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  • William Skiles

The Core Failures of Pro-Nazi Christians in the Third Reich

One needs only to scan news outlets to find that a common concern in American society is the popularization of what some call Christian nationalism. While the definitions may vary, and the actual number of adherents is debated, perhaps the most significant thing about the discussion is that it points to the crisis among men today. Many white Christian men are understandably feeling disconnected and disempowered. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute has convincingly shown boys and men are struggling in education and employment, and they are suffering from addiction and deaths of despair in greater numbers than women.[i]


White Christian men in particular are seen by many as racist, bigoted, and homophobic just for being who they are. One consequence of the disorientation some men are experiencing is the increasing turn to alternative ideologies, which promise to help men make sense of their experience and reclaim influence in their lives. Hence the proliferation of the red, white, black, etc. pills in today’s online environment. Unfortunately, some white Christian men are turning to an ethnonationalist vision for America’s future to reclaim what they perceive as theirs by right and heritage.


Why do I say this is unfortunate? History is a guide for us. Christians have jumped on this bandwagon before, and it has turned out catastrophically for society and the church. The most clear and illustrative example is the pro-Nazi Christians in the Third Reich. In this article I will focus on how pro-Nazi Christians failed in their Christian faith and thereby contributed to creating a context in which the Second World War and the Holocaust were possible.


At the start, it’s important to clarify that pro-Nazi Christians were not segregated into distinctly pro-Nazi churches. While there was the pro-Nazi German Christian movement that wanted to Nazify church liturgy and theology, and even expunge the Old Testament and the writings of Paul from Scripture, there were also pro-Nazi Christians in the oppositional Confessing Church (which just wanted to limit Nazi interference in the churches) and the neutral churches.[ii] Pro-Nazi Christians might be found in any church throughout Germany. While some churches were pro-Nazi in orientation, others were  more aligned with the Confessing Church. Still others were mixed. Most often, they had to worship together, as well as with those who wished to remain neutral.


So, what were the primary failures of pro-Nazi Christians? I contend that the most fateful error of the pro-Nazi Christians was confusing their primary source of authority in matters of faith and Christian living. They uncritically accepted racial science as a more authoritative source of authority than Scripture, and this affected their stance not only on matters of politics, society, and culture, but also with respect to religion and the life of the church.


By the time the Nazis came on the scene, racial science and eugenics were considered proper science (not pseudoscience as we think of them today), and many Christians accepted what proponents of these theories had to say as they advocated the superiority of the “Aryan” race and the associated belief in its right to acquire foreign land for the sake of Lebensraum (living space). If science confirmed Nazi racial ideology, then one could reinterpret the teachings of Scripture, such as the unity of the human race and Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor, in relation to this “higher” scientific truth. This gave pro-Nazi Christians the legitimacy to call for the Nazification of theology and the Christian Scripture, the dismissal of German pastors of Jewish descent, and the segregation of churches by race, such that Jewish converts (and descendants of Jewish converts) would have to attend separate churches. This ideology encouraged pro-Nazi Christians to support the Nazi program of methodically excluding Jews from German public life, culminating in the ghettoization, deportation, and extermination of the Jewish people in Europe.[iii] 


A second catastrophic failure of pro-Nazi Christians in the Third Reich was a misreading of history and God’s providence. Christians pointed to the apparent spiritual rejuvenation of the German churches amid the increasing popularity of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party to argue that God was working through history to bless the German people. Church attendance had declined precipitously in the aftermath of the First World War, amid the disillusionment and disorientation of the calamitous war, yet when Hitler became chancellor church attendance rates increased by leaps and bounds. Indeed, many Christians believed the church was experiencing a spiritual awakening and National Socialism was the secret ingredient. In 1933 alone, the numbers of people who left the church decreased to 50,000 while the numbers of those who started to attend increased by 325,000.[iv] Christians sensed a spiritual awakening happening and they were happy to see it. They unsurprisingly attributed it to the work of God’s hand in appointing Hitler to lead the people to its day in the sun once again.


In fact, Hitler capitalized on this tendency to see his success and the Nazi rise to power as providentially determined. He cultivated the mystique of his success and promoted it to the masses, which the Nazi propaganda machine spread efficiently through all the land via radio, billboard, and print media.[v] Hitler continually championed the German nation and sought incessantly for its resurgence as a European power. When he became chancellor of Nazi Germany on January 30, 1933, there seemed to be no mundane explanation for how an uneducated and uncouth Austrian corporal could have risen through the ranks to the pinnacle of German political leadership. Many Christians came to the view that God must have appointed him for great things at such a time as theirs. They interpreted the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party as proof that God favored him and the Nazis, without critically engaging the substance of National Socialist ideology or its vision for the good life.


