September 2020 Pulse

One of the most important discussions to be had today is the relationship between the Church and the State, and, more broadly, that between Christianity and the prevailing political cultures and ideologies of the day.

The relentless march of secularism in Western societies has not made this question any less urgent. Neither has the separation of Church and State that obtains in many countries in the west and also in Asia, such as Singapore, made this issue irrelevant. Instead, it arguably has, in some important respects, made this matter even more pressing.

In this brief article, I reflect on an instance in the history of the Church in Germany during which it found itself in the grip of a political ideology so powerful that it lost sight of its distinctive identity as the called-out people of God. I examine what some writers justifiably describe as the Nazification of the German Church to see what lessons can be gleaned from this misbegotten partnership that has proven to be so corrosive for the Church.

The Reich Church

The National Socialist Movement, also known as Nazism, that rose in the first quarter of the last century has as its aim the redefinition of socialism according to its nationalistic agenda. Rejecting both Marxist socialism and free-market capitalism, national socialism (Nationalsozialismus) presents itself as a powerful alternative for the German people.

Its rise has transformed Germany into a hostile and dangerous environment for many minority groups such as the communists. Even groups with no overt political commitments or ambitions, such as homosexuals and Jews, were subjected to violent persecution.

With larger majority groups like the German Christian communities – both Catholics and Protestants – however, a different and more subtle approach was adopted, at least in the initial stages of its strategy. That approach is to make these churches subservient to the Nazi regime by reshaping Christianity itself and forcing it into the ideological mould of the Third Reich.

And the best way to achieve this is to win the leaders of the Church over to the Nazi cause, or, if this should fail, to replace them. As historian John Conway explains, Hitler’s plan was that ‘once that leadership was established, political control could then be applied to make the whole Church an instrument of the Nazi party.’

Although he was raised in a Catholic family, Adolf Hitler never embraced the religion of his parents, but regarded Christianity with nothing but contempt. In a seminal biography of the Führer entitled Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, Allan Bullock writes: ‘In Hitler’s eyes Christianity was a religion only for slaves … Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle of the fittest.’

Yet, Hitler and his Party appeared to be steadfastly supportive of Christianity and the German Church. In 1920, the Fürher could declare that ‘The Party as such stands for a positive Christianity, without binding itself denominationally to a particular confession.’ He further promised that ‘The rights of the churches will not be restricted, nor will their relationship to the state be changed.’

Hitler hid his disdain for Christianity and presented himself as its staunch defender only because it was politically expedient for him to do so.

The German churches, especially Protestant denominations, for the most part did not resist the overtures of Hitler and his Party. Some German Christians (Deutsche Christen) were already in the process of re-organising themselves and were willing to align themselves to the nationalistic agenda of the Nazis. This led to the establishment of the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche), otherwise known as the Reich Church in the mid 1930s.

Ludwig Müller, Hitler’s confidant, was appointed Reich Bishop and, according to Conway, the church, in its attempt to ‘press ahead with their programme of revival and renewal’, became even more radically wedded to the Nazi Party’s ideology. To be sure, there were dissenting voices, and very soon Christians in Germany became polarised, ripped apart by infighting, resulting in the state-of-affairs which historians describe as Kirchenkampf (Church struggle).

Heresy, Idolatry and Misplaced Loyalties

The factors that led these German Christians to align themselves to the Nazi regime are many and complex. At one level, the issues have to do with the concept of nationalism which led to the politicisation of race and religion. At another level, the German Christians’ misplaced loyalties can be traced to the erosion of theological orthodoxy that resulted in a distorted sense of what it means to be God’s chosen people.

One of the most important factors that caused the German Christians of the Reich Church to go astray is their anthropological turn, that is, the shift of focus from the God of the Bible to their national identity (with its associations with race) – the idea of the German Volk (people), which is indistinguishable from Volkstum (race).

The great Swiss German theologian of that century and the chief architect of the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth, is surely right in his diagnosis of this crisis. ‘Our protest’, he writes, ‘must be directed at the source of all these individual heresies: at the fact that, next to the holy scripture as the sole revelation from God, the German Christians claim Volkstum, its past and political present, as a second revelation.’

Race became the basis on which the Reich Church established its identity, as the seventh point of its guidelines published in 1932 makes crystal clear: ‘We see in race, Volkstum, and nation, laws of life that God has bequeathed and entrusted to us. It is God’s law that we concern ourselves with their preservation. Mixing of races, therefore, is to be opposed.’

