NAZI Government: Religion

NAZI religion
Figure 1.--Hitler and the NAZIs once in power adopted a range of policies to undermine Christianity in Germany, including arrests of clerics. They stopped short, however, of openly endorsing atheism. Once the War began, new measures against churches were shelved as the NAZIs promoted national unity and traditional values. Open attacks on religion would have been disruptive to the War effort as religion was still important in German life. Had the NAZIs won the War, there would have a major assault on German churches. We are not sure how common it was for altar boys to participate in military funerals like this. Presumably this would have been a familyly decision, but we do not see the family.

The Germany that Hitler seized control of was a Christian nation, split between the Catholic and Protestant (mostly Lutheran) faiths. Religion was still a strong element of national life, although as in other European countries declining. Here World War I had been a major factor in undermining religion. The NAZIs in their propaganda drew on Christian symbolism as well as pagan symbols. This disturbed many Christian, mostly Protestant, theologians. NAZI leaders were drawn from both Catholic and Protestant families, but generally rejected traditional Christian teaching. The most prominant outlook among NAZI leads was a variety scientific or quasi-scientific theories. Especially prominant was Social Darwinism). This was Hitler's outlook. For political reasons, however, he did not openly attack Christianity. Other NAZI leaders dabeled in mysticism and occultism. This was especially notable in the SS that steadily grew in importance. The interest in mysticism and occultism was primarily the result of Himmler's interest. There was a common thread in both approaches (science and mysticism), that was a belief in Aryan racial superiority. Hitler authorized a Ministry of Church Affairs (1935). It was heded by Hanns Kerrl, but had no great impact in the NAZI state. The principal NAZI ideologue was Alfred Rosenberg. He gave little notice of the Ministry or Chrisinity in general. Hitler'a attitude toward religion was that an open campaign of atheism was unecessary and would be harmful politically. He bleieved that religious beliefs would gradually weaken. And in fact large numbers of Germans left their churches during the NAZI era, although the numbers declined sharply as the War began to go against the Germans. While there was no open atheism campaign, there were discrete steps taken. There was no religious component to the Hitler Youth. The church role in education was curtailed. Some mosly lower level NAZIs who wanted to retain their religious connections promoted what becane known as Positive Christianity. This wa essentially to associate NAZI beliefs within in Christian teachings. Many German Christians throughout the NAZI era saw no incompatability between their Christian faith and the NAZI state. Thus there was no loud rejection of attempts to integrate Natinal Socialism and Christinity. This was not just the layity. Many Protestant and Catholic clergy did not reject National Socialism even during the later years of the War. This is not to say that the clergy was NAZIfied, but the clergy did accept the NAZIs as the legitimate government nd out of patriotism supported it. There were disenters, but this was dangerous and substantial numbers of clergy were arested.

German Christianity

Religion has been a major factor in German life since the conversion of the Germanic tribes in the early medieval period. Germany was the center of the Reformation which was a major factor in the shift from meduieval to modern Europe. The Germany that Hitler seized control of was a Christian nation, split between the Catholic and Protestant (mostly Lutheran) faiths. Religion was still a strong element of national life, although as in other European countries declining. Here World War I had been a major factor in undermining religion. This was the beginning of a long decline of Christianity in Germany that continued both during and after the NAZI era. Today in Germany only asmall proprtion of the population regularly attend church. Germany and much of Europe is becoming de-Christianized.

Kirchenaustritt--Leaving the Church

Germay was not unified until the Franco Prussian War (1870-71). Unificatin was achieved largely by Protestant Prussia and the Prussian monarchy became the Imperial Germany monrchy. This meant that Prussia became the dominant state in the new German Empire, but many of the states of the Empire were Catholic. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck began to move against the Catholic Church soon after unification. He instituted Kirchenaustritt, litterally leaving the Church (1873). This was alegal action individuals could take. Bismarck in instituting Kirchenaustritt believed that it would mostly affect the Catholic church. This was part of a larger program of Kulturkampf directed at the Catholic Church. [Granzow, et. al., p. 39.] Bismaarck for political reasons could not just allow Catholics to leave the Church. Protesats were also allowed to leave the Chutch. Unexpectedly, it was mostly Protestants who took advantage of this. During the NAZI era, both Protestants and Catholics left the Church, but many more Catholics. As the NAZI, regime became established and Germans began to see the NAZIs as the future, 0.4-0.5 million Germans left the Church each year during 1937-39 . This fell in 1940 after the outbreak of World War II and declined to very small numbers in 1943 as the War went decidely against Germany and Germans lost faith in the NAZIs..

