Religion in Nazi Germany

Key question: how did the Nazis regard religion?
Base answer: with suspicion and a desire to move belief from God to Hitler
Main idea: Nazification and indoctrination

Nazism was a fundamentally anti-Christian philosophy.

Nazism glorified strength, violence and war, Christianity taught love, forgiveness and neighbourly respect.

Christianity was regarded as the product of an inferior race – Jesus was a Hebrew. (Picture 4) He was not white. Some leading Nazis, such as Himmler and his deputy, Heydrich, openly revealed their contempt for Christianity.

Hitler was more cautious, although what were probably his true feelings were revealed in a private conversation in 1933:

“Neither of the denominations – Catholic or Protestant, they are both the same – has any future left … That won’t stop me stamping out Christianity in Germany root and branch. One is either a Christian or a German. You can’t be both.”

What the Nazis wanted instead of normal religion
In place of Christianity, the Nazis wanted ‘teutonic paganism’, which became known as the German Faith Movement. 

To what ‘Teutonic’ is a reference?
It is basically a reference to the ancient tribe of Germans, called ‘Teutons’. ‘Teutonic’ now refers to that which is of German descent.

Although a clear Nazi religious ideology was never fully outlined, what there was revolved around four main themes:

• the propagation of the ‘Blood and Soil’ ideology
• the replacement of Christian ceremonies – marriage and baptism – by pagan equivalents
• the rejection of Christian ethics – closely linked to racial and nationalist views
• the cult of Hitler’s personality.

However, even the Nazi government knew that religion was a very delicate issue. At first, the Nazis tried to calm the fears of the Churches, while the Nazi dictatorship was being established.

Conciliation and conflict 1933–5
Key question: why did conciliation lead to conflict?
Base answer: Nazi ideology and guarantees of religious tolerance were unacceptable to the Churches

At first Hitler agreed that the Churches were a central part of Germany. Nazi members were encouraged to go to Protestant Church services. The reason was to show that the Churches had nothing to fear from the Nazis.

The Catholic Church also responded well to Nazi ‘suggestions’. Catholic bishops wanted to safeguard the position of the Church under the Nazis and in July 1933 a Concordat was signed between the Papacy and the regime.

What is a ‘Concordat’?
It’s an agreement between two or more ‘sides’ which guarantees that they will be cordial (friendly) towards each other. (Picture 3)

Which Pope reigned during most of World War II?
His Holiness Pope Pius XII (Picture 1)

In the agreement it was decided that:

• the Nazis would guarantee the Catholic Church religious freedom
• the Nazis would not interfere with the Catholic Church’s property and legal rights
• the Nazis would accept the Catholic Church’s control over its own education

In return, the Catholic Church would not interfere in politics and would give diplomatic recognition to the Nazi government. Remember that the Roman Catholic Church was not part of the government, and was controlled totally by The Pope in Rome. Essentially the Roman Catholic Church was - and is - an organisation entirely controlled by The Pope, and makes its own laws and rules.

At first the Concordat seemed to be a great success.

However, it was all insincere (Hitler was terrible liar) and by the end of 1933 Nazi interference in religious affairs was already causing resentment and disillusionment in both Catholic and Protestant Churches.

The Nazis hoped that the Protestant Churches would gradually be ‘co-ordinated’ through the group called the German Christians (Deutsche Christen). This group hoped to reconcile their Protestant ideas with Nazi nationalist and racial thinking by finding common ground.
A new Church constitution was created in July 1933 with the Nazi sympathiser Ludwig Muller (Picture 2) as the first Reich Bishop – an interesting application of the Führerprinzip.

Churches and state
Key question: How did the relationship between the Churches and state change over time?
Base answer: from tolerance to opposition and the main idea: Nazification and indoctrination

By 1935 it was obvious that the Nazi leadership had achieved just limited success in controlling the Churches. The leadership could not make a clear choice between total suppression or limited persecution. Total suppression would alienate too many people and limited persecution would give the church too much freedom.

To destabilise the Churches, the Ministry of Church Affairs adopted a policy of undermining both the Protestant and Catholic Churches by a series of anti-religious measures, including:
• closure of Church schools undermining of Catholic youth groups
• personal campaigns to discredit and harass the clergy
• confiscation of Church funds
• a campaign to remove crucifixes from schools
• the arrest of more and more pastors and priests.

The Churches were weakened by this approach, but it also stimulated individual declarations of opposition from both Protestants and Catholics.

The Pope, Pius XI, eventually vehemently attacked the Nazi system in his encyclical, or public letter, of 1937 entitled With Burning Concern (Mit Brennender Sorge). The conflict between the Churches and the state continued.

The outbreak of war brought about a cautious policy, as the regime wished to avoid unnecessary tensions. Following the military victories of 1939–40 the persecution intensified, as a result of pressure applied by anti-Christian enthusiasts, such as Bormann and Heydrich and the SS hierarchy.

The Crucifix is a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church. It always shows Christ on the Cross.
Empty crosses are a symbol of Protestant churches. (Picture 5)

Monasteries were closed, Church property was attacked and Church activities were severely restricted. Even so, religion was such a politically sensitive issue that Hitler did not allow subordination of the Churches to give way to wholesale suppression within Germany.

Key question: Did Nazi religious policy succeed in its aims? Did the Churches effectively oppose the Nazis?
Base answer: not really. The Nazis limited the freedom of the Churches but did not suppress them.

The Nazis achieved only limited success in their religious policy. Many individual Christians made brave stands against the Nazis. This made the dictatorship wary of launching a fundamental assault on religion, so German loyalty to Christianity survived in the long term despite Nazism.

Hitler killed himself before his programme for taking over the Churches could be made successful.

However, both the Catholic and Protestant Churches failed to provide effective opposition to Nazism. Both could have provided the focus for active resistance. Instead, they preferred, as institutions, to adopt a pragmatic policy towards Nazism.

They stood up for their own religious practices and traditions with shows of dissent, but denunciations of the regime were left to individuals. The reasons for the Churches’ reluctance to show opposition to the regime lay in their conservatism:

• They distrusted the politics of communism which rejected the existence of religion itself.
• There was a nationalist sympathy for Nazism, especially after the problems of 1918–33.
• Both Churches feared the power of the Nazi state.

In such a situation, their emphasis on pastoral and spiritual comfort was perhaps the most practical and realistic policy for them.


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