Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nazism & German churches /
Ο Ναζισμός & οι γερμανικές εκκλησίες

The churches
opposition born of belief?

Hitler always knew he needed a workforce, but was his attitude so clear-cut towards the Protestant and Catholic churches? In Mein Kampf he said that he was not interested in ‘a religious reformation’ but in a ‘political reorganisation’ of Germany (quoted in Zipfel, 1965, pp.. 11-22). In a speech to the Reichstag on 1 February 1933, he specified that the churches were to be integral parts of national life, just a month later, however, talking in private in the Reich Chancellery, he contradicted himself.

Document 3.1 Hitler’s Private View
All of the confessions [i.e., all of the churches] are the same. Which ever one you choose, it will not have a future. Not for the Germans anyway. [Italian] fascism may, in the name of God, make its peace with the Church. I will do that too. Why not! It won’t stop me eradicating Christianity from Germany root and branch. You are either a Christian or a German. You can’t be both.
Source: F.Zipfel, Kirchenkampf in Deutschland 1933–45, 1965, p. 9

Historians J.S.Conway and F.Zipfel have both concluded that even though Hitler may have been fundamentally hostile to the Christian churches by 1933, he had no definite idea of how to proceed against them (Zipfel, 1965, p. 8; Conway, 1968, p. 1). In 1933, 62.7 per cent of the population (i.e., over 40 million people) belonged to one of the country ’s twenty-eight independent Protestant churches, and 32.4 per cent of Germans (almost 22 million people) were Catholic (Hehl, 1980, p. 63). If anything, Catholicism was the better organised. While 700,000 individuals were affiliated to a multitude of Protestant youth groups, Catholic Youth alone had 1.5 million members. Catholic sentiment was expressed politically through both the Centre Party and the Bavarian People’s Party. Together they accounted for about a third of the votes cast in
Reichstag elections. Even though these parties were dissolved in early July 1933, the Catholic Church itself remained the largest single social institution in the Third Reich independent of direct Nazi control.
If Hitler was unsure of how to deal with such well-established institutions, from even the earliest days of the Third Reich there was no shortage of National Socialist acolytes willing to take up the challenge. The first significant Nazi crusade in this connection was led by the German Christians against Protestantism. In general terms, German Christians believed they could unify Germany ’s various Protestant churches and, in so doing, merge Protestantism with National Socialism to create a new, racially attuned brand of Christianity.
A new post of Reich Bishop was created, behind which all Protestant churches were to be unified. On 27 September 1933 the German Christian Ludwig Müller was elected to the post. From then on there was a concerted effort to raise the profile of racism in religion.
The German Christians of Bremen met and demanded that the Bible be expunged of all Jewish elements.
Naturally there were objections. In response to this growing ‘Nazification’ of Protestantism, on 21 September, pastor Martin Niemöller set up the Pastornotbund (the Emergency Association for Pastors). A total of 1,300 clergymen joined at once; 6,000 had done so by the end of the year. This organisation later formed the basis for the Confessing Church—an outspokenly anti-Nazi organisation. There was no doubting the bravery of at least Niemöller when he, together with a number of sympathisers, met to discuss religious affairs with Hitler and Müller in January 1934. An extract from Niemöller’s biography captures the drama of the event.

Document 3.2 Niemφller meets Hitler
The clergy were ushered into Hitler’s study where they found him seated at his desk, behind him, motionless as an idol, the Reich Bishop, Ludwig Mόller. One by one, Frick, the Minister of the Interior, introduced the visitors and Hitler went forward to greet them. He had resumed his seat and was about to open the discussion, when Goering burst into the room, clicked his heels, gave a Nazi salute and said excitedly:
‘Herr Reichskanzler! An hour ago Pastor Niem
φller held a
conversation closely connected with the subject of this conference. I ask
leave to read out to you what he said.’
Hitler nodded assent. It was impossible to tell from his expression
whether this interlude had been planned or not, and in any case,
Niemφller was at a loss at first to place the conversation that Goering
recited. Then he remembered. Of course! The telephone call of that
morning! [During the call Niemφller had made a light hearted comment
about Hitler’s government]….
‘Mein Fόhrer!’ he [Goering] declaimed. ‘These people are trying to
drive a wedge between yourself and the Reich President!’ This touched
Hitler on a sensitive spot, as Goering knew it would, and immediately he
flushed with anger and started loading his guests with reproaches,
treating them more like an unruly mob of children than responsible
leaders of the Church. They misunderstood him, said Hitler, and
misrepresented his intentions. Peace, that was what he wanted—peace
between Church and State! Yet they obstructed him, sabotaged his
efforts to achieve it!
During this outburst Niemφller had come forward so as to be ready to
speak as soon as he got a chance. He now tried to explain the incident,
telling Hitler that the telephone conversation had been a private one and
that the expressions used should not be given undue weight…. Finally,
said Niemφller, his own work had no other object than the welfare of the
Church, the State and the German people.
Hitler had been listening in silence. Now he said brusquely: ‘You
confine yourself to the Church. I’ll take care of the German people!’…
When it was all over, Hitler once more shook hands with the clergy.
When it came to his turn, Niemφller realized that this was a chance
for plain speaking which might never return. Carefully choosing his
words, he said:
‘Herr Reichskanzler, you said just now: ‘I will take care of the German
people.’ But we too, as Christians and churchmen, have a responsibility
towards the German people. That responsibility was entrusted to us by
God, and neither you nor anyone in the world has the power to take it
from us.’
For a moment Hitler stared. Then as he realized the implications of
Niemφller’s warning, he turned his back on him without another word.
Source: D.Schmidt, Pastor Niemφller., 1959, pp. 90–5

The breach between the two men was as irreparable as it was personal. When Niemöller was finally
arrested in 1937, it was on Hitler’s specific orders. Meanwhile, representatives of the Emergency
Association met at Barmen between 29 and 31 May 1934 to discuss where they stood in the Third
Reich. The result was the Barmen Declaration.

