As the church doors swung open across Germany to accommodate the throngs of young brown-shirted Nazis, in parish after parish, they outnumbered—and out-voted—the members of the “Young Reformation Movement.” When the national synod convened, the Nazi takeover of the established church was complete. The new “German Christian” church leaders, in what became known as the “Brown Synod,” passed the Aryan Clause forbidding those of Jewish descent from serving in the church. Church steeples and altars were festooned with Nazi banners, robed clerics apishly saluting a Fuehrer who had publicly called upon Germans to “keep the church the church” and to insure that it did not become a competing authority with the state.
Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had led a group of young reformers against the brown shirts at the synod, believed it was time to pull out of the state church altogether, particularly after passage of the Aryan Clause, but the other most prominent church critic of the National Socialists, Karl Barth, believed they should stay and fight from within. Few stopped to ponder how the church had come to find itself in such a nightmarish quandary, and it was not at all apparent how, or if, the church could be pulled back from the precipice.
There are times when the current of history is a raging torrent and the strength and violence of that current is fed by headwaters that are distant and sometimes obscure. The history of Protestantism in Germany during the early 20th Century is such a whitewater time. There were many forces, tributaries if you will, that fed this river which found its most dramatic moment with the rise to power of National Socialism. Of course it is well known that the rise of German National Socialism ended with the dramatic waterfall of World War II where the course of the river was decided as National Socialism was dashed against the rocks.
What was the church doing, if anything, as Hitler was consolidating power and the true nature of National Socialism became apparent? Was the church complicit with the rise of Hitler, or was there a stand against the growing evil? There is one event that will serve as an indication of what the church was doing—The Synod of Barmen and the resulting Barmen Confession. As noted above, we have to search for the headwaters. Sometimes the headwaters are personalities, sometimes they are questions, and sometimes they are ideas; usually they are all three. There are at least four sources to the troubled waters of the early 20th century: Luther’s doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms”; the consolidation and imposed unity of the German Protestants by royal decree; the effects of World War I and the establishment of the Weimar Republic; and the rise of German nationalism, the concept of the Volk, with the coincident fall in church life and affiliation.
The basic issues of the relationship between the Kingdom of God, the Church, and the World were wrestled with as far back as Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. But Augustine did not provide the last word, and the Church still wrestled for a millennium until the time of that famous German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. It is Luther’s theological legacy which concerns us here. In particular, the early 20th Century German Protestants had to deal with the implications of Luther’s doctrines of the Two Kingdoms and the related doctrine of the Orders of Creation. Rightly or wrongly, Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms had come to be understood by the majority of Lutherans as a prohibition on the Church from “meddling” in the State’s affairs because the Church’s responsibilities are in the sphere of salvation and are a matter of faith, and the State’s responsibilities are in the sphere of justice and law and are a matter of reason. Even today it is a matter of debate if Luther actually taught this, but the reality is that in Germany in the 1920’s it was the predominate (or at least the more vocal) view, and one that was expressly embraced by the Nazis to promote church acquiescence in matters of state.
It is easy to see how this understanding would foster passivity in regards to the growing power—and abuse of power—of the State. But this doctrine was also buttressed by the parallel doctrine of the Orders of Creation. The doctrine of the Orders of Creation taught “that Christians, like all other human beings, exist in a framework of universal structures that are prior to and apart from the fact that Christians believe in Christ and belong to his Church. God has placed all human beings in particular structures of existence—such as nationality, race, sexual identity, family, work, government—that in some form or other are simply givens of creaturely existence. The law and commandments of God are revealed through these common created morphological structures of human existence and function apart from and in tension with the special revelation of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Followed to their logical conclusions, these theological positions lead to a particular destination as we will see later. These basic theological assumptions were used by theologians such as Paul Althaus to frame an understanding of the relationship between the Church and State.
The second source began in earnest in the early 19th Century. In 1817, Friedrich Wilhelm III sought to unify the fractured German churches by decree into a single, evangelical church and The Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union was founded. This forced unity never had the effect desired by Friedrich Wilhelm. Indeed, what ultimately occurred was that the State began to play an even larger role in the life of the Church and for the next few generations, both the leaders of the Church and the members became more and more comfortable with State authority in the Church and expressions of German nationalism. One hundred years later, this close relationship bore its inevitable fruit during the First World War. Thus, the third source is found.
At the outbreak of the War to End All Wars, the German Church leaders and theologians supported the war effort without qualification. Even the weapons and uniforms of the soldiers bore religious slogans. This war (from the German Church perspective) was a holy war. But as the casualties mounted, (two million Germans dead, plus thousands upon thousands wounded and maimed) the German populous began to turn away from the Church. When the navy mutinied and the November Revolution commenced, Germany surrendered and virtually all of the royalty and nobility fled the country. Out of these ruins, the Weimar Republic was born. The vast majority of the church leaders and theologians were not supporters of the new democratic Republic and yearned for the return of the monarchy. This reactionary attitude of the Church further alienated the Church members and the populous as a whole, but as the terms and effect of the treaty of Versailles became clear, the smoldering ember of German nationalism was stoked and the historic close relationship between the Church and the State re-emerged during the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler, National Socialism and the widespread concept of the German Volk.
This fourth source, the rise of National Socialism and the concept of the Volk is the direct context of the Synod of Barmen. It should be noted that this concept of Volk goes far beyond the ordinary translation into the English people or community. It had a deeper, almost mystical quality that reflected the idea of purpose and destiny. So, when Hitler referred to the Volk, he was not merely referring to Germans as a nationality or even an ethnic group, but he reached deeper and spoke to the collective aspirations, pride and to some extent the divinely-ordained purpose of the German people. To the National Socialists, the State was the natural expression of the Volk. This concept was also imbibed by many in the German Church. Many influential Church leaders were not only ill-equipped to face the rising danger of what Hitler represented, many even welcomed it! When viewed in the historical and ecclesiastical context, it is easier to see why so many were deceived into inaction and even cooperation. The Synod of Barmen is an example of a group of church leaders who tried to stand against what they rightly perceived as a growing evil and who attempted to call believers to do the same.
To give the reader a sense of the state of the church as Hitler came to power, we will look at one representative of those who were antagonistic to the aims of Barmen. Paul Althaus was professor of theology at the University of Göttingen and a notable leader. As he observed Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, he made the following observations:
Our Protestant churches have greeted the German turning-point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God… We accept the turning-point of this year as mercy from God’s hand… A state which begins to rule again according to God’s law deserves not only applause but also the joyous and active collaboration of the church… The disintegration of the right to punish into social therapy and pedagogy that had already gone a long way, has come to an end; punishment must again be inflicted in earnest retaliation. The new state is again daring to wield the sword of right. It has repudiated the frightful lack of responsibility of the Parliament and showed us again what responsibility means. It has swept out the smut of corruption. It protects against the powers of destruction in literature and the theater. It calls and educates our Volk to a new community will.
With the benefit of hindsight, these words of a notable Christian leader are all the more chilling, especially when we realize that his was one of many voices.
The Nazis were quick to consolidate power not only in the State, but also in the Church. Disunity could not be tolerated in either and the Nazis used the willing collaborators in the Church to impose their will. As the “German Christians” began to impose the racial and Volkish concepts on the entire Church, the beleaguered church leaders who opposed them called together a “free synod” on December 22, 1933, at Barmen for January 3rd and 4th. The call went out to those who still held to the authority of the Scriptures. Three hundred and twenty ministers and elders responded and the first of many free synods was held. It was at this synod that Karl Barth introduced the principles of what would become the classical statement of resistance to Nazi rule and policy in the German church—The Barmen Confession.
It is one of the curiosities of this period of church history that Barth would be one of the “heroes.” He, along with other theologians such as the Lutheran Martin Niemöller, who are rightly criticized for their destructive theologies, found themselves in the midst of a life and death struggle for the preservation of the church in Germany. The nature of the struggle brought together Reformed, Lutheran and Union churches and leaders in the common goal of resisting the growing tyranny in both church and state. Over the course of the following months, the various groups began to form into a more cohesive body which was beginning to be called the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing Church eventually held another synod at Barmen on May 29-30, 1934, at which a definitive declaration was to be made.
The declaration was the product of much discussion and some disagreement. Some of the Lutheran delegates objected to some of the language as being contrary to their Confession and the seeds of eventual disunion were sown, but the final declaration is a strong statement repudiating the idea of the totalitarian state as an exercise in idolatry, and rejected the subordination of the word and Spirit to the church or the leaders in the church. It was, in a manner of speaking, the Declaration of Independence for the faithful and believing church in Germany. Although the Declaration did not specifically address the persecution of the Jews, or specifically identify the Nazis with the errors cited, the declaration is nevertheless beautiful in its simplicity and also in its recognition of the heart of the issue, that Christ is the Head of the Church. Men such as Althaus reviled the declaration publically and issued a contrary confession that attempted to advance the “German Christian” ideas of Volk and state. Of course history tells us which view gained the upper hand for a time. Ultimately, the Confessing Church movement in Germany fell apart and the faithful churches in Germany suffered greatly.
It is a dangerous exercise to learn but one “lesson” from such times, for there is much that we should “never forget.” While we cherish the memory of those who stood for the faith against the claims of a messianic state, we must also soberly reflect upon how the church had all but abdicated its moral authority in Germany years before the rise of National Socialism.