German Christians

This article is about a pressure group within Protestant community in Nazi Germany. For Christianity in Germany, see Religion in Germany. For Christianity in Nazi Germany, see Religion in Nazi Germany.
Flag of the German Christians 1934

German Christians (German: Deutsche Christen) was a pressure group and movement within German Protestantism aligned towards the antisemitic and Führerprinzip ideological principles of Nazism with the goal to align German Protestantism as a whole towards those principles. Their advocacy of these principles led to a schism within 23 of the initially 28 regional church bodies (Landeskirchen) in Germany and the attendant foundation of the opposing Confessing Church.[1]


Pre-Nazi Germany

Imperial Germany

During the period of the German Empire, before the Weimar Republic, the Protestant churches (Landeskirchen) in Germany were divided along state and provincial borders. Each state or provincial church was supported by and affiliated with the regnal houseif it was Protestantof its particular region; the crown provided financial and institutional support for its church. Church and state were therefore, to a large extent, combined on a regional basis.[2] Monarchies of Roman Catholic dynasties also organised church bodies territorially defined by their state borders. The same was true for the three republican German states within the pre-1918 Empire. In Alsace-Lorraine the Napoleonic system of établissements publics du culte for the Calvinist, Jewish, Lutheran and Roman Catholic congregations and umbrellas remained in effect.

Weimar Republic

With the end of World War I and the resulting political and social turmoil, the regional churches lost their secular rulers. With revolutionary fervor in the air, the conservative church leaders had to contend with socialists who favored disestablishment.

After considerable political maneuvering, state churches were abolished (in name) under Weimar, but the anti-disestablishmentarians prevailed in substance: churches remained public corporations and retained their subsidies from government. Religious instruction in the schools continued, as did the theological faculties in the universities. The rights formerly held by the princes in the German Empire simply devolved to church councils.

Accordingly, in this initial period of the Weimar Republic, the Protestant Church in Germany now operated as a federation of 28 regional (or provincial) churches. The federation operated officially through the representative German Evangelical Church Confederation (Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchenbund (DEKB)); the League was itself established in 1922 by the rather loose annual convention called Church General Assembly (Kirchentag), which was composed of the members of the various regional churches. The League was governed and administered by a 36-member Executive Committee (Kirchenausschuss) which was responsible for ongoing governance between the annual conventions of the Kirchentag.

Save for the organizational matters under the jurisdiction of the national League, the regionial churches remained independent in other matters, including theology, and the federal system allowed for a great deal of regional autonomy.[3]

Nazi Germany

German Christians celebrating Luther-Day in Berlin in 1933, speech by bishop Hossenfelder


The Deutsche Christen were, for the most part, a "group of fanatically Nazi Protestants."[4] They began as an interest group and eventually came to represent one of the schismatic factions of German Protestantism.[4]

Their movement was sustained and encouraged by factors such as:

The Deutsche Christen were sympathetic to the Nazi regime's goal of "co-ordinating" (see Gleichschaltung) the individual Protestant churches into a single and uniform Reich church, consistent with the Volk ethos and the Führerprinzip.


The Deutsche Christen were organized as a Kirchenpartei (church party, i.e. a nominating group) in 1931 to help win elections of presbyteries and synods (i.e. legislating church assemblies) in the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union, the largest of the independent Landeskirchen.[4] They were led by Ludwig Müller, a rather incompetent "old fighter" who had no particular leadership skills or qualifications, except having been a longtime faithful Nazi. He was advised by Emanuel Hirsch. The group achieved no particular notoriety before the Nazi assumption of political power in January 1933. In the Prussian church elections of November 1932, Deutsche Christen won one-third of the vote.[7]

Hitler was appointed Chancellor on 30 January 1933 and the process of Gleichschaltung was in its full sway in the first few months of the regime. In late April 1933 the leadership of the 1922-founded German Evangelical Church Confederation, in the spirit of the new regime, agreed to write a new constitution for a brand new, unitary "national" church, which would be called the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche or DEK). The new and unified national DEK would completely replace and supersede the old federated church with its representative league.

