The Protestant churches in Nazi Germany - Garnet Peet (1960 - 1987)

By permission from the Clarion Volume 37, No. 22 - 24 Oct. 28 - YE 1988
See also The Five Students of Lyons


In 1986, during his final year at the Theological College in Hamilton, Garnet Peet wrote a church history paper on the Protestant churches in Germany under National Socialism. His instructor suggested that he prepare the essay for publication, and he intended to do so. In July of that year he asked me to read it, also with a view to the general historical background. He had hoped to get the work completed that summer or fall, but because of his rapidly deteriorating health nothing came of it. Some time after he had passed away, his wife Konnie asked me to revise the paper on my own and submit it for publication.

I am convinced that the topic is highly relevant also for us today, and that the paper deserves a wider readership. I therefore agreed to go ahead with the revision and am pleased to present hereby the first of four parts into which the original essay has been divided. [ All four parts are herewithin included SW]

Although some bibliographical information is given, the original bibliography and footnotes have been greatly reduced. I am grateful to Dr. J. Faber for submitting this edited version to a critical reading.

F. G. Oosterhoff

Church and state in Luther's Germany

When the Lutheran Reformation took place, and for centuries afterwards, Germany as a nation-state did not yet exist. There was a loosely-structured, decentralized empire (the so-called Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation), consisting of a multitude of territorial states. The latter could be quite large but also very small. They included duchies, counties, archbishoprics, bishoprics, free cities, and other entities, ultimately even kingdoms. It was the rulers of these units who held the real power in their areas. The emperor, who was the head of all the Germanies, had little actual influence. This applied even to the mightiest of them all, the Spanish Habsburg Charles V, who became emperor in 1519, two years after the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.

Martin LutherLuther, whose connections were primarily with the rulers of the territorial states rather than with the emperor, did not insist as strongly on the independence of the church from the state as Calvin. In the chaotic first years of the Reformation he had asked the territorial princes to help organize ecclesiastical matters in their area and to help supervise the churches. Most of these princes proceeded to appoint the so-called consistories, church governing bodies which consisted of both laymen and clergy and which appointed the church superintendents. The consistories were always state agencies, dependent not on the churches but on the government. The state also administered church revenue, often appointed the clergy, paid the clergy's salaries, and indeed looked after all the churches' material needs. In this church-state relationship the state obviously was the dominant power. And although it is true that the government was not generally supposed to interfere with the proper work of the churches - preaching, the administration of the sacraments, the exercise of discipline its powers of appointment and its administrative, legal and financial control often made it impossible for the churches to prevent state control also over faith and doctrine.

The princes' predominance was strengthened even further in 1555, when the Religious Peace of Augsburg introduced the concept of cuius regio, eius religio (whose region, his religion), which meant that the territorial princes decided what the religion of their subjects would be. Subjects who dissented had no recourse but to go into exile.

Luther and the right of resistance

All this was not foreseen or intended by Luther, who wanted the church to be reasonably independent. It was the special circumstances in sixteenth-century Germany that led to the first steps on the road to state supremacy, but once these first steps had been set there was no turning back. And although the development was not what Luther had planned, it did tie in with his views regarding civil disobedience and the right of resistance and armed rebellion.

These issues had to be confronted in practically all countries where the Reformation took root. Whenever the Protestants had a Roman Catholic ruler who forbade freedom of conscience and was intent upon stamping out Protestantism, they faced the question what they were to do in their situation. Both Luther and Calvin wrestled with the problem. Calvin concluded that popular rebellion was never allowed. However, if the so-called "people's magistrates" (which could be nobles, or a type of parliament) organized resistance against the tyrant, he felt that it was legitimate.

Luther and his immediate successors came to a similar conclusion, but in their case the people's representatives were the territorial princes. These princes were allowed, according to Luther and his followers, to wage war against the ruler of all the Germanies, and some wars were indeed fought against the Roman Catholic Charles V and his successors. But Luther did not allow resistance against a territorial ruler: the prince was to be implicitly obeyed, and if a subject could not obey for religious reasons all he could do, as we already saw, was go into exile.

In summary, then, we have this twofold tradition concerning the relationship between church and state in Lutheran Germany. Firstly, there was the church's dependence on the state's goodwill, protection, and material support. Lutheran churches were privileged churches, but that privileged position had been bought at a price: the loss of their independence. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and it was the territorial princes who did both. And secondly, there was the tradition of almost unquestioning obedience to the government, the evil as well as the good. The Calvinist - and biblical - exception to such obedience was not applied in the case of the territorial rulers. It goes without saying that these traditions were bound to have their effect on the churches' attitude towards all government, also that of the Nazis. But there was more.

