Confessing Church: Wikis


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The Confessing Church (also translated Confessional Church) (German: Bekennende Kirche) was a Protestant schismatic church in Nazi Germany that arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to nazify the German Protestant church.[1]



The following numbers (as of January 1933 unless otherwise stated) are an aid in understanding the political and theological developments discussed in this article.[2]

  • Number of Protestants in Germany: 45 million
  • Number of "free church" Protestants: 150,000[3]
  • Largest regional Protestant church: Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union (German: Evangelische Kirche der altpreußischen Union), with 18 million members
  • Number of Protestant pastors: 18,000
  • Number of these strongly adhering to German Christian faction as of 1935: 3000
  • Number of these strongly adhering to Confessing Church faction as of 1935: 3000
  • Number of these arrested during 1935: 700
  • Number of these not closely affiliated with or adhering to either faction: 12,000
  • Total population of Germany: 65 million
  • Number of Jews in Germany: 525,000[4]

Historical background

The German Protestant Church in General

The German Empire

During the period of the German Empire, before the Weimar Republic, the Protestant Church in Germany was divided into geographic regions. Each regional (or provincial) church was supported by and affiliated with the regnal houses, in case the ruling dynasty was Protestant, for its particular region; the crown provided financial and institutional support for its church. Church and State were therefore, to a large extent, combined on a regional basis.[5]

Weimar Germany

With the end of World War I and the resulting political and social turmoil, the regional churches lost their secular rulers. With revolutionary fervor in the air, the conservative church leaders had to contend with socialists (Social Democrats (SPD) and Independent Social Democrats (USPD)) who favored disestablishment.[6] When Adolf Hoffmann, a strident secularist[7], was appointed as Prussian Minister for Education and Public Worship in November 1918 by the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), he attempted to implement a number of plans, which included:

After storms of protests from both Protestants and Catholics, Hoffmann was forced to resign and, by political means, the churches were able to prevent complete disestablishment. A compromise was reached—one which favored the Protestant church establishment. There would be no state churches any longer, but the churches remained public corporations and retained their subsidies from government.[8] Religious instruction in the schools continued, as did the theological faculties in the universities. The rights formerly held by the princes in the German Empire simply devolved to church councils instead, and the high-ranking church administrators—who had been civil servants in the Empire—simply became church officials instead. The governing structure of the churches effectively changed in name only.

Accordingly, in this initial period of the Weimar Republic, the Protestant Church in Germany now operated as a federation of 28 regional (or provincial) churches (German: Landeskirchen), with their regional boundaries more or less delineated by those of the federal states.[9][10]

This federal system allowed for a great deal of regional autonomy in the governance of German Protestantism, as it allowed for a national church parliament that served as a forum for discussion and that endeavored to resolve theological and organizational conflicts.

The Nazi Regime

Many Protestants voted for the Nazis in the elections of summer and fall 1932 and March 1933.

The [Protestant] churches did not reject National Socialism on principle. The idea of a strong authority and a close bond between throne and altar, of the kind that existed in the empire between 1871 and 1918, was in keeping with Protestant tradition. Many ... [Protestants] had reservations about the democratic Weimar Republic and sympathized with political forces -- such as the German National People's Party[11] -- that idealized the past.[12]

A limited number of Protestants, such as Barth and Bonhoeffer, objected to the Nazis on moral and theological principles: they could not reconcile the Nazi state's claim to total control over the person with the ultimate sovereignty that, in Christian orthodoxy, must belong only to God.[12]

German Christians

The German Christian movement in the Protestant Church developed in the late Weimar period.[13] They were, for the most part, a "group of fanatically Nazi Protestants"[14] who were organized in 1931 to help win elections of presbyters and synodals of the old-Prussian church (last free election on November 13, 1932). In general, the group's political and religious motivations developed in response to the social and political tensions wrought by the end of World War I and the attendant substitution of a republican regime for the authoritarian one of Wilhelm II - much the same as the conditions leading to Hitler's rise to power.

