NASHVILLE (BP) — The 80th anniversary of a courageous stand by Christians in Germany who opposed Adolf Hitler also marks a sad chapter in Baptist history that festered four decades before Baptists voiced repentance.
In contrast to Christians who resisted Nazi evils, German Baptists “were just happy to be left alone, you might say,” historian Albert Wardin told Baptist Press. “And they were just happy to have the regime allow them to preach the Gospel within their churches. And so the German Baptists were not going to take any position that would counter any of the positions of the Hitler regime.”
Meanwhile, a diverse conglomeration of Christians from several denominations — called the “Confessing Church” — issued what came to be known as the Barmen Declaration, a 1934 document stating that Jesus, not Hitler, was Lord of the church and condemning false doctrines espoused by the Nazi-controlled state church. Some supporters of the declaration lost their lives. While many 21st century Southern Baptists disagree with some of their theological positions, the courage of these leaders continues to inspire a new generation of Christ-followers.
German Baptists, however, since they were not part of the state church, stayed out of the discussion. Initially they viewed Hitler as a champion of religious liberty and his military conquests as a providential expansion of their field for evangelism.
Four decades later, lamenting their complacency and vowing to learn from the Confessing Church’s courage, German Baptists said they were “humbled by having been subordinated often to the ideological seduction of that time, in not having shown greater courage in acknowledging truth and justice.”
The Confessing Church
When Hitler and his National Socialist Party came to power in 1933, he appeared to be a friend of Christians, outlawing pornography and professing to be Catholic. Secretly though, he believed Christianity was nonsense because its message of repentance and humility contradicted the National Socialist agenda of ruthlessness and strength.
Hitler’s adviser and confidant Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that “the Fuehrer spoke very derogatorily about the arrogance of the higher and lower clergy. The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time.”
Before Hitler’s true beliefs were known, however, Germany’s Protestant federation agreed to establish a national church sympathetic to the Nazis. Through a series of political maneuvers, Hitler had his adviser on religious affairs, Ludwig Müller, installed as the national church’s bishop and the Führer became its supreme head.
In 1933 Nazi officials met with Baptists to discuss incorporation into the state church, but Baptists objected and eventually the idea was dropped.
“German Christians” — as members of the national church were called — attempted to purge Christianity of elements deemed “too Jewish” and banned non-Aryans from serving as paid clergy. In allegiance to Hitler, some German Christians spoke of baptism as being into the Weltanschauung (worldview) of the Führer.
Many professing Christians in Germany saw no incompatibility between their faith and the Nazi-controlled church. But a group of largely Lutheran and Reformed believers — including theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — recognized the errors of Nazi ideology and formed the Confessing Church to protest. The movement’s chief complaint concerned Nazi interference in the church, although it protested anti-Semitism to a degree.
The Barmen Declaration
The high water mark of the Confessing Church came in May 1934, when it issued the Barmen Declaration, authored principally by Barth.
The declaration rejected the “false doctrine” of German Christians that “the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.”
The document opposed “attempts to establish the unity” of the state church “by means of false doctrine by the use of force and insincere practices.” The declaration also exalted Jesus as the highest source of authority and invited, “If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us!”
As word of the Barmen Declaration spread across the world, Hitler and his allies were portrayed in some media as oppressive. They also began to receive some negative publicity for their anti-Jewish policies — the seeds of anti-Semitism that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
In response to this negative publicity, the Nazis wanted to demonstrate publicly their religious tolerance. A Baptist World Alliance Congress scheduled to meet in Berlin in August 1934 presented an opportunity.
Although German Baptists still feared they would be incorporated into the state church, government officials assured them there was no reason to worry and offered to provide financial support for the Baptist World Congress. One Nazi official met with BWA leaders in New York and said Germany’s government welcomed Baptists and would grant them full freedom of speech.
Baptists in Germany and elsewhere were pleased by the Nazi overtures, taking pains not to offend the German government.
Despite objections to Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies by the Baptist Unions in Scotland and Australia, a BWA committee concluded that any official action criticizing the Nazis might “prejudice” the German government against the nation’s Baptists and should be avoided. When a Northern Baptist from America suggested that a leading Jewish rabbi be invited to greet the Berlin Congress, the BWA general secretary dismissed the idea as “inexpedient.”
“The German Baptists, in their effort to achieve social respectability and to avoid being forced into a homogenized national church, failed to recognize that they were being used,” German theologian Erich Geldbach wrote in “Baptists Together In Christ,” a centennial history of the BWA.
The timing of the Baptist World Congress bolstered Hitler. Two days before it began, German President Paul von Hindenburg died and Hitler — formerly the chancellor — became Germany’s absolute dictator. In an attempt to demonstrate an acceptance of Christianity before the world, the backdrop of the BWA speakers’ platform included a giant swastika flag, a cross and portraits of famous Baptists.
Speakers who appeared in front of the swastika included Southern Baptist George W. Truett, who was elected BWA president at the meeting.
During the Congress, Bishop Müller of the state church told a BWA delegation that his objective was to secure preaching of the Gospel in Germany, that he regarded Baptists as brothers and that they would not be incorporated into the national church. The BWA responded with a resolution of appreciation.
Baptists “went along with the times,” Wardin, the author of many books on Baptists and other Protestants in Eastern Europe, said. “And in a totalitarian regime, it’s easier to go along with the times.”
