The Confessing Church in Germany 1933-45

(This essay was written for History 285.6, University of Saskatchewan, 8 April 1999)

The role of the Christian churches in Germany from 1933 to 1945 raises many troubling questions about the perceived lack of action on moral issues.  Many people wonder if Nazi atrocities might have been reduced or prevented if the Churches had done more to protest what was going on.  This essay will look at the role of the Confessing Church during the Nazi regime to see what role it played.  By studying the events of this time period that involved the Confessing Church, it can be shown that the Confessing Church did resist the Nazi government efforts to subvert it and, by preserving the truth of Christianity, prevented the total apostasy of the German Evangelical Church.

The history of the structure of the German Christian churches goes back to the sixteenth century.  After the Peace of Westphalia, which was based upon the Peace of Augsburg, the prince of each land determined the religion of his land, either Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed.  Thus, of the approximately three hundreds lands, or principalities, in what is now Germany, in those that became Protestant there arose hundreds of Land Churches, either Lutheran or Reformed.  In these Protestant areas, the local prince governed both the church and the state.  In 1815,  when Napoleon consolidated Germany into thirty-nine states, the amalgamated states often ended up with both a Lutheran and Reformed Land Church as well as a Roman Catholic church presence.[1] Frederick William III, the King of Prussia (1797-1840), who was Reformed, wanted to celebrate communion with his Lutheran wife.  He declared on September 27, 1817, that the two churches were essentially one and thus provided the impetus for a union movement which eventually resulted in the formation of the United church.  However, the merger was not complete for, in the years after 1830, several Lutheran churches refused to join the union and formed Free Lutheran churches.[2] The losses and trauma of the First World War caused some reorganisation among the Land Churches which left only twenty-eight Land Churches in the German Republic in 1919.[3]

Prior to 1918, the Protestant churches in Germany were quasi-government agencies which required the approval of the prince of the realm to make their decisions binding.  With the November 1918 revolution in Germany, during which the German princes abdicated, the Protestant churches were cut off from their leaders and their legal status was put in limbo.  However, that was rectified with the Weimar Constitution of 1919 which recognised the legal status and rights of all the churches.[4] Church unity was strengthened among the Protestants through the formation of a confederation of Land Churches called the German Evangelical Church Confederation in 1922.[5] In contrast to the Protestant churches, the Catholic churches continued their episcopal hierarchy throughout and they were not disrupted by the November 1918 revolution like the Protestant churches were.[6]

Though the structure of government changed dramatically after World War One, there were still ties between church and state in Germany.  The Land Churches and the Roman Catholic churches received state subsidies from the state treasury, in addition to the direct gifts and endowments that they received.  Also, the Roman Catholic and Land churches, under the supervision of the state, levied church taxes which were collected by the state for the churches.  If one withdrew from a Land  church, or the Roman Catholic church, they no longer had to pay church taxes.[7]

Christians were an overwhelming majority of the German population prior to the war.  In the census of 1910, there were 39,991,421 members of Land churches (also known as Evangelicals), 23,821,453 Roman Catholics, 283,946 of other Christian denominations, 615,021 Jews, and 214,152 of other or no religious persuasion.[8]

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria and fought in the German Army with distinction during World War One.  Disillusioned and bitter over the results of the war, he decided to go into politics and, in 1920, formed his own party, the National Socialist German Workers Party, commonly known as the Nazi Party.  In 1923, he and some co-conspirators attempted to stage a coup in the failed “beer hall putsch.”[9] During the nine months Hitler spent in jail for this offence, he wrote Mein Kampf which outlined his personal philosophy and his plan for the future glory of Germany.

Upon being pardoned and released from jail, Hitler continued his political activity, using democracy as the means to his ends.  He presented a finely tuned program of leadership, nationalism and racialism which was precisely attuned to the hopes of the German people.[10] The National Socialist Party rose in popularity until Hitler was finally appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg on January 30, 1933.[11]

Hitler was born and raised as a Roman Catholic but he later developed a non-Christian philosophy crudely based upon Nietzche, Darwin and Gobineau and this 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.  The supreme race is the Aryan race which is destined to rule over all the other races, for the only purpose of the other races is to serve the Aryans.  Hitler’s ideas were based upon a pseudo-science for there is no such substance in the blood.[12] 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, and for being behind the two forces that most threatened Germany:  international Bolshevism and international capitalism.  Hitler believed that Germany needed to be changed into a powerful military state.  Individualism, democracy and liberalism were not compatible with this new state.  Once the state was militarised, the armed forces would move to the east to create living space (Lebensraum) for the German people.[13]

