Recently a Taber’s Truths article discussed what happens when a country becomes extremely non-Christian; it discussed the plight of North Korea over the past half-century (http://taberstruths.com/religion-in-north-korea/). But what is more discouraging (and alarming) is the fact that sometimes in history a predominantly Christian nation will allow the kind of brutal turmoil and leadership that North Korea has been forced to deal with. Once such striking example is Nazi Germany, and the lead-in to the World War II era.
In the early and mid 1930′s, as the Nazis (and Hitler) were taking more and more control and power, Germany was an overwhelmingly Christian nation. It is estimated that over 90% of its citizens were Christian. Germany had about 60 millions citizens at the time, with approximately 40 million Protestants and 20 million Roman Catholics. Yet, month by month and year by year a cunning leader (Hitler) and his political party led their country to such harrowing atrocities that directly resulted in the deaths of over 6 million Jews. Hitler also led many Germans and others into death via the battlefields of World War II.
But how could this happen? How could a Christ-fearing and following country allow this? Those questions are for another day, and for other historians, but we would like to take a look at two brave Christian men who stood up for morality and for God’s will- against personal persecution.
Not included in this article will be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the heroic pastor who was part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer is likely the most famous of the three in Germany who held their ground versus the Fuhrer, and as such there are plenty of other places to study this man and his missions. Rather, we will focus on Martin Niemoller and Pope Pius XI.
Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was an outspoken Protestant pastor who became a public foe of Adolf Hitler. He spent many years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Niemöller is quoted most often for the following admission: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out…”
Niemöller’s sermons were overtly nationalistic, and he believed that Germany needed a strong leader to promote national unity and honor. In fact, Niemöller voted for the Nazis twice– in the 1924 Prussian state elections and in the national parliamentary elections of March 1933. Niemöller, later in life, admitted that Hitler’s antisemitism reflected a more vicious version of his own prejudice at that earlier era.
Niemöller’s conflicts with National Socialism (the Nazis) begat via his opposition to the “German Christians”, a pro-Nazi tier within the German Protestant Church. The German Christians embraced Nazi racial ideology and supremacy and demanded that all Jewish elements, including the Old Testament, be excluded from Christian teaching and worship.
The Confessing Church, a Protestant church group, was founded in 1934 to oppose German Christian leadership, and Niemöller became a leader in this faction. One of the key arguments he made against the German Christians was the politicizing of church leadership positions was an unwarranted interference of the state in the apparatus of the church which served to hinder minority opinions within the Lutheran Church.
In January of 1934 a meeting of Adolf Hitler, Niemöller, and two prominent Protestant bishops discussed governmental pressures on churches. At this meeting it became evident that Niemöller’s phone had been tapped by the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) and that the PEL (a forerunner to the Confessing Church) was under substantial state scrutiny. Following the meeting, the two bishops signed a statement of unconditional loyalty to Hitler. However, Niemöller did not sign and began to see the Nazis as a dictatorship.
A charismatic preacher, Niemöller became widely known throughout Berlin for his sermons critical of the state. The following excerpt is from the www.ushmm.org site, and details the furthering strife between the pastor and the Nazis: “Despite warnings from the police, he continued to preach against the state’s attempts to interfere with church governance and what he viewed as the neo-paganism encouraged by the Nazis. As a consequence, Niemöller was repeatedly arrested between 1934 and 1937.
In July 1937, Gestapo officials arrested Niemöller again, charged him with “treasonable statements” and incarcerated him in the Moabit Prison in Berlin for seven and a half months, until his trial, in solitary confinement. In February 1938, he was convicted under the Law for the Prevention of Treacherous Attacks on State and Party and the Law for the Maintenance of Respect for Party Uniforms and sentenced to seven months detention and a fine of 2,000 Reichsmark. Although his prison sentence had been served awaiting trial, the Gestapo placed Niemöller under a protective detention (Schutzhaft) order and incarcerated him in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, again in solitary confinement.
Even while incarcerated, Niemöller remained a complex figure whose opposition to Nazism was juxtaposed with a strong nationalism. Whether because of emotional distress or a continued commitment to German nationalist and expansionist ideals, he attempted to reenlist in the Navy, appealing by letter from Sachsenhausen to Admiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the German Navy, in 1938 and again in 1941. In September 1939, he wrote to a former colleague in the military, asking that he be released from the concentration camp so that he could fight for Germany. In 1941, Gestapo officials transferred Niemöller to Dachau, where he shared a barrack room with Catholic dissenters and was permitted access to books.