The politicisation of race and religion did not only lead the German Christians to be complicit in some of the most horrendous anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime. It also resulted in nothing less than the reinvention of Christianity, a re-telling of the Gospel, with the help of some of the most celebrated theologians of the day such as Adolf von Harnack and Emmanuel Hirsch.

Harnack questioned the canonicity of the Old Testament and even maintained that it should be excised from the Bible altogether. That’s according to Robert Erickson, whose fascinating book, Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emmanuel Hirsch still repays attentive reading. Hirsch provided a theological interpretation of the significance of Germany in his influential book Deutschlands Schicksal (Germany’s Fate), where he asserts that ‘the only point of unity in Germany, for the more noble among us is the concern for Germany’s fate.’

In addition, German Bible scholars used the scalpel of historical criticism to surgically remove references to the Old Testament from the Gospels and other New Testament texts. Hirsch, for example, carefully rewrote three of the four gospels to remove the Hebraisms and Jewish elements.

Other Church leaders also rewrote the New Testament to give it more anti-Semitic tones. For example, the Protestant Bishop of Bremen, promoted Christianity as an anti-Semitic faith by publishing the first edition of the anti-Semitic gospel of John in 1935.

Even Jesus was not spared from these embellishments. The German Christians insisted that Jesus was not a Jew, and that he did not have Jewish ancestry. They asserted that Jesus was an Aryan, born to an Aryan tribe in Galilee – a preposterous theory, no doubt, but one which received endorsements from theologians like Emmanuel Hirsch and theorists like Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

The Germans Christians also looked to the sixteenth century Reformation to find support for their racist ideologies, and found a formidable ally in arguably the greatest of the Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther.

Although Luther’s attitude towards the Jews was somewhat progressive at the start of his career, it became increasingly negative and hostile. In an essay entitled ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ written in 1543, Luther described the Jews as a ‘base and whoring people.’

The German Christians therefore found justification for their anti-Semitism in the writings of the theologian whom they regarded as the father of the Reformation. Their fiery rhetoric against the Jews of their time are often fuelled by quotations from the writings of Luther, especially his infamous instructions to ‘set their synagogues and schools on fire, and whatever will not burn, heap dirt upon.’

In this way the German Christians became a powerful tool in the hands of Hitler and his Party, and served as the megaphone for the Führer’s national socialism and anti-Semitic campaigns.

But once the Churches have lost their usefulness for the Nazi regime, they were quickly marginalised and persecuted. The Party’s true attitude towards Christianity and the Church was made manifest especially in its open hostility as, in the words of Conway, ‘anti-clerical attacks were no longer discouraged, and lip-service ceased to be paid to Christian traditions.’

‘The Nazi Party as a whole began to significantly distance itself from Christian churches’, writes Christopher Tatara. ‘All church services were placed under regular surveillance by the Gestapo.’

A Cautionary Tale

This slice of the history of the church in Germany should serve as a cautionary tale for Christians and churches today. There are instances – both from the recent past and in the present – of the Church’s close alliance with the State or with certain powerful political figures that are worryingly reminiscent of the German situation.

When Hitler ascended to power, many German Christians saw in him someone whom God has appointed to bring Germany out of the humiliation brought about by its defeat in the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles, a messianic figure who would restore the greatness of the German people. Today, we witness something chillingly similar when we read about Patriarch Krill’s description of Vladimir Putin’s rule as a ‘miracle of God’, and about the belief held by half of the evangelicals in the United States that Donald Trump is God’s anointed who will make America great again.

The complicity of the white churches in South Africa in supporting and benefiting from a social, economic and political system that was racist, cruel and oppressive is another obvious example from recent history. And in China, the campaign by the Communist Party to ‘sinicize’ Christianity, that is, to make it more Chinese (as defined by the government) as part of its effort to reassert control over all of Chinese society poses the real danger that Christianity may be instrumentalised to promote an alien political ideology.

Many, if not most, historians have justifiably argued that the alliance between the Church and the Nazi regime that took place in Germany in the 1930s is unique and that it is difficult – even impossible – to replicate in our time. This, however, does not mean that the Church should not draw important lessons from it. Neither does it mean that the Church should neglect serious and robust theological reflection on its relationship with the State and with the prevailing political ideologies and cultures.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.