Hitler and the Churches - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 19. Hitler and the Churches

“The war will run its course, and then I will see it as my life’s work to sort out the problem with the Churches,” Hitler said over lunch at his main headquarters in mid-December 1941, by which point it was clear that Germany would not achieve a Blitzkrieg victory against the Soviet Union. “Only then will the German nation be safe. I do not care in the slightest about articles of faith, but I’m not having clerics sticking their noses in worldly affairs. This organised lie has to be broken in such a way that the state becomes the absolute master.” He added: “When I was young, my view was: use dynamite! Today I see that you can’t rush things. It has to rot away like a gangrenous limb. We need to get to the point where only idiots stand behind the pulpit and only old women sit in front of it, and the healthy youths are with us.”1

These statements were anything but exceptional. On the contrary, they expressed Hitler’s deep-seated enmity towards Christianity. The Christian Churches were the only institutions in the “Führer state” that escaped National Socialism’s claims on total ideological power. Hitler wanted to subjugate the Churches to his will, reducing them to a shadow of themselves, but he postponed the attack until after the war had been successfully concluded. “In the long term, National Socialism and the Churches won’t be able to coexist,” he proclaimed in another of his monologues.2

At the same time, however, Hitler realised that he could not achieve this goal by using brute force. A certain tactical flexibility was needed, since the Christian Churches remained influential in German society. “It makes no sense to artificially create further difficulties,” he admitted. “The cleverer we act, the better.”3 The dictator wanted to avoid an all-out war on the Christian faith and Christian culture at all costs. He remembered all too well Bismarck’s failed “cultural struggle”—the Kulturkampf—against the Catholic Church, and he thought that the time was wrong, at least in 1941, to engage in a battle against the Churches. “The best thing is to let Christianity gradually fade out,” he said in October of that year. “A long phase-out has something conciliatory. The dogma of Christianity will collapse in the face of science.”4

The same ambivalence had characterised Hitler’s behaviour prior to 1933. On the one hand, he staged National Socialism as a secular religion, presenting himself as a messianic leader sent by the Almighty to deliver the German people from all evil. His own sanctification went hand in hand with the stylisation of his followers into “disciples,” who unconditionally submitted to the Führer and who were willing, if necessary, to lay down their lives for him. Hitler constantly invoked the idea that faith could move mountains, and he rarely missed an opportunity to inject Christian phrases and notions, in pseudo-liturgical fashion, into his speeches.5 Particularly in his Christmas addresses, he liked to cite Jesus as a model for himself and his followers. Just as the Christian saviour, whip in hand, had driven the usurers from the temple, Hitler promised, he would expel “international Jewish finance capital” from Germany.6

On the other hand, however, Hitler saw his movement as religiously neutral and equally far removed from both of the main Christian faiths. Article 24 of the party programme stipulated: “The party as such represents the standpoint of positive Christianity without declaring its allegiance to any particular confession.”7 Political parties had nothing to do with religious problems, Hitler had written in Mein Kampf, while conversely religions should not meddle in “political party nonsense.” He added: “The mission of the movement is not that of a religious reformation, but rather the political reorganisation of our people.” Hitler was enough of a realist to see that he could never come to power without support from Christian voters. Extending a hand to them in Mein Kampf, he described the “two religious confessions as equally valuable pillars for the continued existence of our people.”8

For that reason, when the party was reconstituted in 1925, Hitler vehemently resisted all attempts to pursue religious quarrels. Attacks on Christian communities and institutions were expressly prohibited. In 1928, the Gauleiter of Thuringia, Arthur Dinter, who violated this prohibition by promoting the formation of a new ethnic-popular religion, was fired from his post and kicked out of the NSDAP.9 In 1930, Alfred Rosenberg was forced to publicly identify his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century—a synthesis of neopagan beliefs circulating among the Far Right—as “a personal confession” that had nothing to do with the party.10 Even as late as 1942 in his military headquarters, Hitler distanced himself from Rosenberg’s work, which he claimed to have only read “bits of.”11

After coming to power as chancellor, Hitler initially posed as a Christian statesman who wanted nothing more than to cooperate with Germany’s two main Churches in carrying out the country’s “national rebirth.” “At no point during his rule did Hitler invoke God as often and passionately as during the first eight weeks,” the historian Klaus Scholder has correctly asserted. “Never again did he give himself over to Christian figures of speech or appropriate Christian sites and attributes as greatly as in this period.”12 In his very first official declaration on 1 February 1933, he promised that Christianity “as the basis of our entire morality” would enjoy the “committed protection” of his nationalist government.13 In his speech on the Enabling Act on 23 March, he took a further step towards the Churches. The new government, Hitler assured them, “considered the two Christian confessions as factors of paramount importance for preserving our identity as a people” and would leave their traditional rights untouched.14 This declaration was directed primarily at the Catholic Centre Party, whose support he needed to get the necessary two-thirds majority for the Enabling Act in the Reichstag.

