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What Effect Did Nazi Propaganda Have on the German People?

Part V

The German Churches

On July 20, 1933, Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, signed the Reichskonkordat (Concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich), which ostensibly secured the rights of the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany. Not long before signing the Concordat with the Vatican, Hitler attempted to forestall condemnation of his anti-Jewish policies and transfer the responsibility on to the church for its historic treatment of the Jews. As historian Saul Friedländer explained. In a meeting on April 26, 1933, he met with Bishop Hermann Wilhelm Berning of Osnabrück (a city in northwest Germany) as a delegate from the Conference of Bishops, which was in session at that point.

The Jewish issue had not been on the agenda, but Hitler took the opportunity to introduce the subject himself. According to the protocols of the meeting prepared by the bishop’s assistant, Hitler spoke “warmly and quietly, now an again, emotionally, without a word against the church and with recognition of the bishops: ‘I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews a pestilent for 1,500 years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized them for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a 1,500-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as a pestilent for the state and for the church and perhaps I am doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.”  There is no record of any reaction by Bishop Berning.

Friedländer believed Hitler considered the “alliance with the Vatican as being of special significance in this battle.” After the ratification of the Concordat in September 1933, Friedländer said Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli sent a communication to the German chargé d’affaires stating the church’s position of principle: “The Holy See takes this occasion to add a word on behalf of those German Catholics who themselves have gone over from Judaism to the Christian religion or who are descended in the first generation, or more remotely, from Jews who adopted the Catholic faith, and who for reasons known to the Reich government are likewise suffering from social and economic difficulties.” In principle, this reflected the policy of the Catholic and Protestant churches. In practice, they acquiesced to the Nazi measures against Jews who converted, when racially defined as Jews.

“So powerful was the racial cognitive model of humanity in Germany,” asserts historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “that the German Catholic Church by and large accepted and disseminated it in its own teachings.” The February 1936 official guidelines for religious education of the German episcopate (the collective body of all the bishops of the church) declared: “Race, soil, blood and people are precious natural values which God the Lord created and the care of which he entrusted to us Germans.”

With regard to the Protestant churches, Protestant theologian Franklin Littell said that “each of the established churches in Germany attempted, in its own way, to defend the interests of the institutional church and to ‘winter through’ (durchwinter) the volatile years of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.” Although Bishop Theophil Heinrich Wurm, president of the Protestant Church of the State of Württemberg, and Cardinal Adolf Bertram, the archbishop of Breslau, “intervened vigorously in defense of the elderly and handicapped,” against Hitler’s euthanasia program in August 1940, “no such firm positions had been taken in defense of the Jews.”

During the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Goldhagen said 70% to 80% of the Protestant pastors were associated with the antisemitic German National People’s Party, and their antisemitic positions pervaded the Protestant press, even before the Nazis assumed power. In 1933 there were 40 million Protestants in Germany. The Protestant press, which reached millions, he said, was exceedingly persuasive in “shaping the collective opinions of the Protestant laity, that composed of almost 63% of the German population in 1933.”

Ino Arndt, the author of a survey of the impact of Sonntagsblätter, the Protestant Sunday weekly newspapers, which were the foremost and most persuasive religious media, found the Jews and Jewry were subjects “of great popularity” in the papers. Jews were nearly always portrayed in a negative and hostile manner, Goldhagen said. They were described as “the natural enemies of the Christian-national tradition,” and responsible “for a variety of other evils.”

Arndt concluded that the incessant vilification of the Jews in the Protestant weekly newspapers “blunted” in its audience “the human and finally also the Christian feelings” for the Jewish people. “Small wonder” Goldhagen observed, “that these Christian readers would look with unpitying eyes upon the Jews as they were being attacked, tormented, degraded, and reduced to social lepers during the Nazi period.”


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem.

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