Document 3.3 Barmen Declaration
In view of the destructive errors of the German Christians and the
present national church government, we pledge ourselves to the
following evangelical truths:
1 ‘I am the way and the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the
Father but by me’ (John 14.6)….
Jesus Christ, as he testified to us in the Holy Scripture, is the one
Word of God, which we are to hear, which we are to trust and obey in
life and in death.
We repudiate the false teaching that the Church can and must recognise
yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine
revelation alongside this one Word of God, as a source of her preaching.
2 ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom,
and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption’ (I Corinthians 1.30).
The churches 49
Just as Jesus Christ is the pledge of the forgiveness of all our sins, just
so—and with the same earnestness—is he also God’s mighty claim on our
whole life; in him we encounter a joyous liberation from the godless claims
of this world to free and thankful service to his creatures.
We repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we
belong not to Jesus Christ but another lord, areas in which we do not need
justification and sanctification through him.
3 ‘But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which
is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body (is) fitly joined
together and compacted…’ (Ephesians 4.15–16).
The Christian Church is the community of brethren, in which Jesus
Christ presently works in the word and sacraments through the Holy Spirit.
With her faith as well as her obedience, with her message as well as her
ordinances, she has to witness in the midst of the world of sin as the Church
of forgiven sinners that she is his alone, that she lives and wishes to live only
by his comfort and his counsel in expectation of his appearance.
We repudiate the false teaching that the Church can turn over the form of
the message and ordinances at will or according to some dominant
ideological and political convictions.
4 ‘Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them,
and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so
among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your
minister’ (Matthew 20.25–6).
The various offices in the Church establish no rule of one over the other
but the exercise of the service entrusted and commanded to the whole
We repudiate the false teaching that the Church can and may, apart from
this ministry, set up or accept special leaders (Fόhrer) equipped with powers
to rule.
5 ‘Fear God, honour the king!’ (I Peter 2.17)….
We repudiate the false teaching that the State can and should expand
beyond its special responsibility to become the single and total order of
human life, and also thereby fulfil the commission of the Church.
We repudiate the false teaching that the Church can and should expand
beyond its special responsibility to take on the characteristics, functions and
dignities of the State, and thereby become itself an organ of the State.
6 ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matthew
28.20). ‘The word of God is not bound’ (II Timothy 2.9)….
We repudiate the false teaching that the Church, in human self-esteem,
can put the word and work of the Lord in the service of some wishes,
purposes and plans or other, chosen according to desire.
Source: E.H.Robertson, Christians against Hitler, 1962, pp. 48–52

If the language was tortuous the message was not. Taking a text from the Bible to substantiate each point,
these churchmen stated openly that no matter what Reich Bishop Müller might say, no matter what Hitler
might demand, no matter what social position the Third Reich might accord to Protestantism, they
remained completely loyal to the scriptures and to their one true leader, Jesus Christ.
The scene was set for a showdown between Protestants and German Christians. Later in
the summer of 1934 Reich Bishop Müller’s ‘second in command’, August Jäger, tried to
shore up control of Protestant churches by introducing an oath for all pastors that included
a statement of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. The contradiction to the Barmen Declaration was
obvious. Many Protestants, especially in Hannover, Bavaria and Württemberg, were outraged.
Bishops Würm of Württemberg and Meiser of Bavaria opposed the statement publicly and
were placed under house arrest. Popular unrest accelerated to such an extent that both had
to be released and, together with Bishop Marahrens of Hannover, were granted a personal
interview with Hitler. As a result of the débâcle, Jäger lost his job.
The position of Catholicism during the early years of the Third Reich was more
problematic than that of Protestantism. On 20 July 1933 the Pope had agreed the Concordat
with Hitler. In return for guarantees of complete religious freedom for Catholics in Germany,
the Pope ordered his bishops to swear loyalty to the state, agreed to the dismantling of the
Catholic trades unions, accepted the dissolution of the Centre Party and agreed to prohibit
the clergy from political activity. In practice Hitler ’s promises proved worthless and, for
example, Hitler Youth groups were soon pressing their Catholic Youth counterparts to close
down. Inevitably signs emerged that many Catholics were trying to safeguard their right to
independent religious expression. For example, the Good Friday procession in Cologne in
1934 drew 25 per cent more participants than the previous year and was described in a
section of a police report.

Document 3.4 Catholic Procession
During the night of 17 March, as in the previous year, the night-time
procession of the Catholic men of Cologne took place in that city to
the holy statue of the Mother of God in Cologne-Kalk. Pilgrims from
the Cologne diocese and parishes flocked together from both near and
far to the meeting point at the Hay Market. When the last participant
on the pilgrimage had reached the meeting point, at 22.50 the
departure from the Hay Market began and went on until shortly after
midnight. The procession made its way through the streets of Cologne
in groups of up to about a quarter of its size. It is estimated that
25,000 men and young men participated in the pilgrimage. The
number of 38,000 participants which has appeared in the daily press
may be a considerable over-estimate.
Each parish group carried a large cross in front of it. Flags and
banners were not carried in the procession. From the Holy picture of
the Mother of God, the pilgrimage made its way back to the cathedral,
The churches 51
where after a short prayer and final devotion made by Archbishop
Schulte, [the procession] was concluded.
A member of the SA and of the Hitler Youth took part in the
pilgrimage wearing their uniforms. An intelligence officer of the
NSDAP established who they were.
There were no cases of unrest during the pilgrimage which took place in
the most perfect order and discipline. Politically it is noteworthy and
illuminating that the Catholic population of Cologne, especially the men, in
recent times have banded together strongly. They are taking part in church
celebrations and events in numbers of such a size that have hardly been seen
in previous years. Even the night-time pilgrimage to Cologne-Kalk showed
an extraordinarily increased number of participants relative to previous years.
The reason is that people who disapprove of the measures taken against
Catholic organisations want to make a show in public that they are loyal to
the Catholic Church. Seen from this point of view, the pilgrimage to
Cologne-Kalk comes under the character of a political demonstration….
Source: Extract from a police report from Cologne dated 27 March 1934,
Federal Archive, Koblenz, 403/16844

The sentiment expressed in Cologne was not unique. In 1937, 60,000 people participated in Bamberg’s 700-
year-old Domweihe festival, and 800,000 Catholics from around the Reich travelled to Aachen for the
Heiligturmfest (Hehl, 1980, p. 75).. What is more, the following extract from an official report concerning the
Saarland shows what could happen when local Nazi authorities tried to remove crucifixes from schools.

