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About Rebecca Eckert-Fong
I am a third year history major who has an interest in the Holocaust and Germany during World War II. I recently studied abroad in Madrid, Spain and although I never made it to Germany, I learned a lot about the fascist government in Spain, which encouraged me to learn about fascism in Germany. I chose to write about the German Christian Movement and the Catholic Church's involvement in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust because I wanted to learn about German citizens' compliance during the war. I chose to write about the Churches because I thought it would be interesting to learn about how a religious institution that grounds itself in morality could support Hitler and his policies of genocide.
Note (back to top)
This essay was expanded as part of an honors contract and discusses two books.
Abstract (back to top)
Doris L. Bergen's book Twisted Cross examines the ways in which the German Christian Movement tried to adapt itself to Nazi ideology and create a church for the German volk. The German Christian Movement changed church doctrine so that Nazi ideals would fit into Church beliefs. They rejected the Old Testament because it was "Jewish" changed hymns to exclude any references to the Old Testament and denied that Jesus was a Jew. The German Christian Movement changed the organization and beliefs of their church so that it fit with Nazi ideology. Guenter Lewy's The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany addresses the change in Catholic Church policy from opposition to compliance with Hitler. Originally, the Church forbade participation in the Nazi party and refused to let its members enter the church in party uniforms. However, after Pope Pius XII signed a Concordat, Hitler's power was legitimized and guaranteed the support by the Catholic Church and secured the Church's power in Germany. The Church complied with Nazi propaganda and policies and did nothing to prevent the genocide of Jews. In this essay, I compare and contrast the two Churches and their participation in Nazi Germany and analyzed how both active involvement (German Christian movement) and passive acceptance (Catholic Church) influenced Hitler's power and his ability to carry out policies against the Jews.
Essay (back to top)
Assessing the Compliance and Support of the German Christian Movement and the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany
Both the Catholic Church and the German Christian Movement supported Hitler and played important roles in the continuation of his power in Germany and in his ability to enact anti-Jewish policies. While both the Catholic Church and the German Christian movement supported Hitler, they did so in opposing ways. In Twisted Cross Doris Bergen explores the German Christian Movement and its efforts to consolidate Nazism and Christianity by looking at Church publications, speeches and memoirs of German Christians. In The Catholic Church in Nazi Germany, Guenther Lewy explores the gradual acceptance and compliance of the Catholic Church to the Nazi party and its policies. For support he uses church newspapers and pamphlets, bishops’ sermons and speeches and Vatican announcements. Although they supported Hitler in different ways, both German churches played a role and shared guilt for what happened during the Third Reich. The Catholic Church complied with Hitler’s regime due to fear and suppression, and while it resisted some of his policies, it failed to do so for the Jews. In contrast, the German Christian movement actively sought to become one with Nazi ideology and was an openly anti-Jewish institution.
Until 1933, the Catholic Church in Germany was strongly opposed to the Nazi movement. Bishops of the German Catholic Church openly denounced the Nazi party and its ideology and feared that Hitler and the Nazi Party were anti-Catholic. The Church warned that National Socialism was irreconcilable with Catholic teaching and forbade its members to come to church dressed in the SA outfit or wearing the Nazi swastika. The Church also issued a ban on membership to the Nazi party:
The Catholic Church publicly announced its dislike of the Nazis by forbidding members to join the party. Bishops of the Church were fearful that the Nazis, who had made it apparent that they were anti-Christian, intended to copy Bismarck’s Kulturkampf which was an attack on the Catholic Church intended to gain political power over the Church and their organizations. Many bishops believed that Hitler intended to disband Catholic organizations if he were to come to power. Lewy makes it clear that as the Nazi party began to gain power the Catholic Church strongly opposed it.