Nazism was readily accepted, but not because of Hitler’s abilities as a philosopher, but because it filled a void left in the hearts of Germans after World War One.  As J. S. Conway states,

Nazism filled a vacuum in the lives of countless Germans, by offering, in emotional and semi-religious language, both a dynamic political creed and a plausible explanation of Germany’s post-war predicament.  National Socialism was to become far more than an alternative political party offering a programme suited to the times:  it was, in Hitler’s own words, ‘a form of conversion, a new faith.’[14]

Many Germans shared with Hitler the bitterness and resentment that resulted from World War One and therefore they were very receptive to his ideas.[15]

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 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.[16]

Hitler portrayed himself as a religious supporter, but one who was above the fray of denominational squabbles.  He never officially renounced his Catholicism and was not excommunicated until his death.  He paid church taxes and he listed himself as a Catholic in the party handbook right to the end.  Other than Judaism, Hitler wrote favourably of religion in Mein Kampf where he mentioned it.[17] Publicly, he expressed his support of Christianity,[18] and he never revealed his anti-church attitudes.[19] Point Twenty-four of the Twenty-five Point National Socialist Party Program called for the freedom of all religious confessions.[20] However, privately, Hitler revealed his true anti-Christian sentiments.  In responding to the anti-Christian campaign of one of his co-conspirators in the 1923 coup attempt, General Erich Ludendorff, Hitler said,  “I entirely agree with His Excellency, 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 just as the Protestants of Prussia.  The rest can come later.”[21] 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.[22]

However, even at this early point, there was a realisation among some churchmen of the incompatibility of Nazi ideals and Christianity.  In some areas of Germany, Nazis were forbidden from participating in the sacraments or church ceremonies such as funerals.  Cardinal Bertram, primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, warned in a sermon in 1931 of the dangers of false prophets who preach a new gospel of nationalism and racial superiority and how this would only lead to a hatred of the Christian law and gospel.[23] Before they even came to power, certain Nazi groups like the SA (Storm Troops – Sturm Abteilung) were encouraging their members to attend church services in uniform.  On November 10, 1931, the Prussian Land church forbade anyone from attending services in uniform.[24]

The anti-church bias of the Nazi government was never made public either.  There was not unanimity regarding how to deal with the churches within the government either.  Some, such as Frick, Goring and  Kerrl, were moderates who wanted to maintain some sort of bridge with Christianity.  Others, such as Himmler, Heydrich, and Bormann, were rabid anti-clerics who wanted to unleash a violent campaign against the church to destroy it.[25] This conflict within the government resulted in an uneven and varying program against the churches.  However, after about 1937 when the programs of the moderates seemed doomed to failure, Hitler gave the extremists a freer rein against the church.

In spite of its unevenness, there was a definite three-pronged attack upon the churches.  The government sought to control the churches, to weaken the churches and to defeat the churches in a battle of ideologies.  The first prong of the attack began even before the National Socialists came to power on January 30, 1933.  On May 23, 1932, the Nationals Socialists formed the German Christian Faith Movement so that it could run pro-Nazi candidates in the upcoming church elections in November 1932.  In that election, the “German Christians” won one third of the seats, but more importantly, they infiltrated all of the Land Churches.[26] After January 1933, there was a movement to unite all of the twenty-eight Land churches into one united Reich church with one Reich Bishop as its leader.  Hitler was agreeable to such a proposal for he sought to control the institution through the Reich Bishop.  As the movement proceeded, Hitler chose Ludwig Müller as his candidate of choice for the position of Reich Bishop.  Müller was a fervent Nazi who had already agreed to co-operate fully with the state.  In elections held on May 27, Müller was defeated for the position of Reich Bishop by Friedrich von Bodelschwingh.  The “German Christians” appealed to the Prussian Minister of Education, Rust, and his deputy and state secretary, Wilhelm Stuckart, for help.  When the President of the Prussian Church Council resigned at the end of June, Rust announced that the Prussian state government would be running the Prussian church.  Rust appointed as Commissar for the Evangelical Church of Prussia Dr. August Jäger, a strong Nazi who was also Stuckart’s former law professor.  Jäger filled the Prussian church with Nazis and “German Christian” administrators and Bodelschwingh resigned, in despair, as Reich Bishop elect.  Müller declared that he was Reich Bishop elect and, in spite of much protest, with the help of the SA, he was installed in the Prussian church.  He was ordered to complete a new constitution for the new Reich Church as soon as possible.  This he did by July 12 and on July 14, 1933, a Cabinet meeting approved the new constitution of the Reich Church.[27] Hitler announced that elections to fill the positions of leadership for the new church would be held on July 23, that is, in nine days time.[28] The Nazi party threw its full weight behind the “German Christians.”  The leader of the German Christian Faith Movement, Hossenfelder, wrote a letter to all local Nazi party leaders encouraging them to urge their people to support the “Germans Christians.”  Party members were urged to register on parish voting lists and to vote.  The Berlin Gestapo raided the office of the “Church and Gospel” party and confiscated 620,000 pieces of election material.[29] In an election which was never in doubt, the “German Christians” won a large majority in almost all of Germany.[30] These “German Christians” then confirmed Müller’s election as Reich Bishop with a majority vote at a National Synod in Wittenberg on September 27, 1933.[31]

