The Nazi government ushered in key changes to the Protestant churches in Germany. First, the Nazi leadership supported the German Christian movement, a group of Protestants who wanted to combine Christianity and National Socialism into a movement “that would exclude all those deemed impure and embrace all ‘true Germans’ in a spiritual homeland for the Third Reich.”
Second, the Nazi leadership urged Protestants to unite all regional churches into a national church under the centralized leadership of Ludwig Müller, a well-known pastor and Nazi Party member, who was appointed as Reich bishop. Many German Protestants embraced these changes. By supporting the German Christian movement and Müller, they could continue to practice their faith and at the same time show support for Hitler. In a national vote by Protestants taken in July 1933, the German Christians were supported by two-thirds of voters, and Müller won the national election to lead them.
The German Christian movement made significant changes to German Protestantism to bring it in line with Nazi racial ideology. Instead of classifying people as Christians or Jews based on their faith, as the Protestants had always done, German Christians began to classify people by racial heritage, as the Nazis did. Therefore, church leaders whose parents or grandparents had converted from Judaism to Christianity were considered Jewish and, according to the 1933 civil service law, no longer officially permitted to serve in those positions. Although the state never enforced this law in the churches, some German Christians forced out non-Aryan clergy to show their commitment to the regime. By January of 1934, Müller was vowing to purge Protestant churches of all “Jewish influence,” including removing the Old Testament from their bible because it is based on the Hebrew bible. A public appeal released by German Christian leaders claimed that “the eternal God created for our nation a law that is peculiar to its own kind. It took shape in the Leader Adolf Hitler, and in the National Socialist state created by him. This law speaks to us from the history of our people. . . . It is loyalty to this law which demands of us the battle for honor and freedom . . . One Nation! One God! One Reich! One Church!"
Not all Protestants in Germany agreed with the German Christian movement and the changes it instituted. In response to the growing power of the German Christians, another Protestant faction was formed called the Confessing Church. Its slogan was “Church must remain church,”
and its members sought to protect their religion from the grasp of politics and the Nazi government. For instance, the Confessing Church considered that anyone baptized in the faith was a Christian, regardless of his or her racial descent. Also, the members of the Confessing Church opposed the German Christian movement’s changes to the bible.
Despite their opposition to the German Christian movement, the Confessing Church did not object to most elements of Nazism, and some people within the movement were Nazi Party members. The disagreement between the two groups was focused on how much influence the Nazi government should have over how they practiced their faith. Early on, Confessing Church member Martin Niemöller and two Protestant bishops met with Hitler and his top aides. The religious leaders reaffirmed their support for Hitler’s domestic and foreign policies and asked only for the right to disagree on religious matters. Hitler did not compromise, and after the meeting both bishops signed a statement of unconditional loyalty to Hitler; Niemöller did not. As a result, Niemöller was increasingly targeted by the Nazis and was eventually imprisoned for seven years in concentration camps.
Although about 7,000 of the nation’s 16,500 Protestant clergymen openly supported the Confessing Church, they limited their opposition to defending church teachings against Nazi influence. One member of the Confessing Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, did resist the actions of the Nazis more broadly. In April 1933, he professed sympathy for Jewish victims of Nazism and argued that National Socialism and Christianity were incompatible. He later became an important symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany and was executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1945.
In general, Protestants in Germany found a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism. In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses struggled under the new regime. Initially, some leaders of this small religious group (which numbered about 20,000 in Germany in the 1930s) tried to make peace with the Reich. But their faith often prevented them from serving in the army, swearing allegiance to the state, or uttering the words “Heil Hitler,” by this time a common way of saying hello and goodbye. Hitler was not interested in this unpopular minority, and the Nazis targeted the Jehovah’s Witnesses for persecution. The Nazis destroyed their national headquarters, outlawed their church, and sent many thousands to concentration camps or prisons, where more than 1,000 were killed.