Prior to 1933, German Catholics had been relatively resistant to Hitler’s lures. Beginning in September 1930, Catholic bishops had constantly warned against the teachings of National Socialism in their pastoral letters, and even as late as August 1932, with Hitler on the threshold of power, the German Bishops’ Conference in Fulda reiterated their rejection of Nazi ideology and declared that Catholics were “not allowed” to be members of the NSDAP.15 The Reichstag election of 5 March 1933 confirmed the solidity of political Catholicism, as the Centre Party and its Bavarian sister party, the BVP, only suffered small losses. Hitler considered prising apart Catholic resistance one of the most urgent tasks of the early phase of his rule.16 He achieved an initial success on 28 March, when the Catholic bishops responded to his seemingly conciliatory attitude with an equally conciliatory declaration. “Without revoking our earlier rejection of certain religious and ethical errors,” it read, “the episcopate believes it can conclude that the general prohibitions and warnings are no longer needed.” This was followed by an appeal to “loyalty towards legitimate authority and a conscientious fulfilment of civic duty.”17 With that, the ban on Catholics being National Socialists was lifted. Among pious Catholics too, enthusiasm for Hitler and his “national uprising” grew. “The cassock-wearers are very small and crawl before us,” Goebbels boasted.18

Hitler, who grew up in a Catholic environment and never officially left the Catholic Church, maintained a lifelong respect for the power of the institution and its thousands of years of tradition. He coveted an agreement with the Vatican along the lines of the Lateran Accords Mussolini had concluded in 1929. Such an agreement was a way of reaching a modus vivendi with Catholic clergymen, and it was also a method of undermining political Catholicism. The traditional constituencies of the Centre Party and the BVP, Hitler told his cabinet on 7 March 1933, could only be conquered “when the Curia abandons the two parties.”19 It only took a few months for the negotiations that Franz von Papen, at Hitler’s request, began conducting on 10 April with Cardinal State Secretary Eugenio Pacelli, the former papal nuncio in Germany, to yield concrete results. A treaty between the National Socialist government and the Holy See was drawn up on 8 July, the signing ceremony took place on 20 July, and the concordat took effect on 10 September.20 It prohibited Catholic clergymen from engaging in any kind of political activity, which essentially meant that the Catholic Church was abandoning the Centre Party and the BVP. The two parties subsequently decided to dissolve. In return, the Nazi regime agreed to guarantee Catholics’ freedom to practise their religion, to protect Catholic lay organisations and to allow Catholic schools and religious instruction.

The conclusion of Nazi Germany’s first international treaty gave the regime legitimacy and represented a personal triumph for Hitler. The fact that agreement with the Curia had been reached so much more quickly than even he himself had thought possible on 30 January, Hitler told his cabinet on 14 July 1933, was “such an indescribable success that all critical objections must be withdrawn in the face of it.” Hitler also saw the agreement as “creating a chance and a sphere of trust that will be particularly significant in the more important fight against international Jewry.”21 Letters of gratitude from Catholic clergymen poured into the Chancellery. Munich’s Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, for instance, was fulsome in his praise of Hitler. “What the old parliaments and parties failed to achieve in sixty years, your statesman’s foresight has turned into reality, to the benefit of world history, in six months,” the cardinal wrote on 24 July. “For Germany’s reputation in East and West and before the entire world, this handshake with the Pope, the greatest moral authority in world history, is a gigantic achievement and an immeasurable blessing.” Nonetheless, Faulhaber did not neglect to insist “that the articles of the concordat must go beyond just words on paper” and that subordinated religious authorities not be relegated “too much in the shadow of the statesmanlike greatness of the Führer.”22

The bishops were to be sorely disappointed on precisely this score. The concordat had barely been signed when violations of its spirit and letter started occurring. In many places in Germany, party functionaries and police began targeting Catholic associations. There were bans and attempts to intimidate the Catholic press. Catholic civil servants were fired, and Catholic youth organisations were disbanded and their assets confiscated. Complaints and protests were slow to materialise. Neither Cardinal Pacelli nor the German episcopate wanted to endanger the agreement reached with the Nazi regime.23Nonetheless, Cardinal Faulhaber did voice disappointment in his sermons between the first Advent weekend and New Year’s Eve. He rejected the Nazis’ contempt for the Old Testament and distanced himself from their racist beliefs. “We should never forget that we were not saved by German blood,” he preached. “We were saved thanks to the precious blood of our crucified Lord.”24 Such sentiments did not go unnoticed among the Nazi leadership. “The preachers are trying to stir people up against us!” Goebbels noted in late December 1933. “Beware!”25

Catholic dignitaries were put on high alert in late January 1934, when Hitler charged Rosenberg with “monitoring all aspects of ideological training and education by the party and Nazified associations.” The author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century was considered the embodiment of all the NSDAP’s anti-clerical tendencies. In February, the Vatican blacklisted that book, and in the pastoral letters of Easter 1934 the faithful were urged to fight against the “new paganism.”26 Yet the debate about Rosenberg’s anti-Christian theses had an unwelcome side effect for the Catholic clergy. Interest in the book rose, and it became the second-biggest bestseller in the Third Reich after Mein Kampf. “Rosenberg’s ‘Myth’ is doing brisk business,” complained Goebbels, who deeply hated the editor in chief of the Völkischer Beobachter. “The Churches are creating propaganda for it.”27

Among the casualties of the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934 were two prominent Catholics: Erich Klausener, the director of Catholic Action, one of the most important Catholic lay organisations, and Fritz Gerlich, the publisher of the Catholic weekly Der gerade Weg (The Straight and Narrow). In July 1932, the latter had subjected Hitler’s movement to a scathing analysis in an article under the headline “National Socialism is a Plague.” Gerlich had written:

National Socialism…means hostility towards our foreign neighbours, a reign of terror domestically, civil war and wars between peoples. National Socialism means lies, hatred, fratricide and boundless misery. Adolf Hitler is preaching the legitimacy of lying. It is time for those of you who have fallen for the swindle of this power-mad individual to wake up!28

