FAITH AND POLITICS IN 1930S GERMANY: the Protestant Churches of Nauen District, Brandenburg
- WELCOMING HITLER
Twenty-five miles west of the centre of Berlin, and eleven miles outside its city limits, is the municipality of Nauen, in the Havelland district of Brandenburg, with eighteen thousand people living in the town and its surrounding villages. Havelland is a mainly farming and not densely populated part of the country, with difficult communications because of its many waterways and lakes. In the 1930s the population of the area was much the same as today, with twelve thousand living in the town itself. Its main claim to fame was a local radio transmission station, one of the earliest, which operated from 1906 to 1945.[i]
Nauen was also the centre for the local District of the Protestant (Evangelische) Old Prussian Union Church, with twenty-five parishes and another nineteen daughter churches.[ii] In the 1930s these parishes saw many struggles for power between the so-called “German-Christians”, whose ideology was strongly aligned with Hitler’s National Socialism, and those who belonged to the Confessing Church, which insisted on loyalty to the Scriptures and the Reformation Confessions. Others tried to maintain an uneasy neutrality between the two. (In the German language the term “German-Christian” consists of two distinct words, “Deutsche Christen”, but their emphasis on “Germanness” is perhaps made clearer in English if it is written with a hyphen. That is therefore the form adopted here, except when giving a translation of a speaker’s actual words).
Adolf Hitler’s appointment to the Chancellorship of Germany in January 1933 was greeted with general enthusiasm by the Protestant pastors and congregations of the Nauen District. Some were positively overjoyed, seeing the new regime as a potential for real renewal after the disastrous years they felt Germany had experienced during the past decade and a half. At the May 1933 District Assembly, Superintendent Grasshof, newly appointed the previous year, proclaimed their task now to be “the inner restoration of the German soul and of our beloved Protestant church”.[iii] In the rise of Hitler “God has spoken to our German nation through a great transformation. An epoch in German history has come to an end, a new period has begun…… What a miracle has come over us!”[iv] It meant, he said, the end of political disputes and moral laxity under new and strong leadership- and a time for the Church to help in cultivating a new and pure national character.[v] Pastor Gerhard Schumann of Nauen stressed the role of women in this new Germany: “We need holy German mothers, mothers who bring their children to the saviour of the world, who make their hearts warm for Jesus, the only one who can make them free for selfless, holy service for God and our beloved German nation.”[vi] And Pastor Cramer of Kremmen reinforced his words, urging women to be “ready for service” at this “fateful time for our nation”.[vii]
Other pastors, in their reports to the District, exulted in the increased attendances they were finding in their churches, and some, like Pastor Feder of Vehlefanz, gave the credit explicitly to the National Socialist take-over of the State, and to the German-Christians, the spiritual link with the new regime.[viii] Pastor Lux, of Gross Behnitz parish, reported: “The political movements of the last year and first months of this year have had a strong effect throughout our parishes. With them, everything has advanced in the greatest peace and order. On National Remembrance Day, for the first time, the swastika flag of the SA [“Sturmabteilung”, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party] stood beside the flag of the military association in the church, and the members of the SA in Gross Behnitz, Klein Behnitz and from the neighbouring towns took part in the Remembrance service en masse, in their brown uniforms.”[ix] Attendances on National Labour Day were the highest he had seen in his fifteen years in the parish- every household and all classes in the community were represented.[x] Herbert Kahle of Linum, one of the more extreme German-Christian pastors, said “The spiritual forces of faith, of confidence and of obedience are beginning to come alive again”, and his people had “joyfully greeted the fact that the National Socialist state considered the religious and moral forces of the gospel necessary for the recovery of the health of the nation.”[xi] Even Günther Harder, who at the age of twenty-seven had become pastor at Fehrbellin in 1929, and who was soon to become a leader of the Confessing Church in the district, acknowledged the increase in numbers, though without attributing any spiritual significance to the Nazi victory. In his rather “unchurchish” parish of two thousand people, he said, numbers were higher than had been seen since before 1914, and in late April 1933 540 people were present at a Sunday service.[xii]
