Christians against Nazis: the German Confessing Church

ON 30 JANUARY 1933 Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, came to power in Germany. His aim was to mould Germany’s political and community life to fit in with his own ideas. This totalitarian approach left no room for deviant views or independent organizations and institutions; the whole of public life was to be controlled or, as the fashionable term put it, ‘co-ordinated’ by the Nazi party. The two major churches-Lutheran and Catholic- to which almost every German belonged, were no exception to this general control.

But National Socialism also had a particular interest in the churches, and it was inevitable that conflict would arise. Nazism saw itself not just as a political party, but as a philosophy - based on extreme racism. Only the Aryan race was acceptable, and the Aryans’ worst enemy was the Jewish people - hence they must be exterminated. This racism led to the infamous death camps ofAuschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbruck . . .

Closely linked with Nazi racism was imperialism. Among Aryans, the Germans were the superior people and were therefore called to rule the world. The German people, German blood and the German fatherland were held up by the Nazis as the highest good. Known as der Flihrer (the leader), Adolf Hitler himself was the incarnation of the Nazi philosophy. People greeted each other with and in his name - a practice to which Christians could not conform.

Nazism was a challenge as well as a threat to the churches: it disturbed their security and forced them to ask fundamental questions: What is the church? What does it mean to be a Christian? What is so basic to the nature of the church and to being a Christian that it cannot under any circumstances be surrendered?

The process of discussion and exploration which gradually evolved during the Third Reich centred on three areas:

  • The church began to establish itself as a separate entity, independent of the state, and to criticize the state and even actively oppose it;
  • The German church became more open to the international church community, from which it received help and support;
  • The church began to combat racism by involving the whole Christian community in a united struggle for human rights.

Stand up and be counted

For the anti-Nazi cause, people in Germany not only risked their lives but lost them. Two men were of particular importance in urging the church forward on its way through the Third Reich: Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Martin Niemoller played a major pan in gathering clergy and congregations of the Lutheran church into what came to be known as the ‘Confessing Church'. He was born in 1892 in Westphalia, the son ofa minister whose ancestors had been farmers. In the First World War he became a U-boat commander. When the war was over, he planned to emigrate to South America, as a reaction to the Treaty of Versailles which placed the whole blame for the war on Germany’s shoulders. To Niemoller, Germany seemed to be so humiliated by this that he felt he could no longer love his country or its people. However, while he was making his emigration plans, he served an apprenticeship on a farm. Here he experienced a change of heart: he resolved to stay in Germany and serve his fellow-countrymen by going into the ministry of the church.

The establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 was greeted by Niemoller with extreme suspicion. In this he was typical of the great majority of German Protestants. He was loyal to the Kaiser and nostalgic for the close relationship between church and state which had existed under the imperial government. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, with the slogan ‘Wipe out the shame of Versailles', Niemoller was wholly in agreement. Nazi foreign policy was greeted with great enthusiasm by the overwhelming majority of the German nation.

The Nazis also set about ‘co-ordinating’ the churches. As early as 1932, an organization known as the ‘German Christians’ had been established. This was a religious movement led by Nazi clergy whose goal was to bring the Lutheran church into line with the political and ideological goals of National Socialism. In the summer of 1933, the German Christians seized power in the Lutheran church, aided by massive support from Hitler and the Nazi party. They elected a federal bishop and began to govern the church on the Fuhrer’s principles. First the twenty-eight provincial churches, which had been largely autonomous, were to be amalgamated into a single federal church under the jurisdiction of the federal bishop. Then all non-Aryans - first the clergy and then church members - were to be excluded from the German Lutheran Federal Church.

This raised a storm of indignation, and fierce opposition sprang up. Such measures were a betrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ! The imperturbable and pragmatic Niemoller, who was a minister in the Dahlem area of Berlin, promptly organized the ‘Pastors’ Emergency League'. By the end of 1933 this had recruited a third of the German clergy. Congregations joined their clergy in protesting against the dictatorship of the German Christians and their betrayal of Bible and creed.