Document 3.5 The Crucifix
The fact is that 30 to 40 villagers got into the unlocked school on the night
of 6 January 1937 to hang the crucifix back in its old place. Against the
explicit advice of the witness R. that the crucifix had been taken down by
order of the government and that the break in would constitute a breach of
the peace if they contravened this order, the accused BA (with the help of a
ladder which he fetched), hung the crucifix right up beside the picture of the
Fόhrer, which had been put in this newly assigned place. Everyone then left
the school.
The court of Rhaunen, on 9 January 1937, ordered a custodial sentence
against BA.
Source: Report of an Oberstaatsanwalt from Trier, January 1937, quoted in
H.Focke and U.Reimer, Alltag unterm Hakenkreuz, 1989, pp. 111–12

Similar scenes, together with more public protests, accompanied the removal of crucifixes in other Catholic
areas. In Bavaria, especially, local Catholic priests led their congregations in minor expressions of dissent
52 Resistance and conformity
over this and related matters. They often greeted people using the traditional, southern German ‘Grüß
Gott!’ rather than the officially approved ‘Heil Hitler!’ On feast days, they flew the regional flag of blue
and white as opposed to the swastika.
By 1937 the anti-Catholic character of Hitler’s government had become as plain to Pope Pius XI
as to any German. He wrote a statement of his worries called ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ (‘With burning
anxiety’). It was issued from the Vatican on 14 March 1937 and read by priests to their congregations
throughout Germany on 21 March, Palm Sunday.

Document 3.6 ‘Mit brennender Sorge’
With burning anxiety and mounting unease We have observed for some time
the way of suffering of the Church, the growing harassment of the
confessors who stay true to it in spirit and act in the midst of the land and of
the people to whom St Boniface first brought the offer of light and peace
from Christ and from the Kingdom of God….
He who singles out race, the people of the state, the form of state, the
bearers of state power or another basic element of human social organisation—
elements that hold an essential place in the worldly order which is
worthy of respect—he who singles out such elements from this worldly
scale of values and sets them up as the highest norm over all, including
over religious values, and reverences them with idolatry, he distorts and
falsifies the God-created, God-demanded order of things. Such a person
is far from real belief in God and from a conception of life that
corresponds to such a belief. Only superficial spirits can fall victim to the
false doctrine of a national God, or a national religion.
Source: ‘Mit brennender Sorge’, issued from Rome 14 March 1937,
reproduced in G.Denzler and V.Fabricus, Christen und
Nationalsozialisten, 1993

The language was almost as awkward as that of the Barmen Declaration. Just as unmistakably,
however, the Pope was taking issue with the way National Socialism was both persecuting the
Catholic Church and placing political ideology ahead of Christian doctrine.
Would it be justified to conclude that both the Protestant and Catholic churches, as
institutions and from a relatively early point in the Third Reich, were actually taking up deepseated
opposition to Hitler’s government? Unfortunately, the Emergency Association and the
Confessing Church which grew from it, even the popular support accorded to this movement in
Hannover, Württemberg and Bavaria, do not tell the story of German Protestantism as a whole.
By tradition, many Protestants were nationalistic and had sympathised with ‘right of centre’
parties such as the German National People’s Party during the Weimar years. It was the
predominantly Protestant areas such as eastern Prussia which actually turned into the backbone
of Hitler’s electoral successes. No small number of educated Protestants found at least the
idea of the Third Reich worthy (Erickson, 1990, p. 119). What is more, the ranks of the
Protestants actually gave rise to the very German Christianity movement which later tried to
absorb their churches. As early as 1932, one-third of all members of the Prussian synod (which
included both churchmen and laity) were supporters of that movement In August 1933, twothirds
of the members turned up to its meeting wearing National Socialist uniforms (Zipfel,
1965, pp. 36–7). It was not by pure chance that no pastors denounced the Reichstag Fire Law,
the Enabling Law or even the violent persecution of the Communists. Throughout the life of
the Third Reich, and notwithstanding the initial expansion of the Emergency Association, out
of 17,000 pastors across Germany, just fifty actually received substantial prison sentences for
opposing the government (Conway, 1968, p. 175).
Even Martin Niemöller was not a completely clear-cut protest figure. This First World War
U-boat commander had himself at first sympathised with National Socialism. His own church
was decorated with swastikas and the Nazi salute was often given there (Conway, 1968, p.
85). Later he personally recognised that the bases of his opposition to the Third Reich had
been strictly limited. In prison, with reference to the persecution of Germany’s Jews, he showed
how little he had appreciated the true character of what was happening in his country.

Document 3.7 Hindsight
At the time I did not realise that we [Christians] would have to pay for
these restrictions [on the Jews] with our own liberty. I did not fully take
into account that equality had been given to the Jews during our own
epoch of political liberalism, and that any restriction imposed on them
now would mean the end of that epoch and possibly the end of
individual liberty, including the right of worship. In other words, to
deprive Jews of political equality would mean turning back the wheel of
Source: Quoted in S.Baranowski, ‘Consent and Dissent’, 1987, pp. 53–78

Interested first and foremost in the spiritual rather than earthly realm, Niemöller had drawn back from
exploring the full oppositional consequences of Christian beliefs. As he also admitted after the Second
World War, the Confessing Church never, ‘neither in the Hitler Reich nor later, placed value on being a
“resistance movement”’. It wanted ‘to testify to the word of God in our world and time’ (Niemöller, 1946,
p. 396). Obviously there was a basic failure of understanding here. Niemöller and his followers believed
that an accommodation between an independent church and the state was actually possible, that religious
freedom could be squared with commitment to the Third Reich, that Hitler ultimately could accept loyalty
to two masters—to himself and Christ. Hitler knew that there was no such possibility; Niemöller and
those who relied on him realised it too late.
Accepting that between one-third and one-half of all Catholic clergy were persecuted in
some way during the Third Reich, we must still acknowledge that the record of the Catholic
Church, and in particular of its senior clergy, was far from beyond reproach. The Concordat
was the very first international treaty signed by Hitler’s government and conferred a certain
respectability upon it. The Pope’s purpose was to protect Catholics in Germany, but the
agreement imposed obligations—especially on churchmen who held positions of responsibility.
One result is expressed in a circular from Bishop Gröber of Freiberg to his junior clergy: ‘I ask
and warn the clergy time and time again…[to]…adapt and not damage the affairs of the
Church through a lack of personal wisdom’ (quoted in Denzler and Fabricus, 1993, p. 87). If
the Pope would not criticise Hitler, it made it difficult for other, and especially senior, churchmen
to do so. During the whole of the Third Reich, only one Catholic bishop was expelled from his
diocese and only one was sentenced to a lengthy period of imprisonment for opposing the
government (Conway, 1968, p. 175).
Our understanding of the Catholic congregations, including those who participated in the
mass processions and crucifix protests, must also be fully rounded, as historian Ulrich Hehl