Church and state in the
Second Reich (1871-1918)

Toward the end of the previous century, the Germanies were finally united into one nation. This was very much the work of Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Prussia, one of the largest of Germany's territorial states. In 1871, after Prussia had defeated France, all the German states except Austria came together into one empire, the so-called Second Reich. Prussia's king, Wilhelm, became the first emperor, and Prussia's capital, Berlin, became the imperial capital. These changes did not strongly affect the Protestant churches. The territorial princes stayed on when Germany was united, and their relationship with the Protestant churches in their area remained much as it had been before unification.

During the half-century of the Second Reich (1871-1918) there were twenty eight separate church federations in Germany, each more or less confined to its own territorial state. Some of these territorial churches and federations were Lutheran, some Reformed, and some (e.g., in Prussia), were united (Lutheran and Reformed). Each tended to have its own customs, liturgy, and church government, but all were linked to the territorial governments as before 1871.

If the Protestants had few reasons for complaints under the Second Reich, it was different with the Roman Catholics. The dominant power in Germany was Protestant and conservative Prussia, and the entire country was predominantly Protestant. The Roman Catholics formed a large minority, however, and their strength worried the Protestant Bismarck. Struggles broke out between the chancellor and the Roman Catholics on various issues. The conflicts became known as the Kulturkampf (usually translated as "struggle for civilization"). The Roman Catholics had established a political organization, the so-called Centre Party, which supported them in their conflicts with the government. This militancy irritated and alarmed Bismarck, who considered it a threat to the national unity he had just achieved. He was also irritated by the declaration of papal infallibility (1870) and by the pressure exerted by Germans to help restore the pope's temporal powers. In 1872 Bismarck responded by severing the relations between Germany and the pope, expelling some religious orders, including the Jesuits, and passing decrees limiting the religious liberties of the Roman Catholics.

Opposition to these policies turned out to be very strong, and in the end Bismarck was forced to withdraw most of the measures. The upshot was, however, that the Centre Party, as the champion of religious liberty against the conservative Prussians, gained prestige. That party now also started to give more attention to social issues and to flirt with the socialists. Another result of the Kulturkampf was that it deepened the disunities and distrust between the two major religions in Germany, a development that would add to the stress and strain of the postwar German government (the Weimar Republic). It would also have important spinoffs in the Nazi period: one of the reasons why Protestants flocked to Hitler was the hope that he would protect them not only against socialism and communism, but also against the dangers coming from Rome.

After World War I

The unification of Germany and the establishment of the Second Reich were among the reasons for the outbreak of World War I. Germany lost that war and had to face the disastrous consequences. The Peace Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which the victorious allies forced upon Germany, was harsh and humiliating. Germany lost a large amount of European territory as well as all its overseas colonies. Its army, navy, and air force were to be cut down drastically; the Rhineland was to be demilitarized and occupied by allied soldiers as a guarantee for the fulfilment of the treaty's terms. Not only that, Germany with its allies was accused of being the cause of the war (the so-called War Guilt Clause) and it had to pay huge indemnities to the allies.

The defeat had important internal consequences for Germany. The emperor had been forced into exile, and his abdication was followed by that of the territorial princes. The Weimar Republic was established, the one that would last until 1933 when Hitler established the Third Reich. The Weimar government consisted of a coalition of socialists and the Roman Catholic Centre Party. It was this coalition that had to deal with the allies and that was forced to accept the humiliating Versailles Treaty, an act that, in the eyes of most Germans, discredited Weimar from the very beginning.

German anger at the unfair treatment rose further when the disastrous economic consequences of the reparation payments became apparent. In the early 1920s a terrible inflation took place which changed well-to-do people into paupers almost overnight and reduced the country's economy to chaos. Although eventually Germany recovered, and was even able to participate in the prosperity of the "roaring twenties," it faced another economic collapse during the early 1930s, after the American stock market crash of 1929. These economic disasters would further reduce the credit of the Weimar Republic and help pave the way for Hitler,

German Protestants joined in the general disapproval of the Weimar Republic. They were nationalistic practically to a man, and the defeat in World War I was traumatic for them. So were the collapse of imperial power, the fall of the princely houses, and the establishment of a democratic republic. What made the new government particularly unpalatable and threatening for the Protestants was that it was composed of socialists and the Roman Catholic Centre Party. To many German Protestants this was scandalous: the people had rejected the emperor and the princes and brought in a left-of-centre government in which the Roman Catholics were represented, and the Protestants were not. In rejecting the old system, the people had also turned their back on the Protestant church which had been so closely allied to the government.

