Demythologizing Protestant Christianity’s Relationship with Nazi Germany
What would the Bible look like without the Old Testament? What would the New Testament look like without the Epistles? And what would the Gospels look like without a single mention of sin or grace?
Add to these the omission of any reference to Christ’s Resurrection, the substitution of heil (“hail”) for hosanna (“save us”), and refusal to acknowledge Jesus as a Jew or as the long-awaited Messiah, and one begins to get a picture of the Deutsch Christen (“German Christian Faith”) Movement. German Protestant pastors began this undertaking in the late 1920s, aiming to endear themselves and their religion to the Nazi regime. The strongest intellectual arm, Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einfl usses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben (“Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life”), was officially disbanded with the conclusion of World War Two.
Today, much speculation and projection surrounds the nature of this church-funded movement, its influence on German society, the Nazi political response and the theological backlash from Catholic and Protestant Christians. In popular discourse, Hitler and his regime are commonly viewed as the embodiment of evil; to associate or analogize anything to Nazism is to unequivocally condemn it as defective at best and diabolical at worst.
And yet, despite popular, contradictory statements like “Hitler supported Christianity,” or “Hitler was the Antichrist,” the historical relationship between church and state, as well as Christian attitudes toward Hitler and the Nazi regime, were more complex. This paper employs German Christian declarations, state-sponsored propaganda, and scholarly works like Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus and Doris Bergen’s Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich to argue that the short-lived, early twentieth century alliance that the German Christian Faith Movement made with political Nazism was tenuous and mutually opportunistic. Thus, as the Nazi vision for Germany never included an organized, supranational religion, and certainly not one whose holy book commanded submission, meekness, and love for one’s enemy, the state supported the institutionalized religion insofar as it was useful in rallying religious Germans to their nationalistic, anti-Semitic cause. This, I contend, explains why the German Christian movement ultimately failed to gain ideological dominance over the nation.
This study begins with an investigation of the movement’s grassroots beginnings, its deepest anti-Semitic theology, its goals for creating the Institute, and the Institute’s projects. It then moves to an examination of how the Nazi regime encouraged and exploited this new theology of a manly, Aryan, Jew-fighting Jesus to further unify the German Volk (“people”) and fuel radical anti-Semitism. I subsequently trace the trajectory of the Nazi party’s vague support for the German Christian Movement in the 1930s to a complete disavowal of the organization in the early 1940s. I finish with a meditation on political idolatry and the folly of designing God into our own image for the sake of furthering any human-conceived agenda.
The German Christian Movement
Its Origins and Vision
In her book Twisted Cross, Bergen describes the ideological currents that eventually gave rise to the popularity of the German Christian movement. The most general of such currents was comprised of those within the established Protestant church who, having beheld the economic stagnation and wounded national pride that Germany had been subjected to at the disgraceful end of the First World War, were set on “reviving church life through increased emphasis on German culture and ethnicity.”
A more specific example can be found in teachings of Siegfried Leffler and Julius Leutheuser, two pastors from the state Thuringia in east-central Germany. In the 1920s, they “had been preaching religious renewal along nationalist, völkisch lines.” Seeing hope in the Nazi party, which at that time was only one party in a sea of competition for control over the otherwise ineffective Weimar Republic, they dubbed their teaching and followers German Christians. By 1932, observing the rising popularity of Nazi party, some laity and other political and religious leaders met in Berlin to discuss how to integrate Christian theology with National Socialist ideology. Nazi flags draping the altar and sermons declaring Jesus’ antagonistic attitude towards the Jews only began the long list of modifications pastors made to their individual parishes as a result of this ongoing discussion.
One specific example of this new ideological rhetoric was expressed in Hanover German Christian leader Gerhard Hahn’s 1934 pamphlet piece, entitled “Christuskreuz und Hakenkreuz” (“The Cross of Christ and the Swastika”). Found in a journal sponsored by the movement, the article outlined the basic tenets and rationales of this new order in lay terms.