Document 3.8 The Catholic Dilemma
Even though the believers wanted to identify unequivocally with the
demands of the Church, they were indeed at the same time loyal citizens
of the state and as such were influenced ‘by the great national currents’
and feelings of the time. In this respect even the specifically Catholic
solidarity effect which had been let loose sixty years beforehand as a
result of the Kulturkampf [persecution of the Catholics by Bismarck],
did not apply….
No one understood how to use this dilemma for his own purposes
better than Adolf Hitler. He could suppose that, in spite of all the
discontent with church policy as carried out by the regime, the mass of
the people still stood behind him, even if not behind National Socialism.
The cult of the leader which prevailed generally, of course, had its
essential origins in Hitler’s great [foreign] policy successes. The
reincorporation of say the Saarland, or the ‘Anschluίof Austria secured
for the ‘Fόhrer’ a popularity that could hardly be surpassed even among
the Catholic section of the population.
Source: U.Hehl, ‘Das Kirchenvolk im Dritten Reich’, 1980, pp. 78–9

Just as the average German worker had a mixed experience of National Socialism, so did the
average German Catholic. Some aspects of the Third Reich appealed, others did not. Senior
clergy themselves were aware of the related dilemmas and avoided pushing their congregations
to make a fundamental choice between church and state for fear of losing members (Gotto et al.,
1983, pp. 662–3).
Given the ambiguity of the situation, when National Socialist authorities made their minds
up to enforce anti-church policies, more often than not they proved successful. For example,
from 1936 National Socialist offices began a persecution of denominational, which meant mostly
Catholic, schools. People employed by the state began to be harassed, as the following letter
between local National Socialist leaders shows.

Document 3.9 Schools Initiative
Please find enclosed a list of those children who attend the Order of
Ursula School [a Catholic order named after Holy Ursula—it was
founded in 1535 and was exclusively female]. As you will see from the
list, there is a whole series of civil servants among the parents. You
should circulate to the civil servant parents a questionnaire that says the
‘We have established that your daughter Elfriede attends the local Order
of Ursula School. Since a state school for girls still exists here in Trier, we
would like you to tell us why your daughter is not attending the state
This questionnaire should mean that at least the civil servants send their
children to the state schools since at least they get their pay from state funds.
If quite a few civil servants do not reply to the letter, after eight days send
them a reminder.
Source: Letter of the Kreisleiter of Trier to the Ortsgruppenleiter of the
NSDAP, 6 February 1936, quoted in A.Doll (ed.), Nationalsozialismus im
Alltag, 1983, pp. 216–17

The pressure proved catastrophic for church schools. Whereas in 1935 65 per cent of children attended
them, by 1937 only 5 per cent did so. By the end of 1939, just about all denominational schools had
vanished (Conway, 1968, p. 182).
At the most general level, between 1933 and 1939 the attitudes of both Protestants and Catholics
were simply too ambiguous to provide the sort of popular mobilisation to trouble the regime even
when it was in a potentially vulnerable position. Popular fear of war was genuine during the Sudeten
Crisis of September 1938. The following police report highlights the profound short-comings of the
churches’ activism at this time.

Document 3.10 Conformity in a Crisis
In the fatefully difficult days of September, when the Fόhrer and the
German Volk fought over the rights of the Sudeten Germans, the Church
of Rome and the Confessing Church were silent. They have left
unexploited a rarely favourable opportunity to help ‘the justice of God’ to
After the end of negotiations in Munich, the Fόhrer received the
following from Cardinal Bertram, in the form of an almost smug telegram:
‘The great act of securing international peace gives the German
episcopacy cause to offer the most worthy congratulations and thanks and
to order the celebratory ringing of church bells on Sunday. In commission
of the Archbishop Cardinal Bertram.’
56 Resistance and conformity
The council of the Evangelical-Lutheran Churches of Germany sent the
following telegram to the Fόhrer:
‘Thanks be to God, who, through the Fόhrer has guaranteed honourable
peace for our people. Along with our brothers who have been freed we beg
holy victory for the auspicious work of peace. Heil to the Fόhrer.’
Source: Police report of 15 October 1938, reproduced in K.Zipfel,
Kirchenkampf in Deutschland 1933–45, 1965, pp. 452–5

In 1939, 95 per cent of Germans still said they were Protestant or Catholic. Whether laymen or
senior clergy, we may wonder what precisely they understood by their belief.
With the outbreak of war, there was a quantum leap in the nature of the attacks by
National Socialism on the churches. In his territory of Wartheland, newly constituted from
part of what used to be Poland, Gauleiter Greiser introduced the following rules governing
the churches and defining their social position.

