Hitler Attempted to Muzzle Christians
After Hitler came to power, he confronted Christians in Germany with uncomfortable choices. At first, few pastors seemed to recognize where Hitler was taking the church. He sought to co-opt both Lutheran and Reformed churches to support his National Socialist Party. Many church people supported him. Sick of the decadence that had characterized the previous government, the “Weimar Republic,” many hoped that the Führer, with his emphasis on history and tradition, might usher in spiritual renewal. Others feared the Communists more than the Nazis.
Playing on the fears and longings of churchgoers, Hitler nationalized the church under a single bishop with a Nazi-inspired constitution. German churches were ordered to eject Jewish Christians, to accept Hitler as a prophet, and to accept German racial consciousness—which exalted the Aryan race above all others—as a second revelation. The so-called “German Christians” elected Ludwig Müller, an ardent Nazi, as their “Reichs-bishop.”
To keep their jobs, hundreds of clergymen accepted Müller’s racist and political restrictions. But a minority of church leaders did not. Martin Niemoller brought them together, inviting all German pastors to join what he called the Pastors’ Emergency League.
Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others joined him. These men insisted that the church belonged under the headship of Christ, not the state, and must obey God rather than national leaders. They urged German pastors to bind themselves by Scripture and centuries-old, reliable confessions of faith.
To their credit, once the stakes were made clear, many pastors resigned from the state church. A number of Protestants who stood against the Nazis gathered at the city of Barmen to discuss the situation and prepare a response. They called themselves the Confessing Church because they clung to the old confessions of faith. Niemoller and Bonhoeffer went to prison; Bonhoeffer died there. Barth fled to Switzerland. A number of Roman Catholic priests also resisted the Nazis. Some, like Bernhard Lichtenberg, died in concentration camps.
On this day, 4 January 1934, Reichs-bishop Müller tried to silence critics of the Nazi church, issuing a “muzzling order” forbidding them from speaking about the church-state issue from their pulpits. However, the Confessing Church refused to be silenced.
In May, they issued the Barmen Declaration, whose primary authors were famous Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen. One of its key statements read, “We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the church should and could take on the nature, tasks, and dignity which belong to the state, and thus become itself an organ of the state.”
The leaders of the confessing church’s deepest concern was to call the entire German church to a much-needed renewal. This renewal did not take place until after the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.