The German Christian movement was sustained and encouraged by factors such as:

  • the 400th anniversary (in 1917) of Martin Luther's posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, an event which served to endorse German nationalism, to emphasize that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and to legitimize antisemitism. This was reinforced by the Luther Renaissance Movement of Professor Emmanuel Hirsch.[15]
  • the revival of völkisch traditions
  • the de-emphasis of the Old Testament in Protestant theology, and the removal of parts deemed "too Jewish"
  • the respect for temporal (secular) authority, which had been emphasized by Luther and has arguable scriptural support (Romans 13)[16]

The German Christians were sympathetic to the Nazi regime's goal of "co-ordinating" the individual Protestant churches into a single and uniform Reich church, consistent with the Volk ethos and the Führerprinzip.

The New National Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche)

In late April 1933 the leadership of the Protestant federation agreed to write a new constitution for a new "national" church, the German Evangelical Church (German: Deutsche Evangelische Kirche or DEK). This had been one goal of the German Christians for some time, as such a centralization would enhance the coordination of Church and State, as a part of the overall Nazi process of Gleichschaltung. The German Christians agitated for Hitler's advisor on religious affairs, Ludwig Müller, to be elected as the new Church's bishop (German: Reichsbischof).

Müller had poor political skills, little political support within the Church and no real qualifications for the job, other than his commitment to Nazism and a desire to exercise power. When the federation council met in May 1933 to approve the new constitution, it elected Friedrich von Bodelschwingh as Reichsbischof of the new Protestant Reich Church by a wide margin, largely on the advice and support of the leadership of the 28 church bodies.[17]

Hitler was infuriated with the rejection of his candidate, and after a series of political maneuvers, Bodelschwingh resigned and Müller was elected as the new Reichsbischof on 27 September 1933, after the government had imposed him already on 28 June 1933.[18] The formidable propaganda apparatus of the Nazi state was deployed to help the German Christians win presbyter and synodal elections, so that they could dominate the upcoming synod and finally put Müller into office.[19][20] Hitler discretionarily decreed an unconstitutional premature re-elections of all presbyters and synodals for July 23; the night before the elections, Hitler made a personal appeal to Protestants by radio. The German Christians won handily (70-80% of all seats in presbyteries and synods), except of within three Lutheran churches and one provincial body of the united old-Prussian church: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria right of the river Rhine, the Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Hanover, the Evangelical State Church in Württemberg, and in the old-Prussian ecclesiastical province of Westphalia, where the German Christians gained no majorities.[21] This electoral victory enabled the German Christians to secure sufficient delegates to prevail at the synod that conducted the "revised" September election for Reichsbischof.[22] Further pro-Nazi developments followed the elevation of Müller to the bishopric: in late summer the old-Prussian church (led by Müller since his government appointment on 6 July 1933) adopted the Aryan Paragraph, effectively defrocking clergy of Jewish descent and even clergy married to non-Aryans.[23]

The Confessing Church


Meeting house of the Evangelical Dahlem Congregation, Berlin
Plaque commemorating the second Reich Synod of Confession on the outside wall of the meeting house, Dahlem

The Aryan Paragraph created a furor among some of the clergy. Under the leadership of Martin Niemöller, the Pastors' Emergency League (German: Pfarrernotbund) was formed, presumably for the purpose of assisting clergy of Jewish descent, but the League soon evolved into a locus of dissent against Nazi interference in church affairs. Its membership grew[24] while the objections and rhetoric of the German Christians escalated.

The League pledged itself to contest the state's attempts to infringe upon the confessional freedom of the churches, and it expressly opposed the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph. It distinguished between Jews and Christians of Jewish descent and insisted, consistent with the demands of orthodox Christianity, that converted Jews and their descendants were as Christian as anyone else and were full members of the Church in every sense. At this stage, the objections of the Confessing Church were not motivated by moral outrage over antisemitism, as much as by the regime's interference in matters that were wholly within the church's province. The controversy was thus over church autonomy and church/state demarcation, not over the morality or immorality of persecuting Jews.[24]. Eventually, this dissenting group would evolve into the Confessing Church.

