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Mar 05 2012

How Hitler Won the Support of the German Christian Church


We’ve recently reread a book entitled Hitlers Cross written in 1995 by Erwin Lutzer (foreword by Ravi Zacharias).

In it Lutzer looks at the holocaust and the rise of Hitler and asks the question: where was the Church?

This book is a fascinating read, particularly in this time of economic upheaval and political rhetoric.

Writes Lutzer, in explaining why he undertook this project:

…I determined to study how Hitler had captured the Christian church; I knew that 95% of the people in Germany were either Protestant or Catholic. Now I wanted to know why the Christians in Germany did not condemn Hitler with one single, unified, and courageous voice. I wondered why millions took Hitler’s hakenkreuz (hooked or broken cross) and superimposed it on the cross of our crucified Redeemer. Only later would I understand the extent to which this confusion of crosses beguiled the German church and invited the judgment of God….What clues were there in the history of Germany that prepared the country (and its churches) for such a mass seduction? Could it happen again? More to the point, is it happening now, even in America, albeit in a different way? What signs should have alerted the church to Hitler’s real agenda?

Many today are unaware that Hitler rose to power through a democratic process. The people supported him in large part because they were convinced he would fix the deteriorating economy and restore Germany to the prominence and prosperity it had once enjoyed. Writes Lutzer:

…he would give the appearance of being one of the masses, but in reality he would be quite another…At times he could be charming and forgiving…Privately (and sometimes publicly) he prided himself in his honesty, yet often he reveled in his abilty to deceive. “The German people must be misled if the support of the masses is required,” he mused.

And

Hitler holds a fascination for us because his dictatorship enjoyed such wide support of the people. Perhaps never in history was a dictator so well liked. He had the rare gift of motivating a nation to want to follow him. Communist leaders such as Lenin or Mao Tse-tung rose to power through revolutions that cost millions of lives; consequently they were hated by the masses. Hitler attracted not only the support of the middle class but also of university students and professors. For example, psychologist Carl Jung grew intoxicated with “the mighty phenomenon of National Socialism at which the whole world gazes in astonishment.

Hitler arose in Germany at a time when the nation was a democracy. He attained his power legitimately, if unfairly. The nation was waiting for him, eager to accept a demagogue who appeared to have the talent needed to lead her out of the abyss. The people yearned for a leader who would do for them what democracy could not.

Lutzer sprinkles quotes liberally throughout the book that give us insight into the hearts of the Germans of the period…and, we must admit, possibly our own. Writes Lutzer:

…read what Gerald Suster writes: “Many welcomed the abolition of individual responsibility for one’s actions; for some it is easier to obey than to accept the dangers of freedom. Workers now had job security, a health service, cheap holiday schemes; if freedom meant starvation, then slavery was preferable.” The man for whom the Germans had waited had arrived.

As long as the economy was strong, people didn’t care whether they had freedom of speech, freedom of travel, or freedom of elections. Under the Republic, people were starving in the big cities; bread on the table was more important than a ballot at a voting booth…in Nazi Germany, as in every era, it was the economy that was the key to the political fortunes of a particular party or dictator. Even Antichrist will count on the premise that most of us act as if our body is worth more than our soul.

Lutzer explores Hitler’s well-documented associations and fascination with the occult and mysticism, considering the possible linkage to Hitler’s “uncanny gift of personal magnetism that defied analysis,” noting that one of Hitler’s biographers noted that that he had the power to “bewitch an audience.”

But why did the church fall under the spell of this articulate, charming political figure?

The churches were so enamored with Hitler’s successes that they did not pause to ask in whose name these benefits had come to them. They spoke of the political resurgence as a revival, a time of renewal and spiritual strength. The churches derived strength from the improved economy and giddy optimism about a new day for Germany. Many of the wiser church members were not deceived, but the majority did not ask questions. For now, what was good for Germany was good for the church…

…Hitler spoke of both Protestants and Catholics with contempt, convinced that all Christians would betray their God when they were forced to choose between the swastika and the Cross: “Do you really believe the masses will be Christian again? Nonsense! Never again. That tale is finished. No one will listen to it again. But we can hasten matters. The parsons will dig their own graves. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable jobs and income.”

Lutzer then looks at several characteristics of the church prevalent at the time, pointing out that they had already sold out to pop German culture before Hitler rose to power: Nationalism and Theological Liberalism, the latter being more interested in salvation in this world rather than salvation in the life to come.

Interestingly, Hitler wanted to deconstruct the church, although he spoke in public approvingly of “positive Christianity.” He used words like “freedom” to get people to like him, and privately believed that lying was necessary in order to get to what was, in his view, the higher good. Writes Lutzer:

Hitler…encouraged a movement simply called “God Believers,” designed to persuade individuals to withdraw from churches. The sales pitch was that there was an alternative to the church; whatever it accomplished could be done elsewhere and in other ways.”

Once in complete control, Hitler proceeded to essentially oppress the church, dictating what it could and could not preach and removing all vestiges of true Christianity from both churches and society.

In the book, Lutzer also examines the division in the church at the time, both from clergymen who supported and opposed Germany, including of course Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who moved from an early view of pacifism to eventually participate in a plan to assassinate Hitler before being executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s words are more widely known via his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” But also consider the words of Martin Niemoller, boldly preaching in Berlin against Hitler:

…we’ve been thrown into the Tempter’s sieve, and he is shaking and the wind is blowing, and it must now become manifest whether we are wheat or chaff! Verily, a time of sifting has come upon us, and even the most indolent and peaceful person among us must see that the calm of meditative Christianity is at an end…it is testing time, and God is giving Satan a free hand, so he may shake us up and so that it may be seen what manner of men we are!…and he who is not ready to suffer, he who called himself a Christian only because he thereby hoped to gain something good for his race and his nation is blown away like chaff by the wind of this time.

Lutzer pulls together from a variety of sources to help us understand what was happening during that era, that we might recognize it should it rear it’s ugly head in today’s apathetical age. Quoting William Shirer, in the classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

It would be misleading to give the impression that the persecution of Protestants and Catholics by the Nazi State tore the German people asunder or even greatly aroused the vast majority of them. It did not. A people who had so lightly given up their political and cultural and economic freedoms were not, except for a relatively few, going to die or even risk imprisonment to preserve freedom of worship. What really aroused the Germans in the Thirties were the glittering successes of Hitler in providing jobs, creating prosperity, restoring Germany’s military might, and moving from one triumph to another in his foreign policy. Not many Germans lost much sleep over the arrests of a few thousand pastors and priests or over the quarreling of the various Protestant sects. And even fewer paused to reflect that under the leadership of Rosenberg, Borman and Himmler, who were backed by Hitler, the Nazi regime intended eventually to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists. As Bormann, one of the men closest to Hitler, said publicly in 1941, “National socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.

Lutzer also gives insight into the theology of suffering and reconciles it thoroughly with Scripture.

This fascinating book should be required reading for all of us as we seek to discern truth in these days of economic upheaval. The only negative is the frequent interjection of premillennial dispensationalism which distracts from the primary point of the book.

Nonetheless the book does well by reminding us that we must not believe this type of oppression could never happen in America. It can. It may not be a swastika, a Nazi, and a man named Hitler, but it could be something equally villainous, and as appealing to American culture as Hitler was to German culture.

May God give us courage and discernment in the days and years to come as we evaluate the personal associations, worldviews, theology, beliefs, and track records of those men and women who seek power in America.

Purchase Hitlers Cross.  Also recommended: This review of Bonhoeffer, a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas, published since this article was first written.

(c) Josh Riley | worship.com 2008.  Republished with permission.