Military history

THE PERSECUTION OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES

The Nazi war on the Christian churches began more moderately. Though Hitler, nominally a Catholic, had inveighed against political Catholicism in Mein Kampf and attacked both of the Christian churches for their failure to recognize the racial problem, he had, as we have seen, warned in his book that “a political party must never … lose sight of the fact that in all previous historical experience a purely political party has never succeeded in producing a religious reformation.” Article 24 of the party program had demanded “liberty for all religious denominations in the State so far as they are not a danger to … the moral feelings of the German race. The party stands for positive Christianity.” In his speech of March 23, 1933, to the Reichstag when the legislative body of Germany abandoned its functions to the dictator, Hitler paid tribute to the Christian faiths as “essential elements for safeguarding the soul of the German people,” promised to respect their rights, declared that his government’s “ambition is a peaceful accord between Church and State” and added—with an eye to the votes of the Catholic Center Party, which he received—that “we hope to improve our friendly relations with the Holy See.”

Scarcely four months later, on July 20, the Nazi government concluded a concordat with the Vatican in which it guaranteed the freedom of the Catholic religion and the right of the Church “to regulate her own affairs.” The agreement, signed on behalf of Germany by Papen and of the Holy See by the then Papal Secretary of State, Monsignor Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, was hardly put to paper before it was being broken by the Nazi government. But coming as it did at a moment when the first excesses of the new regime in Germany had provoked world-wide revulsion, the concordat undoubtedly lent the Hitler government much badly needed prestige.

On July 25, five days after the ratification of the concordat, the German government promulgated a sterilization law, which particularly offended the Catholic Church. Five days later the first steps were taken to dissolve the Catholic Youth League. During the next years thousands of Catholic priests, nuns and lay leaders were arrested, many of them on trumped-up charges of “immorality” or of “smuggling foreign currency.” Erich Klausener, leader of Catholic Action, was, as we have seen, murdered in the June 30, 1934, purge. Scores of Catholic publications were suppressed, and even the sanctity of the confessional was violated by Gestapo agents. By the spring of 1937 the Catholic hierarchy in Germany, which, like most of the Protestant clergy, had at first tried to co-operate with the new regime, was thoroughly disillusioned. On March 14, 1937, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical, “Mit Brennender Sorge” (With Burning Sorrow), charging the Nazi government with “evasion” and “violation” of the concordat and accusing it of sowing “the tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny, of secret and open fundamental hostility to Christ and His Church.” On “the horizon of Germany” the Pope saw “the threatening storm clouds of destructive religious wars … which have no other aim than … of extermination.”

   The Reverend Martin Niemoeller had personally welcomed the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933. In that year his autobiography, From U-Boat to Pulpit, had been published. The story of how this submarine commander in the First World War had become a prominent Protestant pastor was singled out for special praise in the Nazi press and became a best seller. To Pastor Niemoeller, as to many a Protestant clergyman, the fourteen years of the Republic had been, as he said, “years of darkness”1 and at the close of his autobiography he added a note of satisfaction that the Nazi revolution had finally triumphed and that it had brought about the “national revival” for which he himself had fought so long—for a time in the free corps, from which so many Nazi leaders had come.

He was soon to experience a terrible disillusionment.

The Protestants in Germany, as in the United States, were a divided faith. Only a very few—some 150,000 out of forty-five million of them—belonged to the various Free Churches such as the Baptists and Methodists. The rest belonged to twenty-eight Lutheran and Reformed Churches of which the largest was the Church of the Old Prussian Union, with eighteen million members. With the rise of National Socialism there came further divisions among the Protestants. The more fanatical Nazis among them organized in 1932 “The German Christians’ Faith Movement” of which the most vehement leader was a certain Ludwig Mueller, army chaplain of the East Prussian Military District, a devoted follower of Hitler who had first brought the Fuehrer together with General von Blomberg when the latter commanded the district. The “German Christians” ardently supported the Nazi doctrines of race and the leadership principle and wanted them applied to a Reich Church which would bring all Protestants into one all-embracing body. In 1933 the “German Christians” had some three thousand out of a total of seventeen thousand pastors, though their lay followers probably represented a larger percentage of churchgoers.

Opposed to the “German Christians” was another minority group which called itself the “Confessional Church.” It had about the same number of pastors and was eventually led by Niemoeller. It opposed the Nazification of the Protestant churches, rejected the Nazi racial theories and denounced the anti-Christian doctrines of Rosenberg and other Nazi leaders. In between lay the majority of Protestants, who seemed too timid to join either of the two warring groups, who sat on the fence and eventually, for the most part, landed in the arms of Hitler, accepting his authority to intervene in church affairs and obeying his commands without open protest.

