Crosses and Swastikas

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 1 (March 2013)

Crosses and Swastikas

By Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität Berlin

The following article was written to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power. It was published in Der Tagesspiegel on February 2, 2013. The original can be viewed at Translation from German by John S. Conway.

Nazi flags on the altars, Nazi songs in the pews, Nazi greetings at the church doors—this was the scene in “German Christian” churches in 1933. Eighty years later, the Church is still shying away from facing up to this fateful and heretical perversion.

Many churchmen were only too glad to see a “national Saviour” rise to power. They encouraged and applauded this belief, wherever it might lead. This was not just a handful of misguided bigots, but churchmen of all shades, men of faith and pillars of the Church.

One of them was Pastor Bruno Marquardt, pastor in the Friedenau parish of Berlin. For him, 1933 was the “year of greatness” when Adolf Hitler came to power and changed the country into a dictatorship. For him, it was a year when Germany regained its lost heroic qualities. Instead of being discriminated against as a downtrodden nation, Germany was once again able to hold its head high. “The proud heroism of these men—from the Führer to the least SA-man—who have campaigned for the soul of the people during the years of degradation and shame, who have committed every ounce of their life and blood for a new Germany, this proud heroism has finally won in the ‘victory for faith.’” Despite all the malignancy and devilry of the years before 1933, so the Pastor thought, “this new national revival has shown that the German soul has not been broken, but is now embarking on a new intensification of faith.”

Many other pastors thought the same during the exciting events during this “turning point of history.” And so naturally did a great many of their parishioners. In Berlin, the nation’s capital, the Protestant churches were overwhelmed by a newly established movement, calling itself “The Faith Movement of German Christians.” For instance, four days after Hitler came to power, a special service of celebration and thanksgiving was held in the packed church of St Mary, one of Berlin’s most historic sanctuaries in the city centre. Pastor Joachim Hossenfelder of Christ Church, Kreuzberg, the leader of these “German Christians,” preached on 1 Corinthians 15: 57: “Thanks be to God, who has given us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He praised President Hindenburg for choosing the best possible person to lead the country and its new government. Hossenfelder even went so far as to characterize the new Chancellor, who was by birth a Roman Catholic, as “one of a kind, forged from purity, piety, energy and strength of character—our Adolf Hitler.”

Only a few days later, on 5 February, the “German Christians” were given permission to hold a funeral service in the Berlin Cathedral. This was to say farewell to a murdered SA-leader Hans-Eberhard Maikowski, one of the notorious gang of SA rowdies in the Berlin back streets. Together with a policeman, he had been shot during a SA demonstration on 30 January in Charlottenburg. For this funeral requiem not only did Adolf Hitler himself appear, but also Marshal Hermann Goering, numerous SA and SS leaders, as well as the Crown Prince of the exiled Hohenzollern family, and many German Christian pastors in full ceremonial vestments. Once again Pastor Hossenfelder preached. He spoke of the “great grey army” in the beyond who were, ”maintaining a watchful guard in heaven.” Standing by the coffin placed in front of the altar, he proclaimed: “You were one of the best. Your coffin is draped with the swastika flag, and in the first row sits our supreme leader, Adolf Hitler. So to say goodbye, we sing the beloved old military song: ‘When the seed is so fine, then the harvest will be abundant and golden.’”

In the course of the year 1933, hardly any of Berlin’s Protestant churches remained free from such Memorial, Thanksgiving or Jubilee celebrations. There were indeed plenty of opportunities. In March, Remembrance Services were held for the fallen, in April the Führer’s birthday was celebrated, on 2 July, special Thanksgiving services were organized for the “National Revival,” in October Harvest Festivals were turned into celebrations of “Blood and Earth,” and in November the same themes were noted to mark Martin Luther’s 450th birthday. The spill-over from such ceremonies was all too frequently reflected in the Sunday worship services.

In the short week between the Nazi-organized boycott of Jewish shops on 1 April and the passage of the new law banning Jews from the civil service on 7 April, the “German Christians” held their first national assembly in the Prussian House of Lords. Pastor Siegfried Nobiling of Friedenau gave the key-note address on the topic of “Church Leadership,” and pleaded for the creation of a new generation of theologians who would be fully committed to the values of “family, clan, race and nation.” Anyone who did not recognize these categories as God’s holy creation should not be admitted to the ordained clergy ranks. No “Jew or part-Jew” should be allowed to hold the honorable office of pastor or leader in the congregation. Pastor Karl Themel of the Luisenstadt Parish called for the “annihilation of the atheist movement.” All Christians should welcome the clean-up measures taken by the state. And he saw the “German Christian” parishes as “healthy cells in the sick body of the German people.”

These sentiments were to be long-lasting. Even though the “German Christian Movement” fell apart into separate rival factions after 1936-7 and disappeared almost without trace after 1945, yet the Berlin Churches in the post-war world, despite all the damage they had suffered, and the years they had been caught up in a Cold War situation, still now decades later have shown little willingness to come to terms with this Nazi legacy.

It was only very late, namely in the era when Wolfgang Huber was Bishop, that the process of re-examining the past begin. But even now, in most recent times, one frequently meets the sentiment in church circles: “Enough is enough!” So, for example, the now richly established Theological Faculty at the Humboldt University in the twenty years since the overthrow of the Communist regime has done almost nothing to deal with the record of the Berlin churches’ Nazi past, or with its own appalling theologies of that era. It is also notable that the Berlin Protestant Academy, one of the notable public affairs institutions, does not include any such topic as the performance of Berlin churches during the Nazi period in its 2013 programme. One would think that 80 years after 1933 would be a highly suitable time to take stock, and particularly to ask: how could the Christian churches have been so blind, or allowed such blatant Nazi propaganda to be proclaimed from their pulpits?

