The German Christian Rally at Berlin’s Sportspalast, 28 February 1934: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, Dr. Christian Kinder Respond to the Kirchenkampf

From: Ryan Buesnel, The German Christian Rally at Berlin’s Sportspalast, 28 February 1934: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, Dr. Christian Kinder Respond to the Kirchenkampf, Journal of Church and State, , csaa103, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcs/csaa103

On February 28, 1934, about twenty thousand members of the various German Christian movements and their supporters gathered at Berlin’s Sportpalast to hear speeches given by theologians and clergy who supported Hitler and the Nazi movement. The purpose of the gathering was threefold. Firstly, the meeting functioned as a propagandistic exercise in virtue-signaling. As a movement that went to considerable lengths to publicly demonstrate its endorsement of the Third Reich, German Christian gatherings such as this one were marked by their outward displays of Nazi ideology, ritual, and imagery. Secondly, this rally served an educational purpose. In the speeches given by movement leaders, German Christian pastors and laypeople had their support of the Nazis legitimized on theological grounds, thus removing any remnants of cognitive dissonance between the aryanized racism of Nazism and the Jewish origins of Christianity. However, the 1934 rally also represents an attempt by the German Christian movement to appease those who had become increasingly critical of its actions. This was done via reassurance that the movement was simply carrying on the work of the Reformation, and that all theological and political division should melt away under the shared experience of being German. 

The rally was held in response to a series of crises facing the Protestant Church during the early 1930s. This period —known as the Kirchenkampf (church struggle)—was marked by growing internal divisions concerning the trajectory of the church and its relationship to the politics and ideology of the Nazi Party. The German Christians, who were themselves a politically and theologically diverse movement, were nonetheless united by a sense that God had “raised up Hitler for the redemption of the German people.”[1] It was this belief that motivated their ecclesial activity in its attempts to transform Protestant theology and install leaders sympathetic to the Nazis in church leadership roles. In so doing, the German Christians hoped to synthesize the ideas of National Socialism into a new era of post-confessional and post-doctrinal Christianity. 

Although not the only major German Christian rally held during these early years of Nazi rule, the February 1934 meeting is particularly important for our understanding of how German Christian leaders viewed their own missional tasks, as well as their vision for a united German national church. As a unique window into the motivations of its leaders, the speeches given at German Christian rallies are an excellent repository of primary source material that can assist historians in determining the movement’s internal dynamics and activities, as well as its trajectory throughout the years of Nazi rule. Yet, despite the importance of the 1934 speeches for the study of the church struggle in its formative years, a detailed analysis of their content has been largely overlooked by the scholarly literature, which has tended to focus instead on the German Christian rally held on November 13, 1933. A central reason for this is the 1933 rally’s notorious theological proclamations, which included a speech by the Berlin Church leader Dr. Reinhold Krause stating that “[w]e expect that our nation’s Church as a German People’s Church should free itself of all things not German in its services and confession, especially the Old Testament with its Jewish system of quid pro quo morality.”[2] In giving voice to such sentiments, the 1933 rally clearly articulated the radical goals and priorities of the German Christian movement and its future intentions for the Protestant Church. The rally’s tone was one of bombastic proclamation rather than reasoned persuasion, and it is hardly surprising that the infamous nature of this event has made it particularly interesting to scholars.

The 1934 rally was, by contrast, a subtler affair, which demonstrated a more conciliatory approach to resolving the struggle emerging within the churches. Rather than beating its critics into theological submission, the 1934 rally reflected an emphasis on supraconfessionalism and the centrality of “Germanness” as a unifying force. This article therefore offers an assessment of the theological and political themes reflected in the speeches of the Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller and Reich Leader Dr. Christian Kinder, as later published in booklet format in 1934.[3] It suggests that, regarding the ongoing Kirchenkampf, the 1934 rally demonstrated that the German Christians were willing to adapt their approach from one of direct confrontation with their opponents, as at the 1933 rally, to one of attempted reconciliation. Although the theological and political themes of the two rallies were similar, the differences in tone and approach demonstrate a greater degree of subtlety in German Christian activity than is often understood.  

The Kirchenkampf and the Historical Context of the February 1934 Rally

In his two-volume work on the history of the German churches during the Third Reich era, noted historian Klaus Scholder documents the unrest that was emerging in German Protestantism at the end of the 1920s. In assessing the rise of ecclesial division, Scholder posits a split between the conservatism of the Landeskirchen (regional churches) and the Word of God theology which had been popularized by Swiss theologian Karl Barth.[4] In arguing for the freedom of the gospel, Barth felt that the church had become too infatuated with the political theology of the time, including the increasingly popular völkisch movement, and had smugly acted as if its institutional survival depended on its own efforts.[5] Much of Barth’s polemic was directed against the theological legacy of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose emphasis on natural theology and the primacy of religious “feeling” had left a theological legacy that confused folk consciousness with divine revelation.[6] In a controversial article written in 1930, Barth crystallized his position and dismissed the Church’s obsession with political and cultural relevance as an affront to its intended purpose as a witness to a gracious yet transcendent God:“Therefore, because the Church intends to clog and poison her own well by an unhealthy relevance, one must speak against her with final anger… if one has love for her.”[7]

