Protestant Churches and the Nazi State | Facing History & Ourselves

Protestant Churches and the Nazi State

Consider the different ways that the German Christian movement and the Confessing Church movement navigated their relationships with the Nazi government.
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust

The Confessing Church: Early German Protestant Responses to National Socialism - Victoria Barnett

Dr. Victoria Barnett speaks about German Protestant churches during the rise of the Nazis.

Catholics in Germany were united in one church. Germany’s 45 million Protestants were not. Most were members of the Lutheran, Reformed, or United Churches. In each German state, the members of these denominations joined together to form a regional Protestant church. Protestants in Germany differed not only in their religious practices but also in their political views. A few openly opposed the Nazis, while others saw themselves as neutral. Still others actively supported Nazism, calling themselves “storm troopers of Jesus Christ.” As a result, as Protestant churches responded to National Socialism, some struggled to preserve the independence of their churches from politics and government, while others sought to claim a central place for Christianity in Nazi Germany.

Nazi Propaganda Featuring Martin Luther

Nazi Propaganda Featuring Martin Luther

This propaganda poster from 1933 reads, “Hitler’s fight and Luther’s teaching are the best defense for the German people.”

World History Archive / Alamy

Awakening Conscience: The Pastor Martin Niemoller Story - Victoria Barnett

Dr. Victoria Barnett speaks about German pastor and Nazi opponent Martin Niemoeller.

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.” 1 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!" 2

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,” 3  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. 4

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.

  • 1Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 4.
  • 2“Directives of the Church Movement German Christians (Movement for a National Church) in Thuringia, 1933,” in The Nazi Years: A Documentary History, ed. Joachim Remak (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1990), 95–96.
  • 3Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 12. Reproduced by permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
  • 4Martin Niemöller: Biography,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, last modified January 9, 2016, accessed May 9, 2016.

Acting on Faith: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Protest Against National Socialism - Victoria Barnett

Dr. Victoria Barnett speaks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who took a stand against the Nazis.

Connection Questions

  1. What was the difference between the German Christian and the Confessing Church movements? What did each believe should be the relationship between Protestant churches and the Nazi government?
  2. According to historian Paul Bookbinder,
    While it is clear that many in the Confessing Church acted bravely, and some ended up in concentration camps, it is important to note what they didn’t do. Martin Niemöller later said that he deeply regretted not standing up for Jews as Jews. He spoke out only for Jews who had converted to Christianity. 5

    What does this suggest about the complexity of the groups that resisted the Nazis? Based on the information in this reading, how would you describe the universe of obligation of both the German Christian and the Confessing Church movements in 1933 Germany?

  3. Why did the Nazis target Jehovah’s Witnesses?
  4. What message would most German Protestants have received from the leaders of their churches about the legitimacy of the Nazi-led government? Did the responses of their churches make them more likely or less likely to accept Nazi rule of Germany?           
  5. Can we be inspired when people and groups resist and speak out and also be disappointed or angry when they do not go far enough? What can we learn from the steps those groups take—and from those they don’t?
  • 5Paul Bookbinder to Facing History and Ourselves, comment on draft manuscript, December 7, 2015.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Protestant Churches and the Nazi State," last updated August 2, 2016.

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