Catholic reservations about the Nazi party were lessened as the Vatican began negotiations for a Concordat. Vatican intentions for the Concordat were to secure Catholic organizations’ rights, the legal rights of the clergy, the appointment of bishops, support of Catholic schools, and the instruction of religious ideology in public schools. Germany sought relations with the Vatican for reasons relating to foreign policy. In the negotiations, it was important to the Catholic Church that priests have the right, in case of emergency, to conduct religious marriage before the preceding civil marriage. The Church also sought to secure financial subsidies and to guarantee that the Catholic Church could keep confessional schools and that instruction in public schools has some religious aspect. During this period of negotiation, it became apparent that the German episcopate was willing to obey all of the Vatican’s wishes. Later on during the height of Nazi oppression of Jews the Vatican’s unwillingness to condemn the Nazis affected the reactions of the German episcopate.
In the course of negotiations for the Concordat in 1933, the Nazis began using terror against other parties as a way to begin trying to make Germany a one party nation. They began a campaign of terror against the Center party, which was the party of most Catholics. On June 24, the Congress of Christian Trade Unions was dissolved and Goebbels threatened to use force against the Center party if it didn’t disband. In Bavaria, many priests were arrested and Catholic premises were searched. Nazi terrorism against “political Catholicism” continued until the Vatican agreed to include in the Concordat the dissolution of the Center party. The Concordat with Germany was finally agreed upon on July 20. In it, the Catholic Church won the right to teach Church doctrine in public school, the freedom of religion of the Catholic Church, and agreed to the legal status of the clergy in Germany. In article 32, the Nazis won the exclusion of the clergy from politics. By creating a Concordat with Germany, the Catholic Church secured its own rights and protected itself from Nazi terror.
At the beginning of the Third Reich, German Catholicism had a huge array of newspapers and periodicals of many types that supported its ideology. However, the Nazi government passed the “Decree for the Protection of People and State” in 1933 which began to attack these Catholic publications. Prior to the Concordat, starting in March, the Nazi party began to shut down Catholic newspapers or forced them to change their periodicals to follow Nazi ideology. In addition, many Catholics were intimidated by Nazi officials into canceling their subscriptions to Catholic publications. The suppression of Catholic publications was so severe that when the German bishops met at the Fulda Bishops’ Conference May-June 1, 1933, one bishop concluded that Catholic publications were coming to an end: “If the persecution and suppression of the Catholic press continues unhindered as in the last few weeks, the German Catholic press will soon have ceased to exist.” (Lewy, 134). The pressure from the Nazi government and the suppression of Church publications helped to convince Church officials for the need for the Concordat between Hitler and the Vatican in order for protection of Church publications, institutions and programs.
As the idea of Gleichschaltung became more important to the Nazi regime, pressure to conform to Nazi ideology in the press increased. On October 4, the Nazis passed the Schriftleiterge which defined journalism as a public vocation that became regulated by law. An editor had to meet many regulations, such as being Aryan, and the decision as to whether an editor was qualified or not was made by the Reichpressekammer, which was headed by Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. After the Schriftleitergestez, the independence of Catholic publications was obliterated. Further, after the Nazis enacted their sterilization laws, Catholic publications were forced to defend the laws and were unable to voice the Church’s warnings and disapproval of the law. The Vatican protested such suppression but failed to change the Nazi mind. On April 24, 1935, a new law made it illegal for Catholic publications to print any articles with religious content. After 1935 there were no more Catholic daily presses. Those that did continue to exist were severely suppressed and forced to only report what the Nazis wanted.
The Saar territory, which belonged to Germany prior to World War I, was land Hitler wanted to reacquire, and was 72.6% Catholic (Lewy, 182). The Saar Catholics remained under the jurisdiction of the Bishops of Trier and Speyer and had strong ties to the Reich. Hitler’s goal in acquiring the Saarland was to put to a vote to see if the people there wanted to become part of Germany again. The Center Party in the Saarland dissolved itself under threats from Nazis and joined the pro-German party. Despite having strong ties to Germany, people of the Saarland were apprehensive about re-joining Germany: “the number who desired retention of the status quo, and the harassment of the Catholic Church in the Reich provided a good argument for them” (Lewy, 183). As the citizens of the Saarland were getting ready to vote on whether or not they wanted to be citizens of France or Germany, many French complained that “the propaganda of the National Socialists seriously threatened a free vote.” (Lewy, 184).
