Nazi attitudes toward God, religion and German churches were complicated. Contrary to popular opinion Adolf Hitler was not an atheist. As a boy Hitler was introduced to Catholicism by his devoutly religious mother; he was educated in a Catholic school and for a time served as a choirboy in his local cathedral. Hitler drifted away from the church after leaving home and his religious views in adulthood are a matter of some dispute. According to those closest to Hitler he continued to identify as a Catholic and made regular financial contributions to the church – however he never attended church or received communion. Hitler’s book Mein Kampf contains many references to a divine creator, albeit one who does not interfere in the destinies of men. Hitler’s early speeches often mentioned God and emphasised the pivotal role of Christianity in German society. In an October 1928 speech Hitler said the Nazis “tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity… in fact our movement is Christian. We are filled with a desire for Catholics and Protestants to discover one another”. In another he argued that:
“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.”
It is unclear whether Hitler’s public support for Christianity was sincere or an attempt to court support. In private he could be strongly critical of organised religion. Hitler considered Christianity’s concern with compassion and charity to be a significant weakness. He also believed the core values of Nazism, like nationalism and loyalty to the state, were contradicted by religious teachings. He feared the political influence churches might undermine his own agenda. Christianity itself was in a state of decline in Germany in the early 1900s, weakened by rationalism, secular values and left wing political ideas. Church rolls reveal a sharp drop in religious attendance during the Great Depression; rolls from 1932 show 186,000 Germans ceased attending Christian churches that year. Nevertheless the vast majority of Germans still identified as Christians (according to the 1933 census, 52 per cent Protestant and 33 per cent Catholic).
The spread of Nazi totalitarianism in 1933-34 forced churches to take a position on Hitler and the NSDAP. Some Protestant churches openly supported the Nazi movement. 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. Deutsche Kristen leaders considered Hitler a visionary in the same vein as Martin Luther, the 16th century founder of Protestantism. They believed Hitler had the potential to transform and revive German Christianity. There was also a strong anti-Semitic strain within 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, met with Hitler several times and pledged his church’s support to the Nazis.
German Protestantism was a broad movement, however, and not all of its churches supported Hitler. Other Protestant leaders considered their religion to exist ‘above politics'; they refused to support or align their church with any party or embrace 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), which resisted attempts to ‘Nazify’ German churches. Members of the Bekennende Kirche were critical of Nazi policies during the mid-1930s, particularly increasing 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 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.
The relationship between German Catholics and the Nazi Party was conciliatory at first but soon began to deteriorate. German Catholics had been persecuted in the late 1800s and had long desired a concordat – an agreement between the Vatican and Berlin that guaranteed their rights and religious freedoms. After coming to power in 1933 Hitler openly supported this idea. While had no great desire to protect Catholic rights and privileges, a successful concordat might lead German Catholics to support the NSDAP. Privately, Hitler also hoped that a one-sided concordat would reduce the political influence of the Catholic church. In April 1933 Nazi delegates began negotiations with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican’s delegate to Germany and the future Pope Pius XII. As these negotiations unfolded the Nazis launched a wave of anti-Catholic intimidation, shutting down Catholic publications, breaking up meetings of the Catholic-based Centre Party and throwing outspoken Catholics into concentration camps. The negotiations therefore proceeded, as Pacelli later put it, with a pistol at his head.
The resulting 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
Jane Caplan, historian
Pacelli and his colleagues were not optimistic about the terms of the Reichskonkordat. They knew Hitler and his followers would not protect the church or its rights. 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 these terms while the ink on the concordat was still drying. In December 1933 Berlin ordered that all editors and publishers belong to a Nazi ‘literary society'; this decree effectively 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 closed, their members absorbed into 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 enrollments 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 suggested they were involved in corruption, prostitution, homosexuality and pedophilia. Anti-Catholic propaganda appeared on street corners, billboards and in the pages of the notorious anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Sturmer. This campaign produced a defensive response. In March 1937 Pope Pius XI released an encyclical (circular letter) titled Mit brennender Sorge (‘With burning concern’). It was largely written by Michael von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, in consultation with other Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Pacelli. Mit brennender Sorge criticised Nazi breaches of the Reichskonkordat, condemned Nazi views on race and ridiculed the glorification of politicians and the state: “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 250,000 copies of the encyclical were distributed to German churches, to be read to congregations from the pulpit. This infuriated Hitler 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 gathered pace through 1938-39, and several priests ended up behind the barbed wire at Dachau and Oranienburg.
Another religious group persecuted by the Nazis were the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Germany had around 15,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1933 and their religious beliefs 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 paramilitaries shut down several Jehovah’s Witness offices and buildings. By the middle of 1933 the Jehovah’s Witness religion had been officially banned in most parts of Germany. Individual Witnesses were sacked from jobs in the public and private sector; others were refused access to state welfare or pensions. They could restore these rights if they renounced their religion and pledged allegiance to the Nazi state, however very few did. The Gestapo began compiling a register of all Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1936. By 1938 several thousand had been arrested and transported to concentration camps, where they were identified by a triangular purple patch on their camp uniform. About 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses would be detained in camps between 1938 and 1945. Of this number around one quarter were murdered or succumbed to starvation or disease.
1. The Nazi attitude to religion was complex. While most of the Nazis were Christian or supported Christian values, they strongly opposed the political influence of churches, believing this might undermine their movement.
2. Hitler was not an atheist. He was raised as a Catholic and his writings and speeches often utilised references to God, Christianity and religion, highlighting their role in German society.
3. German Protestant churches were divided about Nazism. A strong faction in German Protestantism pushed for a Nazified ‘state religion’, while other Protestant leaders opposed the integration of religion and politics.
4. The Nazis signed a concordat with the Catholic church, however was a political ploy to minimise the political influence of the church. The Catholic church was allowed to remain in Nazi Germany but the terms of the concordat were violated.
5. The Nazis also intimidated and marginalised Germany’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to swear loyalty to Hitler or undertake military service. Large numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were later detained in concentration camps.
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/.