In 1933 the churches were often fuller than ever before. The services often became spectacular ceremonies. For example, on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday on 20 April, one local Nazi Party group and two SA formations marched to the Stephen Church in the Wedding district. Pastor Walter Aner preached on 1 John 5:4: “His is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” At the end of the service, many of the congregation were deeply stirred when prayers of remembrance were made for those who “following in the ranks of the Führer had died for the rebirth of our nation and people,” while in the background the organ quietly played Nazi “hymns.” In this parish no fewer than 17 of the Church Elders, all four pastors, and most of the church officials, the parish nurses and care-givers, all joined the “German Christian Movement.”

The question has to be asked: was this astonishing perversion shared by all Protestants in 1933? The answer is: not all, but very many. On 23 July, new elections were decreed for the representative church bodies which had been dissolved by command of the fanatical Nazi Commissar August Jäger. Only two lists of candidates were put up, one for the “German Christians” and one for the “Gospel and Church” party. This latter group was made up of the various rather weak and dubious opposition elements. In Berlin it was particularly notable that a large number of parishes (43%) adopted a unity list, whereby the “German Christians” were assured of between 75 and 100% of the available places. The result was that about half of the parishes were taken by storm by the “German Christians” without any struggle at all. In those 75 parishes where elections were held, the “German Christians” achieved on average two thirds of the votes. This electoral triumph was due to the fact that many of the pastors and church members clearly supported such a result, and because the opposing forces were appallingly weak.

At the beginning of September, as a result of these elections, a new Synod for the Prussian Church was convened, usually called the “brown synod” because of the dominance of Nazi Party members. Because of their two-thirds majority, the “German Christians” enacted their desired plan to exclude “non-Aryan Christians” from holding clerical offices.

It was only at this point that the church opposition which had been so lacking in foresight became alarmed. A few days later a core group led by Pastor Martin Niemöller, Gerhard Jacobi and Martin Albertz founded the Pastors Emergency League to mobilize support for those pastors who wanted to unite in opposition against the perverted plans of the “German Christians.”

A few months later, the “German Christians” planned to hold a giant rally in the Berlin Sports Palace. It was to include a mass march which would be both a demonstration of their strength and a victory parade. On the evening of 13 November, the Sports Palace was filled to the roof with over 20,000 participants. A large number of prominent “German Christian” pastors from all over Berlin took their places on the platform. The main speaker was Reinhold Krause, who called on the Church to undertake the “completion of the German Reformation in the Third Reich.” In this new “German Church” the same rules for life should apply as in the new state, namely “heroic piety” and “nationally-appropriate Christianity.” Most important of all was to get rid of all un-German aspects in the worship services, such as the use of the Old Testament with its “Jewish morality.” So too St Paul’s deplorable theology of scapegoats and inferiority complexes must be removed. What was needed was to preach a manly picture of Jesus which would be in line with the concepts of National Socialism. When he had finished the speaker received numerous rounds of applause from the thrilled audience. But at the same time this speech aroused considerable irritation among some of the “German Christians,” and even some resignations, which could only be of help to swell the ranks of the still incipient church opposition.

By the end of 1933 the “German Christians” had conquered a significant portion of the Berlin churches, but not all. Indeed there soon developed a fierce competition between the opposing factions which led to Berlin’s churches being caught in a deadly fight for supremacy. This “Church Struggle” was to continue to dominate the church scene for years. At first the Berlin “German Christian” pastors were in the majority, since more than 40% of the parish pastors belonged in this group (at least temporarily). A good 20% of all Berlin pastors joined the Nazi Party. It would have been more except that the Party refused to take any more applications from clergy in order to prevent denominational divisions within its ranks.

In those parishes where the “German Christians” held sway, new forms of liturgies soon appeared. First, the service began with a parade of Nazi flags entering the church, followed by the dedication of these flags on the altar, and the singing of the Nazis’ anthem, the Horst Wessel Song. In their sermons, these “German Christian” pastors painted a picture of the “heroic figure of Jesus” as a model for today’s Christians. Anything Jewish or seemingly Jewish had to be eliminated from the church or the worship services. Hence the words “Zion” or “Hosanna” were to be cut out and not again heard in German churches. Parish educational activities were expressly encouraged to organize indoctrination sessions at which these new ideas for a synthesis between National Socialism and Christianity could be propagated. Such special topics as “Luther and the Jews,” “The Struggle for the German Soul” or “Christianity and the Nordic Faith” were widely promoted. So too portraits of Hitler or other Nazi symbols were given prominent places in the church rooms, and the Hitler greeting was appended to all correspondence without fail.

If one looks at the total record of the Protestant Church in Berlin, or indeed for the whole of Germany, during the Nazi era, one has to paint a very dark picture. Of course there were a few bright spots. The Berlin parish of Dahlem where Martin Niemöller officiated was one of them; or one could mention the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was unable to find any parish in Berlin to serve; or there was the formidable Superintendent in Spandau, Martin Albertz, whose remarkably consistent Christian witness needs to be remembered; or the still largely unrecognized historian Elisabeth Schmitz who wrote a very courageous memorandum against the persecution of the Jews in 1935-6; and surely there were many other individuals of like mind.

The Nazi era left a legacy which will not go away, and which the Church today still has to reckon with. Even now, 80 years later, much remains to be done on this historical building project.