One of the Nazis’ attempts at controlling the German people was to try to take over the churches, as almost all Germans were Christian at the time, so this would have held a lot of influence for them. However, there were many conflicts, inside the party and outside of it that hindered their progress. In this essay I will discuss just how successful the Nazis were at controlling the churches.
One of the main hindrances to the Nazis’ attack on the churches was the division within the party itself. Many Nazis believed that the churches should be destroyed completely, because they held the hearts and minds of so many Germans and preached different beliefs to those of the Nazis. They also argued that Church meetings could be used as a front for anti-government meetings. But many Nazis believed that the churches could be turned to the party’s advantage.
The Protestant pastors, for instance, where some of the party’s most engaging and compelling public speakers, and if the churches could be turned to sympathise with Nazi views then they could be used as very powerful tools of propaganda. The Church also supported many of the Nazis’ policies anyway, such as their invasion of the Rhineland and the importance of the family, and so there was already space in which to manoeuvre them more towards Nazism.
The Nazis’ initial policy was to attempt to use the churches. Hitler made an agreement with the Catholics and left them alone, and with the Protestants he merged them all into one organisation called the German Christians, under the pro-Nazi ‘Reich Bishop,’ Ludwig Müller. This group became more Nazi-like in its activities and procedures, even adopting the military-style marches.
Another way in which the Nazis attempted to control religious belief was not by controlling the existing churches, but by creating their own, called the Faith Movement, which was much more heavily based on pagan beliefs. It centred on worship of the sun and nature, the flag being an image of a yellow sun upon a blue background. The Faith Movement devised entirely new festivals, burial services and marriage ceremonies. The festivals sometimes involved strange robes and outlandish instruments played while marching. All of these festivals, ceremonies and services involved Nazi principles, even in such small areas as the playing only of German music, that of all other cultures being inferior.
These new Nazi faiths and systems in the churches were not universally popular by any means. There were many cases of opposition, one such being that of Cardinal Galen. Despite the agreement between the Catholic Church and the Nazis, Galen still worked against the Nazis, criticised them and their policies, and actively campaigned against them. He exposed the Nazi policy of euthanasia for the handicapped, and spearheaded a campaign which forced them to stop using that method.
The Nazis didn’t dare do anything to Galen, because on one hand he was popular with the German people, and punishing him would have led to uproar, ad on the other the Catholic Church might have seen the arrest of one of its cardinals as a threat. There were also other campaigners besides Galen that suffered much worse at the hands of the Nazis, such as Paul Schneider, who preached anti-Nazi sermons. He was sent to a concentration camp, and although he was described as a ‘bruised skeleton, dressed in rags and crawling with lice…’ he still would not agree to stop being anti-Nazi.
When Hitler felt more secure about his control of Germany, he started using more radical solutions to take care of the churches. 700 anti-Nazi Protestant ministers were arrested. Catholic priests and nuns were falsely accused of crimes and arrested. Christmas carols and nativity plays were banned from all the schools, priests were stopped from giving religious classes, and eventually all church schools were abolished in 1939. However, despite all of these damning acts, in the 1939 census, it was shown that there were many millions more Christians than of any other faith or those without faith. Nazi soldiers taking away crucifixes from schools in Bavaria were made to return them after they were met with serious opposition.
In conclusion, while Hitler may have succeeded in doing damage to the Christian churches, he never really won over them.