We can easily forget how deeply Christian Nazi Germany was. As historian Doris L. Bergen puts it, “Christianity permeated Nazi society” (9).
Although Hitler was not very pious, the 97% of Germans who identified as Christian mostly convinced themselves that he was.
Most Protestant Christians at the time were ecstatic at the creation of a newly Nazified world. And they went to church.
This new world demanded a renewed church with reinvented liturgies. In the midst of a fierce struggle for control of the churches, the pro-Nazi “German Christian” faction preached sermons, edited Bibles, revised hymn-books, altered liturgies, and changed the church calendar.
Sometimes they made drastic changes. At the same time, they inherited a form of Christianity that offered little opposition to Nazism.
The Church Struggle
Even before the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany’s government, several groups calling themselves German Christians were working to bring Germany’s Protestant churches into alignment with fascism.
(The Catholic Church, representing 37% of Germany’s population, did a slightly better job of resisting Nazi control within their churches, but most Catholics offered little resistance to Nazi political aims outside the church.)
There was little Protestant resistance to key aspects of Nazism such as nationalism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. Even the opposition group known as the Confessing Church mostly “agreed with the German Christians that Germany needed to be rid of its Jews and that Judaism was a degenerate moral and spiritual influence on Christians” (Heschel 5).
Resistance to the German Christians by Confessing Church leaders focused on two issues directly affecting the churches:
First, the “Aryan Paragraph” had called for the expulsion of people with Jewish ancestry from churches. This included converts to Christianity and people with mixed Jewish and Christian ancestry.
Confessing Church leaders viewed the imposition of that rule as overstepping the bounds of state authority. They saw a later attempt to compel pastors to pledge allegiance to Hitler as similar overreach. Most of them still offered no protest about the fate of Jewish people outside the church.
Second, the German Christians tried to implement the fascist “Führer Principle” of concentrated leadership in the church. They wanted to appoint a single authority figure over the Protestant churches. They were asking for trouble.
In much of Germany, Protestant churches remained bitterly divided between Lutheran and Reformed factions. Beyond that, many of the state-level church associations remained fiercely independent of each other.
Initially, the triumph of the Führer Principle in the Protestant churches was a top priority for Nazi leaders. They moved church elections that had been scheduled for September 1933 up to July 23, 1933.
The night before the elections, Hitler gave a radio address insisting that the churches should elect German Christian leaders and unite under would-be bishop Ludwig Müller. Hitler said that he wanted a cooperative situation in which “The state protects the church; the church supports the state” (Solberg 160).
Although the German Christians won the July 1933 elections, Müller’s incompetence ultimately made the effort at a Führer Principle-based church less successful than they had hoped.
Still, as Manfred Gailus points out, “Not only the German Christians, but virtually all of the Protestants welcomed the upheavals of 1933 as a long-cherished reversal in time, as a veritable wonder-year.” That “wonder-year” changed how German Protestants did church, with varying results depending on time and place.
Making Church Public
Both politicians and church leaders took advantage of the public appeal of church liturgy to Nazify churches and re-Christianize Germany. On February 3, 1933, four days after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, pastor Joachim Hossenfelder led a service of thanksgiving at the Mariankirche in Berlin. He used 1 Corinthians 15:57 as his sermon text: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Solberg 147).
On March 20, 1933, Protestant church leader Otto Dibelius preached at a service in the Nikolaikirche in Berlin. His sermon text was Romans 8:31, “If God be for us, who can be against us.” Afterward, Hermann Goering joyfully shook his hand.
Public liturgy in support of Nazism reached its pinnacle the next day at the March 21 “Day of Potsdam.” This event was centered around a church service at the Garrison Church in Potsdam, over the graves of the kings of Germany’s Second Reich. Less than two months after being named Chancellor, Hitler claimed God’s approval at Potsdam.
On the Day of Potsdam, the old guard of military officials, conservative politicians, and church leaders gave their blessing to Hitler and his stormtroopers. Military, political, and religious leaders marched into the Garrison Church after they passed under a banner that said “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”).
After the singing of the hymn “Now Praise, My Soul, the Lord,” Reich President Hindenburg and Reich Chancellor Hitler gave speeches. Then Hitler definitively seized power with a symbolic act during a church service.