This church reorganization had been a goal of the Deutsche Christen for some time, as such a centralization would enhance the coordination of Church and State, as a part of the overall Nazi process of Gleichschaltung. The Deutsche Christen agitated for Müller to be elected as the new Church's bishop (Reichsbischof).


Unfortunately for the Nazis, Müller had poor political skills, little political support within the Church and no real qualifications for the job, other than his commitment to Nazism and a desire to exercise power. When the federation council met in May 1933 to approve the new constitution, it elected Friedrich von Bodelschwingh as Reichsbischof of the new Protestant Reich Church by a wide margin, largely on the advice and support of the church leadership.[8]

Needless to say, Hitler was infuriated with the rejection of his candidate, and things began to change. By June 1933 the Deutsche Christen had gained leadership of some Landeskirchen within the DEK and were, of course, supported by Nazi propaganda in their efforts to reverse the humiliating loss to Bodelschwingh.[9][10] After a series of Nazi-directed political maneuvers, Bodelschwingh resigned and Müller was appointed as the new Reichsbischof in July 1933.[11]

Aryan Paragraph

Further pro-Nazi developments followed the elevation of Müller to the DEK bishopric: in late summer the old-Prussian general synod (led by Müller) adopted the Aryan Paragraph, effectively defrocking clergy of Jewish descent and even clergy married to non-Aryans.[12]

With their Gleichschaltungspolitik and their attempts to incorporate the Aryan Paragraph into the church constitution so as to exclude Jewish Christians, the Deutsche Christen entered into a Kirchenkampf with other evangelical Christians. Their opponents founded the Confessing Church in 1934,[13] which condemned the Deutsche Christen as heretics and claimed to be the true German Protestant Church.

Impact of German Christians

The Nazis found the Deutsche Christen group useful during the initial consolidation of power, but removed most of its leaders from their posts shortly afterwards; Reichsbishop Müller continued until 1945, but his power was effectively removed in favor of a government agency as a result of his obvious incompetence.

The Deutsche Christen were supportive of the Nazi ideas about race. They issued public statements that Christians in Germany with Jewish ancestors "remain Christians in a New Testament sense, but are not German Christians." Also they supported the call from the Nazi party platform for a "positive Christianity" that does not stress human sinfulness. Some went so far as to call for removal of the "Jewish" Old Testament from the Bible. Their symbol was a traditional Christian cross with a swastika in the middle and the group's German initials "D" and "C". It was claimed and remembered, as a "fact", that the Jews had killed Christ, thus appealing to and actively encouraging existing anti-Semitic sentiment among Christians in Germany.


19th century

The forerunner of the Deutsche Christen ideology came from certain Protestant groups of the German Empire. These groups sought a return to perceived völkisch, nationalistic and racist ideas within traditional Christianity, and looked to turn Christianity in Germany into a reformed intrinsic folk-religion (German: arteigene Volksreligion). They found their model in the Berlin Hofprediger Adolf Stoecker, who was politically active and tried to position the Christian working-classes and lower-middle-classes against what he perceived as Jewish "Überfremdung".

The Bayreuther Blätter devoted its June, 1892, issue to a memorial of Paul Lagarde and it emphatically recommended his work to its readers. Ludwig Schemann, one of the most prolific of Bayreuth Germanics and racists, and later the author of a full-length biography of Lagarde, summarized his life and work and concluded that "for the comprehension of Lagarde's whole being one must above all remember that he always considered himself the prophet and guide of his people — which of course he actually was." For Schemann his legacy consisted largely of his struggle against the Jews: "Not since the days of Schopenhauer and Wagner is the German thinker so mightily opposed this alien people, which desecrates our holy possessions, poisons our people, and seeks to rest our property from us so as to completely trample on us, as Lagarde has" It was this image of Lagarde, the anti-Semitic prophet of a purified and heroic Germany, which the political Wagnerites and the Bayreuther Blätter and kept alive. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner's son-in-law and intellectual disciple, wrote: "For us, the Deutsche Schriften have for a long time belonged to our most precious books, and we consider Lagarde's unabashed exposure of the inferiority of Semitic religious instincts and the pernicious effects on Christianity as an achievement that deserves our admiration and gratitude." -- Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrunderts, 5th ed. München 1904, p.lxii. [14]

