May 1934: Protestant leaders from churches throughout Germany gathered in the northwest German city of Barmen. Their purpose was to publicly declare their shared loyalty to Jesus Christ as sole head of the Church and the Bible as their normative rule for that loyalty. They also gathered to reject together any powerful popular leader as a substitute for Jesus Christ and all ideologies as the normative rule for Church faith and practice.
In 1933, about 60% of Germans were Protestant, 40% were Roman Catholic, and less than 1% were Jewish.
Protestants across Germany participated in local churches. Each local church joined others to form a regional organization, such as the Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Hanover, with boundaries coinciding with those of the German province in which they were located. Each regional church organization identified with the regionally dominant Christian tradition. Thus each Protestant regional organization was largely Lutheran, Reformed, or United (Congregational and Methodist). These 28 separate regional church organizations chose in 1922 to unite to form the German Evangelical Church Confederation. This confederation supported increased communication between congregations across denominational and geographical boundaries without, however, controlling their faith and practice.
After Adolf Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933, he rapidly expanded his power in all directions. This expansion included increasing his control over every church in Germany. His government did this in several ways.
The government first sought to take control of the German Evangelical Church Confederation as an organization. Three months after Hitler came to power (April), it illegally called for the election of new leaders in each region. Governmental pressure combined with popular feeling led to the election of a majority of leaders supportive of the new government. Few of the 28 regional church organizations kept leaders who were unsympathetic to it. These fresh leaders of the Confederation decided to write a new constitution for it in which the old freedoms of each regional church would be replaced by uniformity imposed by newly centralized control of faith and practice. This dramatic change took place a mere month later.
With power now concentrated at the top, all the government needed to do to exert organizational control over the Church was to have its own man chosen to fill the new position of Imperial Bishop. The new group of Confederation leaders—which betrayed it with a new constitution—nonetheless failed to elect the correct, governmentally-approved man, for the new top job. The government easily forced this man to resign and then appointed the correct one (July).
In December, the new bishop chose on his own to abolish all church programs for young people and to have all of them integrated into the youth program of the government’s political party.
After taking organizational control of the Protestant churches in Germany, the government next sought to take control of their faith and practice; that is, their thoughts, words, and actions. Later that summer, the Imperial Bishop ordered all Protestant churches to obey his newly published “Aryan Paragraph.” Through it, he insisted that all existing Protestant pastors and Christians who had a grandparent who was Jewish were by definition Jewish and, as such, were to be expelled from the Church.
This sparked a response. As mentioned in “The Gradual Awakening of Martin Niemöller,” Martin, with his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, formed the Pastors’ Emergency League (September) to protest the Aryan Paragraph and its consequences.
In November, the German Christians organized a large rally in a Berlin stadium. Speakers outlined further steps needed to transform the Church into a suitable partner of the government. These included the rejection of the whole Old Testament and passages of Paul in the New Testament as too Jewish as well as the affirmation of Jesus Christ as an Aryan heroically combatting all sources of corruption facing the German people.
Understanding clearly the complete loss of integrity as witnesses to Christ intended by the German Christians, faithful Christians stiffened their resistance. In May 1934, concerned Christian leaders assembled in Barmen and released, at the conclusion of their meeting, a confession of faith in Jesus Christ alone which became known as the Barmen Declaration.