“A World Which Has Been Emptied of God'': The Role of Spiritual Institutions in the Radical Opposition to and Acceptance of the NSDAP

Hannah Williams

Authors:  Hannah Williams 

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Will Hasty

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


How can a good person commit unspeakable wrongs? This question haunts mankind. Such wrongs are often manifested in the wake of political instability, economic collapse, or social fragmentation. Twentieth-century Germany particularly demands an answer to this question; the genocide of six million Jews, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals in a nation that had been “enlightened” defied all expectations of humanistic scholarship and its grand-narratives of progress and ethical advancement. This study seeks to identify the impact of legitimate, spiritual institutions (e.g. the Catholic Church) upon the acceptance of (or resistance to) anti-Semitism and radicalism among its members. Juxtaposed with the scattered Protestant response to the NSDAP, the coordination and intensity of the Catholic response to the Party prompts questions of their philosophical and organizational distinctions. Namely, (1) Why did the Nazi Party consider the Catholic Church a greater threat than the Protestant Church? (2) What types of support did the Catholic Church’s hierarchy provide that prompted a powerful and cohesive Catholic response in Germany? (3) In their own words, why did some Catholics resist the NSDAP? Through a careful analysis of the Catholic’s Kulturkampf newsletters and the Confessions, speeches, and writings of Christians between 1930-1945, these fundamental questions can be addressed.

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13 Responses
  1. Hi All!

    Thank you for visiting my page. I would just like to provide a little more background on my presentation. This reading is from a longer study completed on various religious or quasi-religious institutions in early to mid-twentieth century Germany. Additionally, I would like to reaffirm that great numbers of both Protestant and Catholic Germans justified their voting for and support of the NSDAP precisely because of their faith; this study analyzes the characteristics of these groups and the nature of their support of the party. Regarding this portion of the study, my findings were that the solidarity of and authoritarian and hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church allowed for a greater push back against the NSDAP upon moral and ethical grounds.

    Please feel free to leave comments and questions; I look forward to speaking with you!

  2. Gabriela

    I loved your presentation. I was wondering, how prevalent the Catholic Church was in Germany at this time? I had never really thought about the influence of the Catholic Church on Germany because when I think of Germany in relation to Christianity, I think of Martin Luther. Yet another example of the NSDAP persecuting a religious minority.

    1. Dear Gabriela,

      Thank you so much for your comment! It brings up an excellent point of the general environment of extreme religious persecution under the leadership of the NSDAP. In the 1930s, Catholics composed around one-third of the population, but certain regions in Germany contained a higher proportion of Catholic Germans than others. While this seems to be a relatively large amount, the general context of political persecution of Catholics even before 1933 was significant, beginning with Bismarck’s Kulturkampf of the early 1870s. This persecution caused the politicization of the Catholics and even the formation of the Catholic German Centre Party, or the Zentrum. Particularly in the early years of the NSDAP, this party was mobilized to garner opposition.

  3. Will Hasty

    Hi Hannah: It’s interesting that belonging to one group with a long tradition that was trying to be righteous (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) seemed to be more effective in resisting the encroachments of another aggressive group (in this case the NSDAP, as clearly evil a collective as it is possible to be) than being an “individual” capable of thinking for itself. Either way, being able to have some kind of agency in such a terrible situation, either for or against the rise of a movement like Fascism, seemed to involve a collective or collective identity. Protestantism has been seen by many as a forerunner of the development of individual or subjective identity, the empowerment of the individual, but the history you are are looking at seems to suggest that many individuals following in a more protestant tradition left to themselves were not capable or willing to choose wisely. This is more a comment than a question, but I’d be grateful to hear what your thoughts might be on the role of the secular, modern, i.e. (presumably) self-determining individual identity in the cultural developments you are describing and generally.

    1. Dear Dr. Hasty,

      Thank you so much for your very interesting comment! Regarding my study, I found that this more “secular, modern, [and] self-determining individual identity” is best highlighted in the context of Richard Wagner and the Bayreuth Circle. My study found that Wagner and his followers saw his art as a quasi-religious phenomenon with the power to transform society. In their writings, it is possible to see the almost complete breakdown of traditional modes of ethics in the context of an ethos consistent with the subjective, non-hierarchical, and socially-fluid life without valid institutions.

      Instead of the stiffness and cultural obscurity of religion, Wagner’s art offered spiritual unity without the trappings of institutionalized religion, while still promising greatness and success. Rather than carry a cross, Germans were to throw off the burdens of state, church, and traditional notions of morality to become the powerful international leaders they were always destined to be. Many even believed that artistic expression held the same weight as (if not more than) ancient religious texts, as captured in he and his circle’s position of art as a means to create culture. In large part due to these qualities, Wagner and his circle were some of the most stringent advocates of the mission of the NSDAP and Adolf Hitler in particular, quickly adhering to this party’s “political religion.” This phenomenon seems to signify that “religiosity is not necessarily expressed [in 19th century Europe] in the picture of the established creeds – although those are still important -, [they are often expressed] in different forms” (Haupt, Heinz-Gerhard).

      Thank you for your commentary and question!

  4. It’s interesting to observe that a geographical “hub” or kind of “homebase” in Germany for the NSDAP was Nuremberg, and particularly the Nazi-party rally grounds. Nuremberg was very early on staunchly Lutheran and remained so.

    1. Dear Dr. Hasty,

      That is also a very fascinating point! On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum and a little outside the scope of the paper, I also found that the historically Catholic region of Warsaw had some of the most stringent punishments for assisting Jews, but the Catholic Church of Warsaw operated as a “house of life.”

  5. One last question from me: the Nazis loved Richard Wagner. Besides the latter’s antisemitism, I wonder if you got any insights into that connection on the basis of your research?

    1. Dear Dr. Hasty,

      That is also a great question! I found in my paper that, interestingly enough, Hitler stated that he grew up listening to Wagner’s compositions. Wagner’s operas’ staunch, unapologetic “Germanness” found in his conquering heroes were compelling to many Germans, particularly in a Post-WWI context of defeat and loss. I also found that the Wagner’s (particularly Cosima’s) continued support of Hitler during his early years cemented the party’s love of the composer, who also espoused anti-Semitic values.

      Thank you so much for your questions!