What Happens When the Church Is Married to Nationalism? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most important historical facts about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was his reaction to the Nazi take-over of the Lutheran state church in Germany in the 1930’s.  Eric Metaxas, in his magnificent biography of Bonhoeffer, devotes an entire chapter to Nazi theology.  The program developed by the Nazis to coopt religion in Germany is of seminal importance to Christians today and in the future.

Metaxas starts by describing Hitler’s approach to Christianity:

One sometimes hears that Hitler was a Christian. He was certainly not, but neither was he openly anti-Christian, as most of his top lieutenants were. What helped him aggrandize power, he approved of, and what prevented it, he did not. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain. In private, he possessed an unblemished record of statements against Christianity and Christians.

According to Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and this was simply not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength.” In time, he felt that the churches would change their ideology. He would see to it.

But Hitler’s lieutenants were far more anti-Christian than he was.  Metaxas traces the plans of Hitler’s henchmen:

Since Hitler had no religion other than himself, his opposition to Christianity and the church was less ideological than practical. That was not the case for many leaders of the Third Reich. Alfred Rosenberg, Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and others were bitterly anti-Christian and were ideologically opposed to Christianity, and wanted to replace it with a religion of their own devising. Under their leadership, said Shirer, “the Nazi regime intended eventually to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists.”

Metaxas singles out Himmler as particularly hateful of Christianity:

Himmler was the head of the SS and was aggressively anti-Christian. Very early on, he barred clergy from serving in the SS. In 1935 he ordered every SS member to resign leadership in religious organizations. The next year he forbade SS musicians to participate in religious services, even out of uniform. Soon afterward he forbade SS members to attend church services. For Himmler, the SS was itself a religion, and its members, postulants in its priesthood. Many SS rituals were occultic in nature. Himmler was deeply involved in the occult and in astrology, and much of what the SS perpetrated in the death camps bore Himmler’s saurian stamp.

Heydrich, another of Hitler’s top officials, famously said, “Just you wait. You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.”

Rosenberg, another important figure in the Nationalist Socialists, was tasked with putting together a thiry-point program for the future National Church of the Third Reich.  According to Metaxas, “Rosenberg’s plan is some of the clearest proof that exists of the Nazis’ ultimate plans for the churches.”  Below are some excerpts from that plan:

13. The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany. . . .     

14. The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Fuehrer’s Mein Kampf is the greatest of all documents. It . . . not only contains the greatest but it embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and future life of our nation. 

18. The National Church will clear away from its altars all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.     

19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf (to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.     

30. On the day of its foundation, the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels . . . and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.

Those were the plans of the Nazis, but an interesting question to answer is, “How did the Lutheran church in Germany react to the attempted Nazification of their church?”  In part 2 of this post series, we will look at that question.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “According to Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and this was simply not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength.” In time, he felt that the churches would change their ideology. He would see to it.”

    Very interesting stuff, and fascinating when you see how American leaders and opinion makers have adopted the same tactics. Any suggestion that Jesus wouldn’t be strongly pro-guns is ruthlessly shot down. Liberal churches are derided for not being proper Christians.

    As for ruthlessness and strength: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” – Ann Coulter.

  • Neville

    Yes, an interesting article.In my opinion out is never good when state and religion become joined at the hip. Since acceptance of the gospel is a decision made by faith. When Christianity and government join the unintended consequence is people who think they have a faith just through their national identity. For example here in NZ up to 60% of people will tick some form of Christian box on the census form, even though they have no real faith at all. In NZ this number is falling however, & the government is now much more secular. I suspect that in the US, there are still stronger ties so it’s harder to pick which voice speaks out in the name of true faith and which speaks out by traditions and other man motivated political ideas. You need to judge as best you can by what they say and v how it lines up against the bible and how they live their lives .this may be relevant of those that make claims about JC and guns.

    In a way having government hostile to your beliefs really acts to bring out real faith.

  • Neville

    Just looked up Ann Coulter.Would not think that comments she makes would form part of any debate, without first qualifying who she is and who she represents. It appears who she is is author and commentator and that she likes to have something to say.who she represents? Perhaps herself and her career.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Alas she represents many in the US, all Christians. If you lived there you’d know who she is.

  • The Chisel

    I’m sure you’ll get to it in part 2 or three, but i’m just curious what the purpose of your article is Bill?

    The Nazis tried to annihilate not just the Jews, but all 3 of the abrahamic religions, and any and all eastern philosophy or religious thought.

    anyway, well written. I’ll make sure to read what’s next.

    Is there an email adress to send questions? In one of your recent posts, I wanted to discuss something with you but it got burried in a landslide of over 150 posts.

  • Chisel,
    My purpose is to give warning to Christians about a very recent and very disturbing example of what happens when a state attempts to overtake and change Christian theology. I want to show how that was attempted in Nazi Germany and what the reaction was of the church in Germany to this takeover.

    You can send me an email at jpratt1011@aol.com.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • The Chisel

    Thanks Bill,

    I’ll make sure to read your next blog entry. I don’t live in the US so it’s not something I’ve heard of happening.

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