Those pastors who were enthusiastic for Hitler were in step with many people in their parishes: in the local Potsdam First area the NSDAP [Nazis] polled 44.4 percent in the March 1933 federal general election, slightly higher than the 43.9 percent they achieved nationally. Both Social Democrats and Communists polled under twenty percent (nationally the SPD won 18 percent and the Communists 12), and in this predominantly Protestant area the Catholic Centre Party won fewer than five percent (11 percent nationally).[xiii] In the church elections held in July 1933 the German-Christians were overwhelmingly successful. They took control of the Brandenburg Prussian Church, and in Nauen District of the fifty-eight delegates to the district synod forty-seven were German-Christians (including twelve pastors).[xiv]
With the benefit of hindsight, we may wonder why so many clergy and congregations were taken in by Hitler. Some of the reasons went deep into the past history of the German Protestant churches, others were more recent. When Martin Luther’s 1517 Reformation was bitterly opposed by the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, it was protected by many local princes, who thereby earned the undying gratitude and loyalty of German Protestants. Luther’s theology distinguished between “two kingdoms”: a “spiritual” realm governed by God’s Grace; and a fallen world for which God had ordained “Orders of Creation”, such as Marriage, Economy and the State, to preserve it from total anarchy and chaos.[xv] These “Orders” must of necessity govern by Law, not by Grace, and in the State that responsibility is carried by monarchs, who had won from the people a loyalty that could become absolute- as King Frederick William I of Prussia from 1713 to 1740, declared: “Everything must be committed except eternal salvation- that belongs to God, but all else is mine”.[xvi] This union of Church and nation was cemented even more firmly in the resistance to Napoleon’s invasion at the beginning of the 19th century, and by the end of that century some were even beginning to speak of the nation itself as an Order of Creation, given by God and to be preserved at all costs.[xvii]
To Germany’s Jews, however, this growing Christian nationalism posed a deadly threat. Vilified for centuries as Christ-killers, their influence wildly exaggerated beyond their tiny numbers (less than 1 percent of the population), they were seen as an alien and corrosive influence. As late as 1948, after the full truth of the Holocaust had been revealed, Bishop Wurm of Württemberg, who had been a firm opponent of the German-Christian take-over of the Church, could still write: “Can one issue a statement on the Jewish question in Germany without mentioning the way Jewish literati, since the days of Heinrich Heine, sinned against the German people by mocking all that is sacred, and how in many areas the peasants suffered as a result of Jewish profiteers?”[xviii] In particular Jews were seen as the main instigators of the atheistic and revolutionary communism which seduced industrial workers in the 19th century, and in 1917 took control of Germany’s rival and enemy to the East.
The fact that Protestant churches had lost their hold on the industrial working-class of large towns only increased their sense of panic at the spread of communism. Not that workers had completely turned their backs on Christianity- most continued to want the Church to baptise their children, marry and bury them. Convinced atheists among their political leaders rarely openly attacked faith, expecting that religion would wither away by itself. But a Church rooted in rural villages where local landowners were the leaders struggled to transplant itself to mass urban communities. Attendances at Sunday service, particularly by male workers, succumbed to indifference. In Saxony before 1914, for example, congregations in the “controlled” (richtigen) villages varied between twenty and forty percent of the population, but in industrial towns it had fallen to between two and a half to eight percent, and in working-class districts as low as one percent.[xix] In Berlin also, where registered Protestants were nearly ninety percent of the population in the 1870s and still just over eighty percent by the beginning of the twentieth century, it was estimated in 1869 that in working class districts only one in a hundred would be found in church on a typical Sunday morning. Parish records dating from 1900 show that in Wedding, a district of heavy industry and large factories, the number of Protestants who attended communion during the year was as low as three and a half percent, while in parts of Luisenstadt, an area of small clothing workshops, with a good deal of home out-work for women, it was four and a half percent.[xx] From the middle of the 19th century there had been attempts to win back workers, and these reached a high point with Adolf Stöcker’s founding of the Christian Social Workers’ Party in 1878, offering a programme which was anti-capitalist and anti-union, but pro-monarchy and pro- the existing order of society, to counteract the influence of the “godless” Social Democratic Party. When this failed utterly, Stöcker turned to anti-semitism to win support, which proved equally fruitless.[xxi] The church’s leadership on the whole continued to regard a politicised working class as a threat to order and stability- the revolutionary Marxist ideology of SPD leaders may not have penetrated very deeply into the minds of the average worker,[xxii]but most clergy and church members did not appreciate that, and feared what could happen.