Hitler’s thugs took brutal revenge for these courageous words, and the Catholic bishops held their tongues. In fact, along with Protestant leaders and a large section of the public, they were relieved that Hitler had seemingly reined in the radicals in the SA.29

Hitler’s dealings with the Protestant Church seem to have been relatively easy right from the start. Prior to 1933, the NSDAP had been most popular and celebrated their biggest electoral triumphs in the Protestant sections of Germany. The receptivity of nationalist Protestants to Hitler’s ethnic-popular agenda was particularly evident in the “Faith Movement of German Christians.” In June 1932, this organisation publicly demanded that the structure of the Church “be adapted to the natural conditions ordained by God and…still recognisable today…in ethnic identity and race.” The German Christians added: “On the basis of this insight, we call for a battle to create a truly German Church. Only genuine German Christians belong to its community. Every German by blood belongs to it…but baptised Jews do not.” In the spirit of “positive Christianity,” the German Christians proclaimed their belief in “an affirmative, racially appropriate faith in Christ that accords with the German spirit of Luther and his heroic piety.”30 In Church elections in Prussia in November 1932, these “brown Christians,” who occasionally referred to themselves as “Jesus Christ’s SA,” won a third of all seats. In some regions of East Prussia and Pomerania they took almost 50 per cent of the vote.31

Thus it comes as no great surprise that the vast majority of Protestant leaders welcomed the political caesura of early 1933. In his Easter missive, the senior diocesan administrator in Prussia proclaimed himself in agreement with all his Protestant brethren in his “joy at the uprising of the most profound strengths of our nation to patriotic awareness, true ethnic community and religious renewal.”32 Few within the Protestant camp refused to be blinded in this fashion. One of them was the historian Friedrich Thimme, who in a letter from mid-February 1933 demonstrated rare prescience about the true nature of Hitler and his henchmen: “To my mind, everyone who believes in their grand promises and indeed their Christian beliefs is a fool. You should recognise them by the fruit of their deeds, and those fruits are murder, manslaughter, violence of every sort and ruthless careerism.” In the same breath, Thimme branded the attitude of the Protestant Church “towards this organised hatred, murder and forced expulsion” as “simply shameful.”33 “How can God’s blessing be upon a movement that is a slap in the face to the simplest and clearest tenets of Christianity?” he asked in May 1933. “The Church has an absolute duty to repeatedly raise a voice of caution and warning about all the injustice coming down from above.”34 And in November 1934, Thimme wrote to the British historian George Peabody Gooch: “I cannot approve in any way of raising the purported Aryan race to the status of an idol and driving Jews, among whom I have many highly intelligent friends, from all positions of authority, making life in Germany almost impossible for them.”35 But Thimme’s voice was an exception to the rule among Protestants. Typical was the general superintendent of Kurmark, Otto Dibelius, who wrote in a church newsletter about the anti-Jewish boycott of 1 April 1933 that the Reich government “had admitted that in the stormy first days of the great transformation there has also been transgression. Things like this can and will happen in such times.”36

Hitler wanted to amalgamate the twenty-eight regional Protestant Churches into a single Reich Church that could serve as a counterweight to the Catholic Church. For this aim, he could count on the support of the German Christians. On 25 April 1933, he appointed the sycophantic Königsberg military chaplain Ludwig Müller as his “representative on matters concerning the Protestant Church” and charged him with finishing plans for the Reich Church as soon as possible.37 On 11 July, the new Church constitution was signed by the chosen representatives of the regional Protestant Churches, and on 14 July, it was approved by Hitler’s cabinet. It proclaimed the amalgamation of all regional Churches into a “unified German Protestant Church” headed by a Reich bishop to be named by a national synod. New elections for the Church bodies were scheduled for 23 July.38

The German Christians enjoyed massive help from the regime in the run-up to this election. On the eve of the vote, in an address from Bayreuth broadcast on all German radio stations, Hitler came out in clear support of the religious movement. Under these circumstances it is hardly astonishing that the Protestant Church elections were a huge triumph for the German Christians, who ended up winning around 70 per cent of the vote.39 Müller’s election as Reich bishop at the first national synod in Luther’s home city of Wittenberg on 27 September was a mere formality: he had achieved all his goals. As his post-war biographer has noted: “As Prussian state bishop and German Reich bishop, he was undoubtedly the most important figure in the Church hierarchy of German Protestantism.”40

