Why did some Christians support Hitler? And what informed the ones who opposed him?
One of my professors at Emory University once claimed when Adolf Hitler became the dictator of Germany and took the country down the path of fascism and national socialism he was giving conservative Christians – specifically Christian Protestants – just what they wanted. Of course, most of us in the room realized that this claim is a massive distortion of history, and a highly inflammatory one at that. But in fact, there is just enough of an element of truth behind the statement to enable someone with an anti-Christian agenda to believe it.
The reality is that the vast majority of German Protestants (4o million people, or two thirds of the nation’s population) were politically conservative and nationalist in their convictions. What that meant in that context was that they were not particularly interested in democracy but were instead looking for a great leader to bring Germany and the German people out of the ashes of the Great War (1914-1918). They loathed communism and tended to view Jews as alien members of society. They wanted to see Germany return to the military glory of the past.
Roman Catholics (20 million people, or one third of the German population) tended to be much more skeptical about the Nazis. The Catholic Church had been persecuted by Bismarck in the early years of the German Empire (the second Reich), and unlike the Lutherans and the Reformed it maintained allegiance to a power outside of Germany, the papacy. The Catholic Church also boasted a massive infrastructure of schools, youth organizations, journals, and political parties, all of which amounted to a state within a state, a serious threat to the all encompassing claims of National Socialism.
But what my professor’s comments failed to acknowledge was that the sort of Protestant Christianity that was susceptible to the Nazi temptation tended to be the more theologically liberal or nominal form. Indeed, even those Christians who loathed what was going on in the “German Christian” (ardently pro-Nazi) movement often avoided association with the Confessing Church (which explicitly rejected totalitarian Nazi claims) because the latter was to a large extent “formed by a piety that veered increasingly towards biblical fundamentalism,” or that required rigid allegiance to Scripture and to orthodox Christian doctrine (Richard J Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 226).
In other words, while virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.
To be sure, when push came to shove (or prison, or death) most Protestants supported the Nazi regime regardless of where they fell on the theological spectrum. And prominent liberal theologians like Paul Tillich were just as hostile to the Third Reich as were prominent conservative theologians and pastors like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And the tragic thing is that while the Catholic Church and the Confessing Church rigorously opposed Nazi claims to totalitarian power over their churches and other church-related organizations, neither said much at all in the way of denouncing Nazi policy towards Jews, or to the mentally-handicapped.
In fact, the religious group that the Nazis found more hostile to its goals than any other was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group alone – committed in its very essence to faithful witness to the point of suffering – seemed immune to the pressure of imprisonment or death.
What is worth noting in the context of contemporary debates about political theology is that the two kingdoms doctrine was used in conflicting ways, both to support allegiance to the Nazi regime and to oppose it. For those inclined to support the regime the two kingdoms doctrine taught that the realm of politics and the state is separate from the realm of the gospel, representing a source of authority and identity distinct from that of Christ and yet binding on the Christian’s allegiance.
For those who opposed the regime, on the other hand, the two kingdoms doctrine functioned in the context of a higher allegiance to the lordship of Christ over all of life. The Barmen Declaration, adopted in 1934 by the Confessing Church, declared, “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” It went on to declare that the church is not “permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus becoming an organ of the State.
What those Christians and churches who maintained this confession – and their opposition to the Nazi regime – seemed to recognize, in contrast to many of those Christians who supported Hitler, was that the allegiance of Christians and of the church to Christ is preeminent in every area of life, and that therefore the authority of Scripture must always be the ultimate judge in matters of justice, political ideology, or politics. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued so carefully, versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that divide life into distinct realms, one of which is outside the authority of Christ, are denials of the Christ in whom all things exist. To conceive of any action or authority apart from Christ is to conceive of an abstraction.
Christians who held to the two kingdoms doctrine but who lacked this Christocentric perspective had little with which to resist the claims of a state that masterfully channeled the spirit of the times. Given our contemporary debates, that something we need to take seriously.
Posted on October 10, 2012, in Confessions, fundamentalism, Roman Catholic Church, Two Kingdoms and tagged Barmen Declaration, Bismarck, Confessing Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Christians, Hitler, Karl Barth, Nazi, Paul Tillich. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.