As far as the Protestants were concerned, disaster had struck. Upset and feeling threatened, they issued declarations condemning the leftist and liberal government, and they blamed it for the secularization and loose moral climate of the twenties. To strengthen their ranks against the domestic enemies they also tried to bring about some unity among the provincial church federations. In 1922 the twenty-eight provincial churches set up a loose national federation of Protestant churches.

It was time, for conflicts had arisen between government and church. Changes were introduced in the government's traditional ecclesiastical policy. The close ties between church and state were cut, financial arrangements were changed, and the church schools were threatened. The Protestants issued protest upon protest, and in the end the government compromised. Even so, the Protestants were not satisfied. In fact, they never learned to develop a sense of belonging in the new state, and they continued to look back longingly to the old days when strong princes had cleaned up church and country, when Protestantism had been supreme, and German greatness assured. The heyday of KulturProtestantismus under Bismarck, as well as the great power and prestige of the German nation and empire, seemed lost forever. Many Germans no longer felt at home in their own country.

It was in this situation that Adolf Hitler came to the fore with his National Socialist Patty. Sadly enough, many Protestants looked for a "saviour" and they thought they had found one in the Nazi leader. In majority they were so stuck in their nineteenth-century mentality, and so fanatically afraid of socialists and communists, that initially they embraced Nazism without a worry.

The rise of Hitler

Hitler and his Nazis had been agitating throughout the twenties, but they did not become influential until the stock market crash of 1929 had introduced the great depression. That depression hit Germany hard and caused many to look for a strong man to pull them out of the morass. Hitler grasped the opportunities offered by the depression and the general feeling of malaise. He not only promised jobs and renewed prosperity, but also all the other things the majority of Germans wanted: a restoraton of Germany's greatness, revenge on the allies for the Versailles treaty, a war to the death on socialists and communists, law and order, strict discipline, and strict public morality. A revival of the old, conservative, paternalistic and imperial Germany was beckoning - and it would be a Christian Germany once more. At least, so Hitler promised.

In fact, Hitler hated Christianity and was convinced that it was incompatible with National Socialism. He was enough of an opportunist, however, to realize that the Christian tradition was still strong in Germany, and that he would be wise to begin by courting the churches' favour. If they trusted him, they could be excellent supporters in his rise to power; if he alienated them, they could be formidable enemies. But although he courted them, he never intended to allow them any independent power in the totalitarian Nazi state: they were to be merely his tools, to be discarded when no longer needed.

In January 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany. In March of that year he addressed the churches as follows:

The national Government sees in the two Christian Confessions (Protestant and Roman Catholic) the most important factors for the preservation of our nationality. It will respect the agreements that have been drawn up between them and the provincial states.

. . . The national Government will provide and guarantee to the Christian Confessions the influence due them in the schools and education. It is concerned for genuine harmony between Church and State .

. . . The rights of the churches will not be curtailed; their position in relation to the State will not be changed.[1]

Hitler dealt first with the Roman Catholics. After discussions with the archbishops, who conferred with the pope, a concordat or agreement was signed in June 1933. The concordat assured the church (on paper) of its privileges and was intended to guarantee either its neutrality or its support for the Nazi regime. The Roman Catholic Centre Party was disbanded.

Hitler and the Protestants

ImageWhen Hitler turned his attention to the Protestants, he faced a different situation. How does one deal with at least twenty-eight different church federations? The national assembly of these churches had no real authority, and the Protestants had neither archbishop nor pope. Hitler therefore decided to create such a figure. He suggested that the Protestant churches elect or appoint a national bishop who would sit in the religious affairs department (the Ministry of Cults) of the national government.

The reaction of some German church leaders was ecstatic, witness this message:

Through God's intercession, our beloved German Fatherland has experienced a mighty exaltation. In this turning point in history we hear, as faithful evangelical Christians, the call of God to a closing of ranks and a return, the call also for a single German Evangelical Church .... The Confessions are its unalterable basis .... A national bishop of the Lutheran confession stands at its head .... Christ comes again and brings an eternal completion in the majesty of His Kingdom. [2]

Although not all Protestants voiced these sentiments, a general feeling of elation grew in the Protestant churches. Miracles seemed to be happening. The Protestants were asked once again to play a role in the affairs of the nation. They were even offered a chance to form a national, unified church. Could all this simply be coincidence? It seemed to be the hand of God at work in Germany. He was calling the churches back to their old place and task in the midst of the nation.