But before the synod could meet, resistance began to form. The impetus was provided by the Berlin pastor Martin Niemöller, a former U-boat commander and Freikorps paramilitary, who initially had high hopes for Hitler and the new regime but quickly grew disenchanted. On 21 September 1933, he sent a letter to pastors throughout Germany, calling on them to join together to form a “Pastors’ Emergency League.” The basic principles articulated in the letter included the duty to “perform one’s pastoral duties solely according to the Holy Scripture and the creeds of the Reformation as the correct interpretation of Scripture.” It also clearly rejected the “application of the Aryan paragraphs within the Church of Jesus Christ.” By the end of the year, 6,000 pastors had pledged their support. For that reason, the historian James Bentley has rightly argued that Niemöller laid the cornerstone for Church opposition to Hitler.41 The Pastors’ Emergency League gained valuable momentum after a mass event held by the German Christians in Berlin’s Sportpalast on 13 November turned into a “fiasco beyond compare.”42 To the frenetic applause of an audience of 20,000, the evening’s main speaker, Berlin Gau church administrator Reinhold Krause, demanded nothing less than “the completion of Martin Luther’s ethnic-popular mission with a second German reformation.” This “new ethnic Church” would create space for the entire breadth of ‘racially appropriate spiritual life.” The first step was the “liberation of Church services and confessional matter from everything un-Germanic,” including the Old Testament with its “Jewish profit morality” and its “stories of livestock traders and pimps.” Having picked up a head of steam, Krause went on to insist that the New Testament be cleansed of “all obviously distorted and superstitious anecdotes” and that the faithful reject “the whole scapegoat and inferiority theology of the rabbi Paul.”43 Such ideas barely differed from Rosenberg’s notion of a racial religion, and there was immediate resistance not only from the circles associated with the Emergency League but from moderate German Christians as well. Reich Bishop Müller was forced to remove Krause from his Church office and suspend the implementation of the Aryan paragraph.44

Hitler was extremely irritated at the conflicts following the Sportpalast event, interpreting Müller’s response as a sign of weakness. At a reception on 29 November, the Führer informed Müller that he did not intend to intervene in the Church quarrel: the Reich bishop would have to solve his difficulties on his own.45 It was the first step towards Hitler distancing himself from his former protégé, whom he saw as increasingly ill-suited for achieving the ultimate aim of a unified Protestant Church strictly loyal to the regime. Hitler left no doubt as to where his true sympathies lay at lunch in the Chancellery in early December 1933, where according to Goebbels he “really laid into” the Churches. He said he “now saw through the pasty-faced preachers and Reich Bishop Müller. The most upstanding of the lot is Krause, who at least does not conceal his disgust at the Jewish swindle that is the Old Testament.”46

Müller used draconian methods to defend himself against his critics. In early January 1934, he proclaimed an “Ordinance Concerning the Restoration of Orderly Relations in the German Protestant Church,” which prohibited any mention of conflicts and announcements on political matters pertaining to the Church during religious services. This gagging order was the least-effective means imaginable of silencing dissenting clergymen. Instead, it provoked further passionate protest. The Reich bishop, his detractors claimed, was threatening to bring down violence upon everyone “who for the sake of their conscience and their congregations was unable to keep silent about what the Church is going through at present.”47

Contrary to his previously stated intention to stay out of the internal conflict within the Protestant Church, Hitler now declared himself willing to mediate between the German Christians and their opponents. He received both sides in the Chancellery on the afternoon of 25 January 1934, but the meeting was anything but what the leaders of the Church opposition, which included the bishops Theophil Wurm, August Marahrens and Hans Meiser, had anticipated. Right from the start and to everyone’s surprise, Hitler turned the floor over to Göring, who read out the transcript of a telephone call made by Martin Niemöller that morning, which had been listened in on by the Gestapo. During the call, the Berlin clergyman had made a number of disparaging remarks about a conversation between Hitler and Hindenburg ahead of the meeting of Church leaders. Instead of protesting against such police-state surveillance, the dissenting bishops were utterly cowed. Years later, in his monologues in his military headquarters, Hitler still recalled with glee how the delegates of the Protestant Church had been so terrified by the reading out of the transcript that they “shrunk in terror” until they were barely visible.48

Niemöller kept his cool, however. He confirmed that these had been his words but sought to explain to Hitler that the Pastors’ Emergency League’s struggle was directed not against the Third Reich but rather for its welfare. Visibly irritated, the dictator shot back: “Leave concerns about the Third Reich to me, and focus your concerns on the Church.” In the end, the Church leaders had to swear to Hitler that they would work together with Bishop Müller in the future. In a declaration at the end of the meeting, they reaffirmed their “unconditional loyalty to the Third Reich and its Führer” and their severest condemnation of “all critical machinations directed against the state, the people and the movement.”49 Müller’s position was shored up in the short term, while the Church leaders’ self-abasing declaration weakened the Emergency League. But Hitler never forgot that Niemöller alone dared stand up to him, and the pastor became the object of hateful persecution by the Führer and his henchmen. In a discussion with Himmler and Goebbels in late April, Hitler ordered them to take up battle against the Pastors’ Emergency League. “It’s going to be a witch-hunt,” Goebbels noted. “Poor pastoral scum. We’ll behave like Christians.”50

But even a repressive crackdown could not restore calm within the Protestant Church. Müller’s attempt to employ dictatorial means to Nazify the regional Churches called forth resistance and attracted sympathy to the intra-Church opposition.51 In late May 1934, 139 delegates met for the first “Confessional Synod of the German Protestant Church” in Wuppertal-Barmen. They agreed on a declaration, largely composed by the theologian Karl Barth, whose famous first thesis staked out the greatest imaginable distance from the German Christians: “We reject the false teaching that the Church can and must acknowledge, beyond the word of God, other events and powers, figures and truths as God’s revelation.” The Barmen Declaration of 31 May, as the historian Klaus Scholder has remarked, was without doubt the most significant event in what became known as the “Church Struggle”: “Thanks to its plain language, its biblical reasoning and its unambiguous character as a confession of faith, it did not just reach theologians and pastors, but had a profound effect within congregations. It remained the cantus firmus of the Confessional Church even when its voice was almost drowned out.”52 The first Confessing Synod was followed by a second one in Niemöller’s home district of Berlin-Dahlem in October 1934. It appointed a governing council to direct the activities of the Confessing Church and called upon “Christian congregations, pastors and Church councils” throughout Germany “to refuse to take any further instructions from the leadership of the Reich Church or any of its organs.”53

