Conference Report: “Convinced by National Socialism? Political attitudes of religious groups and individuals in the Nazi and post-war period”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 30, Number 1 (Spring 2024)

Conference Report: “Convinced by National Socialism? Political attitudes of religious groups and individuals in the Nazi and post-war period,” Research Centre for Contemporary History in Hamburg (FZH); University of Münster; Schleswig-Holstein State Archives; Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, September 14-15, 2023, in Hamburg, Germany

By Marvin Becker, Research Institute for Contemporary History Hamburg; Helge-Fabien Hertz, Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute for German-Jewish History at the University of Duisburg-Essen; Lisa Klagges, Institute for Political and Communication Science, University of Greifswald

Translation by Lauren Faulkner Rossi, Simon Fraser University, with the assistance of DEEPL (text translation only)

What attitudes did representatives of the two mainstream Christian churches hold towards National Socialism? In sociology, social psychology, and pedagogical diagnostics, the latent construct of “attitudes” is surveyed through items and operationalized using indicators. This interdisciplinary conference in Hamburg focused on the question of how past political attitudes of people who can no longer be interviewed can be captured. Representatives from the fields of history, social science, political science, the sociology of religion, and church history explored this question on all three societal levels within their different methodological challenges: the micro level (individuals); the meso level (specific study groups); and the macro level (the German population).

In two keynote speeches, OLAF BLASCHKE (Münster) and PETER GRAEFF (Kiel) approached the question methodologically. Blaschke built on a previous conference, “Was glaubten die Deutschen 1933-1945?”,[1] on the hybrid or dual faith of Protestants and Catholics under the Nazi regime, and discussed various methods and sources for recording attitudes at the micro, meso and macro levels. Precise findings on the attitudes of religious groups and individuals towards National Socialism could be obtained based on positive and negative “attitude objects.” Graeff described the development and status quo of methods of attitude research in sociology. Attitudes can also be derived from historical biographical material using the tools of modern empirical social research.

In the conference’s first panel on the micro level (individual actors), NORA ANDREA SCHULZE (Munich) and MANFRED GAILUS (Berlin) showed how much attitude research is embedded in classical biographical studies. Schulze used the personal history of the former Bavarian state bishop Hans Meiser to illustrate the long-lasting impact of his monarchist-nationalist and authoritarian socialization under the Kaiserreich, but also his slowly evolving change of mind towards the Nazi regime, whose church policy he strongly rejected. She stressed oral history interviews in combination with a broad range of source studies as an effective means of ascertaining attitudes. In his lecture on the later EKD Council chairman Otto Dibelius, Gailus focused on Dibelius’s publicized attitudes towards National Socialism in the years 1932 to 1934. The rapid change from joyful expectation to fulfillment and then disappointment to partial rejection illustrated the temporal instability of attitudes, especially in the turbulent times of a system change. The third speaker, KLAUS GROSSE KRACHT (Hamburg), used the Catholic laymen Erich Klausener and Walter Dirks to discuss irritatingly positive statements on the new regime from 1933, which should be understood as an expression of a search for meaning [Suchbewegung] within the Catholic religious field, which changed rapidly during the negotiation and implementation of the Reich concordat (of 1933). In this time of upheaval, the two committed and decidedly anti-clerical laymen had longed for a convergence, i.e. a future rapprochement between the Catholic milieu and National Socialism. At the end of the panel, DETLEF POLLACK (Münster) and MARVIN BECKER (Hamburg) added an interdisciplinary accent. Using the example of national Protestantism, they explored the question of the extent to which the attitudes of individual actors can be used to draw conclusions about the collective convictions of their milieu. Pollack began by explaining his theory of “broken lines of continuity” in Protestantism after 1945, where previous nationalist attitudes had been shaken by the caesura of 1945. He substantiated this theory based on both the admission of guilt by church leaders and committees in the post-war period as well as interviews that he conducted with East German Protestant church leaders in the 1990s. Becker then discussed the extent to which the analysis of statements by German Protestants and Catholics on National Socialism in the post-war period could provide insight into Protestant thinking. He drew on the model of social networks as carrier groups of discourses (Sabrina Hoppe) and attempted to reconstruct the rules at that time of what could be said that regulated the verbalization of inner attitudes. Becker achieved this by comparing internal and external communications in German-Christian networks. This discourse regulation refers to the underlying collective convictions of the network and at the same time contributes to their change in a process of mutual influence.

The meso level then focused on specific research groups. LUCIA SCHERZBERG (Saarbrücken) shed light on the political position of the members of the “Working Group for Religious Peace” and its antecedent and successor organizations. She highlighted party books and files, self- representations, foreign expressions, and greetings as important sources for the formation of indicators; she also found more remote access to be productive in relation to role theory or the concept of the “national community (Volksgemeinschaft).” MARKUS RAASCH (Mainz) also focused on the Volksgemeinschaft in his presentation on the relationship of Eichstätt’s Catholic milieu to National Socialism. Using a mixture of top-down and bottom-up access allows for a differentiated examination of semantics, practices, and emotions, thus enabling the detection of political attitudes. With the “Nazi conviction score,” HELGE-FABIEN HERTZ (Essen) then provided a further interdisciplinary impulse. He presented thirty-six attitude indicators based on Schleswig-Holstein’s pastors during the Nazi era, as well as the method of their generation and validation. According to his argument, such indicators always increased the probability of the occurrence of approval or rejection of National Socialism, but without being able to denote it with certainty. Only on the basis of their processing in a measurement model, the core of which is the score, can the set of indicators be used to draw conclusions about the attitude of the person in question and, in this way, also analyze large groups of people.