The Fuehrer was popular. He was giving work to the millions of unemployed. The country was picking up rapidly. Nationalism was growing. Leftists were being suppressed, Surely the Lord was with such a man as Adolf Hitler! Provincial churches united and synod after synod voiced its approval of a national church under one bishop. Few, very few people realized that all was not well. Fewer still issued warnings.

The "German Christians"

There was no excuse for this mass approval of Nazism by the German Protestants or, for that matter, by any other German group. They could have been aware of Hitler's ideology and aims: he had revealed much of them in his autobiography Mein Kampf, published in the twenties. They could also have an inkling of what was likely to happen to the German churches if the Nazis gained power. Long before January 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, groups had arisen in Germany which attempted to combine Christianity with the type of paganism that the Nazis also espoused or would espouse. In 1932, that is, before Hitler became chancellor, a number of these groups had united in what came to be known as the movement of the "German Christians" (Deutsche Christen).

This movement espoused the Nazi party's "positive Christianity," which is meant, among other things, that it denied sin and depravity, as well as humility, and that it stressed nationalism and the saving character of the state. The church, as part of the state, was to march along-side the people to bring it to its earthly paradise. As Karl Barth described it, "The state is eternal, equal to the Bible in expressing God's will. The Fuehrer is equal to the commands of God, rather, he is above them." [3] With Hegel, Nietzsche, Rosenberg, and Wagner as their prophets, the "German Christians" preached their perverted gospel.

Their movement consisted of various streams. There were conservative Lutherans, who merely wanted a political voice in the new state, were against war debts, democracy, and the exclusion of the churches under the Weimar regime. Another stream propagated the religion of the "Volk," an old, nineteenth-century idea. According to this group, Christ came to help Germans fulfil their potential as a separate folk and nation, with its own law: that of struggle. Germans were born for struggle: they would fulfil their folkishness by that means. The call to arms and slogan for the Christian life was "struggle, cross, and sacrifice" over against "false and weak freedom." Christian ethics, such as those of the Sermon on the Mount, belonged to the kingdom of heaven, not to the earthly German one. Weaklings and non-Aryans were not to be allowed. Euthanasia was good; it would help keep the folk pure and strong. War also was good: it would bring the highest religion of all (Christianity) to other peoples, and it would bring the greatest folk of all, the Germans, to full fruition as rulers of lesser peoples and churches and religions. The Germans were the super race, the Herrenvolk.

Needless to say, Marxism, socialism, pacifism, as well as Jews and blacks and other non-Aryans, were to be rejected. Church confessions were declared outdated, and race and people, blood and soil, became the standards. Hitler stood next to Christ as the leader of all Germany, the manifestation of the divine in history. Hitler as Fuehrer was infallible, and revealed God's will to men better than any Bible or confession, History had given Germany its messiah.

The "German Christians" in action

It was especially these "German Christians" who pushed for a national church under one bishop and one Fuehrer. Once Hitler consolidated his power in the course of 1933, their influence grew tremendously. They had members in every provincial church-governing body and were openly supported by members of the Nazi party, many of whom now joined the church. It was the patriotic thing to do. The church was not only a religious body, but also a bulwark of morals and of German traditions. Storm-troopers and Hitler Youth came to church in full uniform. What an impressive sight to see more than a hundred young men march to church on Sunday in uniform and sit in the front pews. Mass marriages were rigged; army bands in SS uniform played. The spectacles drew many to the churches.

In April 1933 Hitler appointed his friend Ludwig Mueller, a member of the "German Christians," as his advisor in church affairs. Having moderated his movement's platform to some extent, Mueller offered himself as candidate for the position of national bishop. The churches, at a national meeting held in May, put forth their own candidate, however, a respected conservative. Mueller was defeated. In revenge, the "German Christians" prevailed upon the government to dismiss various conservatives from church-governing bodies and to replace them with "German Christians." After these purges, and with the endorsement of Hitler himself, Mueller was now easily elected bishop. The church order was changed, and the so-called Aryan Paragraph introduced which stated that no one of non-Aryan background, or married to someone of non-Aryan background, could serve as either pastor or church official. Those pastors and officials who had married a non-Aryan were to be dismissed.