On 13 November 1933 a rally of German Christians was held at the Berlin Sportpalast, where --before a packed hall-- banners proclaimed the unity of National Socialism and Christianity, interspersed with the omnipresent swastikas. A series of speakers[25] addressed the crowd's pro-Nazi sentiments with ideas such as:

  • the removal of all pastors unsympathetic with National Socialism
  • the expulsion of members of Jewish descent, who might be arrogated to a separate church
  • the implementation of the Aryan Paragraph churchwide
  • the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible
  • the removal of "non-German" elements from religious services
  • the adoption of a more "heroic" and "positive" interpretation of Jesus, who in pro-Aryan fashion should be portrayed to be battling mightily against corrupt Jewish influences.[26]

This rather shocking attempt to rally the pro-Nazi elements among the German Christians backfired, as it now appeared to many Protestants that the State was attempting to intervene in the most central theological matters of the church, rather than in just matters of church organization and polity.

While Hitler, the consummate politician, was sensitive to such developments, Ludwig Müller was apparently without clue: he fired and transferred pastors adhering to the Emergency League, and in April 1934 actually deposed the heads of the Württembergian church, Bishop Theophil Wurm and of the Bavarian church, Bishop Hans Meiser, for they and the synodals of their church bodies continuously refused to declare the merger of their church bodies in the German Evangelical Church (DEK). The continuing aggressiveness of the DEK and Müller spurred the schismatic Confessing Church to further action.

Barmen Declaration of Faith

In May 1934 the opposition met in a Confessing Church synod in Barmen. The rebellious pastors denounced Müller and his leadership and declared that they and their congregations constituted the true Evangelical Church of Germany. The Barmen Declaration, primarily authored by Karl Barth, with the consultation and advice of other Confessing Church pastors and congregations, re-affirmed that the German Church was not an "organ of the State" and that the concept of State control over the Church was doctrinally false. The Declaration stipulated, at its core, that any State—even the totalitarian one—necessarily encountered a limit at God's commandments.

The Confessing Church had, in effect, declared the Nazi-sanctioned Reichskirche to be heretical. In effect, from and after the Barmen Declaration, there were two Protestant churches in Germany:

  • the officially sanctioned Reichskirche (the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche)
  • the Confessing Church (the Bekennende Kirche)

However, the Confessing Church's rebellion was directed at the regime's ecclesiastical policy, not at its overall political and social objectives.

The Confessional Church as a whole did not offer resistance in a political sense, with the intent of bringing down the National Socialist regime. It fought first to keep its organizational structures intact, and then to preserve the independence of church doctrine, according to which the Christian commandments were not to be subordinated to Nazi ideology.... [yet] the adherents of the Church found themselves increasingly in a state of principled opposition to both the state and the German Christians...they opposed a faith that was blended with anti-Semitism and neo-Pagan heresies ...[such as] a "heroic Jesus" and a faith founded on race, Volkstum and nation.[12]


Müller's ineptitude for political matters did not serve to endear him to the Führer.[28] Furthermore, the Sportpalast speech had proved a public relations disaster; the Nazis, who had promised "freedom of religion" in point 24 of their (largely meaningless) 25-point program, now appeared to be dictating religious doctrine. And Alfred Rosenberg was a well-known anti-Christian and pagan fanatic.

Hitler sought to defuse the situation by lifting the house arrest of Wurm and Meiser, leading the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, in the fall of 1934. Having lost his patience with Müller in particular and the German Christians in general, he removed Müller's authority, brought Gleichschaltung to a temporary halt and created a new Reich Ministry—aptly named Church Affairs—under Hanns Kerrl, one of Hitler's lawyer friends. The Kirchenkampf would now be continued on the basis of Church v. State, rather than internally between two factions of a single church. Kerrl's charge was to attempt another coordination, hopefully with more tact than the heavy-handed Müller.

