Article Note: New Contributions on Nazism and Christianity

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2014)

Article Note: New Contributions on Nazism and Christianity

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University College

Samuel Koehne, “Nazism and Religion: The Problem of ‘Positive Christianity,’” Australian Journal of Politics and History 60 No. 1 (2014): 28-42.

Samuel Koehne, “Nazi Germany as a Christian State: The ‘Protestant Experience’ of 1933 in Württemberg,” Central European History 46 No. 1 (March 2013): 97-123.

In this past year, Samuel Koehne has published two new articles, both of which are interesting contributions to the ongoing debate over the relationship between Nazism and Christianity. One looks at the question from the perspective of the National Socialist movement, probing the party’s use of the term “Positive Christianity”. The other examines the relationship from the perspective of conservative Christians in Württemberg, analyzing their early responses to Nazi rule.

In “Nazism and Religion: The Problem of ‘Positive Christianity’”, Koehne challenges Richard Steigmann-Gall’s interpretation of “Positive Christianity”—the term used in Point 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform. Koehne rejects Steigmann-Gall’s view, as presented in The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, that “Positive Christianity” was a kind of Nazi Christianity which was supra-confessional (uncoupled from any Protestant or Catholic dogmatism), antisemitic (rooted in the German racial community), and socially ethical. Noting that Steigmann-Gall never considered the pre-history of the term, Koehne argues convincingly that from the nineteenth-century on, “Positive Christianity” emerged in juxtaposition to liberal, rationalistic Christianity. Right into the Weimar era, the term was widely used to mean conservative, orthodox, doctrinal (i.e. dogmatic) Christianity. It had appeared in Meyers Konversationslexikon, then in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart as well as in Brockhaus, and was featured in church election campaign coverage in the Weimar period—even in the Völkischer Beobachter. Though Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller tried to redefine “Positive Christianity” on behalf of the German Christian Movement, Koehne points out (following the lead of James Zabel) that there were other meanings floating around, including “orthodoxy, neo-paganism, heroic faith, anti-intellectualism and moderation” (32). Indeed, this “lack of definition” may have been an important reason the term was adopted by Hitler for the NSDAP Platform.

Koehne finds a great deal of diversity in the use of “Positive Christianity” among National Socialists. Some meant it in its older sense of “not liberal,” while others linked it to cultic or neo-pagan movements. In Mein Kampf, Hitler himself emphasized the role of traditional dogma in turning religious or political belief into faith, and in generating both certainty and intolerance, which Hitler felt to be important for any movement, including his own. In short, it was as “doctrinal faith” that the Führer understood “Positive Christianity” (39). Nonetheless, it is precisely here that Koehne identifies:

the paradox of Hitler’s dogma. In his most public statement it is clear that Hitler defined Christianity as a religious system precisely in terms of dogmatic faith. It is equally clear that those leading Nazis who declared themselves to be Christian adhered not to a dogmatic form like that of the Catholic or Protestant orthodox position, but to a radical and “Aryanised” form of faith (40).

In his conclusion, Koehne argues convincingly that the Nazis were trying to have it “both ways”, a tension revealed in Gottfried Feder’s official commentary on the Nazi Party Platform. In it, Feder asserted that National Socialists supported: 1) “Complete freedom of conscience”, 2) “Special protection of the Christian creeds”, and 3) “Suppression and obstruction of doctrines which are contrary to the German moral sense and whose content is of a character destructive to the state and Volk” (40-41). Clearly, these were not mutually compatible.

