The “church struggle” (English for Kirchenkampf) describes a tumultuous period for the churches in Nazi Germany under Hitler from 1933 – 1945. This involved the conflict between Hitler’s Nazi regime and Protestant churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. We can divide the Kirchenkampf into five major stages that led to its horrific and bloody finale. Hitler initially caused internal qualm within German Protestants camps by his promotion of the pro-Nazi chaplain Ludwig Müller. He made Müller, a Nazi and former naval chaplain, the Reich Bishop in 1933. Subsequently, a year later, the Nazi regime would inevitably try to suppress churches and place them under their control. At this stage there was some resistance, and many pious Christians were pressured, and harassed. Stage three involved the imprisonment of many pastors, and the crucifix, as a symbol of Christ’s death on the cross (which is the heart of Christian theism), was to be removed from schools. Many Christians protested against this, but ultimately to no avail. From 1937 to 1939 the church increased its protest against the regime, however such was met with force, and in retaliation many theological universities were forcefully shut down, as well as many pastors and theologians arrested. Expectedly, the final stage, from 1939 to 1945, was the bloodiest as clergy camps were erected at Dachau, and churches were seized by the state. Some clergy were forced to join the military, and it was at this time in 1945 that the widely known priests Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alfred Delp were martyred for their resistance to Hitler.
Furthermore, it’s widely thought, although debated, that the primary goal of Kirchenkampf was the intentional obliteration of churches, and their presence in Germany, as well as Christianity as a whole. Expert on German history Joseph Bendersky tells us that: “… it was Hitler’s long range goal to eliminate the churches once he had consolidated control over his European empire.” (1)
It was Hitler’s ideological goal to alter the minds of his people, and such would entail a deliberate modifying of the attitudes, values and mentalities. Such was intended to transform the German people into one national community. Disdain by the Nazis was conspicuously present in their intense dislike of universities, and especially of the churches. Around this time Hitler was very much in control, and total allegiance to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was set in place. Subsequently, clashes between traditional Christian beliefs and the imposed Nazi ideology became manifest. Hitler’s henchmen Martin Bormann and the infamous Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, were explicitly anti-Christianity, and thus made the forced eradication of churches in the country a main priority. Goebbels was to lead the violent persecution of the clergy as the war progressed. He would go on to write that “There is, namely, an insoluble opposition between the Christian and a heroic-German world view,” thus making his malicious intentions vivid. (3) Something Hitler was to agree upon as in his view “Christianity was ripe for destruction.”
Hitler’s manifest disdain for Christianity became ever more apparent as he “detested its ethics in particular,” as well as declared it teachings “a rebellion.” (4) However, he was shrewdly strategic and hid his contempt due to political tactics. (5)(6) In fact, he was so good a hiding his true intentions towards Christianity that many went away convinced that he was a deeply religious man. Hitler even promised not to meddle in the business of the churches; however, this was an obvious tactic he implemented to gain favour with this German public. Not soon after he gained considerable strength did he go back on this very promise. (7) This was no limited effort on his part as he would go on to persecute many of faith ranging from Catholics, Protestants, and Jehovah Witnesses. Inevitably, this effort would lead to the incarceration of many priests in barracks and concentration camps, as established in stage five of the Kirchenkampf. At this time the Gestapo, the German secret police, arrested over 700 pastors, as well as over 6000 Jehovah’s Witnesses for their expressed refusal to declare loyalty to the Reich, as well as because of their refusal to enter the military. (8)
Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, was another forerunner of the Kirchenkampf, who writes that “National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable,” and that any power the churches had “must absolutely and finally be broken” (9) (10) The historian William Shirer tells us that “the Nazi regime intended to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could…” (11)
The infamous military commander Heinrich Himmler was specifically opposed to Christian sexual morality as well as their belief in mercy, in 1937 he writes:
“We live in an era of the ultimate conflict with Christianity. It is part of the mission of the SS to give the German people in the next half century the non-Christian ideological foundations on which to lead and shape their lives. This task does not consist solely in overcoming an ideological opponent but must be accompanied at every step by a positive impetus: in this case that means the reconstruction of the German heritage in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” (12)
Himmler’s Schutzstaffel, also known as the SS, were to be the “vanguard in overcoming Christianity” in Germany, as well to provide preparation of the inevitable conflict between the “humans and subhumans.” (13) This was not met by ignorance by those in the church. One pastoral letter of the German Bishops voices that the “existence of Christianity in Germany is at stake,” and that the authorities under the regime were soon to “dissolve the blessed union between Christ and the German people.” (14) Another letter written in 1942 reveals the intense struggle and upheaval of the church: “Repeatedly the German bishops have asked the Reich Government to discontinue this fatal struggle; but unfortunately our appeals and our endeavours were without success.” (22 March 1942 Pastoral Letter of the German Bishops.) Ultimately the Catholic Church had faced intense restriction, and had no say in the public life, almost as if it disappeared altogether from its once formidable position. Churches were being closed, Catholic schools spurned out of existence, and clergymen were watched and harassed. The church refused to condone euthanasia under the Nazi regime because of their support for human rights and personal freedom under God. The bishops “shall not cease to protest against the killing of innocent persons.” (22 March 1942 Pastoral Letter of the German Bishops). All this was likely to lead to one chilling conclusion:
“Had the Nazis won the war their ecclesiastical policies would have gone beyond those of the German Christians, to the utter destruction of both the Protestant and the Catholic Church.” (15)
1) Coppa, Frank. ‘Controversial Concordats.’ p. 124.
Sharkey, Joe. ‘Word for Word/The Case Against the Nazis; How Hitler’s Forces Planned To Destroy German Christianity.’ New York Times, January 13, 2002.
‘The Nazi Master Plan: The Persecution of the Christian Churches.’ Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion, 2001.
Griffin, Roger. ‘Fascism’s relation to religion in Blamires, Cyprian, World fascism: a historical encyclopedia, Volume 1.’ p. 10, 2006.
Mosse, George. ‘Nazi culture: intellectual, culture and social life in the Third Reich.’ p. 240, 2003.
Bendersky, Joseph. ‘A concise history of Nazi Germany.’ p. 147, 2007.
Dill, Marshall. ‘Germany: a modern history.’ p. 365.
2) Bendersky, Joseph. ‘A concise history of Nazi Germany.’ p. 147.
3) Kershaw, Ian. ‘Hitler a Biography.’ p. 381-382, 2008.
4) Bullock, Alan. ‘Hitler, a Study in Tyranny.’ p. 218, 1991.
5) Blainey, Geoffrey. ‘A Short History of Christianity.’ 2011.
6) Bullock, Alan. ‘Hitler, a Study in Tyranny.’ p. 236, 1991.
7) Kershaw, Ian. ‘Hitler a Biography.’ p. 281-283, 2008.
Bullock, Alan. ‘Hitler, a Study in Tyranny.’ p. 146-149, 1991.
8) Blainey, Geoffrey. ‘A Short History of Christianity.’ p. 495-6, 2011.
9) Shirer, William. ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ p. 240, 1960
10) Wistrich, Robert. ‘Who’s Who in Nazi Germany.’ p. 11, 2002.
11) Shirer, William. ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ p. 240, 1960
12) Longerich, Peter. ‘Heinrich Himmler.’ Translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe, p. 270, 2012.
13) Longerich, Peter. ‘Heinrich Himmler.’ Translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe, p. 265, 2012.
14) ‘The Nazi War Against the Catholic Church.’ National Catholic Welfare Conference. p. 63-67, 1942.
15) Mosse, George. ‘Nazi culture: intellectual, cultural and social life in the Third Reich.’ p. 240.