Kerrl was more mild mannered than the somewhat vulgar Müller, and was also politically astute, and he shrewdly appointed a committee of conciliation, to be headed by Wilhelm Zoellner, who was generally respected within the church and who was not identified with any faction. Müller himself resigned, more or less in disgrace, at the end of 1935, having failed to integrate the Protestant church and in fact having created somewhat of a rebellion. Niemöller's group cooperated generally with the new Zoellner committee, but still maintained that it represented the true Protestant Church in Germany and that the DEK was, to put it more bluntly than Niemöller would in public, no more than a collection of heretics.

The Confessing Church, under the leadership of Niemöller, addressed a polite, but firm, memorandum to Hitler in May 1936. The memorandum:

  • protested the regime's anti-Christian tendencies
  • denounced the regime's antisemitism
  • demanded that the regime terminate its interference with the internal affairs of the Protestant church

This was essentially the straw on the back of the proverbial camel. The regime responded by:

  • arresting several hundred dissenting pastors
  • murdering Dr. Friedrich Weißler, office manager and legal advisor of the second preliminary church executive of the Confessing Church, in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp
  • confiscating the funds of the Confessing Church
  • forbidding the Confessing Church from taking up collections of offertories

Eventually, the Nazi tactics of repression were too much for Zoellner to bear and he resigned on 12 February 1937, after the Gestapo had denied him the right to visit some imprisoned pastors. The Minister for Church Affairs spoke to the churchmen the next day, in a shocking presentation that clearly disclosed the regime's hostility to the church:

Positive Christianity is National Socialism ... [and] National Socialism is the doing of God's will.... Dr. Zoellner ... has tried to tell me that Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the Son of God. That makes me laugh ... Christianity is not dependent upon the Apostle's Creed .... [but] is represented by the Party .... the German people are now called ... by the Führer to a real Christianity .... The Führer is the herald of a new revelation.

A Resistance Movement?

However, the Barmen declaration itself did not mention the Nazi persecution of Jews or other totalitarian measures taken by the Nazis; it was a declaration of ecclesiastical independence, consistent with centuries of Protestant doctrine. It was not a statement of rebellion against the regime or its political and social doctrines and actions.

We totally deferred our political opposition to Nazism and tried to bring the church opposition to its feet....We did it from a tactical standpoint....We hoped to bring [our brethren] to recognize the contradictions of being a Christian and a Nazi.... so we deferred our political polemic against the Nazi state.[29]

The Confessing Church engaged in only one form of unified resistance: resistance to state manipulation of religious affairs. While many leaders of the Confessing Church attempted to persuade the Church to take a radical stance in opposition to Hitler, the church never adopted this policy.


Some of the leaders of the Confessing Church, such as Martin Niemöller, were sent to concentration camps. While Niemöller survived, not all did: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sent initially to Tegel Prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged. This often left Christians who did not agree with the Nazis without leadership.

A select few of the Confessing Church risked their lives to help Jews hiding illegally in Berlin during the war. A hat would be passed around at the end of secret meetings into which the congregation would donate identity cards and passbooks. These were then modified by forgers and given to underground Jews so they could pass as legal Berlin citizens. [30]. Several members of the Confessing Church were caught and tried for their part in creating forged papers, including Franz Kaufmann who was shot, and Helene Jacobs, who was jailed.[30]

Many of those few Confessing Church members who actively attempted to subvert Hitler's policies were extremely cautious and relatively ineffective. Some urged the need for more radical and risky resistance action in light of Nazi genocide.

A Berlin Deaconess, Marga Meusel, showed courage as a Christian and offered “perhaps the most impassioned, the bluntest, the most detailed and most damning of the protests against the silence of the Christian churches” because she went the furthest in speaking on behalf of the Jews. Another Confessing Church member who was notable for his speaking-out against antisemitism was Hans Ehrenberg.[31]

Meusel and two other leading women members of the Confessing Church in Berlin, Elisabeth Schmitz and Gertrud Staewen, were members of the Berlin parish where Martin Niemöller served as Pastor. Their efforts to prod the church to speak out for the Jews were unsuccessful.