The “German Christians” may have been German, but they certainly were not Christian.  They were appointed to church positions because they supported the Nazis, and while in those positions they abandoned any Christian principles that they had for Nazi ones.  They supported racial purity, bad treatment of the Jews, and espoused a commitment to a “positive Christianity” which was in line with German nationalism.[32] Because of their anti-Semitism, they would call for the deletion of Old Testament references from religious instruction and present Jesus as a Germanic hero, an Aryan and not a Jew.[33] The “German Christians” were working toward a synthesis of Christianity and Nazi ideals.[34] With the dichotomy of these two ideologies, it would be impossible to achieve a synthesis that would be orthodox Christianity.  The “German Christians’ were apostate and their growing presence in the Evangelical Church threatened the loss of the entire church.

Reaction against the Nazi efforts to control the church were not long in coming.  On September 4, 1933, at a General Synod, the Prussian Land Church elected Müller as Bishop for Prussia, instituted the Aryan paragraph,[35] and declared no further need for any further synods.  Upset by events in the Prussian Synod, Dr. Martin Niemöller, the pastor of Dahlem Church in Berlin, issued a circular letter on September 21, 1933, to all Evangelical pastors in Germany calling for other pastors to commit themselves to follow only the Confessions of the Reformation and the Holy Scriptures and join him in a Pastor’s Emergency League.  Within one week, 2000 pastors offered their support.  Müller, realising that this opposition must be contained, dropped the Aryan paragraph from the agenda of the National Synod in Wittenberg on September 27.[36]

Having achieved his purposes, Hitler now withdrew his support of the “German Christians.”  The “German Christians” wanted to synthesise Nazi and Christian ideals.  Hitler would have none of this for he did not want to support, in any way, anything that could possibly rival pure Nazi ideology.  Upset over the withdrawal of support, the “German Christians,” under the leadership of layman Dr. Reinhold Krause, decided to hold a mass rally that would initiate a propaganda campaign that would overwhelm their opponents and show the Nazi party how loyal and necessary they were.[37] 20,000 men and women, clergy and lay gathered at the Berlin Sports Palace on November 13, 1933 and passed a resolution calling for, among other things, immediate implementation of the Aryan paragraph, expulsion of any clergy who resisted the progress of the church along Nazi lines, and the scrapping of any non-German elements in the church, such as in the creeds or services, but especially in the Old Testament.  There was only one opposing vote.[38] The rally shocked many pastors out of their complacency and now thousands joined the Pastors’ Emergency League. [39] By the beginning of 1934, there were 7,000 members in the League.[40] However, most still kept their loyalty with the government.[41]

Müller was caught between the increasing attacks of his opponents and the disappearing support of the Nazi government.  He tried to shore up his support in the government by turning the Evangelical Youth programme over to the Nazis to incorporate into the Hitler Youth program on December 19, 1933.[42] However, the government was rapidly losing confidence in him.  The Pastors’ Emergency League lobbied hard to get Müller deposed because of his spiritual unfitness to hold the office.  On January 25, 1934, Hitler agreed to meet with twelve prominent leaders of the Evangelical Church.  At the beginning of the meeting, Goering read the transcript of a wiretapped telephone conversation between Niemöller, who was present at the meeting, and an associate that took place that very morning.  During the conversation there was an unguarded comment regarding Hitler and Hindenberg.  Hitler accused Niemöller of treachery and the other eleven leaders quickly disassociated themselves from Niemöller and pledged their loyalty to Müller.  Niemöller’s home was searched that evening and a bomb exploded in the hallway of his home a few days later.  Niemöller was given a leave of absence on January 27 and retired without leave on February 10.[43] Müller quickly seized the opportunity to reassert his authority.  He coerced all the evangelical bishops into agreeing to support him as leader of the evangelical church and to withdraw their support of the Pastors’ Emergency League.  Following this, a large number of pastors were disciplined through suspensions, dismissals or retirements.[44]