"Hitler once said .... 'In my youth, I took the view: dynamite.
Later I realized that one can't break the Church over one's
knee. It has to be left to rot like a gangrenous limb
...But the healthy youth belongs to us.' "

It was these developments in the summer and early fall of 1933 that at last began to act as eye-openers for an increasing number of German Protestants.

Downfall of the "German Christian" movement

Mueller's election and the introduction of the Aryan paragraph roused several Protestant leaders out of their complacency, but more was to come. In November 1933 a meeting of 20,000 "German Christians" took place in the Sports Palace, Berlin. The meeting opened with Luther's "A Mighty Fortress." In the speeches that followed and in a resolution that was passed, the "German Christians" shed all their inhibitions and showed their radical colours for all to see. Doctrines and confessions were attacked, and speeches as well as resolutions were outspoken in their anti-Semitism: the Jewish elements of Christianity must be discarded; the Old Testament would have to go; the "Rabbi Paul" was to be rejected; the Bible was to be purged of all Jewish influences. No Jews or blacks were to be allowed in the church. German Christians were not the meek, humble followers of some Jewish messiah, some suffering servant, but the proud followers of Christ the conqueror. Their champions were not "the crucified Christ" but "King Christ and the Fuehrer."

Only one person out of the 20,000 cast a negative vote. The "German Christians" had revealed their satanic platform. Protests streamed in. Many deserted the movement, now that they saw the evil of its theology. Even the Nazi party realized that the "German Christians" had gone too far: instead of unifying the church and making it complacent, they had caused disunity and aroused the Protestants' suspicions of the regime. The party disavowed the "German Christians." So did bishop Mueller. Although various of its constituent groups survived, the "German Christians" as a movement that had the official support of the Nazi party disintegrated. Its heresies, however, stayed very much alive.

Mueller retained his official function, and he soon made it clear that by severing his ties with the "German Christians" he had not relinquished his pro-Nazi stance. Toward the end of December he shocked the churches by signing, on his own authority, an agreement with Von Shirach, the Hitler Youth leader, whereby the 6 or 700,000 members of the Evangelical Youth Organization were transferred to the Hitler Youth. Official protests were of no avail, and those among the young people who refused to go along with the transfer were ostracized by classmates and ill-treated by the authorities. Mueller must have had Hitler's approval. Hitler once said, in connection with his attempts to subdue the church:

"In my youth, I took the view: dynamite. Later I realized that one can't break the Church over one's knee. It has to be left to rot like a gangrenous limb . . . . But the healthy youth belongs to us." [4]

Resistance: The Pastors'
Emergency League

Opposition by Protestants does not date from the events of the calamitous November and December months. Protests had been heard earlier. Some German churches had drafted statements against the heresies of the "German Christians" already before their takeover of the church, and others did so afterwards. Karl Barth, the well-known Swiss theologian who was a professor of theology at Bonn, also criticized the "German Christian" movement, especially in his writings of the summer of 1933. He completely rejected their programme and refused to allow them church membership.

Dr. Martin NiemoellerThe famous Dr. Martin Niemoeller, the former U-boat captain, also must be mentioned. In September 1933, after Mueller had incorporated the Aryan paragraph, Niemoeller and other ministers set up the Pastors' Emergency League, which called upon all dedicated pastors to unite and sign a four-point declaration which bound adherents to Scripture and confessions, and rejected the Aryan paragraph. It is true, as one author has pointed out, that the League avoided any confrontation with the state, and that the Aryan paragraph was rejected only "in the area of the Church of Christ." It is also true that the League numbered only about 6,000 members in September 1933. That so few pastors joined was another indication of the malaise in the churches. Nevertheless, with the Emergency League and its official protests of September, the first open "No" of the churches was heard, if not against the regime, then at least against Mueller and the "German Christians." Loyalty toward the regime was carefully observed. When in October 1933 Hitler ended Germany's membership of the League of Nations, everyone cheered, including the Pastors' Emergency League, which sent a congratulatory message to the Fuehrer assuring him of the members' support.

