The Confessing Church
The Confessing Church was established in response to the centralisation of the German Evangelical Church in 1933. The Confessing Church was the result of anger at some of the changes made to the organisation and rules of the church. Led by Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Confessing Church was formed following a meeting in Barmen, in 1934. It aimed to protect evangelical rights and customs.
In 1933, shortly after the Nazi Party gained power, the German Evangelical Church (Protestant) agreed to a new constitution. This new constitution was liked by the German Christian movement, who aligned themselves with the new regime. The constitution allowed for a more centralised organisation of the Protestant church and was introduced following significant use of Propaganda and coercion from the Nazi regime.
The new constitution of the German Evangelical Church and the manner in which it had been introduced caused many pastors and lay people grave concern. What is now termed the “Aryan Paragraph” led to the rights of Jews who had converted to the Protestant faith being diminished. Control of church apparatus was also in the hands of state endorsed leaders. In short, religious freedoms and clergy control of the Church had been taken away.
The origins of the confessing Church lay in the formation of the Pastors Emergency League by Martin Niemoller. Niemoller’s group opposed the Aryan Paragraph and sought to support Pastors who had a Jewish background. The objection of the Pastors Emergency League was the infringement of the churches religious freedom. This soon spread to anger at state interference in the management of the Church. This was made clearer in November, 1933, when a Church rally was dominated by Swastikas and calls for pastors who were not sympathetic to the Nazi Party to be removed from their roles.
Niemoller’s group met in spring of 1934 at Barmen. These pastors denounced the leadership of the German Evangelical Church and bemoaned the interference in church affairs from the state. The group formulated the Barmen Declaration. In this, members of the 3 leading Protestant Churches (Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches) who opposed the new constiution made several key statements. They argued against the states involvement in the Church. They argued that they were the true evangelical churches of Germany.
What occured as a result of the Barmen Declaration was that the Protestant faith in Germany was split into two groups. Those who supported the new constitution and the concept of a Reichs Church, and those who opposed it: the Confessing Church.
The Confessing Church was not just one church though. It is a term given to pastors and their congregations who supported the principles of the barmen Declaration, be they Lutheran, United or Reformed Protestants.
This schism in the Protestant Faith posed political, as well as religious, problems. The leadership of the German Christian movement had been expected to unify the churches, and had failed. There was now open resistance to the states interference from across a large part of the Protestant faith. The Nazi’s responded by continuing to pick away at the rights of the Confessing Church, for example, by forbidding offertory collections.
In 1936, leading members of the Confessing Church sent a Memorandum to Hitler. This memorandum called for an end to state interference; complained about the states anti-Christian attitude and denounced anti-Semitism. The response of the state was one of fury. Hundreds of members of the Confessing Church were arrested, some, including Niemoller, were sent to Concentration Camps.
Following this the leadership of the Confessing Church was virtually powerless to organise a coherent response to state interference in the Church. Some members continued to support Jews and others became involved in other forms of resistance.
It has been debated as to whether the Confessing Church was a resistance movement at all. The answer to that depends largely upon what you consider resistance to be. They most definitely resisted church attempts to influence the way that their church was run. They most definitely angered the regime. However, they were limited in terms of what they spoke out about.