In 1896 Arthur Bonus advocated a "Germanization of Christianity". Max Bewer alleged in his 1907 book Der deutsche Christus (The German Christ), Jesus stemmed from German soldiers in the Roman garrison in Galilee and his preaching showed the influence of "German blood". He concluded that the Germans were the best Christians among all peoples, only prevented from the full flowering of their spiritual faculties by the materialistic Jews. Julius Bode, however, concluded that the Christianisation of the Germans was the imposition of an "un-German" religious understanding, and that Germanic feeling remained alien to it and so should remain exempt from it.[15]

20th century

On the 400th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, in 1917, the Flensburg pastor Friedrich Andersen, the writer Adolf Bartels and Hans Paul Freiherr von Wolzogen presented 95 Thesen[16] on which a "German Christianity on a Protestant basis" should be founded. It stated :

The newer racial research has finally opened our eyes to the pernicious effects of the blood mixture between Germanic and un-German peoples and urges us, with all our forces, to strive to keep our Volkstum pure and closed. Religion is the inner strength and finest flower in the intellectual life of a people, but it can only strongly affect expression in popular culture ... a deep connection between Christianity and Germanness can only be achieved when it is released from this unnatural connection, wherever it stands nakedly approached by the Jewish religion.

For the authors of the Thesen, the "angry thunder-god" Jehovah was the same as the "Father" and "[Holy] Ghost", that Christ preached and that the Germans would have guessed. Childlike confidence in God and selfless love was, to them, the essence of the Germanic "people's-soul" in contrast to Jewish "menial fear of God" and "materialistic morality." Church was not an "institution for the dissemination of Judaism", and they felt religious and confirmation materials should no longer teach the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments, nor even the New Testament, which they held to be of Jewish influence that had to be "cleaned" so that the child Jesus could be used as a model for "self sacrifice" and "male heroism".

In 1921 Andersen wrote Der deutsche Heiland (The German Saviour), in which he opposed Jewish migration as an apocalyptic decision:

Who will win, the six-cornered star or the Cross? — The question is, for now, not yet evident. The Jew goes on his way purposefully, in any case ... his deadly hatred will defeat his opponent. When the Christian Good Friday is celebrated, it should at least not weigh in his dreams; ... otherwise there could come a whole lot of terrible Golgothas, where Jews across the whole world dance their jubilee songs on the grave of Christianity as heirs of a murdering people, singing to the Jahu they destroyed.

Against the "contamination by Jewish ideas", mainly from the Old Testament, the Churches and Germany should (he argued) be "mutually benefits and supports", and then Christianity would win back its status as "a religion of the Volk and of the struggle" and "the great exploiter of humanity, the evil enemy of our Volk [would] finally be destroyed".

In the same year, 1921, the Protestant-dominated and völkisch-oriented League for German Churches (German: Bund für deutsche Kirche) was founded in Berlin. Andersen, pastor Ernst Bublitz and teacher Kurd Joachim Niedlich brought out the twice-monthly The German Church (German: Die Deutsche Kirche) magazine, which in 12,000 articles advanced the Bund's ideas. Jesus should be a "tragic-Nordic figure" against the Old Testament's "religious idea", with the Old Testament replaced by a "German myth". Each biblical story was to be "measured under German feelings, so that German Christianity escapes from Semitic influence as Beelzebub did before the Cross."

In 1925 groups such as the Bund united with ten völkisch, Germanophile and anti-Semitic organizations to form the German Christian Working Group (German: deutschchristliche Arbeitsgemeinschaft). The Christian-Spirit Religious Society (German: Geistchristliche Religionsgesellschaft), founded in 1927 in Nuremberg by Artur Dinter, saw more effect in the churches, striving for the 'de-Judification' (German: Entjudung) and the building of a non-denominational People's Church (German: Volkskirche).

The proposed abolition of the Old Testament was in part fiercely opposed among Christian German nationalists, seeing it as a racist attack on the foundations of their faith from inside and outside. The theologian Johannes Schneider, a member of the German National People's Party (German: Deutschnationale Volkspartei or DNVP) (a party fairly close to the political aims of the NSDAP), wrote in 1925:

Whoever cheapens the Old Testament will soon also lose the New.

