“Gott mit uns (God is with us).” This old saying was stamped on every standard German army and navy enlisted belt buckle produced during WWII. These three words of faith originated from the 17th century custom of soldiers using this “field” phrase as a sentry’s password. Leaders in the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) retained the use of these words along with many other long-standing military traditions that had developed over the centuries of Imperial rule. But, even though this emblem of belief would be worn into battle by millions of German combatants, organized religions, including mainstream Christianity, were in direct contradiction to the official stance of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (NSDAP —Nazi party). Under the iron hand of Adolf Hitler, who had come into power in 1933, practicing one’s faith during the Third Reich took on a new meaning from that of the bygone Imperial era.
Hitler was not an atheist. On many occasions he professed his personal belief in a Supreme Being, while at the same time criticizing Stalin’s Bolsheviks and others for their total atheism. He did, however, wage an ongoing, but cautious campaign against religious denominations stemming from two primary concerns: An intense hatred of the Hebrew-rooted Judeo-Christian religions, and his perception of the historical political power wielded by various church groups in Germany and Eastern Europe.
As a consummate politician, Hitler walked a fine line. He permitted the majority of the German population to retain and practice their beliefs, while at the same time planning to change (and later, entirely eliminate) religious practices to better coincide with the ideologies of his dictatorship.
On a day-to-day basis, the people of Germany digested a constant stream of Nazi philosophical propaganda. These philosophies stressed certain concepts such as Volksgemeinschaft (the spiritual uniting of a Germanic, racially acceptable people into one community “soul” rather than concern for an individual’s personal self). In addition, a Darwinian-like attitude of “survival of the fittest” identified compassion for the humble as a sign of weakness. Both of these ideas came into direct conflict with Christian, Hebrew, and other beliefs that traditionally expressed individual equality for all people and the provision of aid for the less fortunate in society.
In 1933, 99% of the country identified as belonging to either a Roman Catholic or Protestant church. Those of the Jewish religion, other denominations, and atheists made up the other 1%. Of this smaller group, Jews — the eternal Nazi scapegoats — were severely persecuted, then outrightly murdered. The others in this minority population were routinely ridiculed, maltreated, or worse for following their own beliefs.
RELIGION THREATENED HITLER
Throughout European history, many of the early topmost clergyman had maintained both religious, political, and sometimes, military authority. Hitler viewed any competition to his complete control over the country as a personal threat. As any opportunity presented itself, he tried to eliminate each competitor. During the twelve years of the Third Reich, priests were routinely murdered, while many others were imprisoned in the hellish confines of concentration camps.
The Frauenschaft (the fanatical Nazi women’s movement), and other zealous National Socialist groups promoted Anti-Christian teachings in many of their public programs. The average citizen’s normal church life was scrutinized as the power of the Hitler’s government grew stronger.
In 1932, Hitler authorized the formation of the Deutsche Christen (German Christian group), part of the “positive Christianity” movement. This movement separated itself from the Bible’s Old Testament, promoted rabid anti-Semitism, and professed that Christ was “Aryan” rather than Jewish.
The number of Christians joining this organization was lackluster, at best. Most Germans did not believe in its non-traditional ideas. Membership continued to steadily decrease into the later 1930s.
At the same time, Catholic and Protestant churches became more outwardly critical of Hitler’s violent treatment of those people he did not deem as true “Germans.” But, as the social and economic influence of the National Socialist Party grew, many of its members voluntarily left their churches to advance themselves within the Nazi organization.
NO ATHEISTS IN COMBAT
To keep the good will of its soldiers, the German Army and Navy continued to offer their men regular religious services through carefully screened Christian chaplains. Roman Catholic and Protestant Army clergymen wore the same basic field uniform tunic, breeches, and accoutrements as did their combat counterparts, but without shoulder boards.
In addition, chaplains wore Christian crosses above the national roundel of their visor caps and carried a crucifix often suspended by a neck chain. When in the field, a clergyman wore a white, purple, and red-crossed armband to designate their position and neutrality. As outlined in the Geneva Convention, military clergy were considered non-combatants and carried no weapons.
Naval chaplains wore the standard dark blue “reefer” tunic with the addition of encircled cross-based collar tabs. A cross was added to their visor cap. If chaplains were required by other branches of the service (such as the Luftwaffe that had no military clergy of their own), they were loaned out from their respective bases of operations.
Although originally organized along the lines of the Jesuit priesthood (following a code of strict and unquestioning obedience), the Schutzstaffel (protection squadron – SS) were encouraged to renounce their Christian ties. In many cases, churches and religious organizations were completely banned from practicing in SS facilities. Though some retained their faith in contradiction of SS doctrine, many other SS members chose to leave their churches. To the dismay of Hitler (who wanted his henchman’s public religious intolerance kept to a minimum for fear of public criticism), Heinrich Himmler actively promoted a cult within his “new Germanic order.” In this, he emphasized honoring mythological gods and Teutonic heroes. Elaborate ceremonies celebrated heathen rituals, while pagan festivals replaced Christian holidays.
Despite the steady stream of Nazi propaganda, most of the non-Jewish German population openly maintained their personal religious convictions throughout the duration and final destruction of the Third Reich. Their faith retention was possible due to three reasons: The large part that many churches had played in providing benefits for their communities throughout the centuries, the strong integral faith of the population, and, in part, Hitler who in needed to maintain the good will of his people. Though he had temporarily restrained his own actions against the churches, he and the National Socialists slowly eroded the influence of the remaining churches. Eventually, the murderous beliefs of the Nazi regime replaced all lingering vestiges of faith and tolerance.
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