Christians Under Hitler’s German Nazi Regime

How Catholics and Protestant Confessing Churches strove to maintain their Christian mission under Hitler.

How can so many church goers blindly support Trump although Trump is the antithesis of Christianity?  Many Christians who feel alone in their opposition find hope in this editorial of the leading magazine Christianity Today:

To gain insight we can ask ourselves: How could most Christians either tolerate or support the totalitarian Nazi regime of Hitler?  We cannot help but ask that question because we see bulging eyes of the skeletal concentration camp victims looking up in those black and white photographs, but we must realize that nobody in the prewar years could have predicted that the concentration camps would come to define Nazism.  In the prewar years many saw a reawakened national German pride and family values after the humiliation imposed by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.

When reading history, we find that history does repeat itself, but in a context different from today.  Before trying to draw parallels, we should first try to understand events in the past in their own historical terms.  Only then is it wise to try to draw lessons to apply to current events.

In the beginning of Hitler’s term as Chancellor of Germany, before the Enabling Act was voted on that gave him dictatorial powers, he posed as both anti-Semitic and as a friend of the German Catholic and Protestant Churches.  To understand why Hitler was seen as a friend of Christianity for a short time after he was elected, you need to understand the history behind the fascists Mussolini, and the Russian Revolution.  Because Mussolini was a hedonist and not a good Catholic, he was a friend of convenience to the Catholic Church in Italy.  Mussolini’s fascist government had pro-Catholic policies and helped pass much pro-Catholic legislation.  Although he was granted dictatorial powers, Mussolini did not pass anti-Semitic legislation until the year preceding World War II.  On the other hand, Communism was the enemy of Christianity, the bolsheviks in the decades after the Russian Revolution martyred tens of millions of Christians, mostly Orthodox Christians, which outnumbered the cumulative number of martyrs in all countries in all prior centuries.  Hitler always painted Nazism as ideologically opposed to Bolshevism and the Jews, which were the same in his delusions.

Germany on the eve of World War II was about 97% Christian, a third were Catholics, two-thirds were Protestants.  Therefore, the story of Christianity under Hitler is really two interlocking stories.  First, there is the story of the German Catholic Church, and how the Vatican negotiated a Concordat with the Nazis to try to protect the Catholic Church.  Second is the story of the German Protestant Church.  The Nazis tried to commandeer the Lutheran Church and turn it into a German Christian Church that denied the Old Testament and the Jewishness of Jesus, glorifying the fatherland and the Nazi doctrines on race.  Some churches broke away to form the Confessing Church that resisted Nazi intrusions into Church doctrines.  About a sixth of German Protestant Churches were Confessing Churches, another sixth were Nazi German Christian Churches, the rest declined to take either position.[1]  So we also want to ask, Why did only a minority of Protestant Churches join the Confessing Church movement?  Why did so many churches refuse to resist the attempts by Nazi ideologues to corrupt Church doctrine and beliefs?[2]

Many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, were misled into supporting the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s Nazis in the pre-World War II years  We naturally want to interpret pre-World War II history from our modern democratic perspective haunted by the black and white bulging eyes of starving waifs and skeletons half alive looking up at us from the concentration death camps, but nobody in the 1930’s realized just how evil Hitler was.  Except for Winston Churchill, who may have been the only Englishman who actually read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, his demented remembrances and rantings about the Jews and other subhuman races were not taken seriously enough.


Under the Peace of Augsburg, the treaty ending the religious wars following the Reformation, the prince of each state determined the religion of that state.[3]  During the 1870s Bismarck unified the small German states under the Prussian throne, creating the modern German state governed under a constitutional monarchy.  As Prime Minister, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf, or culture struggle, against the Catholic Church to limit the influence the Pope had over German affairs.  All Prussian bishops and many priests were imprisoned or exiled.  Catholics responded by organizing the Catholic Centre Party.  In time, after Pope Pius IX died and the more pragmatic Pope Leo XIII negotiated for Germany to repeal most of the anti-Catholic laws.  Afterwards, the Centre Party generally supported Bismarck’s policies, though they were wary.[4]  The new German state paid the salaries of both pastors and priests, and later Hitler’s Nazi Germany would continue to pay the clerical salaries throughout the war, including the pastors of the Confessing Churches.

