<p>Nazi officials and Catholic bishops listen to a speech by Wilhelm Frick, Reich Minister of the Interior, at an official ceremony in the Saarbrucken city hall marking the reincorporation of the Saarland into the German Reich. March 1, 1935.</p>
<p>Among those pictured is Joseph Goebbels (seated at the far right), Franz Rudolf Bornewasser (Bishop of Trier) and Ludwig Sebastian (Bishop of Speyer).</p>

The Role of Clergy and Church Leaders

Persecution of Jews and other groups was not solely the result of measures originating with Hitler and other Nazi zealots. Nazi leaders required the active help or cooperation of professionals working in diverse fields who in many instances were not convinced Nazis. Church leaders and other members of the conservative elite who were in a position to influence public opinion were all but silent regarding the persecution of Jews.

German Churches and the Nazi State: Photographs Leaders and clergy of German Protestant and Roman Catholic churches were to a large degree complicit in the persecution of Jews.

From the beginning of Nazi rule and the fateful years leading up to them, Germany’s traditional spiritual and moral leaders failed to speak out against hateful speech, violence. After 1933, they failed to speak out against legal measures that progressively stripped Jews of their rights. Some church leaders, particularly within the more nationalistic “German Christian” movement of the Protestant Evangelical Church, enthusiastically supported the Nazi regime.

Only a small minority of  religious leaders, ministers, and priests, usually in isolated parishes, spoke out against Nazi racism, gave Sunday sermons decrying the persecution of Germany’s Jews, provided aid, or hid Jews. Without the support of their leaders and institutions, voices of dissent had little effect. Churches in communities across Germany also facilitated the implementation of racial laws by providing baptismal records, a proof of non-Jewish descent.

Church responses to the persecution of Jews were shaped by traditional forms of religious antisemitism with deep roots in Christian history. Clergy and church leaders were also influenced by larger political and social trends in Germany after World War I, including rising nationalism and of special importance for the churches, the fear of “Godless Communism” after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which led to left-wing revolutionary activities in Germany. Support for the repression of communism and the need to restore Germany’s economy and status as a world power usually outweighed church leaders’ distaste for the “un-Christian,” racialized thinking and “paganism” many of them saw in Nazism.

Because of the history of persecution of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany and its moderate political stance prior to 1933 (with the Catholic “Center Party” joining Weimar-era coalition governments), Catholic leaders were more suspicious of the Nazi Party. They focused on preserving Catholic institutions, from schools to youth groups, and, as with some Protestant churches, protecting baptized members of Jewish descent persecuted under Nazi racial law. Catholic Church leaders did speak out against the forced sterilization of persons with disabilities which it opposed for reasons of religious doctrine prohibiting interference with reproduction. Some Catholic leaders, and also Protestant leaders, would also speak out against the killing of institutionalized Germans in the “euthanasia” killing program during wartime.

By the time of Kristallnacht, the violent assault on Jews of November 9-10, 1938, no church leader of influence spoke out to protest and in this, they shared the complicity of university, business, and military leaders who were also silent during events of which many disapproved or had qualms. By this time, as the orgy of violence and terror of Kristallnacht showed, it was probably too late. The Nazi regime had total control of public discourse and spaces and of the tools of repression which became even harsher once war began, from imprisonment without trial in a concentration camp to execution.

Discussion Questions

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What pressures and motivations may have influenced church leaders to support or accept Nazi leadership and ideology?
  • Investigate the connections between government and organized religion in the history of your country.
  • Investigate occasions when religious leaders have questioned the ideology or actions of their government.
  • How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world?

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