The Persecution of the Christian Churches by the Nazis
Important Nuremberg Document Made Public
It is well-known that Hitler, his advisors as well as other Nazi leaders were immersed in the occult. In simple terms, they were magicians, adepts of Satan, and they were probably demon-possessed. Hitler’s mesmerizing speeches, the pagan symbols used by the Nazis (the swastika is a symbol of the revolving sun, fire, infinity and magic), their obsession with death and killing testify to this. Hitler is said to have been a member of the secret satanic Thule Society. He read books dealing with occultism and mysticism, practiced black magic and believed himself to be the Antichrist. The Nazi leadership was forced to participate in initiation rites and Satanic ceremonies. Moreover, Hitler demanded oaths of loyalty and worship from the multitudes.
Hitler’s involvement in the occult has been the subject of a number of books, mostly English, published in the last few years. We do not wish to elaborate on this subject. The fact that uncompromising real Christians and Christian Churches were persecuted as a consequence of the Nazis’ hatred of God and His children, is less known and less publicized. But a report of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s first central intelligence agency, prepared in 1945 for the Nuremberg War Crimes prosecutors, documents the persecution of the Christian Churches by the Nazis and it is posted now on the Internet site of the Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion. See The Nazi Master Plan, Annex 4: The Persecution of the Christian Churches (108 pages, Adobe Acrobat format).
The report “describes, with illustrative factual evidence, Nazi purposes, policies and methods of persecuting the Christian Churches in Germany and occupied Europe.”
Overview of the OSS report entitled “The Persecution of the Christian Churches”
National Socialism by its very nature was hostile to Christianity and the Christian Churches. Indications of this fact can be found in the speeches and writings of Nazi leaders, especially in Alfred Rosenberg’s book, entitled Myth of the Twentieth Century, the most important book of Nazi ideology after Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Christianity was incompatible with National Socialism, since it “could not be reconciled with the principle of racism, with a foreign policy of unlimited aggressive warfare, or with a domestic policy involving the complete subservience of Church to State. Since these were fundamental elements of the National Socialist program, conflict was inevitable.” The result was the Nazis’ systematic persecution of the Christian Churches in Germany and in the occupied areas throughout the period of the National Socialist rule.
The goal of the Nazis was to minimize the influence of the Christian Churches without declaring an open war on them and without adopting a radical anti-Christian policy officially. (This could be due to the fact that the Nazis came to power in a basically Christian country and continent, and an open war against Christianity would have meant the fall of the Nazis.)
Policies Adopted by the Nazis in the Persecution of the Christian churches
In Germany they adopted the policy of “gradual encroachment”, which meant that they pretended to be good friends of the Churches at first, then gradually deprived them of all opportunity to affect public life; persecuted those Christians and priests who criticized the Nazi regime and sent many of them to prisons or concentration camps. This plan had been established even before the Nazis came to power.
The Catholic Church
Before the Nazis came to power, the relationship between them and the German Catholic Church was bitter. In their speeches, the Nazi leaders attacked the Catholic Church. Catholic bishops in turn considered the Nazi movement anti-Christian and forbade the clergy to participate in ceremonies where the Nazis were officially represented. Catholic priests spoke out against National Socialism and denied Nazis the sacraments and church burials. Catholic journalists criticized National Socialism in Catholic newspapers.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, they wanted to liquidate the political opposition, especially the Communists, and they sought an ally in the Church for this. To gain the support of Catholics, the Nazi government forbade anti-religious and anti-Church propaganda and closed secular schools. In return they requested Catholics to refrain from political activity. The Catholic hierarchy then lifted all restrictions imposed on members of the Church adhering to the Nazi movement, and as a result many Catholics joined the Nazi Party.
On July 8, 1933, a Concordat was signed in Rome between the Holy See and the German Reich. Under this treaty, the freedom and the rights of the German Catholic Church, its organizations and its schools were guaranteed. In exchange they had to promise loyalty to the Reich government and had to withdraw from the political scene. The negotiations were conducted in secret over the heads of German Catholics and bishops. The Center Party, a political organization of the Catholic Church, was forced to “voluntarily” dissolve itself.
