Christianity in Nazi Germany

In the original programme of the Nazi Party drawn up by Adolf Hitler, Anton Drexler and Gottfried Feder in February, 1920, promised religious freedom for all those religions except those which endangered the German race.

Once Hitler gained power he was quick to express his hatred of the Jews. Based on his readings of how blacks were denied civil rights in the southern states in America, Hitler attempted to make life so unpleasant for Jews in Germany that they would emigrate. The campaign started on 1st April, 1933, when a one-day boycott of Jewish-owned shops took place. Members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) picketed the shops to ensure the boycott was successful.

The hostility of towards Jews increased in Nazi Germany. This was reflected in the decision by many shops and restaurants not to serve the Jewish population. Placards saying "Jews not admitted" and "Jews enter this place at their own risk" began to appear all over Germany. In some parts of the country Jews were banned from public parks, swimming-pools and public transport.

Germans were also encouraged not to use Jewish doctors and lawyers. Jewish civil servants, teachers and those employed by the mass media were sacked. Many Jewish people who could no longer earn a living left the country. The number of Jews emigrating increased after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Under this new law Jews could no longer be citizens of Germany. It was also made illegal for Jews to marry Aryans.

The Jehovah's Witnesses were also persecuted in Nazi Germany as they refused to do military service. Nazis also hated the sect because they believed in the imminent return of a Messiah. The rejection that this was not Adolf Hitler led to its members being sent to Germany's concentration camps.

Leaders of the Protestant and Catholic churches remained silent throughout this period. The main opposition to Hitler came from a group of young pastors led by Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoffer and Heinrich Gruber. Initially the main complaint was the decision by Adolf Hitler to appoint Ludwig Muller, as the country's Reich Bishop of the Protestant Church. With the support of Karl Barth, a professor of theology at Bonn University, in May, 1934, these rebel pastors formed what became known as the Confessional Church. Over the next few years hundreds of these pastors were sent to concentration camps and some were executed.

In 1934 Michael von Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich, published Judenum, Christentum, Germanentum, that defended the principles of racial tolerance and humanity and called for the people of Germany to respect the Jewish religion. However, Faulhaber, and other Catholic bishops, made no open protest against the atrocities being committed against the Jews in Germany.

Faulhaber occasionally condemned racial intolerance in his sermons and during Crystal Night he provided a truck for the Chief Rabbi of Munich to salvage religious objects from his synagogue before it was destroyed by the Nazis in November, 1938.

In 1938 Faulhaber supported Anschluss and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He also held a special mass in November 1939 to celebrate Hitler's escape from Johann Elser's assassination attempt.

Pope Pius XI condemned the Nuremberg Laws in July, 1938, and was preparing an encyclical against anti-Semitism, but died in 1939 before it could be completed. His successor, Pius XII decided not to speak out against the atrocities being carried out in Germany.

In 1941 August von Galen, the Archbishop of Munster, spoke out in a sermon against the Nazi practice of euthanasia (the killing of those considered by the Nazis as genetically unsuitable). Adolf Hitler wanted Galen arrested but Joseph Goebbels warned against this as Galen was a popular religious leader. It is claimed that Galen's sermon inspired the formation of the anti-Nazi White Rose group.

Martin Niemöller spent the Second World War in Dachau Concentration Camp. As he was a First World War hero Adolf Hitler gave orders for him to be left alive. His colleague, Dietrich Bonhoffer, was arrested in April, 1943 and was charged with planning the July Plot. He was held in Buchenwald Concentration Camp until being executed in April, 1945.

The New Christianity. 100% Aryan.Philip Zec, Daily Mirror (16th May, 1941)
The New Christianity. 100% Aryan.
Philip Zec, Daily Mirror (16th May, 1941)

Primary Sources

(1) Martin Niemöller, sermon (1928)

I cannot help saying quite harshly and bluntly that the Jewish people came to grief and disgrace because of its own ‘Positive Christianity!’ It (the Jewish people) bears a curse throughout the history of the world because it was ready to approve of its Messiah just as long and as far as it thought it could gain some advantage for its own plans and its own aims for Him, His words and His deeds. It bears a curse, because it rejected Him and resisted Him to the death when it became clear that Jesus of Nazareth would not cease calling (the Jews) to repentance and faith, despite their insistence that they were free, strong and proud men and belonged to a pure-blooded, race-concious nation!

“‘Positive Christianity,’ which the Jewish people wanted, clashed with ‘Negative Christianity’ as Jesus himself represented it!... Friends, can we risk going with our nation without forgiveness of sins, without that so-called ‘Negative Christianity’ which, when all is said and done, clings in repentance and faith to Jesus as the Savior of sinners? I cannot and you cannot and our nation cannot! ‘Come let us return to the Lord!’