Document 3.11 Greiser and the Churches
1 There are no longer any churches in the [traditional] state sense, only
religious church societies in the sense of clubs.
2 The leadership does not lie in the hands of authorities, but rather
there are only club committees.
3 For this reason, there are no longer any laws, orders or decrees in this area.
4 There are no longer any connections to groups outside of the Gau
[party organisational area], not even any legal, financial or official
connections to the Reich Church.
5 Adults can only become members through an explanatory written
application. They are no longer born into [the church] but must
explain their entry only when they become adults. There are no
regional, national or territorial churches. Whoever comes to the
Warthegau from the Reich for the first time must also initially apply in
6 All religious sub-groups just like organisations (youth groups) are
cancelled and banned.
7 Germans and Poles may no longer be together in one church
(Nationality principle). This comes into power for National Socialism
for the first time.
8 No confirmation lessons can be held in schools any longer.
9 Apart from the club fee, no financial allowances may be supplied….
10 The clubs may have no property such as buildings, houses, fields,
cemeteries, apart from their cult room.
11 Furthermore they may not be active in welfare work. This is the job
of the NSV [National Socialist welfare organisation] and of that alone.
The churches 57
12 All charities and monasteries are dissolved, since these do not
correspond to German morality and to the politics of the population.
13 Only priests from the Warthegau may be active in the clubs. These
are not full-time priests, but must also have a profession.
Source: Ordinance of Gauleiter Walther Greiser for the churches in
Warthegau, 14 March 1940, quoted in G.Denzler and V.Fabricus,
Christen und Nationalsozialisten, 1993, pp. 311–12

In Wartheland, the churches had become member-only clubs which could neither own property nor take
collections. In June 1941, on the eve of Germany’s attack on the USSR, Reichsleiter Martin Bormann
issued a circular stating with renewed clarity the incompatibility of National Socialist and Christian views.
The former were characterised as produced through scientific knowledge (which inevitably involved race),
the latter as originating in soothsaying and Judaism. Only when the power of the churches would be
broken once and for all could the National Socialist leadership of Germany be ensured and the nation’s
future guaranteed (Zipfel, 1965, pp. 512–16).
This radically anti-Christian mood was associated with a variety of policy initiatives
offensive to Catholics in particular. A policy of euthanasia, the compulsory killing of mentally
ill and handicapped Germans, began on Hitler’s personal order in the days immediately
following the attack on Poland. Between October 1939 and August 1941 (when the action
ceased) around 80,000 people were killed. It was supposed to have remained a secret. In
reality, so many people could not be killed without some repercussions. The religious and
moral outrage which accompanied popular suspicions is reflected in the following extract
from a letter sent by Bishop Hilfrich of Limburg to Reich justice Minister Gürtner on 13
August 1941.

Document 3.12 Murder in Hadamar
Perhaps 8 km from Limburg, on a hill directly above the little town of
Hadamar, there is an institution which used to serve a variety of
purposes. Most recently it was a religious and nursing institution. It has
been converted and kitted out as a place in which (according to
popular opinion) …euthanasia has been carried out systematically for
months—since around Februar y 1941. The fact is well known
throughout the government district of Wiesbaden, because death
certificates are sent from a registry in Hadamar-Mφnchberg to the
home districts concerned. (This institution is called Mφnchberg
because until its secularisation in 1803 it was a Franciscan monastery.)
Buses with an increasing number of victims arrive in Hadamar
several times per week. School children in the area know these vehicles
and say: ‘Here comes the murder-box again.’ After the vehicles have
arrived, the people of Hadamar watch the smoke rising from the
chimney and are upset by the constant thought of the poor victims.
This is especially so whenever they are troubled by the unpleasant
smells after the wind changes direction.
The effect of the principles being carried out here [are as follows]:
children taunt each other with the words—‘You’re not very clever,
you’ll end up in the Hadamar baking ovens’; those who don’t want to
get married or don’t have the chance [say]—‘Get married, never! Bring
children into the world just to be put down!’ You hear from old
people—‘I won’t go into any state hospital! After the weak-minded, the
old will be the next into the ranks of the useless eaters!’
All God-fearing people feel this extermination of the helpless is an
almighty crime. And if this is the same as saying that Germany cannot
win the war if there is still a just God, then these statements are not
caused by a lack of love for the Fatherland, but rather from a deeply
concerned frame of mind about our Volk. The population just cannot
understand that systematic actions are being carried out which,
according to section 211 of the statutory law book, are punishable by
death. The authority of the government as a moral concept is
suffering a dreadful trauma because of these events. The official news
that N.N. has died from an infectious disease and that as a result the
corpse has had to be burned is no longer credible [a reference to the
official ‘cover story’]. The ethical value of the concept of authority is
still more adversely affected by such official reports which are no
longer believed.
Officials of the Gestapo are trying, as one hears, to suppress talk about
what is going on at Hadamar with severe threats. It might be with good
intention for the benefit of public peace, but it doesn’t alter the
knowledge, conviction and indignation of the population. The
conviction is multiplied by the bitter knowledge that talk is banned by
threat, but that the actions themselves are not prosecuted under the law.
The facts speak for themselves.
Source: Trial of the Major War Criminals, 1947, document 615-PS

Ten days earlier Bishop von Galen of Münster had preached a public sermon in which he
identified specific victims of euthanasia and prophesied doom if the German people tolerated
the transgression of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. In the same month, the
euthanasia action was stopped, apparently just as it had been started—on Hitler’s personal
Although euthanasia drew the most obvious attention of senior Catholic
churchmen, there were other, even other racial, themes which had an impact at the
local level. The spectacular defeat of Poland in autumn 1939 led to the introduction
of millions of Poles, most of whom were Catholic, into Germany as industrial and
agricultural slave labour. While the government expected the labourers to remain as
separate as possible from the German population, some local Catholic churchmen
tried to place common religion above nationality. The following example shows what
happened when one local Nazi official found out about this Christian charity.

Document 3.13 The Poles
On Sunday 18 Feb 1940 in his church the Catholic priest of
Schallodenbach, Chaplain Seitz, told the parents of the village to
stop their children doing things to these Volksdeutsche!! [ethnic
Germans] from Poland—that is to say swearing at them. The
mother of the priest after the service gathered these Poles around
her in front of the church and chatted with them—as much as was
possible. They then took the Poles into the priest’s house where
they served the Poles coffee according to their own admission.
Only in the evening did the Poles return to their bosses….
I request that this matter be followed up.
Source: Ortsgruppenleiter of Schallodenbach to the Kreisleiter of
Kaiserslautern, 23 February 1940, quoted in A.Doll (ed.),
Nationalsozialismus im Alltag, 1983, pp. 194ff.

The result was a Gestapo interrogation in which the priest continued to maintain he had
believed the workers had been ethnic Germans from Poland. With this, Himmler himself entered
the affair.