After the consolidation of the regime, the relations between the Nazi state and the Catholic Church worsened. The Nazis resumed their campaign against Christianity and stripped the Church of all its more important rights. The opposition of the Catholic Church to the Nazi movement grew. Nazism was branded as an enemy of Christendom. The Nazis sent many priests and Christians to prisons and concentration camps and persecuted the Church in other ways, too. In March 1937, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical entitled “Mit Brennender Sorge” (With Deep Anxiety) and in it denounced the violations of the Concordat by the Nazi state and described the actions of the Nazi government against the Church as “intrigues which from the beginning had no other aim than a war of extermination”.
The Evangelical Church
To gain control over the German Evangelical Church, which had a democratic constitution, the Nazis imposed a centralized organ of administration on it, headed by a Reich Bishop, whose election was controlled by the Nazis. In this way the Nazis succeeded to plant their own man into the bishop’s seat. As a consequence, the freedom of the pastors became limited and religious associations were dissolved. But the attempt to control the Evangelical Church by these means failed, because some bishops refused to yield to pressure. They were placed under house arrest. Opposition in the Church succeeded in uniting a large part of Evangelicals in protest against the Reich Bishop, who did not resign, but faded from the scene. He was gradually superseded by other agencies of Nazi control.
In 1935, Evangelical churches were deprived of their right to sue before the regular courts, thus of protection in civil courts. A new administrative court was set up for church matters except questions of faith and worship, whose president was a Nazi appointee. Moreover, Hitler created a Reich Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs, which was empowered to issue ordinances. This meant Nazi control over the entire Church administration. Church leaders addressed a memorandum to Hitler denouncing the anti-Christian acts of the government. The majority of the ministers who attacked Hitler and the Nazis in their speeches and writings were silenced by being put into concentration camps or by being prohibited to speak or write.
The Christian Sects
“Certain of the smaller Christian sects, especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Ernste Bibelforscher) and the Pentecostal Association (Freie Christengemeinde) were particularly objectionable from the Nazi standpoint because of their advanced pacifist views. Since they were without important influence at home or abroad, it was possible to proceed against them more drastically than against the larger Christian Churches. Both groups were therefore declared illegal and there were times when almost no adherent of either group was outside a concentration camp.”
Incorporated and Occupied Areas
In incorporated areas, local Churches were feared primarily as potential centers of national resistance to German domination. They were severely persecuted. In occupied areas, where the Churches cooperated with the occupying authorities, such as Slovakia, they were favored. In countries where the local churches supported national resistance, such as Poland and Norway, they were persecuted.
Methods Used to Implement the Policy of Persecution
Interference with the Central Institutions of Church Government
The Direct Seizure of Central Institutions of Church Government
This was the case with the German Evangelical Church, as we have discussed above. In the case of the Norwegian National Church, a state Church to which 98.6% of the Norwegian population adhered, the Nazis placed pro-Nazis in charge of its central organization after they invaded Norway. As a result, almost all Norwegian pastors resigned their public office and salaries on Easter Sunday 1942.
Interference with the Normal Operation of Central Institutions of Church Government
In the case of the Catholic and some Protestant Churches, the Nazis were unable to gain control of their central governing institutions, therefore they tried to prevent those institutions from operating. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Pentecostal Association were declared illegal, their members were persecuted and sent to concentration camps. The central governing organ of the German Confessionals, a Church made up of protesting Evangelicals, was declared illegal.
Another method to control Christian Churches was the imposition of financial control on their operation. The principal Christian Churches of Germany were supported financially by state collected church taxes. To control these Churches, it was sufficient to deprive them of all other sources of revenue and to impose state restrictions on the expenditure of state collected funds. For example, state controlled finance departments were set up for the German Evangelical Church in 1937. At the same time, severe restrictions were placed on the right of churches and other organizations to solicit contributions.