Though Koehne has effectively demonstrated that “Positive Christianity” was not a coherent “religious system” (à la Steigmann-Gall), his findings don’t exactly clarify the relationship between Nazism and Christianity. Near the end of his article, Koehne argues that “Hitler’s own definition [of “Positive Christianity”] meant that the Nazis were decidedly “un-Christian” (40). That may be, but as Steigmann-Gall has demonstrated, many leading Nazis self-identified as Christians. By both affirming traditional doctrinal Christianity and reinterpreting it in light of National Socialist racial ideology, Hitler and his Nazi colleagues created a great deal of confusion, both then and now. As a result, whether Point 24 and its affirmation of “Positive Christianity” was merely a smokescreen for Nazi anti-Christianity or whether it represented a willingness to accept the Christian churches as subordinate partners in the remaking of Germany is still open to debate. Koehne rightly calls for more research into how ordinary Christians understood the “Positive Christianity” of Nazism, in order to better define the relationship between Nazism and Christianity.

In “Nazi Germany as a Christian State: The ‘Protestant Experience’ of 1933 in Württemberg” (the earlier of the two articles, in terms of publication dates), Koehne engages in just the kind of research he calls for. This article is a response to Manfred Gailus’ call for new micro-histories of Christianity in Nazi Germany, and especially of the upsurge in Christian nationalism during the Nazi seizure of power—what Gailus, studying Berlin, calls the “Protestant Experience” of 1933 (97). Koehne attempts to discover whether a similar phenomenon occurred in Württemberg, and he does so by analyzing parish newsletters and pastoral correspondence, particularly from conservative (Pietist) Protestants in the Pastors’ Prayer Group (Pfarrergebetsbund) headquartered in Korntal. His goals are to discover how they viewed the Nazi regime in 1933 and how they responded to Nazi antisemitism.

As in the article on “Positive Christianity”, Koehne begins with a historical review—this time, of the relationship between politics and religion during the pivotal years of German Unification (1870) and of the outbreak of the First World War (1914). What he finds is that the conservative Protestants like the Korntal Pietists tended to view political events in religious terms, so that, “as Hartmut Lehmann has noted, events such as the foundation of the German Reich, World War I, and the rise of the Nazis could be read as indicating divine will” (100). Germany was, according to this perspective, a Christian nation.

In light of this, conservative Protestants came to see the Weimar era as a time of spiritual crises and godlessness, the product of the collapse of the Christian state that was Imperial Germany. As his 1933 speeches make clear, Hitler leveraged this fear. He called for a fight against communism and a duty to reestablish national unity and revive the German spirit. He declared his support for the Catholic and Protestant churches, proclaiming that they would play a key role in the moral and national renewal of Germany. He even announced that National Socialists “would create a state in which there could be a really profound revival of religious life” (103).

The Korntal Pietists Koehne studied responded favourably to Hitler’s overtures. Koehne quotes Regional Bishop Wurm, in the Korntal Parish Newsletter, drawing a parallel between the German Wehrmacht and the Christian Church, both of which stood above the conflict of the parties, served the entire nation, and fought “for good against evil and for the well-being of the whole Volk” (105). Similarly, the Korntal Parish Newsletter editors welcomed Hitler’s ascension to power, giving thanks for a Führer as a leader not seen since Bismarck, and one who was saving Germany from Marxist terror. As they put it, “Hitler and his regime have proclaimed the Christian State” (106). For Koehne, this was a revival of the spirit of 1914, a combined national and religious revival in the wake of powerful political events. Here he reviews the excitement of conservative Württemberg Protestants from that time, who saw the outbreak of war as a “spiritual springtime” complete with large upswings in church attendance. He quotes Gailus’ argument that both 1914 and 1933 were seen as “God’s hour” and interpreted “as a reunion with God of a people who had strayed from the true faith, a change of direction toward re-Christianization” (107).

