The churches and the Nazis: how mainstream Christians betrayed Christ

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Perhaps, but there was also the confessing Church at the same time:

I think that’s like saying “perhaps” mainstream Christians were complicit in North American slavery.

There were also the Christadelphians at the same time. But The opposition of the Christadelphians and the Confessing Church (a tiny minority), does not contract in any way the fact that mainstream Christians and their churches were complicit in the Nazi regime and its aims. Some of them even apologized for this afterwards, making it difficult to argue they weren’t. The Catholic Church apologized characteristically late, in 1998. Still at least that’s a lot sooner than it took them to apologize for Galileo. I think denying the complicity of mainstream churches in the Nazi regime is equivalent to denying the Holocaust.

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I won’t claim to speak for @swamidass, but I interpreted his “perhaps” as simply a polite rhetorical adverb (a very common practice in American English) introducing the idea—to put this possible reasoning into my own words—that:

“Yes, many mainstream Christians under Nazi Germany, including many high-profile denominational leaders, betrayed their Biblical scruples. And many did not, although those disagreeing and even opposing the regime had to do so very carefully and behind-the-scenes. The latter group of Christians certainly was careful about keeping a low profile under penalty of death. That doesn’t mean that they did not try to do what they could to oppose what the Nazis were doing.”

For example, many Christians hid and/of assisted Jewish people who needed refuge. I know of some such Christians who didn’t even speak openly of those dangerous efforts until many years after the war was over. (As they explained it to me, even in post-war Germany an admission of having assisted Jewish people and other “enemies of the state” could lead to dangerous repercussions from grumbling Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers who believed that such people were traitors in wartime who helped contribute to Germany’s defeat.)

I don’t think anybody denies that many people in many churches in Germany bowed easily (and even enthusiastically) to Nazi ideology and policies. Even so, that’s not the whole story.

Of course, Jesus himself said that many would claim to follow him but not live consistent with that claim. The Parable of the Sower is also relevant in such regards. Claiming a Christian label is one thing. Living out the teachings of Jesus Christ is another.

It is a very common and tactful debating technique to introduce a reply which expands upon (and explains the incompleteness of the opponent’s premise) by using the word “perhaps.” If that is what Joshua Swamidass meant, then “perhaps” in this context is simply a rhetorical practice which says, “Yes, but there is more to the story.”


I recently finally got around to reading Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I’d bought back when the book was the new sensation…shows how slow I can be. The involvement of some of the Protestant churches was truly horrifying. Of course, there were some people of whom this was NOT true, including people whose opposition was truly heroic – but the overall pattern was clear. From the Catholics, willful indifference. From the Protestants, a mixed reaction but one that included a great deal of enthusiastic, full-throated support.

I think this isn’t really a surprise. People are horrible. And while some people use the ethical precepts of their faith to elevate their own ethical standards, other people just use the methods of their faith to generate excuses for behaving badly. Knowing, as I do, many of the former sort, it is immensely saddening to see how common the latter sort can be.

How on earth, I always wonder, could so many of the participants in the Holocaust have been the nominal followers of the man who said these words:

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

I am no Christian, but this passage (preferably stopping before Matthew 25:41) seems to me to embody the very best sentiment in the whole of the NT: the surprising identification of the divine Almighty not with the powerful but with those who are suffering or oppressed. But people who supposedly accepted these words committed the very deeds which these words should have prevented them from considering, and which indeed these words ought to have inspired them to resist. We are complex creatures, and not always in good ways.


Yes, many mainstream Christians under Nazi Germany, including many high-profile denominational leaders, betrayed their Biblical scruples.
And many did not

The first statement is indisputable. I would need to see substantial evidence for the second. The way you describe it here gives the appearance that German Christians were more or less evenly divided on whether to oppose or support the Nazis.

I find that mainstream Christians whose churches were complicit with the Nazis, want to use the minority of Christians who opposed the Nazis, as a fig leaf. Raise the fact that so many churches and Christians colluded with the Nazis, and immediately someone says “But how about these Christians who didn’t, why can’t we talk about them instead?”.

I find that particularly ironic given that their churches were the ones who not only spoke out against us and condemned opposition to the Nazis, but which in other contexts simply deny that groups such as mine even qualify as Christian. We’re supposedly a non-Christian group because we deny the Trinity, but when we need to be used as a fig leaf for the atrocities of other people, we’re suddenly baptized and accepted into the fold.

This isn’t in dispute. This looks like a highly motivated subject change.

Of course it’s not the whole story. No one says it’s the whole story. But when that fact is raised, and people immediately want to change the subject to “Well hey, a tiny minority of Christians wasn’t like that”, alarm bells go off.

I would like to think he didn’t mean “Yes, but there is more to the story, and let’s talk about that instead of the unpleasant stuff we don’t want to remember”.

