Bonhoeffer And The German Churches' Response To Nazism
Thomas Ash

Nazi Germany's systematic murder and oppression of millions, in the concentration camps and in occupied territory, was, it is generally agreed, one of the most evil events in human history. Many find it hard to believe that it was perpetrated by ordinary human beings, in a country that was 95% church tax-paying Christian[1], yet imbibed Hitler's anti-semitic propaganda to such an extent that, by 1935, 5 million copies of Mein Kampf had been sold. Many prominent Nazis, including Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Kube, who killed thousands around Minsk, were active Christians, though others were anti-Christian nationalist neo-pagans. Most significant of all is the fact that Hitler himself was a Catholic (though of an unorthodox, semi-pagan variety) saying: "Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. " [2] He said "I am now as before a Catholic"[3] in private and even enforced school prayer on grounds of morality. Clearly, the response of the German churches to Nazism deserves examination.

The Roman Catholic church has been criticised particularly strongly of late, but actually led much of the initial opposition to Nazism, forbidding Catholics to vote for the Nazis and helping keep them out of power with its 'Centre' Party. But, in 1933 the papacy signed a Concordat with Germany ensuring Catholic autonomy and forbidding sterilization (a promise Germany soon broke). Catholic churches in Germany followed the papacy, so grassroots opposition from that quarter was crippled. The Pope and many others stayed silent, the 'Centre' party was liquidated and the Nazi party was opened to Catholics.

To be fair, Pope Pius XII - though seen as anti-semitic by many - did help save 80% of the Jews in Italy through diplomacy. [4] He was genuinely opposed to the Nazis, criticising them as "miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel" before he became pontiff. But he never made the sort of public protest that might have been helpful. Some individual priests spoke out, however, and Bishop von Galen helped slow down the implementation of euthanasia by vocally protesting. This makes the question of what the papacy could have achieved by condemning the Holocaust all the more pressing. Some contemporary Catholics maintain that it was in no position to do so as this would have brought persectution on itself, but this seems to underestimate the power of the church.

The story of the various Protestant churches is different, but equally unfavourable. They were not helped by their disunity, which made coordinated resistance difficult, but many amid the rank and file were actively anti-semitic themselves. Protestantism had gone with patriotism in Germany for almost 400 years, and in 1542 Martin Luther himself wrote a tract called Against The Jews and Their Lies which called them parasites and instructed Germans to "set their synagogues and schools on fire". To quote Franklin Littel, a Christian academic: "Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Death Camps - these were not accidental appearances in the heart of Christendom." [5] Distrust of "the Jews" was also very much a part of European culture at the time, and was lent support by the fact that some Christians saw the Jews as "Christ killers", a phrase Hitler himself used to great effect. Being both a Christian and a racist was certainly not impossible, as witness America in the 1950s.

Again, there were some individual pockets of hope (the Jehovah's Witnesses, for example), but many Protestants collaborated, serving in the SS and helping identify Jews, alongside Catholics. Another worrying fact is that Nazism had a positive appeal for many in the churches, as they agreed with its conservative social vision (for instance, its stance on homosexuals, who were sent to concentration camps with pink armbands) and saw it as a bulwark against Communism. Perhaps one of the most telling - and damaging - details is that where the Catholic and Protestant Churches did protest, it was often specifically on behalf of Jews who had converted to Christianity. This fitted in with the highly traditional, and very damaging, view of a closed 'sphere of moral obligation' which did not include non-Christians.

One example that is often cited as a glimmer of hope is the Confessing Church, which opposed Nazism. This was founded in 1934 by a group of Protestant pastors concerned about Nazi actions - in particular, their interference in church affairs. Many members - in particular the famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer - were outspoken in their insistence that the church should not condone Nazism, and refused to administer rites to party members. In 1937, the Confessing Church was banned and forced underground, with Martin Niemöller, its founder, imprisoned on Hitler's personal command. However, despite this seemingly heroic story, the Confessing Church was not all that could be hoped for. Niemöller called himself an anti-semite throughout the war, and though he opposed the ban on baptised Jews being priests and participating in services, the plight of those Jews who had not converted was not a major concern of the Church.

An exception to this was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Famous as a modern day martyr, Bonhoeffer recognised prejudice against the Jews as wrong and was determined to resist the Nazis, tragically being executed a few days before war ended in a concentration camp. So uncompromising was he that - despite his earlier pacifism - he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Though this involved lying, disobedience and the prospect of murder - seemingly in violation of many Biblical commandments - Bonhoeffer has been held up as an example of how the Christian church should have behaved. So what ought the churches to have done in resisting Nazism? Was Bonhoeffer's approach an acceptable option for Christians, and if not what was?

