I’m writing an article soon about the relationship between the Nazi regime and the Islamic world … but I feel it’s necessary to touch on the Nazi relationship to Christianity first. Besides, given my response post to TIK brought up the subject, it was due anyway.
There seems to be an odd tendency these days to try to attach every sort of whacky thing to the Nazis. One example is the idea that Hitler and many Nazis were homosexuals (Yes, there are people that believe that). That may seem like a patently absurd idea at first glance, but as in most cases there is a grain of truth to that lie. Ernst Röhm and some other prominent brownshirts were in-fact homosexuals — but neither Hitler nor any of his other major SS or Wehrmacht generals and admirals were, nor was the Nazi party point of view any more favorable towards homosexuality because of Röhm’s deviant tendencies. Regardless, Röhm was killed off by the SS rather early in Hitler’s tenure as Chancellor/Führer, partly due to his homosexuality.
Another idea is that the Nazis had a pathological desire to destroy the Churches in Germany. There is some evidence for this one, even enough to make an argument; but it’s not very good evidence and is usually presented completely stripped of context. For one thing, just about all of Hitler’s supposed negative comments on the Church in general (not just Catholics) seem to come from the same kind of places; usually some convenient “discovered secret writings!” like the Goebbels Diaries which were then immediately peddled as mass-scale post-war reading merchandise, giving the reader all sorts of “exciting insight into the most evil genocidal maniacs in history!” Nothing wrong with a man making a buck from his efforts of course…but doing it honestly is important.
Almost always, it was the people who were known to have strong views opposed to the Church who were the ones quoting Hitler’s supposed “true feelings” regarding the church. Of course, the entire problem here is that the views within the Nazi Party regarding the church were hardly uniform. In fact, there was a major dispute within the party about this exact question of how the new Nazi regime could incorporate the church. On the one hand, people like Alfred Rosenberg and Martin Bormann both were hostile to the Church in pretty much any form. Heinrich Himmler was well known for peddling overtly paganistic practices, and Göbbels wasn’t exactly a friend of the church either, but both were far more subtle and indirect than the previous two mentioned. Hermann Göring, literally the second most powerful man in the Reich for the majority of Hitler’s reign, was most definitely not opposed to the Church as such, and neither were many other prominent Nazis. Inevitably, the authoritarian nature of the regime meant that a level of control would be pursued over the churches either way.
This culminated in the establishment of the “Deutsche Christen” movement within the Nazi Party, and Hitler establishing the position of Reichsbishop who would lead a new combined German Evangelical Church to succeed the previous loose confederation of Protestant churches: appointing Ludwig Müller for the prestigious new position. This was a blatant attempt for both a Nazi takeover and unification of all of the various Protestant regional churches. However, there was resistance in the form of the Confessing Church. Although the G.E.C. managed to control over most regional churches, the confessing church resisted so fiercely and caused so many problems in what became known as the Kirchenkampf that Hitler’s faith in Müller was shaken, and he appointed another position (although not abolishing Reichsbishop), this time an ecclesiastical affairs ministry, with Hanns Kerrl as the head. Also in this period, despite the official understanding of the Reichskonkordat between the Nazi regime and the Vatican, many Catholic priests who took a stand against Nazi ideals based on their principles were thrown into concentration camps and often killed their, as were many pastors for similar reasons.
The Research and Analysis division of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) — predecessor to the CIA — conducted a research report on the subject of the Christian Churches in Germany for the U.S. Army Service Forces ‘Civil Affairs Manual’ (released 1943-44). It has since become publicly available and can be found online, and contains a wealth of information on this subject.
It notes the history between the Nazi accession to power to the outbreak of the war and beyond as it pertains to the churches; the official Nazi line was that the movement represented a “Positive Christianity” without binding itself to a particular confession (Protestant, Catholic, Calvinist etc) while at the same time many of its prominent members (namely the aforementioned Rosenberg and Börmann) were very outspoken in their dislike of the Church and desire to see it replaced, although the study sometimes jumps the gun by conflating the opinions of these two men and many of the actions they influenced for the intentions of the entire party, and finishing with the conclusion that the Nazis were destined to destroy the church eventually.
Indeed, the study admitted this kind of contradicts much of the actual evidence when it noted (on page 31) that Reich Minister of Church Affairs Hanns Kerrl as saying that “REAL Christianity” (AKA made to fit Nazi ideology and with a lot of Jewish stuff removed…oh and all the stuff about forgiveness and love pitched out too) and Nazism were one and the same — the study notes in the same paragraph that point of view made up probably the vast majority of Nazi Party members own views. Kerrl’s view was twisted of course, as he is also recorded as saying that he has come to know Jesus struggle purely through the Nazi context of struggle, thus blatantly Nazifying Jesus story into something unrecognizable and a-historic.