The cross of Christ and the swastika do not need to oppose each other, and must not do so, but rather they can and should stand together. One should not dominate the other, but rather each should maintain its own meaning and significance.
The cross of Christ points toward heaven and admonishes us: remember that you are Christian people, carried by the eternal love of the heavenly father, free through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, sanctified by the power of God’s spirit.
The swastika, however, points to the world as a divine creation and admonishes us: remember that you are German, born in German territory to parents of German blood, filled with the German spirit and essence, formed according to German nature.
Both together, however, the cross of Christ and the swastika, admonish us: remember that you are German Christian people and should become ever more whole German Christian people, and remain so!
The preponderance of the adjective “German” makes this pamphlet the epitome of interpreting the Gospel as a means to nationalistic ends. Also, despite the orthodox theology Hahn employs in the second paragraph, the rest of it could be categorized as fallacious non sequiturs, where the conclusions do not logically follow from the arguments. The same could be said of the vast majority of known Deutsch Christen writings, in which misapplications of Scripture, proof-texting, and logical fallacies abound.
Later on in the same article, Hahn recalled another German Christian pastor justifying the movement’s vision to embody the merging of the two symbols:
The church stands here under the cross of Jesus Christ; the German people stands there, which under the symbol of the swastika has awakened.
In past decades, the subversive powers of liberalism, materialism, and Bolshevism alienated millions of German people’s comrades from the German nation. It is doubtless God’s grace that our Führer Adolf Hitler has once again won back to the nation the German people’s comrade and the German worker. Hitler could and had to achieve his goal, because he broke totally from the past and followed the entirely different, yet ancient, path of National Socialism.
In past decades, these satanic powers alienated millions of our German people’s comrades from the Evangelical Church. It is the holy duty and solemn goal of our movement of faith, the “German Christians,” to win back the German people’s comrade and the German worker, with God’s help, to the Evangelical Church. To do that, we want to, and must, follow a different, yet ancient path in the church, namely the path of Martin Luther that leads to a deep connection of church and people, of Christianity and German nature.
Rife in this excerpt are allusions to a tumultuous battle between a holy, pro-German God and a Satan incarnate in divergent political ideologies. The triumph of National Socialism over the power of communism affirmed God’s providential hand in all the events leading to Hitler’s success and the nation’s subsequent success. Dean Stroud, historian and compiler of subversive sermons preached in Nazi Germany, comments: “Hitler was the German savior and Jews were the devil incarnate. Both Christianity and Nazism spoke of a Reich (“empire” or “kingdom”), but they had vastly different understandings about its meaning.” To label communists and Jews “satanic” and parasitically entrenched in German culture was to further impress upon readers that God was on the side of Germany, the Nazis, and everyone in the church who decided to align themselves with National Socialism. Consequently, in the eyes of the German Christian leaders, resistance to the Nazis was paramount to rejecting almighty God.
Here one can already see that though the movement might have benefited from Nazi rhetorical support, it began as a grassroots undertaking by Protestant clergy. It cannot be claimed that the Church bears no responsibility for the creation of a nationalistic theology that supported Hitler. Though the published writings and speeches of German Christian leaders make it difficult to determine whether they were cynical opportunists or fawning devotees, scholar Mary Solberg notes their motivations ranged widely: from currying personal favor with the new regime to climbing the German political power ladder, and from acting out of fear of being seen as unpatriotic to redeeming the disgrace that Germany suffered at the end of World War I.
Anti-Semitism as Common Ground
It is important to realize that the racial anti-Semitism which characterized Nazi Germany was not an invention of the National Socialists, but rather a radicalization of many social and religious factors which predated Hitler’s rise to power. One only has to think of the French Dreyfus Affair forty years earlier to realize that anti-Semitism was not even unique to Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism was born out of long-standing cultural stigmas reaching back to the economic and societal make-up of the Middle Ages; Medieval Europeans also perpetuated the Biblical misinterpretation that blamed Jews for the ultimate, unforgivable sin of killing Christ. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, bear the historical guilt of perpetuating this story into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For Germany, this religious justification for anti-Semitism manifested itself in the church long before Hitler came to power or the German Christian movement was conceived.But in 1937, as the German Christian movement continued gaining popular momentum, they came out with an official statement that reinforced the pre-existing Christian anti-Semitism:
The National Church Movement German Christian stands for an overcoming and eradication of all Jewish and foreign völkisch spirit in church teaching and ways of life and confesses German Christianity to be the racially appropriate religion of the German Volk. Christ is not the scion and fulfiller of Judaism but rather its deadly enemy and conqueror.
