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Jul 21

About the Authentic Church

Being German and therefore having to begin with beginnings, I started writing my life story by writing the life story of my father.  My father’s life story, though brief — he died at age 27 — was very wrapped up with the German Bekennende Kirche, the Authentic Church, so that in order to understand him, I found myself having to learn about this institution.  The following paragraphs can serve as a very short introduction.  The literature on this topic is large, and what I have written here below is subject to addition and correction as I get more deeply into it.

About the English Translation of Bekennende Kirche

The name Bekennende Kirche (BK) is conventionally translated as “Confessing Church”  or sometimes, “Confessional Church.”  This is a technically correct translation; bekennen means in the first place to admit or confess.  Readers steeped in theology will know that theological declarations of principles, such as one at Augsburg in 1530, are “confessions.”

Yet the translation can easily mislead and put off a lay reader, because it creates the impression that this church somehow laid emphasis on confessions, in the sense of going into a dark booth and reciting your sins to a priest.  The BK had nothing to do with that kind of confession.

The verb bekennen, particularly in the reflexive form, sich bekennen,  also means to profess, to bear witness, to recognize and accept, to declare in favor of, to adhere, to embrace, to cling to.  These meanings come closer to the heart.

The BK arose because a sizable number of German Protestant clergy felt that the established official church leadership had let go of and turned its back on Christianity, had abdicated, abjured, denied, abandoned and played Judas to the faith in favor of National Socialist (Nazi) ideology. The BK was, by contrast, the church that adhered to, bore witness, professed, embraced, clung to, and upheld the original faith.  The core meaning of Bekennende Kirche is the real, true, genuine, and authentic church.  Pastor Martin Niemöller, who as much as any German defined the character of this organization, called it “the real church.”[1]

From this perspective, the conventional English translation of “Confessing Church” creates some estrangement, and from a partisan viewpoint appears almost cowardly by comparison with “Authentic Church,” the translation I think better.  The “Confessing Church” translation is also unfortunate because there is an American religious trend — completely unrelated — by the same name.

All that having been said, I will avoid the whole conundrum and move forward by referring to the organization from here on simply as BK.

Another potential linguistic confusion for the lay reader arises from the name of the Protestant Church in the German language.  It is the Evangelische Kirche, the Evangelical Church.  It is not to be confused with the fundamentalist, born-again evangelical trends in American Protestantism.  In Germany then and now, the Evangelische Kirche was and is the established mainstream church, encompassing approximately two thirds of all religious believers.  This is why my mother, when we emigrated from Germany to the States in 1953, found a tolerable fit not in any of the American evangelical denominations, but in the Episcopal Church.

A Very Short History of the BK

After taking power at the beginning of 1933, the Nazi party moved to integrate the Protestant churches, which enjoyed a great deal of regional autonomy, into a single centralized Reich church headed by a Nazi bishop subservient to Hitler.  By late summer, the Nazi church faction, the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) had taken over the majority of the regional church federations and ousted its leaders.  The displaced dignitaries were thus forced into an oppositional role.

At the same time, a younger cohort coalesced, critical both of the Nazi faction and the displaced old guard.  Among its leaders were Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men whose names later became legendary.  Principal among the Young Reformers’ demands was the separation of church and state, so as to preserve the church’s independence from the overbearing secular authority.

Neither grouping, however, at first took a clear stand in defense of Christians of Jewish ancestry.  A plank in the Nazis’ Aryanization platform condemned Christians whose grandparents were Jewish as non-Aryans and moved to defrock them and oust them from their congregations.

The outspoken anti-Nazi theologian Karl Barth in Basel promptly and publicly upbraided the Young Reformers for their “flabbiness” in the face of church Aryanization. Stung by Barth’s words and their consciences, in the fall of 1933, Niemöller and Pastor Gerhard Jacobi of Berlin — my mother’s pastor — founded the Pastor’s Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund), which spoke out against the expulsion of converted Christians of Jewish ancestry from the church, gave aid to its victims, and opposed organizational and doctrinal encroachments by the Deutsche Christen.

The League soon had pledges of membership from more than a third of the Protestant clergy in Germany.

The PEL’s energy in the face of the Nazi takeover of the church led in May 1934 to a nationwide meeting of oppositional clergy in Barmen, about 20 miles south of Essen (and, coincidentally, the birthplace of Frederick Engels).