Such a forceful denunciation of the ecclesiastical status quo was bound to attract criticism. This was provided by Otto Dibelius, the Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg. In a 1930 report to the Prussian General Synod, Dibelius took exception to the transcendental implications of Barth’s theology and argued instead that although the church-state distinction was important, this did not imply that state power was inherently godless. In Dibelius’s estimation, the “flesh and blood” character of the church was vital for the furtherance of a Christian state[8] in which the Kingdom of God would be actualized.[9] What Dibelius emphasized was that the abstract theological reasoning of Barth left no room for an understanding of the church’s practical mission to a German people who had become estranged due to irrelevant, outdated dogmas which did not reflect the national experience. In the same year in which these debates were taking place, the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party recognized the strategic importance of gaining the support of the church. By 1931, supporters of the Nazis had begun campaigning for the election of Nazi supporters to offices in the various regional churches.[10] These developments were met with unease by those who continued to have reservations about the increasing intrusion of politics into the church. 

This ongoing unrest preempted serious internal church struggles, which were heightened during the first two years of Hitler’s rule (1933-34) as the question of the church’s relationship to Nazism grew steadily more pointed. By September of 1933, the Pastors’ Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund) had been formed in Wittenberg by Herbert Golzten, Günther Jacob, and Eugen Weschke. The League aimed to protest the implementation of the Aryan Law[11] and advocate for the authority of scripture in the life of the church, with the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller soon emerging as its leader.[12] The League enjoyed early success in terms of numbers, attracting some 7,036 members in its first four months of activity.[13] For theologians and clergy sympathetic to the Nazis, however, Hitler’s election was interpreted as a sign of God’s will for Germany manifested in the political sphere, and the electoral success of the Nazis afforded an opportunity to reconsider the theological and political foundations of the church itself. The formation and activity of the German Christians’ pro-Nazi factions within the Protestant churches illustrates the willingness of clergy and theologians to accommodate key Nazi ideas relating to race and nation. In actual fact, many of these church leaders viewed Nazism and Christianity as different manifestations of the same inner essence, leading to an assumption that in advocating for a nazified church, the German Christians were simply wanting to restore Christianity and the church to its rightful origins.[14] As one influential voice within the early German Christian Movement put it, “National Socialism and its leaders are striving for the realization of Christian principles.”[15]

Hitler envisioned the German Christians as playing an important role in facilitating the creation of a unified Reich Church that would function under Nazi control. Moving toward this goal, Hitler appointed Ludwig Müller as his “representative on matters concerning the Protestant Church” on April 25, 1933.[16] Müller had been a military chaplain in Wilhelmshaven in the First World War, continuing in chaplaincy roles in the post-war period. An early supporter of the Nazi Party, Müller was an inherently sycophantic personality who longed to increase his own power and influence. Although often derided for his incompetence as a leader,[17] Müller’s efforts helped fuel the successful church election campaign of 1933.[18] The aim of the campaign was to secure German Christian representation at the local parish level, hoping to thus secure a dominant position within the German Evangelical Church. The campaigning strategy was fruitful, with the German Christians enjoying a resounding victory in July. In her assessment of the election results, Shelley Baranowski writes that the German Christians attracted about 75 percent of the vote, thus ensuring its ongoing influence over church affairs.[19] Müller’s own influence within the churches was also assured, having been elected to the role of Bishop by the Senate of the Prussian Church in August. His influence was further enhanced in September when he became the Reich Bishop.

Riding high on their recent success, about twenty thousand German Christians and their supporters gathered at Berlin’s Sportspalast in November 1933 in a public demonstration of support for the Nazi Party. Featuring a range of speakers from the movement, the rally addressed various issues of vital significance to the German Christian leadership, including the forced removal of clergy who were not sympathetic to Nazism, the exclusion of the Old Testament from the biblical canon, and the adoption of the so-called Aryan Paragraph. One of the more extreme speeches given at this event came from Dr. Reinhold Krause, the chairman of the Berlin chapter of the German Christians and a fierce advocate of an aryanized, neo-pagan Christianity. His proclamations at the 1933 rally were divisive and unorthodox,[20] and suggested that many of the established traditions and doctrines of Christianity were outmoded and corrupted by Jewish influence. What he proposed was the “elimination of the Old Testament from religious instruction, as well as the expurgation from the New Testament of distorted accounts.” He continued his speech with a call for a “return to the heroic conception of Jesus, not as a God enthroned to be conceived dogmatically, but as a fearless fighter and leader.” [21]

