Religion played a role in Nazi Germany but as with so many other aspects of life in the state, religion became the ‘property’ of the government with the introduction of the Reich Church. While Hitler had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, he rejected Christian beliefs as an adult. He wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’ that “antiquity was better than modern times because it did not know Christianity and syphilis.” Hitler also forwarded other reasons in ‘Mein Kampf’ as to why Christianity should be rejected.
1. It protected the weak and the low.
2. Christianity was Jewish and Oriental in origin and it forced people “to bends their backs to the sound of the church bells and crawl to the cross of a foreign God.”
3. Christianity began 2000 years previous among sick, exhausted and despairing men who had lost their belief in life.
4. The Christian tenets of forgiveness of sin, resurrection and salvation were “plain nonsense”.
5. The Christian idea of mercy was a dangerous idea and “un-German”.
6. Christian love was a silly idea because love paralysed men.
7. The Christian idea of equality protected the racially inferior, the ill, the weak and the crippled.
Alfred Rosenberg was considered to be the Nazi Party’s main philosopher and he put his faith in Positive Christianity. This replaced the “Oriental” aspects of Christianity that Hitler disapproved of and replaced them with “positive aspects” – such as racialism, the reintroduction of old Nordic values, the supremacy of the Aryan race and the importance of the individual heroic figure. However, a great deal of Positive Christianity as purported by Rosenberg came across to Hitler as nonsense in itself and he did not shy away from telling his inner circle such.
When Hitler became Chancellor on January 30th 1933, he took a more pragmatic approach to the churches that existed in Germany at the time. There were those in Nazi Germany who believed that Hitler had, in fact, saved the various churches in Germany from communism and in the early days of Nazism few church leaders expressed an overt concern about Hitler.
On July 30th 1933, Hitler signed the Concordat with the Catholic Church. He guaranteed the integrity of the Catholic Church and agreed that it should have its rights and privileges protected. It was made clear that as long as the Catholic Church kept out of politics it would not be troubled.
“In concluding the agreement, Hitler hoped to assure himself of an atmosphere of confidence by impressing world public opinion. He was deeply proud of his first diplomatic success” (Louis Snyder)
However, the success he achieved with the Catholic Church was not replicated with the various Protestant denominations in Germany. They were more concerned about the planned replacement of normal Christian values with those that included ‘Blut und Boden’ (Blood and Soil). In 1934, Professor Ernst Bergmann put forward his ideas for a new German religion. Bergmann stated that:
1. The Old Testament and many parts of the New Testament were not suitable for a new Germany.
2. Christ was a Nordic martyr who was put to death by the Jews. Christ was a warrior whose death rescued the world from Jewish dominance.
3. Adolf Hitler is the new Messiah sent to earth to save the world from Jews.
4. The swastika should become the symbol of German Christianity.
5. The scared assets of German Christians were German land, German blood, German soul and German art.
“Either we have a German God or none at all. The international God flies with the strongest squadrons – and they are not on the German side. We cannot kneel to a God who pays more attention to the French than to us. We Germans have been forsaken by the Christian God. He is not a just, supernatural God, but a party political God of the others. It is because we believed in him and not in our own German God that we were defeated in the struggle of the nations.”
Christians within Nazi Germany – and across the world – were horrified by these statements. German Protestants gathered around the Confessional Church (Bekennniskirche), which worked to maintain the purity of the Evangelical faith. The Confessional Church refused to obey the Reich Bishop of the Reich Church and it declared that Christian beliefs were incompatible with Nazi religious beliefs. This put Confessional Church leaders in a dangerous position. Martin Niemoeller was arrested for sedition. He was found not guilty on many of the charges but was re-arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Dr Karl Barth, a leading German theologian, was sacked from his position as Professor of Theology at Bonn University because he refused to start each lesson of with a ‘Heil Hitler’ accompanied by a Nazi salute. Dietrich Bonhoffer became part of the opposition movement against Hitler.
The Concordat signed with the Catholic Church did not last long. Once Hitler felt entrenched in power, he ordered Joseph Goebbels to turn the Nazi propaganda machine against the Catholic Church. Monks and nuns were accused of smuggling gold out of Germany while priests were accused of immorality. The Archbishop of Munich-Freising had to be given diplomatic status by the Papacy to save him from arrest (he was made a Papal Legate). The concerns in Rome were such that Pope Pius XI issued ‘With Deep Anxiety’. It accused Hitler of treating Catholics in Germany in an inhumane manner and breaking the terms of the Concordat.