Division and Fall: Modernity, Confessionalism, and the Church Struggle in the Third Reich

Student Author(s)

Matthew Meyerhuber

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Gloria Tseng

Document Type


Event Date



Germany, with its rich Protestant heritage, has a special place in the history of modern Christianity. As the birthplace of the Reformation, Germany was the spot of much debate, turmoil, and violence surrounding the beginning and spread of Protestantism. It was also where some of the most important developments in Christian history took place, and it was home to a thriving, advanced culture where faith, the humanities, art, and the sciences all flourished. All of this changed when Germany experienced a political collapse after the disastrous First World War. Hitler’s ascent to power and the rise of the Nazi regime wreaked catastrophe on Germany’s historic culture, with all of its intellectual and moral achievements. As Nazi ideology began to invade the evangelical Protestant churches, many Christian theologians and pastors put up a fierce resistance. What resulted became known as the Kirchenkampf, or “church struggle.” Despite their efforts, the leaders of the evangelical Protestant factions in Germany were unable to prevent the Nazis from co-opting nearly an entire society for their murderous aims. This inability was the result of infighting motivated by differing worldviews among rival Protestant bodies. This paper analyzes the religious and cultural conditions that prevented the Protestant groups in Germany from cooperating against the Nazis. It does this by examining the various groups’ historic attitudes toward confessions (official statements of faith) and toward modernity. Its findings were that as adherence to confessions strengthened, acceptance of modernity weakened. Differences in confessionalism arose from different concepts of the purpose of confessions, and differing ideas of God’s relationship with the Church. Questions of faith identity, rather than questions of individual doctrinal points, dominated Protestant debates in Germany about a proper theological response to the Nazi regime.

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