In 1927 the Protestant Church League (German: Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchenbund) reacted to the growing radicalization of German Christian groups with a Churches Day in Königsberg, aiming to clarify Christianity's relation to "Fatherland", "Nation", "Volkstum", "Blood" and "Race". Many local church-officers tried to delineate, such as with regards to racism, but this only served to show how deeply it had intruded into their thinking. Paul Althaus, for example, wrote:

Volkstum is a spiritual reality ... certainly there will never be a Volkstum without the precondition of, for example, the blood unit. But once a Volkstum is begotten, it may exist as a spiritual reality ... even foreign blood may be lent [in]to it. How great the significance of blood might be in intellectual history, but the rule is, even if one is born into a Volkstum, the spirit and not the blood.

On this basis, the radical German-Christians ideas were hardly slowed down. In 1928 they gathered in Thuringia to found the Thuringian German Christians' Church Movement (German: Thüringer Kirchenbewegung Deutsche Christen), seeking contact with the Nazi party and naming their newsletter "Letters to German Christians" (German: Briefe an Deutsche Christen).

Alfred Rosenberg's book The Myth of the Twentieth Century (German: Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts) resonated in these circles and gave them renewed impetus. His polemic against all "un-German" and "root-stock" elements in Christianity was directed against the Christianity and the denominational organisations of the time. Marxism and Catholic Internationalism were attacked as two facets of the Jewish spirit, and Rosenberg stated the need for a new national religion to complete the Reformation.

The Associated German Religious Movement (German: Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutsche Glaubensbewegung), founded in Eisenach at the end of 1933, was also an attempt to create a national religion outside and against the churches. It combined six earlier Nordic-völkisch oriented groups and a further five groups were represented by individual members. Jakob Wilhelm Hauer became the group's "leader and representative" by acclamation, and other members included the philosopher Ernst Bergmann (1881–1945), the racial ideologue Hans F. K. Günther, the writer Ernst Graf zu Reventlow, the historian Herman Wirth, Ludwig Fahrenkrog and Lothar Stengel-von Rutkowski.[17]

Attempts to "de-Judaize" the Bible

Some churches remained led by German Christians until 1945. In 1939 with the approval of 75% of the German Protestant churches the Eisenacher "Institute for Research and the Elimination of Jewish influence on German Church Life" was founded, led by Walter Grundmann. One of its main tasks was to compile a "People's Testament" (German: Volkstestament) in the sense of what Alfred Rosenberg called a "Fifth Gospel", to announce the myth of the "Aryan Jesus". It became clear in 1994 that the Testament's poetic text was written by the famous ballad-poet and proprietor of the Eugen-Diederichs-Verlag, Lulu von Strauß und Torney. Despite broad church support for it (even many Confessing Christians advocated such an approach, in the hope that the disaffiliation of 1937 to 1940 could be curbed), the first edition of the text did not meet with the expected enthusiastic response.

After 1945

After 1945, the remaining German Christian currents formed smaller communities and circles distanced from the newly formed umbrella of the independent church bodies Evangelical Church in Germany. German Christian-related parties sought to influence the historiography of the Kirchenkampf in the so-called "church-historical working group", but they had little effect from then on in theology and politics. Other former members of the German Christians moved into the numerically insignificant religious communities known as the Free People's Christian Church (German: Freie Christliche Volkskirche) and the People's Movement of Free Church Christians (German: Volkskirchenbewegung Freie Christen) after 1945.