NAZI Assault on the Church

Hitler and the NAZIs initiated an assault both on traditional Christian values, but religions institutions as well. The NAZI assault on Judism is best known. But here the focus were the Jews themselves and not the religion. One religion seen in more positive terms was Islam, in part because it was helful in the effort against Jews. It was Christianity that suffered most from the NAZIs, primarily because it posed the greatest danger to the NAZIs. Sects like the 7th Day Adventists were attacked because they opposed military conscriptiom. The mainstream church that suffered the greatest was the Catholics. Despite signing a Concordant with the Vatican in 1933, the NAZIs steadily undermined the power and influence of the Church in Germany and arrested many priests. Once World War II began, German policies toward religions varied from country to country. The Church in Poland was a symbol of Polish nationalism and relentlessly persecuted. Priests were arressted and thousand died in the concentration camps. The Church in France because of the anticlerical nature of the Revolution was less important as anational symbol and the NAZIs did not seek to totally destroy French national and cultural institutions, so it was not targetted by the NAZI occupiers.

NAZI Propaganda

The NAZIs in their propaganda drew on Christian symbolism as well as pagan symbols. This disturbed many Christian, mostly Protestant, theologians. [Ross, p. E5.]

NAZI Leadership

Nazi leaders were drawn from both Catholic and Protestant families, but generally rejected traditional Christian teaching. The most prominant outlook among NAZI leads was a variety scientific or quasi-scientific theories. Especially prominant was Social Darwinism with its thesis of survival of the fitest. Social Darwinism it should be stressed was not a concept Darwin himself conceived. This was Hitler's outlook. [Overy, p. 281.] For political reasons, however, he did not openly attack Christianity. Other NAZI leaders dabeled in mysticism and occultism. This was especially notable in the SS that steadily grew in importance. The interest in mysticism and occultism was primarily the result of Himmler's interest. There was a common thread in both approaches (science and mysticism), that was a belief in Aryan racial superiority.

Ministry of Church Affairs

Hitler authorized a Ministry of Church Affairs (1935). It was heded by Hanns Kerrl, but had no great impact in the NAZI state. The principal NAZI ideologue was Alfred Rosenberg. He gave little notice of the Ministry or Chrisinity in general.

Atheism

Hitler'a attitude toward religion was that an open campaign of atheism was unecessary and would be harmful politically. His focus in the first years of his rule was to unite Germans so he would have a string foundation for his plnned foreign exploits. He believed that an open confrontation with the Church would be adestraction and largely unnecessar. He was convinced that religious beliefs would gradually weaken. And in fact large numbers of Germans left their churches during the NAZI era, although the numbers declined sharply as the War began to go against the Germans. While there was no open atheism campaign, there were discrete steps taken. There was no religious component to the Hitler Youth and activities were scheduled on Sunday to first compte with and eventuually preclude church attendance. When the Hitler Youth seized contrl of te German Youth movement, Catholic organizations were exempted. Eventually the members of the Catholic Youth groups were also incorporated into the Hitler Youth where religion teaching was prhibited. The church role in education was curtailed. Churches were forbidden to conduct public collection of money for their charities. The NAZIs banned all confessing church seminaries and teaching (1937). Dissident Protestants were denied entrance to universities. The Government closed and state-sponsored denominational and privet religious schools.

Positive Christianity

Some mosly lower-level NAZIs who wanted to retain their religious connections promoted what becane known as Positive Christianity. This wa essentially to associate NAZI beliefs within in Christian teachings. Many German Christians throughout the NAZI era saw no incompatability between their Christian faith and the NAZI state. Thus there was no loud rejection of attempts to integrate Natinal Socialism and Christinity. [Steigmann–Gall, p. 5.]