The Barmen meeting created an elected council of delegates, the Bruderrat (Council of Brethren) and adopted a joint statement of theological principles, the Barmen Declaration, written largely by Barth.  The unanimous final vote at the Barmen conference was the high point of enthusiasm and unity of the diverse forces present.

The Barmen text had no explicit political content, but political implications lay not far below the surface.  The leading thesis of the Declaration, notably, took implicit aim against the so-called “natural theology” of the Deutsche Christen, which elevated the swastika to parity with the cross, equated the Third Reich with the kingdom of God, and conflated Hitler with Christ.  A corollary Barmen thesis said, in veiled language, that Christians owed obedience to the state only to the extent that the state respected the principles of the church.

The Barmen conference was the founding event of the BK. In the fall of 1934, a follow-up conference held in Niemöller’s church in Berlin-Dahlem drew the practical consequences of the Barmen principles.  It called on Protestants to disaffiliate from the official Reich church and to recognize the BK as the sole legitimate church authority, i.e. the real church.  Thus the German church was formally split in two.

German Protestantism in the early 1930s had approximately 18,000 pastors.  Of these, approximately one third adhered to the Nazi-affiliated Deutsche Christen (German Christians),  and somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 pastors  belonged to the BK. [2]

With its now open and public oppositional stance in matters of belief and church policy, the BK attracted additional support.  In some important localities, such as Frankfurt/Main, it drew 12,000 people to a show of solidarity in 1935, and in that region it enlisted a majority of the clergy.  In Westphalia, ninety per cent of the active Protestants, some half a million people, held membership cards in the PEL.[3]  New parishes affiliated with the BK formed in many parts of the country.

With its new strength in 1935, the BK won the reinstatement of a few of the ousted church dignitaries, and more importantly, it isolated and discredited the Deutsche Christen in public opinion and forced the regime to change tactics.  Instead of trying to take over the church by frontal assault, the Nazi regime now sought, for a period, to reconcile the BK with the Nazi-dominated official church.

This new tactic lasted until June 1936, when Niemöller on behalf of the BK addressed a memorandum to Hitler, politely but firmly denouncing the regime’s anti-Christian and anti-Semitic tendencies and deploring the concentration camps and the abuses of the secret police as un-Christian.

Now the glove came off.  The regime responded by arresting more than 700 BK-affiliated clergy, murdering many of them, confiscating BK funds, and prohibiting the BK from accepting offerings at its services.   Subsequent Nazi decrees in the following years prohibited the BK from teaching, holding examinations, or ordaining clergy.  In effect, the BK was driven underground.

Despite the repression, parts of the BK continued to function.  Its national and some regional councils continued to meet in secret.  BK parishes met in banquet rooms of restaurants, and when this was outlawed, in factory halls, warehouses, barns, private houses, or in open fields.  It maintained an underground seminary, administered underground theological exams, and held underground ordinations, such as my father’s in March 1941.  Newly-ordained BK pastors could not draw salaries as civil servants as the legal clergy did,[4] but subsisted by passing the hat and by donations for performing baptisms and funerals.  (This was my father’s situation as vicar in Essen-Werden in 1940-41.)

A number of individuals within the BK made notable efforts in opposition to the regime and in assistance to victims of persecution.

Among them was Heinrich Grüber, who in late 1938 founded the “Büro Grüber” in Berlin which assisted Jews, particularly Jews who had converted to Christianity, in hiding or escaping from Germany.[5]  [6]

Elisabeth Schmitz wrote a courageous memorandum calling on the BK to rise to the defense of Jewish people against Nazi persecution.

Individual parishes passed the hat to support Jewish individuals in hiding. BK members helped to forge residence passes, Aryan certificates, ration cards and other documents necessary for survival.

There were numerous individual acts of assistance and solidarity.

Countless members of the BK were punitively drafted, arrested, sent to concentration camps, and murdered.  Niemöller, Bonhoeffer, and Grüber, among other leading figures, were sent to concentration camps. Bonhoeffer was executed there shortly before the end of the war.  Niemöller and Grüber survived.

The Myth of the BK

The Allied authorities at war’s end declared the BK an “active anti-fascist resistance movement,” and from that seed was born the postwar myth of the BK.