Added to these long-held prejudices was the bitter defeat of 1918 (to many a betrayal, in which again the Jews were implicated); the barely avoided Red Revolution which followed in Germany, Austria and Hungary; and the humiliations inflicted by the arrogant Allies in the Versailles Treaty. The loss of the beloved and trusted monarchy and its replacement by a parliamentary democracy seen by many as divisive and inept created a longing for strong and determined leadership which could revive German greatness, and would deal with the economic collapse caused by profit-hungry international capitalism. There were very few voices warning, as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a radio broadcast soon after Hitler became Chancellor, that “the Führer could very well turn out to be a Verführer” (seducer).[xxiii]
In the years following Hitler’s accession to power several pastors in the Nauen District continued to preach the need for a combination of Christian faith and Nazi ideology to revive Germany, and none more vigorously than Friedrich Siems, a leading member of the German-Christian movement. In 1935 Siems joined Gerhard Schumann as his assistant in the Nauen parish. In the same year Grasshof gave up the post of Interim (temporary) District Superintendent through ill health, and Schumann succeeded him. When Schumann himself retired in 1937, Siems became senior pastor at Nauen. He had been a member of the Nazi Party since before 1933, and was married to the local mayor’s daughter.[xxiv] In 1938 he gave an interview to Anna von Hofsted, a visiting Swedish journalist, in which he explained his ideas, referring to the text about what we owe to Caesar and what to God: “We pastors have other things to do than occupy ourselves with politics, if we want to give God what is God’s. Our struggle belongs to another realm than the political”.[xxv] But clearly for him Hitler was the “Caesar” who should have an authority in his “realm” which the Church must not question. His rule was an expression of God’s providential rule over the world.[xxvi] Germany, he said, needs a strong, united national (Reich) church, led by one Reich Bishop where ultimately both Protestants and Catholics can belong.[xxvii] “We serve God as we serve our brothers- in the first place, those who stand nearby in our own home nation.”[xxviii] The nation is one of the orders of creation, a God-given national identity it is vital to preserve by maintaining blood purity, a purity threatened by the presence of the Jews. They are at the root of Bolshevism and the high priests of capitalistic mammon. So we serve God if we remove them to a colony far away from the Fatherland.[xxix] In his Advent sermon that year he reflected on how Hitler had rescued Germany from a terrible fate: “We were once close to a red dictatorship of the kind which, in Spain and Russia, has burnt churches, murdered clergy, and denied God. We thank God that he granted our Führer to lead us from the abyss that sought to swallow us and the life of our churches. He has led us onto solid ground, where our church stands secure.”[xxx] In a letter in 1939 he attacked “Judaism and its fearfully destructive influences….. As German Christians, we have learned that the founder of Christianity had nothing, really nothing at all to do with the Jewish people, rather they were his sharpest opponents …… The personality of Christ is too great and too holy for us to bring it into connection with [those] who have become a curse for the whole world.”[xxxi] Even after he had joined the German army to fight on the Eastern Front in 1940 he wrote a letter of support for the appointment of a radical German Christian as curate for Nauen against the opposition of many members of the parish, complaining about the use of “parliamentary methods from a democratic past” and arguing that the parish must trust “people capable of judgement, who really stand in the contemporary, pulsating life of the Third Reich”.[xxxii] But a member of the District Synod attacked his ministry, claiming that ninety percent of the parish rejected the substitute for the gospel he had been preaching.[xxxiii]
The initial enthusiasm in the Protestant churches, followed by disillusionment, was seen not only at Nauen itself, but throughout the District. The numbers of new members more than tripled from 1932 to 1933, but by 1939 only one person became a member in the whole District. Withdrawals from membership halved 1932-3, but rose again by the late 1930s. The number of communicants rose by between 40 and over 80 percent in different parishes 1932-3, but fell by nearly a third from 1935 to 1939.[xxxiv]
Friedrich Siems may have been the most outspoken and forthright German-Christian pastor in the Nauen District, but he was not alone. Of the forty-two pastors who at one time or another served parishes in the District fourteen were explicitly German-Christian, while another three were generally supportive.[xxxv] In the next section, we will consider those in the Nauen District who came to oppose such a combination of Christian faith and Nazi ideology as the recipe for Germany’s hope and salvation.