Notes and references

  1. Only in the regional church bodies of Bavaria (Lutheran), Hanover (Lutheran), Hanover (Reformed), Schaumburg-Lippe, and Württemberg had no majorities of German Christians in their synods, thus protagonists of the Confessing Church considered these church bodies as constitutionally unadulterated (so-called intact churches).
  2. The ruler of each state was also the highest authority (summus episcopus) in that state's church. See generally the Wikipedia article on the German Empire and its constitutive states, as it existed before the end of the First World War.
  3. For a fuller and more detailed account, see the article on the Confessing Church.
  4. 1 2 3 Barnes p. 74.
  5. Luther's extreme and shocking antisemitism came to light rather late in his life.
  6. Verses 1-7 are the most pertinent; verses 1-2 read as follows (New International Version):
    Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
  7. Bergen p. 5.
  8. Bodelschwingh was a well-known and popular Westphalian pastor who headed Bethel Institution, a large charitable organization for the mentally ill and disabled. His father, also a pastor, had founded Bethel. Barnett p. 33.
  9. Evans p. 223.
  10. The new Reichskirche (or DEK) church constitution required a two-thirds majority for the election of its bishop and no candidate in the April contest could achieve this supermajority initially. After several ballots, Bodelschwingh prevailed by a landslide of 91 to 8.
  11. The entire Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union (both Müller and Bodelschwingh were members of this largest regional church, which was of course only an administrative unit after the adoption of the new constitution establishing the DEK) was placed under police jurisdiction; pastors were fired, suspended and sometimes even arrested or placed under house arrest; and the Deutsche Christen and Müller carried on a vicious campaign against Bodelschwingh. Barnett p. 34.
  12. In 1933 the Protestant churches in Germany employed about 18,842 pastors (1933); 37 of them were classified by the Nazi terminology as "full Jews" (German: Volljuden). However, before the promulgation of the Nazi's racist Nuremberg Laws, there was no standard definition of who was a "Jew," or which Mischling would be deemed "Jewish" for purposes of Hitlerian racial policy, so the net would certainly have swept wider than this rather small fraction. The extension of the prohibition to address the wives of German pastors was surely, to many middle-of-the-road Protestants, shocking. See Barnett p. 33-36. The Evangelisches Pfarrhausarchiv (about in English: Evangelical Archive for Pastors and their Families) recorded for all of Nazi Germany 115 Protestant pastors with one up to four grandparents, who were enlisted in a Jewish congregation. Cf. Wider das Vergessen: Schicksale judenchristlicher Pfarrer in der Zeit 1933-1945 (special exhibition in the Lutherhaus Eisenach April 1988 – April 1989), Evangelisches Pfarrhausarchiv (ed.), Eisenach: Evangelisches Pfarrhausarchiv, 1988. No ISBN.
  13. The Confessing Church grew out of the Pastors' Emergency League (German: Pfarrernotbund) founded by Martin Niemöller in 1933. See article on Confessing Church for more detail.
  14. This is taken from the book The Politics of Cultural Despair: a study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology by Fritz Stern. copyright 1961 by The Regents of the University of California. ISBN 0-520-02626-8
  15. Rainer Lächele: Germanisierung des Christentums — Heroisierung Christi, in: Stefanie von Schnurbein, Justus H. Ulbricht (Hrsg.): Völkische Religion und Krisen der Moderne. Entwürfe „arteigener“ Glaubenssysteme seit der Jahrhundertwende, Königshausen und Neumann GmbH, Würzburg 2001, ISBN 3-8260-2160-6, S. 165–183
  16. See The Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther.
  17. Ulrich Nanko: Die Deutsche Glaubensbewegung. Eine historische und soziologische Untersuchung; Marburg: diagonal-Verlag, 1993

Bibliography (English)

Barnes, Kenneth C. (1991). Nazism, Liberalism, & Christianity: Protestant social thought in Germany & Great Britain, 1925-1937. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-1729-1. 

Barnett, Victoria (1992). For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-512118-X. 

Benz, Wolfgang (2006). A Concise History of the Third Reich. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23489-8. 

Bergen, Doris L. (1996). Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.  (Bergen)

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah (1996). Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf. 

Evans, Richard J. (2006). The Third Reich in Power. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100976-4. 

Heschel, Susannah (2008). The Aryan Jesus : Christian theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12531-2. 

Hockenos, Matthew D. (2004). A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34448-9. 

Bibliography (German)

it (S. 201–234) Birgit Jerke: Wie wurde das Neue Testament zu einem sogenannten Volkstestament „entjudet“? Aus der Arbeit des Eisenacher „Instituts zur Erforschung und Beseitung des jüdischen Einflusses auf das deutsch kirchliche Leben“

See also

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