The nature of Christian ethics is hard to pin down, and there is little consensus on the subject. However, there has been an element of keeping the spiritual separate from - and higher than - the earthly throughout history. Jesus refused to take part in the Zealot movement which sought to overthrow the Romans by violent means, and said in the Sermon of the Mount: "Do not resist one who is evil."[6] When the Roman Catholic church signed the Concordat with Hitler guaranteeing ecclesiastical freedom, it may simply have been following Jesus' call to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's". [7] Both Catholic and Protestant churches paid most attention to their own survival - a not unnatural reaction when faced with Nazism - and the wellbeing of their parishioners, with baptised Jews generating much more concern than others. Politics was not seen as the church's domain.

This was a stance that Bonhoeffer could not accept, condemning it as "cheap grace."[8] He thought that even the Confessing Church was too concerned with its own spiritual purity, and advocated a more worldly approach. In his Ethics he said that Christians should be actively involved in the world, calling it a "penultimate" to the kingdom of God that could not be ignored. This tied in with his concern for Jews as well as Christians: "If the hungry man does not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused him bread."[9] Perhaps the strongest expression of his thoughtscomes in his talk of "the living God who has set me in a living life and who demands service of me within this living life." Against this he contrasted the notion of "the individual, desiring to achieve a perfection of his own", something he emphasised Jesus was not. Bonhoeffer thought that people should be concerned and actively involved with their community, rather than just being concerned with their own personal salvation (a worrying trend he saw gaining strength in America).

This is a theological dispute central to the question of what role the church should have taken in Nazi Germany: one of active resistance, which could be seen as muddying the church with politics, or one of concentration on the spiritual, which could be seen as an uncaring obsession with personal purity. Bonhoeffer's ethics can at times appear very secular: his has been called a "religionless Christianity."[10] David F Ford says that Bonhoeffer "appreciated the importance of the Bible, of rules and principles, of the whole ... God-related ethic. But through all that, his is an ethic of responsibility."[11] Ethics of responsibility, a concept dating back to Max Weber which was also developed by the theologian H.R. Niebuhr, tend to stress our duty to respond to the world the way it is, with uncomfortable actions sometimes called for.

Another central issue raised by Bonhoeffer's resistance to Nazism is that of ethical absolutes, and what measures are justified in challenging evil. Bonhoeffer's approach saw him lying, cheating and potentially a party to murder. By contrast, the Bible says "Thou shalt not lie" and "Thou shalt not kill", commands many Christians would regard as absolute, to be obeyed regardless of the consequences. The Christian church, in particular the Roman Catholic church, has historically been very uncompromising on such matters.

For Bonhoeffer, this issue tied in with his 'ethic of responsibility.' His passage on telling the truth in his Ethics says that we should not don "the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses", as that would be ignoring the world as it really is. His perspective on ethics was clearly that it was not just a matter of automatically obeying a few simple rules, but instead required responding to "the actual given world in which one lives." He thought that your duty to tell the truth depended on the situation you were in. Christianity has seen approaches with similarly anti-legalistic aims, such as Joseph Fletcher's 'situation ethics', although the precise details often differ.[12] The choice of the 'lesser of two evils' in issues such as euthanasia takes seriously the "fallen world" we live in.

Clearly, all this could be seen as just an excuse for avoiding the harsh biblical prohibitions on lying and murder. Bonhoeffer's Biblical justifications in his Ethics do occasionally have the air of rationalisations. It could be argued that, whatever your interpretation of 'telling the truth', it is only honest either to say you accept the Ten Commandments as unbreakable, or that you reject them altogether. However, this is not entirely fair. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is filled with stories of heroic tyrannicide (for example Ehud in Judges 3:15-30 and Jehu in 2 Kings 9:22-35) and people acting in very worldly ways which are, on balance, often praiseworthy. The break away from simplistic absolutes has a longer history than most people think. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century father of much of Catholic theology, accepted tyrannicide in some cases.[13]

Arguments of a 'slippery slope' (start with tyrannicide and you'll end up with everyone killing everyone else) fail because Bonhoeffer actually laid out a series of "operative guidelines" including clear evidence of serious misrule, only acting after higher political methods have failed, a reasonable chance of success and a minimum of force.[14] These are criteria strikingly similar to those for a "just war." This is the Christian theory which allows for war in certain circumstances - and war, of course, seemingly involves violaing the 6th Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."[15] There is also the fact that nonviolent resistance such as boycotts, on the face of it acceptable, can lead to deaths too. I would argue that Bonhoeffer's response to Nazism was an acceptable one for a Christian (though I am not one myself.) The Bible - with what seem like blanket prohibitions - could be taken as simply an "impossible ideal"[16] in the real world, and Bonhoeffer certainly did his very best to live up to what he saw as the spirit of this.

