Christian compromise with Nazi Germany’s political leadership is well documented in painful detail. There was resistance, but it was the exception rather than the rule. German Christianity was terribly timid. Leadership lacked spiritual strength because of serious Biblical ignorance and unbelief. But it was not just the leaders. Christians in Germany — Protestants even more than Catholics — not only cooperated with the Third Reich, a large percentage even celebrated it.
There are reasons, of course, for Germans in the 1930s resenting the resolution of WWI and the policies of the Weimar Republic, and they are not entirely illegitimate. Christians also bought into the national socialist program for supposedly Christian reasons.[i] Hitler knew how to appeal to the underlying dissatisfaction to gain his place at the head of a new Germany. In his book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, Robert Gellately notes Hitler’s policy of obtaining Christian support.
Hitler also reached out to opponents, like the Catholics, by signing a Concordat with the Vatican on 8 July 1933. Until then, Catholic voters were loyal to their Centre Party, and it was they who were mainly responsible for denying the Nazis their electoral majorities. Catholics soon adjusted to the dictatorship. Protestants, however, were more sympathetic to Nazism all along. In their church elections of 1933, two-thirds of the voters supported the German Christian sect that wanted to integrate Nazism and Christianity, and to expel Jews who had converted to Protestantism. Hitler made a brief radio appeal to Protestants on the eve of these church elections, and asked them to show their support for Nazi policies. He could not have been disappointed by the pro-Nazi results.[ii]
It was once thought that Christians in Germany would have understood that Nazi ideology and Christianity are polar opposites — and why not, since this is undoubtedly true? But the historical record appears to be more embarrassing.
Several scholars have demonstrated the ambivalent and often positive stand that even members of the Confessing Church took toward the regime. We have come to realize with growing empirical certainty that many Christians of the day believed Nazism to be in some sense a Christian movement. Even in the later years of the Third Reich, as anticlerical hostility grew, churchmen of both confessions persisted in their belief that Nazism was essentially in conformity with Christian precepts.[iii]
At least two matters need to be emphasized: 1) even members of the “Confessing Church” — the most openly evangelical Christians of the time — took an ambivalent or even positive attitude toward Nazi rule; 2) even in the later years of Nazi rule, both Protestant and Catholic church leaders continued to believe that Nazism was in conformity with Christian beliefs. In the later years, the meaning of Nazi rule should have been apparent, but the Christian response was weak or worse.
At the root of this was the huge success of Nazi propaganda — even among the Christians in Germany.
Although on occasion food or cigarettes were tossed to, or left for, these [political, Jewish] prisoners, the population was overwhelmingly in tune with Nazi propaganda and generally turned against all camp prisoners and all foreigners.
In many cases, however, Germans were either unresponsive or indifferent, so that Nazi propaganda was a convenient way out.
It was a characteristic feature of the Third Reich, one that set it apart from Italian Fascism, that the regime found no difficulty in obtaining the collaboration of ordinary citizens. People cooperated when it came to enforcing antisemitism and the racial measures aimed at foreign workers, and they were certainly not reluctant about informing when it came to ordinary crimes.[iv]
In our day, we remember very little about Hitler and the Third Reich — including why the Third Reich was called the “Third Reich.” We do not remember that the German people felt violated by the Treaty of Versailles, which brought an unhappy end to WWI and served as a stimulus to WWII. We do not remember that Hitler brought Germany out of the Great Depression and promised economic prosperity to other nations, like Austria. We do not remember that German Christianity was largely compromised and, at best, confused. It appears that Socialism and anti-Semitism looked good at the time.
So, what do we remember? We remember that Nazi Germany murdered millions of Jews, the usually quoted figure is 6 million. Whatever the exact number, the only thing we remember about Nazis is that they murdered Jews by the millions. They murdered many others as well, but it is the murder of the Jews that we remember.
We may forget — and may want to forget — that most German Christians went along with the Nazis, even with Nazi anti-Semitism. For the most part, Christians in Nazi Germany bought into the propaganda. They were complicit in the holocaust.
What does that mean for us today? It means that we need to remember that political propaganda can infect the minds of even sincere Christians and distort their priorities. Even more, it means that we must remember that political issues are under the authority of the One to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been committed and we need to look to Him for wisdom.
What will Christians of our day be remembered for? Certainly not for love, wisdom, or unity.
However, we might be remembered for our participation in or ambivalent opposition to the holocaust of our day — abortion. The United States of American is responsible for the murder of many millions of the most helpless members of the human race — something like 60 million, ten times the number of Jews Hitler murdered. Thankfully, the abortion rate is declining, but that does not change the fact that abortion is the number one cause of death in the United States.
The Nazis intentionally and aggressively pursued a policy of killing Jews. There is no one in the United States who says that we ought to kill unborn children. In that sense, the analogy is weak. But in other respects, the disquieting analogy fits. The most important point being this: just as in Nazi Germany Jews (retarded, deformed, etc.) were not regarded as humans with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so now for many in the United States, including many who call themselves Christian, unborn children are regarded as subhuman, in spite of the amazing progress of science demonstrating the development of a child in the womb.
Politicians in the United States — whether Democrats or Republicans — who do not oppose abortion are too closely analogous to Nazi leadership. For abortion in the Bible is clearly defined as murder — premeditated termination of life.
I hasten to add that most young women who seek an abortion probably do not know what they are doing. They do not understand what the child in their womb is or what it means to end his or her life. Young women need counsel and care, and often economic help, not condemnation for what they do not understand. But the doctors know and so do the politicians.
There are also politicians who believe in that the government should pay for abortions — again analogous to Nazis, for whom killing Jews was a part of their political platform. What is worse and, in fact, almost beyond belief and imagination, among those who believe in government sponsored murder of the unborn are professing Christians, both Catholic and Protestant.
Nazi Germany is remembered for the murder of Jews and its Christian church is remembered for compromise in the face of a holocaust. It is my fear that the post-Roe-versus-Wade United States of America will be remembered for its slaughter of the helpless — out-Heroding Herod — and the American Christian church with complicity in that slaughter.
Politicians who favor abortion are as unChristian and anti-Christian as politicians who favored the murder of Jews. This is a political issue on which Christians should be able to unite and exert religious, social and political pressure. After all, “Thou shalt not murder!” is relatively clear.
Indeed it is difficult to imagine a political issue on which it should be easier for Christians to unite, since the Bible is clear that abortion is murder. Economic policies, international relations, immigration and other issues are not by any means irrelevant, but they are much less clear than politically sanctioned, premeditated murder.
But just as the Nazi propaganda effectively united Germans in favor of their party, the American propaganda machine has persuaded Christians and non-Christians alike that the unborn child is a “thing” not a person, that “it” is a piece of the mother’s body that she can discard at will, that “it” has no right to life.
Christians should not swallow the propaganda pill. Christian churches should excommunicate politicians who favor abortion. Christian churches should urge their members to make abortion the central issue in their voting preference. If American Christians cannot unite to fight abortion, what can we unite on? If we cannot unite against abortion, how can we look back on Christians in Nazi Germany and condemn them?
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] “More than just a cynical ploy for winning votes, the proponents of positive Christianity maintained that their antisemitism and socialism were derived from a Christian understanding of Germany’s ills and their cure.” Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 10.
[ii] Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 14.
[iii] The Holy Reich, p. 5.
[iv] All three quotations are from, Backing Hitler, pp. 213, 221, 261.
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