In 1933, almost all of the 60 million people living in Germany were Christian. About 20 million people belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant churches had about 40 million members, most of them members of the German Evangelical Church, an association of 28 regional churches that that included Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant churches. Smaller so-called "free" Protestant churches, such as Methodist and Baptist churches also existed, as well as a small representation of Mormon, Jehovah Witness and Seventh Day Adventist Churches. Less than 1% of the total population of the country was Jewish.
It’s pretty clear that, at least at first, many Protestants welcomed the rise of Nazism and were willing to cooperate with it. They believed the Nazi Party affirmed traditional morals and family values and would protect them from communism. The German Evangelical Church, which had long considered itself to be one of the pillars of German culture and society, espoused a theologically grounded tradition of loyalty to the state. By the 1930s, a movement within the German Evangelical Church called the Deutsche Christen, or "German Christians" embraced many of the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazi ideology. It should come as no surprise, then, that many were persuaded by the statement on “positive Christianity” in Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform that the Nazis believed in freedom of religion:
"We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state's existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good."
Once the Nazis came to power, the German Evangelical Church began to change. In 1936 it was renamed the National Reich Church. A member of the Nazi party was elected as its Bishop and non-Aryan ministers were suspended. Church members were said to have "the Swastika on their chest and the Cross in their heart."
One of the Nazi Government’s most effective ways of corrupting religion was through the indoctrination of children. All children had grown up with the Hitler Youth Movement, which had been created in the 1920's and by 1936 boasted 4 million members, boys and girls ages 10 through 18. At first, attendance was voluntary. However, Hitler Youth Meetings were held on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, times which interfered with most church activities, so children had to choose, a circumstance explored in Michael Terrell’s based-on-real-life novel Brothers in Valor. Later, attendance in the Youth Movement became compulsory and competing activities, such as Boy Scouts and church-based programs, became illegal. Children indoctrinated by the Nazi education program and Hitler Youth were encouraged to inform their teachers if their parents, priests or pastors made disparaging comments about Hitler.
Not everyone in Germany was happy to let the Nazis have so much control of religion. The Kreisau Circle, a group of churchmen, scholars and politicians, was one of the most famous groups to oppose Hitler. Rather than plan active resistance against the Nazi government, the Kreisau Circle planned for Germany’s future. When the Gestapo learned of the organization and rounded up and executed its members.
There was also dissent within the National Reich Church. In 1934 Martin Niemöller convinced 6,000 of the 8,000 ministers in the National Reich Church to split off and form The Confessing Church. Its founding document, the Barmen Confession of Faith, declared that the church's allegiance was to God and scripture, not a worldly Führer. The Nazis reacted strongly to this challenge. Niemöller himself was arrested in 1937 and sent to Dachau, then Sachsenhausen. He wasn’t released until 1945. Around 800 other ministers were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The leaders of the Catholic Church were initially more suspicious of Nazism than their Protestant counterparts. Rabid anti-Catholicism of figures such as Alfred Rosenberg, a leading Nazi ideologue during the Nazi rise to power, raised early concerns among Catholic leaders in Germany and at the Vatican. Some bishops even prohibited their parishioners from joining the Nazi Party. However, in 1933 Hitler signed an accord with the Pope in which he promised full religious freedom for the Church, which he described as the “foundation” for German values. The Pope responded by promising that he wouldn’t interfere in political matters. Soon after, the Nazis began closing Catholic churches and monasteries. Like the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Youth Organization was abolished. Around 700 priests were arrested and sent to the concentration camps for what the government called “oppositional activities”.
Other, smaller churches suffered under Nazi persecution as well. The Mormons were forced to give up their extensive youth programs and were monitored for anti-German sentiments because of their connections with America. About one-third of Jehovah Witnesses were killed in concentration camps because their pacifist stand made them refuse to serve in the German army. The Salvation Army, The Christian Saints and The Seventh Day Adventist Church disappeared from Germany during the Nazi regime.
The battle between church and state was not only fought in Germany. Once its forces were defeated, France also fell under the influence of the Nazi Party. It was divided into two zones, one of which was occupied by the German army. The Vichy Government, which was sympathetic to the German cause, controlled the other half of France. Its leader, an aging World War I hero named General Petain, who declared that he had a moral necessity to free France from decadence and corruption. With sanctions from the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party, he purged the political Left and demoted Jews, communists and Freemasons to second class citizens and enemies of the state. As in Germany, his task was made easier by the indoctrination of the young in schools and social programs. By 1942, internment camps throughout France were filled with Jews and others considered to be morally subversive to French culture.
The Nazi State used religion in its war for the hearts and minds of the German people and the world. They created a church that was racist and anti-Semitic, and they persecuted anyone who chose to defy or deny their vision. And yet, through all the persecution, people of conscience representing every denomination strived to rescue Jews and other groups which the Nazi state considered undesirable. In both Germany and France there were individuals who fought, either openly or quietly, to countermand the government and its policies. God bless those people, and those who continue to fight for truth and love amid the chaos of politics and prejudice.