Church history: The Protestant Church in Hitler’s Germany and the Barmen Declaration

On January 30, 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Less than two months later, Hitler was the nation’s dictator. Many German Christians at first openly welcomed Hitler’s Nazi party to power as a historic moment of Christ’s work on earth through and for the Aryan people. A leading Lutheran theologian wrote in 1934, “Our Protestant churches have welcomed the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God.”

A “faith party” of “German Christians” began to develop and grow in influence. In their first national convention in April 1933, in Berlin, the delegates stated their goal to reorganize the 27 Protestant regional churches in Germany into a single, national church under the leadership of a national bishop.

The “German Christians” published a number of programmatic papers during 1932-1933 that give us an insight into their hopes and goals. They wanted a church rooted in German nationhood based on an Aryan model. “We want a vital national Church that will express all the spiritual forces of our people,” stated one “German Christian” document from 1932.

On June 28, 1933, with Hitler’s authorization, Ludwig Müller, a fervent Nazi, took over chairmanship of the council of the Federation of the 27 regional Protestant churches. A new constitution established a single “Protestant Reich Church.” On September 27, 1933, Müller was elected national bishop by a synod dominated by “German Christians.”

Restrictions were immediately placed on the clergy. They had to be “politically reliable” and accept the superiority of the Aryan race. Pressure was exerted to expel Jewish Christians from ministry. The Nazi “Führer Principle” was to be adopted by the churches, which was a claim that Hitler was “lord” over the German church and that its Christ and Christianity were uniquely Aryan.

Confessing church and Barmen

Some German Protestant pastors, led by Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), stood in opposition to the “German Christians.” In September 1933, Niemöller sent a letter to all German pastors, inviting them to join a Pastors’ Emergency League. Niemöller asked the pastors to pledge themselves to be bound to Christ as Lord, teach the gospel message of the Scriptures and the historic Confessions of the Church. Aryanism, a doctrine of racial superiority, was to be rejected as an anti-Christian teaching.

In April 1934, the League created the Confessing Church. It included ministers and churchmen from Reformed, Lutheran and United Churches, as well as other church groups. The Confessing Church took its name from the fact that its members had pledged themselves to affirm the great historic Confessions of the Church.

The leaders of the Confessing Church met on May 29-31, 1934, at Barmen. Here they issued the historic Barmen Declaration, drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, with input from other Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches leaders.

The Declaration was written in direct opposition to the national church government — the “Faith Movement of the German Christians” — rather than against the Nazi regime itself. It challenged Christians who were attempting to bring the Protestant church into line with the nationalistic ideals and aspirations of Nazi rule. However, since the “German Christians” were a proxy for the Nazi state, the Declaration became also a condemnation of Hitler’s totalitarian rule.

The Barmen Declaration asserts that Christ alone is the one Word of God — the source of all authority and truth — whom we must hear, trust and obey. It rejects the notion that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God’s revelation. It stands on the principle that Christ cannot be co-opted by, used in the service of, or be remade in the image of religious or political ideologies created by fallen human beings and structures in opposition to God. Barmen confesses the reality that God’s grace for us cannot be reinterpreted or replaced by ideas and programs growing out of human creaturely self-interest and evil designs.

In these ways, Barmen speaks not only to the times and crisis of the church in Nazi Germany, but to Christians throughout the history of the church and in our time and place.

Author: Paul Kroll

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