Document 3.14 Arrest
Concerning locum priest Friedrich Seitz, born 28 January 1905 in
The Reichsfόhrer-SS [Himmler] has ordered that locum priest
Friedrich Seitz be taken into protective custody. I request
that…[illegible]…news of the internment be relayed.
Source: Gestapo telex to Gestapo office, Neustadt, from Berlin, 19
April 1940, quoted in A.Doll (ed.), Nationalsozialismus im Alltag,
1983, p. 199

Whatever local churchmen may have felt, and irrespective of whether a genuine
misunderstanding underlay the case, the Nazi authorities were resolute that nothing would
undermine their racial stereotyping.
By the war years, then, the issue was the very survival of Christianity in Germany. Under
the circumstances, any concerted action aiming at a reassertion of Christian identity
amounted to opposition. In the context of a society which experienced a total war effort
against the USSR and the buckling of the military front in the East, Catholicism tried to
exploit for its own purposes the nation’s inevitable anxieties and losses. The following police
report from March 1943 shows how religious services were tailored to the popular psychology
of the time.

Document 3.15 Religion and Ritual
The Catholic Church…is developing an extraordinary phantasy in the way
funerals are arranged—so say the reports from the Catholic areas
unanimously. Consequently it is exercising a deep and lasting influence on
the relatives [of the dead] and the local population.
The focus of these events in honour of the dead are memorial services
or masses for the fallen soldier:
1 The memorial sarcophagus [Tumba] is decked in black and decorated
with flowers. Numerous candles burn at its side, a steel helmet and
crossed side arms lie on it.
2 Or instead of this, a symbolic soldier’s grave is set up in the church and
is richly covered with flowers, a birch cross and a steel helmet or an Iron
3 The cultish proceedings make special use of choirs and orchestral
pieces, processions of children and poetry readings.
4 Occasionally a side altar is transformed into an altar to the fallen
soldier. Under flowers and burning candles, pictures of the fallen
together with their names and their military decorations are set up.
Relatives and the population [in general] can bury themselves in the
memory of the fallen at any hour of the day.
Source: Police report, 1 March 1943, Federal Archive, Koblenz, R 58/181

The Catholic message received a welcome reception among the population. Police reports from August
1942 and April 1943 give the following anecdotes: civil servants and SA men who had left the church
for careerist reasons were returning in numbers, there were stories of soldiers who had left the church
returning for Communion before going to fight and during home leave, there were tales of dying SA
men requesting absolution, and rumours of escapes from death on the battlefield which could only be
explained by divine intervention (Boberach, 1971, pp. 718–20 and 810–19). This trade on human
vulnerability did enable Catholicism to fight National Socialism effectively in people’s minds.
By comparison to Catholicism, Protestantism was remarkably silent. Certainly individuals
did act against the government. For example, pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was actively associated
with the group which tried to blow up Hitler in July 1944. None the less, it took until October
1943 for the Old Prussian Union to speak out against what had long been going on.

Document 3.16 Words That Came Too Late
14 The sword is not given to the state to be used for killing beyond that
of the criminal and the enemy in war. Whatever else it does, is done
The churches 61
arbitrarily and to [the state’s] own detriment. If life is taken for any
reasons other than the appointed ones, then the trust between people is
subverted and then the community of the nation is destroyed. Concepts
such as ‘elimination’, ‘liquidation’ and ‘worthless life’ are not known to
God’s order. The annihilation of people, just because they are relatives of
a criminal, old or sick, or because they belong to a different race, is no
leadership of the sword as ordained by the rule of God.
Source: Statement of the Old, Prussian Union, 17 October 1943, quoted in
G.Denzler and V.Fabricus, Christen und Nationalsozialisten, 1993, p. 318

In other words, as far as the Protestant churches were concerned, even if euthanasia and racial
extermination were beyond the pale, capital punishment and killing at war were perfectly
acceptable morally—even when on behalf of Hitler’s ideology.
This depressing sidestep of clear thinking highlights the fact that while both churches
did try to assert themselves in some ways and to some extent over different issues during
the Second World War, it is still hard to identify a coherent Christian force likely to threaten
the very life of the regime. Dissent and dissatisfaction could even be undermined by an
acceptance of other characteristics of the Third Reich which should have been deplored. For
example, the Protestant churches never condemned the war (Denzler and Fabricus, 1993,
p. 189). At its start, pastor Klinger, an elected representative of 16,000 other pastors,
declared that ‘Greater Germany ’ was calling everyone to serve on the battlefield and that
God would bless them to ‘battle for our German Volk and Fatherland’ (Denzler and Fabricus,
1993, p. 191). Catholic leaders also failed to denounce either the invasion of Poland or the
atrocious methods used during the campaign. In fact one researcher found that for the
duration of the war, out of a Catholic male population that was 15.5 million strong, only
seven individuals actually refused military service (Zahn, 1963, p. 79). This in a church
whose peace movement had been 40,000 strong immediately after the First World War! At
no time, regardless of the revelations of the crimes which the National Socialist government
had committed during the war, was there any likelihood of either the Catholic Church in
Germany or the Papacy publicly withdrawing its support from the German government. More
typical sentiments are shown in a sermon given in 1944 by the same Bishop von Galen who,
three years before, had condemned euthanasia.

Document 3.17 The Anti-Communist
In this hour I must direct a word of greeting and acknowledgement to
our soldiers. I wish to express our gratitude to them for the loyal
protection they have furnished the Fatherland and its borders at the
price of unspeakable strains and sheer superhuman effort. In particular
for the defence against the assaults of godless Bolshevism! And a word
of deep-felt remembrance for those who, in the performance of their
duty, have offered their lives and their last drop of blood for their
brothers. May these all-sacrificing efforts succeed in winning for us an
honourable and victorious peace!
Source: Bishop von Galen, sermon of September 1944, quoted in
G.C.Zahn, German Catholics and Hitler’s War, 1963, pp. 137–8
Catholics were encouraged to meet their military duties in part on the assumption that
Bolshevism was actually a greater threat to Germany and Christianity than National Socialism.
Christians went along with more than the war effort. Both individuals and institutions
to varying extents fell into line with even the Third Reich’s racialism. It was both sad and
ironic that, notwithstanding the complaints of the likes of the Bishop of Limburg (document
3.12, pp. 57–8), the euthanasia project was often carried out by welfare institutions
backed by Christian charities, indeed which were staffed by Christian nurses. Interviewed
in 1961 by the police, a Protestant nurse involved in 210 euthanasia killings tried to
square her beliefs with her actions. She had already explained that she felt that in some
cases euthanasia was justified by the severity of the victim’s handicap and suffering, but
that in others it was not