Fears of the Catholics living in the Saar region were furthered after the Blood Purge, or Night of Long Knives. Many prominent Catholic leaders were killed and while Catholics in the Reich didn’t hear about it immediately due to censured media, Catholics in the Saar did and were drawn away from voting into Germany: “the odds were now even that the Church held the balance, and that unless Hitler should…placate the Church…the Territory might be indefinitely lost to the Reich.” (Lewy, 185). While the balance was leaning away from the Nazis and in favor of the Church, that was changed once the Church faced persecution from the Nazis. The Nazis argued that Church interference in the Saarland was breaking with the Concordat of 1933 in which the Nazis agreed to protect the Church and the clergy had to stay out of politics. By openly discussing opinions about the Saarland, the Nazis “warned of the dangerous consequences” for interfering in the Saarland (Lewy, 188). Under pressure from the Nazi party, the Catholic Church changed its opinion on the Saar territory. After the Saar territory was returned to Germany, the Catholic Church there faced “harassment and outright repression” of their organizations.
For the most part, the Catholic Church complied with the Nazis; however there were some cases in which the Catholic Church openly opposed the Nazi agenda. The Catholic Church openly rejected the Nazi policy of compulsory sterilization and eugenics. When the law was passed, the Catholic Church filed its opposition on the ground that it violated Catholic doctrine. Further, Cardinal Bertram issued in the annual instructions on marriage that sterilization was forbidden: “according to Catholic doctrine it was forbidden to volunteer for sterilization or apply for the sterilization of another.” (Lewy, 260). Further, Bishop Galen in his pastoral letter openly expressed remorse of the violation of their bodies. The Nazis were furious over these announcements of opposition. Priests who protested against the law drew penalties.
The Catholic Church also protested against the euthanasia laws. In 1939, Hitler ordered to kill all persons who had incurable diseases in order to open up more space in hospitals and gain more food for the German people. Cardinal Bertram again issued a protest against these actions and argued that it not only violated Christian moral law but that of the German people and jeopardized their reputation in the world. Many other clergy men protested against the law, including Cardinal Faulhaber who argued that the killing of innocent people was an issue that could not be ignored. Bishop Galen publicly denounced euthanasia, deeming these killings as murder and arguing for the persecution of those carrying out the killings: “Woe unto the German people, Galen declared, when innocents not only could be killed but their slayers remain unpunished” (Lewy, 265). This public protest had a large effect on the German people. His argument was widely distributed and the support he had prevented the Nazis from taking him out. Shortly after the Galen’s public announcement, euthanasia was ended. According to Lewy, it was because of Galen’s protest that Hitler ended the program.
The Catholic Church as a result of fear and suppression complied with Nazi laws and supported the Nazi regime. As Lewy demonstrates, much of the Catholic Church’s support for Hitler came out of fear of persecution or suppression of Catholic thought. Lewy clearly presents the challenge for the Catholic Church: surviving the Nazi terror while still maintaining its identity. Lewy argues that the Church’s support of Hitler was out of self preservation. The Concordat, support of the Saar, the dissolution of Church publications were all done to preserve the Catholic Church in Germany. Attacks and threats from the Nazis threatened to destroy the Church. While the church mainly acted out of self preservation, one way in which the Church opposed Hitler was with the sterilization law and euthanasia program. Overall, Lewy convincingly argues that the German Catholic Church acted out of fear and suppression.
