Hitler hoped to reshape German Christianity.
Hitler hoped to reshape German Christianity.

The Lutheran Church was the dominant Protestant church in Germany in the 1930s, and was an important part of German culture and history. Like all other national organizations and symbols, the Nazi Party aimed to integrate German Christianity within the Third Reich. The rise of the Nazi Party and its cooptation of the church split the Lutheran community in two.

Martin Luther and the Nazis

The Nazi Party had argued that Hitler held the same beliefs and goals as Martin Luther. Martin Luther had warned the Germans against the Jews, and Luther’s writings, including “The Jews and Their Lies,” had been used by the Nazis to encourage anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis went so far as to say that Adolf Hitler was carrying on the work of Luther. The Nazi Minister of Education reflected these beliefs when he wrote, “I think the time is past when one may not say the names of Hitler and Luther in the same breath. They belong together -- they are of the same old stamp.”

The Reich Church

Pro-Nazis in the Lutheran Church, along with members of the Reformed and United churches, formed The German Christians' Faith Movement in the 1930s. The movement was lead by the Nazi Ludwig Mueller, who called for the unification of all Protestant churches into one national church supporting Nazi racial and nationalist ideology. The members of this movement accepted the Nazi doctrine of a German super race and the inferiority of other races, including the Jews. The Lutheran Church was merged with the Reformed and United churches of Germany to form the Protestant Reich Church, officially known as the German Evangelical Church, in 1933, and Ludwig Mueller was appointed “Reich bishop,” answering to the Nazi Party. The Reich Church banned the use of the Old Testament of the Bible based on its Jewish origin, and excluded Christians of Jewish heritage. By the late 1930s and the beginning of World War II, the Reich Church had raised "Mein Kampf" above all other books, and had replaced the cross with the swastika. This church was the dominant form of Protestant and Lutheran Christianity in Germany during the war.

The Confessing Church

Many Protestants, including Lutherans, resisted the nazification of German Christianity. These priests remained inside the German Evangelical Church, but refused to adopt the policies of the Nazi Party, some even going so far as to preach against these policies. This faction came to be known as the “Confessing Church,” in opposition to the Reich Church. They argued that their first allegiance was to God and not to a political leader. This “Kirchenkampf,” or “church struggle,” subsided towards the end of the 1930s, as many of the leaders of the Confessing Church were arrested.

Dissidents

Many Lutherans who opposed the Nazis found themselves in prisons or concentration camps during the war. Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran priest and one of the most outspoken members of the Confessing Church, was arrested twice. When arrested the second time in 1938, Hitler had him sent to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, where he spent seven years before being liberated by the allies at the end of the war. Initially supportive of the Nazi Party as a movement for national rejuvenation, Niemoller came to oppose the state’s interference in the church and its cruelty towards the Jews. Niemoller was especially critical of the failure of the German people to speak out against the Nazis, famously describing it this way: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”