Faced with an overwhelming weight of guilt for the Nazi atrocities, many Germans in the immediate postwar period sought to distance themselves from the past events and to identify themselves as members of the German resistance.  The BK, as one of the few non-Marxist organizations that opposed some Nazi policies and was persecuted for it, became in many eyes a shining beacon of heroic resistance to the Nazi regime.  Its mere existence and survival salvaged to some degree the German national character.

And in fact, some leaders and members of the BK demonstrated great heroism, and many paid the ultimate price for it. Yet the soft-focus image of the BK as a disciplined and cohesive resistance network locked in battle with the Nazi regime, along the lines perhaps of the French Résistance, was vastly inflated. This myth underwent critical demolition during the 1960s and ’70s as church archives and other sources opened up and historians worked their way through tons of surviving documents.  The much more fine-grained, gritty, and stomach-churning panorama of the BK that emerged (and is still emerging, as work continues) forms an important framework for my father’s brief life story.

The BK was not cohesive; it was torn by inner conflict.  It was not consistently a resistance organization; rather, it was a resistance network at some times and places, and at other occasions it conciliated and collaborated.  Many of its leading figures walked a tightrope, resisting one moment and collaborating the next.  This conflict arose from the nature of the major forces that made up the movement.

The Nazi takeover of the established regional churches in most of the German provinces in the summer of 1933 ousted many hundreds of church officials from their posts, and drove them into opposition and to the conference at Barmen.  These unseated dignitaries naturally sought to recapture the power, privileges, income, and other benefits of their positions.  They had little or no quarrel with Nazi ideology or politics in other spheres.  Many of them had contacts within the Nazi party or government.  Most of them believed that they would regain their posts by demonstrating that they could be just as useful to the Nazi regime, or more so, than the moronic Nazi puppets who had displaced them.  Their strategy was conciliation and collaboration.

The group around Niemöller, which came to be known as the Dahlem wing,  had less investment in the prerogatives of the old church, or were more willing to sacrifice the emoluments of office for the sake of principles.  This group included many of the lower-level clergy.  They were deeply offended by the  theological distortions that the Nazi-sponsored Deutsche Christen introduced.  The Deutsche Christen equated the swastika with the cross.  The Third Reich was the Kingdom of God.  Hitler was Jesus in modern form.  The Old Testament was too Jewish and should be dropped.  Not far beneath the surface of Nazi theology lay contempt for Jesus and the disciples because they were, after all, Jews.   A Christian didn’t have to go into the fine points of theology to be  offended.  Even after the Deutsche Christen were relegated to the background, the indelible stain of Nazi policy on the church was obvious and unpalatable.

The Dahlem tendency saw in the conservative, conciliationist approach the spiritual death of the church.  If the conservatives had their way, centuries of religious doctrine would be jettisoned, replaced by a vicious caricature.  The church’s central function of spreading the gospel would be snuffed out.  The church would become an ornamental appendage of the state.  The clergy would be reduced to mumbling ceremonial platitudes at baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  The survival of the church as a living body required severing ties with the gangrenous official church and rebuilding on new foundations.

The conservatives saw in the Dahlem tendency the destruction of the old order which had elevated them to power, and which they hoped to see restored.  The Dahlem wing, in their eyes, could only provoke the Nazi regime to retaliation and repression, and imperil their expectations.  They believed that the BK either would be crushed or, if it survived, would offer them no places.

The picture was complicated by differences between Lutheran, Calvinist (Reformed), and United congregations; on whether the official churches had been taken over by the Deutsche Christen or were intact; and by regional and local divisions.  There were many intermediate opinions, attempts at compromise, switching of sides, and so forth; but on the practical issue of whether Protestants should cut ties with the official church and recognize the BK as the authentic church, opinion was polarized.  Matters came to a split at a BK conference in Bad Oeynhausen in February 1936.[7]  Each wing now organized its own provisional leadership bodies and administrative apparatus within the BK.  These were soon dissolved and replaced by others.  Intra-BK politics became intensely heated. The factions frequently appeared to be sabotaging one another.  The authority of the federal council of brethren that supposedly united all BK tendencies was limited and in dispute, and its relations with the separate councils of brethren of the German church districts were tenuous.  There was much confusion and chaos.