This paper depends for most of its information on individuals in the parishes of the Nauen District on Kyle Janzten’s book “Faith and Fatherland: Parish politics in Hitler’s Germany”, published in 2008 by Fortress Press, Minneapolis, an account of Protestant churches in three districts of Germany in the 1930s, Pirna in Saxony, Regensburg in Württemberg, and Nauen in Brandenburg. In this first section it is supplemented by information from Matthew Hockenos “A Church Divided: German Protestants confront the Nazi Past”, published by Indiana University Press, Bloomington, in 2004; Thomas Nipperdey “Religion im Umbruch: Deutschland 1870-1918, published by C H Beck, Munich, 1988; High McLeod “Piety and Poverty: Working Class Religion in Berlin, London and New York, 1870 to 1914”, published by Holmes and Meier, New York and London, 1996; “The German Working Class, 188 to 1933: The Politics of Everyday Life”, edited by Richard J Evans, published by Barnes and Noble, New Jersey, 1982; and “No Rusty Swords”, Vol1, Letters, Lectures and notes from the Collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Edwin H Rovertson, published by Collins 1965 and Fontana 1970.
[ii] Kyle Jantzen: “Faith and Fatherland”, p110
[iii] Jantzen, p18
[iv] Jantzen, p18
[v] Jantzen, p18
[vi] Jantzen, p45
[vii] Jantzen, pp44-5
[viii] Jantzen, p48
[ix] Jantzen, p46
[x] Jantzen, p47
[xi] Jantzen, pp20, 23
[xii] Jantzen, p46
[xiii] Wikipedia article “March 1933 German Federal Election” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_1933_German_federal_election accessed October 2020
[xiv] Jantzen, p48
[xv] Eg Oswald Beyer “Nature and Institution: Luther’s Doctrine of the Three Orders” Lutheran Quarterly, Vol XII, 1998
[xvi] Perry Anderson “Lineages of the Absolutist State”, London, Verso, 1974, pp226-7
[xvii] Thomas Nipperdey “Religion im Umbruch”, pp107-8
[xviii] Matthew Hockenos “A Church Divided”, Indiana University Press, 2004, p150
[xix] Nipperdey, pp118, 120
[xx] Hugh McLeod “Piety and Poverty”, pp8, 10, 11
[xxi] Nipperdey, pp108-111
[xxii] Richard J Evans (ed) “The German Working Class, 1888-1933: The Politics of Everyday Life”, Introduction.
[xxiii] Edwin H Robertson (ed) “No Rusty Swords”, p198
[xxiv] Jantzen, pp27 and 86
[xxv] Jantzen, p29
[xxvi] Jantzen, p29
[xxvii] Jantzen, p30
[xxviii] Jantzen, p30
[xxix] Jantzen, p30
[xxx] Jantzen, p27
[xxxi] Jantzen, pp30 and 97
[xxxii] Jantzen, p89
[xxxiii] Jantzen, p31
[xxxiv] Jantzen, pp48-9
[xxxv] Jantzen, p113