Was There a Religious Revival in the “Third Reich”?

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 4 (December 2019)

Was There a Religious Revival in the “Third Reich”?

By Manfred Gailus, Technical University of Berlin; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

This article was originally published in Tagesspiegel, November 15, 2019, p. 22. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher. You can view the original German article with images here.

What did the Germans of the Hitler era believe? 1933 meant not only a political caesura, but also for many a religious experience, too: at last, a turning away from the Weimar Republic, which was seen as a “godless republic”; at last, the beginning of a promising reverse in time (Zeitenkehre) with more faith, religion, and “national community”. There were many signs of a religious revival: church withdrawals suddenly stopped; atheist parties and associations were immediately banned; National Socialist “German Christians” (DC) organized spectacular mass wedding ceremonies and baptisms. Religious confessions of faith, magazines, and books sprang up like mushrooms. One of the most striking manifestations on the way to the “Third Reich”—the “Day of Potsdam”—took place (with the blessing of the churches) in the Old Prussian Garrison Church. In short: faith, creed, and confession were introduced again. That this was accompanied by much debate between competing religious actors does not speak against this thesis, but rather for it.

Protestants comprised two-thirds of all Germans and were therefore of particular importance. Around 1933, the main event in the majority Christian confession was the attack of the völkisch DC on the bastions of the “old church.” This Protestant parallel movement to the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) pursued the project of a unification of the 28 regional churches into a centralized Reich church, led by a Reich bishop ruling according to a “leader principle” (Führerprinzip).

The subversive impulse shook the structures of the old church forcefully, even if the DC-Reich church project failed after almost two years. It was this heretical mass movement that aroused the internal church opposition, which constituted itself after a short delay as a Confessing Church (BK) in 1934. Among Protestants, the “Church Struggle,” as the conflict over direction was also called, was predominantly a “sibling rivalry” within their own house, centred around the reorientation of theology and worship. The dispute revealed a serious identity crisis that tore apart a Protestantism deeply influenced by National Socialism. DC and BK struggled for predominance and the power to define what would be the proper, fitting Protestant church in the “Third Reich”.

All in all, the German Protestantism of the Hitler period proved to be an extremely fractional entity, a polyphonic and dissonant choir without a conductor, which consumed much of its strength in this self-defeating internal struggle. As a religious actor, it possessed no representative, capable governing bodies and could not effectively use its great potential as the majority confession to tip the balance in the religious-political struggles of the epoch.

And the German Catholics? There was no Christian-völkisch mass movement like the DC in the strictly hierarchical world-wide Roman Church. The main event in German Catholicism in 1933 was not a Christian-völkisch movement inspired by the “brown zeitgeist,” but the Concordat, a treaty between the Hitler government and the Vatican for the regulation of Catholic church-state relations. “Church Struggle” here was primarily an ongoing guerrilla war with the politically and ideologically invasive Nazi state over compliance with the Concordat. This permanent defensive stance culminated in the encyclical “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Concern”) read out from all pulpits in 1937.

If one compares the political orientation of the clergy of both denominations, then a second marked difference appears: while an average of about 20 percent of Protestant pastors belonged to the NSDAP, the proportion of “brown priests” was less than one percent. Greater susceptibility to the “brown zeitgeist” in the majority denomination, but greater distance and more isolation in the Catholic milieu—with that, the essential differences are named.

However, there can be no talk of a cohesive bloc of “Christian resistance” or even just a resistance of the Catholics to National Socialism. Even for most German Catholics, their Christian faith was compatible with National Socialism, as the functioning Nazi rule in purely Catholic regions proves. It must have been predominantly Catholics who exercised Hitler’s rule in the administrative districts of Aachen or Trier, or in the dioceses of Upper Bavaria.

Beyond the great Christian denominations, the religious upheaval of 1933 was expressed in the project of völkisch groups that joined together to form the German Faith Movement. Their leaders hoped for recognition as a “third confession.” Their offer to the NSDAP to organize the religious of the “Third Reich” independently and outside the NSDAP received little recognition from the party leadership. Until 1935, the “German-Believers” (Deutschgläubige) were unable to significantly exceed the number of 30,000 members, after which their influence declined.