By the autumn of 1934 it was obvious that Müller had not succeeded in ending the disagreements. In late October, Hitler surprisingly refused to meet him and forgave the southern German bishops Wurm and Meiser, who had been disciplined by the Reich bishop, summoning them to Berlin together with Marahrens, the bishop of Hanover. In a two-hour conversation on 30 October, he told them that he no longer had any interest in Church affairs—an unmistakable signal that Müller had fallen from grace.54 But the three bishops were disappointed by the fact that Hitler did not, as they had expected, make it explicit that the Reich bishop’s time was up. Even though Hitler disparaged Müller privately, saying that “he was neither a tactician nor a man of principles and was soft inside and hard externally, rather than vice versa,”55 the dictator was not prepared to abandon him entirely. For his part, despite his obvious loss of influence, Müller refused to resign. Henceforth his popular nickname “Reibi” (for Reich bishop) became “Bleibi”—he who insists on staying.56

The Nazi regime’s battle against the Churches caused great unease among Protestants and Catholics alike, but for most religious people it did not result in silent inner rejection of the regime—let alone open political opposition. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that people blamed the regime’s anti-clerical policies and harassment on ideological agitators like Alfred Rosenberg. Hitler’s personal popularity remained unaffected. Here, too, he was a master of disguise, presenting himself as a person and a politician who maintained firm religious beliefs and was committed to defending the values of Christianity against fanatics within his own party. The willingness of the leaders of both confessions to declare their loyalty to and their respect for the Führer also served to divert the dissatisfaction of religious segments of the populace away from the man at the top and onto local party radicals.57

After the attempt to Nazify the Churches and get them to submit to the authority of the regime had failed, the Nazi leadership searched for a new strategy. In July 1935, Hitler put former Prussian Minister of Justice Hanns Kerrl in charge of Church affairs, which had previously been handled by the Ministries of the Interior and Culture. As the director of the newly established Reich Church Ministry, Kerrl had carte blanche to issue decrees affecting religion. He set up a Reich Church committee as well as local committees to act as go-betweens between Church and state and to mediate conflicts within the Protestant Church. It was necessary, Kerrl told the Nazi Gauleiter and Reich governors in early August 1935, “to identify those forces within the Christian Churches which affirmed the state and were permeated by National Socialism, and to preserve them in Church life.”58

Hitler’s goal in changing his policy towards the Churches was twofold. On the one hand, he wanted to remove them as much as possible from public life. On the other, he wished to de-escalate the conflicts or at least to avoid an open confrontation, which would have further depressed the worsening popular mood in the summer and autumn of 1935. “He’s monitoring the decline in mood very carefully,” noted Goebbels on 14 August. “He wants to make peace with the Churches. At least for the time being.”59 Nonetheless, in a pastoral letter read from pulpits only a few days later, Catholic bishops reaffirmed their Church’s claim to have a public role and sharply condemned the regime’s repressive policies. In a memorandum to Hitler, they may have stressed their “affirmative attitude towards the state.” But they also expressed their “deep concerns in the face of the increasingly vocal attacks upon Christianity and the Church.”60

Hitler was enraged and, together with Goebbels, pondered how to respond. “The Führer considers the question of Catholicism as very serious,” Goebbels wrote in early September 1935. “Should he allow it to come to a head right now? I hope not. Later would be better. First we need some foreign-policy successes.”61 In his opening address of the Nuremberg rally on 11 September, Hitler proclaimed that he had “no intention of tolerating the continued or renewed politicisation of the confessions through the back door.” He promised that he would lead a determined battle “to keep our public life free of those priests who took up the wrong jobs, since they should have become politicians and not ministers.”62

In a series of trials in 1935 and 1936, the regime tightened the screws. Catholic priests and members of monastic orders were accused of sexually abusing children and youths and of violating the state’s strict rules concerning foreign currency. The resulting trials before the regional court in Koblenz, which had been prepared with the intensive help of the state police, went on until late July 1936, when Hitler ordered them to be suspended.63 The reason for his change of heart was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which opened up the possibility of the regime and the Catholic Church burying the hatchet and forming a “unified anti-Bolshevist front.” Nonetheless, although German bishops took a clear anti-Bolshevik stance in their pastoral letter of 19 August 1936, they also continued to insist that the “throttling” of Church life in Germany, in violation of the concordat, would have to stop before any agreement could be reached.64

In conversation with Goebbels in late October 1936, Hitler confirmed his intention to reach at least a temporary truce with Catholicism so that he could take on Bolshevism. “He intends to speak to Faulhaber,” noted Goebbels.65 On 4 November, the dictator received the cardinal on the Obersalzberg. Over the course of their three-hour talk, Hitler laid out the nightmare scenario of Bolshevism threatening all of Europe and called upon the Catholic Church to support him in his battle, telling Faulhaber: “Either nationalism and religion will triumph together, or they will both be destroyed.” Hitler promised to “let bygones be bygones” and “get rid of all the minor issues that disrupted our peaceful cooperation.” It was his “deepest wish,” he said, to reach agreement with the Church. And once again Hitler’s combination of the carrot and the stick had its desired effect. “The Führer has command over diplomatic and social formalities like a born sovereign,” Faulhaber wrote in a confidential report about the meeting. “Without doubt the Reich chancellor lives a life of faith. He recognises Christianity as the architect of Western culture.”66