Like the American Civil War, the casualties in World War I were staggering, the war in the Western Front was fought in muddy trenches stretching from the ocean to the Alps.  Tens and hundreds of thousands of soldiers would perish when they climbed out from the trenches to an eerie no-man’s land full of muddy mortar craters littered with corpses and the debris of war, anxious that they would not fall victim to the mortars and machine guns of the enemy before and after they reached the enemy’s trenches.

The privations and defeats of Germany of World War I discredited the monarchy, which was overthrown and replaced by the Weimar Republic.  Intense propaganda throughout the war led the German people to believe until the very end that victory was in sight.  The trenches were dug in French territory, no battles were fought on German soil.  Not only was victory not possible, but the Germans were short on food and ammunition and everything needed to wage war.  The Germans were shocked by the draconian terms of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, restrictions were placed on German industry and the military, German colonies were distributed among the Allies, Germany had to pay heavy reparations, and were forced to accept a humiliating war guilt clause.

Hitler was not the only German nor the first German to label the Weimar politicians as traitors, to accuse the Weimar politicians of snatching away German victory and “stabbing Germany in the back,” allowing the Allies to declare victory.  Shamefully, the German generals did not dare to contradict this conspiracy theory, instead they repeated the stab in the back lie loudly and constantly.

The Weimar Republic could not easily pay these heavy reparations.  Likewise, the Allies could not easily repay the vast loans America advanced them during the war.  So the American bankers engaged in a shell game, America would loan Germany the money to pay their reparations to the Allies, and then the Allies would use this money to pay the American loans.

The Weimar German economy was in crisis in the early 1920’s, suffering from hunger, unemployment, and general dislocation.  The Germans started printing money, eventually causing hyperinflation, wiping out German savings accounts and pensions and salaries.  Within months a loaf of bread that previously cost a mark would cost a trillion marks.  Prices rose during the day, anytime you were paid you ran to spend the money.  Then in the 1930’s the Great Depression hit Germany hard, causing broad discontent that was fertile soil for the malignant Nazi ideology to take root and thrive.[5]

Mussolini in Italy had grabbed power in Italy after his fascist thugs marched on Rome in 1922.  The next year a then obscure Adolph Hitler, inspired by Mussolini’s example, tried to march on Munich with two thousand Nazis, but due to poor planning and a strong police force, the march was broken up and Hitler was charged with treason.  During his trial, a sympathetic judge allowed Hitler to deliver fiery speeches during his trial that were covered by the major newspapers, gaining notoriety, broadening his base.  In prison, Hitler wrote his Mein Kampf, where he laid out in surprising detail how he intended to seize power in Germany.  After his release he changed tactics and sought to achieve power somewhat legally.[6]

Fascists were the enemy of the godless communists.  All Europe were fearful that Lenin’s Communist Party would succeed in igniting violent revolutions in Europe.  Many Europeans thought that since the fascists were the avowed enemies of godless communism that they might shield the Churches from communism, so fascist were seen at least as the least worst choice.  The German fascists would quickly show they were only the friends of those Christians whose theology they could subvert.

Later the Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939, degenerated into a brutal and bloody war between the Republican Communists and the Nationalist Fascists under General Franco.  This was also a proxy war between Russian on one side and Fascist Germany and Italy on the other side, the Allies were neutral in the conflict.  Although both sides were guilty of massacres, the communists brutally murdered thousands of priests, monks, and nuns.[7]  The Nazis were able to test their new machines of war in actual combat.


