Why Did German Protestants Support Hitler?
Germany's defeat in the war gave rise to just the sort of socialism and Marxism that conservative Protestants feared most. Less than two years after the explicitly anti-Christian Marxist Revolution in Russia, communists were rousing workers for revolution throughout Germany. Germans widely regarded their new Weimar Republic, its president a prominent socialist, as an unjust and godless liberal imposition. One of the first goals of the new republic was secularization of state and education. Church control over education was to be removed, and state funding for the church eliminated, after a short transition period.
The church, consistent with the old Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, responded powerfully and immediately. Protestants organized petitions and poured into the streets in opposition to the attempted secularization of the state and of education. The protests were successful, and in the end, the Weimar Republic maintained its ties to the church, though magisterial control over church government was diminished. Nevertheless, the 1920s became a time of massive disillusionment among German Protestants. The Allies had reduced their country to a pathetic state. To many conservative Protestants, liberalism, pluralism, socialism, and secularism were destroying Germany. Many (like 17th-century Protestants in England and the United States) struggled to see how democratic government could be consistent with God's ordination of civil government as his own administration of justice. The liberalization of policies toward women (i.e., breakdown of gender roles) and Jews (i.e., religious pluralism) seemed to accompany widespread moral decline, and millions of Germans left the church.
The Protestant clergy, some 80 percent of whom supported the nationalist-conservative Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP), came to yearn for a national and moral 'renewal' grounded in Christianity. They called for a powerful government that would serve as God's minister and restore order; a return, they believed, to the country's Christian foundations. This involved the recovery of the 'orders' of family, church, and state, but increasingly for many German Protestants (like many Protestants not so long ago in the United States) it also came to include what they regarded as the divinely sanctioned racial (or volkisch) order. Such convictions, built on centuries of religious anti-semitism, made it easy for Protestant leaders to tolerate and even embrace racial anti-semitism as expressive of the will of God.
Leading two kingdoms theologians like Paul Althaus argued that it was the church's obligation to support the state in its attempt to protect the German volk from corruption or defilement. When Hitler came to power in 1933, it was therefore not a passive two kingdoms doctrine that kept otherwise skeptical Christians from opposing him. After all, the two kingdoms doctrine had not stopped them from standing up against the Weimar Republic, which they had regarded as godless. On the contrary, because of their strong convictions about the complementary roles of church and state, as well as about authority and basic Christian morality, they actively supported Hitler. They believed his rhetoric that he would restore Germany to its national glory and Christian foundations. As Bishop Hans Meiser (one of Germany's leading churchmen, later a signer of the Barmen Declaration and a prominent leader in the Confessing Church movement) declared in a proclamation to be read from all Bavarian pulpits on Easter Sunday, 1933:
A state which brings into being again government according to God's Laws should, in doing so, be assured not only of the applause but also of the glad and active cooperation of the Church. With gratitude and joy the Church takes note that the new state bans blasphemy, assails immorality, and establishes discipline and order, with a strong hand, while at the same time calling upon man to fear God, espousing the sanctity of marriage and Christian training for the young, bringing into honor again the deeds of our fathers and kindling in thousands of hearts, in place of disparagement, an ardent love of Volk and Fatherland. (Quoted in Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past [Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004], 17.)
Matthew J. Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, currently writing his dissertation on John Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at www.matthewtuininga.wordpress.com.