As much as the movement might have felt emboldened by recent victory, such outspoken advocacy for a nazified Christianity did not receive the blanket support it so earnestly desired, and the fallout from the rally has been described by German historian Kurt Meier as “a fiasco beyond compare.”[22] It was difficult for many of the attendees to avoid forming the impression that the church’s autonomy was being progressively undermined by the state, causing a number of German Christians to renounce involvement with the movement.[23] This feeling of suspicion and anxiety was heightened by the institution of the so-called “muzzling decree” of January 1934, which was designed by Müller to prevent criticism of the church and threaten dissenting pastors with a range of disciplinary measures. Understandably, this further antagonized critics of the German Christians, resulting in additional unrest and a growing sense of impending crisis. Some Protestant leaders felt compelled to personally complain to Hitler and President Hindenburg in an attempt to denounce what they perceived as the strategic undermining of the church by the German Christians.[24] About 320 ministers from various Reformed congregations met in Barmen-Gemarke to formulate a response to these ecclesiastical developments and to explore the formation of a Free Reformed Synod.[25] It was this gathering that ultimately gave rise to the now famous Barmen Declaration.

These increasingly schismatic overtures necessitated a response from Müller. In the period following the 1933 rally, he undertook a range of concessional actions to calm the ecclesiastical storm. One of these was to dismiss the radical German Christian leader Joachim Hossenfelder and replace him with the moderate Dr. Christian Kinder, who was tasked with presenting a more conciliatory face of German Christian activity.[26] At this stage in the history of the church struggle,  many German Christians hoped that factional splits might be healed by these efforts towards reconciliation. That these steps were taken points to the complexities of the Kirchenkampf and highlights the difficulty of drawing a clear line between the German Christians and their theological opponents.[27] Müller’s concessional measures pointed to the possibility of a reconciliation between the two groups, even if this appears an impossible outcome, with the benefit of hindsight. The attempts at damage control in the months following the 1933 rally suggest that there was an expectation that the current theological and political disputes might be resolved through negotiation. It is therefore in the spirit of controversy and subsequent attempts at unification that the 1934 speeches should be interpreted. What emerges throughout Müller’s and Kinder’s speeches is an ongoing tension within the German Christians which, although ultimately insisting on the supremacy of Nazism as the appropriate religious response to the national context, also understood its future actions as requiring broad church support. This is further reflected in the degree of rhetorical moderation that the 1934 speeches exhibit, which was lacking in the proclamations of the 1933 rally, demonstrating that the German Christians were capable of altering their approach to mitigate ongoing controversy.

The First Speech: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller

In interpreting Müller’s public speeches, it is important to bear in mind the he was in fact directing his words to two separate audiences, the Protestant churches and the Nazi Party leadership with whom he sought to curry favor. Although many members of the German Christians were themselves Nazi Party members, Müller moved within the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, which meant that his statements were often platitudinous. Hitler’s patience with internal church affairs was always limited, which necessitated extra effort on Müller’s behalf to demonstrate his usefulness and loyalty. For this reason, Müller’s speeches betray a distinct element of flattery, a feature evident in the speech he gave on February 28, 1934. Nevertheless, when compared with other public pronouncements made by Müller in the early years of Nazi rule, the 1934 speech is generally more subdued and measured. This is likely to have reaffirmed Hitler’s growing sense that Müller was incapable of the strong leadership required to unite the churches.[28] 

After expressing his gratitude for being asked to address the gathering, Müller’s speech begins with an acknowledgement of the inseparable nature of the Nazi Party and German Christianity. For Müller, it made no real sense to speak of church and state as separate entities within the contemporary political climate, as they represented two expressions of the same essence. Müller’s idea that National Socialism and German Protestantism belonged together called into question many traditional assumptions about the origins and nature of Christianity, primarily related to the notion of an Aryan Jesus—a militarized Christianity in which Jesus functioned as a martyr to Judaism—and the strong emphasis on the need for cultural and political reform in light of a shared national destiny.[29] In the future, Müller would solidify these theo-political concepts in his 1939 text, “Was ist positives Christentum?” (What is positive Christianity?),[30] but the 1934 speech reveals the extent to which he had already committed himself to shape a new theological grammar that better reflected the militarized rhetoric of the age:We stand as National Socialists on the ground of Positive Christianity…It is very clear that only as ‘German Christians’ can we take up the fight in the Church. We are Christians who are staunch and immoveable to the eternal truth that Christ brought.”[31]  

The “fight” referred to by Müller encompassed both the spiritual and physical realms. The church’s special role in a militarized society centered on ensuring the spiritual health and vitality of the German people. Rather than take a prophetic role in the Third Reich to question the moral and political legitimacy of Nazi policy, the German Christians instead saw the ideology of the party as the standard to which the church should conform.         

