Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 13. September 12, 1957
Crucifix vs. Swastika: — There was a Deathly Struggle
Crucifix vs. Swastika:
There was a Deathly Struggle
Everyone is well aware of the [unclear: im] struggle taking place today between the Christian Churches and the enemies of religion in the Communist part of the world. Only recently eight Czech priests were imprisoned for obstructing the nationalisation of churches and religious societies. Yet very few people recall the ferocity of the struggle which took place between the forces of the Crucifix and the Swastika. Many even charge the churches with collaboration with the Nazis, but in doing so they forget about the fates of the thousands of clergymen imprisoned for their faith. Indeed, between 1933 and 1939 fully five thousand seven hundred priests and thirteen hundred Protestant pastors fell victims of Hitler's wrath. Nonetheless, the course of events in those dim years present a curious and a not always gratifying pattern. There were inconsistencies and tergiversations; yet, when all is taken into account one can only say that the Christians of Germany put up a gallant struggle.
National Socialism preached a 'positive' Christianity, a belief in Germany before anything else. 'German Honour becomes the new religion,' wrote Alfred Rosenberg. the Nazi prophet. 'National Honour is for us the beginning and end of all thought and of all action. The German People's Church, he wrote, must proclaim a Germanic Christ who is a self-confident master, not a sorrowing Jew. There must be no Lamb of God,' but the teaching spirit of fire; the whole philosophy was pervaded with racialism and militarism. Supposedly, its aim was, not to sweep away the figure of Christ, but to improve it. With a creed like this it was no wonder that a struggle had to take place.
The first salvos were fired in September, 1930, nearly two and a half years before the Nazi Party came to power. On the last Sunday of that month the parish priest of the small borough of Kirschausen, in Hesse, made three points of stupendous importance during the course of his sermon. Firstly, he declared, no Catholic could be a member of the Nazi Party. Secondly, the members of the party as such could not take part in the religious ceremonies of the Church Thirdly, no fully fledged party member, bound by its tenets and active in its interests, would be allowed to receive the Sacraments. This statement was shortly afterwards confirmed by the priest's superior, the Bishop of Mainz. The following year in February eight Bishops of Bavaria signed a joint declaration to the same effect, pointing out five matters in which the party beliefs cut across Catholic doctrine.
Yet when the election was held in 1933, of twelve and a half million Catholic voters, seven million voted for the Nazis! Moreover, in March the Archbishop of Cologne authorised almost everything that the Bavarian Bishops had forbidden two years before. As one writer puts it aptly, 'the Swastika was given the freedom of the centre aisle.' In the same year the ill-fated Concordat between Germany and the Vatican was signed. Catholicism, then, made one last effort to make peace with Hitler and save the country from persecution.
The struggle began when Hitler broke the terms of the Cocordat within six days of its signing. In the years to come thousands of priests were to be imprisoned for 'political Catholicism' and 'abuse of the pulpit'. Catholicism rose to answer the challenge: as 1933 came to an end Cardinal Faulhaber delivered a course of sermons in Munich Cathedral and called upon all Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, to fight together for their faith in the true Christ. Early in 1937 the Catholic position was put beyond all doubt when Pius XI issued his encyclical, "Mit brennender Sorge', in which the errors of Nazism were specifically condemned. The encyclical was carefully smuggled into Germany and read aloud from the pulpits of the churches on Palm Sunday.
Protestantism, while numerically superior to Catholicism in Germany, was nonetheless weaker in that its followers belonged to three separate communions—the United Prussian, Evangelical Lutheran, and Reformed Churches. This source of weakness was skilfully exploited by the Nazi Party in a campaign to secure a united German Church under a puppet Reichbishop. The attack against Protestant, therefore, took on a different form from that brought to bear upon Catholicism. Whilst the onslaught against the latter was direct and external, that against German Protestantism largely took place by means of Nazi infiltration within the mechanism of the churches themselves.
As early as 1930 a Nazi Movement led by Pastor Hossenfelder was started under the name of the Deutsche Christen. This group consisted of Protestant pastors, and taught that Blood and Soil came before the outworn tenets of Christian dogma. So successful was the Movement in the first years of Nazi power that in May, 1933, the Rev. Dr. Jaeger, a follower of Pastor Hossenfelder, was appointed head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In July Pastor Muller, a former Naval Chaplain and a prominent member of the Deutsche christen, secured his election to the position of Reichbishop of a United Protestant Church. So at first the Nazis were highly successful.
Yet in the same year Pastor Niemoller organised his League of the Defence of the Pastors, popularly known as the Confessional Front. With three thousand members, this group became the spearhead of German Protestant reaction against Nazism. From their pulpits they denounced the new paganism and the Blood and Soil racialism of the Party. The crisis occurred in March, 1935, after a statement was read aloud in the churches throughout the country, defying the party and heaping scorn upon its pagan tends. The Party retaliated by arresting 700 pastors, including Nicmoller himself, and by issuing warnings to five thousand others. Again, at Whitsuntide in 1936 the Cofessional Front issued a secret memorandum to Hitler and officially denounced the Party.
But what of Pastor Nicmoller's fate? After eight months in goal awaiting trial. Nicmoller was released by a court of judges who had learnt their law before the coming of Nazism. As this gallant clergyman stepped down from the dock, he was re-arrested by the Gestapo and led away to a concentration camp.
From this brief summary of events it can be seen that there is little substance in the charge against the Christian Churches of collaboration with the Nazis. The Catholics tried to co-operate with the Party for less than a year, and the pastors in the Deutsche Christen represented only a small fraction of the total number of Protestant clergymen. One must bear in mind Cardinal Faulhaber and Pastor Nicmoller, and the Papal encyclical of 1937 and the Confessional Front's Memorandum of 1936. One must also remember the fates of those thousands of priests, pastors, and Christian laymen who suffered for the faith in the true Christ.—Terry Kelliher.