(2) Statement made by Martin Niemöller and fellow leaders of the Confessional Church (July, 1936)

Our people are trying to break the bond set by God. That is human conceit rising against God. In this connection we must warn the Führer, that the adoration frequently bestowed on him is only due to God. Some years ago the Führer objected to having his picture placed on Protestant altars. Today his thoughts are used as a basis not only for political decisions but also for morality and law. He himself is surrounded with the dignity of a priest and even of an intermediary between God and man... We ask that liberty be given to our people to go their way in the future under the sign of the Cross of Christ, in order that our grandsons may not curse their elders on the ground that their elders left them a state on earth that closed to them the Kingdom of God.

(3) Martin Niemöller, sermon (27th June, 1937)

On Wednesday the secret police penetrated the closed church of Friedrich Werder and arrested at the altar eight members of the Council of Brethren. ... I think how yesterday at Saarbrucken six women and a trusted man of the Protestant community were arrested because they had circulated an election leaflet of the Confessing church. . . . And we recall today how the pulpit of St Anne's church remains empty, because our pastor and brother Muller, with forty-seven other Christian brothers and sisters of our Protestant church, has been taken into custody.

(4) Dr. Reinhard Becker, letter to Martin Niemöller (November, 1937)

You suppose that Christianity is oppressed in Germany and that there is a rule by force and secret trial. Though this is not the case, the German State cannot be expected to tolerate incessant attacks, open or veiled, by ministers of the Christian faith upon its very foundations. There are recalcitrant pastors who seem to be unaware of the fact that they would have been shot, hanged or burned long ago if it had not been for the gigantic and successful struggle of Adolf Hitler to safeguard civilization in this country against the horrors of Communism. Therefore by attacking National Socialism, they are striking at themselves.

(5) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of he Third Reich (1964)

The Reverend Martin Niemoeller had personally welcomed the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933. In that year his autobiography, From U-boat to Pulpit, had been published. The story of how this submarine commander in the First World War had become a prominent Protestant pastor was singled out for special praise in the Nazi press and became a best seller. To Pastor Niemoeller, as to many a Protestant clergyman, the fourteen years of the Republic had been, as he said, "years of darkness'' and at the close of his autobiography he added a note of satisfaction that the Nazi revolution had finally triumphed and that it had brought about the "national revival" for which he himself had fought so long - for a time in the free corps, from which so many Nazi leaders had come.

(6) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: The Memoirs of Albert Speer (1970)

He (Hitler) had another such fit of rage at Pastor Niemöller in 1937. Niemöller had once again delivered a rebellious sermon in Dahlem [as had many other of the more evangelistic and conservative Lutheran Pastors and Priests]; at the same time transcripts of his tapped telephone conversations were presented to Hitler. In a bellow, Hitler ordered Niemöller to be put in a concentration camp and, since he had proven himself to be incorrigible, kept there for life. Pastors and Priests were then sent to camps for their dissidence and by 1938 the country had been declared free of the church.

(7) Martin Niemöller, letter to France Hildebrandt (1945)

Towards evening that day we came upon a German divisional HQ, and some of the officers amongst us found that they were acquainted with officers there. Immediately they telephoned the German HQ. After a horrible night, during which two of us were posted on guard behind every SS man, German officers and soldiers came, put the execution squad in a truck and sent them on their way, guarded by machine guns. The Germans brought us to a hotel in Bergen, where we were very well fussed over and fed and looked after. That lasted three days, when one morning an American company arrived, disarmed the Germans and took us into their care.

(8) Martin Niemöller, statement at a press conference in Naples (5th June, 1945)

No honest man or woman in Germany feels responsible for these things. Good Germans took Nazism as a new religion. These people are shocked by the revelations which have shown that Nazism was not idealism, but a means to the performance of criminal acts...

In war a German feels bound to join the ranks without question. Three of my sons were called up. I could not hold back. I wrote from the concentration camp to Admiral Raeder, C. in C. of the Navy, asking to be allowed to return to the submarine service or to do any other service in the Navy. I heard nothing for several months, and then a reply came, not from Raeder but from Keitel, head of the Wehrmacht. He thanked me, but regretted I could not be employed on active service.