As Otto Dibelius recounted, “When the last word is spoken, Hitler steps back from the lectern. The Reich President takes a step forward and stretches out his hand. Hitler seizes it and bends down over the hand of the aged Field Marshall, as if for a kiss. It is an homage in thanksgiving and love, which moves everyone who witnesses it.”
Protestant leaders were so moved that the next day, March 22, they held a “patriotic thanksgiving service” at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. A procession of SA stormtroopers and the veterans’ paramilitary Stalhelm marched their flags to the altar. Parish Minister Georg Hauk preached on the theme “Volk and God,” the people sang Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” then pastor Joachim Hossenfelder preached on“Führer and Volk.”
When Nazi Christians made church a public spectacle, they didn’t have to change much. The Protestant church’s triumphant hymns and compliant leaders lent themselves well to public political support for Nazism.
Making Church Masculine
Many modern church leaders have promoted the idea that the alleged feminization of the church is a major problem. The German Christian movement took this to absurd lengths, though, in their revisions of hymns and holidays.
The Weimar era (1918-1933) was a uniquely liberal time in German history. Democracy, gay culture, artistic innovation, and women’s rights all thrived during this short window of cultural openness. In reaction to the (relatively weak) feminism of the Weimar era, Nazism was, among other things, a movement that promoted “traditional” gender roles.
Men were to fight for the Fatherland, and women were to bear children for the German Volk and the Führer. The Reich Central Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality (founded by Heinrich Himmler in 1936) put state power into action on behalf of traditional gender roles.
But the Protestant churches did their part as well. While 21st century Americans fret about how to get men to attend church, Joachim Hossenfelder made the first Sunday of every month the “Sunday of the Fathers,” marked by a church service geared toward masculinity (Bergen 72).
Others used the Day of Mourning for the World War Dead (Volkstraurertag) as a liturgical occasion for lauding manliness (Bergen 78).
They also masculinized the lyrics of church music. As the German Christian magazine Evangelium im Dritten Reich described it, “We sing our songs, the rediscovered masculine notes of a faith from ages past.”
Their songs were not subtle. A German Christian National Church Union song proclaimed that “We need men, with tumult in their blood, and heaven in their hearts… Men who look out at life from their armor reverberating with masculinity” (Bergen 79).
And a German Christian hymn asserted that “A German Christian must be able to find his way in every situation. With manly decisiveness, never wavering, he will bear his burden” (Bergen 80).
Their masculine singing in the churches led straight to the battlefields and back into the churches. As Doris Bergen recounts, “In early 1943, when the prominent Thuringian German Christian Julius Leutheuser died at the front, German Christians devised a ceremony in his honor. . . . The pastors present wore either military garb or what by then had come to be known as the German Christian uniform–boots, black jacket, riding trousers” (49).
Making Church Anti-Intellectual
Nazism was, in part, a revolt against thinking. Artists and university professors who dared to threaten nationalism were reviled and branded as Jewish. Many intellectuals supported Nazism, but the ideology they promoted was anti-intellectual.
This anti-intellectual campaign used religious liturgy to alter university life. This was evident at the University of Berlin, where Nazi officials had humiliated the faculty by appointing a young slaughterhouse manager as the university Rektor. In 1936, the university held an event marking the 3rd anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power (January 30).
At the event, the faculty were mostly seated in overflow rooms. They were replaced on the podium by “speaking-choruses” from a Nazi student group. As Robert P. Eriksen summarizes, “Nazi students chanted the liturgy and sang the hymns, with the massive audience allowed to shout out at appropriate moments, ‘we believe’ or ‘we demand’ or ‘we know’” (Eriksen 140-41).
This anti-intellectual impulse changed liturgy inside the churches as well. Doris Bergen notes that the German Christians rejected traditional doctrines in favor of cultivating primitive spirituality and community feeling:
“According to an essay on liturgical reform by the German Christian Wilhelm Bauer, creation of a genuine spiritual community depended on access to the irrational” (Bergen 47).
The German Christians replaced the content of church services that had involved traditional doctrines, only retaining some emotionally-meaningful aspects of liturgies. They “called their religious events ‘divine celebrations’ (Gottesfeiern) rather than ‘worship services’ (Gottesdienste)” (Bergen 49).