Nazis also interfered in the communication within churches. The telephone conversations of the bishops were under constant surveillance by the police. In some cases their offices were raided by the Gestapo.
Interference with the Persons of the Clergy and of Lay Workers
Systematic propaganda campaigns were carried out against the clergy to depict them in an unfavorable light. Church leaders were frequently attacked, mobbed and insulted by the SA, the SS, the Hitler Youth and other Nazi organizations. Many Catholic and Protestant ministers were removed from office, arrested, imprisoned or sent to concentration camps for their pacifism and criticism of the Nazis. The Nazis didn’t want to “create martyrs”, nevertheless they murdered a large number of Christians.
Interference with the Activities of the Clergy
The Closing of Church Buildings
Used primarily in the incorporated and occupied territories, such as western Poland and Norway.
Interference with Freedom of Speech and Writings
All discussion of the Church question in the press, in pamphlets or in books was prohibited by the Minister of Education in 1934. The next year, professors of theology in the universities were ordered not to participate in the church dispute. In 1935 the Propaganda Ministry imposed censorship before publication on all church periodicals and on all writings and pictures multigraphed for distribution. In 1937 the Reich Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs threatened to confiscate or prohibit any printed pastorals.
A few cases: on Palm Sunday, 14 March 1937, the Papal Encyclical letter about the situation of the Catholic Church in Germany, “Mit Brennender Sorge” (With Deep Anxiety) was read in most Catholic churches in the Third Reich. The Nazis retaliated by closing the printing offices, seizing the duplicating machines, confiscating the copies and arresting people who distributed or transcribed the text. Similar measures were taken against the Encyclical of October 1939 by Pius XII (Summi Pontificatus), pastoral letters which dealt with Catholic principles of education and the hardships of Catholic organizations, or complained about restriction set on the freedom of the Church. In 1936 a Catholic Sunday paper was suspended because it printed a sermon entitled “The Threat to Catholic Faith.” An Evangelical pastor’s memorandum entitled “The State Church is Here” was confiscated in 1935. In 1937, three Evangelical Christian leaders issued a declaration in which they protested against a Nazi demand that the German nation give up the Christian faith. Nazis closed the printing shop and confiscated printed copies of this declaration. Evangelical leaders issued a manifesto against the New Paganism of Alfred Rosenberg. When the pastors “read this Manifesto from their pulpits, some 700 of them were arrested, 500 to be put in prison and 200 under house arrest. When the ministers continued nevertheless to read the Manifesto, fanatical Nazi governors made use of the concentration camp.”
Interference with the Educational Functions of the Clergy
The Nazis wanted to eliminate the Gospel, the clergy and the Christian influence from education. Principal elements:
The Closing of Theological Seminaries. Cases: in 1939 the theological faculties of the University of Munich and the University of Graz were closed. The lesser seminaries in Austria were all closed. In 1938 the theological faculty at the University of Innsbruck, a seminary connected with this faculty, and the theological faculty in Salzburg was closed. In March 1944, the last remaining independent theological school in Norway was closed.
The Closing of Denominational Schools. Before the Nazis came to power, the majority of private and public elementary schools in Germany were denominational schools. The Concordat guaranteed the right to maintain Catholic denominational schools and to establish new ones, and to employ only Catholic teachers in these schools. Religious orders and congregations were entitled to establish and conduct private schools. In spite of this, the Nazis tried to eliminate all religious influences from education. They targeted secondary schools directed by religious orders at first. Catholic orders and congregations had altogether 12 secondary schools for boys and 188 for girls, which were gradually eliminated. The c 1600 teachers who were members of religious orders were eliminated from the c 400 public elementary schools for girls in 1937. In 1938 the Ministry of Interior in Vienna deprived all private schools in Austria of public recognition and rights, then closed them finally. In 1939 the Bavarian Ministry of Public Instruction forbade the clergy to teach in secondary schools. In Bavaria and other districts, most of the denominational primary schools were converted into National Community Schools. “At the time of the outbreak of the war, the abolition of the Catholic denominational schools was complete.”