The idea of the Nazi Party as a revelatory expression of God’s sovereign will for the moral and spiritual redemption of the nation was a major preoccupation of German Christian leaders. Yet Müller’s presentation of it in his speech is noteworthy, as he sought to align the mythology of the Nazis’ “time of struggle”[32] with the experience of the Protestant Church in its battle to free itself from the distortions of false dogma and Jewish influence. Müller made reference to the small but dedicated gathering of sympathetic German Christians who discerned the religious and political shifts taking place and gathered together during the early 1930s to work towards ecclesial change. It seems clear that in describing the origins of the German Christians in this way, i.e., mirroring the political trajectory of the Nazis, Müller was attempting to further point to what he called a self-evident “inner connection between Protestantism and National Socialism.”[33] 

Müller next turned his attention to the weightier matter of church and state relations in the Third Reich. As mentioned previously, he was tasked by Hitler with uniting Germany’s twenty-eight regional Evangelical churches in order to bring them under more effective state control. Müller’s speech reflected the centrality of this mission and offered an assessment of the authority upon which the church based its call to unification. Rather than appealing to a shared spiritual identity in Christ, however, Müller made it clear that it was the initiative of Hitler and the Nazi revolution which spurred the churches into action:“The unification of the 28 regional Evangelical Churches into one large German Protestant Church has only become possible thanks to the victory of the National Socialist revolution. Without this unification of the people, unification of the Church would have been completely impossible.”[34] The reason the initiative for church unification was taken up by the Nazi government was because the church had failed to properly represent the will of the people. It had become too caught up in abstract doctrinal and confessional disputes, thereby rendering it incomprehensible to the ordinary German believer: “The harsh criticism of the Church should urge all of us who are in the service of the Evangelical Church to carry out a rigorous self-examination as to how much the Church is to blame for the huge crowds of people who have turned away from the Church.”[35]

For Müller, the German churches risked oblivion unless they could find a way to better connect with a German people revitalized by National Socialism. The argument for a “German Christianity” was further buttressed by an appeal to the authority of a national hero, Martin Luther. Müller praised Luther for his work in crafting an expression of Christianity that captured the internal spiritual essence of the German Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). According to Müller, Luther’s chief contribution to German history was to begin the process of liberating the church from foreign influence, especially the dominance of Roman Catholicism. In translating the Bible into German, Luther had begun an unfolding process of “germanization” of the church in which race, nation, and faith were brought into closer alignment. From Müller’s perspective, the German Christians were simply continuing Luther’s Reformation in the twentieth century in their attempts to liberate German religion from the corruptions and distortions of Judaism.[36]

Yet there were also strong indications that Müller sought to move beyond Luther. If indeed Müller saw in the National Socialist government a spiritual revelation of God, which necessitated a decisive break with the past, this represents a significant point of difference with Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine which, despite its ambiguities, at least posited a qualitative difference between the nature of state power and church power. Moreover, in Luther’s thought, it was the gospel that constituted the final authority in the life of Christians.[37] For Müller, no such separation was possible because the church and the state were inextricably bound together: “We do not stand next to or against the state, but we stand in the middle of the state as its most loyal helpers and its firmest supporters… Our relationship to the Third Reich is not a relationship of distrust, but of absolute and firm trust.”[38]

Müller’s description of the church as being in the “middle” of the state is interesting and hints at a conception of the church having a dual function as a witness to the gospel and as an enabler of Nazi policy on ecclesiastic matters. Müller continued this line of thought with an appeal for ecclesial unity based on trust in the righteousness of Nazism. In a deeper sense, this reflected a belief prevalent amongst German Christians that the Nazis and German Protestantism constituted a different manifestation of the same primordial essence, described by Müller as an “innermost driving force.”[39] Insisting on this point made it easier for Müller to convince his hearers that the church-state unity he espoused was natural and healthy. This was not a question of the church being compromised by a close alliance with a neo-pagan or atheistic regime,[40] but rather a simple call for the church to recognize the sacred and divine nature of the Nazi mission. Thus, Müller argued, the Church should have no qualms about placing its trust in the guiding force of National Socialism.“The state has an interest in ensuring that order prevails in the inner life of the Church, and that is also the will and desire of our leader. We also have the greatest trust that the Führer will find the right, contemporary form for cooperation between state and Church—and such an agreement of trust is worth more than ten concordats!”[41]

Furthermore, to define National Socialism solely as a political party was to misconstrue its essential function as a mirror of the collective will of the people, he argued. Its ideology and political activity were not about self-serving power but were simply an attempt to grant back to the German people a dignity and ethical framework that had been corrupted in the postwar period. This was a point on which many could agree, as it was not only the German Christians who experienced the despair and anger of those turbulent years. Considering this point, Müller stated, “National Socialism is not a party in its own right, but rather a popular movement that wants to encompass the whole of the people by imparting a new self-confidence to the individual. The inner being of the National Socialist gains its strength through the power of trust, belief, obedience and loyalty.”[42]It was therefore the moral character of Nazism that revealed its inherent righteousness. This is further evidenced by Müller’s suggestion that it was Nazism that provided the opportunity for the church to fulfill Luther’s vision for a united German church. The great reformer, argued Müller, was “so deeply connected to German blood and soil” that it rendered his nationalism and theology fundamentally intertwined.[43] These words would have provided a powerful stimulus for those engaged in critical reflection about the nature and purpose of the church in the Third Reich.