For his part, Hitler told Goebbels that he had “really lit a fire” under the cardinal. Faulhaber, he said, had been “quite puny, babbling about dogma or something.” Hitler had presented him with a clear choice: “War or reconciliation. There is nothing else. The Church has to come out in support of us, without reservations.”67 But Germany’s Catholic bishops were not about to subjugate themselves unconditionally. In their pastoral letter at Christmas 1936, they declared themselves willing to support the regime in its “historic fight to defend us against Bolshevism,” but repeated their demand that the rights given to them by the concordat be respected. Hitler vented his irritation at the bishops’ intransigence during a long conversation about religion over lunch on the Obersalzberg in early January 1937. “Once again, the Catholic bishops have attacked us in a pastoral letter,” he complained. “If the gods want to punish someone, they first blind him.” Hitler also made it unmistakably clear that his public declarations concerning the value of the Christian Churches were mere lip service. “The Führer thinks Christianity is ripe for demise,” Goebbels noted. “It may take a long time, but it will come.”68

Hitler’s anti-Catholicism was only reinforced on 30 January 1937 when, as we have seen, the strictly Catholic Postal and Transport Minister Paul von Eltz-Rübenach refused to accept the Golden Party Badge or be inducted into the NSDAP, with the explanation that the Nazis were “repressing the Church.” Hitler and Goebbels were outraged. “That’s the Catholics for you,” the propaganda minister fumed. “They take orders from somewhere higher than the fatherland—the only, truly saving Church.”69 In the days that followed, Hitler also raved against the Churches: “They have learned nothing and will never learn. The most terrible institution imaginable. Without mercy and justice. You cannot make any compromises with them. If you do you are lost.”70 After Faulhaber delivered another critical sermon in Munich, Goebbels demanded: “We have to read these preachers the Riot Act. They have to be made to bend under the power of the state. Before that happens, there’ll be no peace.”71

Conferring with a small circle about the issue in late February 1937, Hitler delivered a fundamental philippic against Christianity and the Churches. Goebbels summed up the Führer’s views:

The Führer explained Christianity and Christ. Christ, too, was against global Jewish dominance. The Jews crucified him for that. But Paul falsified his teachings and in so doing undermined Ancient Rome. The Jew in Christianity. Marx used socialism to do the same to the German idea of community. But that does not mean that we should not be socialists.72

The idea of Jesus as Aryan and Paul as a Jewish agent who falsified Christ’s teaching and diverted Christianity down a disastrous path was by no means original. It was an amalgamation of notions long current among ethnic-chauvinist circles. Hitler seems to have adopted them less from Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century than from Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.73

But Hitler’s relationship towards such ideas was purely opportunistic. “We do not want to battle against Christianity—on the contrary, we have to declare ourselves to be the only true Christians,” Goebbels recorded him saying. “This means that we have to throw the entire weight of the party at the saboteurs. Christianity is the slogan under which we will eradicate the preachers, just as socialism was the one under which we destroyed the Marxist bigwigs.”74 Although Hitler allowed his followers to worship him in cultish fashion, and although he enjoyed playing the high priest at the Nuremberg rallies, he consistently refused to portray himself as the founder of a religion. In a speech to the Gauleiter on 12 March 1937, he spoke out against the notion of “forming new religions,” stating that National Socialism was “still too young.” This was a clear rejection of Rosenberg’s ideas. Moreover, he still wanted to avoid an open break with the Catholic Church. “In the battle against the Churches he quotes Schlieffen: ‘victories with great dimensions or small victories,’ ” Goebbels noted. “And with good reason he does not want any ordinary victories. You can kill an adversary with silence or with blows. Onwards!”75

The next shock in this unresolved situation was the papal encyclical “With Burning Anxiety.” Faulhaber had written the first draft, which was then edited by Cardinal Pacelli and approved by Pope Pius XI. Clandestine couriers brought the document to Germany, where it was printed and read out from pulpits on Palm Sunday, 21 March 1937. The encyclical excoriated the “open and concealed violence” against the Church in Germany. The articles of the concordat were being violated, the document complained, and the pressure being applied to the faithful was “both illegal and inhuman.” The encyclical once again highlighted the incompatibility between the Christian faith and National Socialist teachings: “Whoever removes race or a people or a form of government, those who exercise power or any other basic foundations of human society…from the secular scale of values, and makes them the highest norm of religious values too, worshipping them in idolatrous fashion, is wrong and is falsifying the divinely ordained order of things.”76

The evening before the encyclical was read out, Reinhard Heydrich informed Goebbels about its existence. “It’s a provocation in the true sense of the word,” the propaganda minister noted, although he advised the head of the Gestapo to “play dead” and ignore it rather than react harshly. “Economic pressure instead of arrests,” Goebbels wrote. “Confiscation and prohibition of the Church newsletters that publish this bit of impudence. Otherwise keep your nerve and wait until the hour comes to shake off these provocateurs.”77 But ignoring the encyclical was not good enough for Hitler. In early April 1937, he phoned Goebbels from the Obersalzberg. “He wants to move against the Vatican,” Goebbels noted. “The preachers do not realise how patient and mild we’ve been. Now they’re going to become acquainted with our strictness, severity and determination.”78 On 6 April, Hitler ordered Justice Minister Gürtner to restart and prioritise the sexual abuse trials, which had been suspended the previous July.79 They were accompanied by a frenzied anti-Catholic press campaign directed by Goebbels. “Heavy artillery is being deployed,” he noted in late April. “One wink from me, and a diabolical concert has commenced. The preachers will be squirming now.”80