In March and April of 1934, Müller began to carry out plans to dissolve the twenty-eight Land church administrations and centralise all authority in the office of the Reich Bishop.  Those Land Churches that were administered by “German Christians” immediately turned their authority over to Müller, but others refused. These were dissolved, often with police force, and more co-operative synods were set up in their place.  In spite of this, there was still resistance.  Several churches broke away and formed free synods while, in other cases, church leaders refused to hand over authority to Müller.  In response, Müller decided to make an example of Bishop Wurm, the Bishop of Württemberg.  On April 17, he went to Württemberg to seize control of the provincial synod, but Bishop Wurm, with public support behind him, refused.  On April 22, a conference of church representatives from all over Germany met at Bishop Wurm’s Cathedral church and declared itself to be the “constitutional Evangelical Church of Germany.”[45] The Confessing Church had begun.

At a National Synod on May 30, 1934, at Barmen, and a working session the day before, the framework for the Confessing Church was developed.  It was a church within a church, but composed only of those members who stood firm upon the basic confessions of the Christian church.[46] The National Synod developed what became known as the Barmen Declaration which rejected the errors of the German Christians and called all Christians back to the foundational truths of Christianity.[47] The Gestapo seized copies of the Declaration and threatened anyone possessing a copy with detainment in a concentration camp.[48] Müller and the Nazis were outraged and alarmed over the formation of a parallel church authority.  But because of concern for Germany’s reputation abroad, Hitler did not allow wholesale persecution of the Confessing Church at this time.[49]

After Hitler added, upon the death of Hindenberg on August 2, 1534, the office of president to his office of chancellor, Müller restarted his campaign to centralise authority in the Reich Church.  At a national synod on August 9, previous illegal actions against resisting synods was declared legal, and pastors were required to swear oaths of allegiance to Hitler, just as the civil servants were required to do.  Also, Jäger, who was doing the legal work for this program, promised not to make any moves against the resisting Land Churches of Hanover, Bavaria or Württemberg.  The Confessing Church immediately denied the authority of the National Synod and instructed pastors to refuse the vows for political vows should never supersede ordination vows.  Jäger quickly broke his promises and moved against the Bavarian and Württemberg churches on October 6 to 11.  Their bishops, Bishop Meiser and Bishop Wurm, respectively, were placed under house arrest and dismissed from their posts.  There were local demonstrations of support for the bishops and international expressions of deep concern over the events.  Realising that Jäger’s actions were more of a liability than a help, on October 26, 1934, Hitler arranged for the resignation of Jäger and the reinstatement of the two bishops.[50] Müller stayed on as Reich Bishop but he was powerless and ineffective from this time forward.[51] Hitler abandoned Jäger and Müller not because of a change in heart, but because their actions became politically unacceptable.[52]

The Confessing Church undertook a program of active resistance against the apostasy of the Nazis.  For example, when, in March of 1935, Rosenberg published a strong anti-church attack in the pamphlet An die Dunkelmänner unserer Zeit, the Confessing Church quickly condemned it as being “anti-Christ” in a statement to be read from all Confessing Church pulpits on March 17.  On March 16, the political police warned all pastors that the reading of the statement was prohibited.  The order was widely defied and, in Prussia alone, 500 pastors were arrested.  Protests led to more than 200 more arrests.  Bishop Marahrens of Hanover intervened and the Minister of the Interior released all of the detainees except for seven.  Such government actions tended to strengthen the Confessing Church.[53]