At the macro level, the focus was on attitudes towards National Socialism within German society, which even during the Nazi period was shaped by Christianity. THOMAS BRECHENMACHER (Potsdam) provided insights into a research project that sought to capture public opinion in pre-demoscopic periods through a quantitative analysis of first names. Statistical clusters of first names such as Adolf (Hitler), Horst (Wessel) or Germanic first names, in combination with other indicators, certainly allowed conclusions to be drawn about the acceptance of National Socialism among the population, whereby one might ask whether the first-name indicator also applies to groups particularly close to the church, such as pastors. JANOSCH STEUWER (Halle) took up the argument that there was no collective opinion of the German population about National Socialism (Peter Longerich). Based on 140 diaries from the Nazi era, he pointed out that communication structures had led to the perception of collective approval, while at the same time a multitude of opinions remained hidden. To make visible divergent thoughts behind the binary concept of approval-disapproval, qualitative measurement methods should not be ignored. In a quantitative content analysis, JÜRGEN W. FALTER (Mainz) and LISA KLAGGES (Greifswald) provided a further interdisciplinary impulse by analyzing reports from NSDAP members regarding their motives for joining the party. The decision to join was generally the result of a complex interplay of various factors, of which one component was ideological attitude. By comparing statements made by these same individuals in their later denazification files, conclusions could also be drawn regarding the argumentation strategies used during the denazification process.

In the closing discussion, the potential of the concept of attitude for historiographical research held firm, because such a concept accentuates the need for sensitization to the question of the inner life of historical persons. This inner life cannot be equated simply with levels of behaviour directly accessible in sources. The basic prerequisite of historiographical research on attitudes is, on the one hand, a clarification of the category “attitude” in conceptual distinction to terms such as “mentality” and, on the other hand, stronger methodological and source-critical reflections on one’s own cognitive process.[2] The research approaches amassed from various disciplines at the conference will be presented in a conference volume as a — by no means exhaustive — “methodological toolbox” for historiographical research on attitudes vis-à-vis the Third Reich, which includes both quantitative approaches (indicator research) and hermeneutic approaches. It aims to provide pragmatic suggestions for the micro, meso and macro levels, from whose arsenal future research projects can draw on the political attitudes of religious groups and individuals under National Socialism, and which can also provide incentives for historical research.

Conference Overview

Moderators: Thomas Großbölting (Hamburg), Rainer Hering (Schleswig)

Keynote Speeches 

Olaf Blaschke (Münster): Introductory reflections on “attitudes” as a category of analysis for research on churches and National Socialism

Peter Graeff (Kiel): Attitude research in sociology

 Panel I: The Micro Level 

Nora Andrea Schulze (Munich): Politically neutral? Bishop Hans Meiser in the change of political systems

Manfred Gailus (Berlin): Otto Dibelius and the Third Reich

Klaus Große Kracht (Hamburg): Borders and convergences. Biographical approaches to the relationship between Catholicism and National Socialism

Interdisciplinary Impulse 

Detlef Pollack (Münster), Marvin Becker (Hamburg): From the particular to the general. On the changing attitudes of individual Protestants and the breakdown of national Protestant mentalities after 1945

Panel II: The Meso Level 

Lucia Scherzberg (Saarbrücken): The “Working Community for Religious Peace”, its predecessor and successor organizations

Markus Raasch (Mainz): Volksgemeinschaft und Katholischsein in Eichstätt. Theoretical and methodological considerations on a confessional history of everyday life under National Socialism

 Interdisciplinary Impulse

Helge-Fabien Hertz (Essen): The “Nazi conviction score”. Indicator-based measurement of political attitudes of Schleswig-Holstein pastors during the Nazi era

Panel III: The Macro Level 

Janosch Steuwer (Cologne): A phantom and how to grasp it. “Popular opinion” and the formation of political opinion under the Nazi dictatorship

Thomas Brechenmacher (Potsdam): First names as demoscopic indicator? A research project in retrospect

Interdisciplinary Impulse

Jürgen W. Falter (Mainz), Lisa Klagges (Greifswald): Motives for joining the NSDAP

Closing Discussion



[1] Conference report via H-Soz-uKult, “What did the Germans believe 1933-1945? A New Perspective on the Relationship Between Religion and Politics under National Socialism”, 15 February 2019.

[2] The original conference report authors noted in an email exchange with the translator that there has to be an accurate distinction between the term “attitude” and similar concepts such as “mentality” as characterized by Annales School, to avoid misunderstandings in future surveys.