Document 3.18 A Christian Killing
Answer:…. I certainly subscribe to the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
If I did carry out killings with my own hands then I have to admit that
I broke this Commandment. As I explained in my [previous] interviews,
however, I did not overlook this Commandment lightly, but rather I only
carried out the orders after severe inner conflicts.
Question: When you speak of severe inner conflicts, your argument
only seems justified in those cases where it was a matter of (to use your
own words and opinions) ‘justified cases’. On the other hand it is hard to
follow your thinking about what you regarded as ‘unjustified cases’ [for
Answer: As regards the cases which I believed to be unjustified, my
thoughts, which I described as severe mental [or spiritual] conflicts, were
particularly profound. I had to take into consideration that the doctor,
who in the end was only a person too, could make a mistake in the
diagnosis and prognosis. So it was clear to me that in cooperating in the
killing I was offending seriously against the law of God and morality. My
blame could only be alleviated by the fact that I strongly believed that the
doctor would not make a mistake. But since I could not rule out entirely
the possibility of him making a mistake, I prayed to God that he would
forgive me in such a case. Incidentally, as regards the severely ill people
who were tracked down by the doctors and transferred to us for killing, I
had to assume that it was a question of such people who were so sick that
even if the doctor had made a mistake, I still had to regard it as a welcome
I regard it as important to say that the attitude of a person to life and
death is dependent on the situation in which the person finds herself. I
spent my whole life in nursing and so have experienced life and death more
than most people. By that I don’t mean that I became hardened by
experiencing suffering, but only that my standpoint and perspective on
these human problems was different. It was clear to me in each case that a
person was killed, but I didn’t see this killing as murder, but rather as a
Source: A.Ebbinghaus (ed.), Opfer und Tδterinnen, 1987, pp. 234–6

Comparable interviews with Catholic nurses underline the message that Christian belief did not stand
in the way of compulsory euthanasia. A nurse involved in 150 cases also justified the policy to herself
as providing a merciful release. Then she added the following.

Document 3.19 Blessed Release
We endeavoured to make the final journey of the selected patients as easy as
possible. In this connection it occurs to me that one female patient was
strongly Catholic and on the last day she asked if she could be given the last
rites by a Catholic priest before [being killed]. I can still remember clearly
and can say with absolute certainly that the Catholic priest was informed
before the killing and that the patient, who at least on this day was perfectly
rational, was given the last rites by the priest.
Source: A.Ebbinghaus (ed.), Opfer und Tδterinnen, 1987, pp. 237–8

The very fact that Catholic services were meaningful to the victim makes us wonder how bad her condition
really was.
Whatever the rationalisations and justifications for participating in licensed murder, the
nurses knew they were doing something wrong. As a result, it is doubly regrettable that senior
church figures did not speak out at an earlier point to condemn the killing process. The likes
of these nurses were ripe for persuading. Perhaps lives could have been saved. Although Bishops
von Galen and Hilfrich did complain during the summer of 1941, it is by no means clear that
the euthanasia project was wound up because of their protests. At the time he commissioned
the euthanasia action, Hitler suggested that 65,000 to 70,000 people would be killed (Denzler
and Fabricus, 1993, pp. 132–33)).. BBy the summer of 1941 that figure had been surpassed. The
euthanasia project may have been stopped simply because it had run its course.
So what of the relationship between the Protestant and Catholic churches and the wartime
persecution of the Jews? Certainly individuals spoke out against anti-Semitism. Father
Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest from Berlin, led his congregation in prayer for Germany ’s Jews
and openly condemned anti-Semitic propaganda. He was arrested in summer 1941 and died
64 Resistance and conformity
in prison two years later. Bishop Preysing even approached the Pope in spring 1943 to make
a public declaration on the Jewish Question. Unfortunately Pius XII replied simply that he had
said all that he had to say on the matter already (Denzler and Fabricus, 1993, p. 171). Quiet
condemnation of anti-Jewish persecutions, but reluctance to take a really meaningful stand
against them, seemed pretty typical. As a result, some church organisations even became
compromised by anti-Semitic policy. Consider the following circular taken from the Lutheran
Church in Eutin.

Document 3.20 Information
By order of the Minister for Church Affairs, you should report how
many Jews have been admitted to the Protestant Church between 1934
and 1940 by baptism. The numbers are to be given separately by years.
Reports should be made by 15 Feb of this year. A notification of missing
information is also necessary.
Source: Protestant-Lutheran Landeskirche Eutin to all parish councils, 27
January 1941, quoted in L.D.Stokes, Kleinstadt und Nationalsozialismus,
1984, p. 672

Should church authorities really have had anything at all to do with gathering information about
people who were clearly stigmatised for racial persecution? Even more disappointingly, and as two
historians explain below, Protestant congregations actually helped to have Jews deported—albeit
from the ‘best’ of motives.

Document 3.21 Helping Hands
[A] large Jewish family which had converted to the Protestant faith
belonged to the community of Alt-Stephani-Sud and had found a new
spiritual homeland there. The Abrahams were…perfectly integrated into
the communities and took an equal part in community life. The testing
time came when in October 1941 the imminent transportation of
Bremen’s Jews to the East was made known. Many parish members
brought the Abrahams family warm clothing for the cold Polish winter—
people really didn’t know what was waiting for the Jews. Greiffenhagen
[an influential member of the religious community], who had been
called up to the army in 1939, but who was on home leave in his
community, held a service, in which after the Holy Communion he
particularly blessed them and spoke of their courage.
Source: I.Marίolek and R.Ott, Bremen im Dritten Reich, 1986, p. 298