It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther.* The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany rid of the Jews and when they were sent away he advised that they be deprived of “all their cash and jewels and silver and gold” and, furthermore, “that their synagogues or schools be set on fire, that their houses be broken up and destroyed … and they be put under a roof or stable, like the gypsies … in misery and captivity as they incessantly lament and complain to God about us”—advice that was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler.2

In what was perhaps the only popular revolt in German history, the peasant uprising of 1525, Luther advised the princes to adopt the most ruthless measures against the “mad dogs,” as he called the desperate, downtrodden peasants. Here, as in his utterances about the Jews, Luther employed a coarseness and brutality of language unequaled in German history until the Nazi time. The influence of this towering figure extended down the generations in Germany, especially among the Protestants. Among other results was the ease with which German Protestantism became the instrument of royal and princely absolutism from the sixteenth century until the kings and princes were overthrown in 1918. The hereditary monarchs and petty rulers became the supreme bishops of the Protestant Church in their lands. Thus in Prussia the Hohenzollern King was the head of the Church. In no country with the exception of Czarist Russia did the clergy become by tradition so completely servile to the political authority of the State. Its members, with few exceptions, stood solidly behind the King, the Junkers and the Army, and during the nineteenth century they dutifully opposed the rising liberal and democratic movements. Even the Weimar Republic was anathema to most Protestant pastors, not only because it had deposed the kings and princes but because it drew its main support from the Catholics and the Socialists. During the Reichstag elections one could not help but notice that the Protestant clergy—Niemoeller was typical—quite openly supported the Nationalist and even the Nazi enemies of the Republic. Like Niemoeller, most of the pastors welcomed the advent of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship in 1933.

They were soon to become acquainted with the very strong-arm Nazi tactics which had swept Hitler to political power. In July 1933 representatives of the Protestant churches had written a constitution for a new “Reich Church,” and it was formally recognized by the Reichstag on July 14. Immediately there broke out a heated struggle over the election of the first Reich Bishop. Hitler insisted that his friend, Chaplain Mueller, whom he had appointed his adviser on Protestant church affairs, be given this highest office. The leaders of the Church Federation proposed an eminent divine, Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh. But they were naïve. The Nazi government intervened, dissolved a number of provincial church organizations, suspended from office several leading dignitaries of the Protestant churches, loosed the S.A. and the Gestapo on recalcitrant clergymen—in fact, terrorized all who supported Bodelschwingh. On the eve of the elections of delegates to the synod which would elect the Reich Bishop, Hitler personally took to the radio to “urge” the election of “German Christians” whose candidate Mueller was. The intimidation was highly successful. Bodelschwingh in the meantime had been forced to withdraw his candidacy, and the “elections” returned a majority of “German Christians,” who in September at the synod in Wittenberg, where Luther had first defied Rome, elected Mueller Reich Bishop.

But the new head of the Church, a heavy-handed man, was not able to establish a unified Church or to completely Nazify the Protestant congregations. On November 13, 1933, the day after the German people had overwhelmingly backed Hitler in a national plebiscite, the “German Christians” staged a massive rally in the Sportpalast in Berlin. A Dr. Reinhardt Krause, the Berlin district leader of the sect, proposed the abandonment of the Old Testament, “with its tales of cattle merchants and pimps” and the revision of the New Testament with the teaching of Jesus “corresponding entirely with the demands of National Socialism.” Resolutions were drawn up demanding “One People, One Reich, One Faith,” requiring all pastors to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and insisting that all churches institute the Aryan paragraph and exclude converted Jews. This was too much even for the timid Protestants who had declined to take any part in the church war, and Bishop Mueller was forced to suspend Dr. Krause and disavow him.

In reality the struggle between the Nazi government and the churches was the age-old one of what to render unto Caesar and what to God. So far as the Protestants were concerned, Hitler was insistent that if the Nazi “German Christians” could not bring the evangelical churches into line under Reich Bishop Mueller then the government itself would have to take over the direction of the churches. He had always had a certain contempt for the Protestants, who, though a tiny minority in his native Catholic Austria, comprised two thirds of the citizens of Germany. “You can do anything you want with them,” he once confided to his aides. “They will submit … they are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them.”3 He was well aware that the resistance to the Nazification of the Protestant churches came from a minority of pastors and an even smaller minority of worshipers.

By the beginning of 1934, the disillusioned Pastor Niemoeller had become the guiding spirit of the minority resistance in both the “Confessional Church” and the Pastors’ Emergency League. At the General Synod in Barmen in May 1934, and at a special meeting in Niemoeller’s Church of Jesus Christ at Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin, in November, the “Confessional Church” declared itself to be the legitimate Protestant Church of Germany and set up a provisional church government. Thus there were now two groups—Reich Bishop Mueller’s and Niemoeller’s—claiming to legally constitute the Church.