Through independent ‘confessing synods', Christians in Germany attempted to establish what were the basic, inviolable principles of the church and the Christian faith. In a famous theological declaration which took its name from the meeting-place of the first ‘confessing synod’ in Barmen, Wuppertal, the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. helped to draw up a statement of fundamental principles.

A fierce battle flared up - primarily a battle between two opposing groups in the Lutheran church. The Confessing Church set its face against the German Christians and their planned ‘co-ordination’ of the church. The church must remain the church!'was the battle-cry of the Confessing Church, while the German Christians saw themselves as the ‘storm-troopers of Jesus Christ'.

The provincial churches who had been brought under the rule of the German Christians were referred to by the Confessing Church as ‘liquidated churches'; those led by bishops who were not associated with the German Christians such as Hanover, Wiirttemberg and Bavaria, were ‘intact’ churches. Even in the ‘liquidated’ churches, pastors belonged to the Confessing Church and confessing congregations were formed.

But the party and the state saw the Confessing Church as a resistance organization. They attempted to destroy it by keeping its members under surveillance, imprisoning them or sending them to concentration camps. In spite of this direct persecution, many people had the courage to launch out into a relatively independent church life by applying for the ‘red card’ which signified membership of the Confessing Church. The official German Christian authorities stopped the salaries of ministers who joined the Confessing Church, and from then on they had to live on funds provided by the Confessing Church itself. Various methods of resistance were developed: censorship was flouted by a flood of underground pamphlets; laws against public assembly resulted in private meetings; censorship of the post and telephone service was made unworkable by word-of-mouth communication and a system of messengers.

This day-to-day subversion strengthened the solidarity of the members of the Confessing Church. In the novel circumstances of an underground church, outdated and traditional structures collapsed. Commitment, willingness to help and heroism were needed equally from men and women, clergy and laypeople. Important tasks often had to be taken over by women or the laity, since the activities of officials and clergy were closely watched by the police.

To begin with, the Confessing Church intended to criticize only the German Christians, not the Nazi party or the state. It wanted to stay loyal to the state, to be recognized by the state as the true church. But gradually the members of the Confessing Church were forced to recognize that National Socialism was deeply anti-Christian.

The trial of Martin Niemoller played a significant part in this realization. In 1932 a trumped-up charge of treason was pinned on Niemoller in his role as a leader of the Confessing Church, but he escaped with only a light sentence. However, immediately after the announcement of this lenient judgement, Niemoller was made a ‘personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler’ and spent the whole duration of the Third Reich in various concentration camps. During this period, living with people who were persecuted by the Nazis on religious, political or racial grounds, Niemoller came to abandon many traditional prejudices.

The insights he gained led to personal convictions which he declared in the public discussions on church and state after the war. For a Christian, he believed, the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unequivocal. There is no such thing as the ‘just war', especially in the age of nuclear weapons. Every human being is my brother; and an ‘anti’ mentalily, even ‘anti-Communism', has no part in Christian thinking.

Resistance, suffering and unity

As it became clearer that National Socialism and Christianity were irreconcilable, the Confessing Church was ever more ready to see itself as independent of the state. It based its life on the essential foundation of the Bible, dissociated itself as far as possible from government measures and opposed the policies of the state.

These attitudes grew directly out of the church’s own experience of persecution, and indirectly out of the responses to its situation of churches in other countries. It was the Confessing Church to which other churches sought to relate in ecumenical ventures, and to which the English church (particularly Bishop George Bell of Chichcster), other European and American churches offered solidarity and help.

A central figure in the Confessing Church’s ecumenical involvement was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who became a symbol of Christian resistance to the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau in 1906, the son of a professor of psychiatry. After university, he embarked on his career as a lecturer in theology in Berlin. In 1930-31, he spent a year studying and teaching in New York, then continued his teaching career in Germany. At the same time, he became a student pastor in Berlin and youth secretary of an international church friendship organization.