Hitler gave up any hope of Müller’s possible effectiveness and on July 16, 1935, he set up the Ministry of Church Affairs under the leadership of Hanns Kerrl.  Kerrl’s goal was not to establish a state church but to end the division and fighting in the Evangelical Church and co-ordinate its activities with those of the state and to use all the means at his disposal to do this.[54] It was another attempt to control the churches, but Kerrl seemed so genuine in his manner that he was able to convince many in the Confessing Church that Niemöller, who protested the initiation of such a ministry, was unreasonable in his resistance.  This eventually led to a split in the Confessing Church in November 1935 as the Bishops of Hanover, Württemberg and Bavaria disagreed with Niemöller and agreed to work with the new ministry.[55]

The effective life of the Ministry was destined to be short-lived.  Right from the start, Kerrl never had the support in the Nazi Party or the government necessary to achieve his goals.  While Kerrl was wanted to achieve his goals through some sort of approachment, Rosenberg, Himmler and Bormann were just as determined to continue their campaigns against the churches with the goal of eliminating them.[56] Because Kerrl failed to bring the churches into useful voluntary subservience within two years, as he had promised, Himmler, Heydrich and the Gestapo were allowed to make a frontal attack against the churches.  In June 1937, one of the leaders of the Confessing Church, Otto Debelius, was put on trial for writing an open letter in February 1937 to Kerrl, criticising him for encroaching on church autonomy.  On July 1, 1937, Niemöller was taken into custody for reading aloud the names of people who had left the church.  This had been prohibited by Kerrl on March 20, 1937.  By November 1937, more than 700 pastors had been arrested, including Pastor Paul Schneider.  He refused to leave his parish when ordered to do so by the Gestapo.  He was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in November 1937 and died there 18 months later, the first Evangelical pastor to die because of Nazi persecution.[57]

Dibelius was acquitted by the judge in his trial and, as a result, extra effort was invested by the government in trying to obtain a conviction in the Martin Niemöller case.  However, on March 2, 1938, the judges declared that Niemöller was not guilty of the major charges against him and that the time he had spent in jail already paid the penalty for his conviction on the minor counts.  On Hitler’s personal orders,  Niemöller was re-arrested and detained, first at Sachsenhausen and then at Dachau where he remained until the end of the war.  Niemöller’s second imprisonment was a flagrant violation of the law and he became a symbol of the church’s martyrdom.[58] The Confessing Church responded by organising special liturgical services of intercession for those such as Dr. Niemöller who were imprisoned.[59]

Because of the crisis in the Sudeten in 1938, the Confessing Church developed a special liturgy which described war as a punishment and asked forgiveness of God for the sins of his people.  This liturgy was to be celebrated on September 30, 1938, but when the Munich Conference was announced on September 28, it was called off.  However, Himmler obtained a copy and the Nazis denounced it as treasonous and treacherous.  To re-assert his authority, Kerrl called a meeting of the Lutheran bishops and convinced them to disassociate themselves from the Confessing Church.  Under constant attack from nearly all sides, the members of the Confessing Church grew weary and disillusioned.[60]

With the beginning of the Second World War,  Hitler called a halt to government efforts to increase control over the churches.  The halt was only a temporary postponement, for the final assault against the churches would be taken up after the war.  It was not peaceful for the churches, however, for the harassment continued just as before.[61] Church bells were seized and melted down, more Church publishing houses were closed down, chaplains were restricted in the army and the navy and forbidden in the air force, and in August 1940, funeral arrangements for fallen soldiers were taken from the home churches and put under the jurisdiction of the local party leaders.  In November 1940, seminary students or ordinands of the illegal Confessing Church seminaries were declared “unemployed” and forced into “useful” work.  Churches were no longer allowed to refuse burial in their cemeteries to non-believers, refuse to ring the one remaining church bell for the funeral of one who had left the church, or charge non-believers a different rate than believers.  Heydrich maintained that under no circumstances were the churches to regain their former power.[62]

At the beginning of World War Two, in order to reduce expenditures on those that it considered worthless, the government began carrying out Hitler’s euthanasia plan.  Under this plan, people who had mental handicaps or illness, or tuberculosis were transported from their original institutional homes to new facilities where they were euthanised within days.   The bodies were quickly cremated and the relatives were told that the patient died a natural death.  However, people became suspicious and rumours began to leak out.  Bishop Wurm gathered enough information to write a letter to the Minister of the Interior on July 19, 1940.  When no reply was received he wrote a second widely publicised letter on September 5, 1940, for by that time residents of senior citizens’ homes were also being taken.  Both Catholic and Protestant churchmen spoke out against the program.  The public outcry was so great that on August 24, 1941, after approximately 100,000 people had been killed, Hitler cancelled the program.  However, the practice did continue at a reduced level.  For example, children with birth defects were euthanised right up to the end of the war.  Also, the euthanasia program provided useful information to the Nazis regarding the most efficient and economic ways to kill and dispose of the unwanted, information that would be put to use on a much larger scale against Jews, gypsies and concentration camp inmates.[63]