Even after the arrest of Niemöller in July 1937, the conservatives in the BK enjoyed a degree of tolerance from the regime and could operate semi-openly.  Some of them were Nazi party members or had inside connections that sometimes protected them, and these connections could in individual cases prove useful to rescue selected BK victims of repression.  Some in the Dahlem wing also had protectors on the inside, and were repeatedly released after being jailed.  Many of the estalished lower-level BK clergy led a double existence, leading BK parishes but drawing their salaries from the official church.  At services in some parishes, the collection plate was passed twice, once for the official church, and a second time for the BK.

The newly ordained clergy ordained under BK auspices were at particular risk because they were “illegals”  — their examination and ordination were not recognized by the official church.[8][9]  Women were marginalized.  Although permitted to take a full degree in theology as of 1927, neither the official church nor the BK ordained them as pastors.  They could at most work with women and children, at a fraction of a man’s pay.  Still, as the war decimated the ranks of male pastors, the BK offered the only opportunity for women to put their theological studies to some practical use. [10]

As a result of the conservative presence in the BK, and the general climate of repression after 1936-37, the BK as a whole was unable to take any action, take any position or make any statement on any issue of current importance outside the narrow bounds of church administration and church doctrine.  The persecution of the Jews and other minorities, the repression of “Bolsheviks,” the invasion of neighboring countries were all issues on which the BK as a whole was shamefully silent, or even displayed support for the regime.  This was true not only of the conservatives, but also of most of the Dahlem wing most of the time.  After the repression following the Niemöller memorandum to Hitler in 1936, overt political opposition to the regime and its policies, outside of narrow church issues, became extremely dangerous.  Many of the Dahlem figures knew full well that their opposition to Nazi theology and to the Nazi takeover of church administrations was a political struggle, but after 1936 they did not dare to call on their followers to employ political tactics, nor to form alliances in the mutual interest with other oppressed and persecuted groups.  The regime and the BK’s own conservative wing repeatedly attacked the Dahlem wing for harboring “Bolsheviks.”  The Dahlemites took pains to declare that the BK was not a haven for political opponents of the regime, to clothe its pronouncements always in theological terms, and to keep the issues narrowly focused on church matters.

Unlike the resistance organizations in France, Italy, and other occupied countries, the BK never derailed Nazi trains, ambushed Nazi soldiers, executed Nazi collaborators, or took any other acts of positive physical resistance against the Nazi state.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alone among BK leaders, cultivated ties with members of the landed aristocracy who plotted to assassinate Hitler, and for this the BK disavowed him.[11]  The BK’s resistance was the resistance of the turtle withdrawing into its shell.

The taboo against political opposition in the BK is the reason modern church historians like van Norden and Ludwig took such notice of a few letters that my father wrote in which he expressed overtly political ideas.  Although most of these expressions were quite modest, they were a noteworthy rarity among BK adherents.

[To be continued]

Related posts: Margot Nicolaus memoirs

Profile of my Father

About my Father (1) and (2)  [in progress]



  1. [1]Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 42.
  2. [2] Matthew Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, Indiana University Press 2004, p. xxv
  3. [3]Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 55
  4. [4]The separation of church and state, an ideal of the Weimar Republic, had not penetrated to the bottom line of church finance in Germany.  Both of the major churches, Protestant and Catholic, relied principally on the church tax, and the clergy were paid by the state as civil servants.
  5. [5]After the war, the “Büro Grüber” became the Evangelische Hilfsstelle für ehemals Rasseverfolgte (Protestant Aid Agency For the Racially Persecuted); my mother’s first job in Frankfurt was with this agency.
  6. [6](The “Büro Grüber” is the topic of a book by the historian Hartmut Ludwig, who also wrote the short profile of my father in the Protestant Profiles book.)
  7. [7]See the informative article Kirchenkampf in the German Wikipedia, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Spaltung_der_BK 
  8. [8]Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, p. 188 [link].
  9. [9]I found this out during a visit to Essen in 2001. I stopped at the church office in Essen and asked what records they had of my father, who was ordained in 1941 by the BK.  The answer was, none.  I went away thinking it was merely a paperwork error.
  10. [10]Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 66.
  11. [11]http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Kriegszeit

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