Daniel. And yes it’s quite a read, I read it shortly after it was published. It does stray into the territory of determinism, almost characterizing the Nazi regime and its atrocities as the inevitable product of a unique German culture and anti-Semitism, and I think this is among its most serious weaknesses (of which there are several). But at the end of the day it does make the important point that the Nazi atrocities were not an artificial mindset thrust forcefully upon a reluctant population. They were a ground up phenomenon, not top down.

The Nazi regime can in many ways be seen as the triumph of German Lutheranism.

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I made no effort to quantity so I don’t know how you got the “more or less evenly divided” from my words. (I don’t think they were close to even at all.) So, to qualify my post, I am inclined to think that a significant majority went along with and even willingly endorsed the Nazi ideology (not always totally but their personal hesitations probably didn’t amount to much.) Many others were no doubt uncommitted either way and just passive—and went along to get along. In other words, people were people, just as today.

I’ve not personally observed much of that but it doesn’t surprise me to hear that many do.

Yep. As @Puck said, “People are horrible.” I agree. The Bible certainly agrees.

I didn’t get the impression that he was implying any of that but I’ll let him speak for himself.

Absolutely true. (Indeed, much of Europe had many centuries of anti-Semiticism and pograms. Germany wasn’t really all that different.)

I admit to a great deal of disgust toward the anti-Semiticism which was so common among centuries of German churches and denominations, especially the Lutherans. (In additional to the sheer numbers, I focus on the German Lutherans because of my familiarity with Luther and his writings. Martin Luther wrote shockingly disgusting things about the Jews, although some of his writings over the course of his life are mutually contradictory toward them.)

One of my biggest beefs is hearing people like Ken Ham and Ray Comfort (and far too many ID proponents) trying to blame Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution for anti-Semiticism and racism while ignoring the fact that Hitler gladly quoted Luther (but never Darwin) to justify his treatment of Jews. I’m so fed up with the “evolution brought us racism” nonsense.

I might be more inclined to write “the shame of German Lutheranism” but I certainly understand your choice of words.

To be even-handed, I probably should also mention that Roman Catholics in eastern Europe were to a large degree just as eager to attack Jewish people as were the German Lutherans in Germany.


I would agree with that criticism. And I did occasionally feel that Goldhagen tried to make conclusions his evidence did not fully support. But it was a strong and compelling book for just the reasons you state. It made a thesis forcefully of a very un-comforting sort.

I am, by the way, a German-named person in real life, and when young I looked like the Aryan ideal youth. When I started to see pictures of “ideal Aryan” boys in books about the Nazis, it was chilling – I could be those boys. And I do not doubt that distant cousins of mine (my family’s been in this country too long for close cousins) took part in those awful events. Occasionally, while working in a predominantly Jewish law firm, I felt a bit conspicuous. One secretary, when trying to explain who I was, described me (not in my presence) as “you know, the one who looks like a Nazi.”


@AllenWitmerMiller is correct.

The Confessing Church was appalled by the parts of the Church that were complicit with Hitler. To remember their story is to remember both sides.

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Oops. Thanks.

A major issue in the 19th century was the conflict between nationalists and internationalists. The former, in many countries, were authoritarian, exalted the superiority of their people, promoted a militaristic approach to conflicts, and scapegoated other peoples, and minorities within their own country. This was not only in Germany, of course. The scapegoats were blamed for being of the wrong race, and the wrong religion, and nationalists tried to form alliances with the reactionary official churches of their countries. Opposed to them were all kinds of left-wing and liberal movements. When Beethoven uses Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” with its declaration that “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”, or when Robert Burns says that “Man to man, the world o’er, shall brothers be for a’ that” they put themselves in the internationalist camp. I’m not a historian, but I think that this history is a more fundamental cause of movements like Naziism than just the religious teachings by themselves. Just wanted to get this out, now you all can go back to the issue of religion considered by itself.

Of course nowadays there are no political forces like that, right?


My father was German, and when I was young I was blond and blue eyed. I kept the blue eyes, but my hair turned a non-Aryan brown, and I never reached an appropriately Aryan height. My father’s mother was a Nazi.

When I say that I don’t mean she was simply prejudiced, or a racist, or a bigot, the way the term is so loosely thrown about these days. I mean she was a rabid Nazi, first an enthusiastic member of the Hitlerjugend, and later a fanatical member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterparte.

My father was born in 1949, and she was still trying to shovel Nazi propaganda into him, four years after Germany had been humiliatingly reduced to rubble. She simply could not accept that the Nazis were wrong, and tried to convince my father that the glorious FĂĽhrer had been shockingly betrayed by the Volk. He totally rejected all the madness she was spewing, and ended up becoming a card carrying member of the Communist Party.