Even Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were invoked as validation for the ideological marginalization and physical dehumanization of Jews. Nazi Christians claimed that: “In the Nazi treatment of Jews and its ideological stance, Luther’s intentions, after centuries, are being fulfilled.”Anti-Semitism was the single factor that both the National Socialists and the German Christian movement could wholeheartedly agree upon, and both saw this commonality as an opportunity to gain an upper hand on the other.
For indeed, beyond this noxiously celebrated similarity, they were engaged in a power struggle for popular German loyalty. In the words of Heschel,
Nazism did not present racial anti-Semitism as antithetical to Christian theological anti-Judaism; rather, Nazi ideology was a form of supersession, a usurpation and colonization of Christian theology, especially its anti-Semitism, for its own purposes. The theology of the Institute was a similar effort at supersessionism in reverse, taking over elements of Nazi racial ideology to bolster and redefine the Christian message. The result was an uneasy competition between two sides seeking popular support and institution control, though access to power was, of course, highly asymmetrical.
The Institute and Its Projects
The popularity of the movement grew throughout the 1930s, as demonstrated by the increasing representation of German Christians in national church leadership elections. The early-1930s saw the height of the Nazi-Deutsche Christen cooperation, as Nazi party member Ludwig Müller was elected to the newly created position of Reich Bishop in 1933. Though he had no seminary training to speak of, he then became responsible for supporting and presiding over German Christian pastors and scholars.
Despite these political advances, there are no accurate records of the numbers of the movement’s adherents due to both the frequency of the movement’s internal fragmentation and its increasingly awkward relationship with political Nazism from late-1933 onwards.Bergen estimates roughly 600,000 Germans were members by the mid-1930s. So while the German Christian Faith Movement never came close to becoming the factional majority in the Protestant Church, their public influence became disproportionately substantial, due in large part to the establishment of this theological organization, popularly known as the Entjudungsinstitut (“the dejudaization institute”).
Opened in May 1939 at Wartburg Castle in Thuringia, Germany, the Institute remained the strongest and most influential operation of the movement for the six years of its operation. It was here that Protestant scholars like Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch assumed massive projects to buttress National Socialist ideology (including the pseudo-deification of Hitler) with religious rhetoric and to marginalize the Jew from a theological perspective.
These projects included editing the Christian Bible, modifying hymns and prayers, defining the historical Jesus as Aryan, and creating new meaning for Christian sacraments. In all these things, the Institute’s publications and statements reflected a determination to 1) oppose traditional church doctrine, 2) promote radical anti-Semitism, and 3) create a “manly” church. They revised the Ten Commandments (e.g. “You shall do no murder…But whosoever tries to ruin him morally, or threatens to assault him, destroys the national fellowship and makes himself deserving of the severest punishment before God and men.”); condensed the gospels and epistles into a volume known as Die Botschaft Gottes (“The Message of God”); insisted that Jesus was a Jew-fighter who was put to death because of that; and created hymnals that depicted soldiers, flags, and families. Inasmuch as they succeeded in attaining those goals, the Nazi party did not publically oppose them since, as Heschel writes, “the moral and societal location of clergy and theologians len[t] greater weight to the propaganda of the Institute; propaganda coming from the pulpit call[ed] forth far deeper resonance that that spoken by a politician or journalist.”
Nazism’s Conflicting Rhetoric Regarding the German Christian Movement
The conflicting attitudes of the Nazi regime towards the German Christian movement cannot be examined in a chronologically neat progression. Rather, the rhetoric varied from speaker to speaker, from year to year, and from audience to audience; more importantly, action taken against the church did not always line up with the publicly propagated Nazi rhetoric.