Although for many years the Nazi Party was a small minority in the 1920’s, after the coming of the Great Depression it grew to become the largest party in Germany.  Although the Nazis lost seats in the 1932 Reichstag election, the conservatives formed a coalition government with the Nazis on January 30, 1933.  Hindenburg, the aging World War I general, would be the President, Hitler would be appointed Chancellor, and Papen as Vice-Chancellor.  The Nazis would hold three cabinet positions, the conservatives eight cabinet positions.  Hindenburg and Papen thought they could control this corporal with an eighth-grade education, but Hitler quickly outwitted both of them.  Hitler’s first act as Chancellor was to ask Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag to pave the way for the passage of the Enabling Act.  New elections were scheduled for March 5, 1933.[8]

On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building caught fire, and a communist arsonist was arrested, tried, and executed.  Historians debate whether this was a false flag operation, whether the fire was actually set by the Nazis and pinned on the communists.  This was seen by many Germans as the beginning of a communist revolution in Germany, the next day, at Hitler’s urging, Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus and the freedoms of press, expression, and public assembly.[9]

Even with anti-red hysteria the Nazis would still only receive 44% of the vote in the March Reichstag election.  To pass the Enabling Act, which would transform Hitler’s government into a legal dictatorship, checked only by the authority of President Hindenburg, would require a two-thirds majority vote.  To reach this two thirds threshold Hitler would need the support of the Nazi, Conservative, and the Catholic Center Party.

How did Hitler gain the support of the Catholic Center Party and alleviate the fears of Christians that the Nazi Party was essentially pagan and anti-Christian?  By blatant lies and deceitful reassurances.  Hitler got religion for the day of the vote, March 23, 1933.  Hitler reassured these believers in his speech to the Reichstag, “the national government regards the two Christian confessions as the most important factors for the preservation of our national culture…  Their rights will not be infringed.”  He promised that Christian teachings would be welcome in the schools.  Of course, the Reich “regards the Christianity as the unshakable foundation of our national life and morality.”  Hitler promised friendly relations with the Vatican Holy See.  About the only promise Hitler kept was that the state would continue clerical salaries through the duration of the Third Reich.[10]


Vice Chancellor Papen had managed to both alienate the Catholic Parties and enable the rise of Hitler through complex political maneuvering that eventually caused his undoing.  Papen and Hindenburg became concerned at the brutality and overreach of the Nazi government, and the army command was concerned by Hitler’s huge SA brownhirt gangs that were causing terror in the streets of Germany.  With Hindenburg’s encouragement, Paper delivered an address at the University of Marburg on June 17, 1934.  In this speech Papen called for the restoration of some freedoms and advocated the end of SA terror in the streets.

Hitler was furious.  The publication of the Marburg address was suppressed.  Papen then met with Hitler and threatened to resign unless the publication ban was lifted, threatening action by Hindenburg.  Hitler outwitted Papen, telling him that the ban on publication would be lifted at once and the SA brownshirts would be suppressed, if Papen would not resign and they would meet with Hindenburg.[11]

Two weeks later Hitler kept his promise.  Now that Hitler was in power the troublesome the thuggish SA brownshirt mobs needed to be reigned in, the ambitious head of the SA, the homosexual Ernst Rohm was a loose cannon and a threat to his power.  During the Night of the Long Knives Hitler directed the SS troops to purge the SA leadership.  In addition to Rohm, between a hundred and a thousand of Hitler’s enemies died during the purge, including several Nazis whose politics were suspect, several Catholic politicians, and some of Papen’s associates.  Papen himself was placed under house arrest.  After several weeks, Papen resigned as Vice Chancellor, and served out the war as ambassador to Austria and Turkey.[12]  After the purge the SA brown shirt forces were downsized while the paramilitary SS forces gained in strength.  Both the SA and the SS forces terrorized the Jews.[13]

Soon after, on August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died of lung cancer, he was 86 years old.  Quickly a law was passed that declared the office of President vacant, Hitler was now both Chancellor and Fuhrer, his hold on power was now absolute.[14]


There was no German Archbishop heading the German Catholic Church, and the exact Catholic policies on relations with the state varied from bishop to bishop.  Prior to the Enabling Act Catholics in many bishoprics were forbidden from joining the Nazi Party, Nazis were not welcome to attend funerals or other group functions in Nazi regalia with Nazi banners, and any Catholic who were known Nazi sympathizers were forbidden from receiving the sacraments.  Since the Catholics acquiesced in the passage of the Enabling Act, these restrictions were relaxed and Catholics could support the Nazis and join the Nazi Party, and some did.  Although there were definitely anti-Christian elements in the Nazi program, many Catholics were reassured by the Nazi reassertion of the values of religion (as the Nazis defined it) and the love of the fatherland, and the Nazi’s strong opposition to the godless Bolshevism.  Why shouldn’t Hitler be trusted?  After all in Mein Kampf he said he was not interested in interfering with German religious institutions.[15]

