National Socialism and the Protestant Church
A new and living organization is bound to come up against older organizations and some adjustments are necessary. To some extent this has happened between the Protestant sects in Germany and National Socialism. Moreover, Protestantism like Democracy - its political child - is an intensely individualistic religion and consequently it has little sympathy for and understanding of National Socialism.
Because Protestantism is based on the denial of an authority controlling the individual conscience, from the commencement it has divided and sub-divided and tends to resist all attempts at unity of organization. Born and brought up in Scotland, the home of Calvinism, I speak with knowledge.
Recent years have seen a remarkable coming together of the Presbyterian Churches in Scotland, but for years the Church was divided into many sects; divided on points of Church government and minute differences of doctrine, and hell fire was freely sprayed upon the sects which differed on theological matters.
I have never forgotten a sentence from a sermon preached by a Scottish divine, after the two Presbyterian Churches, the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church had agreed to combine. A minority of the Free Church ministers objected and formed a Church of their own, and one of them preaching about the men who had been his fellow ministers and friends a few weeks before spoke as follows:
"Below the Heathen and below the Roman Catholics on the very floor of hell which is watered by the tears of those of moderate opinions, will be found the ministers of the United Free Church."
With these experiences behind me I confess I listen with some scepticism to the attacks made on the National Socialist Government, which has undoubtedly burnt its fingers in trying to produce unity among sects whose very life lies in disunion.
The troubles in the Protestant Church in Germany, as the following brief historical resumé will show, began before the advent of National Socialism and the new Government had to face difficulties already existing.
Hitler feels that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, is especially and peculiarly the type of Christianity which has become the national faith of the German people, and is most desirous to see it working in harmony with the National Socialist State. To-day some 80 per cent of the Churches are working in harmony with the
To take a simple instance. Every German on registration has to declare his confession or to prove he never belonged to one or has resigned from membership. He has then to subscribe a fixed amount every year, which is collected by the State and redistributed to the Churches along with State grants.
The National Socialist State since January 30, 1933, has through its state organs, placed the following sums accruing from public taxes, at the disposal of both Churches:
Financial year 1933 .... RM. 130 million
To the above sums must be added approximately RM. 85 million per annum of additional payments made by the various German states, and a further RM. 7 million per annum from the parishes and parish unions, as well as 300 million marks which the churches obtain as annual rent from their landed property.
If a member wishes to leave a congregation he pays two years' subscription on retiring from membership. It has been the custom to read out the names of these backsliders from the pulpit. The Government has forbidden this in the name of freedom of conscience.
Niemöller and his followers refuse to obey this reasonable regulation. At the time when the Berlin correspondent was filling columns in The Times about this gentleman his followers had dwindled to about a thousand persons.
Under "Protestantism", in the wider meaning of the word, is understood not only the Churches and Confessions of Faith founded on the Lutheran Reformation, but also those founded by the Swiss reformers Calvin and Zwingli. Both together include about sixty-five per cent of those who adhere to the Christian faith in Germany.
The result of the various reformations in so far as the attitude of the Church towards the State was concerned, was the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which stipulated that the subjects of each State had to accept the creed of their sovereign ("CUIUS REGIO EIUS RELIGIO").
This decision not only widened the gulf between the Roman Catholic and Protestant religions, but also split the Protestant Church into various Lutheran and Calvinist sections, through the system called "Sovereign Determination of the Church" ("Landesherrliches Kirchenregiment"). This expression really meant that the boundaries of the various Protestant Churches corresponded with those of the German States (Federal States, Principalities), and that the rulers of these States were also the highest authorities in their respective Churches ("PRINCEPS SUMMUS EPISCOPUS").
After the abdication of these rulers, in consequence of the revolution of 1918, the Regional Churches, which numbered in all twenty-eight, were faced with the necessity of creating a new organization. In view of the disappearance of the former local rulers and highest Church authorities, the Regional Churches adopted a kind of democratic constitution, similar to the democratic constitution of Weimar, but perhaps also influenced by early Christian ideas. The administration was divided into three bodies:
1. The Church Assembly, composed of Church Members.
The actual nomenclature varied in the different States.