But what about the Christian churches? Clearly, they could not be expected to act just like Bonhoeffer, sending wave after wave of priests into the resistance. They felt that their continued existence as churches was important. Bonhoeffer above all others would certainly not have advocated that the churches as a whole should engage in violent resistance to Nazism. This would have violated his own 'ethic of responsibility.' It would most likely have proved pointless, exposing those few parishioners who dared participate to much danger. By the time most of the churches had got over any residual attachment to Hitler's conservative social vision, and could clearly see its unpleasantness, formidable military and political control had been established. Faced with Hitler's Gestapo, people were understandably fearful for their lives, while Mussolini was clearly a worry for the papacy.

However, they can still be criticised for not having done enough to stand against Nazism. In the words of Franklin H Littel[17], they felt that the Nazis were just another political party, rather than something special to be resisted. Their concern was overwhelmingly with internal church affairs, the wellbeing of their parishioners, and their own spiritual purity. Victoria J Bennet[18] writes of synods discussing minor points of doctrine while the ghettos burned.

With hindsight we can say that the churches did much too little. A more public, less equivocal condemnation of what the Nazis were doing would have bought great pressure to bear through public opinion. Concessions were made in response to church criticism as the Nazis could not afford to alienate 95% of their population, but only on matters such as interference in church affairs. Had all the churches in Germany made protests from their pulpits on behalf of the Jews - as Bishop von Galen did to great effect on the subject of euthanasia - many lives could have been saved.


1. See Collusion, Resistance, Silence: Protestants and the Holocaust by Doris L. Bergen in The Holocaust and the Christian World (Kuperard, 2000), hereafter THTCW

2. Adolf Hitler, from "Mein Kampf", translation by Ralph Mannheim. (Original italics)

3. This quotation is reported in the diary of Gerhard Engel, a SS adjutant, in October 1941.

4. Figure cited in Who Was Pius XII? by Eugene J. Fisher in THTCW

5. The Crucifixion of the Jews, Franklin H Littel (HarperCollins, 1975)

6. Matthew 5

7. Mark 12:17 (Romans 13 is an important passage in the Bible which has a similar message.)

8. Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, JP Wogaman (Westminster/John Knowles Press) - p244

9. Bonhoeffer's Ethics - p95

10. For example in Evil & Christian Ethics, Gordon Graham (CUP, 2001)

11. Theology: A Very Short Introduction, David F Ford (OUP, 2000) - p66

12. All quotations in this paragraph from Bonhoeffer's Ethics - p326-333

13. See De Regimine Principum

14. These are cited in A New Dictionary Of Christian Ethics, ed. John Macquarrie and James Childress (Westminster Press, 1986) - entry on 'Tyrannicide'

15. Exodus 20. Many people would say that murder is distinct from simply 'killing', as you do in war, but then murder simply becomes 'killing, except when it is right', leaving the Commandment meaningless.

16. This phrase comes from A New Dictionary Of Christian Ethics, ed. John Macquarrie and James Childress (Westminster Press, 1986) in the entry on 'Absolutes, Ethical'

17. See The German Churches In The Third Reich by Franklin H Littel in THTCW

18. In The Role Of The Churches: Compliance And Confrontation in THTCW


The Holocaust and the Christian World, ed. Carol Rittner, Stephen D. Smith and Irena Steinfeldt (Kuperard, 2000)
Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (translation by Ralph Mannheim)
The Cruxifixion of the Jews, Franklin H Littel (HaperCollins, 1975)
The Bible (Revised Standard Version, 1952)
A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. John Macquarrie and James Childress (Westminster Press, 1986)
Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, JP Wogaman (Westminster/John Knowles Press)
Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (SCM Press, 1955)
Evil & Christian Ethics, Gordon Graham (CUP, 2001)
Theology: A Very Short Introduction, David F Ford (OUP, 2000)


© 2002

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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