In contrast to the fear and suppression that led the Catholic Church to support Hitler and the Nazi party, the German Christian movement actively sought to support Hitler and his policies. The German Christian movement tried to consolidate Nazi ideas with Church doctrine. One way in which the movement did this was through their rejection of anything “Jewish.” The German Christian movement strongly enforced the Nazi idea of race. The movement wanted to get rid of all Jewish influence in the Church and in its membership. In order to become a member of the movement, one had to swear that they were of Aryan descent. The Godesberg Declaration of 1939 was aimed to transform the Protestant Church into a racial policy. In this declaration, the Protestant Church was declared to be “the irreconcilable religious opposite of Judaism” and established an institution to eliminate Jewish influence in Protestantism. This asserted that race was a major component to being Christian.
The rejection of the Old Testament and editing of the New Testament and Church music were also ways in which the German Christian movement attempted to “de-judaize.” The German Christian movement claimed that the Old Testament was a “Jewish” text that was “ethically a poor example for children” (Bergen, 144). Many German Christians worried that by using the Old Testament, it would provide an opening for Jewish filtration into the Church. The German Christians selected fragments from the Scriptures and discarded material that was contrary to Nazi ideology. In religious ceremonies, such as marriage, some Germans requested that the ceremony be altered so that nothing from the Old Testament was present: “Bella Fromm…recorded a case of a couple who asked their pastor-Martin Niemöller-to omit the usual reading from the Old Testament at their wedding ceremony” (Bergen, 147).
The New Testament was also attacked by the German Christian movement because it affirmed Jewish roots to Christianity and Jesus’ Jewish ancestry and his appeals to the Old Testament. In order to dispute this, German Christians used the Gospels more than before, arguing that in the Gospels there was a “murderous hatred of Jews by Christians” (Bergen, 155). One German Christian re-did all of the Gospels by taking all of the negative things that Jesus ever said and applying it Jews. Further, German Christians argued that Jesus was not a Jew but existed outside of normal race classifications. They argued that Jesus could not be a Jew because he hated Jews: “The struggle between Jesus and the Jews was so intense…’that it led to his death on the cross.’ ” (Bergen, 156). The German Christian movement made Jesus into the ultimate antisemite.
Church music was also altered to get rid of any Jewish influence. In many songs, the Jewish “Hallelujah” was replaced with the German “Hail to our God”. In 1939, the Institute for Research into and Elimination of Jewish Influence in German Church Life reviewed all the hymn books used in Germany, and of the 2,336 songs it reviewed, it only recommended 102 as acceptable (Bergen, 169). Changes made to the hymns focused on removing references to the Old Testament. In addition, many new songs focused on the daily life, struggle and camaraderie of the fatherland: “God bless our weapons, Germany forevermore!” (Bergen, 168). During the war, the German Protestant movement gave out a new soldier songbook in which all references to the Old Testament were omitted. Sayings such as “The Lord Is My Shepherd” were included but the editors did not specify that they were from the Old Testament. New hymns created by the German Christian movement focused on nationalism while avoiding references to the Old Testament.
The German Christian Movement also adapted the sacraments to fit into Nazi ideology. Every Christian holiday and all symbols became a celebration of the Volk. Each holiday and symbol promoted the unity of the nation and the community of the Volk. The sacrament of baptism was adapted so that one was baptized into the community of the Volk. In addition, baptism was denied as a way for Jews to become Christian: “It denied that Christian baptism could change anything ‘about the racial essence of Jews.’” (Bergen, 25). In the eyes of the German Christians, baptism was one with being German and since the Jews were of a different race, baptism could not do anything since race could not be changed. Communion was another sacrament in which the German Christians adapted to support Nazi ideology. In communion, German Christians compared the bread to the soil of Germany and the blood was loyalty and dedication to the Volk. The German Christians fundamentally changed the meaning of communion so that it fit into German nationalism and Nazi ideology of the Volk. The Holy Spirit was adapted so that the Holy Spirit in the movement was used bind all\ Christians together. German Christians were able to change church doctrine so that it represented German nationalism and was a spiritual movement not only to God but to the nation.
