The German Churches and the Nazi regime Essay
The German Churches and the Nazi regime
Explain why the Catholic Church moved from a position of co-operation to a position of conflict with the Nazi regime in the years 1933 to ’39?
In Hitler’s rise to power he avoided direct attacks on the Churches and number 24 of his 25 point plan spoke in favour of ‘positive Christianity’ which was closely linked to racial and national views. However there can be little doubt that Nazism was based on fundamentally anti-Christian philosophy. But the Church was willing to neither condone nor condemn Hitler so long as he did not interfere with religious policy.
In his very first speech as Chancellor, Hitler paid tribute to the Catholic Church as being integral to the well being of the nation. Members of the SA were even encouraged to attend services of the Catholic churches but also Protestant.
The Catholic Church responded in a sympathetic way to the overtures of the Nazis. Catholic bishops, in particular, were frightened of the possibility of a repeat of the so called ‘Kulturkampf’ (cultural struggle, refers to the tension between the Church and German state in the 1870s) So, Catholic Bishops were concerned to safeguard the position of the church under the Nazis and in July 1933 a Concordat was signed between the papacy and the regime. This agreement decided that: Nazis would not interfere with their property and legal rights and in return the Church would not interfere in politics and would give diplomatic recognition tot eh Nazi government.
In the short term the Concordat seemed to be a significant success. However, the courting of both of the Churches by the Nazis was totally insincere. They were simply being lulled into a false sense of security while the dictatorship was being established. By the end of 1933 Nazi interference in religious affairs was already causing resentment and disillusionment within the Catholic Church.
However the Churches were more concerned with protecting heir own institutions and beliefs than in speaking out about the nature of the regime. There were, however, several critical statements from clerics, and in 1937 the Pope issued the encyclical ‘With Burning Grief’. It complained about the government’s breaking of the Concordat, the harassment of priest and Nazi idolatry (worship) of the state and race. The text was smuggled into Germany and read out from pulpits on Palm Sunday in March 1937.
In conclusion, the Catholic Church moved from a position of co-operation to one of conflict between the years of 1933 and 1939 because at first the Nazis feared openly standing against religious policies as they felt they were not popular enough to stand against such an institution as the Catholic Church and did not yet have the power. The Catholic Church was willing to stay on the side of Nazism as long as they were not forced into decisions they did not agree with. However once Hitler and the Nazi party had consolidated power and became a totalitarian state they began trying to control the Church and therefore the Church itself had no reason to support the party because they had gone against the concordat and had very anti-Christian ideals.
‘In the years 1933 – 1945 the German Churches supported and collaborated with the Nazi regime far more than they opposed it’ Explain why you agree or disagree with this view.
When Hitler became Chancellor the Churches had extensive autonomy and influence, consisting of 65 million members, and threatened the Volgskemeinschaft which the Nazi regime aimed to create. Hitler preceded attempts to control, weaken and ultimately replace the Churches, yet generally they failed to collaborate with or resist the Nazis.
Ideologically, the Churches’ attitudes towards the Nazis were contradictory; however this was not due to the Churches themselves, rather the contradictory policies and ideologies of the Nazi party. The Churches and Nazis seemed to share common enemies; both Hitler and Pope Pius XII both openly condemned Communism, and anti-Semitic overtures were often rumoured to hail from the Churches. The Nazis’ self-created image of being the guardians of morality and protectors of traditional family values greatly pleased the Churches, and ideologically the Nazis and the Churches appear to have excellent relations. However, there is much evidence that the Churches disagreed with the Nazis on a number of issues. The Nazi ideology regarding the supreme Aryan race and Hitler’s final solution completely opposed Christian morality and values.
The totalitarian nature of the Nazi regime should have caused friction between the Churches and Nazis; both groups aimed to be the main authority of the German community; this is illustrated paramount through the Churches community groups and schools, those which Hitler aimed to replace. This suggests that both are a threat to each other’s power, indeed Hitler would not have attempted to weaken the Churches if they had posed little threat to the Nazi regime and his aims.
Hitler attempted to weaken the Churches through three stages: control, weaken, and then replace. He approached the two main Christian denominations, Protestantism and Catholicism, very differently.