Richard Steigmann-Gall’s book The Holy Reich also covered the question and the history in detail. What he showed was exactly the aforementioned picture of conflict within the party, rather than of a gradual planned out Nazi conspiracy to destroy the Christian Churches altogether while tolerating it in the short term. His book gives multiple accounts of both Rosenberg’s and Börmann’s attempts to harden the party stance toward the church back firing on themselves. With these things in mind, it becomes all the more apparent why Börmann who would have reason to lie about Hitler’s own opinions on religion, as he evidently during his revisions of “Hitler’s Table Talks” as I already mentioned in my response to TIK. Certainly Börmanns desperate decrees to prevent senior Nazi Party member from holding higher religious positions, as mentioned in the The Holy Reich, were a failure given that Hermann Göring became the legal successor of Kaiser Wilhelm II as summus episcopus of the churches of Prussia due to his ascension to Prussian Head of State, which isn’t mentioned in this book but is a matter of historical record.
Unfortunately Steigmann-Gall’s book was released long before Nilsson’s more recent book Hitler Redux, so while he acknowledge the problems of Hitler’s Table Talks as far as the non-German versions are concerned, he treats the German version with more credit than it is due.
One big problem with this subject should be rather obvious: no modern church goer wants their own church to be associated with Adolf Hitler, and so desperate narratives to distance themselves are sometimes used, even when they don’t mesh well with reality. Reading the Wikipedia article talk page for Kirchenkampf, one commentator noted the following problems in the main article.
Starting with what’s in the lead, there is this statement: “The Salvation Army, Christian Saints, Bruderhof, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church all disappeared from Germany during the Nazi era.” The Source given is an archived BBC webpage, and it’s demonstrably false. Starting with the Salvation Army – it did not disappear and was never banned. In fact, even the Salvation Army’s own website describes it’s wartime experience as having little difficulty except for a property seizure notice that was reversed in September 1943, and that Hitler himself intervened on their behalf at the beginning of his regime. They were also active throughout the entire war in Germany, enthusiastically supported the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler “as did other smaller churches”, and became a participating body in the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization. As for the Seventh-day Adventist Church: they didn’t disappear at all, on the contrary they collaborated and have apologized since for it. I don’t know what “Christian Saints” refers to, I can’t find any information on a Church body or organization having that name existing in Germany at the time, if it refers merely to the recognized Saints of the Christian religion then again I can’t find any sources other than this (already unreliable) BBC page, and unless someone can find actual examples of this happening it has no business in this article. Finally when it comes to the Bruderhof Church being closed down: the actual circumstances should be elaborated on this article. It was closed for explicitly opposing Nazi beliefs unlike other Churches, not simply because it was Anabaptist or because it was a Church.
So here we have Wikipedia spreading lies about these churches being persecuted, even “disappearing”, when they weren’t at all. Shameful.
There were some Christian’s in Germany that were targeted as an outright religious group though, namely Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, the first Christian to be executed in WWII anywhere for refusing military service was a Jehovahs Witness named August Dickmann, killed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, a place I’ve actually been to personally.
Ultimately, as a Christian myself, I know that the Bible rejects the kind of hatred and violence and persecution represented by this horrific regime, or by any of earth’s regimes for that matter. However, I suspect that the desperate need to see the Nazis as sworn, if subtle, enemies of the church comes from a desperate desire of those churches to distance themselves. One tactic is to point out the presence of pagan Nazis, and how “positive Christianity” was a gross distortion of the real thing, both of which are true.
Certainly, the Nazis were trying at least to create a “positive Christianity” and distort it to an insane degree, but as far as the corrupted Church system…it’s not all that different from what has happened historically. Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and created the Anglican Church, taking England to the new church with him, purely to get a divorce. Cardinal Richelieu of early 17th century France murdered and persecuted the Huguenots in the name of protecting the Papacy’s interests while also being allied with Protestant states to counter the influence of his Catholic Hapsburg rivals. The simple truth is that the Churches of Europe have always been poisoned with political machinations and changing religious standards for the sake of a leaders whim. Wether it’s the Catholics engaging in idolatry when they pray to statue of saints, the utterly unscriptural description of Gehenna (a place of everlasting destruction or permanent death) as being “hell” where people are tortured and suffer for eternity, or the fact most “Christian” celebrations are in fact of pagan origin incorporated by churches to convert pagans more easily. I could go on and on.
The obsessive denial of some people has lead to the obsession with the confessing church’s struggle against Nazi incursion, when the far more pertinent and common thing was for Churches to support the Nazi regime. The desire to cover up the whoredom of most churches to the regime simply leaves a bad stench. Do I think Hitler was a Christian at heart? Goodness no, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t see the churches as something useful to his awful regime.
There is no contradiction between being a Christian and believing that most churches didn’t stick by their own principles in Nazi Germany and allowed these atrocities to occur with minimal resistance, nor is it a problem per say with all organized religious congregations; the Bible outright warned that the world be polluted with false religion, and many would come falsely claiming to serve God. If anything, anyone claiming to be Christian should accept that fundamental fact from the Bible.
Ultimately, what the Nazis did in relation to the churches was simply a more extreme of Bismarcks Kulturkampf.