It was obvious that there were atrocities being committed against the Jews.  The government’s anti-Semitism was blatant and the aftermath of “Crystal Night” of November 1938, when 20,000 Jews where arrested and 177 Jewish synagogues were burned, made their intentions clear.  Nearly all churchmen failed to protest at that time.[64] Rumours of atrocities against the Jews began to spread especially after the Jewish population of Stettin disappeared during the winter of 1940.  In September 1941, every Jew over the age of six had to wear a yellow star and by October, the forcible transportation of large numbers of Jews to unknown locations in the East began.  The churches knew that something terribly wrong was happening.  In 1943, the Confessing Church issued an anonymous statement condemning the attacks on the Jews.  Bishop Wurm of Württemberg, who received a copy of the letter, wrote a letter of his own to the Church Ministry protesting the treatment of the Jews in March 1943.  He followed this up by additional letters in July and December 1943.  In October of 1943, the Prussian Synod of the Confessing Church condemned the atrocities against the Jews as a violation of the Fifth Commandment.  There were some small efforts to save the Jews, but any large scale organised attempt was impossible.[65]

The Confessing Church was a spiritual and ecclesiastical movement and not a political one.  For that reason, it did not actively resist the government on the political level.  But there were churchmen involved in the political resistance movement and many paid for their involvement with their lives.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the most notable among the Protestant martyrs in the German resistance.  Though the Confessing Church was not actively involved in the resistance, there was contact between the two groups.  For example, Bishop Wurm fully expected to be arrested for his peripheral involvement with some of these activists, but he never was.[66]

Finally, on May 8, 1945, the World War on the European Theatre ended and the rebuilding process could begin.  After the war, it was both necessary and logical to restore the old church governments.  The “German Christians” who previously held the posts were tainted and they all resigned without question.  It was the Confessing Church who supplied the men who were able to fill those posts.

Much has been written about the failure of the Christian churches to more actively protest the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  Usually, the charge is that the church failed to take an ethical stance against the Nazi persecution of the Jews, or against Nazi aggression against the Sudetenland, or in Poland, or France, or Denmark, et cetera.  But much of the debate really centres around what the responsibilities of the Christian Church are.  Those who value ethics over doctrine tend to say that the church could have done more.  That is not contested.  Yet, the Christian churches of Germany did more in terms of protest and resistance than any other group in Germany.  It was the only group in German society that the Nazis were not able to completely overwhelm and its protests were made in spite of a determined government effort to subvert it, control it, weaken it and, ultimately, destroy it.[67]

Complicating the role of the churches was the fact that things did not appear to be so black and white in the German society of the 1930’s as they seem to us in the post-war period.  Most of the German people believed that Nazism and Christianity were compatible and thought that Hitler was really a pious man.  He encouraged that appearance and often had his picture taken while attending services.[68] The Nazis enjoyed overwhelming popular support and controlled the media and publishing outlets.  They had spies in services, in classes and in the confessionals.  Their control was vast and their threat was real.[69]

It is important to remember that Christianity has a dual responsibility.  Besides emphasising ethical behaviour, the Christian church must remain true to the Scriptures.  If it does not, it ceases to be a Christian church.  It is not just an institution that is supposed to uphold morality, it has a obligation to speak the spiritual truth.  Before 1943, the church was constantly under attack and became weakened and marginalised.  It took nearly all the energy of the faithful remnant just to remain true to the Scriptures and the Confessions.  But they did protest in the ways and means available to them, through the pulpit and the liturgies.  It was all they could do at the time.  The Nazis covered their pre-war atrocities with secrecy and lies and their war-time actions on the basis of war-time urgency.  The euthanasia issue gave the churches the opportunity to expose the Nazi regime for what it was and allowed them to recover the respect and the attention of the people in spite of the Nazi propaganda machine.  This allowed them to more openly press other issues as well.