Once again, Hitler was satisfied with his propaganda minister’s work, and the latter registered with pleasure: “The Führer is becoming more and more radical on the Church issue…[He knows] no mercy any more…We’re going to smoke out this band of pederasts.”81 In his annual 1 May speech, Hitler also took aim squarely: “If they try to usurp rights that exclusively belong to the state with letters, encyclicals and the like, we will force them back into the spiritual and ministerial activity that is rightfully theirs.” In a reference to the pederasty trials, Hitler declared: “It is not appropriate for these quarters to criticise the morality of a state when they have more than reason enough to be concerned about their own morality.”82

The low point of the defamation campaign was a speech by Goebbels in Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle arena on 28 May. He had discussed the content of the speech for days with Hitler—indeed, the Führer even dictated several key passages himself, which was unprecedented. “Very cutting and drastic,” Goebbels confided to his diary. “I would not have gone that far.”83 The speech was broadcast on all of Germany’s radio stations, and German newspapers received the transcript an hour before Goebbels began speaking, along with instructions to print it “as prominently as possible.”84 Goebbels pulled out all the demagogic stops, referring to a “general decline in morals such as had hardly been known throughout civilised history to such a horrible and outrageous extent.” “Animalistic sexual degeneracy was widespread among the Catholic clergy,” Goebbels raged, and the entire brotherhood was covering up this “filth.” Everywhere “sex offenders in priestly robes” were pursuing their “repulsive urges.” This “sexual pestilence,” Goebbels concluded, “must be removed by the roots.”85 After the speech, which drew standing ovations from more than 20,000 party members, Goebbels hurried back to the Führer in the Chancellery. “He shook my hand,” Goebbels related. “He listened to the entire speech on the radio and told me that he couldn’t sit still for a moment.”86

In the days that followed this mass event, Hitler continued to vent his hatred to his entourage. “The Führer is raging against the preachers,” Goebbels noted.87 The propaganda minister constantly fanned the flames while the Gestapo took care to suppress any contrary opinions in the Catholic press and strictly monitored the sermons of Catholic clergymen. “In Germany, the pious Catholic is subject to emergency law,” complained the bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing. “He is forced to endure mockery and scorn, constraint and pressure without being able to defend himself, while the enemies of the Church enjoy freedom of speech, the freedom to attack and the freedom to scoff.”88

But the trials ended in disappointment for the regime. In many cases, judges acquitted the defendants or only handed down light sentences. “The courts are failing to do their job,” an outraged Goebbels complained in early July 1937. “They’re only giving these preachers laughably tiny fines or a few days in jail for the worst sorts of crimes against the state. We need to take this to a special court.”89 Goebbels was able to convince Hitler of this too.90 Nonetheless, in late July, the dictator told his justice minister to suspend the trials again, and although Goebbels repeatedly lobbied for their resumption, Hitler stuck by this decision. He may have assured Goebbels in December 1937 that he was only waiting for the right moment to “reopen the spigot with the preacher trials,” but as the propaganda minister noted, “right now he wants peace and quiet on the Church issue.”91 Most likely, the change of course was related to the regime’s transition, which we will examine below, from a policy of overturning the Treaty of Versailles to one of aggressive foreign expansion. In this phase, in which Hitler decided to realise his foreign-policy ambitions, it would not have seemed advisable to further ratchet up tension with the Vatican or the Catholic clergy in Germany.92

Furthermore, Hitler had likely realised that he would not be able to subjugate the Churches to his rule in the short term. He was going to have to be patient. He described his plans for the future to a small circle after a cabinet meeting on 11 May 1937:

We will have to bend the Churches to our will and make them serve us. The vow of celibacy must be eradicated. Church assets must be confiscated, and no one should be allowed to study theology before the age of twenty-four. With that, we will rob them of their next generation. The monastic orders will have to be dissolved. In this way, and only in this way, will we be able to break them down. It will take decades. But then we will have them eating out of our hands.93

Hitler also refused to let things come to a complete head with the Protestant opposition. In late 1936, it gradually became clear that Hanns Kerrl’s experimental attempts to make peace between the German Christians and the Confessing Church had failed. In January 1937, Hitler gave him a dressing-down over lunch in the Chancellery, taking “a hard line against the Churches.” The “primacy of the state” had to be enforced “by all means,” Hitler declared, dismissing Kerrl’s policies as “too soft.”94 On 12 February, the Reich Church committee, the central body for restoring the unity of the Protestant Church, resigned en masse. Without consulting his ministerial colleagues, Kerrl therefore announced a decree that would have subjected the Church to increased state monitoring. Hitler was enraged by his underling going it alone, and refused to allow the decree to be made public. He also ordered Kerrl, Frick, Hess, Himmler, Goebbels and Deputy Interior Minister Wilhelm Stuckart to the Obersalzberg on 15 February to discuss the Church issue. “The Führer wants a clear line,” Goebbels noted. “Kerrl made a huge mistake not consulting us.”95