National Reich Church

Abolishing Christian churches was to radical a step for the NAZIs as such a step had ataint of Bolshevism associated with it. One alternative advocated by some NAZI leaders, especially Rosenberg, was a new Reich Church. Given the program advocated, it was essentially abolishing Christianity, but a propaganfa campaign could have eased the transition. A 30-point formuale was compiled for the new church. These ncluded:
1. The National Reich Church of Germany categorically claims the exclusive right and the exclusive power to control all churches within the borders of the Reich: it declares these to be national churches of the German Reich.
5. The National Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.
7. The National Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests, but National Reich orators are to speak in them.
13. The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany.
14. The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Fuehrer’s Mein Kampi is the greatest of all documents. It . . . not only contains the greatest but it embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and future life of our nation.
18. The National Church will clear away from its altars all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.
19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampi (to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.
30. On the day of its foundation, the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels . . . and it mustbe superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika." [Shirer, p. 240.]

The Clergy

The clergy like the layity generally accepted National Socialism. Most Protestant and Catholic clergy did not reject National Socialism even during the later years of the War. This is not to say that the clergy was NAZIfied. One study identified 138 brown priests, meaning NAZI Party members or supporters. This is an extrodinarily small number considering there was about 34,000 Catholic priests in Germany in 1932 (21,000 diocesan clergy, 13,000 members of religious communities). [Spicer] And the Brown priests encountered problems with superiors. Obstensibly the problems were not their opinions per se, but ignoring orders to avoid political agitation. Abbot Albanus Schachleiter was prhaps the most prominant brown priest. He caused so many problems that he was exiled to a remote village even though he was a friend of Hitler. The NAZIs gave him a state funeral (1937). There were 20 brown priests who left the priesthood. Albert Hall was one of the brown priess who left the priesthood. He married a high official in the League of German Girls (BDM) and was commisioned a SS officer. While there were relatively few brown priests, the clergy did generally accept the NAZIs as the legitimate government and out of patriotism supported it. There were disenters, but this was dangerous and substantial numbers of clergy were arested. in shap contrast to the small number of brown priests, the NAZI authorities charged more than 6,000 clergymen with treasonable activity. They were imprisoned or executed. [Overy, p. 281.] While most of the clergy accepted the NAZIs or at least remained silent, the number of arrests were substantial. There was no other segment of German life that resisted the NAZIs to such an extent.

The Future of Christianity

The lack of a Soviet-style athesm campaign during the NAZI era is not to say what would have happened had the NAZIs won the War. A victorious Hitler would have had a free hand to reshape Germany as he willed. One indication of the future was the statements of Marin Boreman. Boremann replaced Rudolf Hess, after Hess'dramatic flight to Scotland. He became Hitler's most intimate adiser. Martin Bormann, a close associate of Hitler stated publically publicly in 1941 "National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable". [Shirer, p. 238.] More decretly in a confidential memo to Gauleiters he informed them that the Christian Churches 'must absolutely and finally be broken." Boremann was one of the NAZIs most critical of Christianity. He believed that as National Socialism was based as it was on a scientific world-view, it was incompatible with Christianity and impeded totalitarian rule. [Wistrich] It is likely given his closeness to Hitler that these sentiments were very close to the Führer's opinions and plans. He made it very clear to the Gauleiters, "When we [National Socialists] speak of belief in God, we do not mean, like the naive Christians and their spiritual exploiters, a man-like being sitting around somewhere in the universe. The force governed by natural law by which all these countless planets move in the universe, we call omnipotence or God. The assertion that this universal force can trouble itself about the destiny of each individual being, every smallest earthly bacillus, can be influenced by so-called prayers or other surprising things, depends upon a requisite dose of naivety or else upon shameless professional self-interest." [Boreman, 1941]

Sources

Boremann, Martin. Secret order to the Gauleiters (June 17, 1941) on the 'relations between National Socialism and Christianity' (June 17, 1941). IMT. XXXV, 075-D.

Granzow, Sven, Bettina Müller-Sidibé, and Andrea Simml. "Gottvertrauen und Führerglaube" in: Götz Aly (ed.) Volkes Stimme. Skepsis und Führervertrauen im Nationalsozialismus (Fischer TB: 2006), pp. 38-58.

Overy, Richard. The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (New York: Norton, 2004).

Ross, Albion. "Paganism worries Reich Protestants: They are distrustful of Nazis, fearing trap in the New Church dictatorship", The New York Times (November 3, 1935), p. E5.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (Simon and Schuster, 1990).

Spicer, Kevin P. Hitler's Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism.

Steigmann–Gall, Richard. The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Wistrich, Robert S. "Martin Boremann," Who's Who in Nazi Germany (Routledge, 1997).







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Created: 5:47 AM 12/29/2008
Last updated: 7:55 PM 4/27/2013