The Pope had negotiated a Concordat with fascist Italy with generally positive results, though the consequences were more mixed once the war stated and the evils of Nazism and fascism were revealed in their brutalities.  Soon after the passage of the Enabling Act Papen initiated negotiations for a German Concordat with the Vatican.  There were many parallels between the two Concordats.  Neither Mussolini nor Hitler were religious men, both were dictators of totalitarian police states with personality cults, both sought total control over their citizens, both sought to control the church, both fascist regimes employed thugs who harassed and persecuted Christians, and both Concordats were negotiated during times when both regimes committed murder openly to consolidate their power.  In both instances the Pope, being suspicious of democracy, betrayed the Catholic political parties who supported the Church, instead choosing the fascist parties as likely political victors.  But Mussolini generally kept his word, becoming a real partner with the Catholic Church up to the start of the war, whereas Hitler broke the terms of the Concordat before the ink had dried.

Hitler was more interested in how the news of the Concordat would be received diplomatically and in the newspapers than he was in the actual terms of the Concordat.  Although there intense negotiations, in the end the exact terms meant nothing to Hitler since he intended to break the terms of the Concordat immediately and with impunity, while expecting the Catholic Church to always conform to their part of the treaty.

What were the terms of the treaty?  Catholics were free to profess their faith and run their churches independently “within the limits of the law,” an unfortunate Nazi loophole.  Bishops appointed by the Pope would need to be approved by the state, which was a standard clause, but also the bishops were also required to take an oath of loyalty to the state.  The Catholic Church was guaranteed control over church schools, seminaries, and Catholic teachers.  An army bishop overseeing the Catholic chaplains would be appointed jointly by the state and the Holy See.  Although the Church won the right to offer pastoral care in hospitals and prisons, this was soon violated when the church was forbidden to hold services in concentration camps.  Already stories were leaking out about the brutal conditions in these camps.  Hitler got his wish in a clause that forbade priests from participating in politics.

The Concordat was finally approved in September 1934.  The Concordat was a political victory for Hitler, the Catholic Church had condoned the Nazi regime.  Maybe the Catholic Church was more likely to survive having negotiated the Concordat, but the church sold its soul and made resistance to the regime more problematic for Catholics.  The consent to liquidate all Catholic organizations with a political program helped strengthen the Nazi regime.  But both the German and Italian Concordats survived the end of the war and they are still in effect today.[16]

Just like in fascist Italy, after the Concordat was signed the church bells rung for special Thanksgiving masses celebrating the signing of the Concordat.  Just like in fascist Italy, formations of SA and SS Nazi thugs with swastikas and banners marched into the churches alongside Catholic bishops and diplomats.  Just like in fascist Italy, members of the Catholic organizations rushed to affirm their loyalties to the Nazi party and state.[17]


Hitler in the 1920 Nazi Party platform supported the notion of positive Christianity which sought to fuse Christianity with Nazi racial ideology.  This was a Christianity without an Old Testament, an Aryan Christ who was not a Jew, an absorbing Nazi Christianity that would absorb all other Christian Churches, a Nazi Church that would glorify the fatherland.  These Nazi leaning churches were known as German Christians, and they managed to gain control of some of the Lutheran German Evangelical Churches.[18]  Hitler proposed to combine these German Protestant churches into one Reich Church.  When a moderate was elected bishop, Hitler, the Nazi Party and press, the SA and SS and the Gestapo joined together to coerce the election of a Nazi bishop, Ludwig Muller, who was both politically inept and an early member of the Nazi Party.