But how do we interpret the unfolding of history? Just because we see an uptick in church attendance or feel electricity at rallies or public events does not mean that the Holy Spirit is at work. Another spirit can be at work, one that confuses and deceives. As Christians we are often too quick to regard God as author of specific events in history, forgetting that we are sinful human beings and that we alone are the author of our own sin. God is sovereign and will direct history to his ends, but we still have free will in civil matters and we can make a mess of our lives and society even still. Just because Napoleon conquered Europe doesn’t mean that God desired him to do so. Just because Hitler emerged to become chancellor does not mean that he was walking in God’s will. Just because the Holocaust happened does not mean God was behind it. If God permits sin, this doesn’t mean that he wants sin to happen, though he will use it to serve his ends. We in the church cannot assume all that happens aligns with God’s will for our lives. We need to develop more discerning minds about interpreting the unfolding of history around us.


The Nazi trust in racial science and their reading of history lead to the third major failure of pro-Nazi Christians, the worship of false idols. The racially superior “Aryan” was an idol. The “Aryan” was purportedly a pure Germanic person, whose ancestors survived the brutal cold of northern Europe in the last ice age. The Nazis understood race as a snapshot of a people in a specific period of time, with physical characteristics that supposedly demonstrated their superiority, such as blonde hair, blue eyes, and European facial features. Of course, the problem with this kind of mythology of race is that it bears no scrutiny under historical or biological examination. If there is one rule about human beings and history, it’s that we are constantly on the move—we are always migrating from one place to the next. And because of this we are a mixture of different peoples throughout the ages. There is no pure race. There is no pure German, there’s no pure Britton, and there’s no pure American. This is why, ironically and incoherently, the Nazis did not ultimately define race by stereotypical physical features (because Jews too could have blond hair and blue eyes, etc.), but on the religion of one’s grandparents. To advocate an ethnonationalist state is to base the state on a chimera.


But race was not the only idol pro-Nazi Christians were tempted to worship. Many pro-Nazi Christians considered Hitler himself to be a savior figure, a new messiah that Providence sent to save Germany. He became an idol too. Hitler presented himself as a man mediating between the people and Providence, and we know the people put their trust in him to lead Germany into the Thousand-year Reich. Even as the Allies invaded Germany and the end was all but certain, there were still some who earnestly believed that Hitler could snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.[vi] They put their trust in him. And he betrayed their faith to the utter destruction of Germany.


The Nazi Thousand-year Reich was also an idol. It was the Nazi vision of the idealized state in which “Aryans” would reign supreme over all others deemed inferior, both within (e.g. the infirm, political dissidents) and without (e.g. Slavs, and all other ethnic groups) the German state. The state would use its power to crush any opposition, thereby ensuring its own survival. The Thousand-year Reich was the embodiment of National Socialist ideology and thus the great Nazi vision of future prosperity and dominance.


It is astounding upon reflection all that the German people sacrificed in the service of these idols. Ultimately, the Nazi regime murdered eleven million people, including six million Jews in the Holocaust. It waged a world war for the attainment of its goals, a war in which approximately seventy-five million people were killed. And the war itself led to the complete destruction of the German nation, a destruction so complete that Germans referred to its defeat in the aftermath as Stunde Null, Zero Hour, representing a fundamental break with the past.


It is tempting for us today to point our fingers at pro-Nazi Christians and condemn them for confusing their sources of religious authority, their reading of history, and their patent idolatry. But we have the advantage of hindsight. And we have our own faults and failures too. We can read current events foolishly. We can hold up the nation as an idol. We too can hold up our political ideologies as idols, assuming they provide all the answers we need for a good society. And we can even hold up our own race and ethnicity as idols, firmly believing that if only our society were more homogeneous, more white and more Christian, that most of our problems would be solved.


As St. Augustine argued over fifteen centuries ago, Christians cannot fall into the ancient trap of confusing the City of God with the City of Man. Our salvation is in Christ alone, not the ideologies we formulate or the political states we endeavor to construct. Certainly we should seek to influence our society in positive ways and protect the weak and vulnerable. I am not advocating a retreat from politics or civil engagement. But we have to remember that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Our calling as Christian men in this world is not to eradicate or subjugate our enemies, but to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Christ in service to God and our neighbors—whoever they may be.

[i] Richard V. Reeves, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 2022).

[ii] See Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Kyle Jantzen, Faith and Fatherland: Parish Politics in Hitler’s Germany (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

[iii] See Doris Bergen’s classic work on the German Christian movement, an organization of pro-Nazi Christians who wanted to reform the Protestant churches along Nazi lines, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

[iv] Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 114.

[v] Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), Kindle edition, location 7203-7309.

[vi] Victor Klemperer explores this phenomenon in his brilliant The Language of the Third Reich (New York: Continuum, 2000), 102.

William Skiles is Associate Professor of History at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia, and an ordained Lutheran minister in the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. He is the author of Preaching to Nazi Germany: The Pulpit and the Confessing Church (Fortress Press, 2023).


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