There were approximately 45 million Protestants and 22 million Catholic Christians in Germany in 1933. Hitler saw Christianity as a threat and a potential source of opposition to Nazism because it emphasised peace. The Nazis tried to control the Churches with policies and bargaining.
A state Reich Church under the leadership of the Nazi Bishop, Ludwig Müller was established to unify the different branches of Protestantism. This enabled the Nazis to use a group called the ‘German Christians’ within the Reich Church to promote Nazi ideas.
In 1933 Hitler agreed a Concordat with the Pope, which said that he would not interfere in the running of the Catholic Church if it stayed out of political matters. Hitler didn’t keep his side of the bargain, however, as the Nazis attempted to infiltrate the Church and spread their propaganda.
The Reich Church attempted to ban the use of the Old Testament in religious services as it was considered a ‘Jewish book’. Many protestants opposed the Reich Church, and in 1934 Martin Niemöller established the Confessional Church and openly attacked the Nazi regime. He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1937. Eight hundred Pastors of the Confessional Church, a non-conforming Protestant group, were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The Nazis attempted to stop Catholics using the crucifix in church, though this attempt was not successful. Catholic schools and youth organisations were supressed, with German children being educated in state schools and taught a Nazi curriculum, as well as being expected to join the various branches of the Hitler Youth.
Catholic newspapers were banned and Bishop August von Galen of Munich became a leading voice against Nazis policies. In 1937, Pope Pius XI publicly criticised the Nazis and as a result over 400 Catholic priests were sent to Dachau concentration camp.
In 1937, Hitler was forced to return control of the Church to the old Protestant leadership, in return for a promise that the Church would stay out of politics.
Attendance at Catholic churches increased substantially under the Nazis, especially during World War Two, showing that Hitler’s attempts to reduce the influence of religion in Germany were ultimately unsuccessful.
Both Protestant and Catholic clergy played a large role in opposing Hitler and the Nazis, for which they often paid a high price.