Certainly this Protestant congregation was interested in alleviating the suffering of this ‘Jewish’
family as they were deported—hence the service in their honour and the collection of warm
clothing—none the less, its energies would have been better spent opposing the very deportation
of the Abrahams in the first place!
So during the years of the Third Reich, the churches did promote the flame of humane
values in a number of ways, and yet somehow Christian morality was far from achieving all
we might have expected. Typically, its opposition was ‘issue driven’ (that is to say involving
piecemeal reactions to individual, concrete actions such as the withdrawal of crucifixes from
schools, the appointment of a German Christian as Reich Bishop or euthanasia) rather than
rooted in a coherent, politically active anti-Nazi morality. The churches and their followers
generally were more interested in defending their religious ‘space’ and surviving attack than
in becoming society ’s moral guardians. They wanted to write themselves into the overall
trajectory of the Third Reich rather than alter its direction per se. A Christian crusade, a ‘caring’
type of euthanasia, deportations so long as the Jews did not suffer too much—the evidence
suggests that an uncomfortable number of clergy and churchgoers alike would not object so
long as they could understand the Third Reich in these ways. As a result, under conditions of
crisis and war, far too many churchmen and Christians adopted positions of basic conformity
with the government. It was the extensiveness of Hitler’s vision (namely to destroy Christianity
and claim the individual for National Socialism alone), more than the inviolability of Christian
principles, which made an ultimate compromise between the churches and the state impossible.
Why wasn’t church-based opposition in Germany more ambitious and outward looking?
Fear, patriotism and misconceived church leadership all played a part, but an additional insight
lies in the way people understood and interpreted their Christian beliefs. Christa Bielmann
was a young member of a broadly oppositional Catholic discussion group during the 1930s.
With disarming honesty she has tried to explore her reasons for failing to do more against the
Third Reich. In her memoirs she characterised the limitations of her earlier beliefs.

Document 3.22 The Limits of Beilmann’s Catholicism
‘Seize the day, which God is giving you, firmly in your hands, and in
your heart the names of those whom you love. And do not ask questions.
In this way you will live better through the time and save strength.’ We
believed this and lived accordingly. Do not ask. Despite the facts which
confronted us, there was no rebellion. Not once did we argue with God,
who sent it all and let it all happen; we did not mistrust his creation in
which his people could cause such mischief.
To get no answer to the question about the meaning of everything
only suited heathens. We were surrounded by answers. At the time we
did not see that they were a cage. Our capacity to question as a rule was
suffocated before it could develop; suffocated by a set of meanings with a
complete question and answer system in which no question was left over.
We were secure in this Catholic Cosmos. That everything has its
meaning in God’s order—this belief supported us so much that we lived
through the war and National Socialism relatively regardless. Lived
through, but overcame?
Why didn’t we question? Was it self-protection? Could one question
that which underpinned everything else? Was it worry at seeing the world
as it really is, to be exposed to the things of this world? Guardini said:
‘Things are not harmonious, only beliefs are.’ We did not come across
the idea of questioning whether belief in the order in which everything
has its meaning, is, perhaps, to be doubted. But doubt as a word did not
occur to us once….
A decisive element in this whole…is the will of God. We had to live
according to this will, [and] we did live [according to it].
It was our task to praise this sense of the whole, to glorify [it] through
a holy life, to serve it, to make sacrifices to it, to be true to it, to profess
it. It was necessary to listen to the voice of God, to obey the will of God.
We learned to meditate on and inquire after [what existed already].
We did not learn: to think, to question, to test, to investigate, to
contest, to discuss, to debate, to decide, to put in order, to arrange, to
exercise power, to put right and to protect—in short, these activities of a
free, responsible person were not our affair. We were not practised in the
ability of altering anything, rather we were predestined to preserve what
was given. We did not discuss, whether anything could be changed. We
were reason-able: ‘We cannot change it, we will endure it—for the
greater glory of God!’ Whatever was declared the will of God—and often
it happened very quickly (even without the assistance of priests)—
whatever was sanctioned, was to be accepted….
We knew, and a few even saw, that people with whom up until then we
had lived peacefully were being transported away—although we had had
prejudgements (‘dirty Jews, sharks; red-blue Polish woman, Polish
economy; the gypsies are coming, get the children inside’). They had
gone, disappeared from sight.
We didn’t know anything about the death factories in the
concentration camps. We had no real idea at all about the crimes
against people practised ‘normally’ in the concentration camps. We
experienced nothing of the unimaginable mass murders. But what
would have happened if we had known about it? What would have
changed? Nothing! We would have let these crimes happen too: the
industrialised deaths of millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies, those
of different political opinions.
The knowledge takes your breath away. I cannot understand how it
could have been done in the middle of a population which really was
civilised, which ate and drank and slept and went on the same as ever.
The wall, which was around us, it did not let us see it! I cannot get my
head around it, I cannot grasp that this wall existed, and that we had not
broken through it. We were guilty by virtue of our deficient
consciousness of ourselves, of our historical political situation. The
cheerful certainty, not to have been to blame, is a part of this blame.
Continuous pain and sorrow remain.
Source: C.Beilmann, ‘Eine Jugend im katholischen Milieu’, 1991, pp. 58–9, 71–2

Beilmann’s Catholicism was a prison. Her sentence was to endure, not to think and to change. Activism just
was not an option. Something comparable constrained the euthanasia nurse who did not refuse to kill but
prayed for forgiveness instead (document 3.18, pp. 62–3). Maybe Martin Niemöller was similarly afflicted
when he failed to see that an attack on Germany’s Jews constituted an attack on the very foundations of
all he held dear (document 3.7, p. 53). On this evidence, Christ’s ultimate commandment to ‘love thy
neighbour as thy self’ somehow had been either confused or forgotten. Christianity had become
something for individuals to apply in their own minds as a means to coming to terms with an unjust world,
even as a means to accommodating their conformity to its ‘sinful’ demands. It was not a moral stance from
which to criticise and shape reality; it was not an ethical foundation on which to build a just reality. Part of
our conclusion has to be that churchgoers only opposed the Third Reich within limits because their
interpretation of Christianity did not prepare them for anything more. In this sense, and sad to say, the
failure of the churches involved a failure of belief.

* Martyn Housden,
Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich (Routledge Sources in History)
[Αντίσταση και Συμβιβασμός στο Τρίτο Ράιχ],
Routledge, 1997,
pp./σσ. 46-67.

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