Brief Intro to Protestant Churches in the Third Reich

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  1. Man Against Time Black Hole Melchizedek

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    [1] Protestantism In the Weimar Republic

    [2] German Christians

    [3] The Protestant Church and the Third Reich until 1935

    [4] The Methodist Church and the Third Reich

    [5] Sources

    [1] Protestantism In the Weimar Republic

    Before WW II, the Protestant Church was divided into 28 Landeskirchen (provincial churches) in the Evangelical Church. The largest of these churches was in the Old Prussian Union. Each provincial church was supported by a ruling monarch who provided financial and institutional support for the church, but also guaranteed some measure of independence. The Church had a sort of national parliamentary system composed of two houses to resolve theological and organizational issues.

    In 1917 and 1918, the spread of olshevism among the working class, along with a general secularization of society, created at least the perception of a movement away from the church. This spawned a crisis mentality among many Protestant pastors who were seeing their influence in society decline dramatically. Many Church leaders were distrustful of the fragile and ineffective government. They saw their allegiance as to the preexisting order, an order that had guaranteed the independence of the Church. There was a longing for a regime that would bring order and pride back to Germany.

    In 1917, German Protestants celebrated the 400th anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther's 95 Theses. Although the intention was to revive interest in the church, this event became the vehicle for an idolatry of Luther as a German hero, and as an incarnation of the German spirit. Later, when Hitler gained national prominence, some saw him as an heir of Luther. This comparison was helped by Luther's own severe anti-Semitism that he revealed late in his life. Indeed, when Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, he listed Luther as one of Germany's great reformers. Luther's 1543 book On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther advocated the burning of synagogues and schools, the deportation of Jews, and other measures that closely resemble the actions taken by the Nazis. Regard this excerpt from On the Jews and Their Lies:

    When Hitler's German Workers' Party (the predecessors of the Nazis) adopted a manifesto in 1920 that was explicitly anti-Semitic and seems to promise the curtailing of religious freedom, it was not opposed by the Protestant establishment. The twenty fourth point of the manifesto advocates the institution of a "positive" Christianity:
    ( Rhum von Oppen, 25)

    The church began to respond the Nazis only when its autonomy was repeatedly threatened by the National Socialist government.

    [2] German Christians

    A Group of German Christians parade through Berlin, 1933

    "Christian faith is a heroic, manly thing. God speaks in blood and Volk a more powerful language than He does in the idea of humanity." -Joachim Hossenfelder, Bishop of Brandenburg.

    The German Christian movement was born out of the tendency of the Protestant church to incorporate elements of the volk traditions as a response to the uncertainty of the Weimar years. It incorporated the renewed emphasis on scripture that began in 1920's, as well as the belief that the German people had a deep spirituality, rooted in the land, that was unlike that any other people. They also sought to deemphisise the Old Testament, and insert an "Aryan paragraph" that asserted the primacy of the Aryan race. Another influence was the Luther Renaissance Movement, led by Professor Emmanuel Hirsch. The movement did not believe in the static nature of religion, but in its evolution. In Hirsch's view, the Church became more Lutheran by becoming more German.

    The German Christians were strongly nationalistic, and adopted Luther's anti-Semitism, as well as his respect for state authority. This passage in Romans 13 was often cited as proof of a correlation between the Church and State:
    Because the German Christian ideology was so compatible with National Socialist ideology, the Nazis were able to gain support among many Protestant churches. The official incarnation of this movement, the German Christians movement was officially founded 1932, and quickly became an instrument of Hitler's regime. The German Christians enthusiastically supported Nazi propaganda, and sought to join Church and State. To further this end, they wanted to join the 28 regional churches of the German Evangelical Church into a national Reich Church.

    In April 1933 the German Christians adopted an constitution, one article of which reads, "Christian faith exacts war against atheistic Marxism and ultramontanism. A religion such as ours conforms to nature in being a message of salvation to all men, though it is given to each folk in a special way." (Shuster, 99)

    The movement was initially quite popular. Although the German Christian values were not endorsed by the general Lutheran community, the movement did garner significant support. Of Germany's 17,000 Protestant pastors, 3000 were fervent enough in the support of Hitler to join the German Christian movement.

    The leader of the German Christian movement was Pastor Ludwig Muller. Muller was appointed Hitler's advisor on Protestant affairs in 1933. Muller was an Alte Kampfer, a navel chaplain in World War One, a member of the Nazi party, and knew Hitler since the 1920's. A pastor from eastern Prussia, Muller was elected Reich Bishop in 1933. Despite having virtually no support within the Protestant community, he instituted several policies that attempted to diminish the prominence of the Lutheran Church. Muller was easily the most committed and effective leader of the pro-Hitler Protestant movement.

    [3] The Protestant Church and the Third Reich Until 1935

    The institution of Reich Bishop Ludwig Muller, 1933

    Early in his regime, Hitler generally avoided discussing his views towards religion. He stressed the compatibility of Nazism and Christianity, and blamed any conflicts on individual clergy. Hitler advocated a "Positive Christianity," a meaningless but attractive term that characterized his discourse of religion. The phrase generally implied values like love of neighbors, social welfare, etc. When Hitler came to power, he actually had significant support among the Lutheran leaders, many of whom had even joined the National Socialist Party. The Lutheran establishment as a whole supported Hitler for his promise to eliminate Bolshevism and stabilize Germany. Hitler's support of "Positive Christianity" was not alarming to a church that was highly anti-Semitic. The Nazis saw the German Christian movement as a way to gain control of the German Evangelical Church, and gave them heavy support for as long as they felt the movement had a chance to succeed. When German Christianity was no longer politically viable, the Nazis ceased to support it.