Later that year, the League would react to the events in the Sports Palace (the notorious mass meeting of the "German Christians") and to Mueller's act of signing over the church youth to Von Shirach. It did so by means of protests read from the pulpit. Early in 1934 Mueller passed the so-called Muzzling Act, which forbade "the misuse of church services for church-political affairs, in whatever form," including attacks upon the church government or its action. The League ignored the act and its members continued their messages of protest and warning. It would lose almost 2,000 members, however, when Hitler intervened personally, and when a council of Lutheran bishops endorsed Mueller. Punishments were now also doled out: some protesting ministers were deposed, others pensioned off or dispatched to small congregations in remote villages. The opposition had been split and the League weakened, but it was not destroyed. The battle continued.

"Free synods" and "confessing churches"

In 1934 opposition in the churches began to be united. It was the year of the free synods and of the establishment of confessing churches. Free synods were assemblies that came together without the permission of the official church-governing bodies and bishop Mueller. These synods were first held separately on behalf of the three groups constituting the Evangelical Church: Lutheran, Reformed, and United. Later, with Barmen II in May 1934, the three groups joined together in one synod.

Free synods appear to have been organized primarily to protest the dictatorial acts of the Reich bishop, and to protect the purity of the churches' doctrine as stated in the Old and New Testament and summarized in the Lutheran and Reformed confessions of the Reformation. The reassertion of the old doctrine was directed not in the last place against the religious policies and ideas of the ruling Nazis and those of the "German Christians."

Member churches of these free synods were called confessing churches. The intention of the confessing churches was not to separate themselves from the official national church body; they maintained that they, and not Mueller's establishment or the "German Christians," were the legitimate continuation of the old churches. In fact, of course, there were two church bodies: the confessing one, and the official one that was under the supervision of the Reich bishop and the government. (There were also mixed churches, where some of the members were "confessing" and some were not.)

Between March and May 1934, many confessing churches were established in the northern German provinces. In the South, most churches had remained intact under conservative leadership. These southern churches viewed the Pastors' Emergency League with suspicion, and they were not happy with the new confessing churches either, feeling that these were too radical in departing from the established provincial churches. This animosity between North and South continued throughout the war. The northern confessing churches did not receive much support from their brethren in the South.

The "Free Synod of Barmen"

From May 29 to 31 a combined synod of Reformed and Evangelical/Lutheran churches was held at Barmen. This was the famous national synod Barmen II. Twenty-six provincial churches had sent representatives. All the 138 delegates were examined before entering to make sure that no "German Christians" were present, and the members of the synod were to sign red membership cards and keep them on their persons at all times. (Ultimately all members of confessing churches were asked to sign and carry such a membership card.)

The synod accepted the "Barmen Declaration," which had been written by Karl Barth and two Lutheran theologians. Consisting of six articles or theses, this declaration rejected the false doctrines of the "German Christians" and recalled the churches to the central truths of Bible and confessions. It also rejected the totalitarian claims of the state, as well as the official church's reliance on the state. Thesis 5 read:

We reject the false doctrine that the State . . . should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church's vocation as well.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church . . . should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State. [5]

Not only the Nazis' totalitarianism was attacked here, including their attempt to use the church as a political tool, but also Mueller's dependence upon the state in his attempts to rule the church. [6] Even so, the Barmen Declaration was not a political manifesto. Political issues were avoided, and Hitler's crimes were not mentioned. Not a word was said, for example, about the Jews. This was a terrible omission in many of the pre-Barmen declarations as well as in Barmen itself. The Jewish question does not seem to have interested Barth overmuch. Much later, he himself admitted that. In a letter written in May 1967 to Bonnhoeffer's biographer, he stated:

I myself have long felt guilty that I did not make this problem [the Jewish question] central, at least in public, in the two Barmen declarations of 1934 which I composed. In 1934, certainly, a text in which I said a word to that effect would not have found general agreement either in the Reformed Synod of January 1934 or in the General Synod of May at Barmen - if one considers the state of mind of the confessors of faith in those days. But that I was caught up in my own affairs somewhere else is no excuse for my not having properly fought for this cause. [7]

Indeed, practically the entire church avoided the Jewish question, particularly the persecution of non-Christian Jews. As we have seen, there had been protests when Mueller introduced the Aryan paragraph for the church office-bearers, but the Jews outside the fold were left to fend for themselves. J.S. Conway, in his study The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, also mentions this omission and suggests three reasons: Firstly, the men at Barmen were not politicians but theologians, whose main aim was to fight heresy and preserve the purity of the church's doctrine. Secondly, most of the Protestant clergy had always refused to get involved in politics and constantly hampered the efforts of those pastors (including men like Barth and Niemoeller) who tried to rouse them to resist the evils of the regime. Thirdly, and connected with the second reason, there was the stubborn Lutheran tradition of obedience to the ruling powers. That tradition also helps to explain, according to Conway, why the confessing church refused to set itself up as a separate free church. As we have seen, there were theological reasons for this refusal, but there was also the disinclination to cut all ties with the government. [8]

