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The Protestant Reich Church (colloquially Reichskirche, officially in , in ) was formed by Adolf Hitler in 1933 by an attempt to merge 28 regional churches into one church. The Confessing Church, the Protestant opposition to Nazism, established a rivalling German Evangelical Church, however conceiving it as a mere umbrella of else independent regional church bodies.

The official German Evangelical Church

The founding of the official German Evangelical Church was the result of work by the German Christians, who had gained a large majority at the 1933 church elections. In September 1934 the merger finally failed, when the synods of two of the 28 church bodies, to wit the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria right of the Rhine and the Evangelical State Church in Württemberg, rejected to dissolve their church bodies as independent entities, and the Berlin based Landgericht I court restored the biggest church body, the then already merged Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union by its verdict in November the same year, thus resuming independence. However the German Evangelical Church, meant to be a merger, then continued to exist as a mere umbrella.

The merger was based on Nazi ideas of creating a "positive Christianity", namely purifying Christianity of any Jewish elements, including even the Old Testament. The idea had existed within a small minority of Christian groups since the time of Marcion of Sinope, but the Protestant Reich Church embraced it for racial rather than theological reasons. Ludwig Müller was elected "Reich Bishop".

Although the church was initially supported by the regime, the Nazis eventually lost interest in the experiment after it failed to supplant or absorb traditional Christian churches. After 1937, relations between the Reich Church and the Nazi government began to sour.

With the beginning of the war (1 September 1939) Reich's minister Hanns Kerrl decreed the separation of the ecclesiastical and the administrative governance within the official Evangelical Church. The German Christian Friedrich Werner, chief executive (president of the old-Prussian Evangelical Supreme Church Council) won August Marahrens, State Bishop of the 'intact' Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Hanover, and the theologists Walther Schultz (German Christian), and Friedrich Hymmen, vice president of the old-Prussian Evangelical Supreme Church Council, to form an Ecclesiastical Council of Confidence ( ), taking the ecclesiastical leadership for the official German Evangelical Church from early 1940 on.

The rivalling Confessing German Evangelical Church

Some Protestant functionaries and laymen opposed the unification of the 28 Protestant church bodies, but many more agreed, but they wanted it under the preservation of the true Protestant faith, not imposed by Nazi partisans. After the system of state churches had disappeared with the monarchies in the German states in 1918, the question arose, why the Protestant church bodies within Germany did not merge.

In fact, a merger had been permanently under discussion, but never materialised due to strong regional self-confidence and traditions as well as the denominational fragmentation into Lutheran, Calvinist and United and uniting churches. Following the Swiss example of 1920, the then 29 territorially defined German Protestant church bodies founded the German Federation of Protestant Churches ( ) in 1922, which was no new merged church, but a loose federation of the existing independent church bodies.

The Protestant opposition had organised first among pastors by way of the Emergency Covenant of Pastors and then - including laymen - starting in grassroots meetings establishing as independent synods as of January 1934, calling itself the Confessing Church since the first Reich's Synod of Confession ( ) in Wuppertalmarker-Barmenmarker (May 29-31, 1934).

Fellowship hall of the Evangelical Dahlem Congregation, Berlin
Plaque commemorating the second Reich's Synod of Confession on the outside wall of the fellowship hall.
Now that the German Evangelical Church had been established under Nazi influence the Confessing Church strove to establish leading bodies of its own affiliation, rivalling the existing officially Nazi recognised bodies. Martin Niemöller and other Confessing Church activists organised the second Reich's Synod of Confession in his Dahlem Congregation (Berlin) on October 19 and 20, 1934. The synodals elected by all confessing congregations and the congregations of the intact churches, whose bodies preserved non-Nazi majorities after the arbitrarily Nazi-imposed presbyterial and synodal election on July 23, 1933, decided to found an independent German Evangelical Church. Since the confessing congregations would have to contravene the laws as interpreted by the official church bodies, the synod developed an emergency law of its own. Rivalling parallel institutions were decided. Any obedience to the official bodies of the destroyed churches was to be rejected.

The Confessing German Evangelical Church constituted in Berlin-Dahlemmarker and regarded itself as the true German Evangelical Church and a mere umbrella of independent Protestant church bodies. The synodals elected a Reich's Brethren Council, which elected from its midst the executive Council of the German Evangelical Church, consisting of six. Hitler was informed about the proceedings in Dahlem and invited the leaders of the three Lutheran intact churches, August Marahrens , state bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Hanover, Bishop Hans Meiser (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria right of the river Rhine), and Bishop Theophil Wurm (Evangelical State Church in Württemberg). He recognised them as legitimate leaders, but expressed that he would not accept the Reich's Brethren Council. This was meant to wedge the Confessing Church along the lines of the uncompromising Confessing Christians, around Niemöller from Dahlem, therefore nicknamed the Dahlemites ( ), and the more moderate Lutheran intact churches and many opposing functionaries and clergy in the destroyed churches, which had not yet been dismissed.

