Conflicts, compromises and mutual self-interest - how the Nazis and the Catholic and Protestant churches dealt with each other during the Third Reich

Essay, 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 71 = A


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Areas of conflict
A. The Churches facing the regime’s synchronization policy
1. The Protestant Church
2. The Catholic Church
B. Deliberate anti church measures against the Catholic Church
1. Goebbels’ ‘Moral Trials’
2. Bormann’s dissolution of the monasteries
C. Ecclesiastical protest against racial excesses
1. The papal encyclical “With burning anxiety”
2. Protest against ‘Euthanasia’

III. Reasons for the ‘pragmatic approach’

IV. Conclusion

V. References

Conflicts, compromises and mutual self-interest: How the Nazis and the Catholic and Protestant Churches dealt with each other during the Third Reich

I. Introduction

During the Third Reich there were three main areas of conflict between the Nazi regime and the Protestant and Catholic Churches. The first area concerned the proper integration of both churches following the process of synchronization (‘Gleichschaltung’) which affected all public institutions at the beginning of the Nazi era and which was dealing with the question to what extent shall the traditional churches remain their institutional and spiritual autonomy within the Nazi dictatorship? The second area of conflict arose when the Nazis launched unilateral anti-church-measures to discredit ecclesiastical representatives and institutions and thus to alienate common Germans from their traditional denominations. The last main area of conflict referred to unilateral occasional criticism from the churches against excessive racial policies in the Third Reich.

Looking at these areas of conflict in more detail, the essay’s argument is that a pragmatic approach when dealing with these conflicts can be found on both sides the Nazi state and the churches. By ‘pragmatic approach’ I mean three aspects: First, a willingness on both sides to arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise in a concrete case of conflict; second, despite these conflicts, the overall willingness of the churches to consider the Nazi regime as the legitimate German government; third, the regime’s willingness, despite its anti-church-bias, to consider the churches as legitimate social institutions with certain spaces of autonomy towards the sphere of politics monopolized by the Nazis. Referring to the most important examples of the above mentioned areas of conflict, the essay’s first part seeks to illustrate the pragmatic-approach-argument. In a second part, the attempt shall be made to explain why both protagonists preferred a pragmatic instead of a more radical and uncompromising approach towards each other, stating that three factors are accountable for this: First, mutually shared political views based on anti-liberalism and anti-Marxism; second, a tremendous misperception of the regime’s nature by the churches; third, the limits of anti-church-policies among a population still being deeply Christianized.

II. Areas of conflict

A. The Churches facing the regime’s synchronization policy

The first two years of Nazi government, from Hitler’s appointment as new German chancellor in January 1933 to the Blood Purge in June and Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, were marked by a policy of synchronization of all public institutions in Germany. The churches were also affected by this policy.

1. The Protestant Church

When it comes to the Protestant Church, which was, roughly speaking, more willing to adopt the guidelines of synchronization, her attempts to implement these guidelines led to three major conflicts: the establishment of a unified and nazified Reich Church, the incorporation of the ‘Aryan Paragraph’ into ecclesiastical constitutions and the purge of the Gospel from elements considered to be too ‘Jewish’. Following the rising political success of the Nazi movement in the early 30s, a parallel inner-church-movement, highly inclined to Nazi ideas, the so called ‘German Christians’, counting 600 000 members in 1932[1] attempted to win the majority in all synods to install a single Reich Bishop and thus to overcome the fragmented character of German Protestantism, historically divided into various autonomous regional Lutheran, Reformed or United Churches.[2] Despite protests and fears of loosing their confessional identity, by July 1934 all regional protestant churches, starting from the biggest and most important one, the Old Prussian Union on March 2 to the Lübecker Lutheran Church on July 18, had been incorporated into the new Reich Church with the exception of two cases – the Church of Württemberg and the Church of Bavaria. Not wanting to tolerate their autonomy, the newly appointed Reich Bishop Müller, whose appointment was strongly supported by Hitler, dismissed the Wurttemberg Bishop Wurm and his Bavarian counterpart Meiser on October 6. In addition the two Bishops, well-known detractors of the German Christians, came under house arrest causing massive outrage among Wurttemberg’s and Bavaria’s Lutherans gathering in mass demonstrations before the residences of their bishops; petitions with thousands of signatures were sent to Berlin and the Theological Faculty of Tübingen declared these removals unscriptural.[3]

