Church vs. State in Germanyby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the reactions of Germany's Protestant church to events ranging from the "Peasant Wars" during the time of Luther up through Hitler's Nazi war machine.
Within nearly every conflict that has occurred in German history there has been evidence of the involvement of not only the German state, but the Church as well. Chiefly the German Protestant Church has been the Church at the forefront of such issues as the Peasant Wars, Holocaust, and Nazi Germany. People like Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Adolph Hitler all played a role in at least one of those events. From the different times of these events the Church’s reaction to the German State has changed on some occasions where as at other times it has stayed relatively the same.
A quick look at the Protestant Reformation is important to set up the stage for the Peasant Wars the followed it. Martin Luther was one of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. His large part in the Reformation came about when he posted his famous ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.1 After that there was no going backwards and the Reformation was underway. Luther’s goal was the gain the means of justification that was taught by Paul in the Bible and in reading Romans 1:173 that he found what he was looking for. It was in his ninety-five theses that Luther challenged the theory and practices of indulgences that were being taught by the Catholic Church in Germany at the time.5 As a result of his leadership in the Reformation Luther gained support from the people and some of this support would later come to haunt him in the form of the Peasant Wars.
Closely connected to the Protestant Reformation was the “German Peasants’ Rebellion” of 1525.4 It would be a mistake to think that the rebellion only consisted of peasants. In actuality there were quite a variety of people of involved, commoners, laborers, miners, artisans, and craftsmen were also apart of this controversial dispute. The Church’s involvement was related in a way to the involvement, or more like unintentional involvement of Martin Luther. Originally, the peasants strongly believed that Martin Luther was on their side due to things that he had said and they justified their fight through his writtings.5 However, Luther did not support the peasants and he eventually became their greatest enemy. Luther based his not supporting the Wars on his view that the wickedness of rulers did not justify “tumult and rebellion”.4 The Bible does teach us to respect those in authority (Romans 13:5)6 and that is where Luther was most likely basing his decision to not support the Peasant Wars. A more radical religions leader who served to rally the peasants was Thomas Munzer and whose views claimed support from Acts 4. The Peasant Wars was a struggle between the masses and the government, in which the peasants claimed religion to be the supporting framework of their cause.
The role of religion in the Peasant Wars is interesting to note even though it remains ambiguous. It can be said that in the minds of the peasants the wars were between the freedoms of the Church and the German State that was bearing down on them. The Church and religion also was a means of justifying the peasants cause. It is important to know that the peasants were not only using religion as a prop to further their goals.4 The Protestant Church was still gaining its footing in Germany during the time of the Peasant Wars which served as another factor of Martin Luther’s involvement in the Wars. For one he was more concerned with firmly establishing the Protestant Church and not getting lost in the mesh of ideas that was occurring in the Peasant Wars. Luther probably liked the idea of avoiding the bad side of the German State in another area unnecessarily. In a way Luther’s words spoke for the Protestant Church at the time and his impatience for the rebellion reflected the Church’s “impatience” for it as well, “the kingdoms of this world cannot function without inequality of conditions”.4 Religion was still involved in the Peasant Wars in the form of Thomas Munzer who encouraged the peasants on in their cause with his Anabaptist views. Ultimately, with no direct support from the Church or the State the Peasant Wars failed to be successful and seemingly resulted in the chaos that Luther had always feared.
Time passed in Germany and the Protestant Church grew in popularity and strength. In 1925 there was a religious census taken that showed out of a population of sixty-five million, forty million belonged to the Protestant Church.8 No one could have anticipated the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi State. In the 1870’s there was a clear “Church Struggle” between the church and state in Germany and during the Nazi regime this struggle surfaced once again. In the beginning it seemed that the Church and the Nazi regime were going to be able to get along all right. With a policy that initially appeared to tolerate the church autonomy,8 the Nazis’ did not cause the Church to worry. However it was soon clear that the “tolerance” would last only as long as the Church went along with the goals of the Nazi regime. As the Nazi regime rose the Protestant Church attempted to retain control of their institutions and rights. However, the Nazi State tried to create a unified national church, which if it had been successful, would have combined the Catholic Church with the Protestant Church.8
During the Nazi regime there were times when it seemed that the Protestant
Church was standing firm against the State but other times when it simply let
things slide. For instance in 1933 there was a group of Protestant clergy whose
goal was to resist Nazi coercion and to expose the truth of the “German
On the other end of that there were times when the Church stood by and did nothing
when it probably should have. For example in the case of the Holocaust, the
Protestant Church remained silent and watched the mistreatment of the Jews going
on right in front of their eyes. Through the words of Joachim Hossenfelder we
see what the Church should have felt, “Christian faith is a heroic, manly
thing…”.9 The Church
had no reason to fear standing up the Nazi regime but their misconceptions about
the Jews caused them to do nothing, and to be tolerant of Hitler’s actions.
The Protestant Church even attempted to use Romans 13:6 as their reason for
siding with the State.
Unfortunately, because of the compatibility of the German Christian ideology with the National Socialist ideology the Nazis gained support from many Protestant Churches.10 Eventually, there was an uprising among the Protestant Churches against the Nazi regime. It might be surprising that this was not rooted in the anti-semetic views but towards to the Jews but the interference of the Nazi’s into church matters.10 The differences of Hitler’s Nazi regime and the Protestant Church became evident to all. The Church wanted to be allowed to be separate from the state and not controlled by it. However, that was something that Hitler probably got quite a kick out of. Every opposition needs a key player and it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who played a vital role in the Protestant Church’s opposition to the Nazi regime. He was a Lutheran pastor, who actually helped in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for which he was arrested and eventually killed.11 However, he served to be an inspiration to those fighting for the freedoms of the Protestant Church in Germany. Bonhoeffers faithfulness to God can be seen through the words of the doctor present at his death, “I have hardly ever seen a man die so submissive to the will of God”.12 What had originally seemed to be an agreement between the Protestant Church and the Nazi regime eventually came out as a clear difference in opinions.
Today times have changed and religion that was once so at the forefront of life in Germany now plays a fairly small role in society.7 However, because of events of the past such as the Peasant Wars and the dominant Nazi regime in Germany the Protestant Church was able to survive all of this time. There have been people throughout history who have taken part in the issues that have come up between the Church and the State, some of whom have supported the Church and others who have supported the State. No matter what has gone on it is increasingly clear that unless the Church stands up against the State when the circumstances are appropriate, the Church will be overrun. In Germany the Protestant Church has been able to survive because of the willingness of people to oppose the State and to also side with the State depending on the circumstances. In conclusion the words of Martin Luther come to mind, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”2 These words are a reminder that it takes faith within the Church to know when to oppose a State that is encroaching on what is Biblically right. Even though the Church is not as important to everyone in Germany today, hopefully looking back at what has gone into the freedoms they now have, a new appreciation and interest will be ignited.
up3 “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous live by faith.”” (Romans 1:17) The Christian Growth Study Bible, New International Version® Copyright © 1997 by The Zondervan Corporation All Rights Reserved.
up6 “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13:5) The Christian Growth Study Bible, New International Version® Copyright © 1997 by The Zondervan Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Additional information about <http://hyperhistory.net/apwh/essays/cot/t2w29germanchurch.htm>
The above essay was donated to hyperhistory.net.
of inaccuracies or plagiarism.
Post a link to this essay,
a great essay
on your blog or website :
|Comparative Essays||Biographies||Doc. Based Questions||Change Over Time|