Article Note: Todd Weir, “The Christian Front against Godlessness: Anti-Secularism and the Demise of the Weimar Republic, 1928-1933”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 3 (September 2016)

Article Note: Todd Weir, “The Christian Front against Godlessness: Anti-Secularism and the Demise of the Weimar Republic, 1928-1933,” Past and Present 229 (Nov. 2015): 201-238.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

Though historians have long been attentive to the role of organized religion in the demise of the Weimar Republic, Todd Weir argues that they have failed to recognize the full significance of anti-secularism in the political developments that brought Hitler to power. In contrast, Weir sees a close relationship between campaigns against godlessness and the Nazi Party’s electoral breakthrough with conservative Protestant voters beginning in 1930.

To make his case, Weir employs M. Rainer Lepsius’ conceptual model of four “mutually hostile” social-cultural milieux (socialist, Catholic, liberal Protestant, and conservative Protestant) among which Germans had been divided since the late nineteenth century (207). The socialist milieu, represented by the Communist and Social Democratic parties in the Weimar era, was decidedly secular in comparison with the others, and its members were prominent in the German Freethought Association as well as the periodic church-leaving campaigns. From 1929 onward, the communists’ displays of anti-clericalism grew increasingly provocative as they tried to draw ardent secularists away from their more moderate social democratic rivals. Catholic and Protestant clergy and lay organizations—most often aligned with the Center Party and the German National People’s Party, respectively—responded to these threats with energetic campaigns against godlessness. Their domestic mobilization dovetailed with widespread concern over the persecution of Christians in Mexico and the USSR, leading many Christians in Germany to conclude that their “defensive campaigns against German secularists” were part of a larger “global battle with unbelief” (202).

A side effect of this escalating cultural conflict was that it further undermined the position of Heinrich Brüning of the Center Party, who was Chancellor of Germany from 1930 to 1932. Although Brüning suppressed communist freethought associations and banned a high-profile Jugendweihe (secular confirmation ceremony) that communists had planned for 2000 youth in Berlin, he was derided by conservative Catholics and Protestants for tolerating socialist freethinkers and the Center/Social Democratic coalition that governed the state of Prussia. Disappointment with the Center Party’s ‘tepid’ responses to secularism gave the National Socialists an opening to present their party as a more aggressive and effective champion in the struggle against godlessness. Their strategy seems to have been most effective among Protestants on the far right.

Weir’s article demonstrates a positive correlation—though not necessarily a causal relationship—between heightened concerns over godlessness and conservative Protestant support for the Nazis. Expressions of outrage over anti-clericalism and governments that appeared to tolerate it were certainly part of the toxic mix that undermined the Weimar Republic. However, Weir’s neglect of the liberal Protestant milieu and its role is puzzling. Members of this subculture also opposed godlessness, though many of them considered the ‘Catholicizing tendencies’ of conservative Protestants to be an equally grave threat to German culture. Consideration of this milieu would not necessarily negate Weir’s central argument, but it would provide a more nuanced representation of Christian responses to organized secularism at the end of the Weimar era.