Did the Christian church fail to speak up when it should of?  Yes, it did.  Did the Christian church fail to act when it should have?  Yes, it did.  But it did speak up belatedly, it did act belatedly, and it did resist, though, belatedly.  Perhaps more importantly though, a portion of the Christian church of Germany did respond promptly and forcefully, at great risk and at a great cost, and even though it was weak and under attack, to defend its definitive concern.  The Confessing Church preserved the Christian Gospel and prevented the total apostasy of the German Evangelical Church.  For that it deserves our gratitude.

As one who should know, Albert Einstein said,

Having always been an ardent partisan of freedom, I turned to the Universities, as soon as the revolution broke out in Germany, to find the Universities took refuge in silence.  I then turned to the editors of powerful newspapers, who, but lately in flowing articles, had claimed to be the faithful champions of liberty.  These men, as well as the Universities, were reduced to silence in a few weeks.  I then addressed myself to the authors individually, to those who passed themselves off as the intellectual guides of Germany, and among whom many had frequently discussed the question of freedom and its place in modern life.  They are in their turn very dumb.  Only the Church opposed the fight which Hitler was waging against liberty.  Till then I had no interest in the Church, but now I feel great admiration and am truly attracted to the Church which had the persistent courage to fight for spiritual truth and moral freedom.  I feel obliged to confess that I now admire what I used to consider of little value.[70]

Appendix A

The Aryan paragraph:

He who is not of Aryan descent or who is married to a person not of Aryan descent may not be called as a clergyman or official of the general church government.  Clergymen or officials of Aryan descent who marry persons of non-Aryan descent are to be discharged.  The determination as to who is to be regarded as a person of non-Aryan descent is made according to the provisions of the law of the Riech.[71]


Cochrane, Arthur C.  The Church’s Confession under Hitler.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1962.

Conway, J. S.  The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45.  Toronto:  Ryerson Press, 1968.

Helmreich, Ernst Christian.  The German Churches under Hitler:  Background,  Struggle, and Epilogue.  Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1979.

Livingston, E. A., editor.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Third edition.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[1]Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler:  Background,  Struggle, and Epilogue, (Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. 23.

[2] Helmreich, pp. 24-28.

[3] Helmreich, p. 66.

[4] Helmreich, pp. 61-63.

[5] Helmreich, pp. 70-71.

[6] Helmreich, p. 95

[7] Helmreich, p. 37.

[8] Helmreich, p. 36.

[9] Arthur C.  Cochrane, The Church’s Confession under Hitler, (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1962), p. 24.

[10] J. S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45, (Toronto:  Ryerson Press, 1968), p. 4.

[11] Conway, p. 1.

[12] Cochrane, pp. 21-22.

[13] Cochrane, pp. 22-23.

[14] Conway, p. 2.

[15] Conway, pp. 1-2.

[16] Cochrane, p. 22.

[17] Helmreich, p. 123.  cf. Conway, p. 14.

[18] Helmreich, pp. 128-129.

[19] Helmreich, p. 309.

[20] Helmreich, p. 123.

[21] Conway, pp. 4-5. cf. Conway, 15.

[22] Conway, pp. 14-15.

[23] Conway, pp. 6-7.

[24] Helmreich. pp. 126-127.

[25] Conway, pp. 168-170, 188-189, 217-219.

[26] Helmreich, pp. 126-127.

[27] Conway, pp. 34-40.

[28] Conway, p. 41.

[29] Conway, p. 43.

[30] Conway, p. 44.

[31] Conway, p. 48.

[32] Conway, pp. 46-48.

[33] Conway, pp. 184-185.

[34] Conway, p. 56.

[35] For a text of the Aryan paragraph, see Appendix A.

[36] Conway, pp. 48-49.

[37] Conway, pp. 50-51.

[38] Conway, p. 52.

[39] Conway, p. 52.

[40] Conway, pp. 71-72.

[41] Conway, p. 52.

[42] Conway, p. 57.

[43] Conway, pp. 72-74, and Cochrane, pp. 130-132.

[44] Conway, pp. 74-75.

[45] Conway, p. 82.

[46] Helmreich, pp. 161-163.

[47] Conway, pp. 83-84.

[48] Conway, pp. 87-89.

[49] Conway, p. 83.

[50] Conway, pp. 97-101, and Helmreich, pp. 171-172.

[51] Helmreich, p. 175.

[52] Conway, p. 101.

[53] Conway, pp. 121-122.

[54] Conway, pp. 128-131.

[55] Conway, pp. 136-137.

[56] Conway, p. 132.

[57] Conway, pp. 202-209.