If conservative Württemberg Protestants were pleased with the national-spiritual revival of early 1933, they grew increasingly concerned throughout the course of 1933 over the increasing politicization of the German churches. Whether it was the attempt by Premier Wilhelm Frick to place the Mecklenburg church under state control, the appointment of August Jäger as commissar over the Old Prussian Union Church, or Hitler’s support for the German Christian Movement, the Korntal Pietists understood that the state was interfering regularly in the life of the churches. There was, quite simply, a significant inconsistency between Hitler’s assurances that the inner religious life of the churches would be protected and his advocacy of the German Christians, the group who sought to “bring the Protestant Church in line with National Socialism—taking extreme positions on religious questions in doing so” (109). If, as the Korntal Pietists believed, the churches were to act as “the conscience of the Volk,” then the essential question was not about the national revival, but about the spiritual one: Would the Volk “listen to the voice of the Word of God proclaimed by the church, which does not simply awaken the slumbering good in our Volk but also judges the evil” (111)?

In addition to his findings concerning the attitudes of conservative Protestants towards the new Nazi state, Koehne also probes his sources for evidence concerning Christian attitudes towards antisemitism. He finds almost no mention of antisemitic events like the April 1 boycott of Jewish shops, and beyond that, little opposition to the persecution of Jews or other victims of Nazism. Rather, the emphasis among Korntal Pietists was invariably on the role of the Nazi state in working toward national renewal, leaving the spiritual renewal to the churches. They believed Hitler’s state was creating the conditions for spiritual renewal in four ways: 1) by fighting immorality, 2) by promoting a Christian concept of community, 3) by publicly supporting the Christian churches, and 4) by sparking general enthusiasm in German society, a “spring storm” of sentiment (112). Writers in the Korntal Parish Newsletter called on the German Protestant Church to use this enthusiasm to create a national mission (Volksmission) and hoped Christians would enter into and take on leadership roles in the National Socialist movement. In reality, as Koehne notes, the proselytization went the other way, as Nazi values reshaped the Christian churches. He also describes how conservative Protestants viewed the neo-pagan German Faith Movement as a growing threat.

Koehne finds that, in contrast to the Korntal Parish Newsletter, the correspondence among members of the Pastors’ Prayer Group was more circumspect, a mixture of joy and concern. Yes, Hitler was a God-given saviour, but the German Christian Movement, the totalitarian claims of the state, and the growing prevalence of the “racial question” in the Church was disconcerting. Indeed, one member of the group wondered whether the “‘Aryan question’ … was possibly a satanic devise to prevent ‘a genuine awakening’” (115). In terms of antisemitism, Koehne found allusions to the persecution of Jews, but didn’t seem to uncover much material on the “Jewish Question.” In fact, he wonders whether antisemitic measures had any real impact on these pastors or their congregations and concludes that their “willingness to overlook antisemitic policy” or other “less pleasing” actions of the state (here he is quoting one of the pastors) “meant that they were actively passive, having made a choice to remain passive, to abide” (118).

Overall, the members of the Pastors’ Prayer Group exhibited a mixture of political joy but religious concern. While they saw Hitler as a “God-given Führer” for the nation, they lamented the absence of a “spiritual leader” for German Protestants (119). They worried about the extensive politicization of religion and the growth of a media culture which created a sensory overload and left no room for spiritual reflection. In terms of racial politics, their narrow focus on the national rebirth meant that they found National Socialist antisemitism tolerable. Again, they were “actively passive,” viewing their interests as limited to the ecclesiastical realm and deciding that the positive aspects of National Socialism overwhelmed the negative ones.

In his conclusion, Koehne quotes the Korntal Parish Newsletter’s description of the experience of 1933 like a national-spiritual wave, a return to the high point of 1914 after the low ebb of the Weimar era. Once again, Koehne has demonstrated the complexity of relations between Nazism and Christianity, particularly at the outset of the Third Reich. His conservative Protestants from Württemberg clearly welcomed the new Nazi state and saw themselves as participants in a spiritual revival that ran alongside Hitler’s national revival, as had been the case in earlier moments of national importance, such as 1870 or 1914. Their sense of partnership with the new regime enabled them to ignore the regime’s antisemitism, though the growing politicization of religious life concerned them. Still, in 1933, they expressed “belief in a national revival under the Nazis” and “belief that Nazi Germany was a state in support of religion” (120).