Hitler began by establishing the Reich Churches, an umbrella organization which incorporated all the Protestant Churches under former Nazi minister Ludwig Muller. There was an opposing group which resisted the Nazis; a splinter group consisting of 500 pastors who rejected the Nazis, the Confessional Church. However, it is most likely that this Church, founded by Martin Niemoller among others and later joined by Dietrich Bonhoffer, opposed state intervention within the Church rather than specifically the Nazi Party’s policies and ideals. This attempt to control the Protestant had failed and produced an extreme group opposing Nazism, and Hitler distanced himself from Bishop Muller.
Following the unfavourable of his attempt to control the Protestant Churches, Hitler recognized that being a stronger-willed and more totalitarian establishment Catholicism would be even more of a challenge to control. He therefore decided to negotiate the Concordat, an agreement of political non-intervention between the Nazis and the Vatican, and in 1933 signed this document with Pope Pius XI. The Catholics had previously agreed to the dissolution of the Zentrum Party, the majority of Catholics’ main choice, and were keen not to provoke the Nazis. The Nazis were not as keen to honour the agreement, and broke it swiftly. However, Catholic relations were optimal at the present and the Nazis had had relative success in their attempt to control the Catholics.
Hitler then aimed to weaken the Churches, and established a ‘Church Succession Campaign’ which encouraged people to abandon their Churches. This had relative success, confined mainly to government employees; in 1939 the movement boasted 3.5 million members. Hitler particularly targeted youth when weakening religion; in 1936 he disbanded all youth groups and made Hitler Youth membership mandatory, and in just two years reduced church school attendance by 60%. There was very little resistance from the Churches, and it appears that regarding education particularly, the Churches neither resisted nor collaborated with the Nazis.
Hitler aimed to weaken the Protestant Church by nurturing a movement which had emerged from the Reich Church, the German Christians. The movement was highly nationalist and militant, its members often described as ‘the SA of the Church’, and enjoyed relative success in some areas of Germany; in August 1933 two thirds of those attending the Prussian synod wore Nazi uniforms. This shows Protestants collaborating and embracing Nazism, allowing Nazis into yet another aspect of their lives.
Rather than spreading influence and ‘Nazifying’ religion as Hitler did among the Protestants, he aimed to undermine and slander Catholicism. In the mid 1930s, over 200 priests were arrested for financial and sexual misbehaviour, and later tried in show trials. This crude attempt by the Nazis to weaken the Catholic Church caused public hostility, provoked by Bishop Galen who criticized the genocide in 1941. The majority of the Catholic Church did not resist the Nazis, neither collaborates with the party.
Hitler’s final aim was to replace the Churches with the German Faith Movement, a neo-pagan ritualistic religion promoted by Alfred Rosenburg who was executed in 1946. This was very unsuccessful and had low membership; and was soon postponed until after the war.
In conclusion, the Protestant Church neither collaborated with nor resisted the Nazis; it maintained a passive, indifferent stance regarding Nazism in order to survive the regime. The Catholic Church did the same; Hitler simply approached this Church differently with the Concordat which they were forced to sign to remain indifferent. This is proven by Pope Pius XII’s refusal to ex-communicate Catholics participating in the genocide, further by the many rumours that local catholic priests were in knowledge of the final solution and never protested.
Hitler’s aims regarding the Churches were most successful among Protestants, although this is predictable as they are a less totalitarian denomination than Catholics. The collaborations were very sparse, and the resistance was from individual Christians rather than the powerful Churches that Hitler was concerned with. Hitler was successful in extending Nazi influence into religion to a certain extent; the fact that he totally failed to replace religion with the German Faith Movement shows that the Churches were an incredibly powerful force within Germany, and Christianity flourished once more in
Germany after the war. The Churches’ silence over Nazi policies is a very controversial issue, the Catholic Church remains to deny all knowledge of the genocide, and this silence illustrates the fear that the Churches felt towards the Nazis; the Churches compromised in order to survive. Also, the Churches were more concerned with defending their institutions than opposing the Nazis on a broader front.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 5 September 2017
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