These machinations caused many member churches to distance themselves from the national organization.  Also deeply controversial were the racial policies that decreed that any converted Jew should be dismissed from the clergy, and could not draw a state salary.  Many churches were offended by the heavy-handed Nazi attempt to hijack the churches, and by Muller’s crude attempts to grab power from his fellow bishops.[19]

The Confessing Church movement formed to resist this pressure to Nazify the German Protestant Churches.  The leading theologian of this movement was Karl Barth, then theology professor at Bonn, known for his groundbreaking Commentary on Romans.  During a synod in 1934, Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, the main confession of the Confessing Church.  Barmen declared that Jesus is the sole authority of the Church, not the Fuhrer; that the Word of God is the source of revelation, not Nazi ideology; and that the message and order of the Church should not be influenced by Nazi politics.  German Christians had the freedom to disobey Nazi dictates when they conflicted with scriptural mandates.  The Confessing Church had no place for Nazi Aryan ideals, the German Christians worshiped a different God.  The next year Barth was deported to Switzerland when he courageously refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler.[20]

As one of the participants later remembered, “People later became agitated about what was not said in Barmen.  And, of course, it’s true.  In Barmen, National Socialism wasn’t directly addressed, nor anti-Semitism, nor militarism or authoritarianism.  Indirectly these were addressed, but Barmen was all about the rediscovery of the church within a divided church” of many churches and confessions.  “Barmen discovered the identity of the church” in opposition to the Nazi regime.  Although the Confessing Church resisted Nazi encroachments into the church, it did not encourage political opposition to the Nazis.  Indeed, some of the Confessing pastors were card carrying Nazi party members, which sometimes caused the Gestapo to be more lenient when they harassed them.[21]

Despite this harassment from the Gestapo and the Nazi regime, the Confessing Church grew to over 5,000 churches while the Reich Church stagnated.  Sometimes there were show trials, but once when several Protestant bishops were arrested the protests both home and abroad, including a march of thousands of parishioners singing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God” embarrassed the regime.  Some bishops appealed and met with Hitler, who washed his hands of the inept Mueller.  Though he would remain as the Reich Bishop, the Nazis lost interest in the German Christian project.[22]

The Confessing Church was not monolithic.  Confessing Churches did not leave their denomination, they were a church within a church.  Some Confessing Church pastors refused to make any compromises, chief among them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who eventually was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler and would die in a Gestapo prison near the end of the war.  Bonhoeffer was also adamant that Christians should concern themselves with the fate of all Jews. [23]

The Confessing Church would be persecuted increasingly through the end of the war, and many confessing pastors served time and often died in Gestapo prisons or the concentration camps in Germany.  Many Confessing Church students were purposely drafted into military service.  Many Confessing Germans wrestled with the question of whether they should have done more during the war to oppose the Nazis, but many who actually did more died in concentration labor camps or on the battlefield.

Unlike the fascist regime in Italy, the Nazis in Germany immediately and relentlessly sought to undermine both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany in every way possible.  Though the individual churches initially sought mainly the freedom to worship and congregate without governmental interference, they were increasingly forced to face the many moral challenges thrust upon them.


Nazi ideology had always championed an extreme form of social Darwinism to achieve a pure and healthy Aryan race partly by denying life to those the Nazis considered unworthy of life.  At the 1929 Nazi Party gathering in Nuremberg Hitler praised the Spartan ideal of infanticide, where the community leaders rather than the parents selected those infants that were sufficiently virile to benefit the state, exposing the less viable infants to wild animals.  Hitler proclaimed, “If Germans every year would give birth to one million children and eliminate 800,000 of the weakest, this would strengthen our nation.”  How chilling: the Final Solution of the Holocaust may not have gone as far as Hitler wanted to go.

Soon after the Nazis grabbed power they tried to implement first voluntary, then later compulsory, sterilization for certain disabled and institutionalized patients.  The Nazis encountered public resistance from several Catholic bishops as sterilization was specifically forbidden by church teaching, and as a compromise doctors could decline to perform sterilizations on grounds of conscience. [24]

The Nazis encountered stiffer resistance from both Catholics and Protestants against their euthanasia initiatives.  In September 1939 Hitler issued an order to euthanize all patients with incurable diseases to eliminate “useless eaters.”  The disabled and retarded patients were also targeted.  At first the victims were shot, but as the program expanded the Nazis experimented with gassing patients in rooms disguised as showers.  Those who lived near these institutions noticed buses arriving with patients and always leaving empty and chimneys constantly belching smoke.

