Nazi attitudes toward religion and churches in Germany were complicated and often contradictory. Though unwilling to disband or directly attack major churches, the Nazis moved to curtail their political activities through agreements, pressure or persecution. As a consequence, German churches and their leaders found themselves in a difficult and dangerous position.
Contrary to popular opinion, Adolf Hitler was not an atheist. As a boy, Hitler was introduced to the Catholic faith by his devoutly religious mother. He was educated in a Catholic school and served as a choirboy in his local cathedral.
Hitler drifted away from the church after leaving home. There is conflicting evidence about his religious views in adulthood. According to those closest to Hitler, he continued to identify as a Catholic and made regular financial contributions to the church – but he never attended Mass or received communion.
Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, contains many references to a divine creator. Hitler’s early speeches often mentioned God and emphasised the pivotal role of Christianity in German society.
Religion and Nazi ideology
After becoming leader of the NSDAP, Hitler continued to reference God and Christianity in his speeches. In October 1928, he told an audience that 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 speech, Hitler 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 support for Christianity was sincere or merely a device to win popular support from Christian Germans. In private, Hitler could be strongly critical of organised religion. He viewed Christian concerns with compassion and charity as a significant weakness.
Hitler also believed the core values of Nazism – nationalism, obedience and loyalty to the state – were contradicted by religious teachings. He feared the political influence of churches might undermine his own agenda.
The push for a Reichskirche
Christian churches were in decline in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, weakened by World War I and the secular values of the Weimar period. There was a sharp drop in religious attendance during the Great Depression. Church rolls from 1932 show that 186,000 Germans stopped attending Christian churches that year. Despite this, the vast majority of Germans still identified as Christians (according to the 1933 census, 52 per cent considered themselves Protestant and 33 per cent Catholic).
Growing Nazi totalitarianism forced German churches to take a position on Hitler and his followers. Some Protestant churches were open in their support for the Nazi movement. Some Protestant leaders even pushed for the creation of a Reichskirche: a ‘state church’ 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, not unlike Martin Luther, the 16th-century founder of Protestantism. Hitler, they believed, 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 Christian converts with Jewish heritage. The leader of the Deutsche Kristen, Ludwig Muller, met with Hitler several times and promised the support of his church.
Opposition to Nazism
German Protestantism was a broad movement, however, and not all of its churches supported Hitler. Other Protestant leaders saw their religion as ‘above politics’; they refused to support or align with any party or to embrace nationalism or fascist values.
In September 1933, several dozen delegates from German Protestant churches formed the Pfarrernotbund (Emergency League of Pastors) to resist the creation of a pro-Nazi state religion. The Pfarrernotbund also spoke out against Nazi racial policies, criticising the ‘Aryan paragraph’, a clause inserted into employment contracts to remove Jews from certain occupations.
Within a few months, the Pfarrernotbund had the support of more than 7,000 individual Protestant clergymen. The group also elected a leader, Martin Niemoller, a Luthern pastor from suburban Berlin.
In May 1934, several Protestant churches united to form the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), which also resisted 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 arresting and detaining 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 Catholic Church
The relationship between German Catholicism and the Nazi Party was initially conciliatory but quickly deteriorated in the first months of Nazi rule.
German Catholics had endured persecution during the late 1800s and desired a concordat – an agreement that guaranteed their rights and religious freedoms. Hitler expressed some support for this idea but he wanted a one-sided concordat to 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 (also the future Pope Pius XII). As these negotiations progressed, 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. As Pacelli later put it, the negotiations proceeded with a pistol at his head.
The resulting agreement was called the Reichskonkordat. It was signed into law on July 20th 1933. The Reichskonkordat was a diplomatic and political victory for the Nazis, mainly because it banned the Catholic church and its representatives from participating in politics.
Among the other 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.
Pacelli and his colleagues were not optimistic about 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 the terms of the concordat, even as the ink on it was drying. In December 1933, Berlin ruled that all editors and publishers must belong to a Nazi ‘literary society’. This effectively gagged Catholic publications and prevented church leaders from protesting breaches of the Reichskonkordat.
Between 1934 and 1936, the Nazis shut down several Catholic and Lutheran youth groups; many of their members were absorbed into the Hitler Youth. Catholic schools were closed and replaced with ‘community schools’, run by Nazi sympathisers. A year-long campaign against Catholic schools in Munich in 1935 saw enrolments there drop by more than 30 per cent.
Direct attacks on the church and its members escalated in 1936. Dozens of Catholic priests were arrested by the Gestapo and given show trials, accused of involvement in corruption, prostitution, homosexuality and paedophilia. Anti-Catholic propaganda appeared on street corners, billboards and in the notorious anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Sturmer.
‘Mit brennender Sorge’
This campaign produced a defensive response. In March 1937, Pope Pius XI released an encyclical (circular letter) titled Mit brennender Sorge (‘With burning concern’). The text of this encyclical was drafted 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”, the letter said, “distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God.”
More than 250,000 copies of the Pope’s encyclical were distributed to German churches and read from the pulpit. This infuriated Hitler and the response was swift and intense. Gestapo agents raided churches and printers, seizing and destroying copies of the encyclical wherever they were found. 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.
The anti-Jehovah’s Witness campaign
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were another religious group persecuted by the Nazis. Germany had around 15,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1933. Their religious beliefs prevented Witnesses from swearing allegiance to a government or secular power. They also refused to submit to military conscription or perform the Nazi one-armed salute.
In April 1933, Nazi paramilitary groups shut down several Jehovah’s Witness offices and buildings. By the middle of 1933, the Jehovah’s Witness religion had been formally 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 by renouncing their religion and pledging allegiance to the Nazi state, though few did.
In 1936, the Gestapo began compiling a register of all Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. By 1938, several thousand had been arrested and transported to concentration camps. Inside the camps, they were identified by a triangular purple patch on their uniform.
About 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in camps between 1938 and 1945. Around one-quarter of this number were either murdered or succumbed to starvation or disease.
A historian’s view:
“The Catholic Church … consistently maintained an anti-Nazi attitude. In several parts of Germany, Catholics were explicitly forbidden to become members of the Nazi Party, and Nazi members were forbidden to take part in church funerals and ceremonies. The bishop of Mainz even refused to admin NSDAP members to the holy sacraments.”
1. Nazi attitudes toward religion were complex. While most of the Nazis were Christian or supported Christian values, they were strongly opposed to the political influence of churches, which threatened the Nazi program.
2. Hitler was not an atheist. He was raised as a Catholic and his writings and speeches often contained references to God, Christianity and religion, highlighting and praising 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 in July 1933, however it was a political ploy to minimise the church’s political influence. The Catholic church was allowed to continue in Nazi Germany but the terms of the concordat were often violated.
5. The Nazis also intimidated and marginalised Germany’s 15,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to swear loyalty to Hitler or undertake military service. Large numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in concentration camps, where around one quarter died.