I argue that Hitler’s creation of a “positive Christianity,” the quiet undermining of all church authority, and the Nazi support of a Germanic paganism all point to a principal reason why the German Christian movement never succeeded in attaining ideological supremacy in Nazi Germany. Simply put, the Nazi vision for Germany never included an organized, supranational religion. If there were to be a god, it would be the Führer himself with the nation as his kingdom. There was absolutely no room for a higher authority who mandated repentance, humility, and unconditional love as the true litmus tests for righteous living.
Hitler’s Positive Christianity
With several editions and an approximate total of 10,000 copies printed, the 1933 handbook published by German Christian leadership outlined ten guiding principles, the fifth of which declared, “We stand on the ground of positive Christianity. We confess an affirmative faith in Christ, one suited to a truly German Lutheran spirit and heroic piety.” Later on in the same document, in a series of statements regarding the role of the new Volkskirche (“People’s church”), Thuringian pastor and co-founder of the German Christian movement Julius Leutheuser wrote,
In a Vokskirche, faith in Christ that is not acted on is of no value. The act of believing in Christ is decisively expressed in opposition to all that is evil and in courageous determination to serve and to sacrifice…For this reason the people’s church recognizes as positive Christianity: Faith in Christ, Salvation through Christ, Acting out Christ.
Friedrich Wieneke, World War I German soldier, Nazi sympathizer, and post-war cathedral pastor, also mentioned the phrase, insisting that “Positive Christianity is and will ever remain a biblical Christianity. ‘Positive’ means nothing other than ‘fundamental.’”
“Affirmative,” “heroic,” “active,” “Biblical,” “fundamental”: these were all words that German Christians employed in describing “positive Christianity,” a phrase probably foreign to most Christians and non-Christians today. That is for good reason, as it was invented by Hitler himself. Interestingly, he did not describe it in quite the same way in a 1920 platform statement:
We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.
Solberg contends that Article 24 revealed Hitler’s willingness as early as the 1920s to cooperate with the Deutsche Christen movement because he realized his need for its support as he undertook his National Socialism campaign. Nevertheless, not only did this statement suggest that one’s identity as a Christian was tethered to one’s racial identity as Aryan, but it also implied the party’s sole authority to deem whatever Christian traditions or theology unlawful if it conflicted with Nazi social policy. As the years went on, more and more orthodox theology took a plunge down this slippery slope.
Lest there be any doubt or ambiguity, violations of positive Christianity, including criticism of the Nazi government or its policies to eradicate Jews, was condemned as ‘negative Christianity.’ And negative Christianity meant intimidation, prison time, trials, concentration camps, and death, as several Confessing Church members like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found out.
Signs of Reluctance and Eventual Disavowal
While the regime appeared to support the German Christian movement, it also sought to quietly suppress any excessive popularity on its part that might convince citizens that one’s German Christian identity was more important that loyalty to the Führer. Hitler himself was unsupportive of the German Christians originally calling themselves Protestant National Socialists, because it bore too close a resemblance to the Nazi party’s full name, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party”). Later, laws constrained German Christians from even labeling their cause a “movement,” restricting the usage of that term to official Nazi establishments.
And as early as 1933 (supposedly the height of Nazi-German Christian cooperation), Hitler saw to the forcible disbanding of church youth groups, requiring children to participate in Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls instead. Heschel takes these examples of Nazi noncompliance to mean that “the promise of full partnership, to which many in the German Christian movement had hoped their active support of Hitler would lead, did not materialize, and church leaders of all stripes found themselves increasingly held at a distance by the party and regime.”
