THE NAZI CHALLENGE TO
THE GERMAN PROTESTANT CHURCH
by Victoria J. Barnett
General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition
Director for Church Relations, US Holocaust Museum
At the beginning of the twentieth century the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church was a loose confederation of regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches. It had a long tradition of nationalism and loyalty to state authority. Like most of the German population, Protestants were tired of the political turbulence of the Weimar years. They feared the threat of Communism, and, in light of their defeat during World War I, they resented other European countries. By 1933, with the installation of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, many German Protestant leaders were ready to welcome the new Nazi government. They believed that Adolf Hitler would be a strong leader who could revive Germany's economic stability and national pride. Many aspects of Nazi ideology, including its nationalism, anti-Semitism and emphasis on traditional values appealed to German Protestants.
But the Protestant Church would soon prove to be a stumbling block to Hitler's plans to "nazify" German society, including its churches. The reason was a reaction to the emergence of the Deutsche Christen (German Christian) church, a nationalistic Protestant group that identified with Nazi ideology and hoped to create a national Reich Church that would embody Nazi ideals. The German Christians won the national church elections in July 1933 and quickly tried to enforce their agenda, which included the adoption of "Aryan laws" within the church (permitting only racially pure Germans to hold church positions) and the eradication of all Jewish influences from Christian scriptures, liturgies and hymns.
If they agreed with many of the political aims of the Nazi regime, many Protestant clergy and leaders nevertheless found the German Christian agenda to be ideologically tainted and anti-Christian. A new movement emerged, led by prominent preachers and theologians like Martin Niemoeller and Karl Barth, that opposed the German Christians: the Confessing Church. Founded on the principle that a truly Christian church would not succumb to the demands of political ideology, the Confessing Church argued that the principles of belief were to be found in the scriptures, not in Nazi laws, and that the head of the Church was Christ, not a political Fuhrer. These convictions placed the Confessing Church on a collision course not only with the German Christians, but with the Nazi dictatorship itself.
Nazi authorities responded by harassing local Confessing congregations and arresting their more outspoken pastors. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian who wrote the Confessing Church's founding faith statement, the Barmen Declaration of Faith, lost his professorship in Bonn and returned to Switzerland in 1935 after refusing to take a loyalty oath. Martin Niemoeller, the most prominent Confessing pastor in Germany, would ultimately spend seven years in Nazi prisons and concentration camps.
Under such pressures, many argued that the Protestant Church in general should confine its witness purely to church affairs and refrain from political criticism of the Nazi regime. Even the Confessing Church, despite its courageous beginnings, became more intimidated by Nazi authorities with each passing year. It was divided between moderates who sought compromise with the Nazi regime and radicals who felt called to political opposition. While some Confessing Christians offered resistance against the regime and attempted to rescue its victims, most Protestants sought only to maintain an "apolitical" church, free of Nazi influences – not acknowledging that, in Nazi Germany, such neutrality inevitably meant silence about Nazi injustice and terror.
Although he was only 27 years of age in when Hitler became Chancellor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gained early prominence as one of the most radical voices in the Confessing Church. Even before the Confessing Church was founded Bonhoeffer raised the question of church resistance against what he described as the illegitimate use of state authority. Throughout the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer retained an uncanny ability to pinpoint and critique those aspects of Protestant tradition, such as subservience to state authority, that paralyzed his church and ultimately prevented it from offering greater resistance to Nazism. And in his writings he raised more universal questions, based on his experience in the Confessing Church and then in the resistance, about the viability of religious faith in an ideological age and the ethical demands of fighting against evil.
Tragically, Bonhoeffer's prophetic voice was silenced only weeks before the Allied victory. Yet the German Protestant church that emerged from the ashes in 1945 was a very different one from the predominantly nationalistic church that had greeted Hitler in 1933. In the October 1945 Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt its leaders acknowledged their guilt and complicity in the Nazi reign of terror. In the decades since, Bonhoeffer's writings and witness have continued to inspire and influence German Protestants as well as Christians throughout the world.
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