Fraternal relations between Baptists and Nazis extended beyond the BWA meeting. Although German Baptists suffered persecution for 100 years before Hitler’s rise, Nazis used the police to protect Baptists from harassment and granted them favorable locations for ministry. Baptist evangelistic work expanded under the Nazi government, and when the Gestapo forced Pentecostal and Plymouth Brethren denominations to disband, some of their congregations joined the German Baptist Union, swelling its membership.
When Germany invaded Poland and Russia, German-speaking Baptists were allowed to form associations there under the purview of the German Baptist Union.
In isolated instances German Baptists opposed Nazi policies, as in 1934 when the editor of a popular Baptist publication urged disobedience of an order that boys not discuss religion in the Hitler Youth.
But the 1937 report of the German Baptist Union’s secretary generally summed up the sentiments of German Baptists: “The relations with the government offices, especially to the Church Ministry and to the Secret Police were uninterruptedly friendly.”
When Baptists realized Hitler’s true plans and became victims of persecution themselves, the opportunity to take a meaningful stand had passed. Three Baptist pastors were sent to prison or concentration camps, according to one count, and many experienced persecution.
Standing for righteousness
Baptist complacency was a stark contrast to the courage exhibited by members of the Confessing Church.
Bonhoeffer, who earned a doctoral degree at age 21, led an illegal seminary before fleeing to America on the eve of World War II to avoid being drafted by Hitler’s army. But after just 26 days in the U.S., he felt that God was calling him back to Germany.
Upon his return, Bonhoeffer secured a job with the German military intelligence agency so he could become a double agent and relay information to Germany’s enemies. He also was involved in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler.
Eventually Bonhoeffer was arrested for his involvement in a plan to save seven Jews from execution. He was hanged in 1945 at age 39.
Madison Grace, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bonhoeffer, told BP that theologically Bonhoeffer was not an evangelical. Though he held the Bible in high esteem, he did not believe it to be inerrant, Grace said, adding that much of his thought was steeped in the liberalism of his time.
But Grace said Bonhoeffer’s errors do not negate his courage.
“I don’t think that we have to take wholesale what a person believes and judge them by that solely,” Grace said. “When you look at someone like Bonhoeffer, you recognize that it’s noble what he did here with his courage. But I don’t think that because I like him in that respect, it means I have to like everything about him or his theology.”
Author Eric Metaxas, who wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer, said in his book “Seven Men,” “Somehow Bonhoeffer saw from the very beginning what no one else seemed to see — that Hitler and the philosophy he represented would end tragically, and that Nazi ideology could not coexist with Christianity.”
Barth, perhaps the 20th century’s most influential theologian, also was an outspoken critic, describing Nazi law as “an utter betrayal of the Gospel.”
“From the beginning the National Socialist policy on religion and the church could only be aimed at the eradication of Christian belief and its expression,” Barth said in a lecture. “But again, it could only move toward this goal … step by step, indirectly and in a variety of guises.”
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Nathan Finn noted that Barth, like Bonhoeffer, did not believe the Bible was inerrant. Barth also believed everyone would be saved in the end. Still, he took the Bible seriously and “showed remarkable discernment in recognizing what was happening and remarkable courage in standing up for the lordship of Jesus Christ rather than the lordship of a Führer who thought that the state church was part of his wider vision,” Finn, associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies, told BP.
In 1933 a senior Nazi official condemned Barth’s theology before a crowd of 20,000 at the Berlin Sports Palace. Yet the following month Barth defied the Nazis by saying in a sermon that Jesus was a Jew and that mistreatment of Jews was inconsistent with Christianity — a statement that caused some in the audience to walk out.
When Barth was ordered to open his theology classes with a salute to Hitler, he refused, saying he always opened his lectures with prayer. Eventually Barth was fired from his professorship at the University of Bonn and banned by the Gestapo from all public speaking. He moved back to his native Switzerland.
Barth had an influence on many mid-20th century Southern Baptist theologians, and some knew him personally. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professors Dale Moody, Wayne Ward, Harold Tribble, Ray Summers and David Mueller all took at least one class under Barth. Some analysts say the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message reflected Barth’s influence in its statement that Scripture is “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” Barth died in 1968.
Individual Baptists confessed their complicity with Hitler following the war. But not until 1984 did German Baptists formally express regret that they failed to support Bonhoeffer, Barth and others in the Confessing Church.
“Recognizing the evil at the beginning was more difficult than it appears today in retrospect,” Germany’s Baptists said at a European Baptist Federation Congress in Hamburg. “At that time, notwithstanding, there were among us those who detected the real nature of that regime, who warned against it and opposed courageously the injustice. Nevertheless, we did not publicly join the strife nor the sufferings of the Confessing Church, and failed to withstand more consciously the violations of divine commandments and injunctions. We, the German Baptist Union, are humbled by having been subordinated often to the ideological seduction of that time, in not having shown greater courage in acknowledging truth and justice.”
Finn said all believers should join German Baptists in seeking to emulate the Confessing Church’s courage in the face of moral challenges. He cited religious liberty and defense of traditional marriage as issues on which such courage is needed today.
“In many ways the legacy is not in the Confessing Church itself,” Finn said, “but in how others since then have looked to the Confessing Church as a 20th-century role model for what should happen whenever the church sees that the culture and Christianity have become too closely knit together in a sinful way, and so true Christians need to take a prophetic stance against that and say, ‘Jesus is Lord.'”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.