To their credit, the JWs were one of the few churches that were not complicit.


Yes it was typically the non-conforming churches which resisted the Nazis and helped save Jews. We paid for this in the blood and suffering of those of our people who were persecuted or killed by the Nazis.

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Just got it. Wow, that’s quite an introduction.

This statement about the internationalist camp brings to mind the fact that the “Anthem of Europe” (used by the European Union and the Council of Europe) is based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” makes for a very stirring chorus.

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Wow. What a story.

My father grew up in a mostly-Lutheran German-speaking farming community in Wisconsin. Some years ago, I asked him how Hitler was received there. He was born in '25, so was old enough to have some recollection of it, and what he told me was that up until the US involvement in the war, Hitler was very well regarded by them as someone who was bringing Germany the respect it deserved among nations. But he said that when the war started, it was like flipping a switch from “on” to “off,” and they went anti-Hitler quickly.

My dad, sick of shoveling manure from barns, joined the Navy at the earliest possible age, but went to the Pacific, so did not fight the Germans as so many of those his age did.

Another book I recently got around to reading (had read snippets over the years) is Mein Kampf. It’s a strange book, to say the least.

One more miscellaneous Nazi note: I’ve been trying to get my 14-year-old daughter a bit of an education in film history, so a couple of weeks ago we watched Triumph of the Will. She smiled slyly at one point and told me that she was going to tell all her friends that her dad gets her to watch Nazi propaganda.

Good! It’s a very good read. Horrifying in every way, of course, but highly informative. There were some things detailed in there that I did not really know about except in broad strokes – particularly, the bizarre attempts to march prisoners around to keep them out of the hands of the allies when the war was plainly lost. If it were fiction, you’d have to dismiss a good deal of it as not very plausible, and yet it really happened.

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Cheers. I know most of the details of the history. I read the book about the police battalion, I forget the name, and I saw this was intended as a response to that. I remember being underwhelmed by its conclusions, so I was interested. Looking forward to getting into the details more. So far his arguments seem to make sense.

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Daniel Ang closed out my thread on “A scientifically viable model for a first human couple” and just when I had so much more to say. :slight_smile: We only had 328 posts, so what’s the problem? Jonathan Burke mentioned this thread on Churches and the Nazis so I thought I’d add some comments here to follow up and to respond to some comments which were left unanswered from my old topic. (That old thread did at times wander pretty far off topic.)

It seems to me that one of the very first questions we must ask is just how sure are we about how many Christians in Germany and surrounding countries were 1) strongly pro-Nazi, 2) complacently accepting of Hitler’s policies, 3) complacent but opposed to the Nazis, and 4) actively opposed to them. Do we have good statistics? Hitler’s Willing Executioners has been mentioned in the thread. Did it provide any statistics? Do we have any good grasp on the proportion of people who hid Jews or participated in resistance groups who were professed Christians, for example? My comments below are to a large extent from Carroll & Shiflett’s Christianity on Trial, ch. 5. These comments certainly mitigate the blame that can be placed on the churches both Catholic and Protestant, so I’d like to hear responses.

A second question we should entertain is just how many atheists and agnostics at the time fit into any of these four categories. With so many atheists in Hitler’s inner circle, this might at least suggest that the population had a higher number of Nazi atheists and agnostics, but it would be much more helpful to have statistics. This is an important question since I argued in my thread that atheists would have been less likely to rescue Jews in the holocaust than Christians and other theists who believed in an afterlife. Anyway, here’s my response.

First concerning the Protestants: Hitler tried to get his pro-Nazi “German Christianity” or “Positive Christianity” going early on. When it became apparent how anti-Semitic it was, one Protestant pastor, Martin Niemoller, started the Pastors’ Emergency League which later became the Confessing Church. Nearly 40% of the country’s pastors signed onto the League opposing the anti-Semitism. About 95% of the German people were baptized which indicates that most of the population would likely claim to be Christians even if many (or even most) rejected basic Christian beliefs. Few Christians were as public as Niemoller, and it put him in Sachsenhausen and Dachau until the war’s end. Christian opponents of less notoriety than Niemoller were just killed.

