Lessons From the Reich Church (Part 1 of 6)
The 1930s and 40s in Germany are remembered as a particularly dark time for humanity, as millions of lives- Jews, the mentally retarded, and other so-called undesirables- were lost to the twisted ethos of National Socialism. One aspect that is difficult to understand today is the way that many common citizens, including the German Evangelical Church, were complicit in the Nazis’ rise- from pledging allegiance to Hitler to adopting the Aryan Paragraph and the Nuremberg Laws. We are posting a series of articles considering five mistakes made by the German Christians in the years leading up to World War II.
The 1920s and 30s were a time of turmoil for the German people. World War I had resulted in 2.5 million deaths, a resounding defeat, and a humiliating peace; and the Weimar Republic, born out of the Kaiser’s desire to pin the capitulation (and the Treaty of Versailles) on the squabbling political parties, pleased no one once the dust had settled. The revolution that created it stopped short of a Communist takeover, angering the left, and the absence of an autocratic ruler seemed un-German to the right. The loss of the war itself was blamed on the republicans; among German nationalists, it was common belief that the war was lost because of un-patriotic groups (socialists, Bolsheviks, Jews, republicans) who ‘stabbed them in the back’ through criticism and work stoppages on the home front. It was in this world that Adolf Hitler came to power, promising to return Germany to its former glory and prominence, through the return of strong central leadership and abolition of the Weimar Republic.
The German church at this time was very closely tied to German culture and institutions. Much like the Church of England, the Lutheran church operated with financial and institutional support from the crown. Under the Weimar Republic, there was movement towards disestablishment, but the churches maintained their subsidies, and religious instruction continued in schools.
More importantly, at this time in Germany, to be German was to be a Christian. Luther’s legacy was still a powerful part of national identity. His translation of the Bible into German served to unify the German language, and therefore the German people.
So when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and began the execution of Gleischaltung (synchronization) to recreate the nation in their image, the German Church was one of the first targets. The most infamous tool was the Aryan Paragraph, which removed those of Jewish descent from jobs in the government, including the state church. (Many Jews in Germany were actually baptized Christians; some were pastors and church leaders.)
Despite the obviously un-Christian nature of the Paragraph, many in the church stood solidly behind Hitler in his endeavors. Hitler promised to deal with the godless Bolsheviks, and restore morality and order to the weakened German people. In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas writes: “They thought that by wedding the church to the state, they would restore the church and Germany to her former glory, before the Treaty of Versailles and the chaos and humiliation of the last twenty years.” They didn’t see a problem in excluding Jews from the church; why couldn’t the Jews create their own church? What was wrong with wanting a distinctly “German” church? If the Church worked with the Nazis, perhaps they could influence them from within to achieve Christian goals. They called themselves the German Christians, eventually becoming the official state church under the Nazi government. They adopted the Aryan Paragraph, removed the Old Testament from the Bible to better accommodate anti-Semitism, and declared that the Jews killed Jesus.
The German Christians are a sad example of complicity with some of the most evil men of the 20th century. They forsook orthodoxy, embraced racism, and did irreparable harm to the reputation of the Church on par with memories of the Inquisition and the Crusades. I see five mistakes that they made in these years that led to this, which we will cover in the following weeks.