Additionally, the German Christian movement rejected theology as a means to make it more available to the Volk. The German Christians attacked theology as too intellectual and exclusive, theology did not promote a church for the Volk: “A people’s church, they declared, spoke the people’s language, avoiding ‘hollow or tainted’ biblical terms and jargon” (Bergen, 174). In attacking the word use of the church, the German Christians instead of church “jargon” were able to use their own words and promote their own message. They replaced traditional church words with German ones to show unity with the German nation and to make the church seem more accessible to the people.
The German Christian movement was an ideological one. As Bergen demonstrates, the German Christian movement worked hard to change its doctrines and beliefs so that they coincided with Nazi ideology. German Christian anti-Jewish, anti-doctrinal and masculine beliefs were all generated as means to become one with the Nazi movement. The changes that the German Christians made to their sacraments, their religious texts and their songs all reflect the ways in which they tried to unite their beliefs with Nazi ones. Bergen argues that it was not opportunism or fear, sentiments that fueled other movements to conform, that shaped the German Christian movement, but their own desire to become part of Nazism. Bergen argues that even though German Christians enthusiastically supported Hitler and his policies, they did not gain very many political favors:
Furthermore, Bergen argues that if opportunism was the reasoning behind German Christian support of Hitler’s racial policies, then one would also find vocal support for eugenics and euthanasia programs as well, when instead German Christians remained silent and did not openly support these programs.
Despite huge differences between the policies of the two churches, there were some similarities in their movements. Both movements had trouble with the idea that Jesus was a Jew. While the German Christian Movement outright denied that he was Jewish, the Catholic Church argued that he was above the Jews of his time: “Jesus Christ could not be made into an Aryan, but the Son of God had been fundamentally different from the Jews of his time” (Lewy, 277). Both movements in attempting to work with Nazi ideology had to clarify Jesus’ relation to Christianity and Judaism. In addition, members in both groups felt that religion and Nazism went hand-in-hand. In the German Christian Movement, the belief that religion went with Nazism is seen in their attempts to consolidate Church doctrine with Nazi ideology. In the Catholic Church, many of the ideals of the Church were similar to those of the Nazi party, leading some members to believe in the connection between the two:
Since the Catholic Church shared many values in common with the Nazi party, some argued that the ideas of Catholicism were a counterpart to the Nazis in the political sphere.
Both movements believed there was a religious aspect to the Nazi movement and both tried to work with the Nazis to gain political safety. The German Christian and the Catholic Church also faced persecution from the Nazis. The Catholic Church complied with Hitler because of the constant persecution and fear and the German Christian movement, despite their pro-Nazi sentiments, still faced threats from the Nazis: “National Socialist authorities demonstrated increasingly open hostility toward Christianity, including its pro-Nazi variants. Even as German Christians proclaimed their devotion to Nazism, their publications were terminated, their spokespeople muzzled” (Bergen, 20). Despite open support for state policies, the Nazis suppressed German Christian work. Furthermore, the German Christian movement was widely criticized by Nazi officials as preaching “weakness, humility, and defeatism, feminine traits antithetical to National Socialist values.” (Bergen 61). In order to combat Nazi charges of being weak and having a defeatist attitude, which were blamed as the cause for the German defeat in World War I, the German Christian movement tried to make their church more “manly” and adopt some of Nazi ideology to prove it was committed to the German cause. Despite enthusiastic German Christian support of the Reich, they, just like the Catholic Church faced suppression and persecution from the Nazis.