For the time being the Confessing Christians found a compromise and appointed - on November 22 - the so-called first Preliminary Church Executive of the German Evangelical Church ( , 1. VKL), consisting of Thomas Breit, Wilhelm Flor, Paul Humburg, Karl Koch, and Marahrens. The executive was meant to only represent the Reich's Brethren Council to the outside. But soon Karl Barth, Hermann-Albert Klugkist Hesse, Karl Immanuel Immer and Niemöller found the first Preliminary Church Executive to be too compromising so that these Dahlemites resigned from the Reich's Brethren Council.

Between end of 1934 and March 1937 the central office of the Preliminary Church Executive was located in the Burckhardt-Haus of the school for social workers ( ) of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union in Berlin's then # 27, Friedbergstraße (now Rudeloffstraße).

On June 4 to 6, 1935, two weeks after the Nuremberg Laws had been decreed, the synodals of the Confessing Church convened in Augsburgmarker for the third Reich's Synod of Confession. Disputes between the intact churches in Bavaria right of the river Rhine and Württemberg with the first preliminary church executive could be settled. So Niemöller, Hesse and Immer returned into the Reich's Brethren Council. Prof. Barth, refusing to sign the newly introduced oath of all professors to Hitler, had been dismissed from his chair at the Rhenish Frederick William's University of Bonnmarker and remigrated to Switzerland, where he was appointed professor at the University of Baselmarker. But the synodals did not adopt a declaration, prepared by Supt. Martin Albertz, condemning the Nuremberg Laws. Wurm was elected speaker of the Confessing Church, meaning head of the preliminary church executive.

Right after this synod the Nazi Reich's government intensified its fight against the Confessing Church. Since the orderly courts often approved litigations against German Christian measurements, because they usually lacked any legal basis, on 26 June 1935 the Nazi government passed a law, which would ban all suits about church questions from being decided by orderly jurisdiction. Instead - as was typical for the Nazi government - they established a new parallel authority, the Decision-Taking Office for Affairs of the Evangelical Church ( ). Thus the Nazi government cut off the Confessing Church from appealing to courts. All lawsuits on church matters, some still pending since 1 May 1933, were to be decided by the Decision-Taking Office. Orderly courts could not overrule its decisions. With this power the Decision-Taking Office blackmailed the Confessing Church to compromise. The Decision-Taking Office refrained from acting as long as the Confessing Church co-operated. In fact the Decision-Taking Office only acted up after the compromises failed in 1937.

On July 16, 1935 Hanns Kerrl was appointed Reich's minister for ecclesiastical affairs, a newly created department. He started negotiations to find a compromise. Therefore he dropped the extreme German Christians and tried to win moderate Confessing Christians and respected neutrals. On 24 September 1935, a new law empowered Kerrl to legislate by way of ordinances within the Protestant church bodies, circumventing any synodal autonomy.

Kerrl managed to gain the very respected Wilhelm Zoellner (a Lutheran, until 1931 general superintendent of the old-Prussian ecclesiastical province of Westphaliamarker) to form the Reich's Ecclesiastical Committee ( , RKA) on 3 October 1935, combining neutral, moderate Confessing Christians and moderate German Christians to reconcile the disputing church parties. So also the official German Evangelical Church became subordinate to the new bureaucracy, Ludwig Müller lost his say, but still retained the now meaningless titles of German Reich's Bishop and old-Prussian State Bishop.

In November Kerrl decreed the parallel institutions of the Confessing Church to be dissolved, which was protested and ignored by the brethren councils. On December 19 Kerrl issued a decree which forbade all kinds of Confessing Church activities, namely appointments of pastors, education, examinations, ordinations, ecclesiastical visitations, announcements and declarations from the pulpit, separate financial structures and convening Synods of Confession; further the decree established provincial ecclesiastical committees. Thus the brethren councils had to go into hiding.

Thus Kerrl successfully wedged the Confessing Church.

At the fourth Reich's Synod of Confession in Bad Oeynhausenmarker (17-22 February 1936) the Dahlemites fell out with most of the Lutheran Confessing Christians. The first Preliminary Church Executive resigned, since its members, representing intact churches, wanted to co-operate with the committees, while its members from destroyed churches, especially the Dahlemites did not. The minority of moderate, mostly Lutheran Confessing Christians quit the Reich's Brethren Council.

On March 12 the remaining members of the Reich's Brethren Council, presided by Niemöller, appointed the second Preliminary Church Executive of the German Evangelical Church, consisting of Supt. Albertz, Bernhard Heinrich Forck (St. Trinity Hamburg-Hamm), Paul Fricke (Frankfurt-Bockenheim), Hans Böhm (Berlin), and Fritz Müller. This body was recognised by the brethren councils of the destroyed churches of the old-Prussian Union, of Bremen, of Hesse-Nassau and of Oldenburg as well as by a covenant of pastors from Württemberg (the so-called Württembergische Sozietät).