The second conflict had arisen already one year earlier when the Old Prussian Union synod held on 5-6 September 1933, approved a law in which the ‘Arian Paragraph’ from the ‘Law for the Reconstruction of the Reich’ was declared valid for the church as well. That is from now on persons of so called ‘non-Aryan descent’ were to be excluded from the clergy and from all official positions within the church. This decision, without a proper debate in advance, made the Non-German-Christian delegates immediately withdraw from the synod. As a result, those priests against the incorporation of this paragraph founded the Pastor’s Emergency League under the leadership of Martin Niemoeller thus leading to the de facto partition of the Lutheran Church in Germany.[4]

The third conflict appeared when the radical German Christian Rheinhold Krause claimed the purge of the Gospel from all ‘Jewish elements’, especially from the Old Testament with ‘its Jewish quid pro quo morality’ on a German Christians meeting in Berlin on November 12 to ‘celebrate’ Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations.[5] These obviously heretic tendencies among German Christians finally encouraged their opponents of the Pastor’s Emergency League to establish the Confessing Church based on the Barmen Declaration on May 29, 1934.[6]

The above mentioned conflicts, however, never threatened the overall process of synchronisation at the beginning of the Nazi years, though upsetting Hitler and the Nazis. Rather, a pragmatic modus vivendi could be arranged between the Nazi state and the diverse movements within German protestantism. To make themselves not to suspicious for the regime after having inhibited the establishment of a nazified Reich Church, the leading members of the Confessional Church highlighted on every occasion their fully approval to the Nazis as the new legitimate government underpinning that their protest was solely addressed to the heretic tendencies of the German Christians. A prominent example of this attitude is Niemoeller’s telegram to Hitler after Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations stating that 2,500 Evangelical pastors who do not belong to the German Christian Faith movement greet ‘our Fuehrer’ to give him ‘thanks for this manly deed’.[7] Apart from their concern for their own interests, both the German Christians and the Confessing Church were willing to turn a blind eye to the most appalling accompaniments of the ‘Gleichschaltung’, such as the establishment of concentration camps or the destruction of the rule of law. On the other hand Hitler gave up his plans for a unified protestant Reich Church, tolerating the co-existence of the Confessing Church. In addition, the impeachment of the two Bishops of Wurttemberg and Bavaria was nullified immediately after wide-spread protest.[8]


[1] Evans, Das Dritte Reich, Bd.2/1 – Diktatur, German Translation: Udo Rennert, London, 2005, p.274.

[2] Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: background, struggles and epilogue, Detroit, 1979, p.17-28.

[3] Baranowski, ‘Consent and Dissent: the Confessing Church and Conservative Opposition to National Socialism’, Journal of Modern History, vol.59 (1987), p.66-68.

[4] Helmreich, p.144-146.

[5] Helmreich, p.150.

[6] Helmreich, p.162.

[7] Helmreich, p.149.

[8] Helmreich, p.172.

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Conflicts, compromises and mutual self-interest - how the Nazis and the Catholic and Protestant churches dealt with each other during the Third Reich
Oxford Brookes University
The Nazi Dictatorship, 1933-1945
71 = A
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Conflicts, Nazis, Catholic, Protestant, Third, Reich, Nazi, Dictatorship, Nationalsozialismus, Reichskirche, Evangelische Kirche, Katholische Kirche, Kirche im Dritten Reich, Kirchen im Dritten Reich, Drittes Reich, Hitler, Bormann, Goebbels, Niemöller, Euthanasie, Graf von Galen, Rosenberg, Antisemtismus, Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Third Reich, National Socialism, Kirche, Dritten Reich, kirche, drittes reich, dritten reich, Papst, Enzyklika, encyclical, mit brennender sorge, with burning anxiety
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Sebastian Dregger (Author), 2008, Conflicts, compromises and mutual self-interest - how the Nazis and the Catholic and Protestant churches dealt with each other during the Third Reich, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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