While the Catholic Church and the German Christian Movement supported Hitler differently, they both contributed to the horrors of the Third Reich. Religion played an important role in the lives of the German Volk. Religious leaders are looked to for guidance and for an example of how one should live their life. The German Christian Movement openly supported Hitler and his policies and even used language that suggested the extermination of Jews in their own policies of removing Jewish influence from the church documents: “‘Into the oven,’ he wrote, ‘with the part of the Bible that glorifies the Jews’” (Bergen, 152). German Christian anti-Jewish policies and their efforts to turn their church into one void of Jews helped to legitimize Hitler’s own racial policies. In some cases the German Christians even encouraged harsher laws against the Jewish population. The change in German Christian ideas about baptism further lent a hand in the Holocaust. German Christian refusal to baptize Jews and their willingness to hand over church documents specifying who was Christian or not had a huge impact on Hitler’s ability to carry through with his Final Solution.
The Catholic Church, despite being more passive in its support for Hitler, was also responsible for the fate of the Jews. The Catholic Church stood by and did nothing while Hitler carried out his Final Solution. The Church knew that it could make a difference in Nazi policy too after their protests to euthanasia caused Hitler to stop the program: “German episcopate had demonstrated their willingness to risk such a clash and exhibited their power to mold public opinion and achieve results in the euthanasia program” (Lewy, 294). The Church knew that it had power over public opinion and over the members of their church, but unlike during the euthanasia program, it did nothing. Furthermore, many bishops voiced outrage in the killing of innocents but because the Vatican never issued a public statement against the Nazi crimes, the Church’s clergy and members didn’t react to the crimes being committed.
The German Christian Movement and the Catholic Church both complied with the Nazi regime and were important parts in their Reich. Lewy argues that the Catholic Church complied out of fear and suppression while Bergen argues that the German Christian Movement complied out of willingness and changed their doctrine and beliefs to fit the Nazi agenda. Both Lewy and Bergen were successful in presenting the evidence against each church in a balanced matter, both offering evidence against the church and in favor. At the end of each book, the conclusion of each church’s guilt in the Third Reich is clear and readers understand the reasons behind each church’s compliance.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)
Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich
Baranowski, Shelley. “Review of Bergen, Twisted Cross” The American
Historical Review 102.3 (1997) 842-43. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2171596>
Diephouse, David J. “Review of Bergen Twisted Cross” The Journal
of Modern History 70.1 (1998) 245-47. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2991479>
Professor Jonathan Petropoulos’s History webpage Claremont-McKenna,
“Protestant Churches” (archive.org: October 31, 2007, last revised January
26, 2008) <http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/hist/jpetropoulos/church/keithpage/protesta.htm>
Peet, Garnet. “The Protestant Churches in Nazi Germany” (archive.org:
January 29, 2001, last revised September 19, 2007) <http://spindleworks.com/library/peet/german.htm>
Books and Articles
Hockenos, Matthew D. A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront
the Nazi Past (Indiana University Press, 2004), 269 pages. BR856.H685
Ericksen, Robert P., Heschel, Susannah. Betrayal: German Churches
and the Holocaust (Fortress Press, 1999), 224 pages. DS146.G4B49 1999.
Barnett, Victoria, J. “The Role of Churches: Compliance and Confrontation”
(archive.org: September 13, 2002, last revised October 11, 2007). <http://www.adl.org/Braun/dim_14_1_role_church.asp>
The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany
Rodes, John E. “Review of Lewy: The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany”
The Journal of Modern History 37.2 (1965): 286-87. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1878380>
Shanahan, William O. “Review of Lewy: The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany”
The American Historical Review 71.2 (1966): 613-615. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1846456>
Schoenberg, Shira. Jewish Virtual Library. “Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust”.
(archive.org: January 16, 2002, last revised August 8, 2007). <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/pius.html>
United States Holocaust Museum “German Churches and the Nazi State”
last updated October 7, 2008 <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005206>
Gakewski, Karol Jozef. “Nazi Policy and the Catholic Church” (November
Books and Articles
Cornwall, John. Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII
(Viking, 1999), 430 pages. BX1378.C65 1999
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic
Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair (Vintage
Books, 2003), 392 pages. BX1378.G57 2002
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: