Ambivalence, Association, and Avoidance as Christian Responses to Nazi Antisemitism and Racial Policy

On November 9, 2017, I had the honour of participating in the annual Kristallnacht Pogrom remembrance sponsored by the Calgary Jewish Federation and the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews, at the Riddell Library, Mount Royal University, Calgary. I presented the following lecture, entitled, “Ambivalence, Association, and Avoidance as Christian Responses to Nazi Antisemitism and Racial Policy.” I have added some images and links to this web version, to illustrate and expands on some of the ideas I discussed. To listen to an audio version of the lecture, please click here.

I would like to begin by thanking the Calgary Jewish Federation and the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews for their kind invitation to me to speak tonight about the German churches in the Third Reich and Christian responses to the antisemitism and the racial policy of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist regime. I would also like to thank Mount Royal University for the use of this lovely venue: the Riddell Library.

Burning of a synagogue in Rostock, Germany. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

My lecture tonight arises out of four distinct contexts. The first one we’ve already recognized. We meet on November 9, the 79th anniversary of the Kristallnacht Pogrom—the Nazi-orchestrated attack on Jewish synagogues, businesses, homes, and families. On the night of November 9-10, 1938, some 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed, mostly by fire, as sacred Torah scrolls were unfurled, thrown into the street, trampled upon, torn apart, and set afire. Some 7500 Jewish businesses were smashed and looted. More than 90 people were killed, and roughly 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and marched through the streets and out to concentration camps like Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, where hundreds more died from the violence they endured there. The Kristallnacht Pogrom was a watershed moment in the journey from the persecution of Jews in the pre-war era to the annihilation of Jews in the wartime Holocaust. This we remember.

Second, we are only two days away from Remembrance Day, November 11, when we remember the courage and sacrifice of men and women who have served in the Canadian military. In particular, we honour those who died in the battles of the First and Second World Wars and in subsequent conflicts—even to recent military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq—those who fought for freedom and against dictatorship. In the words of John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, we “keep faith” with the more than 100,000 Canadians who have fallen in battle. This too we remember.

Third, it must be said that we come together in an era of unusual political turmoil—a time in which racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism are more prevalent, more visible, and more politically acceptable in the Western world than they have been for quite some time. Of course, most North Americans and Europeans would still condemn these hostile ideologies as unacceptable—even evil—but a troubled and troubling minority somehow feels justified to fly Nazi flags, march in torchlight parades, chant racist and antisemitic slogans, and pollute the Internet. This we condemn.

Finally, we are gathered in the presence of the Montreal Holocaust Museum’s travelling exhibition, “United Against Genocide: Understand, Question, Prevent.” If you have already viewed it, you have understood its message: by examining the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan Genocides alongside the Shoah, or Holocaust, we can better understand the crime of genocide and the processes (or stages) through which it develops, from classification and symbolization through to extermination and then denial. We see also that striving to bring perpetrators of genocide to justice and transmitting the memory and history of genocide are keys to preventing future atrocities.

Speaking at the November 9, 2017, Kristallnacht Pogrom remembrance. Source: Kelly Johnson, by permission.

With these four contexts in mind, I would like to describe for you tonight a sampling of the responses of Christians in Nazi Germany to the antisemitism and racial policy of that regime. Some of what I say will apply to the Roman Catholic Church, but most of my examples will revolve around the ordinary Protestants I’ve studied over the years.[1] To begin, I will sketch the impact of the Nazi seizure of power on those ordinary Protestants who comprised over 60 percent of the German population. Only then will we have the necessary background to understand their responses to Nazi antisemitism and racial policy. My intention is to structure my talk around three kinds of Protestant Christian responses: ambivalence, association, and avoidance. In this way, I hope to convey at least a sense of what Christians in Nazi Germany were thinking, saying, and doing—or not doing—about the antisemitism and racism which had erupted around and among and within them. Although I will tell you about a few laudatory responses, they are the exceptions. The history I will share tonight is largely a cautionary tale. These are stories of Christians who largely failed to bring the significant moral issues of antisemitism, prejudice, racism, and predatory violence under the judgment of the Christian Gospel of love and mercy with which they claimed to identify.

The Impact of the Nazi Seizure of Power on the Christian Churches

It is by now fairly well known that German Protestants—most of them conservative nationalists—celebrated Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor on January 30, 1933. The illusion that Adolf Hitler and National Socialism offered a preferred future for the Protestant churches was reinforced by the Nazis’ vague language and promising symbolism. From its earliest days, the Nazi Party Program advocated a form of ‘Positive Christianity’ that would correspond to the sensibilities of the German Volk (people, nation, racial community) and fight against “the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad.”[2] At the beginning of his rule as chancellor in the spring of 1933, Hitler gestured symbolically towards Christians by holding the (March 21, 1933) opening of the new Reichstag (parliament) and the installation of the new government at the historic Garrison Church in Potsdam. In a famous speech given in those days (March 23, 1933), he proclaimed:

Today Christians and no international atheists stand at the head of Germany. I speak not just of Christianity; no, I also pledge that I will never tie myself to parties who want to destroy Christianity […]. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit, not just theoretically. No, we want to burn out the rotten developments in literature, in the theater, in the press—in short, burn out this poison which has entered into our whole life and culture during these past fourteen years.[3]

National Socialists were encouraged to participate in church life as part of the struggle against godless Bolshevism and for the recovery of traditional German values. How could Christian leaders not be delighted? German Catholic bishops retracted their prohibition against joining the Nazi Party, while Protestants hailed the “national renewal” and the “change in the Volk and state.”[4]

Among ordinary Germans, the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 generated a surge of religious nationalism that swept through parishes and animated clergy. To give one dramatic example among many, in the church district of Nauen, just northwest of Berlin, pastors reported a dramatic renewal of church life in the early months of Nazi rule. Pastor Lux of Groß Behnitz described the “strong effect” of Hitler’s rise to power: “peace and order,” record church attendance from across the social spectrum and throughout the local community, the presence of Nazi and military flags together in his church, units of Nazi SA (brown shirts) attending a holiday church service en masse and in uniform, political speeches affirming the importance of the churches in the Nazi “national renewal,” and requests for the pastor to hold special church services on Labour Day, or for the volunteer fire department, or for the local military association.[5]

Statistically, too, 1933 was something of a wonder year for Protestants in the Nauen district. Church memberships increased 350 percent, with almost all the growth coming from those previously estranged from Christianity. Membership withdrawals dropped virtually to zero. Participation in communion rose 20, 40, and even 80 percent in some parishes. And over 200 unbaptized children were belatedly baptized in 1933 and 1934, as new church members regularized the sacramental status of their previously unchristian families.[6]

Kyle Jantzen, Faith and Fatherland: Parish Politics in Hitler’s Germany (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008)

The fact that many clergy experienced this exciting revitalization of church life in their parishes is vital for understanding their responses to Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist government during the opening years of the Third Reich. Nazis seemed to espouse traditional values in family, religious and national life, which pastors found conducive for their ministries. Indeed, in Nauen and other districts I’ve studied—Ravensburg, in the southern state of Württemberg, and Pirna, in Saxony—clergy believed that the resurgence of patriotism and confidence accompanying the new National Socialist government would also bring with it a moral renewal of Germany, a cleansing of the worldliness and secularism that was associated with the preceding socialist governments. They also believed—with good reason, they thought—that Hitler was calling them to participate in this imagined moral renewal. And Protestant pastors supported Hitler because he vanquished the communists—those atheists and destroyers of morality who were seen to be threatening Germany and all Europe. Pastor Dr. Karl Steger of Friedrichshafen in south Württemberg summed up the feelings of many clerics when he publicly thanked God, “who through our Führer saved us at the last minute from the Bolshevist terror.”[7]

It is important to note that this initial efflorescence of Christian fervour did not last. By 1935, parish clergy were complaining that Nazis were disinterested in or even hostile towards Christianity. The Hitler Youth was crowding out Protestant youth activity on the weekends and Nazi teachers were undermining religious instruction in schools. Local politicians no longer sought out pastors to participate in public events, and the thousands of new parishioners who had swept into German churches in 1933 vanished almost as quickly.

Indeed, it did not take long for the Third Reich to grow into the aggressively dictatorial party-state we think of today. For the German churches, two aspects of Hitler’s rule were particularly important. First, the process of Gleichschaltung by which the Hitler state attempted to coordinate all occupational, cultural, and institutional life under the control of the Nazi Party greatly increased the footprint of the Nazi party-state in German society, dramatically reducing the role of the churches in welfare activities, education, youth work, women’s and men’s associations, and trade unions—not to mention its diminishment of the cultural authority of Christian clergy and the influence of Christian morality.

Second, and related to this, the Nazi state was—to invoke the title of the Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann book—a “racial state.”[8] In other words, the Nazi party-state attempted to remake Germany along racial lines—divinizing the so-called Aryan master race and demonizing the so-called Jewish Untermenschen (sub-humans). Along these lines, Alon Confino’s recent book A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide is a penetrating analysis of the culture of this “racial state.”[9] We see that Nazis attempted to destroy Jews and Judaism in order to create a new civilization, a new morality, and a new humanity—in short, a new national story.[10] At several points in the book, Confino includes long lists of some of the 1,448 different legal measures by which Nazis removed Jews from the social, political, economic, and cultural life of the Third Reich.[11] For the churches, this obsession posed a serious question: how would they respond to the rise of the “racial state”? How would they respond to the creation of “a world without Jews”? How would they respond to Nazi antisemitism and racial policy? The answer I will offer you tonight is threefold: ambivalence, association, and avoidance.


Hitler’s “racial state” forced Christians in Germany to grapple with the relationship between their membership in the German racial community and their membership in the universal church—whether in its Catholic or Protestant forms. This generated a great deal of ambivalence—uncertainty, fluctuation, and the tendency to articulate opposing or conflicting ideas about race and Christianity. To be sure, leading Nazis themselves created much confusion by conflating their racist ideology with Christianity. Hitler himself referred to Jesus as both “the true God” and “our greatest Aryan leader.” At a Christmas celebration in the mid-1920s, he explained that the goal of his political movement was to “translate the ideals of Christ into deeds,” and to complete “the work which Christ had begun but could not finish.” This work, he explained, was to instill a religious ethic in German society, “to put an end to the constant and continuous original sin of racial poisoning, and to give the Almighty Creator beings such as He himself created.” In other words, Christianity, such as Hitler understood it, meant cultivating racial purity and fighting Jews.[12]

Members of the Faith Movement of the German Christians celebrating the Luther Day, November 19, 1933. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the years leading up to the Nazi seizure of power, this same intermixture of racial and religious language marked the pro-Nazi Protestant group, the Faith Movement of the German Christians. Their 1932 “German Christian” program declared: “We stand on the basis of positive Christianity. Ours is an affirmative, truly national faith in Christ, in the Germanic spirit of Luther and of heroic piety….” It continued, “We want our church to be fighting in the forefront of the decisive battle for the existence or eclipse of our people. It must not stand aside….” And later, “We want a Protestant church rooted in our own culture.”[13]

Theologically, Protestants were influenced by the theology of the orders of creation (Schöpfungsglaube), a politicized theology that exalted the German racial community, the family, and the state as “God-ordained.” As theologian Paul Althaus asserted, “Volk and Volkstum [volkishness] are God’s creation and gift…. We cannot think of volkishness without thanking God.” And a few years later, he listed the things that God had given him “out of the well-spring of my Volk: the inheritance of blood, [physical form], the soul, the spirit. God has determined my life from its outermost to its innermost elements through my Volk, through its blood, through its spiritual style…. As a creation of God, the Volk is a law of our life.”[14] According to this influential theology, Christians would honour God by diligently cultivating the uniqueness of their racial heritage, while racial mixing could only taint the divine revelation.

It would be hard to overstate the amount of airtime that this concept received within the German Protestantism of the 1930s. The relationship between the German Volk and the Christian faith was the single most important theme that the pastors I’ve studied discussed in their monthly pastoral conferences, and was the subject of many academic lectures they presented to one another throughout the 1930s. A few examples will illustrate my point: church trustee David Kuhn of Kiβlegg, Württemberg, expressed a deep longing for German Protestants to work for the “spiritual melding together of the nation” and to take up the fundamental priority of National Socialism: “the Volk community.”[15] His colleague in Friedrichshafen, Pastor Karl Steger, summed up the veneration of the German racial community with the simple slogan: “One God, one Christ, one Volk.”[16] Over in Nauen, Brandenburg, Pastor Friedrich Siems wrote, “We serve God as we serve our brothers—in the first place, those who stand nearby in our own home Volk […].”[17] Down in Saxony, Pastor Ernst Ranft of Helmsdorf actually reimagined Christian salvation in light of the National Socialists’ mission to the German racial community. In a highly-charged talk delivered to his fellow pastors, Ranft asserted, “Just as the church remembers its eternal cause in the sacrificial death of Jesus, so the Third Reich has its eternal cause in the sacrificial death of the Fallen,” those who had died fighting for the National Socialist cause. For Ranft, the duty of the church was expressed in its highest form as service to the German racial community, under the direction of the Nazi movement, and spiritual salvation through Christ was superseded by völkisch salvation through National Socialism.[18]

Ambivalence about the relationship between race and religion and the tendency to elevate the German Volk to the status of a divine revelation created genuine theological confusion for Protestant pastors who ministered to fallen people, not Aryan supermen and superwomen. Already in 1933, one pastor from Nauen (probably the district superintendent himself) expressed his fear that if he preached on the concept that the German Volk “is of God,” he would hinder his parishioners from understanding their own need for repentance and conversion. On the other hand, he admitted that he was hesitant to preach the unpopular formula “Volk is of God, but Volk is fallen,” since it would mean a return to what he described as “the old difficulty, that we degrade National Socialism, insofar as it is without Christ.” His solution—after much soul-searching—was a compromise of sorts. He decided to preach that anyone who took up the National Socialist struggle in his own strength, boasting about his own exploits, would be spiritually lost before God; however, anyone who came to the crucified Christ, abandoned his sinful nature and then entered the National Socialist struggle as a faithful Christian, would be engaging in a holy deed.[19] It was a weak attempt to hold together two mutually conflicting ideas: the boundless superiority of the Aryan race, as preached by Nazism, and the taint of human sin, as preached by Christianity.

As late as 1939, confusion also clouded the mind of Pastor Konrad Isleib of Hakenberg, near Nauen. In a letter to his pastoral colleague, Isleib betrayed his utter inability to bridge the gap between the ultimate claims of both Christianity and Nazi racism. As he wrote: “The Fatherland stands above everything, just as it always has been for us, even when […] naturally, our conscience—bound to God and his Word—speaks the final word.”[20] The Fatherland—representing the German racial community—stands above all, but the conscience and the Bible speak the final word? If this was an unusually confused attempt to decide whether racial or Christian identity was pre-eminent, others refused to worry about such inconsistencies. Pastor Gartenschläger of nearby Bötzow summed it up when he proclaimed the “great fighting goal” of “unity between Volk and church.”[21]

Down in Württemberg, the theology of the orders of creation so filled the mind of young Pastor Wertz of Isny, that he articulated an entirely new kind of völkisch trinity of blood, soil, and power. All three were created orders—God-given fundamentals of human life. “Völkisch uniformity of the blood, völkisch character is God-willed,” he wrote. Additionally, God had willed that the economy “goes out from the soil and returns to the soil,” and that, “the human is bound to the earth [Erde], more precisely to the soil [Boden].” Finally, Wertz asserted that God had decreed that the human being “should and must be a ruler,” whether over nature, in the family, or in the blood-bound Volk community. Taken together, Wertz’s theological treatise to his fellow clergy rendered perhaps the ultimate service a Protestant cleric could offer National Socialism—a biblical-theological justification for the three core Nazi values of blood, soil, and authority.[22]

It is true that some German Protestants rejected the theology of the orders of creation and its political implications. The Confessing Church, a group which attempted to keep Nazi interference out of their churches, drafted a 1936 memorandum to Hitler criticizing the ongoing veneration of the German Volk as the revelation of God and the source of national salvation. As they put it: “When blood, race, nationality, and honor are to be regarded as eternal values, the First Commandment constrains the [Protestant] Christian to reject this evaluation. Where Aryan man is glorified, God’s Word witnesses to the fallenness of all men.”[23]

Among the ordinary clergy I’ve studied, few stood this boldly against the mixture of German racial ideology and Protestant Christianity. One exception was Pastor Herbert Posth of the Berge parish, in the Nauen church district. In a 1935 article in his parish newsletter, he wrote: “One is born into the Volk, one belongs to it through blood and race, one is called into the church by the Holy Spirit in the Word of God […] independent of blood and race.” Later, in the midst of arguments with pro-Nazi church authorities, Posth reiterated this view, writing, “The opinion [that] the church should ‘promote the life of faith of the members of the Volk’ contradicts the clear Word of God […]. It amounts to disobedience against the Word of Christ to preach the gospel to all nations—the word ‘Volk-member’ [‘Volksgenosse’] is not a church word at all, but rather a political word.”[24]

Sadly, this was very much a minority position. Most pastors were committed to the integration of Nazi racial ideology with Protestant Christianity, even if the result was confusing and contradictory—in short, ambivalent.


If many ordinary Protestant clergy were ambivalent about the relationship between their German racial identity and their Christian identity—unsure about which ought to hold their ultimate allegiance—other parish pastors were happy to associate themselves wholeheartedly with National Socialism, its racial policies, and its contempt for Jews. Once again, that 1932 “German Christian” program illustrates the extent to which pro-Nazi Protestants imbibed Nazi racial ideology and made Jew-hatred central to their understanding of Christianity. As they declared:

We regard the mission to the Jews as a grave danger to our culture. Through its doors alien blood is imported into the body of our nation…. We oppose any mission to the Jews in Germany as long as the Jews have the right to citizenship and there is therefore a danger of bastardization and an obscuring of racial differences. The Holy Scripture also has something to say about righteous anger and the failure of love. In particular, marriage between Germans and Jews must be prohibited.[25]

Many ordinary Protestant pastors and laypeople advocated the same positions. A few examples will illustrate this. In 1934, Pastor Paul Teichgräber of Eschdorf in Saxony wrote strongly against “the exaltation of the Jewish people as the people of God.” He objected to the ideas that the Jews were the bearers of Christ’s message, that the experiences of Old Testament Israel were either a foreshadowing of or a model for Christianity, or that the Passover Feast and the Christian Eucharist were related to one another.[26] Pastor Friedrich Siems of Nauen went further, not only distancing himself from the historic Jewish origins of Christianity, but also arguing that antisemitism was actually a Christian virtue. In a 1939 letter to a Swedish acquaintance, he railed against “Judaism and its fearfully destructive influence.” He continued: “The founder of Christianity had nothing, really nothing at all to do with the Jewish people, rather they were always his sharpest opponents…. The personality of Christ is too great and too holy for us to bring it into connection with [Jews, who have] become a curse for the whole world.”[27]

Similarly, Pastor Dr. Ernst Rothe of Pirna in Saxony argued that Nazi Germany’s discriminatory laws against German Jews did not contradict the Christian duty of love, even as he described Christian love as the way to build God’s Kingdom and to preserve life. How could antisemitic legislation and Christian love be compatible? Simply because Rothe took it for granted that the demands of Christian love applied only within the German racial community, and not to Jews.[28] For pastors like Teichgräber, Siems, and Rothe, Jews stood completely outside the German community, which was Christian, and the Christian community, which was German.

The logical conclusion to this sort of alienation of Jews as both un-German and unchristian was the denial of the Jewishness of Christ. In a 1936 speech entitled, “Was Jesus Jewish?” Pastor Karl Steger of Friedrichshafen, Württemberg, presented a series of specious arguments designed to create doubt in the minds of his parishioners about Jesus’ ethnic roots. Referring to Jesus as the source of human salvation, Steger hinted vaguely that, “perhaps his ancestry is not racially unambiguous?” He went on to parrot the views of the notorious antisemite Houston Stewart Chamberlain, contending that although Christ had been raised as a Jew, he was probably not racially Jewish, since he came from the racially mixed region of Galilee, and since his sharp opposition to Judaism and his consequent death on the cross (at the hands of Jews, of course) made it seem highly unlikely that Jesus could be a Jew. For Steger, as for many other German Protestants, Jesus was, in fact, a model Aryan.[29]

Christ depicted as an Aryan fighter on the crucifix of the Martin Luther Memorial Church, Berlin. The church was built between 1933 and 1935. Source: author’s personal collection.

This idea was periodically realized in the Christian art of the Third Reich, as in the case of the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin, completed in 1935, in which the Jesus on the crucifix was fashioned as an Aryan hero rather than as a suffering servant.[30]

Of course, there were a few ordinary clergy who rejected the antisemitism so prevalent in the Protestantism of this era. Perhaps most famously, in April 1933, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published an essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in which he “was the first to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship.”[31] For Bonhoeffer, the vital question was how the Church would judge and respond to the Nazi state’s unjust actions against Jews:

The church, he wrote, must fight evil in three stages: The first was to question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; the second was to help the victims of injustice, whether they were church members or not. Ultimately, however, the church might find itself called “not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the machinery of injustice.[32]

Among ordinary clergy, one incident in Groβ Behnitz, in the Nauen district near Berlin, reveals both the presence of Protestant defenders of Jews and the stiff opposition they faced. On November 11, 1938, one day after the Kristallnacht Pogrom, Pastor Kurt Fritzsche spoke to his confirmation students on behalf of Jewish Christians, and perhaps even for Jews as Jews, when he questioned the notion that Jews were responsible for the pogrom. His students—saturated with Nazi antisemitic propaganda—reported their pastor to local authorities, and quoted him as having uttered the comments, “Jews are also people like us,” “The Jews of [Bible times] are not the Jews of today,” and, “The Jew from Paris is only one criminal.” [33] When his students argued back, blaming other Jews too, Fritzsche exclaimed: “That is not true!” One of the students then quoted their school principal, who had described Fritzsche as an “enemy of the state” and who had said that anyone who helped a Jew was not German. Other students surrounded Fritzsche, shouting: “He is a Jew too!” Because of Fritzsche’s outburst and the spectacle that followed, he was forbidden from holding confirmation instruction in the school any longer and received warnings both from local Gestapo agents and Berlin church officials.[34]

In the end, many pastors and laypeople were perfectly content to associate themselves with the antisemitism and racial policy of the Nazi party-state, distancing themselves from their Jewish religious heritage and demonizing Jews. In so doing, they bore witness to a long tradition of Christian antisemitism. As Christian leaders gave expression to the ancient rhetoric of Jews as Christ-killers standing under the eternal judgment of God, they legitimated the political antisemitism of Nazi Germany and helped to pave the way for the Holocaust.


If some clergy responded ambivalently, wrestling with conflicting claims of racial ideology and Christian theology, and if other clergy responded by associating themselves eagerly with Nazi antisemitism, still other Protestants seem to have tried simply to avoid the issue of racism and antisemitism altogether.

Interestingly, this is most easily seen in Protestant responses to the pre-Holocaust Nazi policy of sterilizing and euthanizing (i.e. murdering) mentally and physically handicapped and mentally ill Germans in six euthanasia killing centres and in special care institutions across the country. Between 1939 and 1941, over seventy-thousand patients were killed at these centers, along with tens of thousands more in the “wild euthanasia” that continued after Hitler officially ended the program in August 1941.

At the same time, of course, in occupied Poland, SS units began rounding up Jews and concentrating them in ghettos. In 1941, with the invasion of the Soviet Union, four SS Einsatzgruppen (special action units) were unleashed in a murderous sweep through the East, killing up to two million Jews and other victims. A massive network of concentration, work and death camps was established, where another three to four million Jews and other victims were brutally worked, beaten, starved, tortured, shot, gassed, or marched to death between 1942 and 1945.

German Protestant pastors lived and worked in this context. While most were not exposed to the murderous rampages in Eastern Europe, they were well aware of the antisemitic propaganda and racial policies which were ubiquitous throughout the Third Reich, including the boycotts, segregation, Nuremberg Laws, and Kristallnacht Pogrom. How did Protestant clergy respond to the antisemitic legislation of the early 1930s? How did they react to the Nuremberg citizenship laws and the bureaucratic measures to determine the so-called Aryan ancestry of public servants and Nazi party members? How did they view the Kristallnacht Pogrom of November 1938? Did they accept or reject the euthanasia program, or have anything to say about the genocidal policy of their government?

The unfortunate answer to these questions is that there is no evidence from the correspondence, publications, or actions of Protestant clergy in the Nauen, Pirna, and Ravensburg church districts I’ve studied to suggest that they were significantly affected by or preoccupied with either the euthanasia crisis or the Nazis’ “Jewish question” and “Final Solution.” As Wolfgang Gerlach found in his probing study of the relationship between the Confessing Church and the persecution of the Jews, pastors and church leaders were either too conflicted, too preoccupied, or too afraid to defend persecuted Jews.[35] They were too conflicted because so many of them had so earnestly welcomed Hitler and National Socialism as a providential salvation for Germany and for their own Protestant churches. Even when many clergy frowned on the violent or intolerant facets of Nazism, they still affirmed other aspects of the Third Reich, like the new emphasis on order or Hitler’s tough foreign policy. During the Second World War, loyalty to the Fatherland overrode any thoughts of criticizing the Nazi regime. They were also too preoccupied with theological battles and with defending the role and status of their churches in the Third Reich to defend German Jews. They were too afraid to defend Jews or other enemies of the Third Reich. And so, they chose to avoid the issue.

Here the exceptional story of Pastor Julius von Jan of Oberlenningen, in Württemberg, is instructive. On the Protestant Day of Repentance, which fell on the Sunday after the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 1938, von Jan preached on the lectionary text, Jeremiah 22:29: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!” Referring to the pogrom, he bemoaned “the many crimes here in Germany,” then continued:

Here we have been repaid for the widespread break from God and Christ, for this organized anti-Christianity. Passions are unleashed; God’s commandments are despised; houses of worship that were holy for others have been burned down with impunity; the property of strangers robbed or destroyed. Men who served our German people faithfully and performed their duty conscientiously were thrown into the concentration camps simply because they belonged to another race. This injustice may not be acknowledged from above—but the sound common sense of the people feels it distinctly, even if no one dares to speak about it. And we, as Christians, see how this injustice incriminates our people before God and must bring new punishments upon Germany…. What a person sows, so he will reap! Indeed, it is a dreadful seed of hatred that is now being sown. What a dreadful harvest will grow from it, if God does not grant us and our people the grace for honest repentance. [36]

Nine days after preaching this sermon, von Jan was attacked by a band of hired thugs, who beat and tortured him, then dragged him off to jail. After four months of detainment, he was banished from Württemberg, then later tried and sentenced to sixteen months in prison. Julius von Jan spoke courageously on behalf of Jews. He was, however, a rare exception. In fact, his own Württemberg Church government never defended him publicly nor even condemned the attack perpetrated against him. As he later remarked, “We were afraid to touch this sensitive spot of the regime.”[37]

Pirna, with the Sonnenstein special care institution on the hill overlooking St. Mary’s Protestant Church and the town centre. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Click the picture to view a larger image.

I mentioned that the Nazi euthanasia killing program provides a helpful window into the issue of Christian avoidance in the face of the increasingly deadly Nazi racial policy. This is because one of the main euthanasia killing centres was located only a short walk up the hill from the Pirna district church offices, at Sonnenstein, the special care institution for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. A prominent landmark in almost every view of Pirna, Sonnenstein overlooked the both the Elbe River and the Pirna town centre from atop its stately perch.[38] The institution changed radically in 1939, however, when it was remade into a euthanasia killing centre. Between June 1939 and August 1941, at least 13,720 Germans—mentally ill and mentally handicapped men, women, and children from the surrounding region—most of them likely Lutherans—were gassed to death and then cremated. During the height of the euthanasia action in July 1941, 2537 patients were killed, over one hundred per working day.[39]

As death rates at special care institutions like Sonnenstein skyrocketed and vague death notices filled newspapers, the German public became increasingly aware of the extent of the euthanasia program, and protests from relatives and others prompted Hitler to order the official termination of Aktion T4 in late August of 1941. In Sonnenstein and elsewhere, however, the killing continued even after this, with malnourishment and intentional overdoses of medication taking the place of the gas chamber.[40] Meanwhile, in November 1941, SS leaders, doctors, and assistants met at Sonnenstein to plan the transfer of euthanasia personnel and technology east to Belzec (and later Sobibor and Treblinka), where euthanasia teams were set to work in death camps for European Jews.[41]

Memorial plaque to those murdered at Sonnenstein. Click on the picture to view a larger image. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Shrouded in secrecy, it has taken decades for the story of Sonnenstein and other euthanasia centers to emerge fully from the shadows. No record of the events at Sonnenstein exists in the local church records, or for that matter in the local press or civic archives.[42] This is so, despite the fact that those living in the city-centre saw the buses and the thick black smoke over Sonnenstein, smelt the foul stench from the incinerators, and understood that people were being killed in the institution. Older residents of Pirna have admitted so, as have personnel who worked in Sonnenstein but refused to participate in the killing action. As far as the Lutheran church was concerned, Sonnenstein and its chapel were part of the Pirna parish until the institution was changed into a killing centre and the chapel was closed.

The avoidance—the silence about Sonnenstein both demands and defies explanation, given that there must have been hundreds of handicapped Lutherans from in Pirna and around the district who were killed at Sonnenstein and other smaller euthanasia centers in Saxony. If Protestant clergy were unwilling to defend their own Christian neighbours from medical murder at Sonnestein, what chance was there that they would defend Jews from persecution, transportation, and annihilation in the Holocaust?

Of course, there were exceptions. In October 1943, at the Twelfth Prussian Confessing Church Synod, Pastors Günther Harder of Fehrbellin and Herbert Posth of Berge participated in the drafting of a “Word of the Church” concerning the Ten Commandments. Intended for use in church services on the annual Day of Repentance and Prayer, the document began: “Throughout our nation and even throughout our Protestant parishes and Christian families passes a great, ever growing insecurity about whether the holy Ten Commandments are still in effect.” The declaration went on to address the Fifth Commandment and condemned the state for its misuse of power and its disdain for human life: “Concepts like ‘elimination,’ ‘liquidation’ and ‘worthless lives’ are unknown in God’s order.” Continuing, it read:

Woe to us and to our nation, when God-given life is despised and the person, created in the image of God, is valued solely according to his utility; when it is considered justified to kill people because they are considered unworthy of life or belong to another race, when hate and mercilessness parade about. Then God speaks: ‘You shall not murder.’[43]

In conclusion, few clergy were willing to read such a word to their congregations. Most simply avoided the moral and criminal implications of the euthanasia program and the Final Solution. It is a testimony to the force of their socio-political environment and the weakness of their theological and ethical formation that they were either so ideologically maladjusted or psychologically intimidated that they could no longer respond to the divine injunction from Psalm 82: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”[44]

[1] Most of the research in this paper comes from my book: Kyle Jantzen, Faith and Fatherland: Parish Politics in Hitler’s Germany (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

[2] Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919-1945, Vol. 1, The Rise to Power 1919-1934 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998), pp. 14-16.

[3] Carsten Nicolaisen and Georg Kretschmar, eds., Dokumente zur Kirchenpolitik des Dritten Reiches, vol. 1, Das Jahr 1933 (Munich: Christian Kaiser, 1971), 8–9, quoted in Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 129.

[4] Kurt Meier, Kreuz und Hakenkreuz. Die evangelische Kirche im Dritten Reich (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992), 36.

[5] Pastor Lux in Groß Behnitz to Superintendent Graßhoff in Nauen, May 8, 1933, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg NE 101/647. See Jantzen, Faith and Fatherland, 46-47.

[6] Jantzen, Faith and Fatherland, 48-49.

[7] Evangelisches Gemeindeblatt Friedrichshafen, July 1935, Dekanatsarchiv Ravensburg 54d. On pastoral responses to the Nazi seizure of power, see Jantzen, Faith and Fatherland, chapter 1, “Faith and Fatherland Through the Eyes of Clergy” and Hans Tiefel, “The German Lutheran Church and the Rise of National Socialism,” Church History 41 (1972): 326–36.

[8] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[9] Alon Confino, A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid., 51, 73, 107, 156, 170, 189, 217, 224, and 229.

[12] Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 26-28.

[13] Peter Matheson (ed.), The Third Reich and the Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 6.

[14] Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich, 34-35.

[15] “Sehr geehrter Herr Dekan!” February 27, 1935, Dekanatsarchiv Ravensburg 73l.

[16] Michael Jag, Karl Steger: ein Pfarrer in Friedrichshafen als Deutscher Christ, Prüfungsarbeit zur II. theologischen Dienstprüfung (1988/1989), June 1988, 13–14, Stadtarchiv Friedrichshafen.

[17] Pastor Siems in Nauen to Frau von Hofsten, Upsala, Sweden, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg Nau 26/21.

[18] “Bericht über die Sitzung der Stolpener Konferenz am 22. Januar 1934,” Ephoralarchiv Pirna 290.

[19] Unidentified correspondent from Nauen to Lic. Kummel in Stahnsdorf, Westhavelland, July 27, 1933, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg NE 120/596.

[20] Pastor Isleib in Hakenberg to Interim Superintendent Bettac in Beetz, January 7, 1939, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg NE 140/814

[21] Pastor Gartenschläger in Bötzow, “Die Deutschen Christen rufen zur Volksmission,” n.d., Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg Nau 56/85.

[22] Pastor Wertz of Isny, “Staat und Kirche,” November 1936, 2, Dekanatsarchiv Ravensburg 83b.

[23] Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 275.

[24] Evang. Sonntagsblatt für den Kirchenkreis Nauen, March 3, 1935, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg Ki 490; Pastor Posth in Berge to the Brandenburg Consistory, October 20, 1938, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg Ri 6/26.

[25] Matheson, Third Reich and the Christian Churches, 6.

[26] “Bericht betr. die Adventistenbewegung und die von den Adventisten verbreiteten Schriften,” n.d., Ephoralarchiv Pirna 196.

[27] Pastor Siems in Nauen to Frau von Hofsten, Upsala, Sweden, Domstiftsarchiv Brandenburg Nau 26/21.

[28] “Kreiskirchentag zu Pirna” (newspaper clipping), October 9, 1935, Ephoralarchiv Pirna 92; “Kreiskirchentag in Pirna” (handwritten notes), October 9, 1935, Ephoralarchiv Pirna 100.

[29] Evangelisches Gemeindeblatt Friedrichshafen, May 1936, Stadtarchiv Friedrichshafen.

[30] Kyle Jantzen, “Church-Building in Hitler’s Germany: Berlin’s Martin-Luther-Gedächtniskirche as a Reflection of Church-State Relations,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 27 no. 2 (2014): 324-348, available online at

[31] Victoria Barnett, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘The Church and the Jewish Question’” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

[32] Ibid.

[33] Schoolteacher Lehmann of Groß Behnitz to the Brandenburg Consistory, November 14, 1938; “Folgendes Protokoll ist durch freiwillige Aussagen der Schulkinder enstanden, die am 11.11.38 am Konfirmandenunterricht des Herrn Pfarrer Fritzsche teilnahmen.” Groß Behnitz, November 15, 1938, Evangelisches Zentralarchiv Berlin 7/12233. The last statement is a reference to the Jewish youth Herschel Grynszpan, who murdered a German embassy official in Paris and provided the pretext for the antisemitic pogrom.

[34] Schoolteacher Lehmann of Groß Behnitz to Pastor Fritzsche of Groß Behnitz, November 13, 1938; Fritzsche to the Brandenburg Consistory, May 11, 1939; EO.II 3278 II/39 Prussian Superior Church Council to the Brandenburg Consistory, September 1939, Evangelisches Zentralarchiv Berlin 7/12233.

[35] Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, trans. and ed. Victoria Barnett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 230-236.

[36] Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, trans. Victoria J. Barnett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 144-146.

[37] Otto L. Elias, “Die Evangelische Kirchenkampf und die Judenfrage,” Informationsblatt für die Gemeinden in den niederdeutschen lutherischen Landeskirchen 10 (1961), 217, quoted in Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent, 232-233.

[38] Boris Böhm and Thomas Schilter, “Pirna-Sonnenstein. Von der Reformpsychiatrie zur Tötung psychisch Kranker,” in Nationalsozialistische Euthanasie-Verbrechen in Sachsen: Beiträge zu ihrer Aufarbeitung (Dresden/Pirna: Kuratorium Gedenkstätte Sonnenstein e.V. und Sächsische Landeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1993), 12-16.

[39] Ernst Klee, Dokumente zur “Euthanasie” (Frankfurt: Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985), 232-233; Willy Forner, Das Verbrechen von La Mornasse. Berichte über faschistische Gewalttaten (n.p.: Militärverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1981), 45-50; F. K. Kaul, Nazimordaktion T4. Ein Bericht über die erste industriemäβig durchgeführte Mordaktion des Naziregimes (Berlin: VEB Verlag Volk und Gesundheit, 1973), passim; Böhm and Schilter, “Pirna-Sonnenstein. Von der Reformpsychiatrie zur Tötung psychisch Kranker”, 28.

[40] The normal death rate at the Waldheim institution was between three and seven deaths annually. Krumpolt, “Die Landesheilanstalt Groβschweidnitz als ‘T4’-Zwischenanstalt und Tötungsanstalt (1939-1945),” 98; Sonja Schröter, “Waldheim als ‘Euthanasie’-Zwischenanstalt von Kranken-Sammel-Transporten an die Tötungsanstalt Sonnenstein im Rahmen der sog. ‘Aktion T4’ in den Jahren 1940 und 1941,” in Nationalsozialistische Euthanasie-Verbrechen in Sachsen: Beiträge zu ihrer Aufarbeitung (Dresden/Pirna: Kuratorium Gedenkstätte Sonnenstein e.V. und Sächsische Landeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1993), 85.

[41] Klee, Dokumente zur “Euthanasie”, 66.

[42] Böhm and Schilter, “Pirna-Sonnenstein. Von der Reformpsychiatrie zur Tötung psychisch Kranker”, 35.

[43] Günther Harder, “Rechenschaftsbericht,” in Bekenntnissynode der Mark Brandenburg vom 22. bis 24. Oktober 1945 in Berlin-Spandau Evangelisches Johannesstift (Berlin: R. Schröter, n.d.), 22-23; Wilhelm Niesel, Kirche unter dem Wort. Der Kampf der Bekennenden Kirche der altpreuβischen Union 1933-1945 (Göttingen, 1978), 259, 275-277; Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 336.

[44] Psalm 82:3-4 (NIV).

2 thoughts on “Ambivalence, Association, and Avoidance as Christian Responses to Nazi Antisemitism and Racial Policy

  1. This is a tough read. (Content-wise, not style-wise 😉). I’m curious as to whether you would see parallels between American civil religion and the “Positive Christianity” mentioned in this piece.

    1. I would say that the danger sets in when Christianity becomes a means to an end, rather than the end. In that sense, both are examples of civil religion.

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