The National-Socialists are sometimes portrayed as ardent foes of Christianity. What were the true facts in this controversial matter?
An oft-repeated canard suggests the German National Socialists were hostile to Christianity. Entire books, such as John S. Conway’s The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-1946,1 have been written to explicate this myth. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Adolf Hitler and many of his supporters were friendly to the Christian churches and their cause.
The National Socialist Party program, officially published in February 1920, included a section on Christianity. Point 24 of the 25-point program stated:
We demand freedom for all religious denominations in the State so far as they are not a danger to it and do not militate against the customs and morality of the German Volk. The Party as such stands for Positive Christianity, but does not bind itself in the matter of creed to any particular denomination. It fights the spirit of Jewish materialism within and outside of our ranks and is convinced our nation can achieve permanent health from within only on the principle: „Common welfare comes before individual welfare.“2
The statement was carefully crafted, reflecting the general National Socialist principle of non-interference in church matters. While refusing to endorse any particular Christian denomination or doctrinal perspective, it clearly endorsed „Positive Christianity“ and religious freedom. Churches in a National Socialist-dominated German state would be free to fulfill their missions, as long as they did not threaten civil order or national security, or advance beliefs and causes that violated historic German ethics and morals.
Certainly not all National Socialists shared this view. Within the party were two powerful forces. One, represented by men like Alfred Rosenberg (who later became Reichsminister for the Occupied Eastern Regions), wanted to see Germany become an atheistic state. The other, represented by men like Hanns Kerrl (who later became Reichsminister for Church Affairs), endorsed Christianity. But it was Kerrl, not Rosenberg, who was in the majority. In recognition of the party’s partnership with churches in its effort to remake Germany, storm troopers were required to attend worship services in their uniforms.
Although Hitler made no profession of faith, he refused to identify himself with the anti-Christian views of some of his associates, such as Rosenberg. In addition, he frequently made mention of „the Almighty“ and ‘Providence“ in his speeches, as well as attacking two of Christianity’s opposites: Marxism and atheism.
The National Socialists showed no direct interest in either theological matters nor those issues they considered relevant only to the internal life of the church. In 1938, therefore, the National Socialists rightfully could boast that they had not interfered in the religious life of the churches:
The irrevocable truth is that religious life in Germany, under the protection of the National Socialist state, unfolds more freely and undisturbed. No form of Godlessness or blasphemy is tolerated and the churches as well as their religious affairs are secure, undisturbed, and free of problems in a way that is unprecedented in history and almost unknown in any other country on earth.3
In 1935, an article in a National Socialist publication made clear the distinction between what was „political“, and what was „religious“. According to the author:
Political is everything which in the earthly forms of organization, word, picture and demeanor, appears for the benefit of the Volk, even if it has the least meaning. Religious is everything which in earthly form is incomprehensible, like belief in heaven, eternity, and longing for things which are beyond the visible world.4
Because of their commitment to a strict separation of church and state, the National Socialists insisted that churches should play no active part in the political developments of the Reich. As long as the churches confined themselves to religious matters, their freedom was guaranteed.
If tension erupted between the churches and the National Socialist state, it was because the churches had overstepped their religious boundaries and entered into the world of politics, the National Socialists argued.5
To the majority of the Protestant clergy and laity, the National Socialist call for the separation of religion and politics was neither new nor unwelcome. It was something that was basic to the Lutheran tradition of „the Separate Kingdoms“ – one earthly, and the other heavenly.6 Jesus’s call to „render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s“ historically had been interpreted as meaning a separation between politics (Caesar) and religion (God). At the beginning of 1932, there were 28 provincial Protestant churches in Germany, all with similar patterns of organization. They were all headed either by bishops or superintendents with synods serving as their governing bodies. They were all independent of political government control.
Later that year, a group of pastors and lay people within the Protestant churches formed the Bewegung Deutscher Christen (Movement of German Christians) with Pastor Joachim Hossenfelder as their leader. Their stated aim was to revitalize Protestant Christianity by transforming the church into a German Volkskirche (Folk-church). Control of this church would rest with pastors and the laity, rather than with the bishops and superintendents.7 The Deutsche Christen espoused „Positive Christianity“ – a term used by the National Socialists in their program.8 In a speech in the Berlin Sports Palace on November 13, 1933, Dr. Reinhold Krause argued that God was fulfilling His plan for Germany through the advent of Hitler:
That which a thousand years of German history could not accomplish, which Bismarck could not attain, has been realized by God through the strength of our leader, Adolf Hitler… When it comes to the question of governing, we need only one power – the authority of Adolf Hitler and his advisers.9
Disillusioned by the economic crisis of the Great Depression, many Germans left the church, especially between 1930 and 1933. With Hitler’s rise to power, however, this trend was reversed. National Socialist encouragement for and friendliness toward Christian faith found ready and receptive ears in German communities, leading to revival in the churches.10 The presence of leading National Socialist members at church services and Hitler’s attacks on „godless Marxism“, „Jewish materialism,“ and decaying morality, together with the government’s call for the exercise of authority and leadership and the renewal of morals, provided clear evidence to average Germans that the National Socialists were pro-Christian – so much so, in fact, that the year 1933 became known as „The Year of the Church.“11
1John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-1945 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968).
2Alfred Rosenberg, editor, Das Parteiprogramm: Wesen, Grundsätze und Ziele der NSDAP, 21. Aufl. (Munich: Parteidruckerei, 1941), p. 15.
3Walther Hofer, Nationalsozialismus. Dokumente, 1933-1945 (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1961), p. 133.
4“Positives Christentum,“ Wille und Macht (April 15, 1935).
5Hofer, op.cit. (Note 3), p. 136.
6For a thorough discussion of Martin Luther’s theology, including this aspect, see Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 55-75.
7Martin Broszat, Der Staat Hitlers (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1969), p. 285.
8A. J. Ryder, Twentieth-Century Germany: From Bismarck to Brandt (New York: Columbia UP, 1973), p. 281.
9Quoted in: Paul F. Douglas, God Among the Germans (Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P., 1935), pp. 81-82.
10Broszat, op.cit. (Note 7), p. 286.
11Friedrich Zipfel, Kirchenkampf in Deutschland, 1933-1945: Statistiken für Berlin (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1965), p. 18.