Müller then moved to the closing points of his speech and implored his listeners to undertake the essential work of proclaiming Christ. Müller was referring to Jesus who had been recast as a warrior against Judaism, a view that would be more fully developed by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life at Eisenach from 1939 onward. Müller viewed Jesus as a prototypical symbol to be emulated in the fight against the Jews. In a spirit of fearlessness, contemporary disciples of Jesus should also be willing to go into combat against the shared enemy of international Judaism and Bolshevism with discipline and zeal:“Anyone who is at once grasped by him [Jesus Christ] and his truth becomes a fighter on his own, who never has a slave soul or a submissive nature but who, with courageous trust, is ready to fight against all ungodly power.”[44]

The combined power of God, state, and church, then, was the only way that Germany could rise up against its enemies and fulfill the mandate that had been revealed by God via the Nazi state. While it is certainly true that Müller’s speech reflected the stridency typical of the German Christians, its ongoing emphasis on unity distinguishes it from the speeches at the 1933 rally. The historical timing of the speech during a particularly polarizing period in the Kirchenkampf would suggest that the theme of unification was deliberately chosen as a corrective to the divisions of November 1933. As justification for a unity based on the advent of National Socialism, Müller further called upon his listeners to reflect on the moral qualities he saw embedded in Nazi ideology. Assuming a clear spiritual bond between National Socialism and the true, i.e., non-Jewish, essence of Christianity, Müller was able to frame his advocacy of unity as justified by sound theology and continuity with German Reformation history.

The Second Speech: Dr. Christian Kinder

Dr. Christian Kinder was a dedicated leader in the German Christian movement with a reputation for aligning himself with its more moderate factional elements. A member of the German Christians since its inception, Kinder remained faithful to the movement even after it fell out of favor with the Nazi hierarchy. As Hitler’s war progressed and defeat was all but certain, he showed no signs of wavering in his support for the Nazi regime, eventually becoming president of the Schleswig-Holstein Church in 1945.[45]

The immediate background of Kinder’s speech at the 1934 rally was his promotion to the position of Reich Leader of the German Christians. Tasked with the onerous job of uniting the factional elements of the German Christians, Kinder’s initial actions as leader were bold and swift. He implemented new guidelines for the movement and also approved a name change, from “Faith Movement of German Christians” to the more strident “German Christian Reich Movement.”[46] However polarizing these actions were, Kinder’s enduring advocacy for a unified, post-confessional church indicates that he took seriously his mandate to deal with ecclesial division.

As we have seen, an issue of crucial importance to critics of the German Christian movement was the need for the church to remain autonomous from the state.[49] In its early stages, the Pastors’ Emergency League and its supporters were not primarily concerned about Nazi racism and anti-Judaism, but were worried that the Nazis’ intention was to place the party at the head of the church in the place of Jesus Christ. They were right to be concerned, as proved by the 1933 Twenty-Eight Theses of the Saxon National Church for the Internal Strengthening of the German Evangelical Church, a document drafted by Walter Grundmann.[50] The purpose of this document was to clarify the issue of the German church’s relationship to the Nazi state and the implications for theology and ecclesiology. Included in Grundmann’s Theses is an exhortation for the church to “commit itself to the doctrines of blood and race because our people share a common blood and a common existence.”[51] Although the Theses gave passing acknowledgment to the timeless sovereignty of Jesus Christ over the church, they also suggested that the creeds and doctrines of the past needed to be reassessed in light of the contemporary national situation.[52]

Kinder addressed Grundmann’s Theses in his speech, attempting to walk a fine line between advocating for their necessity and conceding that they did not replace the confessions of faith as authoritative in the Church: “I also attach great importance to making sure that the 28 Theses are not a confession, but simply guidelines for the Church to follow. Not everyone will be committed to them individually, but against all the slander of our opponents, we emphasize how we [the German Christians] see the Evangelical Church in the present time.”[53]

