Christianity and the Nazis

This post by Jim Walker originally appeared at NoBeliefs.com.

German Christians celebrating Luther-Day in Berlin in 1933. (Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-15234 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

Inevitably, whenever one questions the role of Christianity during WWII, Christians will quickly respond by providing examples of heroic Catholics or Protestants who saved lives, protested against Nazism, or had given their lives by dying in concentration camps. What appears most puzzling by these defenses comes from their complete lack of perspective of the history of their own faith-system. Of course there lived a few brave Christian men and women who opposed Nazism and performed courageous deeds. But the key word here, “few,” can hardly absolve the whole. One can say the same of the few heroic Nazis who protested against the atrocities committed by their own government. But can we prop up these few as a banner, while ignoring the majority of those who committed crimes to justify a belief-system regardless if it comes from a political ideology or a religion? If this served the case, then we could mine any intolerant system for its “few” noble members as justification for the system by calling it the True system, as do Christians who love to use the term True Christianity as if this had any definable meaning. Any honest reader should recognize that if this ploy cannot work for support of Nazism, Communism, Islam, (or any religion not your own) or any ideological belief-system, then neither can it work for Christianity.

As for the Church’s supposed role against Nazism, when the focus gets narrowed as to just what Church opposed Hitler, sadly, one can only point to a single minor opposing Church body: the Confessing Church. Although one should always fairly honor any heroic struggle against oppression of human freedom, the ethical dilemma faced by the Confessing Church did not exactly meet the demands for opposing anti-Semitism.

Hitler wanted to combine all the regional Protestant churches into a single and united Reich Church. Of course this meant government control of the Church and a minority of Lutheran Pastors foresaw the dangers. In 1933, a few Protestant Pastors, namely Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and others formed the “Pastors Emergency League” which later became known as “The Confessing Church” to oppose the state controlled Nazi Church.

It bears some importance to understand that Germany did not recognize the Confessing Church as an official Church. Not only the Nazis, but all other Protestant Churches condemned the Confessing Church. They thought of it as a minority opposition that held little power. The vast majority of German churches supported Hitler and his policies against the Jews. Moreover, they advocated composing an “Aryan Paragraph” in church synods that would prevent non-aryans from joining the Church, which of course included Jews.

In spite of the myth that has developed that the Confessing Church opposed Hitler for anti-Semitic reasons, the main reason for the opposition actually aimed to protect the power of Pastors to determine who should preach and who they can preach to. The Barmen Declaration of Faith (by Karl Barth, et al) became the principle statement of The Confessing Church. Not a single sentence in it opposes anti-Semitism. According to Professor John S. Conway: “The Confessing Church did not seek to espouse the cause of the Jews as a whole, nor to criticize the secular legislation directed against the German Jews and the Nazi racial philosophy.”

Basically, the Confessing Church wanted to save themselves from state control by forming what they considered themselves as the “True Church” (don’t all Christians think of themselves as belonging to the True Church?). They did not want government interference with Church self-regulation. This of course deserves plaudits as history has shown that state controlled religions have always ended in oppressing its people. The formation of the United States with its secular government aimed at just this kind of freedom of religion from the state. On this account, the Confessing Church deserves honorable mention. However, just what did they oppose about the Jewish question?

It turns out that the Pastors of the Confessing Church held concerns only for Jews who converted to Christianity. Of course they viewed Jews who converted to Christianity as Christian, not Jewish. This Christian centered view gave them the reason for their objection to the “Aryan Paragraph.” For Jews who did not convert, they held strong anti-Semitic feelings. Remember that these pastors lived as well read Lutherans; any reading of Martin Luther will reveal strong anti-Semetic feelings toward Jews who did not convert (see, On the Jews and their lies).