Meusel and Bonhoeffer condemned the failure of the Confessing Church — which was organized specifically in resistance to governmental interference in religion — to move beyond its very limited concern for religious civil liberties and to focus instead on helping the suffering Jews. In 1935 Meusel protested to the Confessing Church's timid action:

Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? ... What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain. ("Am I my brother's keeper?" Genesis 4:9)

Karl Barth also wrote in 1935: "For the millions that suffer unjustly, the Confessing Church does not yet have a heart."[31]



Barnes, Kenneth C. (1991). Nazism, Liberalism, & Christianity: Protestant social thought in Germany & Great Britain, 1925-1937. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0813117291 (Barnes)|0813117291 (Barnes)]]. 

Barnett, Victoria (1992). For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler. Oxford University Press US. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/019512118X (Barnett)|019512118X (Barnett)]]. 

Baumel, Judith Tydor (2001). The Holocaust Encyclopedia. Yale University Press. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0300084323 (Holocaust Encyclopedia)|0300084323 (Holocaust Encyclopedia)]]. 

Benz, Wolfgang (2006). A Concise History of the Third Reich. University of California Press. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0520234898 (Benz)|0520234898 (Benz)]]. 

Bergen, Doris L. (1996). Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: UNC Press. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0807845604 (Bergen)|0807845604 (Bergen)]]. 

Evans, Richard J. (2006). The Third Reich in Power. London: Penguin Books. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-141-00976-4 (Evans)|0-141-00976-4 (Evans)]]. 

Hockenos, Matthew D. (2004). A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/978-0-253-34448-9 (Hockenos)|978-0-253-34448-9 (Hockenos)]]. 

Kershaw, Ian (1999). Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-393-04671-0 (Kershaw)|0-393-04671-0 (Kershaw)]]. 

Schonhaus, Cioma (2009). The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin. Da Capo Press. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0306817705 (Schonhaus)|0306817705 (Schonhaus)]]. 

Shirer, William L. (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-67-172868-7 (Shirer)|0-67-172868-7 (Shirer)]]. 

Toland, John (1976). Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday & Company. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-385-03724-4 (Toland)|0-385-03724-4 (Toland)]]. 


  1. ^ The additional question of whether the Confessing Church per se also qualifies as a resistance movement is explored in this article.
  2. ^ All figures are approximate and are drawn from Shirer at pp. 234-40.
  3. ^ The overwhelming majority of German Protestants were either Lutheran, Reformed or United and were members of one of the 28 regional or provincial churches. The "free church" Protestants were members of denominations such as Baptist or Methodist and constituted a very small minority.
  4. ^ Holocaust Encyclopedia p. 427, less than 0.9% of the population
  5. ^ The ruler of each state was also the highest authority (Latin: summus episcopus) in that state's church. See generally the Wikipedia article on the German Empire and its constitutive states, as it existed before the end of the First World War.
  6. ^ Beyond the principle of disestablishment, the SPD did not have a real religious policy. It had for years considered religion a private matter of conscience and it favored freedom of religion in principle.
  7. ^ Hoffmann had written a pamphlet denouncing the Ten Commandments as a capitalistic tool.
  8. ^ The government in effect collected church fees from those taxpayers enlisted as parishioners and distributed these funds to the churches.
  9. ^ The correlation between political state (German: Land) and church region in the Weimar period was not necessarily exact.
  10. ^ The federation operated officially through the representative Church League (German: Kirchenbund); the League was itself established by the Church General Assembly (German: Kirchentag), which was composed of the members of the various provincial churches. The League was governed and administered by a 36-member Executive Committee (German: Kirchenausschuss), which was responsible for ongoing governance between the annual conventions of the Kirchentag. The German Church Federation came to replace the Kirchenbund in 1921. Save for the organizational matters under the jurisdiction of the national League, the provincial churches remained independent in other matters, including theology.
  11. ^ In German: Deutschnationale Volkspartei, or DNVP.
  12. ^ a b c Benz p. 42.
  13. ^ Hitler assumed office as Chancellor on 30 January 1933.
  14. ^ Barnes p. 74
  15. ^ Luther's extreme and shocking antisemitism came to light rather late in his life.
  16. ^ Verses 1-7 are the most pertinent; verses 1-2 read as follows (New International Version):

    Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

    However other interpreters, such as Barth in his commentary on Romans, interpret these verses differently.
  17. ^ Bodelschwingh was a well-known and popular Westphalian pastor who headed Bethel Institution, a large charitable organization for the mentally ill and disabled. His father, also a pastor, had founded Bethel. Barnett p. 33.
  18. ^ The entire old-Prussian church (both Müller and Bodelschwingh were members of this largest regional church) was placed under police jurisdiction; pastors were fired, suspended and sometimes arrested; and the German Christians and Müller carried on a vicious campaign against Bodelschwingh.
  19. ^ Barnett p. 34.
  20. ^ The new constitution for the new unitary DEK was approved by the thoroughly nazified Reichstag on 14 July 1933. Shirer p. 237.
  21. ^ Also within the church bodies dominated by the German Christians the parishioners in a minority of congregations elected presbyteries without German Christian majorities.
  22. ^ Kershaw p. 487-88.
  23. ^ In 1933 the Protestant churches in Germany employed 18,842 pastors (1933); 37 of them were classified by the Nazi terminology as "full Jews" (German: Volljuden). Before the promulgation of the Nazi's racist Nuremberg Laws, there was no standard definition of who was or would be deemed a "Jew," or which Mischling would be deemed "sufficiently Jewish" for purposes of Hitlerian racial policy, so the net would certainly have swept wider than this rather small fraction. The extension of the prohibition to address the wives of German pastors was surely, to many middle-of-the-road Protestants, shocking. See Barnett p. 33-36. The Evangelisches Pfarrhausarchiv (about in English: Evangelical Archive for Pastors and their Families) recorded for all of Nazi Germany 115 Protestant pastors with one up to four grandparents, who were enlisted in a Jewish congregation. Cf. Wider das Vergessen: Schicksale judenchristlicher Pfarrer in der Zeit 1933-1945 (catalogue for the special exhibition in the Lutherhaus Eisenach April 1988 - April 1989), Evangelisches Pfarrhausarchiv (ed.), Eisenach: Evangelisches Pfarrhausarchiv, 1988. No ISBN.
  24. ^ a b By the end of 1933 the League already had 6,000 members. Barnett p. 35.
  25. ^ The most notable was apparently one Dr. Reinhardt Krause, who was the Berlin district leader of the German Christians. He advocated the abandonment of the Old Testament with its tales of "cattle merchants and pimps" and a new portrait of Jesus "corresponding entirely with the demands of National Socialism." Resolutions were also proposed that would require all pastors to take a personal oath to Hitler, to require all churches to adopt and implement the Aryan Paragraph and to exclude converted Jews and their descendants from the church. Krause's speech was so vulgar and objectionable that even Müller disavowed him and, for public relations purposes, suspended him from the group as a "punishment" to emphasize the disavowal. Shirer p. 237.
  26. ^ Barnett p. 34-35.
  27. ^ These developments are explained in Shirer Chapter 8.
  28. ^ After the various political missteps by the thick-headed Müller, the Nazis started emphasizing church-state separation and stating that state policy had nothing to do with the church. Both Frick and Göring considered Müller a "bungler" and even the Prussian church commissioner considered him a "scoundrel" and a "shifty character." Barnett p. 36.
  29. ^ Barnett p. 55
  30. ^ a b See generally Schonhaus.
  31. ^ a b Goldhagen.

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