Concerning the Catholic Church, the concordat of 1933 was made before much was revealed of what Hitler would actually do and just after overtures and reassurances were offered to the church. The Catholic Church was seeking a concordat with Germany, as it had with other European countries, long before Hitler came into power. In exchange for remaining out of politics, it gave the church power to appoint bishops, control over their education, and other fragile rights—rights Hitler would soon disregard. Even earlier, Catholic publications commonly denounced Nazi “lies” and in some areas in Germany Catholics were forbidden to become Nazi party members and party members could not participate in church ceremonies. In ’37 Pius XI wrote the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”) strongly repudiating Nazi paganism and racism. Rosenberg’s racist book was put on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books. In ’41 when the euthanasia program—the mass murder of the handicapped, terminally ill, mentally ill, and retarded—came to light, Cardinal Galen gave a scathing denunciation which was distributed nationwide. Not wanting to make him a martyr at that time, Hitler promised he would exact his revenge when the war was over. In ’42 Archbishop Frings advocated for the right to life for all people, Msgr. Lichtenberg protested for the Jews (and died on his way to Dachau), and Cardinal Bertram wrote the government in the name of the German bishops against all ethnic and racial mistreatment. Dachau interned up to 2750 clergymen. Of the priests in Germany in ’32 (21,000), a third would clash with the Reich and several hundred were killed. In West Prussia two-thirds of the parish priests were arrested while the rest fled to escape. A third of those arrested were killed in the first month. Only three in a hundred were in their parishes by 1941. Murdered Polish priests numbered in the thousands. In Germany priests and pastors were sent to death camps for such crimes as “preaching love of neighbor, for insisting Jesus was a Jew, for warning S.S. men that they could not abjure their faith to achieve promotion, for offering requiem Masses even for relatives of Communists.” (William O’Malley, “The Priests of Dachau,” America, 14 Nov 1987, 352.) In France Christians hid some 8,000 Jewish orphans. In Poland where religious anti-Semitism was strong, Poles themselves massacred Jews at German instigation; yet a hundred thousand Jews were also sheltered by Poles, Poles who normally would profess to be Catholics. (Christianity on Trial, 138) Some original witnesses claimed that those Poles who participated in the atrocities were a small minority (Their Brothers’ Keepers, Philip Friedman, 167–68). The majority were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews but did nothing and another minority actively sheltered Jews and resisted the Nazis.

Christian anti-Semitism developed in outright contradiction to NT (New Testament) teachings. Of course, official Jewish opposition to Christianity, especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 70, fed the temptation to oppose Judaism. But the NT is very clear that the Jewish people, even those who strongly opposed Christian teaching and sought to kill followers of Jesus, were beloved for the sake of their ancestors (Rom 11.28). At a couple of points in his writings, Paul even appeared to be boasting of his Jewish ancestry. A Christian may oppose Jewish teaching insofar as it rejects Jesus but never the Jewish people. Jesus and his first followers, all of whom were Jewish, would have been appalled that any who claimed to be Christians would seek to harm anyone, especially a fellow Jew (see Matt 25.31–46). With time, nominal or corrupt Christian leaders could take power in the church and twist or ignore Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings and sway or coerce many professed Christians who were likewise inclined to their leaders’ prejudices. So it should not be unexpected that the church would eventually become so corrupt as to sometimes force conversions, wage wars, and torture and kill professed Christians who would deviate from official teachings. Even so, no pope or council ever authorized the killing of Jews. Less officially, some professed Christians advocated pograms and eventually even the holocaust. Yet no matter how corrupt the church might become, because most people had access to the Bible or its teachings, there were always individuals and movements popping up opposing the injustices.

Under Hitler’s regime, most professed Christians simply said nothing in order to survive, which in itself is not necessarily reprehensible. People who hid Jews or were engaged in other subversive activity or were open to the possibility of doing so certainly had good reason to remain silent and not to draw attention to themselves. I mentioned that some actually agreed with the anti-Semitism, which shows just how far a purely cultural Christianity can deviate from original NT teachings. Given the history of the church I just outlined, this should not be unexpected. Jesus’ teachings (e.g., the parable of the tares and wheat, Matt 13.24–30) foretold that the church would always have its fill of professed Christians who were not Christians at all. So it should not be unexpected that many professed Polish Christians could massacre Jews and yet so many others could risk their lives to hide them. When someone professes to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, and yet denies his most essential teaching—teachings like love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, do good to those who oppress you, do unto others as you would have done to yourself—the term “Christian” becomes meaningless.

One final point. Burke offered the image of the German soldier’s belt buckle (stamped with “Gott Mit Uns”) as though this constituted some kind of evidence. Hitler himself often claimed (at least early on) to be doing God’s work, to be a follower of Christ, etc. Yet he fully admitted in Mein Kampf that anything he said could be a lie stated solely for propaganda purposes. Someone as close to Hitler as Albert Speer recorded Hitler’s utter disdain for Christianity in his Inside the Third Reich . Imprisoned after the war when he wrote, he had no motive to lie about this. There was a strong emphasis in Nazi propaganda to say that God was on their side to appeal to the cultural Christian mindset of the majority of the German people. Yet this god was clearly a very different god from the God of the Bible. It was a god which honored the strong over the weak and the super-race over all others, a god who wanted only the strong to survive.

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