In the autumn of 1933 Bonhoeffer went to London as a visiting pastor, and became closely associated with Bishop Bell. In 1935 he returned to Germany and became the director of the ‘illegal’ seminary for ministers set up by the Confessing Church in Pommerania. Berlin University revoked his teaching permit in 1936; in 1937 the seminary was temporarily closed, and in 1938 Bonhoeffer was expelled from Berlin, his parental home. When the seminary was permanently closed in 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in public, and the following year was forbidden to write.

Bonhoeffer, however, continued his academic work; he kept up his links with the Confessing Church and also joined the political resistance movement. In 1942, through Bishop Bell, he unsuccessfully attempted to pass information to the British government about the German resistance movement. He was arrested in April 1943 for his involvement in smuggling Jews into Switzerland and was hanged by the Nazis in the last days of the war.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer collected his experiences as a Christian in Nazi Germany and reflected on them in the light of the Christian gospel. His thought and example continue to exert a wide influence in both Christian and secular circles through his writings. His prison letters, written during the last two years of his life, are perhaps the best-known of his works. He called for mature, credible Christian faith to be lived out in an increasingly secular, irreligious world. He struggled with the problem of how the biblical message of liberation and redemption can be announced to a world which has ‘come of age'. The church does not live for itself- it is the church of Jesus Christ for others. He firmly believed that the good news of Jesus Christ breaks through denominational and national barriers.

Bonhoeffer himself was a pioneer of the ecumenical movement and experienced it at first hand. He deserves much of the credit for the fact that after 1945, in spite of all that the nations of Europe had suffered at the hands of the Germans, churches in other countries sought fellowship with the German churches and showed a renewed desire to co-operate with them.

The ‘Jewish question'

Bonhoeffer was one of the first Christians in the Confessing Church to recognize clearly the significance of the ‘Jewish question’ in Nazi Germany. As early as spring 1933 he pointed out that the Jews were becoming victims of the state’s policies - but his was a lone voice. He saw that the age-old policy of confrontation, which Christians had practised towards the Jews from the Church Fathers through to Luther and later, had made Christians in Germany passive, blind and indifferent to the fate of the Jews.

Bonhoeffer wanted to awaken the church to the fact that a monstrous injustice was being done to the Jews, and that the place of Christians was alongside their persecuted Jewish brothers. He challenged Christians to regard the Jews as the ‘neighbour fallen among thieves', as in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. He saw that the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, is part of the Christian Bible too; that Christians and Jews believe in the same God; that the Bible concept of’the people of God’ refers to both. But he could not persuade the Confessing Church to make a public statement on behalf of the Jews. As the Second World War progressed, the growing persecution of the Confessing Church by the Nazi authorities crippled the church’s ability to help others.

Many church agencies engaged in vigorous protest against the so-called ‘euthanasia measures’ by which those considered ‘unfit to live’ were exterminated. In 1939-40, after the outbreak of war, hundreds of thousands of mentally ill, old, mentally and physically handicapped people were murdered by the Nazis. On this issue the church spoke out clearly. But on the ‘Jewish question', only a few shared Bonhoeffer’s insights and opinions. Only a few were able to put behind them the institutionalized anti-semitism of the Christian church. Only a few spoke up for the Jews who were deprived of their rights, humiliated, stripped of human dignity, driven out of Germany and eventually killed in their millions in the holocaust of the gas chambers.

Among these few was Bishop Wurm of Wiirttemberg. He wrote to the government and party officials at the highest level to protest against the extermination of Jews, Poles and Russians. Against the racist ideas of National Socialism he held up the vision of a community of faith in which the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ would be absolute. Against the Nazi policies of total war and genocide he held up the will of God that not one of his children should perish. So a prophetic witness, a ‘call to conversion', rang out even in these dark days of Nazi Germany.

That call is just one of the legacies of the German Confessing Church which is still a challenge and an encouragement to Christians today. CH

By Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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