On March 18 the three Lutheran intact churches announced the foundation of the Council of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany ( , colloquially Lutherrat, Luther council) as their own umbrella organisation. The brethren councils of the Lutheran destroyed churches of Brunswick, Lübeck, Mecklenburg, the Free State of Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia as well as some Lutheran confessing congregations within the territories of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union recognised this umbrella. The Confessing Church was definitely split in two. However, the state brethren councils of the destroyed churches met occasionally in conferences.

Under the impression of more foreign visitors in Germany, starting with the Winter Olympics the year of 1936 was a relatively peaceful period. Kerrl let the committees do, as they liked. Also the anti-Semitic agitation was softened. However, the Sinti and Roma in Berlin realised the first mass internments, in order to present Berlin zigeunerfrei for the 1936 Summer Olympics. But the less visible phenomena of the police state, like house searches, seizures of pamphlets and printed matters as well as the suppression of Confessing Church press continued.

At Pentecost 1936 (May 31) the second preliminary church executive issued a memorandum to Hitler, also read from the pulpits, condemning anti-Semitism, concentration camps, the state terrorism. A preliminary version had been published in foreign media earlier. "If blood, race, nationhood and honour are given the rank of eternal values, so the Evangelical Christian is compelled by the First Commandment, to oppose that judgement. If the Aryan human is glorified, so it is God's word, which testifies the sinfulness of all human beings. If - in the scope of the National Socialist weltanschauung - an anti-Semitism, obliging to hatred of the Jews, is imposed on the individual Christian, so for him the Christian virtue of charity is standing against that." The authors concluded that the Nazi regime will definitely lead the German people into disaster.

On October 7 the Gestapo arrested Friedrich Weißler, then office manager and legal advisor of the second preliminary church executive, erroneously blaming him to have played the memorandum into the hands of foreign media. Since Weißler was a Protestant of Jewish descent he was not taken to court, where the evidentially false blaming would have been easily unveiled, but deported to Sachsenhausen concentration campmarker and tortured to death from February 13 to 19, 1937 becoming the first lethal victim of the Kirchenkampf on the Protestant side.

Meanwhile the Olympic close hunting season had ended. The Gestapo increased its suppression, undermining the readiness for compromises among the Confessing Church. Zoellner concluded that this made his reconciliatory work impossible and criticised the Gestapo activities. He resigned on February 2, 1937, paralysing the Reich's ecclesiastical committee, which thus lost all recognition among the opposition. Kerrl now subjected Ludwig Müller's chancery of the German Evangelical Church directly to his ministry and the Reich's, provincial and state ecclesiastical committees were soon after dissolved.

In the night between November 9 and 10 the Nazis organised the November Pogrom. The Dahlemite fraction of the Confessing Church decided to hold rogations for the persecuted Jews and Christians of Jewish descent on Buß- und Bettag (16 November 1938), the Day of Repentance and Prayer. The pastors were recommended the following text: "Administer to the needs of all the Jews in our midst, who are losing for the sake of their blood their honour as humans and the opportunity to live. Help that nobody will act vengefully against them. … Especially do not let disrupt the bond of love to those, who are standing with us in the same true belief and who are through Him like us Thy children."

After the government waged war on Polandmarker and thus started the Second World War, male members of the Confessing Church, such as Fritz Müller (member of the second preliminary church executive), were preferently drafted for the army.

Systematic deportations of Jewish Germans and Gentile Germans of Jewish descent started on October 18, 1941. These were all directed to Ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe or to concentration camps. In October 1941 proponents of the Confessing Church reported about Auschwitz marker, newly opened on September 23, that Jews were gassed there. The members of the second preliminary church executive could not believe it and did not speak up.

On December 22, 1941 the official German Evangelical Church called for suited actions by all Protestant church bodies to withhold baptised non-Aryans from all spheres of Protestant church life. Many German Christian-dominated congregations followed suit. The second preliminary church executive of the Confessing German Evangelical Church together with the conference of the state brethren councils (representing the destroyed churches) issued a declaration of protest.

After World War II Wurm invited representatives of all Protestant church bodies to Treysa (a part of today's Schwalmstadtmarker) for August 31, 1945. As to co-operation of all the Protestant church bodies in Germany strong resentments prevailed, especially among the Lutheran church bodies of Bavaria right of the river Rhine, the Hamburgian State, Hanover, Mecklenburg, the Free State of Saxony, and Thuringia, against any unification after the experiences during the Nazi reign with the German Evangelical Church. But it was decided to replace the former German Federation of Protestant Churches by the new umbrella Evangelical Church in Germany, provisionally led by the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, a naming borrowed from the Reich's brethren council organisation.

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