Not only did the Nazi regime interfere with the growth of the movement’s popularity, but as early as 1933, they had also thrown their weight behind a neo-paganism called Gottgläubigkeit (“God Belief”). The various strands of this cult had begun to emerge at the turn of the century, and expressed the conviction that if only the German people look to their Nordic-Germanic roots, the nation would experience spiritual renewal. By the early 1940s, Heinrich Himmler not only advocated for Gottgläubigkeit, but also publically insisted that “We will have to deal with Christianity in a tougher way than hitherto. We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict.” It would seem as if Nazi leadership still perceived Christianity, even in the neutered form that Deutsch Christen professed, as too dangerous for its own good. A biopolitical, racially rooted cult would be easier to manipulate for Nazi ends.
God in Our Own Image, Literally
Throughout history, civil religious rhetoric has been invoked to celebrate and justify the endeavors of many a nation; conversely, since religions are not lived out in cultural vacuums, theological endeavors are capable of projecting political interpretations onto sacred texts in ways that are clearly suspect to those not living in that culture or age. Nazi Germany and the German Christian movement birthed by the Protestant tradition epitomize these respective historical tendencies.
For the National Socialists, Christianity was not so much a dangerous, antagonistic force as much as it was the main artery to many German citizens’ loyalty. If the populace could be convinced via state-issued propaganda and their very own German Christian movement that their religion supported Hitler’s regime, his anti-Semitic policies, and the elevation of the nation’s interests above personal conviction, then Nazi Germany would be unified and Hitler become all the more powerful. Concurrently, Hitler saw the German Christians as expendable; as soon as they fulfilled the role of supporting Nazi ideology with religious rhetoric and further inculcated anti-Semitism into German society, they were ushered out of the limelight so that the worship of the real lord, the Führer, could commence.
On the other side, the German Christians saw the Nazis’ rise to power in the early 1930s as an opportunity to demonstrate nationalistic loyalty and ally with a political power that was antagonistic towards Jews. Yet, in vying for some of the political, popular power held by the Nazi regime, but still wanting to retain the religious authority of the Protestant Church, they ended with neither. In the words of Bergen,
When it came to antidoctrinal faith, German Christians were reaping what they had sown. They had replaced belief with ritual, ethnicity, state sponsorship, and war as the core of their spiritual community. In the process, they perpetuated a church with neither authority nor integrity.
This is the legacy of the compromising church in Nazi Germany. When we create God in our own image we find ways to crucify Christ anew. Christ did not lose his life at the hands of monstrous, decrepit, ugly, eternal Jews; he gave his life for all of humanity so that he could redeem personal brokenness and overcome systematic injustice in all its forms, be it racism, classism, sexism, etc. Yes, he harrowed Hell, but we err egregiously if we think that Jesus was “a manly, heroic, fighting spirit,…killing one’s opponent without emotion but in accord with principles of natural law, in defense of one’s own race and at the cost of personal sacrifice.”
In the same vein, Jesus’ actual words stand in conflict to Reich Bishop Müller’s revision of the Sermon on the Mount, which celebrated strength, courage, comradeship, and manly endurance. Blessed indeed are the meek, for the true God is in the business of choosing what is foolish in the world to shame the wise and choosing what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Bonhoeffer underscores this truth in his one of his many subversive, negative Christianity-esque sermons, “Gideon”:
This is a passionate story…of God’s mocking human might… It is no rousing heroic legend—there is nothing of Siegfried in Gideon. Instead it is a rough, tough, not very uplifting story, in which we are all being roundly ridiculed along with him. …We have Gideon, because his story is a story of God glorified, of the human being humbled. Here is Gideon, one person no different from a thousand others, but out of that thousand, he is the one whom God comes to meet, who is called into God’s service, is called to act.
Here and throughout the rest of this message, Bonhoeffer contrasts Germany’s heroic Siegfried with Yahweh God’s humbled Gideon and exhorts his congregation to be the latter – the unremarkable, the meek, the courageous. This, from a man who exemplified his own exhortation unto death, challenges us to consider the weighty consequences of our citizenship in heaven. Regardless of whether telling the truth, speaking out against injustice, or walking humbly are in vogue and nationalistic enough or not, these are our job descriptions as representatives of One who does not permit himself to be made a means to merely human ends.
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