Although Martin Niemöller opposed the Nazi regime, he concurred with the Nazi view in one foundational respect: the Jews as eternally evil. In one of his sermons, he attacked the Nazis (without naming them) by likening them to the Jews! [Niemöller 1937] Pastor Bonhoeffer, according to his beliefs, saw the Nazi treatment against Jews as proof of God’s curse on Jews. Shortly after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer wrote to a theologian friend that regarded the Jews “the most sensible people have lost their heads and their entire Bible.” [Goldhagen, 1996, p.109] To Bonhoeffer’s credit, he did proclaim a credo of non-violence, but this did not come from Christian theology. Rather he based his non-violent stand from Mahatma Gandhi and the humanistic movement (he claimed to be a disciple of Gandhi). His neo-orthodox view opposed most every cardinal doctrine of Christian faith to a point that some considered him an atheist. Indeed he claimed it impossible to know the objective truth about Christ’s real nature and even claimed that “God was dead” (Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Macmillan Co., 1972, pp. 9-12, 378; Ethics, pp. 38, 186; No Rusty Swords, pp. 44-45). Karl Barth, considered a great theologian, and an opponent of the Nazis, and to his credit, did oppose the persecution of Jews, had nevertheless, made us quite clear of his own anti-Semitism. In his Advent sermon of 1933, he denounced the Jews, Luther style, as “an obstinate and evil people.” In a July 1944 Lecture in Zurich, Barth said, “We do not like the Jews as a rule, it is therefore not easy for us to apply to them as well the general love for humankind…”

Richard Steigmann-Gall’s research found that, “many confessional Lutherans who would later join the Confessing Church received the Nazi movement warmly.” Otto Dibelius, General Superintendent of the Kurmark, and one of the most conservative in the Confessing Church, certified the Nazi movement as Christian: “The National Socialists, as the strongest party of the right, have shown both a firm, positive relationship to Christianity…. We may expect that they will remain true to their principles in the new Reichstag.” After the Nazi Seizure of Power, Dibelius continued to view Nazism this way, even to the point of excusing Nazi brutality [Steigmann-Gall]. At a 1933 service in Berlin’s Nikolaikirche for the new Reichstag, Dibelius announced: “We have learned from Martin Luther that the church cannot get in the way of state power when it does what it is called to do. Not even when [the state] becomes hard and ruthless…. When the state carries out its office against those who destroy the foundations of state order, above all against those who destroy honor with vituperative and cruel words that scorn faith and vilify death for the Fatherland, then [the state] is ruling in God’s name!” [Steigmann-Gall].

Unfortunately, several of the member of the Confessing Church lost their lives in opposing Hitler. Bonhoeffer, for example, joined with several high ranking Nazi officers in a plan to assassinate Hitler. He also contacted foreigners to gain support for a call to resistance. The Nazi’s sentenced him for his opposition to Hitler and his policies (not because of his Christianity as some believers want us to believe). He died in the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945.

Nevertheless, even after the war, members of the Confessing Church admitted their guilt. For example, Gerhard Kittle, a world-renowned scholar of the New Testament confessed his political guilt as he insisted that a “Christian anti-Judaism” which he found in the New Testament and in the tradition of the Christian church determined his attitude toward the Jewish question during the Third Reich.[Wollenberg, p. 76] On March 1946, in a lecture in Zurich, Martin Niemöller declared: “Christianity in Germany bears a greater responsibility before God than the National Socialists, the SS and the Gestapo.” [Goldhagen, p.114]

Considering that the Confessing Church with its few members, represents the most active religious protest against Nazism in Germany, it projects a poor commentary on the state of Christiandom as a whole, even if the other churches had remained passive. Unfortunately most Christian churches in Germany took an active role, not only by accepting Nazism, but to support and strengthen it.

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1 COMMENT

  1. The more troubling conclusion (for Christians, anyway) is that whether and what one believes or doesn't believe is no guide for salvation and personal redemption. One can be good without faith, and one can be evil while passing every question and test of orthodoxy. Given this: what is the Church good for?

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