The euthanasia program soon became an open secret, too many were involved in its administration.  Many of these institutions were run by the churches.  Many administrators refused to answer questionnaires inquiring about the status of their institutionalized patients.  Sometimes the government had to send in their own doctors to fill out the forms to expedite the killings.  Doctors argued to get people off the lists, sometimes sending the patients back home to avoid execution.  In addition, doctors and midwives were likewise requested to fill out questionnaires on infants born with birth defects.  Permission for these useless eater killings was not requested, when patients were euthanized, their families simply received letters that their relative had died of a heart attack or pneumonia or whatever and their remains had been cremated for health reasons.

Many were horrified by these killings.  Sometimes pastors and bishops publicly criticized the killings, more often they appealed directly to high Nazi officials.  Finally in August 1941 the Catholic Bishop Galen of Munster publicly denounced the euthanasia program, his sermon was distributed across Germany  For once the Nazis backed down, less than a month later Hitler signed an order ending the euthanasia program that had killed over 70,000 patients.  But the euthanasia program did not finally end until the war ended, it was simply carried out on a quieter and smaller scale.[25]


Hitler’s rants in his Mein Kampf reveal that the elevation of the Aryan race was central to the Nazi ideology, and that the perfidious Jews were the cause of the Germans’ woes, their stabbed-in-the-back defeat in World War I,  the humiliation of Germany, the Depression that hit Germany, they were to blame for every tribulation that Germans suffered.  The Jews did not deserve to be citizens, they did not deserve their jobs, they did not deserve their possessions, they did not deserve their family, they deserved only persecution and misery, Jews should either be driven to exile or executed.

Soon after they came to power the Nazis drafted the Nuremberg Laws against the Jews.  The Nazis used the Jim Crow races laws of the Deep South as precedent when drafting the Nuremberg Laws, in Mein Kampf Hitler lauded the Confederate States for founding the healthy racist order he was trying to create in Germany.  In the early 1930s both the Jews in Germany and the negroes in the Deep South were hounded, beaten, and sometimes murdered.[26]  Miscegenation, or marriage or sexual relations between Aryans and Jews, was prohibited.  Jews were second class citizens, unable to fly the Reich flag.  The Citizenship Law gave the government the authority to determine who would be a citizen.[27]

Who was Jewish?  This did not depend on your faith but your blood, you were Jewish if you had three Jewish grandparents, or two grandparents if you were married to a Jew.  First, Jewish shops were boycotted, then Jews were fired from their jobs as teachers and civil servants, then the professions.  The problem was that since pastors were civil servants, they were considered Jews by virtue of their grandparents even though they had converted to Christianity many years ago.[28]

These race laws had another immediate effect on the churches.  Everyone was desperate to prove to the government that they had no Jewish blood.  The proof was often in the baptismal registries, churches had to hire full-time secretaries to process the proof of ancestry paperwork for their parishioners.[29]  The first protests for both the Catholic and Protestants were made on behalf of those few of their clergy and parishioners who had converted from Judaism, but even in the Confessing Churches many acquiesced to Nazi pressure.  There were many Christians who would protest the injustices against converted Jews but never practicing Jews.[30]  But some pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wanted not only to oppose the persecution of converted Jews but of all Jews and all others persecuted under the Nazi Race Laws since all Christians were bound to love their neighbor as themselves, that is the core principle of Christianity.  Karl Barth agreed, but encouraged Bonhoeffer to be patient.[31]


The Catholic Church may have experienced even greater persecution than the Protestant and Confessing Churches, in part because it was more centralized and thus an easier target.  Although the Italian and German Concordats were similar, the Catholic Church fared much worse under the German Concordat, Hitler started bending and breaking his part of the agreement even before the ink was dry.  Great pressure was placed on the Catholic Youth and Student Organizations, finally they were disbanded and merged into the Nazi Youth Organizations.  Likewise, great pressure was placed on the Catholic Press, and even when they published pieces praising the regime, these praises were never sufficiently subservient, and the Catholic Press was eventually shut down.[32]  And the Pope was receiving ever more worrying reports about the abysmal conditions in the concentration camps, with ever increasing death tolls.  More and more Catholic Priests were forced to serve time in the camps, alongside many Confessing Church pastors.

