Religion in Nazi Germany was complicated by Nazi attitudes towards God, religion and Germany’s churches. Contrary to popular opinion, Hitler himself was not an atheist. As a boy he had been introduced to Catholicism by his religious mother; he was later educated in a Catholic school and served as a choirboy in his local cathedral. Hitler drifted away from the church after leaving home, and his religious views in adulthood are in dispute. According to those closest to Hitler, he continued to identify as a Catholic and made financial contributions to the church, though he never attended church or received communion. Mein Kampf contains many references to a divine creator, albeit one that does not interfere in the destinies of men. Hitler’s early speeches often mentioned the vital role Christianity had played in the history of Germany, emphasising the link between Christian beliefs, morality and German society:
Today Christians … stand at the head of [Germany]. I pledge that I never will tie myself to parties who want to destroy Christianity … We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit … We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre and in the press. In short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture, as a result of liberal excess.
In private, however, Hitler could be strongly critical of organised religion. He considered Christianity’s biggest weakness to be its concern with compassion and charity. Hitler also believed the core values of Nazism, like nationalism and loyalty to the state, were undermined by the teachings of some religions. He feared the political influence churches could wield, possibly to the detriment of his own agenda.
Christianity itself was in a state of decline in Germany in the early 1900s, undermined by rationalism, secular values and left-wing political ideas. There was a sharp drop in church attendance during the Great Depression (rolls from 1932 show 186,000 Germans had ceased attending Christian churches in that year). Nevertheless the vast majority of Germans still identified as Christians (52 per cent Protestant and 33 per cent Catholic, according to the 1933 census). The higher clergy of Germany’s Christian churches still retained considerable influence, while the Pope and the Vatican could potentially exert influence over Germany’s Catholics from outside the nation’s borders.
Nazi impositions into German life in 1933-34 forced churches to take a position on Hitler and his party. Some Protestant churches openly supported the NSDAP. They pushed for the creation of a Reichskirche: a ‘state church’ that was loyal to Nazism and subordinate to the state. The Deutsche Kristen (‘German Christians’) was the largest branch of German Protestantism and the most supportive of a Reichskirche. Its leaders believed Hitler was a visionary in the same vein as Martin Luther (the founder of Protestantism in the 1500s); they thought Hitler had the potential to complete the transformation of German Christianity. There was a strong anti-Semitic strain in the Deutsche Kristen; some of its leaders urged the rejection of Jewish texts and the expulsion of Jews who had converted to Protestantism. The leader of the Deutsche Kristen, Ludwig Muller (pictured, left) met with Hitler several times and pledged his church’s support to the Nazis.
German Protestantism was a broad movement, however, and not all churches supported Hitler. Other Protestant leaders considered Christianity to be ‘above politics’; it should not support any party or align itself with nationalism or fascist values. In September 1933 several dozen delegates from Protestant churches united to form the Pfarrernotbund (‘Emergency League of Pastors’) to resist the creation of a pro-Nazi state religion. The Pfarrernotbund also criticised the ‘Aryan paragraph’, a clause inserted into employment contracts to remove Jews from certain occupations. The group elected a leader, Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor from suburban Berlin. Within a few months the Pfarrernotbund had support from more than 7,000 individual Protestant clergymen.
In May 1934 a number of Protestant churches united to form the Bekennende Kirche (‘Confessing Church’) and resist attempts to ‘nazify’ German churches. Members of the Bekennende Kirche were critical of Nazi policies during the mid-1930s, particularly anti-Semitic measures. The Nazis responded by targeting Pfarrernotbund and Bekennende Kirche figureheads, leaving the groups largely leaderless. Martin Niemoller was arrested by the Gestapo in 1938 and was detained in Dachau until 1945. Other members of the Bekennende Kirche risked their lives by sheltering Jewish-born Christians, raising money and supplying fugitives with forged papers during the war.
A Nazi-Catholic concordat
The relationship between German Catholicism and the Nazi Party was optimistic at first, but soon deteriorated. Germany’s Catholics, who were persecuted in the 1870s, had long desired a concordat – an agreement between the Vatican and Berlin that guaranteed the rights of Catholic Germans. Hitler supported this idea, shortly after coming to power in 1933. He had no great desire to protect Catholic rights and privileges – but a successful concordat might win him support from Germany’s Catholics, as well as a degree of respect from the international community. He also hoped to reduce the political influence of the Catholic church, as the Nazis strived to consolidate their power.