[58] Conway, pp. 212-213.

[59] Conway, p. 211.

[60] Conway, pp. 220-223.

[61] Helmreich, p. 303.

[62] Conway, pp. 236-239.

[63] Helmreich, pp. 310-315, and Conway, pp. 267-272.

[64] Conway, p. 223.

[65] Conway, pp. 262-267.

[66] Helmreich, pp. 345-346.

[67] Cochrane, p. 40.

[68] Conway, p. 14.

[69] Conway, pp. 171-173.

[70] Helmreich, p. 345.

[71] Helmreich, p. 144.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I have enjoyed reading it and it adds to information I have gathered and written about over the years. Have you read the new biography of Bonhoeffer by Metaxas? Also one of the books you have used is a favorite of mine, The church’s Confession under Hitler. It was very useful when battling an attempt to place the belhar confession in our (the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)) Book of Confessions. That particular document was helpful to South Africa but was going to be used to insist on unity around the ordination of LGBT persons. I did a series on my blog about the nature of a Confession using that book. Anyway, I just discovered your blog and thank you for the way you lift up Christ.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Viola. I have not yet read the Metaxas biography of Bonhoeffer but I hope to in the future. A few summers ago I read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer and it made a deep impression upon me. God’s peace, James


  2. Hi James,

    Thanks for this post. I’m currently writing a paper to conclude my BA in History regarding the church’s response to National Socialism. This has been of tremendous help.

    God bless.


  3. Thanks James
    I am about half way through Bonhoeffer’s Letters, your writing certainly cleared up the blank spaces. Now is the Confessing church a part of the state church, is it primarily Lutheran?




    1. Hi Martin,
      I’m sorry for taking so long to reply. I wasn’t sure how to answer your question so I looked up “Barmen Declaration” on Wikipedia. That article indicates that the Confessing Church was “a three-church confessional consensus opposing pro-nazi “German Christianity”. These three churches were Lutheran, Reformed, and United.” Source: I hope that this helps.

      God’s peace and joy,


  4. may God bless this article especially where Einstein was quoted. in the evangelical times this month there is a whole page of biography from a Jewish couple who were rescued by the confessing church folks – 60 different families in total ……. in this day and age of political correctness where people criticize channel 4 for having Ramadan programs, forgetting that there is and has been for many years a wealth of Christian media, may this be a timely reminder that we may not agree with what others say but, we must collectively stand together for freedoms or collectively loose them …….


  5. Reblogged this on St Cuthbert's Oratory and commented:
    As we consider a world in which the post WWII consensus is collapsing through age and inability to engage with the fruit of globalisation, we will do well to consider how nature abhors a vacuum.

    Many in the church, especially Protestatnt Reformed and Roman Catholic, have a tendency to lean in the direction of conservatism, yearning for the stability of the past ahead of embracing the challenge transition offers with its many uncertainties.

    If ever there was a destabilisation of the political, social and economic order it was through the incarnation of Jesus and the words he spoke. Often summarised as speaking truth to power, we sadly shrink away from the most obvious consequences of living and speaking in such a way. For Jesus it meant his destruction by the establishment and so the price tag has been set.

    Maybe, the failure even of the Confessing Church in Germany to live by the woirds of Jesus in the turbulent years following the election of Hitler, often concerned more with internal conflict and disagreement than the main game played out across the world at the cost of thousands of innocent victims. Read, reflect as I am myself and consider how it is you live, in your innermost thoughts as much as by your public declarations.

    “The role of the Christian churches in Germany from 1933 to 1945 raises many troubling questions about the perceived lack of action on moral issues. Many people wonder if Nazi atrocities might have been reduced or prevented if the Churches had done more to protest what was going on. This essay will look at the role of the Confessing Church during the Nazi regime to see what role it played. By studying the events of this time period that involved the Confessing Church, it can be shown that the Confessing Church did resist the Nazi government efforts to subvert it and, by preserving the truth of Christianity, prevented the total apostasy of the German Evangelical Church….”.


    1. Once again thank you for a very complete analysis of a turbulent time in Christianity. Will pray for discerning people to read this. Would like to request your permission to use this as part of an offering to led to a discussion of Cost of Discipleship. Plan to offer it next fall in a large MS church here in suburb of Fort Worth. I am a lay person, Valpo grad and a retired Chemistry teacher. Blessings And Godspead
      Martin Diesterhaft Ph D


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