Pope Pius XI was aging and worried about his eternal salvation.  He knew that if he spoke out forcefully that the persecution of the church would increase.  But enough was enough, 300,000 copies of the papal encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge”, translated in English “With Burning Concern”, were successfully secretly smuggled into German and read from every Catholic pulpit on Palm Sunday.  Hitler was not named but rather referred to as the mad prophet oppressing the Church and breaking the terms of the Concordat.  The encyclical proclaimed the true belief in God could not be reconciled with the idolatrous deification of a race, people or state, that the God of Christianity could not be imprisoned in a single race.  The Nazi principle that “right is what is advantageous to the people,” what is morally illicit can never be truly advantageous, and Christians have no obligation to obey laws contrary to natural moral laws.  The faithful were bound to believe in Christ, divine revelation, and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, challenging the totalitarian claims of the Nazi regime.  The encyclical proclaimed that “humility in the spirit of the Gospel and prayer for the assistance of grace are perfectly compatible with self-confidence and heroism,” and that “the priest’s first loving gift to his neighbors is to serve truth and refute error in any of its forms,” both of these proclamations are anathema to Nazi sensibilities of superiority.

Hitler was furious.  The Gestapo seized many of the copies of the encyclical, a dozen print shops were seized, and hundreds of Catholics were thrown in prison and in concentration camps.  The Nazis trumped up immorality trials against priests, monks, and nuns and confiscated church assets.  But the encyclical did not totally condemn totalitarianism.  Succumbing to the relentless anti-Catholic Nazi propaganda, many Catholics left the church.  Also, around this time Catholic priests were being persecutes and murdered by the Bolsheviks in the Spanish Civil War where the fascist General Franco protected the Church in Spain.  Hitler did not want to overreact, he wanted the allegiance of Catholics.[33]  Hitler planned further retributions against Catholics and the Pope and all Christians after the war.


If anyone had any doubts about the cruel evil nature of the Nazi regime, these doubts were shattered by the events of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9-10, 1938.  Throughout German the SA Storm-trooper thugs smashed the windows of Jewish stores, homes, hospitals, and synagogues, they were burned, looted, and demolished by sledgehammers.  Prayer books, Torah scrolls, artworks, and philosophy texts were burned.  Many ordinary Germans gleefully joined in the mob violence.  Many Jews were murdered, and many more committed suicide.

The Nazis had to pin the blame for these rampages on the Jews themselves, so they waited for an incident, the assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jewish boy in Paris.  Since it was their fault, the Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks.[34]  Over 20,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, some were released when they promised to emigrate for the price of all their property.  Jews were no longer welcome in Germany, many Jews tried to emigrate, but the United States and other countries had restrictive immigration laws and rejected them, many had to return to the continent and their eventual deaths.  Some Christians privately tried to help the Jews financially and in other ways, some Confessing pastors actively helped many Jews to emigrate, even obtaining false passports and hiding Jews.[35]  Jews in Germany feared for their lives.


Hitler was cheated out of his war in Munich in September 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain appeased Hitler and proclaimed “peace for our time” by allowing Hitler to swallow the German speaking Sudetenland, and he soon broke this agreement by swallowing all of Czechoslovakia.[36]  Chamberlain should have realized who he was dealing with when he was discussing England’s problem with Gandhi, the Indian leader.  Hitler’s advice: shoot Gandhi.

Less than a year later Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, starting World War II in Europe.  Hitler planned to exterminate all the Polish Jews and the Polish intelligentsia, including over a thousand Polish Catholic priests, and enslave the rest of the Slavic peoples.  Soldiers on the Eastern Front were telling horrible stories how Russian Jewish men, women, and children were lined up and machine-gunned by the thousands.  Gas chamber showers in the Polish death camps suffocated more than 100,000 German Jews by the end of 1942.  The Catholic bishops were kept informed of these killings by friendly German intelligence officers.