No further separation of the Church from the State was carried through, least of all on the financial side. Stress was however laid on the principle that the Church boundaries need not necessarily coincide with the frontiers of the State. For example, the Evangelical Churches of Danzig and of Posen (now Poznan in the Republic of Poland) belong at present to the Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union, the former State Church of Prussia.
As far as internal organization is concerned, numerous efforts had already been made in the nineteenth century to unite German Protestantism, which had been split up into twenty-eight Regional Churches. These efforts were revived after 1918, and 1921 led to the foundation of the "German Evangelical Church Federation" which was to represent the interests of all Protestants in Germany. The Church Federation was a union of the twenty-eight Regional Churches, which were otherwise entirely independent in doctrine, constitution and administration.
The experience of the Great War produced a development generally known as the "Lutheran Renaissance" in the religious realm of German Protestantism. This was chiefly concerned with a new interpretation of Luther's doctrine and personality, a movement which had already originated with the gradual publication of the new edition of Luther's works since 1883.
For years a number of young Church leaders have been trying, in despair of the weak democratic state of the postwar years, to secure a powerful position for the Protestant Church in public life, with the slogan "More Public Influence for the Church" ("Öffentlichkeitswille der Kirche").
Until 1933, the usual three groups "left, centre and right" existed within the various "Parliaments" of the Regional Protestant Churches. There were sub-divisions in each of these groups so that the various Church "Parliaments" were divided into about ten different groups.
But a large number of Church members remained completely indifferent to these party fights, and did not feel they were at all represented by any of the groups mentioned. Furthermore, the German worker had become more and more estranged from Christianity since the end of the nineteenth century, and this was mostly caused by Marxist propaganda.
During the National Socialist revolution, the former political parties of the Weimar republic became superfluous and either dissolved of their own accord or were dissolved by the National Socialist leadership. These events were bound to affect Protestant Church members. There was no outside influence exerted on them, but as the same people are members of the State and of the Church, political developments could not fail to influence the Church situation. This resulted in a new "alignment" of Church "Party" groups.
All the former Church Parties were amalgamated in the course of the year 1933, and united in a group which was first known as "Gospel and Church" (Evangelium und Kirche), but is now represented by the so-called "Confessional Front" (Bekenntnisfront).
In opposition to this union of former Church Parties arose the former neutral section of Church members. They felt that a time had come, when all current Church questions could be settled on the same way as the political problems. A large group of Protestants with a positive attitude towards National Socialism formed a Church Party based on this conviction, called "German Christians" (Deutsche Christen). This Party was actually founded in 1932. During the course of further developments in 1933, the "German Christians" split up in two main sub-divisions which may be characterised as follows:
a) The Old Movement, led by Joachim Hossenfelder. This movement feels responsible for the reorganization of the life of the nation according to National Socialist principles, and regards the Church as a special organization within the framework of the State. The theology of this movement may be described as essentially liberal.
b) The New Movement, based on the teachings of Emanuel Hirsch of Göttingen and Karl Fezer of Tübingen. They are not striving to adopt the organization of the Church to the exact political forms of National Socialism, but they seek an independent revival of Protestantism through the actual teaching of Luther. They are thus closely connected with the Luther Renaissance Movement described above.
These three movements, the size of which is difficult to estimate, resulted in the following developments.
After great difficulties, the Church succeeded in arranging elections and a National Synod was formed in September 1933. This Synod accepted a unified Reich Church Constitution and elected a Reich Bishop, Ludwig Müller. This Reich Church Constitution is a framework for a Federal Organization and not very different from that of the former German Evangelical Church Federation. It is still recognized by all groups.
Towards the end of 1933, the differences between the two main Protestant groups grew more acute. The "New Movement" of the German Christians tried to bring the situation under Church control by nominating Professor Beyer of Greifswald as Minister for Church Affairs. This attempt proved however unsuccessful.
The Prussian Ministerial Secretary Jäger, a member of the Civil Service, was now appointed to the Church Government by the Reich Bishop Müller. Jäger was thus not appointed by the State, but by the Church Government.
