Yes, a movement associated with the Nazis infiltrated and corrupted some of the Christian churches in Nazi Germany. The purpose of that infiltration was to eliminate the influence traditional Christianity, and its moral and ethical values, so that it could no longer serve as a wellspring of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism.
Those stalwart Christians who opposed the Nazi influence were harshly persecuted, and some were sent to concentration camps.
Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is one. As readers of 1389 Blog already are aware, the Roman Catholic Church in Nazi-occupied Croatia also became thoroughly corrupt. The Croatian Nazis, and the Roman Catholic clergy who threw in their lot with the Nazis, indeed called themselves Christian, but they lied; their evil words and deeds were completely inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. In other words, they were Christians in name only.
The Christian Nazi myth refuted: A review of:
The Swastika against the Cross: The Nazi War on Christianity
by Bruce Walker
by Lita Cosner
Many anti-Christians turn to the Nazis for an example of the sort of evil that can be committed in the name of Christ. The myth that the Nazis were Christian is so common that many Christians cannot adequately answer it. If the Nazis had been Christian in name, all this would have proved is that not all who claim to act in Christ’s name are consistent with His teachings. But far from being Christians, the Nazis were opposed to Christianity and sought to stamp it out.
While the Nazis did not publicize their opposition to Christianity outside Germany, inside Germany there was little attempt to hide the escalating persecution of Christians. From the first year after they came to power, the Nazis restricted Catholic education and other religious organizations, while the secret police arrested Protestant pastors and engaged in violent intimidation of Christians (pp. 34–35). A year later, they started sending Christian pastors to concentration camps (p. 36). By August 1935, “Jail sentences and attacks on individuals [were] nothing new”, and in December of that year it was forbidden for church associations to appoint pastors, instruct or give announcements from the pulpit, or perform numerous other functions essential to the church (p. 38). Eventually the sale of the Bible was prohibited, as was the rental of property for religious purposes. Even collections for the families of pastors in concentration camps were prohibited, and the Gestapo seized any money that was raised for that purpose (pp. 39–40). In 1938, Austrian monks and nuns were sent to concentration camps when the Nazis occupied the country (p. 44). In areas that did not have synagogues to attack and vandalize, the Nazis targeted Christian churches (p. 46).
Elimination of the Jews in Nazi Germany was not confined to the Holocaust. It also took the form of rewriting the New Testament to ‘dejudaize’ it, i.e. to remove references to Judaism and to recast Jesus as an Aryan, generating what has been called the ‘Nazi Bible’. This has been the subject of some sensational and substantially erroneous claims, including that the project was Hitler’s brainchild.
So what are the facts? This article is based on the book The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany by Susannah Heschel,1 Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Page numbers in brackets in this article refer to her book.
The German Church in the 1930s
In 1930s’ Germany, the ‘German Christians’ (Deutsche Christen) movement arose. These were theologically liberal Protestant churches and theologians who were enthusiastically pro-Nazi, calling Hitler the ‘Führer Jesus’ and ‘God’s agent in our day’ (p. 67). Politically ambitious and anti-Semitic, they wanted a faith without anything Jewish in the Bible, and without converted Jews in the Church. Their ultimate membership of 600,000 constituted about 30 percent of German Protestants (p. 3).
In opposition to this, the so-called ‘Confessing Church’ (Bekennende Kirche) movement arose, ultimately attracting some 20 percent of Protestant pastors. It included notable opponents of Hitler such as Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, some of its members were inclined to take other liberties with the plain meaning of the biblical text, and some were even ideologically anti-Semitic, despite wanting to retain Christian Jews in the church.
The research arm and propaganda organ of the ‘German Christians’ movement was its Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life (Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben).2 This served Nazi anti-Semitism by a program of dejudaizing the Bible, and giving anti-Semitic theological training to clergy and laity via lectures, seminars, scholarly books, and popular pamphlets.
Its founding visionary and Academic Director was Walter Grundmann (1906–76), a member of the Nazi party from 1930. Though Hitler did personally sign the 1938 appointment of Grundmann to Jena University as Professor of New Testament, there is no evidence (despite some sensationalized claims to the contrary) that Hitler ordered the ‘Nazi Bible’ project.
Grundmann was clearly the main instigator of this and the Institute itself, which by 1942 had 180 members—mostly professors of theology, teachers, pastors, bishops, and church superintendents (p. 99). It was not financed by government but by donations from supporting churches, individual church leaders, and sale of its publications (p. 96).
Its goal was to redefine Christianity as a Germanic religion, whose founder, Jesus, was not just a non-Jew, but was an anti-Jew, (a proto-Nazi (p. 71)), who had fought to destroy Judaism, dying as a victim in that struggle. According to Grundmann, the Bible needed to be restored to its pristine condition—purged of its Jewishness which was due to the distortions of history. Protestants had to overcome Judaism, he declared, just as Luther had overcome Catholicism (p. 2) in the Reformation.
Churchgoers were reassured that the Institute was promoting a return to the anti-Jewish Christianity practised in the days of Jesus (p. 116). However, beyond this, the Institute provided a scholarly and religious mantle that gave Nazism religious and moral authority (p. 16). Describing Jesus’ goal as the eradication of Judaism “effectively reframed Nazism as the very fulfillment of Christianity” (p. 17).
The so-called Nazi (or Hitler’s) Bible
The Institute’s most notorious publication was its dejudaized version of the New Testament (NT), titled Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God), and released in 1940. This was a book of some 304 pages, with about 60% fewer words than in the German Luther NT. The Foreword by Grundmann and others said it was a selection from the NT which had shed new light for them.3 It contained no OT books, and was never called a Bible, let alone Hitler’s Bible.4
Relationship to the Nazis
The Institute’s perverse attempt to marry Christianity to Nazism was not reciprocated by the Nazis, who were deeply suspicious of all things Christian.6 They tolerated the Institute, but at times even mocked it (p. 148), and kept it under secret surveillance by the intelligence arm of the SS. (p. 149). In March 1943, they confirmed their lack of sympathy for Grundmann by drafting him into military service on the dreaded Eastern (Russian) Front (p. 161).
After the war, Grundmann claimed that he was “an objective scholar who had fallen victim to Nazi attacks as a result of his efforts on behalf of Christianity and his scholarship” (p. 253). In the 1950s, he was appointed rector of the Thuringian seminary in Eisenach, in East Germany. From 1956 he served the communists as a spy, supplying information about his opponents in the Confessing Church (p. 256 ff.). He went on to publish various commentaries on the Gospels, which attained significant popularity.