Nazi church services were intentionally emptied of any intellectual content that could interfere with the creation of an unthinking Volk. A church oriented around the Führer Principle viewed pesky questions and ideas as a potential cause of disunity.
Making Church Anti-Jewish
Just about everyone knows that the Nazis were anti-Semitic. Many people are also aware that Christian anti-Judaism formed the foundation for that anti-Semitism.
For instance, in 1543, Protestant Germany’s national hero Martin Luther wrote about Jewish people that Christians should “set fire to their synagogues or schools . . . so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them . . . in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians.”
For the German Christians, burning down synagogues was not enough. They also wanted to transform churches and the services conducted in them, to cleanse them of anything considered Jewish.
As early as 1934, “A professor of music in Dresden discovered that ‘anxious choir directors and clergy’ advised against performance of a piece he had composed because it used an old Hebrew melody. No one seemed to mind that the text itself was a Psalm” (Bergen 165).
By 1938, the German Christians were thinking more systematically about how to eliminate any trace of Judaism from the churches. As theologian Walter Grundmann proposed, “In the churches the decision against Judaism has to be executed with complete clarity, and from this decision draw the consequences for all areas of church and religious life” (Heschel 77).
To do this, Grundmann helped to found the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life in 1939. The Institute’s work focused on “dejudaizing” Bibles, hymn lyrics, and church music.
They printed Bibles with the Old Testament and “Jewish” portions of the New Testament omitted. They also took Hebrew words such as “Hallelujah” out of liturgies and hymns, to be replaced by terms like “Amen” or “Lord, we praise thee.” And they created hymn-books that omitted songs that seemed “Jewish,” replacing them with “traditional” German poetry and songs.
This dejudaizing work was grounded in a theology of race and the “created order.” Speaking to a 1933 meeting of the German Christian Faith Movement in Berlin, pastor Friedrich Peter explained why Galatians 3:28 was to be only understood in terms of spiritual salvation:
For according to creation it is a fact that there are men, there are women, there are Jews, there are Greeks. We are grateful [that] the Berlin Mission Society . . . has shown the church the way in relation to the question of race by explaining that the Gospel brings life for the soul, and it brings salvation through forgiveness and regeneration. But this is salvation from the powers of sin and death, not from God’s ordering of things. To this divine order belong the divisions of humankind into peoples and races.(Solberg 142-32)
In other words, the spiritual Gospel of salvation through Jesus (who was reconfigured as “Aryan,” not Jewish) does not interfere with the natural created order. For many Christians that created order has included hierarchies of gender or of slave/free status. For the German Christians, it included race.
As Joachim Hossenfelder ranted in his 1933 book Unser Kampf (Our Struggle),
Now we have a German Volk, and out of our faith we say that this German Volk is God’s will and order. We say that race has a particular claim to validity. This claim rejects the concept of humankind as utopia, as set against God. We recognize the creative will of God anew: God wants race and peoples, wants people to remain with their kind, to grow there, and to take their worth from it.(Solberg 239)
This racial ideology was later used to carry out the extermination of six million Jewish people. But that genocide likely wouldn’t have been possible without centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and an intense reworking of how German Protestants did church beginning in 1933.
Making Church Nationalist
German nationalism was an appeal to a something that hadn’t yet existed, a German or Aryan race united within the borders of a single nation. Concepts like language, blood, and family were used in this nationalist, racist mythology.
While German nationalism referred back to the medieval Holy Roman Empire, it really began in response to Napoleon’s invasions of Germanic states and the later rise of the German Empire beginning in the 1870s.
In the chaos of that empire’s collapse in 1918, militias of nationalist war veterans known as the Freikorps guarded Germany’s borders from Bolsheviks, Poles, and Jews. The Freikorps formed the base of right-wing movements that later supported the rise of the Nazi Party.
Germany’s Protestant churches had been nationalist for some time, uncritically supporting their nation’s involvement in World War I, for instance. As the Nazis came to power, another wave of nationalism swept through the churches.
Susannah Heschel observes how they redecorated the churches: “Church leaders and theologians channeled Nazi propaganda into visual symbols, placing a swastika on the altar or a banner hanging from the church ceiling” (Heschel 14).
They rationalized the unity of cross and swastika with the same logic noted above. While the cross belonged to the spiritual reality of salvation, the swastika and Germanness were seen as part of God’s natural ordering in creation.