It was obvious that the former army chaplain, despite his closeness to Hitler, had failed to integrate the Protestant churches, and at the end of 1935, after the Gestapo had arrested seven hundred “Confessional Church” pastors, he resigned his office and faded out of the picture. Already, in July 1935, Hitler had appointed a Nazi lawyer friend, Dr. Hans Kerrl, to be Minister for Church Affairs, with instructions to make a second attempt to co-ordinate the Protestants. One of the milder Nazis and a somewhat cautious man, Kerrl at first had considerable success. He succeeded not only in winning over the conservative clergy, which constituted the majority, but in setting up a Church Committee headed by the venerable Dr. Zoellner, who was respected by all factions, to work out a general settlement. Though Niemoeller’s group co-operated with the committee, it still maintained that it was the only legitimate Church. When, in May 1936, it addressed a courteous but firm memorandum to Hitler protesting against the anti-Christian tendencies of the regime, denouncing the government’s anti-Semitism and demanding an end to State interference in the churches, Frick, the Nazi Minister of the Interior, responded with ruthless action. Hundreds of “Confessional Church” pastors were arrested, one of the signers of the memorandum, Dr. Weissler, was murdered in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the funds of the “Confessional Church” were confiscated and it was forbidden to make collections.

On February 12, 1937, Dr. Zoellner resigned from the Church Committee—he had been restrained by the Gestapo from visiting Luebeck, where nine Protestant pastors had been arrested—complaining that his work had been sabotaged by the Church Minister. Dr. Kerrl replied the next day in a speech to a group of submissive churchmen. He accused the venerable Zoellner of failing to appreciate the Nazi doctrine of Race, Blood and Soil, and clearly revealed the government’s hostility to both Protestant and Catholic churches.

The party [Kerrl said] stands on the basis of Positive Christianity, and Positive Christianity is National Socialism … National Socialism is the doing of God’s will … God’s will reveals itself in German blood … Dr. Zoellner and Count Galen [the Catholic bishop of Muenster] have tried to make clear to me that Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the Son of God. That makes me laugh … No, Christianity is not dependent upon the Apostle’s Creed … True Christianity is represented by the party, and the German people are now called by the party and especially by the Fuehrer to a real Christianity … The Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation.4

On the first of July, 1937, Dr. Niemoeller was arrested and confined to Moabit prison in Berlin. On June 27 he had preached to the congregation, which always overflowed his church at Dahlem, what was to be his last sermon in the Third Reich. As if he had a foreboding of what was to come he said, “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of the authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”

After eight months in prison he was tried on March 2, 1938, before a Sondergericht, one of the “Special Courts” set up by the Nazis to try offenders against the State, and though acquitted of the main charge of “underhand attacks against the State” was fined two thousand marks and sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for “abuse of the pulpit” and holding collections in his church. Since he had served more than this time, the court ordered his release, but he was seized by the Gestapo as he was leaving the courtroom, placed in “protective custody” and confined in concentration camps, first at Sachsenhausen and then at Dachau, where he remained for seven years until liberated by Allied troops.

Some 807 other pastors and leading laymen of the “Confessional Church” were arrested in 1937, and hundreds more in the next couple of years. If the resistance of the Niemoeller wing of the church was not completely broken, it was certainly bent. As for the majority of Protestant pastors, they, like almost everyone else in Germany, submitted in the face of Nazi terror. By the end of 1937 the highly respected Bishop Marahrens of Hanover was induced by Dr. Kerrl to make a public declaration that must have seemed especially humiliating to tougher men of God such as Niemoeller: “The National Socialist conception of life is the national and political teaching which determines and characterizes German manhood. As such, it is obligatory upon German Christians also.” In the spring of 1938 Bishop Marahrens took the final step of ordering all pastors in his diocese to swear a personal oath of allegiance to the Fuehrer. In a short time the vast majority of Protestant clergymen took the oath, thus binding themselves legally and morally to obey the commands of the dictator.

It would be misleading to give the impression that the persecution of Protestants and Catholics by the Nazi State tore the German people asunder or even greatly aroused the vast majority of them. It did not. A people who had so lightly given up their political and cultural and economic freedoms were not, except for a relatively few, going to die or even risk imprisonment to preserve freedom of worship. What really aroused the Germans in the Thirties were the glittering successes of Hitler in providing jobs, creating prosperity, restoring Germany’s military might, and moving from one triumph to another in his foreign policy. Not many Germans lost much sleep over the arrests of a few thousand pastors and priests or over the quarreling of the various Protestant sects. And even fewer paused to reflect that under the leadership of Rosenberg, Bormann andHimmler, who were backed by Hitler, the Nazi regime intended eventually to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists. As Bormann, one of the men closest to Hitler, said publicly in 1941, “National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.”

What the Hitler government envisioned for Germany was clearly set out in a thirty-point program for the “National Reich Church” drawn up during the war by Rosenberg, an outspoken pagan, who among his other offices held that of “the Fuehrer’s Delegate for the Entire Intellectual and Philosophical Education and Instruction for the National Socialist Party.” A few of its thirty articles convey the essentials:

1. The National Reich Church of Germany categorically claims the exclusive right and the exclusive power to control all churches within the borders of the Reich: it declares these to be national churches of the German Reich.

5. The National Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably … the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.

7. The National Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests, but National Reich orators are to speak in them.

13. The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany …

14. The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Fuehrer’s Mein Kampf is the greatest of all documents. It … not only contains the greatest but it embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and future life of our nation.

18. The National Church will clear away from its altars all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.

19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf (to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.

30. On the day of its foundation, the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels … and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.5

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