Christians, National Socialism, and the World Wars

I’d be thrilled to have any chance to write for Christian History Magazine, a venerable publication that has been teaching ordinary Christians about their history since 1982. But I’m especially honored that I got to contribute an article on Christians and National Socialism to an issue dedicated to one of my favorite topics: the Christian experience of the two world wars.

Here’s how my article begins:

In 1998 Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer was invited to speak before Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. “I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world,” he told the legislators. “Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”

During the 12 years of the Third Reich, Christians broke each of Bauer’s commandments. A few—both too many and not enough—sacrificed life or liberty to resist Nazi iniquity. But the vast majority of German Christians fell along that complicated spectrum between perpetrator and bystander.

"This is the enemy" — WWII propaganda poster showing a Nazi knife stabbing a Bible
One of the many evocative images accompanying my article: a 1943 poster by the U.S. Office of War Information (New Hampshire State Library)

How did this happen? The roots stretched back to the First World War. In 1914 most German Protestants (two-thirds of Germany’s population) participated gladly in what they saw as a crusade against their Catholic (French and Belgian) and Orthodox (Russian) national neighbors. Instead of taking out France and Russia, though, the costly war toppled the conservative German monarchy instead.

In its place came the Weimar Republic; this new democratic state got its nickname from the city of Weimar where its constitution was signed. Its socialist and liberal founders were forced to sign a harsh peace treaty that served as political fodder for right-wing groups like the National Socialists (Nazis). Even if they were put off by the violence of the Nazi “Brownshirts,” patriotic Protestants living in Stalin’s shadow could tell themselves that the stridently anti-Communist Nazis were the lesser of two evils.

Read the full article, and the rest of the “Faith in the Foxholes” issue, here. (Among other contributors, our friend Jared Burkholder explains the impact of the world war on Christian relief efforts.) Congratulations to editor Jennifer Woodruff Tait and the rest of the CH team for a wide-ranging, engrossing, and beautifully illustrated issue on a most timely set of topics!

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