Another omission in the Barmen Declaration is any reference to the Crucified Christ, and that at a time when many already were suffering for His Name's sake. In addition, there is Barth's dualism. His rejection of the world as sinful, as a creation rejected by the "Wholly Other," the far-away God, is evident in Barmen. Thesis 3 deals with the relation between church and gospel, but does not confess that this very gospel has authority over the state as well. Even Niemoeller did not go far enough in withstanding the state and confessing Christ's sovereignty in all spheres, including the political one.

Nevertheless, Barmen provided a common front for the churches, especially for the confessing churches in the North. The paganism of the "German Christians" was attacked and the gospel professed. The Nazi regime also realized the importance of Barmen: the publication of the declaration led to attacks by the secret police which confiscated the text throughout the country and threatened concentration camp sentences for those who possessed a copy.


After 1934, and especially after the outbreak of war in 1939, persecution of Christians became widespread. Mass arrests took place; in 1935, for example, a declaration denouncing the "German Faith" movement of the "German Christians" resulted in the arrest of 700 ministers. Leading churchmen, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, languished in concentration camps. Karl Barth was forced to return to Switzerland. Confessing church presses were closed. So was Bonhoeffer's seminary. He himself would be imprisoned in 1943 and executed in 1945. Niemoeller also was imprisoned. Outspoken pastors and church members suffered a similar fate or were drafted into the army as quickly as possible. During the war the pastorate of the confessing churches was spread dangerously thin. The letters and stories of imprisoned Christians provide a moving tribute to the few but dedicated church members who withstood not only false doctrine, but also a diabolical regime.[8]

Failures and achievements

Resistance, however, was engaged in by too small a minority; it started too late, and it was too hesitant. Not only Karl Barth - actually one of the leaders of the opposition movement - admitted short-comings in his stance under Hitler, but so did Niemoeller and many others. After the war, in October 1945, the Stuttgart Manifesto was published wherein the German churches expressed their collective guilt:

With great pain we say: Through us, infinite suffering has been brought upon many peoples and countries. What we have often declared before our congregations, that we now declare in the name of the whole church: For long years we struggled in the name of Jesus Christ against the spirit which found its frightful expression in the National Socialist regime of force; nevertheless,we accuse ourselves of not having confessed more courageously, prayed more faithfully, believed more joyfully and loved more ardently. Now a new beginning must be made in our churches. [9]

Carl BarthThere was reason for self-reproach and penitence. It is only fair to say, however, that there were also achievements, inadequate as they may have been. Perhaps the situation was best described by Karl Barth when he wrote:

The Confessing Church stands condemned by the message of its own Barmen Confession. And for this, it has been properly and improperly reproached.

Properly insofar as a strong Christian Church . . . should not have remained on the defensive and should not have fought on its own narrow front alone;

Improperly insofar as on this admittedly all too narrow front a serious battle was waged ....

In proportion to its task, the Church has sufficient reason to be ashamed that it did not do more; yet in comparison with those other groups and institutions (the German universities and schools, the legal profession, business, theatre and art, the army and the trade unions) it has no reason to be ashamed; it accomplished far more than all the rest. [10]

Causes of the failures

To have done more than the rest was not enough, and the reasons why believers in Germany failed to prevent the Nazis from bringing disaster to their own country and to the world still deserve careful consideration. In his book from which I have quoted earlier, J.S. Conway suggests four main reasons for this failure. [11] I will summarize them, adding comments of my own. Conway's four reasons are:

1. Narrow individualism, especially the ingrained tradition of Pietism with its subjectivism; the belief that "politics do not concern the Church, and an almost Manichaean conviction that the affairs of political and social life are irredeemable." I would add that neither Barth or Barmen adequately addressed this problem.