In April 1933 Nazi delegates began negotiations with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (pictured with Hitler), the Vatican’s delegate to Germany and the future Pope Pius XII. During these negotiations the Nazis shut down Catholic publications, broke up meetings of the Catholic-based Centre Party and threw outspoken Catholics into concentration camps. The negotiations were conducted, as Pacelli later put it, with a pistol at his head. The final document, the Reichskonkordat, was signed into law on July 20th 1933. It was a diplomatic and political victory for the Nazis, chiefly because the Catholic church and its representatives were banned from participating in politics. Among the terms of the concordat:
- Catholics were guaranteed freedom of religious belief and worship in Nazi Germany
- The Vatican retained the right to communicate with, and preach to, German Catholics
- The church retained the right to collect ecclesiastical taxes and donations
- Catholic bishops had to swear an oath promising to “honour” the government
- Catholic organisations such as charities, schools and youth groups were protected
- Catholic clergymen and delegates could not be members of, or speak on behalf of, political parties
Persecution of Catholics
Jane Caplan, historian
Pacelli and his colleagues were not optimistic about the terms of the Reichskonkordat. They knew Hitler would not protect the church’s rights – and would probably infringe them himself. It was, as put by historian Hubert Wolf, “a pact with the devil – no one had any illusions about that fact in Rome – but it [at least] guaranteed the continued existence of the Catholic Church during the Third Reich”. The Nazis began flouting the terms of the concordat while the ink on it was still drying. In December 1933, Berlin ordered that all editors and publishers must belong to a Nazi ‘literary society’; this decree gagged Catholic publications and prevented church leaders from protesting breaches of the Reichskonkordat. Between 1934 and 1936 the Nazis ordered several Catholic and Lutheran youth groups to be absorbed by the Hitler Youth. Catholic schools were shut down and replaced with ‘community schools’, run by pro-Nazis. A year-long campaign against Catholic schools in Munich in 1935 saw enrolments drop by more than 30 per cent.
In 1936 there were more direct attacks on the church and its members. Dozens of Catholic priests were arrested by the Gestapo and given show trials, where fabricated evidence was used to suggest they were involved in corruption, prostitution, homosexuality and pedophilia. Anti-Catholic propaganda appeared on street corners and in the pages of the notorious anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Sturmer. This campaign produced a defensive response from the church: a March 1937 encyclical (circular letter) entitled Mit brennender Sorge (‘With burning concern’). It was written by Michael von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, with an introduction by Cardinal Pacelli and an endorsement from Pope Pius XI. Mit brennender Sorge criticised Nazi breaches of the Reichskonkordat, condemned Nazi views on race and ridiculed the glorification of statehood and leaders:
Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state … above their standard value, and raises them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God.
More than a quarter-million copies of the encyclical were distributed to German churches, to be read to congregations from the pulpit. Hitler was infuriated and the Nazi response was swift and intense. Gestapo agents raided churches and printers, seizing and destroying copies of the encyclical wherever they could be found. The campaign of propaganda and show trials against Catholic clergy continued apace through 1938-39, and several priests ended up behind the barbed wire at Dachau and Oranienburg.
Another group persecuted by the Nazis were Germany’s 15,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religious beliefs of Witnesses prevented them from swearing allegiance to government or secular powers. They also refused to submit to military conscription or to perform the Nazi one-armed salute. In April 1933 Nazi stormtroopers shut down several Jehovah’s Witness offices and buildings; by the middle of 1933 the religion itself had been banned in most parts of Germany. Individual Witnesses were sacked from jobs in the public and private sector, and refused access to welfare or pensions. (They could restore these rights if they renounced their religion and pledged allegiance to the Nazi state.) The Gestapo began compiling a register of all Witnesses in 1936. By 1938 some had been arrested and transported to concentration camps, where they were identified by a triangular purple patch. About 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses would be detained in camps between 1938 and 1945; around one-quarter of this number were murdered or succumbed to starvation or disease.
1. The Nazi attitude to religion was complex, but in general they strongly opposed the political influence of churches.
2. Hitler was not an atheist and often utilised references to God, Christianity and religion to connect with Germans.
3. German Protestant churches were divided about Nazism, with a strong faction pushing for a Nazified ‘state religion’.
4. The Nazis signed a concordat with the Catholic church, though this was a political ploy which they soon violated.
5. Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to swear loyalty to Hitler or undertake military service, so were subsequently persecuted.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Religion in Nazi Germany”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/religion-in-nazi-germany/.