(9) Dietmar Schmidt, Pastor Niemöller (1959)

During the next few years (after 1945) he was to attempt to explain from pulpit and platform to Evangelical Christians in all four Occupation Zones what the Stuttgart Declaration was, and was not, intended to convey. He called on the people to show a sense of responsibility towards their fellow-men, he abjured them not to forget the lessons of the past and, above all, he reminded them constantly of the burden of guilt which had to be redeemed before a new life could begin. In so doing he was at pains not to exclude himself from a like responsibility, and told in this connexion the story of the visit which he and his wife paid to Dachau in the autumn of 1945. "After showing her the cell in which he had been confined for so many months, they passed the crematorium. A great white-painted board had been affixed to a tree and on it, in black letters, they read: "Here between the years 1933 and 1945 238,756 human beings were incinerated."

At that moment, Niemoller told his audience, the consciousness of his own guilt and his own failure assailed him as never before. "And God asked me - as once He asked the First Man after the Fall, Adam - Man, where wast thou in those years 1933 to 1945? I knew I had no answer to that question. True, I had an alibi in my pocket, for the years 1937 to 1945, my identity disc from the concentration camp. But what help to me was that? God was not asking me where I had been from 1937 to 1945, but from 1933 to 1945, and for the years 1933 to 1937 I had no answer. Should I have said perhaps: 'As a pastor in those years I bore courageous witness to the Faith; I dared to speak, an'd risked life and freedom in doing so?' But God did not ask about that. God asked: 'Where were you from 1933 to 1945 when human beings were incinerated here? When, in 1933, Goering publicly boasted that all active Communists had been imprisoned and rendered harmless - that was when we forgot our responsibility, that was when we should have warned our parishioners. Many a man from my own parish, who went and joined the National Socialist Party and who is now to do penance for his act, could rise up against me today and say that he would have acted differently if I had not kept silence at that time. ... I know that I made my contribution towards the enslavement of the German people."

(10) William Hickey, Daily Express (1945)

The admiration expressed by some people for this vigorous critic of Hitler who has spent eight years in a concentration camp, is offset by others who are wholly allergic to the idea of any "good" Germans, and recall with some venom Niemoller's first-war role of U-boat commander.

(11) Archdeacon of Lancaster, The Daily Telegraph (31st May, 1946)

In my opinion the pastor's visit at this time can do nothing but harm, for the one thing needful is to present a united front to the German people, and to demand proofs of repentance from the whole nation before we can enter into any fraternal relationships.

(12) Martin Niemöller, sermon (January, 1946)

We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries. No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak. The guilt exists, there is no doubt about that - even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns containing the ashes of incinerated Jews from all over Europe. And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom. For in our world and in our name have these things been done.

(13) Martin Niemöller, sermon at Rendsburgh Church (23rd September, 1946)

If we had then recognized that in the communists who were thrown into concentration camps, the Lord Jesus Christ himself lay imprisoned and looked for our love and help, if we had seen that at the beginning of the persecution of the Jews it was the Lord Christ in the person of the least of our human brethren who was being persecuted and beaten and killed, if we had stood by him and identified ourselves with him, I do not know whether God would not then have stood by us and whether the whole thing would not then have had to take a different course.

(14) Martin Niemöller, speech in New York (1947)

To reproaches that I have described Russian occupation (of East Germany) as bearable, I say: I am only against the often-heard statement that a war against bolshevism is necessary to save the Christian churches and Christianity. But it is unchristian to conduct a war for the saving of the Christian church, for the Christian church does not need to be saved. The church is not afraid of bolshevism. It was not afraid of Nazism. The church has to serve the communists as well as all human beings. While the church rejects communism as a creed, just as it rejects all other creeds, communism must and can only be fought and defeated with spiritual weapons. All other powers will fail.

(15) Martin Niemöller, letter to Dr. Alfred Wiener (1956)

I have never concealed the fact... that I came from an anti-Semitic past and tradition... I ask only that you look at my life historically and take it as history. I believe that from 1933 I truly represented the Lutheran-Christian outlook on the Jewish question - as I revealed before the court - but that I returned home after eight years' imprisonment as a completely different person.

(16) Martin Niemöller, speech (1982)

I am now convinced that the Reformation of the church will come from the east. In the west there is no spiritual life. (I'm speaking of the Protestant church and not the Roman Catholic church.) We have civilisation and we try to keep up culture, but we have no spiritual life. The east has a spiritual life. They know that colour influences the spirit more than black lines. In Russia there is still the notion that art is nearer religion than thinking in lines and logic. All abstract rationalising needs to be filled out with sensual thinking and feelings. In Russia there is still a strong impression of colour.

(17) Poem by Martin Niemöller that was said to have been written in 1946.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.