Conference Report: “Nazi Germany, International Protestantism, and the German Churches”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 4 (December 2021)

Conference Report: “Nazi Germany, International Protestantism, and the German Churches,” German Studies Association Annual Conference, Indianapolis, IN and virtual, October 1, 2021.

By Blake McKinney, Texas Baptist College

After a yearlong delay, five scholars of German and religious history virtually convened a panel entitled, “Nazi Germany, International Protestantism, and the German Churches” at the German Studies Association Annual Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. This panel featured papers by Rebecca Carter-Chand (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), Kyle Jantzen (Ambrose University), and Blake McKinney (Texas Baptist College). Maria Mitchell (Franklin & Marshall College) cheerfully served as moderator and Stewart Anderson (Brigham Young University) provided helpful commentary that flowed into a collegial conversation among the panelists and attendees.

Religion in the Third Reich remains a dynamic field. Long gone are the simple characterizations of godless National Socialists persecuting the good Christians of Germany. Over the past fifty years, historians of religion in the National Socialist era have added to a complex understanding of the social, political, theological, and ethno-national facets of Christian experiences in Germany. This panel represents the growing influence of transnational analysis in the robust field of religion in the Third Reich, especially in relation to German Protestantism. German Protestants simultaneously viewed themselves as members of the church universal and as Christian Germans. The panel papers considered the complex roles of transnational confessional identification, internationalism and ecumenicism, the interconnectedness of foreign and domestic concerns within National Socialist Germany, and eschatological interpretations of geo-political developments. The panel presented a multi-faceted approach to transnational analysis of religion in the Third Reich, examined often overlooked Christian groups within Germany and North America, and showed points of connection between German domestic church politics and Christian international relations.

Rebecca Carter-Chand opened the presentations with her paper, “Navigating International Relationships in Nazi Germany: Anglo-American Religious Communities in 1930s Germany.” This paper comes from her work in the forthcoming volume co-edited with Kevin Spicer entitled Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars (McGill-Queen’s University Press, January 2022). In her paper, Carter-Chand offered a comparative examination of many small churches and religious communities in Germany with Anglo-American roots. She noted that relatively few of these groups were banned in the Nazi era, and she explored the challenges and opportunities presented to these groups by their marginal status in Germany and their international connections. She discussed how different groups approached the coordinating efforts of the early years of the Nazi regime, and how they negotiated their place in Germany. Furthermore, she explored different groups’ shifts in international relationships with their co-religionists in the pre-war years. Carter-Chand’s analysis of a broad collection of these groups (e.g., Adventists, Baptists, Quakers, Salvation Army, etc.) demonstrated “that many of these religious groups were not only allowed to continue operating in the Nazi period but also found their place in the Volksgemeinschaft and participated in various aspects of Nazi society.” Carter-Chand concluded that for many of these groups, “national, international, and religious identities were not mutually exclusive.”

Kyle Jantzen followed with his paper, “From Aryan Messiah to Jacob’s Trouble: Nazis and Jews in Fundamentalist Christian Eschatology.” This paper comes from Jantzen’s current book project considering the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s eschatological interpretations of National Socialist antisemitic policies. His paper drew on a rich (and previously untapped) source base. He analyzed the complex of attitudes, theologies, and convictions that shaped North American fundamentalist Christian perspective on Hitler, Nazism, Jewish persecution, and the Holocaust. Jantzen offered a helpful overview of premillennial dispensational eschatology, which he argued provided the key to understanding Christian and Missionary Alliance interpretations of National Socialism and its treatment of Jews. He contrasted the critiques of National Socialism by North American liberal Protestants based on humanitarian concerns and critiques by fundamentalist Protestants (represented by the Christian and Missionary Alliance) who interpreted Nazism eschatologically. Jantzen argued that the dispensationalist eschatology of Christian and Missionary Alliance writers served as a “social imaginary” both guiding and limiting interpretations of—and responses to—National Socialist actions against Jews. Jantzen concluded by arguing for the contextualization of Christian responses to Nazism and the Holocaust, stating that these responses must not be seen “as isolated sentiments but as facets of wider sets of beliefs and practices about Christians, Jews, world events, and eschatology.”

Blake McKinney finished the paper presentations with his, “Are There Free Churches in Germany? International Responses to German Protestantism and the Universal Council of Life and Work – Oxford 1937.” This paper originated from the final chapter of his dissertation, which examines the impact of international Protestantism on German Protestant church politics from 1933-1937. His paper concentrated on the Life and Work World Conference on Church, Community, and State held in Oxford July 1937 as a focal point of the intersection of German Protestant interactions with the Nazi state and world Protestantism. In the weeks immediately preceding the Oxford Conference, many Confessing Church leaders had their passports revoked or suffered arrest. The lone German representatives at the largest ecumenical gathering since 1925 were leaders of German Baptist, Methodist, and Old Catholic churches. McKinney argued that the events of the summer of 1937 demonstrated the completion of a transformation in the Nazi state’s policies towards German Protestant engagement with international ecumenicism. Whereas, in 1933-34 the Nazi state sought positive propaganda to international Protestant audiences, “by the summer of 1937 opposition to international Protestant interventions in German church politics paid richer dividends for German Protestants than ecumenical cooperation.”

Stewart Anderson provided commentary on the three papers and posed questions that invited the panelists to converse on the use of “Protestantism” to describe these varied movements, the transatlantic flow of information and news regarding German church events, and the relevance of these studies to historical scholarship beyond “Church History.” Anderson commended the panelists for exploring how various Protestant groups “in multiple geographic and cultural contexts had to come to terms with the implications of National Socialism’s triumph.” A fruitful discussion followed with expressions of eager anticipation for the publication of new works examining international aspects of the history of Christianity in Nazi Germany.