The value of the Theses was not that they reflected a rigorous theological process, but instead that they promised to reduce the threat of schism and disunity. Ongoing division in the church would be a national catastrophe, as the external enemies facing Germany required the nation to band together as a united front. As such, the Theses was presented by Kinder not so much as a theological absolute, but rather as a call to put away denominational differences. What was needed was a national Christian community to help degrade the pervasive spirit of individuality: “Many evangelical minds and hearts have lost the sense of what the Church really is through the spirit of individualism. Such devastating individualism can only be overcome through the Church, as the community that has progressed through the generations, in which each individual is not only a member but a living link in the whole organism.”[54] That the specifically religious content of the Theses could be overlooked simply by calling for ecclesial unity is curious, but not overly surprising given the agenda of the rally itself. The call for a rebirth of the church was entirely predicated on the successful display of national spirit and unity by the Nazis.“It was in the birth hours of National Socialism when the German people, in the company of their comrades and possessed by the same spirit and inspired by the same will, no longer thought of themselves but as members of one community for whom they should live and sacrifice.”[55] It was this model of national unity and willingness to sacrifice for the whole that the Protestant churches needed to emulate as the basis of their existence in the Third Reich:“National Socialism binds our people. We German Christians want a new beginning in the Church; we want the Church to become a Church again. National Socialism has opened our eyes to the deeper connections between the German Volk.”[56] 

If National Socialism was the fabric that would hold the church together in the new age, what should be made of historical dogmas and traditions? Kinder attempted to address this in his speech, and it was there that one could glean an insight into the true heart of his message. Like Müller, Kinder made several references to the German Christians’ continuity with the past, including his insistence that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for all eternity and will remain the cornerstone of everything we do.”[57] Nevertheless, Kinder was more concerned with reiterating the uniqueness of the present moment—“Our time is different from that in which the confessions were formulated”[58]—and what it requires in terms of ecclesial change. The distinctiveness and revelatory nature of Nazism, therefore, had clear implications for how Christian history was being interpreted by the German Christians:

Our ideological training has emphasised that today it is not about empty dogmatic disputes but the struggle of values… Due to the tremendous changes in the life of our Volk we have also received valuable new knowledge about our Church life. This knowledge extends to almost all areas of Church life. Under the awakening of the German people and all the knowledge connected with it, we feel as if suddenly a bright light is shining into the darkness of the Church building.[59]

Kinder acknowledged that National Socialism prompted the revitalization of the church, and he further affirmed the claim of Nazi ideology over every sphere of German church life. Yet he also rounded this out with an assurance that Jesus Christ would remain the “cornerstone in everything we do.”[60] This stance is similar to that adopted by Müller in that it attempts to balance a fixed commitment to the nazification of the church with theological orthodoxy, i.e., the Lordship of Christ over the church, which might have reassured some critics who were sitting on the fence. The crass, steamroller approach of November 1933 had now shifted to one that promised that the demands placed upon the church by Nazi policy and ideology could be affirmed without sacrificing the integrity of the Christian faith.  Hence, Kinder could affirm that “it is a foundation of the Evangelical Church that it preaches the ancient Gospel to people in a new form.” Kinder was therefore advocating for a merging of the old and the new, what we might today call “contextual theology.”[61]   

Further themes discussed by Kinder included the need for the church to immerse itself in the political affairs of the state and an extrapolation of the future intentions of the German Christians. His speech closed with what is perhaps the clearest indication yet that the purpose of this rally was to reassure rather than divide. In assessing the ongoing task of the German Christians, Dr. Kinder made the bold claim that it should not consider its activity as constituting a “new” church:

I already stated earlier that a strict separation must be made between the tasks of the Church itself and those of the German Christians. The Church rests on its creeds and has its life in faith. It must preserve and increase this substance, to keep it in lively contact with the present and to shape it. Our organization of German Christians should not and must not influence this.[62]

Thus, Kinder ended his speech with a reassurance that the German Christians did not seek to impose their will on the broader church through blunt force. It was instead hoped that their efforts at revitalizing theology and the ecclesia would be recognized for what they were, an attempt to reclaim a Christian heritage that had been dismantled by loss of national identity and confessional splintering. Although the increasing bitterness of the Kirchenkampf in the ensuing years clearly indicates that unification was not ultimately possible, Kinder’s conciliatory speech suggests that a preoccupation with only the tone and content of the 1933 rally diminishes our understanding of the scope of the German Christian movement’s response to its critics.

Conclusion

The speeches offered by Reich Bishop Müller and Dr. Christian Kinder at the 1934 German Christian rally represent more than just an object of historical curiosity. Historically situated within the tumultuous Kirchenkampf, the tone of these speeches is characterized by attempts to justify the need for a “German Christianity” and to implore critics of the movement to focus on that which united rather than petty doctrinal squabbles. This approach is at odds with the radical nature of the 1933 rally, where Dr. Reinhold Krause’s dismissal of Jewish morality with its “stories of cattle traders and pimps” was deliberately combative and resulted in the withdrawal of many German Christians from the movement.[63] The noticeably more conciliatory approach taken by Müller and Kinder at the 1934 rally therefore reflects a degree of flexibility in the German Christians’ approach to dealing with dissent and conflict with the Protestant churches. This adaptability is easy to overlook in the history of the German Christians, particularly because the 1933 rally has commanded the most scholarly attention. By early 1934, however, German Christian leaders were forced to reckon with the reality that the transformation and unification of the church was not going to be a straightforward process. Indeed, the ultimate failure of the churches to unite under a single, post-confessional banner was one of the central reasons why Hitler removed himself from ongoing involvement in church affairs. 