2. Submissive allegiance to the state, that is, "the characteristic German readiness to accept the existing political order without criticism and to exact obedience to established authority." "The German church was not equipped with a theology adequate to sustain any critical attack upon the actions of its political rulers, and for that reason, even at the end of the Nazi era, there was no more than what Professor Wolf has called a 'reluctant resistance.'[12]

I agree here: the Lutheran teaching of two kingdoms, one of this world and political affairs and the other the Kingdom of God, paralyzed many. Yet to say, as at least one author did, that Karl Barth was a Reformed Protestant, and to see "in the political activism of that Calvinist tradition a better protection against political totalitarianism than in the teaching of Luther," [13] may be putting it too simply. First of all, Barth did not stand completely in the Reformed, Calvinist tradition. As K. Schilder showed, his theology did not comprehend the Calvinist stress on Christ as King and Redeemer of all spheres of life. Furthermore, many of Hitler's opponents were Lutherans, in Germany and in the Scandinavian countries. Although I, too, am inclined to say that a truly Reformed theology and preaching prepares the believer better than a truly Lutheran system to resist a tyrannical government, it is clear that one must beware of generalizations.

3. Pursuit of pseudo-Christian doctrines. The author refers here especially to the "German Christians" with their vague knowledge of Christianity and their political opportunism. Again I agree that this movement weakened the church considerably. At this point mention should also be made of the rapid process of secularization during the interwar years, and of the fact that the churches were Volks kirchen, where people of all convictions and none could feel at home. Indeed, as Barth said, the whole German church was so steeped in false, unbiblical theology that it hardly realized that Hitler was not the messiah until it was too late.

4. Doctrinaire anticommunism. The churches were conservative and deadly afraid of communism. That gave them tunnel vision. They saw Hitler as the only one who could save Germany from a Bolshevik takeover. He sounded so good, so authoritarian, so Christian. He promised to maintain the status quo, exalted faith and morality, was nationalistic, appealed for unity of church and people. I would take this as a warning for us today, that we do not simply vote anti-left and think all is well, but that we carefully consider what both left and right have to offer.

Some other conclusions: Barmen showed how important confessions are for the church. They drew people together and gave them a common summary of faith against unbelief. May we, too, be prepared to confess the faith of our fathers if the need arises.

German church history under the Nazis also shows once again that God purges the church by persecution. With the Bible, the confessions of the Reformation, and biblical preaching, Christians in Germany at last learned to withstand false religion and a demonic government. God still purges the church by persecution, as can be seen today [in 1988 SW] in East Germany, where local church life is much more vibrant and committed than it is in West Germany.

It is disheartening that the purging of the German churches did not produce a truly confessional church. The confessional movement gained much influence, yet today the Lutheran and Reformed churches present only a caricature of what they confessed not only during the Reformation, but also at Barmen.

Nevertheless, as stated in the closing line of the Barmen Declaration, VERBUM DEI MANET IN AETERNUM: the Word of God remains forever.

GARNET PEET (1960 - 1987)


[1] Cochrane, p. 85.

[2] Zabel, p. 28.

[3] Barth, p. 42.

[4] Conway, p. 15.

[5] Ibid., p . 84.

[6] Ibid.

[7] E. Bethge, "Troubled Self-Interpretation . . . ," in The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, p. 167.

[8] Conway, pp. 84ff.

[9] See, e.g., the moving booklet I was in Prison: Letters from German Pastors, London, 1938, ed. by Dorothy Frances Buxton. One copy of a 20,000-copy printing of this booklet made it to England before the Gestapo confiscated all the remaining copies and destroyed them in 1938.

See also H. Gollwitzer et. al., eds., Dying we live: the final messages and records of some Germans who defied Hitler, London, 1958; and D. Bonnhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London, 1953.

[10] Quoted by L. Praamsma, op. cit., pp. 156ff.

[11] Quoted by A.C. Cochrane in Littel and Locke, eds., The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, p. 193.

[12] Conway, op. cit., pp. 334-6.

[13] Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler, New York and London, 1985, pp. 24-26.


Select Bibliography

Barth, Karl, The German Church Conflict (193-339) (Richmond, Va., 1967).

Cochrane, A.C., The Church's Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia, 1962).

Conway, J.S., The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-45 (Toronto, 1968).

Helmreich, E.C., The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, Epilogue (Detroit, 1979).

Littell, F.H. and H.C. Locke, eds., The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust (Detroit, 1974).

Praamsma, L., The Church in the Twentieth Century (St. Catharines, 1981).

Schilder, K., De Reformatie, 1932-3, 1933-4, 1934-5 (See indices under N SB, Fascism, etc.)

Geen Duimbreed! (Kampen, 1936). Bezet Bezit (Goes, 1946).

Zabel, James A., Nazism and the Pastors: A Study of the Ideas of Three Deutsche Christen Groups (Missoula, Mont., 1976).