Goebbels travelled to the meeting by night train with Himmler and Stuckart, which gave them plenty of time to agree upon a mutual position. All three concurred that strict state regulation of the sort Kerrl envisioned would only create “martyrs.” They also emphasised a fundamental long-term difference: “Kerrl wants to preserve the Church while we want to liquidate it.”96 The conference on the Obersalzberg lasted seven full hours, which indicated the significance Hitler attached to it. He sharply criticised Kerrl’s ideas, saying that they amounted to making him a “summus episcopus” and that they could only be enforced violently. In view of the expected “great global struggle,” Germany “did not need a battle over the Churches.” After a long debate, Goebbels made a suggestion he had discussed previously with Himmler and Stuckart: “Either a separation of Church and state—for which in my opinion it is too early—or fresh elections of a constitutional synod, complete withdrawal of the party and state in this matter, entirely free proportional representation, and lucrative salaries for the synod delegates. In a year, they will come begging the state to save them from themselves.” Hitler adopted the suggestion, according to Goebbels, “eagerly.” The details were discussed, and the plan was approved by everyone present, including Kerrl. “A historic day,” Goebbels crowed. “A turning point in the Church quarrel.”97

Hitler’s decree was announced in the evening papers, where it created a stir. It read: “After the Reich Church committee failed to produce an agreement between the groups within the German Protestant Church, the Church shall now autonomously and completely freely give itself a new constitution and, with it, a new order.” The Reich Church minister was empowered “to prepare the election of a general synod for this purpose and take all necessary accompanying steps.”98 The following day, Goebbels called a press conference on the topic of “the Führer’s step towards making peace on the Church issue.”99

But any progress was mere propaganda. It soon became clear that the Church elections were only going to cause further unease instead of encouraging agreement between the opposing Protestant factions. Parts of the Confessing Church even threatened to boycott the elections, and in late 1937 preparations for them were halted. It was one of the rare occasions when a decree by Hitler simply came and went with no results.100 For a time, the dictator considered forcibly separating Church and state, an idea supported by Kerrl, who, as Goebbels put in, had undergone a “remarkable about-turn.”101 But this plan, too, was abandoned. In December 1937, Hitler expressed his concern that “Protestantism would be completely destroyed, and we would have no counterweight any more to the Vatican.”102 Fundamental decisions on the Church issue were postponed amid intensifying preparations to go to war, and Kerrl was explicitly “prohibited from instituting any reforms.”103 Nonetheless this latest volte-face did not end the persecution of prominent representatives of the Confessing Church.

On 1 July 1937, on Hitler’s orders, Martin Niemöller was arrested. Again and again he had condemned the Nazis’ totalitarian world view in his sermons and read out lists of names of affected pastors.104 “Pastor Niemöller finally arrested,” noted Goebbels. “Small mention of this in the press. The thing now is to break him so that he can’t believe his eyes or ears. We must never let up.”105 The propaganda minister and the Führer were in total agreement on this point. In December 1937, while the two were travelling together to attend Erich Ludendorff’s funeral in Munich, Hitler confirmed: “[Niemöller] will not be released until he has been broken. Opposition to the state will not be tolerated.”106

But Niemöller’s trial, which began on 7 February 1938 and was closed to the public, ended as a defeat for the regime. Niemöller and his defence emphasised his nationalist past. The defendant described not only his sacrifices as a submarine commander in the First World War, but also his activities as a Freikorps member after 1918 and his early sympathies for the post-war German nationalist movement. A series of respected character witnesses testified on his behalf, assuring the court of the pastor’s patriotic beliefs. In the end, Niemöller was sentenced to seven months in prison and fined 2,000 marks. But since he had already spent eight months in investigative custody in solitary confinement in a Berlin prison, he was considered to have served his sentence.107

Goebbels, who followed all phases of the trial with growing anger, was livid at the verdict, which was a de facto acquittal. He raged: “That takes the cake. I’m only going to give the press a brief announcement. The Führer will order Himmler to have this guy immediately taken to Oranienburg.” While foreign journalists waited outside the courtroom for Niemöller to appear, Gestapo agents hurried him out a side entrance and took him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near the town of Oranienburg. “There he’ll only be able to serve God by working and looking deep within himself,” Goebbels noted.108 The day after the verdict, Hitler expounded about “the case of Niemöller” over lunch in the Chancellery: “He’s in the right place in a concentration camp. It will be quite some time before he gets out. That’s how it is now for all enemies of the state. Anyone who thinks kindly old Hitler is a weakling will get acquainted with the hard-nosed Hitler.”109 And indeed Niemöller remained incarcerated, first in Sachsenhausen and as of 1941 in Dachau, as Hitler’s “personal prisoner” until the demise of the Third Reich.

Aside from the spectacular trial of Niemöller, however, the ceasefire that Hitler ordered on the Church front in late 1937 held throughout 1938 and the first half of 1939. While he was redirecting his foreign policy towards a war of expansion, Hitler had no use for a major conflict with Germany’s two main Churches. “The boss knows all too well that the Church issue is very touchy and could have very negative effects domestically in case of war,” Hitler’s secretary Christa Schroeder wrote in a letter to a friend.110 The Nazis’ final reckoning with the Churches was thus put off until after the war. The regime behaved quite differently concerning the “Jewish question.” On that issue, 1938 was the decisive milestone on a path towards removing Jews entirely from Germany. In early December, when Hanns Kerrl made a renewed attempt to subjugate the Protestant Church to state control, Hitler—as Goebbels noted—ordered him to “back off.” The propaganda minister added: “First things first, and now’s the time for us to solve the Jewish question.”111