The attempts at ecclesial harmony displayed at the 1934 rally do not detract from the German Christians’ broader commitment to the goal of nazifying the Protestant Church, but instead inform a more nuanced historiography that acknowledges the complex nature of the Kirchenkampf between November 1933 and February 1934. In the months following the 1933 rally, attempts were made on behalf of the German Christian movement to recover lost ground and incorporate its critics into a vision for a German Reich Church in which they could also participate. The speeches given by Ludwig Müller and Dr. Christian Kinder in February of 1934 are emblematic of this contentious period in German church history and represent a rare moment when German Christian leaders engaged with the criticisms of those whose voices were rapidly being silenced in a culture of pro-Nazi religious zealotry.

Notes:


[1] James Zabel’s 1976 study of three major German Christian groups remains invaluable for understanding the diversity within this movement. See James A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors: A Study of the Ideas of Three Deutsche Christen Groups (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976); Roger J. Newell, Keine Gewalt! No Violence! How the Church Gave Birth to Germany’s Only Peaceful Revolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 57

[2] As quoted in Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 150.

[3] Published as Die Deutschen Christen: Die Reden des Reichsbischofs und des Rechleiters der Deutschen Christian, im Berliner Sportpalast am 28. Februar 1934 (Berlin: Gesellschaft für Zeitungsdienst, 1934).

[4] Karl Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. (London: SCM, 1988), 1: 121.

[5] Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors, 7-8

[6] On this issue see Newell, Keine Gewalt!, 51-52.

[7] Karl Barth, “Quousque Tandem?” in Karl Barth, “Der Götze wackelt”: Zeitkritische Aufsätze, Reden und Briefe von 1930 bis 1960, ed. Karl Kupisch (Berlin: Käthe Vogt, 1961), 28.

[8] Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 1: 123.

[9] On the conflict between Barth and Dibelius, see Eckhard Lessing, “‘Selbstsändigkeit’ und ‘Freiheit’ der Kirche: Eine Notiz zum Kirchenverständnis Dibelius und Barths,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 2 (1989): 426-36. 

[10] Hans Buchheim, Glaubenskrise im Dritten Reich (Stüttgart: Deustche Verlags-Anstalt, 1953), 67, 71-75.

[11] The Aryan Law mandated the removal of Jews from a range of professions, including universities, civil institutions and the church. 

[12] On the aims of the Pastor’s Emergency League, see Douglas S. Bax, “The Barmen Theological Declaration: Its Historical Background,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 47 (1984): 18.

[13] As noted by Kurt K. Hendel, this number would decline drastically over the ensuing years, with less than five thousand members remaining in 1938. See Kurt K. Hendel, “The Historical Context of the Barmen Declaration,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36, no. 2 (2009): 134.

[14] This was not a particularly novel theological position. In 1921, a high school teacher named Joachim Niedlich had formed the League for a German Church, which sought influence in the Prussian Church Synod. Its purpose was to “rid the Church of its Jewish embrace.” The League counted the influential Houston Stewart Chamberlain as a member. See Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 74.

[15] Julius Kuptsch, Im Dritten Reich zu Dritten Kirche (Leipzig: Adolf Klein Verlag, 1933), 30-31.

[16] Volker Ullrich, Hitler, trans. Jefferson Chase (London: Penguin, 2017), 1: 642-3.

[17] Gary Dorrien, Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 264.

[18] Contrary to the view that Müller was incompetent, his biographer writes that “as Prussian state bishop and German Reich Bishop, he was undoubtedly the most important figure in the Church hierarchy of German Protestantism.”

See Thomas Martin Schneider, Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller: eine Untersuchung zu Leben, Werk und Persönlichkeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993), 152.   

[19] Shelley Baranowski, “The 1933 German Protestant Church Elections: Machtpolitik or Accommodation?” Church History 49, no. 3 (1980): 298.

[20] Doris L. Bergen describes the language used by Krause as crude and abrasive, attacking the “debilitating remnants of Judaism” that were unacceptable to the National Socialists. See Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 17.

[21] These translations of Krause’s speech are taken from an article that appeared in the New York Times on November 14, 1933. That news of the rally had caught the attention of the international community suggests a broad awareness of the radical nature of German Christian activity. See “Revision of Scripture is Urged on Germans; Return to Heroic Conception of Jesus and Segregation of Non-Aryans Proposed,” New York Times, November 14, 1933. Krause’s extreme position also earned the respect of Hitler, who remarked that amongst all the clergy Krause was the “most upstanding of the lot.” See Ullrich, Hitler, 644.

[22] Kurt Meier, Kreuz und Hakenkreuz: Die evangelische Kirche im Dritten Reich (München: Traugott Bautz GmbH, 1992), 49.

