De-Nazification and the German Christian Movement: An Brief Case Study from the Archives

Although the de-Nazification of the German Protestant Churches in post-War Germany is an area that warrants ongoing research, much of the extant scholarly material demonstrates that the theologians and pastors associated with the pro-Nazi German Christian movement (s) tended to minimize their active complicity in the Nazi regime. This was made possible to a large extent through the Allied powers allowing the church to conduct internal de-Nazification proceedings that were not subject to excessive outside scrutiny.[1]

While the temptation to generalize German Christian responses to de-Nazification proceedings should be avoided, it is possible to discern recurring themes throughout primary source material documenting the “rehabilitation” of the Protestant church after 1945. Mirroring broader responses to de-Nazification as “allied propaganda” or “victors justice,” many former German Christians expressed a combination of responses from “rationalization to silence and denial.”[2] Even those who were not allied with the German Christians could view de-Nazification as a punitive exercise in virtue signalling that did not take sufficient account of contextual and individual variables. 

In archival research for my Ph.D., I uncovered a document from the Bayern Landeskirchliches Archiv that demonstrates this dynamic rather well. Although brief, it shows that even Church leaders not directly implicated in German Christian activity could still view the de-Nazification process with suspicion and cynicism. The document, dated 24 September 1947, takes the form of a letter from a pastor named Dr. Adolf Hardte from Ortenburg, Lower Bavaria. Dr. Hardte appears to be in a leadership position within the region, and he has been tasked with providing evidence to the Evangelical Lutheran State Council in Munich of an unnamed individual’s suspected involvement with the German Christians. 

Although offering to fully comply with the request for evidence (which has been “demanded upon him”), Hardte nevertheless speaks of a “spitefully incited general reopening” of the “unfortunate” wounds of the Kirchenkampf. Hardte also points out that although he will engage in the process, he will do so with a view to providing a robust range of contextual information that was “excusatory and thus exonerating.” The remaining half of the letter is a request for additional clarification and documentation from the Church Council (Landeskirchenrat). The requests made here potentially reflect Hardte’s suspicion that the attempt to purge the church of former German Christian associates had taken on the quality of a witch hunt.  He questions, for example, what evidence there was that the Ortenburg region had 105 German Christian members and asks for written copies of de-Nazification evidentiary documents to be sent to him for review. 

It is impossible to comment on the specific circumstances of the alleged German Christian mentioned in this document, as we only hear the voice of Dr. Hardte. It may well be that the individual in question played an incidental role in German Christian activity. It bears reminding that the German Christians were a diverse group, both territorially and theologically. Some who attached themselves to the movement in its early years later disavowed this association due to its theological excesses. As such, affiliation with the movement should not necessarily be seen as indicative of a given individual’s theological stance over time. What can be said is that Hardte response to the de-Nazification of the churches demonstrates two traits that were disturbingly common in the post: minimization and justification. 

[1] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 243-44. For case study in the self-regulated de-Nazification of  Protestant churches in Saxony-Anhalt, see Luke Fenwick, “The Protestant Churches in Saxony-Anhalt in the Shadow of the German Christian Movement and National Socialism, 1945–1949.” Church History 82 (2013): 877–903. 

[2] Doris L. Bergen, “Storm Troopers of Christ: The German Christian Movement and the Ecclesiastical Final Solution,” in Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, ed. Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 63. 

Document owned and held at Landeskirchliches Archiv der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche in Bayern LAELKB, LKR 0.2.0003- 336.

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.
This entry was posted in christianity, church, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s