    The first conflict between the German Evangelical Church occurred in 1933, at a meeting of the regional churches, over who the first Reich Bishop would be. The German Christians nominated Muller as their candidate. His opponent was Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, a popular and respected pastor from Westphalia. Protestant leaders were outraged that the unknown Muller was placed on the ballot, and, after several votes, elected Bodelschwingh Reich Bishop by a vote of 91 to 8.

    After the election of Bodelschwingh, Hitler appointed August Jager as his expert of Protestant affairs. Jager mounted a heavy police campaign against the Protestant Church, suspending, firing, and arresting a number of pastors. Nazi leaders also undertook a publicity campaign against Bodelschwingh. One month after taking his post, Bodelschwingh resigned.

    For the next election, the Nazis openly supported the German Christians, and in many places only German Christians were placed on the ballot. At the national synod to confirm Muller as Reich bishop, the 75 out of 229 delegates who were not German Christians walked out when the synod passed a measure prohibiting pastors or their wives from having Jewish blood.

    It was at this point that serious Protestant opposition to Hitler's government began. The opposition stemmed not from the anti-Semitic views expressed by the German Christians, but the interference in Church matters that the Aryan paragraph and poliece pressure signaled. In 1933, the Pastors' Emergency League formed to help pastors who were arrested or threatened by the police.

    There were three primary ideological issues separating the Nazi state and the German Evangelical Church became apparent. The first two, traditional state supremacy over the church and the the trend toward the separation of church and state conflicted with each other, and were a source of conflict within the Protestant opposition to Nazism. The third issue questioned the very legitimacy of the Nazi state.

    As resistance to his policies mounted, Hitler began to separate himself from the German Christians. He emphasized the separation between church and state, and took a less active role in intimidating other church groups.

    Muller, however continued to serve as Reich Bishop, even as Hitler's interest in the German Christians waned. In an effort to forestall the collapse of the German Christian Church, Muller declared that all Evangelical youth groups would be incorporated into the Hitlerjugend. This created a furor among the opposition, because Baldur von Shirach, the jugend's leader, was a declared atheist who placed the State ahead of all else. Muller also ordered the Gestapo to go to churches and monitor what was said.

    By the middle of 1934, Protestant opposition to Hitler was well organized, and the German Christian Church became fraught with internal division. Without support from the government, the German Christians and Muller became totally ineffective.

    This did not stop Jager from brutally oppressing pastors in Wurttemberg (although the strength of the resistance in Prussia handicapped Jager's ability to interfere with church operations), and continuing to spread propaganda denouncing the Protestant opposition. A Protestant Kulturkampf was instituted, and throughout Germany, with the exception of Westphalia, opposition was brutally repressed. Pastors were fired, arrested, and jailed.

    In October of 1934 Jager was dismissed by Hitler, and all measures against dissenting bishops were annulled. Opposition leaders were summoned to Berlin, and Frick assured them that neutrality was now the official government policy towards the German Evangelical Church.

    [4] The Methodist Church and the Third Reich

    Methodist and Baptist churches composed an insignificantly small portion of the German population in the 1930's when compared to the Lutheran population. Dr. John L. Nuelsen (1867-1946), a German American who moved to Germany in 1912, was the leader of the Methodist Church until 1936, and during that time collaborated extensively with the Nazi regime. Nuelsen frequently wrote articles praising the National Socialist policies toward religion, and even toured the United States in support of Hitler's regime. He saw it as his duty to defend his country in the international arena.

    Although Nuelsen spoke positively of Hitler's Government, he did not agree with many of its policies, and seems to have stopped short of endorsing an alliance between the Church and the Nazi State. In 1936, at the first meeting of the German Methodist Episcopal Church, Nuelsen took the opportunity to warn of the dangers of collaboration with Hitler: "And should it happen," he said, that the state should act in ways that are manifestly anti-Christian, then a free church is more at liberty to raise its voice in obedience to God's word. We shall not rush into martyrdom, but neither must we seek to escape it by entering weakly into compromises born in cowardice. The calling of a free church includes a special calling to witness, and thus also to be a church of martyrs when that is necessary."

    His successor, Dr. F. H. Otto Melle, became the first Bishop of the German Methodist Episcopal Church, and collaborated even more actively than Nuelsen. Bishop Melle's actions were similar to those of Nuelsen, however Melle actively sought collaboration as his patriotic duty, and as a way to further his own career.

    Because of the Methodist Church's loyalty, Hitler favored the Methodist Church long after he had abandoned the larger German Christian movement. In 1939 Hitler made a gift of 10,000 marks to a Methodist congregation to purchase an organ. This was easily the largest gift Hitler made to any German Church.

    German Methodists were influenced by the same factors as the larger Lutheran Church, such as nationalism, a desire for a strong German state, but because of its small size, it was more easily engulfed by Nazi propaganda.

    [5] Sources:

    Barnett, Victoria. For the Soul of the People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Blaich, Roland. "A Church in Crisis: Historical Reflections on Leadership." Walla Walla College. n.d. (21 April 2000).

    Rhum von Oppen, Beate. Religion and Resistance to Nazism. Center of international studies, Princeton University, 1971.

    Shuster, George N. Like a Mighty Army. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935.

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