Elimination of Religious Instructions From Other Schools. Religious instruction was provided, for those who wished it, in the public schools under the Weimar Republic. The continuation of this system was guaranteed by the Concordat, but the Nazis set to eliminate this as rapidly as possible: religious instruction was curtailed in schools, teachers were influenced to refuse the teaching of religion and Catholic religious text books were vetoed. “At the time of the outbreak of the war denominational religious instruction had practically disappeared from Germany’s primary schools.”
Interference with Christian Organizations
Catholic organizations were protected under the Concordat. But the Nazis quickly began to suppress the activities of both Catholic and Protestant Church organizations. After the occupation of Austria, all Catholic associations were dissolved in that country. The same was attempted in Germany, but gradually. The organizations affected were the following:
The Concordat guaranteed the foundation and protection of any number of Catholic religious orders and congregations, the free selection of their members, their pastoral activity, education, affairs and administration. These guarantees were violated in many cases. Franciscan Friars were closed in Germany. In Austria different religious orders were dissolved or their properties confiscated, such as the society of Christ the King, the old abbeys of Goettweig, Admont, Engelzell, the nuns of Eggenberg and Mariazel, a Benedictine foundation, Franciscan friars, Cistercians.
The Youth Movement
Christian youth organizations exerted Christian influence over the youth of Germany and they were rivals to the Hitler Jugend, therefore the Nazis wanted to abolish them. On December 17, 1933 by the order of the Reich Bishop, the entire Evangelical Youth Movement with more than 700,000 members was placed under the leadership of the leader of the Hitler Youth. The Catholic Youth movement was protected by the Concordat, but the Nazis began a campaign to destroy it through restrictions and persecution. A decree issued in 1933 forbade simultaneous membership in the Hitler Youth and in denominational youth organizations. In 1935, all not purely religious activity was forbidden to denominational youth associations. “Every method of propaganda and coercion was employed in order to bring all German youngsters into the Hitler Youth and to prevent them from joining denominational organizations. Finally the Catholic Youth associations were simply forbidden in entire districts of the Reich. Physical terrorization did the rest… By 1938, in almost all districts of the Reich, the Catholic Youth Associations had been dissolved.”
Other Church Organizations
The Catholic Workers Associations and other adult organizations were put under pressure. For example, the head of the German Labor Front forbade simultaneous membership in the Labor Front and in denominational professional organizations. After a few years these Catholic organizations were forbidden, district by district, and some of them ended by self-dissolution, such as the Catholic Teachers Organization, Catholic student fraternities, etc.
Organizations Bearing Particular Responsibility in Connection with the Persecutions
In the persecution of the German Evangelical Church, the principal part was played by the Reich Bishop and his collaborators on the Spiritual Council before 1935, then by the Reich Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs. The German Evangelical Church’s chief legal and administrative department, the Church Chancery, was also responsible. Financial control over this Church was maintained by its state controlled finance departments. The group called German Christians, renamed Luther Christians in 1938, played an important part in the persecution of the German Evangelical Church. Lesson: as there are wolves among the sheep, so were there traitors among Christians during the Nazi regime, especially top-level leaders, who sold out to the Nazi regime and took part in the persecution of Christians and lower priests.
Unreligious organizations responsible for the persecution of Christians: Reich Education Ministry; Reich Propaganda Ministry, which issued orders for the censorship of Church publications and was responsible for the systematic campaign of defamation waged against the German clergy; Reich Ministry of the Interior, which was the principal agency for direct government action in Church affairs prior to the creation of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and which issued orders curtailing freedom of discussion; the police forces controlled by the Ministry of Interior; the Gestapo, that is the political police; the SS, the SA and the Hitler Youth, which were responsible for most of the acts of intimidation and violence against the clergy and laity beside the police; the German occupation authorities in occupied areas, such as Norway and Poland, where the persecution of the Christian Churches was the most severe.