After more than seven years of incarceration, Niemöller was liberated by US troops in Tirol, Austria, after being transported by the SS from Dachau along with other political prisoners. In 1947, he was elected as president of the Hessen-Nassau Lutheran Church and began a world tour preaching collective guilt for Nazi persecution and crimes against humanity. His ideas are best reflected in the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis), written mainly by Niemöller in October 1945 and issued in the name of the German Evangelical Church.
In the wake of Nazism, Niemöller’s prominence as an opposition figure gave him international stature though he remained controversial. In Germany, he quickly became unpopular because of his call for acknowledgment of collective German guilt. He emphasized the particular guilt of the German churches for their support of Nazism. Niemöller’s political discourse, however, continued to display some of the prejudices that led him to welcome the Nazi rise to power in 1933. He blamed the weakness of the parliamentary Weimar Republic for the rise of Hitler and failed to explicitly repudiate Hitler’s political aims, condemning unequivocally only Nazi interference in religious matters.
Niemöller also attacked Allied authorities for their handling of denazification proceedings, issuing an ecclesiastical edict forbidding church members from sitting on denazification arbitration tribunals. He also advocated the speedy release of German prisoners of war. Niemöller’s German nationalist sentiment never wavered as he railed against the division of Germany by the Allies, stating that he preferred unification even if it were under Communism. Nonetheless, Niemöller became a popular figure abroad. He delivered the opening address at the 1946 meeting of the Federal Council of Churches in the United States and traveled widely speaking about the German experience under Nazism.
By the mid-1950s, Niemöller had become a pacifist. He worked with a number of international groups, including the World Council of Churches, for international peace. Niemöller died on March 6, 1984 at the age of 92.”
Hitler came to power in 1933. Thereafter many citizens and observers grew increasingly worried. That same year the Vatican, to protect the interests of its followers, signed a concordat with the Reich. By 1937 the concordat had broken down, as Hitler disregarded it.
Pius XI was alarmed by the racist claims of the Nazis, and their disrespect for the Church. The Nazis restricted Catholic schools and presses and systematically destroyed Catholic organizations throughout the country. The following section of the website http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/ shares what would happen next:
‘In response, the Pope issued an encyclical on this day March 14, 1937. His agents smuggled this into Germany and Catholic clergymen read it on Palm Sunday in every church and cathedral. Fortunately, not a single copy had fallen into Nazi hands first.
“Mit brennender sorge…” it began. “With burning concern and mounting consternation we have been observing for some time now the cross carried by the church in Germany and the increasingly difficult situation of those men and women who have kept the faith…”
The failure of the concordat was not the fault of the church said the Pope. “Anyone who still has within him the slightest feeling for truth… will have to admit that in these difficult and eventful years which have followed the Concordat, every one of our words and every one of our deeds have been regulated by loyalty to the agreement…He will, however, also have to note with consternation…how for the other side [the Nazis] it has become the unwritten law of their conduct to misconstrue, evade, undermine, and in the end more or less openly violate the treaty.”
The encyclical especially urged Catholics to resist the idolatrous cults of state and race. “Race, nation, state… all have an essential and honorable place within the secular order. To abstract them, however, from the earthly scale of values and make them the supreme norm of all values, including religious ones, and divinize them with an idolatrous cult, is to be guilty of perverting and falsifying the order of things created and commanded by God…”
He denied the legality of recent forced school enrollments. “Conscientious parents, aware of their educational duties, have a primal and original right to determine that the children which God has given them should be educated in the spirit of true faith.”
The pope’s encyclical was but one of his statements against nazism. In a widely disseminated 1938 speech he reminded Christians that we are spiritual seed of Abraham and that therefore antisemitism is intolerable: “No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.”
Many Catholics suffered greatly for their faith during Hitler’s regime.’
In conclusion, both Pope Pius XI and Pastor Niemoller showed incredible courage and holiness in standing firm for God, and for His Church. Most men of this generation eventually caved to the powerful German dictatorship, but there were a number who risked their lives to do the right and moral thing. We should all look towards these men, and to their contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as role models for us to emulate.
(Portions of this article were researched via the following two websites: http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1901-2000/with-burning-concern-an-encyclical-11630763.html and http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391 )