In March 1933, less than two months after being sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler made his private opinion of Christianity and its place in his Germany very clear. Nothing would stop him, he declared, 'eradicating Christianity from Germany root and branch. You are either a Christian or a German. You can't be both.'
This was in accord with Hitler's determination to incorporate all elements of the nation into a single body under Nazi leadership. Hitler was concerned with the churches as political agents and organized bodies; he had no interest in questions of religion or faith. Nazism, with its vision of the thousand-year German Reich, was a substitute church that demanded unquestioning adherence to its own dogmas, and would tolerate no rival. Hitler's aim 'was to capture the souls and minds of the German people. Hitler demanded not only obedience but a kind of faith.'
Hitler's privately expressed views on the 'eradication' of Christianity were not the same as his public statements. Officially, the Nazi position since the 1920s had been to attack so-called 'negative' Christianity that weakened the German people, and support 'positive' Christianity, 'which would defend the supremacy of the German people.'
Publicly, Hitler called the churches an integral part of German national life and advocated an agreement between church and state that would allow the two to co-exist and work for the good of Germany. The practical form such policy pronouncements took after 1933 in the field of religion, as in every other department of German life, was a concerted effort to shut the churches out of any form of political activity, to silence any criticism they might offer of the policies of the state, and ideally to bring them under direct Nazi control. The manner in which this policy was applied was different in the case of the Catholic church than it was in the case of the Protestant church, but the aims were the same.
In the case of the Protestant church, the Nazis aimed at the establishment of a Nazified church structure that paralleled the existing churches and was intended ultimately to supplant them. This inevitably placed Protestant Christians in the position of choosing between an understanding of their faith that allowed them to remain within a form of Christianity that was essentially a tool of Nazi purposes, or stand outside any such accommodation and offer resistance. In making that decision individual Christians were in a position in which guidance was available not only from their own consciences and understandings of Christian teachings, but from the official positions of their churches and their leaders. Nazi policies effectively split German Protestantism into a church willing to accept Nazi ideology and become, in effect, a National Socialist State Church, and a shadow church that refused to accept this conclusion. Resistance to the Nazis was inevitably found in the latter group, and it was from their ranks that figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to emerge, but this did not equate to the establishment of an anti-Nazi church offering resistance to the regime. The dissident church became the home of the regime's opponents but not an opponent in its own right. Resistance remained an individual matter.
Among the Protestant churches it can be argued that those who looked to their institutional churches for inspiration to resist Hitler and Nazism were disappointed, finding instead compromise and accommodation, and even active support for the regime: 'Hitler did not need to fear any resistance from the Protestant church. It welcomed the "national revolution" all along the line.'
Historians have noted that 'Both historically and theologically the German churches were conditioned to regard themselves as upholders of the established order', that there was a tendency across the churches to speak out in opposition only when the regime directly attacked the churches' own position and a parallel reluctance to speak out on what were seen as issues of secular government, and a widespread approval of the regime among the membership of the churches as well as among their clergy.
As Doris Bergen has pointed out, Hitler and the anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer were agreed in seeing Christianity and Nazism as profoundly incompatible, but most Christians in Germany did not share this conviction.
The 'Bekennende Kirche' or Confessing Church was founded by Pastor Martin Niemoeller in 1933 under the name Pastors' Emergency League as a direct response to the Nazis' efforts to purge the German Evangelical Church of converted Jews and make the church subservient to the state. It established itself in clear opposition to the Nazi-supporting 'German Christian' movement, founded in May 1932, that claimed to unite Christianity with National Socialism and sought to bring all the regional reformed churches of Germany into a unified national 'Reich Church'. When the Protestant church elections of July 1933 brought a leadership dominated by the German Christians to power, and the synod of that September (called the 'Brown Synod' because of the numbers of delegates who attended wearing the brownshirt uniforms of the Nazi SA) approved an anti-Semitic, nationalist and racist set of church laws, many pastors resigned, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller, and joined in the Pastors' Emergency League. The League began as an attempt to mobilize opposition to the new Protestant leadership from within the church, but was rapidly forced into an underground resistance movement -- and many of its leading figures, including Bonhoeffer, felt compelled to leave Germany and work for the destruction of the church that had been theirs from the outside: 'We must now endure in silence, and set the firebrand of truth to all four corners of the proud German Christian edifice so that one day the whole structure may collapse.'
The pastors identified with the League became the nucleus of the 'Confessing Church', which was formally established with the agreeing of the Barmen Declaration of Faith in1934 and went on to organize its own worship, establish its own administration and ordain its own ministers. Those assenting to the Barmen Declaration asserted that the freedom given to each human being through Christ was above the dictates of political totalitarianism, that Christian faith must remain independent of Nazi ideology, and that the church, as the presence of Christ on earth, must affirm its focus as being on Christ alone.
The single most influential figure in the drafting of this declaration was the theologian Karl Barth, who was at that time a professor of theology at Bonn. Barth was driven from Germany, but remained a highly influential figure, providing a theological contextualization for acts of resistance that rooted anti-Nazism in a living Calvinist Christian tradition.
The Confessing Church was fundamentally a dissident movement within the German Protestant Church rather than an opposition movement entirely outside it; 'it was not a resistance movement against Nazism', according to Victoria Barnett, who points out that its membership contained Nazi members as well as anti-Nazis, baptized Jews and political liberals as well as anti-Semites and German nationalists. 'The only thing all Confessing Christians had in common was their opposition to the absolute demands of Nazi ideology on their religious faith.'
As more generally in the relationship between the Nazis and the Christians of Germany, opposition came down to individual consciences and individual actions. The commitment of the Protestant churches to supporting the state, the anti-Semitism present in many aspects of Christian thought.
In his exile in Britain, Bonhoeffer did all he could to bring the evils, as he saw them, of the Reich Protestant Church in Germany to the attention of all who would listen. The establishment of the Confessing Church came as a relief, providing an institutional backing for his lonely struggle, despite his opposition to what he considered the body's unpolitical stance.
The position of the Catholic church in Germany was generally antagonistic to Hitler and Nazism from the beginning, although as John Cornwell has observed the position of the Vatican was more ambiguous: 'this vehement and united front of the Catholic Church in Germany [against the Nazis] ... was not at one with the view from inside the Vatican'.
Within Germany, however, Hitler was harshly criticized by Catholic journalists, scholars, and many of the clergy and hierarchy. On the part of the Catholic Church, earlier antagonism to Hitler and the Nazis had been replaced by 1933 with a seeming desire to come to a living arrangement with what was now the Nazi government. This policy of seeking a concordat in Germany to echo that already achieved with the Fascist government of Italy was largely driven by the Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. His desire, as a servant of the Vatican, was to reinforce papal authority over German Catholics and put an end to 'political Catholicism' -- an ambition in which he was at one with Germany's new masters. The practical effects of the concordat, signed on 20 July 1933, were the disbandment of the main Catholic political grouping, the Catholic Center Party, and a public statement…