The Role of the Churches in Nazi Germany

Compliance and Confrontation

by: Victoria J. Barnett | January 01, 1998

Dimensions, Vol 12, No 2

Churches throughout Europe were mostly silent while Jews were persecuted, deported and murdered by the Nazis.  Churches, especially those  in Nazi Germany, sought to act, as institutions tend to do, in their own best interests -- narrowly defined, short-sighted interests.

The list of "bystanders" -- those who declined to challenge the Third Reich in any way -- that emerges from any study of the Holocaust is long and depressing. Few organizations, in or outside Nazi Germany, did much to resist Nazism or aid its victims.

[I]t has become abundantly clear that [the Churches'] failure to respond to the horrid events...was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening. Ultimately, the Churches' lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination.

Assisting European Jews was not a high priority of the Allied governments as they sought to defeat Hitler militarily. The courageous acts of individual rescuers and resistance members proved to be the exception, not the norm.

To a great extent, this inertia defined the organized Christian community as well. Churches throughout Europe were mostly silent while Jews were persecuted, deported and murdered. In Nazi Germany in September 1935, there were a few Christians in the Protestant Confessing Church who demanded that their Church take a public stand in defense of the Jews. Their efforts, however, were overruled by Church leaders who wanted to avoid any conflict with the Nazi regime. Internationally, some Church leaders in Europe and North America did condemn the Nazis' measures against the Jews, and there were many debates about how Christians outside Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territory should best respond to Hitler's brutal policies. These discussions, however, tended to become focused more on secondary strategic considerations -- like maintaining good relations with colleagues in the German Churches -- than on the central humanitarian issues that were really at stake.

Churches throughout the world began to address their failures after 1945. Confessions of guilt have been issued by Catholic Churches in France and Germany, and most major Protestant denominations, beginning with the German Evangelical Church's Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in August 1945 (three months after the war in Europe ended). The early statements were vague, often referring only to the Churches' general lack of decisiveness in opposing Nazism. More recently, however, the Christian Churches have been far more specific -- recognizing that they not only failed to resist Nazism, but actually helped prepare the way for the mass destruction of Europe's Jews through centuries of proselytization, attacks on Judaism, and tacit or overt support for pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence.

These admissions of guilt are part of a difficult process, which still continues, in which Christians try to grasp exactly what happened to their Churches during the Holocaust. The examinations raise a number of questions: Were the Churches, by and large, passive while millions of innocent people were murdered? To what extent can we say they resisted? To what extent were they guilty of active complicity? Most importantly: Why did the Churches respond as they did? These are, obviously, complex questions, historically and theologically.

Factors Shaping Behavior of Christian Churches

Three main factors shaped the behavior of the Christian Churches during the Nazi reign of terror in Germany and abroad. The first was the theological and doctrinal anti-Judaism that existed in parts of the Christian tradition. (Long before 1933, the anti-Judaism that existed within the Churches -- ranging from latent prejudice to the virulent diatribes of people like Martin Luther -- lent legitimacy to the racial anti-Semitism that emerged in the late nineteenth century.) The second factor was the Churches' historical role in creating "Christendom" -- the Western European culture that, since the era of the Roman emperor Constantine, had been explicitly and deliberately "Christian." The Churches' advocacy of a "Christian culture" led to a "sacralization of cultural identity" (as the theologian Miroslav Volf puts it), in which dominant, positive values were seen as "Christian" ones, while developments viewed negatively (such as secularism and Marxism) were attributed to "Jewish" influences. Moreover, particularly in the German Evangelical Church (the largest Protestant Church in Germany), the allegiance to the concept of Christendom was linked to a strong nationalism, symbolized by German Protestantism's "Throne and Altar" alliance with state authority. The third factor was the Churches' understanding of their institutional role. While most Christian religious leaders in Germany welcomed the end of the Weimar Republic and the resurgence of nationalism, they became increasingly uneasy about their institutions' future in what was clearly becoming a totalitarian state. (Moreover, many of the leading Nazis were overtly anti-Christian.) The Churches in Nazi Germany, while wanting to retain their prominent place in society, opposed any state control of their affairs. The Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches sought to maintain some degree of independence by entering into certain arrangements with the Nazi regime. The 1933 concordat, signed by representatives of the Nazi regime and the Vatican, ostensibly secured independence for Catholic schools and other Catholic institutions in Nazi Germany. The Protestant Churches, which were divided regionally, behaved cautiously -- avoiding public confrontation and negotiating privately with Nazi authorities -- in the hope that this would ensure institutional independence from direct Nazi control. Throughout Hitler's Germany, bishops and other Christian religious leaders deliberately avoided antagonizing Nazi officials. When Christian clergymen and Christian women deplored Nazi policies, they often felt constrained to oppose those policies in a muted fashion. Even in the Protestant Confessing Church (the Church group in Germany that was most critical of Nazism), there was little support for official public criticism of the Nazi regime, particularly when it came to such central and risky issues as the persecution of Jews.

Anti-Judaism in Germany's Churches

The role of anti-Judaism in Germany's Churches during the Nazi era was a complicated one. Throughout the 1930s, there was ample evidence of anti-Semitism in many of the sermons and articles that appeared in the German Churches' publications. Some German Church leaders proudly announced that they were anti-Semites. Others, who weren't anti-Semitic, nevertheless warned their colleagues against any public show of support for the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. Christian anti-Semitism often complemented other factors -- notably, the strong nationalism in the German Protestant Churches. The most extreme example of this combination of anti-Semitism and nationalism was the so-called German Christian Movement, a Protestant group that embraced Nazism and tried to Nazify Christianity by suppressing the Old Testament, revising liturgies and hymns, and promoting Jesus as an Aryan hero who embodied the ideals of the new Germany.

It must be said that the Churches' theological attitudes about Jews did not always take the form of anti-Jewish diatribes, or other kinds of explicit anti-Semitism. Often they manifested themselves in their determination to convert Jews, and so Nazi policies confronted the Christian Churches with an unresolvable theological problem: in a society that was determined to eradicate the Jews, the Christian Gospel claimed that the Jews were God's chosen people and should be the special objects of Christian proselytizing. This led to deep divisions among German clergy about what they really believed and what they were supposed to do in their new situation.

For the most part, the influences that motivated and guided the German Churches in the Thirties and Forties essentially paralyzed these institutions' potential challenges to Nazism, or led them to implicitly (though reluctantly) support Hitler's regime. The German Churches stumbled, and they stumbled badly. The leaders of the Churches spent a great deal of time delineating a "viable" position: one that would conform to Christian doctrine, prevent their Church from dividing into opposing factions, and avoid antagonizing the Nazi authorities. In any examination of the German Churches' statements from this era, what is most striking is their painstaking attempt to say, publicly, neither too much nor too little about what is happening around them. Needless to say, this ruled out any consistent or emphatic response to the Nazis' persecution of Jews and others. And institutional inaction gave individual Christians throughout Germany an alibi for passivity. More tragically, individual Christians who did express solidarity with the persecuted Jews -- such as the Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg and the Protestant deaconess Marga Meusel -- received no public (and little private) support from their respective Churches.

Christian Opposition to the Hitler Regime Outside of Germany

The story recounted in this article up to this point has been, for the most part, a dismal one, but some Christian Churches and organizations outside of Germany did evince vigorous opposition to the Nazi state in the Thirties and Forties. From the beginning of Hitler's regime, the ecumenical Christian movement (its central offices were located in Geneva, London and New York) strongly condemned developments in Nazi Germany that threatened the independence of Christian Churches and the safety of Jews. On May 26 and 29, 1933, twelve hundred American clergymen from 26 different Christian denominations sponsored an advertisement in The New York Times condemning anti-Jewish activities in Nazi Germany. Leaders of the Federal Council of Churches (a Protestant group), located in the United States, sent angry letters in 1933 to their colleagues in the German Churches, demanding public statements denouncing Nazi policies. Between 1933 and 1945, there were six major statements from the leaders of Churches in this country and in Europe (outside the Third Reich) that specifically condemned anti-Semitism and the Nazi persecution of Jews. (Among the officials involved were the Archbishop of Canterbury and Samuel Cavert and Henry Smith Leiper of the Federal Council of Churches in New York.) In November 1938, the three leading Protestant ecumenical organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a statement castigating "antisemitism in all its forms" and urging governments to permit more Jewish refugees to enter their countries. In the United States in December 1938, the Federal Council of Churches and the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a joint condemnation of Kristallnacht, which had occurred a month earlier. (It was the first Protestant/Catholic joint statement on a social issue in this country.) In December 1942, after reports of genocide began to reach the Allied countries, the Federal Council of Churches passed a resolution protesting the "virtual massacre" of Europe's Jews. This was followed by similar protests from the Anglican Church in England and a joint statement by Protestant ecumenical leaders and the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. In Great Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, gave an impassioned speech in March 1943 in the House of Lords, demanding an immediate end to immigration quotas and an increase in Allied aid to countries that offered refuge to Jews. In a 1983 speech delivered at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Gerhardt Riegner, the director of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva during the war (and a man who had participated in efforts to rescue Jews from the Nazis), said that, during the Holocaust, "the human understanding, friendship, and the helping hand" of his Protestant ecumenical colleagues "were the only signs of light in the darkness that surrounded us."

These aspects of the Christian Churches' opposition to the Third Reich did not, of course, impede the workings of the Holocaust, or even lead to the rescue of significant numbers of endangered Jews. The actions and pronouncements described here were not part of any long-term, comprehensive and coordinated program. The Christian leaders outside of Germany who spoke out against the persecution of the Jews and against genocide were a minority in the Christian world. They failed to win significant support from their own Church members. There were early attempts (in 1933 and 1934, in the United States and Britain) to establish an interfaith Catholic, Jewish and Protestant network to help refugees from Nazi Germany. These efforts failed, in part, because of the lack of widespread support in the Christian Churches. Throughout the Thirties and Forties, the major Christian refugee offices in Europe and the U.S. received far more financial support from Jewish organizations like the United Jewish Appeal than from their own member Churches.

German Churches Actions Based on Institutional Interests

Throughout the Nazi era, ardent debates took place within the German Churches about where to stand firm against Hitler's regime and where to compromise, when to speak out and when to remain silent. Ecumenical documents show that from 1933 to 1945 there were Christian leaders inside and outside Germany who agonized about what they could do to stop Nazism and help its victims. The historical complexities suggested by these factors should never lead us to condone the Churches' failures during the Thirties and Forties; they can, however, help us to understand the specific nature of those failures so that we may learn from them.

Perhaps at the heart of those failures was the fact that the Churches, especially in Nazi Germany, sought to act, as institutions tend to do, in their own best interests -- narrowly defined, short-sighted interests. There was little desire on the part of the Churches for self-sacrifice or heroism, and much emphasis on "pragmatic" and "strategic" measures that would supposedly protect these institutions' autonomy in the Third Reich. Public institutional circumspection carried to the point of near numbness; an acute lack of insight: these are the aspects of the Churches' behavior during the Nazi era that are so damning in retrospect. The minutes of German Protestant synodal meetings in 1942 reveal how oblivious the participants were to what was happening in the world around them. While innocent victims throughout Europe were being brutally murdered, Christian leaders were debating what points of doctrine and policy were tenable. This is especially haunting, of course, because the Christian clergy and laity never thought of their respective Churches as a mere institution, but as a religious body witnessing in the world to certain values, including love of neighbors, the sanctity of life and the power of moral conscience.

Reflecting on the failure of the Churches to challenge the Nazis should prompt us to ponder all the others -- individuals, governments and institutions -- that passively acquiesced to the Third Reich's tyranny. Even the wisest and most perceptive of them, it seems, failed to develop adequate moral and political responses to Nazi genocide, failed to recognize that something new was demanded of them by the barbarism of Hitler's regime. Moreover, it has become abundantly clear that their failure to respond to the horrid events in Europe in the Thirties and Forties was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening.

Ultimately, the Churches' lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination. Protestant and Catholic religious leaders loyal to creeds professing that love can withstand and conquer evil, were unable or unwilling to defy one of the great evils in human history. And so the Holocaust will continue to haunt the Christian Churches for a very, very long time to come.

Victoria J. Barnett is a writer and scholar whose work examines the Protestant Churches during the Holocaust. She is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity in the Holocaust. She is also the editor of the English-language edition of Wolfgang Gerlach's And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Jews and the English-language edition of Eberhard Bethge's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.