[23] It was Krause’s speech in particular that fanned the flames of ongoing controversy. This resulted in further division within the churches. See Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 115.

[24] Robert P. Ericksen, “The Question of Complicity,” in Glaube-Freiheit-Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburstag, ed. Katarzyna Stoklosa and Andrea Strübind (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 104.

[25] Bax, “The Barmen Theological Declaration,” 19.

[26] It was this appointment that provided the catalyst for Alfred Rosenberg to formally exit the German Church. See Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich, 165.

[27] Manfred Gailus has challenged the oversimplification of the Kirchenkampf in the post-war period, arguing instead that its complexity defies clear-cut boundaries between those who supported the Nazis and those who were critical. See Manfred Gailus, “1933 als protestantisches Erlebnis. Emphatische Selbsttransformation und Spaltung,” Geschichte und Gessellschaft 29, no. 4 (2003): 481-511.

[28] Ullrich, Hitler, 644.

[29] Gall, The Holy Reich, 13-51. It is important to note that despite the clear use of “Positive Christianity” as common phraseology within the German Christian movement, recent scholarship by Samuel Koehne has challenged its legitimacy as a coherent theological concept. See Samuel Koehne, “Nazism and Religion: The Problem of ‘Positive Christianity,’” Australian Journal of Politics and History 60, no. 1 (2014): 28-42.

[30] Ludwig Müller, Was ist positives Christentum? (Stuttgart: Tazzelwurm, 1939).

[31] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 8.

[32] David Redles describes the “time of struggle” as one marked by sacrifice and faith for a glorious German future. These elements were seized upon by Müller and the DC as indicators of a shared telos between the Protestant churches and the National Socialists. See David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 105.      

[33] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 7.

[34] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 10.

[35] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 9.

[36] German Christian leaders would often appeal to Luther’s anti-Judaism as a historical precedent, which justified their own position. Of particular relevance was Luther’s notorious 1543 text “On the Jews and their Lies.” The DC theologian Wolf Meyer-Erlach was one such figure who drew heavily on Luther’s treatment of the so-called “Jewish question.” See Christopher J. Probst, “An Incessant Army of Demons”: Wolf Meyer-Erlach, Luther and ‘the Jews’ in Nazi Germany,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23, no. 3 (2009): 441–60

[37] Martin Luther, “Secular Authority: To What Extent Should it be Obeyed?,” in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 387.

[38] Müller, Die Deustche Christen, 11.

[39] Müller, Die Deustche Christen, 11.

[40] The view that the German Christians “were not Christians but pagans” has been advocated by Karla Poewe in New Religions and the Nazis (New York: Routledge, 2006), 7ff. This problematic interpretation has been challenged by Horst Junginger in “Nordic Ideology in the SS and the SS Ahnenerbe,” in Nordic Ideology Between Religion and Scholarship, ed. Horst Junginger and Andreas Åkerlund (Bern: Peter Lang, 2013), 39-72.

[41] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 12.

[42] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 10.

[43] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 10.

[44] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 14.

[45] Susannah Heschel, “Confronting the Past: Post-1945 German Protestant Theology and the Fate of the Jews,” in The Protestant-Jewish Conundrum: Studies in Contemporary Jewry, ed. Jonathan Frankel and Ezra Mendelsohn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 51.

[46] Helmreich, The German Churches, 152.

[47] Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, 2nd edition (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1976), 116; Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich, 165. 

[48] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 17.

[49] On this topic, see Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 5-8.

[50] The full Theses (in German) can be found in Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1933-44 (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1948), 30-32. 

[51] Quoted in John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001), 353.

[52] Conway, Nazi Persecution, 355.

[53] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 20.

[54] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 20. In October of 1934, Kinder released a pamphlet further expounding the 28 Theses for the DC movement. See Robert Melvin Spector, Mass Murder and the Holocaust, History and Analysis, 2 vols. (New York: University Press of America, 2005), 1: 283. 

[55] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 23.

[56] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 23.

[57] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[58] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[59] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[60] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[61] Interpreting the German Christians as being rooted in the framework of contextual theology is an intriguing position taken by Notger Slenczka, “Theologie Im Kontext der ‘Deutschen Freiheitsbewegung’ Überlegungen zum Anliegen kontextueller Theologien am Beispiel der Deutschchristlichen Theologie,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 8, no. 2 (1995): 259-99.

[62] Kinder, Die Deutsche Christen, 34.

[63] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 69-70.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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3 Responses to The German Christian Rally at Berlin’s Sportspalast, 28 February 1934: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, Dr. Christian Kinder Respond to the Kirchenkampf

  1. Amy says:

    Hello Ryan-
    I just wanted to send a thank you for the article you wrote, “Falling Into the Abyss: Dosteovsky’s ‘The Double’ and Mental Illness”… I didn’t see a contact email for you there, so found your space here. I just finished reading this short work of Dostoevsky and found your insights spot on, which helped to clarify my own analysis. God bless!

    Like

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