Article Note: Friedrich Weber and Charlotte Methuen, “The Architecture of Faith under National Socialism: Lutheran Church Building(s) in Braunschweig, 1933-1945”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 2 (June 2015)

Article Note: Friedrich Weber and Charlotte Methuen, “The Architecture of Faith under National Socialism: Lutheran Church Building(s) in Braunschweig, 1933-1945,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 66 no. 2 (April 2015): 340-371.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In their article, the late Friedrich Weber, former university theologian and Lutheran Bishop of Braunschweig, and Charlotte Methuen, church historian at the University of Glasgow, consider the nature of church building in the Lutheran regional church of Braunschweig during the National Socialist era. This article had its genesis as a presentation by Weber at a Glasgow research seminar. This is reflected in the structure of the article, which begins with a brief explanation of Braunschweig church politics in 1933 followed by a general overview of the responses of the German Protestant churches to National Socialism. When Weber and Methuen turn to the discussion of church building in Hitler’s Germany, they begin not in Braunschweig but in Berlin, with a description of the Martin Luther Memorial Church, built between 1933 and 1935. In recent years, this church building, long neglected, has been studied by historians and preserved as a historic site.[1]

Weber and Methuen use the building and renovating of churches as a window into the relationship between the churches and the National Socialist state. They do this by asking questions about “the motivation for embarking on building projects, the mood in which they were received, and the architecture and decoration that resulted” (p. 341). Their understanding of the complex church-state relationship begins with a consideration of the events of 1933, which they see as “a re-Christianization of Germany and a rejection of the principles of the Weimar Republic” (p. 345). Drawing on the work of Manfred Gailus, they argue that distinctions between the Confessing Church and the German Christian Movement were not absolute, and that many clergy embraced the Confessing Church without abandoning their ties to the German Christian-led state churches. Conversely, many Nazis considered themselves Christians.

When it came to church building, Weber and Methuen note that while the construction of churches was in places forbidden by the Nazi regime—as in the cases of various National Socialist model estates and of the expansion of industrial centres like Salzgitter and Wolfsburg—in other cases, church building was celebrated as a public work which helped reduce unemployment. As Weber and Methuen delve into the history of German church architecture in the 1930s, they note that even members of the Confessing Church called for traditional Christian Germanic art rooted in “blood and soil, family and community” (p. 354). Indeed, the churches were allies in the National Socialist drive to expunge “degenerate” modern art, and the growth of “Christian imagery … was one aspect of the process of re-Christianization under National Socialism” (p. 355).

With this extended preliminary discussion complete, Weber and Methuen turn to the topic of Braunschweig church building under National Socialism. The six Lutheran churches built in Braunschweig between 1933 and 1940 share similarities of design and intent, celebrating the German Volk community and embracing simplicity and modesty. Weber and Methuen use excerpts from dedication ceremonies to emphasize that church building was portrayed as symbolic of the protection of Christianity in Nazi Germany (as opposed to the destruction of churches in godless, communist Spain and Russia), the blessing of God upon Germany, and the important contributions of Protestant Christianity to the Third Reich (p. 360-361).

If these simple new church buildings were supportive of the Nazi ideal of national community without embodying Nazi imagery, such was not the case with the reordering of the Braunschweig cathedral, which was transformed in a most radical way: worship services were suspended in 1936, the pews, altar, and pulpit were removed, and the cathedral was reimagined as a “national memorial” to the medieval German prince Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. In 1939, Hanns Kerrl, Reich Minister of Church Affairs, took the additional step of requisitioning the cathedral on behalf of the state. The memorial to Henry the Lion—in Nazi eyes, an early champion of German interests in Eastern Europe—was greatly enlarged, and Nazi symbols were introduced alongside depictions of Henry’s military campaigns in the East. Only a few remnants of the pre-existing Christian content of the cathedral remained after the “Braunschweig cathedral had undergone a process of almost complete de-Christianization, much more extreme that the co-existence of Christian and National Socialist imagery found in the Luther Church in Berlin-Mariendorf” (p. 367). Beyond the creation of a National Socialist shrine, though, Weber and Methuen argue that the stripping away of “superfluous” décor from the gothic era onwards was itself part of a Nazi attempt to cast off the degeneration of un-German influences and return the building to its original (“the healthy, the strong, the unspoilt”) Romanesque condition (p. 368).

Using these examples, Weber and Methuen show how church building in National Socialist Braunschweig demonstrated both the potential of church-state partnership under Hitler and the danger of Nazi ideological usurpation of church spaces. Yet “as a whole the building programme in Braunschweig testifies to the extent to which the aesthetic interests of the National Socialist regime were at one with those of the majority of German Protestants” (p. 371). These conclusions certainly mirror the outcomes of the construction of the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin-Mariendorf, a highly collaborative venture between the parish clergy, council, and congregation, along with higher church officials, the wider Mariendorf community, and the state. Like the church building in Braunschweig, its design, construction, and celebration exemplify the symbiosis and symbolic fusion of Christian faith and National Socialist politics.[2]


[1] Stefanie Endlich, Monika Geyler-von Bernus, and Beate Rossié, Christenkreuz und Hakenkreuz: Kirchenbau und sakrale Kunst im Nationalsozialismus (Berlin: Metropol-Verlag, 2008); Kyle Jantzen, “Church-Building in Hitler’s Germany: Berlin’s Martin-Luther-Gedächtniskirche as a Reflection of Church-State Relations,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 27, no. 2 (2014): 324–48.

[2] Jantzen, “Church-Building in Hitler’s Germany,” 348.