Why did the Nazi Party try to control religion in Germany?

The Church was an important part of people’s lives in Germany. One-third of the population were Catholic, and most of the remaining population followed the Protestant Church. Why was the Church a problem for Hitler, and how did he try to control it?

The worksheet for today’s lesson is available to download here. If you are unable to download the worksheet please complete the tasks in the yellow boxes on this webpage.

Concordat = An agreement between the Pope and the head of a country on a matter that they previously disagreed on.
Monastery = A Catholic building where monks and nuns loyal to the Pope complete their holy duties.

We have looked at a number of different Nazi officials over the last few lessons. Look back over your notes about these men and fill in the details about them. We have not looked at Joseph Goebbels yet, but he is an important figure to become familiar with.

TASK ONE: What differences are there between Nazism and Christianity?

Read the information below on Christian beliefs and Nazi beliefs. Complete the table using this information to outline the main differences and similarities between them.

Christianity and Nazism

  1. Religious beliefs were powerful. People who believed in God were less likely to worship Hitler as the leader of Germany. In Catholicism, the Pope is the most important man; more important than the ruler of the country. If the Pope disagreed with Hitler, he would have powerful influence over a large section of German society.
  2. Christianity taught love and forgiveness. The message of ‘love thy neighbour’ in the Bible was a message to help the weak and respect every human being.
  3. Nazism taught that there was racial superiority. It therefore made sense to persecute the weak in society.
  4. Christianity taught the importance of family life, something that Nazism also wanted to instill in the German population. Traditional values were a big similarity therefore.
  5. The Church was one of the most influential and powerful institutions in Germany. Nazism promoted the need for a strong state that had control over every aspect of Germany. The Protestant Church had more members than any other organisation in Germany, including the Nazi Party.
  6. Many Church members had voted for Hitler in previous elections, particularly Protestants. Protestant church pastors were among the most popular and successful Nazi election speakers.
  7. It was feared that the Church could spread anti-Nazi messages.
  8. Many Catholic schoolchildren attended Catholic schools that were separate to Nazi state schools.

TASK TWO: Would it have made sense for the Nazis to overthrow the Church in Germany?

Using the information above, do you believe it would have made sense for the Nazis to have overthrown the Church in Germany? Explain your answer and use the sentence starters:
It might have made sense for the Nazis to overthrow the Church in Germany. This is because…
On the other hand, it might not have made sense to overthrow the Church. This is because…
Overall, I believe…

How did Hitler try to control the Church system in Germany?

The Catholic Church

Hitler appreciated the power of the Church. He realised he could not attack the Church in the same way he had removed other opposition, such as the SA in the Night of the Long Knives – his method need to be subtle to ensure he did not face a backlash from the German population.

At first, Hitler decided to cooperate with the Catholic Church. In July 1933, he signed a concordat with Pope Pius XI. This concordat outlined that:

  • Hitler would not interfere with Catholic schools in Germany.
  • Hitler would grant freedom of worship to German Catholics.
  • The Catholic Church would not interfere with German politics
  • Catholic bishops were expected to swear loyalty to the National Socialist regime.
Hitler originally signed a concordat with Pope Pius XI. This became worthless by 1937.

Yet within a few months Hitler had broken the terms of the concordat. Priests that were considered troublesome to the Nazi regime were harassed and arrested, and many ended up in concentration camps. Catholic schools were moreover disrupted and brought in line with Nazi state schools. They were later abolished all together. In addition, Catholic youth movements and monasteries were closed down.

Realising the Concordat was worthless by 1937, Pope Pius XI issued a stinging criticism of the Nazi Regime. In a statement titled With Burning Anxiety, the Pope criticised the racial myth the Nazi Party were promoting, imploring people to value all life as equal.

‘Man as a person possesses rights he holds from God, and which any collectivity must protect against denial, suppression or neglect.’

From With Burning Anxiety, by Pope Pius XI, 1937.

300,000 copies of the statement was smuggled in to Germany and was read in hundreds of Catholic churches during Sunday Mass. The next day, the Gestapo sent officers to all Catholic churches in the country to destroy any copies of the statement that they could find.

The Protestant Church

There was less severe criticism of Nazi rule by the Protestant Church. Many Protestant Church leaders were grateful that Hitler had removed the threat of the KPD (the Communist Party). Communism did not allow for religion altogether, so the Nazis were considered an ally to the Church.

‘We all know that, if the Third Reich were to collapse, communism would come in its place. So, we must show loyalty to the Fuhrer, who has saved us from communism and given us a better chance.

A statement from a German Protestant Church leader in June 1937.

A number of Protestant ministers became part of the ‘Reich Church’. This institution was run by Ludwig Muller, a member of the Nazi Party with the title of ‘Reich Bishop’ (the Head of the Church in Germany). These churches displayed Nazi swastikas in its interiors, and refused to baptise Jews into the Church. They also removed all Jewish teachings from the Old Testament.

There was still sizable opposition from Protestant ministers nonetheless, and some stood up and criticised Hitler. Pastor Martin Niemoller set up the Pastors’ Emergency League (PEL) to campaign against Nazi actions and teachings, brining together a number of Protestant Church leaders that were concerned about the Nazification of the Church. In 1937, Niemoller was subsequently sent to a concentration camp and the PEL was banned.

Martin Niemoller was one of Germany’s most famous opponents to Nazi rule in Germany.

TASK THREE: How far did Hitler remove the threat of the Church in Germany?

1) After reading the information above, how far do you believe Hitler removed the threat posed by the churches in Germany? Place a cross on the two continuum lines below for both the Protestant and Catholic churches.
2) Answer the following questions:
a) How far do you believe the churches remained a threat to Hitler and the Nazi regime after Hitler’s actions?
b) Should Hitler have dealt with the churches differently? Why?

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