A distinction should be made between “German-Believer” (Deutschgläubige) and “God-Believer” (Gottgläubige): while the former established networks with their own groups, the “God-Believers”—as fanatical National Socialists—identified the NSDAP and SS as their new church. They understood themselves as “religious” outside the Christian confessions. SS leader Heydrich spoke of a confession to a “church-free German religiosity.” Their creed was the Nazi worldview, personified in the charismatic leader figure. It was mainly SS members, party officials, and officials who professed to be “God-Believers.” They represent the inbreaking of a “new faith” into the traditional religious landscape. In 1939, about 2.75 million people (3.5 percent of the population) adhered to this “Confession.” In Berlin, “God-Believers” reached 10 percent, in the university town of Jena just under 16 percent.

The Hitler movement, with its brown cults and liturgies, also had religious dimensions. Unlike the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) and the German Communist Party (KPD), the NSDAP was not an atheist party proclaiming a radical God-is-dead politics. Without their religiously inflated belief in “nation” (Volk), “race” (Rasse) and “leader” (Führer), the dynamics of the Nazi movement cannot be adequately explained. Concepts such as “political religion” have taken this into account in recent research.

After several years of successful consolidation as a regime, the religious policy of the rulers radicalized: the Nazi world view and the God-Belief or German-Belief inscribed in it should oust the “old faith” of the churches. Under slogans such as the “deconfessionalization of public life”, the regime restricted the scope of the Christian confessions, above all in schools and youth organizations. Nazi “life celebrations” for birth, marriage, and remembering the dead should replace the Christian rites of passage.

Nonetheless, there was no clear strategy in religious politics, but rather much back and forth, trial and error. The “religious question” was unresolved within the party. Based on the confessional membership of its members, the NSDAP was a “Christian party”: over two-thirds belonged to one of the two large Christian confessions. In the party leadership, the ideological rigorists (Himmler, Heydrich, Rosenberg) dominated with radical religious-political utopias in the sense of a “final solution of the religious question.” They promoted a religious break in mentality with culturally revolutionary consequences. Opposite them stood “Christian National Socialists” who considered a Germanized Christianity and National Socialism to be compatible. They were strongly represented in the middle and lower levels of the party and highly important for the cultivation of the loyalty of the very large proportion of the population that was Christian.

Under the constraints of the “Third Reich,” Jews and Judaism could not be players in the broad religious field. They were excluded from the outset, ostracized, expelled, demonized, and finally abandoned to destruction. Race and religion were not separable but rather functioned in complementary ways in the process of this modern-day collective exorcism. It was not an atheist party that set into motion persecution and extermination, but a sacrally highly-charged, religiously-variegated party, two-thirds of whose members belonged to a Christian church; a party whose extreme post-Christian faction did not boast of a modern “godlessness” but whose advocates professed “church-free German religiosity.” For the racist assignation of “German-blooded” (deutschblütig) or “Foreign-blooded” (fremdblütig), the persecutors found no hard anthropological-biological criteria. Rather, they seized on religious affiliation as a substitute. Finally, the Christian churches provided entries from their church records for the Proof of Aryan Ancestry (Ariernachweis) in the spirit of ecclesiastical assistance. The concept of “redemptive antisemitism” gets its meaning here and refers to the inherent religious content of that collective exorcism.

From 1933 on, faith, confession, and religion were heavily-debated topics, and they occupied most Germans during the Nazi era more than any time before or after in the twentieth century. In terms of the history of secularization, it’s a question of a reverse in time (Zeitenkehre) and a counter-time. However, this reversal trend did not happen as both large Christian confessions hoped, in the sense of a rechristianization. Although in one sense the political religion of National Socialism revitalized the religious enterprise, it also proved to be an existentially dangerous rival of the Christian confessions in the struggle for the souls of the Germans.