New Research on Nazism and Christianity: William Skiles

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

New Research on Nazism: William Skiles

By William Skiles, University of California, San Diego

William Skiles is a Ph.D Candidate in the History Department at the University of California, San Diego.  Here is a brief description of his dissertation research.  Mr. Skiles can be reached at

Historians of the Church Struggle in Nazi Germany have closely examined the establishment of the oppositional Confessing Church (die Bekennende Kirche) in 1934, as well as the institutional conflicts between factions and figures within the movement and also with the regime and its supporters.  Yet the approach of most historians has focused on the institution, its leaders, and its persecution by the Nazi regime, leaving essentially unexamined the most elemental task of the pastor – that is, preaching.  My research explores the Confessing Church through the sermons its pastors preached Sunday after Sunday, for holidays and weddings and funerals, and even in the dark corners of concentration camps.

I am concerned with finding answers to a few key questions.  First, do the sermons of the Confessing Church reveal expressions of condemnation or support for National Socialism or Adolf Hitler?  In other words, did the pastors enter into a public debate about the Nazi regime from their position of influence behind the pulpit?  Second, how do these sermons express views either in support or antagonistic towards Jews and Judaism?  How often do we see cases of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism preached, or conversely, how often do we see the Jews encouraged or esteemed as religious cousins in Nazi Germany?  And lastly, just how often do we see Confessing Church sermons offer dissent, opposition, or even resistance to the Nazi regime.  Given their unique role in Nazi Germany as professionals who had the opportunity to speak to the German population about Jews and their tradition, what did they say and how did they say it?  And in answering these questions, I aim to understand how these sermons may have contributed to the social and religious milieu of the Protestant Church and, in a wider scope, Nazi Germany.

Of course, one of the most difficult problems is determining what constitutes opposition or resistance.  I have examined over 900 sermons to find any expressions about Nazism or Hitler, and also about Jews and Judaism.  Categorizing comments about Adolf Hitler and National Socialism is much more straight-forward, as political comments in a sermons stand out as unusual and purposeful in a sermon.  For example, a pastor might condemn National Socialism as a false ideology or an ideology in direct opposition to Christianity; or a pastor would criticize Hitler as a false messiah or leader, or condemn other Nazi leaders for their persecution of the German churches.

On the other hand, analyzing comments about Jews and Judaism is more complicated.  Naturally, we expect Christian pastors to preach on the Old Testament, to tell the stories contained in this book.  Often the pastors’ presentations of these stories is without implication for the support or prejudice of Jews in Nazi Germany, they are simply re-iterations of old stories for a new audience.  Therefore, I pay particular attention to comments that reflect views of Jews and Judaism relevant to the current situation in Nazi Germany.  I did not catalogue more mundane examples of pastors discussing the traditions of the Jewish people, such as reiterations of the story of Jonah and the whale, for example.  Nevertheless, the fact that these Confessing Church pastors preached on the Old Testament and held up Hebrew and Jewish figures as heroes or moral and spiritual examples demonstrates not only their appreciation of the Old Testament as a sacred text, but differentiates them from the pro-Nazi Protestant German Christian movement (Glaubensbewegung “Deutsche Christen”).

This research is an original contribution to the historiography because for the first time we will have an in-depth analysis of a variety of messages delivered by Confessing Church pastors in their sermons to their communities of faith.  This will give us greater insight into the nature and the degree of dissent, opposition, and resistance in the everyday ministry of the church, and also provide some insight about public opinion expressed from the pulpit from week to week, whether explicitly or cryptically.  In addition, I am interested in how the Nazi regime perceived these sermons and dealt with pastors who were deemed too vocal – the Gestapo repots are superb documents in this regard.  Lastly, my research will advance our understanding of the social world of Germans in the Nazi dictatorship, particularly the values and priorities of their communities of faith, and how sermons may have informed political, social, and theological perspectives.  In the end, we may better be able to answer to what extent Confessing Church pastors spoke out for the Jews or against the Nazi regime, or as was too often the case, simply kept silent.