German Christian church official Gerhard Hahn summed up the relationship between cross and swastika in terms of identity:
The cross of Christ and the swastika should not and may not oppose each other; they belong together. One must make us look to eternity, and admonish us: Remember that you are a Christian! The other points us toward the present, and admonishes us: Remember that you are a German!
They also remembered these intertwined identities with music. For instance, advent services in Berlin-Tegel included “songs about German blood, soil, and the flag” (Bergen 48).
When Christmas arrived, one German Christian hymn rang out, “Christmas! Christmas! Blood and soil awake! Above you God’s stars shine; Below you sing the seeds in the fields: Volk, from God’s light and power, Your honor and heroism come” (Bergen 50).
They rewrote traditional liturgy and congregational recitation to build national identity. In 1936, a service in Berlin used the pseudo-Psalm “You have practiced your work on our people,” ending with congregational recitation of a poem calling on God to “send us the Führer” (Bergen 48).
And they introduced new understandings of the sacraments. Communion and baptism were both used to proclaim the unity of (German) blood. One pastor in Stuttgart even proposed replacing communion with a meal of stew to build community.
A key aim of these liturgies (and of Nazism itself) was the creation of Gemeinschaft (community) among the Volk. Pre-Nazi symbols were used to reinforce this nationalist and racist goal.
After the war, some pro-Nazi church leaders had to leave their positions during the Allied and Soviet occupation of Germany. Within their churches, though, there was little effort to expel them: “Instead of being ostracized in their congregations and shut out of ecclesiastical posts, German Christians, lay and clergy, found it relatively easy to reintegrate into Protestant church life” (Bergen 2).
After a haphazard period of denazification, “By 1949, almost all German Christian clergy had re-entered the service of the church or were in the process of doing so” (Bergen 212). Some even openly boasted about their Nazi-era liturgical innovations as late as the 1970s.
Others continued to influence the churches. After the war, theologian Walter Grundmann (of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life) wrote biblical commentaries that were widely used by German pastors in preparing sermons. His interpretations of the Gospels remained anti-Jewish.
Nazi theologian Gerhard Kittel edited the multi-volume work Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament), which is still used as a standard reference work in seminaries around the world.
Although Nazi Christianity most strongly influenced churches during the 1933-1945 Nazi era, it had a much longer life than that, extending to the decades before and after Nazi rule.
What can we do with the knowledge that Nazi church services were public, masculine, anti-intellectual, anti-Jewish, and nationalist?
Especially in the U.S., we can let go of the idea that the real danger is that fascism could happen. Fascism can happen in everyday life without government control or a dictatorship, and it’s not any better because it isn’t full-blown.
The fact that Nazis were able to recycle already-existing aspects of church services in the service of their ideology should disturb us all. We can already find U.S. flags at church altars, desperate attempts to make church more masculine, and anti-Jewish readings of New Testament texts. That’s bad enough.
Another way to look at it is through theologian Dorothee Sölle’s concept “Christofacism.” Sölle argued that Christofascism happens when Jesus and Christianity are viewed as superior to other religions. I would add to her definition.
Christofascism additionally involves identifying the triumph of a particular religious community with the triumph of Jesus. That community would also have to be composed mainly of oppressors in whatever oppressor-oppressed dynamic exists in their context.
This is complicated by the fact that, like German Protestants in 1932, most oppressors feel that they are victims of oppression. In the modern era, the status of victim is highly desirable, since it gives one higher moral standing. That reality calls for careful analysis of the dynamics of oppression in every particular situation.
Lastly, Nazi church services were almost completely detached from the life and teachings of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Nazi Christians reconstrued Jesus as Aryan and literally rewrote the teachings of Jesus to only involve love for the Volk rather than for all people.
Their church services become mere celebrations of life, and their theology was shaped by their understanding of the natural created order rather than the life and teachings of Jesus. That was just one more step in their forgetfulness of who they were supposed to be.
Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (University of North Carolina Press, 1996)
Robert P. Eriksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Manfred Gailus, “1933 as a Protestant Experience and the ‘Day of Potsdam’,” translated by Kyle Jantzen, in Contemporary Church History Quarterly 23:1/2
Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press, 2010)
Mary M. Solberg (ed.), A Church Undone: Documents From the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940 (Fortress Press, 2015)