Most of the German concentration camps were labor camps with massive mortality rates, while the massive concentration camps in Poland were mostly extermination camps.  While German Jews were shipped to the eastern camps in Poland, over seven million Polish and Russian slave laborers were shipped west to Germany, where they made up twenty percent of the workforce.[37]

The size of the camps grew as the war progressed, in 1939 there were six major concentration camps, including Dachau, with over 20,000 total inmates.  By 1944 there were twenty major concentration camps, many of them death camps, 165 work camps, and over a thousand feeder and subsidiary camps, holding millions of inmates, and in 1944 ninety percent of the inmates were non-German, and many women and children were slave laborers.[38]

The Nuremberg Race Laws had forbidden new marriages between Jews and Aryans, but existing marriages were not annulled.  Hitler decided to close this loophole and in early 1943 ordered that all such existing marriages be annulled and the Jewish husbands be arrested, in Berlin alone 6,000 Jews were arrested.  Surprisingly, their Aryan wives followed them to their temporary detention and spent hours screaming and howling for their husbands.  The Gestapo just did not want their secrecy over this operation blown, so they released their non-Aryan husbands, and Catholic bishops agitated for the husbands that had been deported to be returned.  For once outraged virtue stared down the evil Nazi regime.[39]

Unfortunately, the Nazis gained a tremendous tactical advantage by driving their tanks through what the Allies thought was the impenetrable Ardennes Forest rather than the heavily defended Maginot Line, and in two months the German tanks and troops trapped the British forces at Dunkirk and also reached Paris,  objectives never reached in the many bloody years of World War I.  This swift victory caused great patriotic pride and fervor in Germany, and made it more difficult for the Church to oppose the totalitarian policies of the Nazi police state.

You never saw an organized resistance in Nazi Germany that you saw in Vichy and Occupied France, but then Germany was the conquerors rather than the conquered.  There were many individual cases of resistance, a priest in Berlin offered up prayers for Jews in this daily masses, he died in the Dachau camp.[40]  There were many other Catholic priest who were either executed or died in concentration camps for both brave moral stances and for trivial offenses.[41]  Although Confessing Church was never a resistance organization, some individuals were part of the small German resistance, including the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.[42]

Many criticized Pope Pius XII, who was more diplomatic than his predecessor, for his failure to protest publicly against Nazi atrocities.  During his 1942 Christmas radio address called for a more humane conduct of the war, but he never directly criticized Hitler.  His fear was that abandonment of papal neutrality by direct criticizing Nazi brutality in the middle of a bloody war would only worsen the conditions of Catholics in Nazi-occupied countries.  After Italy was taken out of the war, the Nazis began rounding up the 8,000 Jews of Rome.  About 7,000 Jews were able to avoid this roundup by going into hiding, many into the monasteries and convents and other buildings in the Vatican.[43]  In his book Guenter Lewy further discusses the question of whether more could have been done by the Catholic Church,[44] but what we must keep in mind that the Nazi army largely left alone the Vatican City and the Catholic institutions during their occupation and retreat from Rome.  What would the occupying Nazi forces have done had Pope Pius XII openly antagonized the ever more desperate Nazis?

[1] Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 9.




[5] Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust, pp. 13-15; Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York, Oxford University Presss, 1992), pp. 18-19.





[10] Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust, pp. 52-54.





[15] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (Da Capo Press, 1964, 2000), pp. 8-17, 25, 69.

[16] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 79-93.

[17] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 105-106.


[19] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 33-36.

[20] and , Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 48, 54, 58.

[21] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 40-41.

[22] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 64-64.

[23] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 96-97.

[24] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 258-261.

[25] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 263-267, 282; Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 104-121.

[26] James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, the United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, pp. 2-4,


[28] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 128.

[29] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 37, and Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 280-283.

[30] Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust, pp. 27-32.

[31] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 125, 131.

[32] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 130-150.

[33] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 156-159 and Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust, pp. 1208-110 and


[35] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 139-154, and Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, p. 284.


[37] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 163.

[38] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 176.

[39] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 286-290.

[40] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, p. 293.

[41] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, p. 318.

[42] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, pp. 180-185.

[43] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 295-302 and Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust, pp. 128-132.

[44] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, pp. 302-308 and Robert Erickson, Complicity in the Holocaust, pp. 128-132..

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.