As Legal Administrator of the Reich Church, he tried, through revolutionary methods, to bring the independent Regional Churches under the centralized control of the Reich Church. This meant depriving the Regional Churches concerned of their independence.
In face of these attempts, the Confessional Front aligned itself with the Regional Churches against centralized control, and organized itself more firmly in the so-called "Opposition Movement". This movement included the Regional Churches, of Bavaria (Bishop Meiser), Württemberg (Bishop Wurm), and Hanover (Bishop Mahrahrens) and also received growing support from other Regional Churches.
The Opposition Movement claimed further to be the only true Protestant Church, and demanded the sole leadership of German Protestantism on the ground that the Church was in a state of emergency. The German Christians opposed this claim to exclusive power.
After the resignation of Jäger, the State intervened on account of the State of emergency in the Church, as the internal peace of the Nation was threatened, and a re-establishment of the financial and legal conditions in the Church did not seem possible without the help of the State. In 1935, Hitler proclaimed a "Law to secure the Existence of the German Evangelical Church." Through this Law a special Ministry for Church Affairs was created and the newly appointed Hanns Kerrl was included in the Cabinet as Church Minister. He was empowered to issue decrees "to create a state of order which would make it possible for the Church to govern itself in all freedom and peace, in questions regarding faith and doctrine."
Kerrl formed a Reich Church Committee from men in the Church, which should govern the Evangelical Church during a two-years' transition period. At the moment this Reich Church Committee, with its various sub-committees, is the only institution in the administration of the Church which is recognized by the State. The State has not given exclusive recognition to either the German Christians or to the Confessional Front, but only to the union of both in the Church Committees.
The introduction of a Ministry for Church Affairs, under Herr Kerrl, and its activities up till now, show that the State does not intend to influence in one way or another the religious problem and the Church struggle within the Evangelical Church. The aim of the State is to reach a solution of the current questions through Protestantism itself. These principles of the State's policy are very much to be welcomed from the Protestant point of view. Protestantism has indeed every interest in solving its problem of its own accord, and through its own spiritual development, instead of having this solution decided, perhaps through force, by an authority with no deep feelings in this particular matter.
All Protestant groups who have a real will to constructive co-operation and who are at all interested in a natural solution of the Church situation, are therefore working actively in the Church Committee.
A great part of the German Christians has already consented to co-operate in the Church Committee. The main body is now divided into two rather different groups.
The greater part of the so-called Confessional Front, under the leadership of the Regional Bishop of Hanover, Dr. Mahrahrens, has also agreed to co-operate in the Church Committee.
The radical section of the Confessional Front, led by Pastor Niemöller, will have nothing to do with the Church Committee on principle, and refuses to co-operate in it. These radical Confessionalists have hitherto been unable to find a way of approach to Nationalist Socialist principles and are therefore incapable of understanding the national revival in Germany.
This negative attitude can become dangerous. When religious reasons are used as a pretext for a struggle against the State itself, the State has the duty to take the necessary measures to secure internal peace within the nation.
Unfortunately, these events have been represented abroad in a way which greatly exaggerates their actual importance. They do not result, as has been assumed, from a spiritual struggle between Protestantism and the State, but are only individual conflicts, on the detail of Church Government, between certain parsons and the State, with which the great majority of Church members and the Church itself have nothing to do.
From the German Christians the different groups of the "German Faith movement" (Deutsche Glaubensbewegung) must be clearly distinguished. They are much discussed abroad under the name "New Heathens".
This movement has nothing to do with the Christian Churches or with Christianity in general, and wishes to found a belief in God on the traditions of the German race and history. These people cannot be described simply as atheists.
The German Faith Movement had at first a great success. Today it is already declining rapidly.
It is also clear that problems arise for the existing Confessions, not on account of pure dogmatism, whether Christian or not, but on account of the actual experience of the present day political life of the German Nation.
A solution of these problems will have to be attempted between the various Protestant groups and will perhaps determine their future attitude towards each other.
This fruitful struggle of ideas and their protagonists may go on for decades. Its ultimate results cannot be foreseen in detail. But its effect will almost certainly be a deep-rooted religious revival of the German Nation.