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.

Transcript (Text)

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When we look at the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Nazi Germany, especially in 1933, and we reflect on what pressures they might have felt to go one way or the other, I think it's important to recognize first that there was a broad acceptance of the new regime. There was a lot of hope. Church leaders as well as their members felt that the Weimar years had finally come to an end and that the new regime really might offer them some new possibilities.

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But the early weeks and months of National Socialism were marked by a great deal of violence, a great deal of political turbulence, as the Nazi regime very quickly consolidated its gains. And it became clear that they were really interested in Nazifying every level of German life. And that made the Churches nervous. And so you had this approach of compromise with the state where possible and staying out of trouble if that wasn't possible. And I think that that really characterized the responses of both the Churches in Nazi Germany throughout the period.

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Most of the Protestants in Germany— and the German population in 1933 was about two-thirds Protestant— the vast majority of them belonged to the German Evangelical Church, which was sort of a conglomeration of several different theological traditions.

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One of the things that the Church was interested in was sort of a larger Reich Church, a national church. And the group that was pushing most strongly for this was a group called the Deutsche Christen, the German Christians. The German Christian Movement during the 1920s began to coalesce around issues of nationalism, ethnicity, antisemitism. So this was a group that in 1933, when Hitler came to power, took the Nazi ideology and ran with it.

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And so the Nazis and the German Christians initially kind of worked together. And one of the first things they tried to do was to implement the Nazi racial laws within the Church. This was the so-called Aryan Paragraph.

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It distinguished between baptized Christians who could prove that they were of Aryan ancestry and baptized Christians who, going back into the Church records, found that they had a Jewish grandmother, or that at some point someone in their family had converted. And this was what really provoked the backlash against this German Christian group because while most Protestants were nationalistic, they welcomed the laws of Hitler, they were also theologically very traditional. And so the idea of taking people who were baptized Christians and barring them from Church positions was very problematic.

There was a huge battle, in fact, within the Protestant Church in 1933 and 1934 about this issue. And in response to that, the Confessing Church, which was the church of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, arose really in answer to the German Christians on this issue.

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Many people feel that the Confessing Church was primarily a political opposition against the Nazi regime. It wasn't. It was a reaction against the theological and ideological radicalism of the German Christians, specifically over this issue of the Aryan Paragraph.

There's an interesting moment in the fall of 1934 that I think exemplifies both the pressures that the Churches were under, but it also gives us a snapshot of what potential resistance might have meant in this situation.

The Lutheran bishops of the Churches of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, which were two of the major Lutheran Churches in Germany. These were well-known bishops, they were in full control of their Churches. And the Nazi state had appointed a state commissioner to oversee the Churches. And this state commissioner actually tried to seize control of these two Churches. The bishops refused. They said that they would stay in control of their Churches. And so the state put them under house arrest.

And in Munich, you had thousands of people march in the streets of Munich outside the residence of the bishop, protesting this house arrest. And the leader of the Bavarian Farmers' Party, which was a political party of about 90,000 member farmers throughout Bavaria, went to the Nazi governor of Bavaria and said, if you don't let our bishop go, all of our members are going to leave the Nazi Party. And that made the state back down. The bishops were released. The state commissioner for church affairs backed off. The bishops kept control of their Churches.

And I think that this shows both the potential for what would have happened if the Churches had pushed back against the state, what would have happened if they had protested about the persecution of the Jews. These kinds of questions get opened up by that kind of example, but I think it also shows that the state really didn't want to rile the Churches too much and didn't need to. The Churches didn't really cause them any trouble except when it came to possible state interference in the Churches.

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