Confessing Church

The Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) was a Christian resistance movement in Nazi Germany. In 1933 the Gleichschaltung forced Protestant churches to merge into the Protestant Reich Church and support Nazi ideology. Opposition was forced to go "underground" to meet, and created the Pfarrernotbund that September. In 1934 the Barmen declaration, primarily authored by Karl Barth, with the input of other Confessing Church pastors and congregations, was ratified at the Barmen Synod through which it was re-affirmed that the German Church was not an "organ of the State" for the purpose of strengthening Nazi agendum but only subject to Christ and his mission.

Some of the leaders of the Confessing Church, such as Martin Niemöller, were sent to concentration camps, and some died there, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was sent to Tegel Prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and later to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged. Christians who did not agree with the Nazis were left without leadership. The Confessing Church engaged in various forms of resistance, notably hiding Jews from the Nazi regime. The Confessing Church is a unique example of a crypto-Christian movement operating in a majority Christian country.

Some members of the Confessing Church risked their lives to help Jews hiding illegally in Berlin during the war. A hat would be passed around at the end of church services into which the congregation would donate identity cards and passbooks. These were then modified by forgers and given to underground Jews so they could pass as legal Berlin citizens. . Several members of the Confessing Church were caught and tried for their part in creating forged papers, including Franz Kaufmann who was shot, and Helene Jacobs, who was jailed.

Most members of the Confessing Church, however, were relatively cautious and strategic in their protests. A few urged more radical and risky action in the presence of genocide. Daniel Goldhagen, in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners, describes Berlin Deaconess Marga Meusel as a Christian offering “perhaps the most impassioned, the bluntest, the most detailed and most damning of the protests against the silence of the Christian churches” because she went the furthest in speaking on behalf of the Jews. Another Confessing Church member unusual in his speaking-out against antisemitism was Hans Ehrenberg.

Meusel and two other leading women members of the Confessing Church in Berlin, Elisabeth Schmitz and Gertrud Staewen, were members of the Berlin parish where Martin Niemöller served as Pastor. Her efforts to prod the church to speak out for the Jews were unsuccessful and Meusel and Bonhoeffer condemned the failure of the Confessing Church — which was organized specifically in resistance to the Nazis — to move beyond a very limited concern for their church and its Jewish converts to advocacy for all people and especially those suffering the most. Meusel responded to the Confessing Church's timid action in 1935 by saying: “Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? …What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain." ("Am I my brother's keeper?" Genesis 4:9)

Karl Barth also wrote in 1935: "For the millions that suffer unjustly, the Confessing Church does not yet have a heart.


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