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.