although some of the Catholic hierarchy were uneasy about National Socialism, most of them shared the same outlook as the Protestants...

"A movement swept the Protestant church in 1933 calling for the unification and 'nationalization' of the twenty-eight provincial churches (Landeskirchen) with a single 'Reich-bishop' at its head. This seemed in line with Hitler's policy of bringing all groups under the control of the Fuhrer and the state. The 'German Christians' secured the election of Ludwig Muller, a fervent Nazi. They also restructured the church along Nazi lines, by introducing the Fuhrer principle into church government and adopting the 'Aryan paragraph' which provided for dismissal of all people of Jewish origin from church staffs...

"The increasing encroachment of the Nazi state on religious matters alarmed many Protestants and Catholics...In September 1933 Dr. Martin Niemoller formed a Pastor's Emergency League to combat 'German Christian' ideas...Its theological basis was spelled out in the Barmen Declaration of May 1934. Largely written by Karl Barth, the Declaration called the German church back to the central truths of Christianity and rejected the totalitarian claims of the state in religious and political matters.

"The Barmen Declaration was not intended as a political protest and the Confessing Church did not plan to spearhead resistance to Nazism. It was mainly directed against the heretical distortions of the 'German Christians,' and in fact the leaders repeatedly affirmed their loyalty to the state and congratulated Hitler on his political moves. Because Lutherans traditionally supported the ruling power, the Confessing Church decided not to set itself up as a rival free church, but simply as a body to defend the orthodox Christian faith against innovations.

"Harassed by the Gestapo and repudiated by most Protestant leaders, the Confessing Church led a perilous existence. Its very presence was an embarrassment to the Nazis and its witness to Christ's Lordship over the world implicitly challenged Hitler's totalitarianism. A few of its members, such as Bonhoeffer, were conscious of their political responsibility and reluctantly became involved in the anti-Hitler resistance. But the conservatism and nationalism of most people deterred them from standing up publicly for democracy and individual rights.

"After the war, in October 1945, Niemoller and the surviving leaders of the Confessing Church poignantly declared their guilt for failing to speak out against the Nazi regime, especially in its early stages."


Tim Archer said...

I may be overly harsh or overly pessimistic, but I see little hope for most Christian churches taking a true critical look at their own governments. This is especially true where military action is involved. It's too easy to confuse the nation's well being with the church's well being (or should I say the Kingdom's well being).

I posted on my blog a few months ago about the change in how the world viewed the practice of bombing civilians. What was considered a moral outrage during the Spanish Civil War became accepted practice during WWII and a "wonderful thing" when practiced against Nagasaki and Hiroshima. How many churches spoke out about this change, even to say, "Here's why Guernica was wrong and Hiroshima was right"?

How did the Christians in Germany come to accept Nazism? The same way Christians in militarized societies have always accepted the actions of their governments.

Grace and peace,
Tim Archer

Terry said...

Thanks for the comment, Tim. You always give your readers something good to think about. I appreciate it!