A Programmatic Conflict
Established just half a year earlier, the Reich Church under Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller (1883-1945) was threatening to collapse in January of 1934. Church opposition, in which Bavarian Regional Bishop Hans Meiser (1881–1956) also played a part, planned to remove the Reich Bishop from office. He supported the German Christians’ heretical theology and was responsible for numerous breaches of the law and the persecution of oppositional clergy. In this situation, Protestant church leaders were received by Hitler on January 25, 1934. Hitler threatened to withdraw the church’s government subsidies and put the church leaders under such strong pressure that they once again subordinated themselves to the Reich Bishop.
This appeared to be a capitulation and drove a wedge between the head of the Pastors’ Emergency League, Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), on the one side and the oppositional bishops Hans Meiser, Theophil Wurm (1868–1953) and August Marahrens (1875–1950) on the other. Regional Bishop Meiser regretted his conduct and, on January 31, 1934, offered his resignation to the board of the Bavarian regional synod. The board of the regional synod passed a vote of confidence in Meiser, though.
Meiser attempted to justify his conduct before several hundred clergy at an assembly in Nuremberg on February 1, 1934. When a declaration of confidence in the regional bishop also appeared to be in the offing at this assembly, Karl Steinbauer (1906–1988), a young vicar in Penzberg, asked for the floor. He accused Meiser of having denied the confession, betrayed the church and forsaken the pastors of the Emergency League by subordinating himself to the heretical Reich Bishop. The bishops had allowed themselves to be blackmailed and, rather than bearing the witness owed before the men of the state, had refused (quoted from C. Blendinger, Gott, 46).
The regional consistory immediately asked Steinbauer to explain his accusations. He consequently set forth his charges against then-Regional Bishop D. Meiser in detail in a letter of February 4, 1934 and declared that he could no longer recognize a bishop who approved of heresy, who did not freely protest against it. On February 5, Steinbauer additionally put in a personal appearance at the Munich regional church office. A conversation with Meiser also took place, which made the young vicar’s and the regional bishop’s differing points of view programmatically clear. In his memoirs, Steinbauer recalled:
I once again discussed all of the issues thoroughly with the regional bishop openly and honestly and expounded what I had already said in Nuremberg. I will never forget his answer. He said, “What you are saying here is all very fine theologically but we have to consider the given facts.” The given facts were clearly Adolf Hitler, his power, his threats, his government subsidies, etc. I responded, “The only question is whether the Lord Christ, whom all power in heaven and on earth has been given, is also still a given fact, which we in the church may consider.” (K. Steinbauer, Zeugnis 1, 120f.)
A few days later, the regional consistory removed Steinbauer from his office for violating the dignity of the German chancellor (C. Blendinger, Gott, 55). Following protests by Penzberg church council presidents Kochel and Seeshaupt, this action was rescinded at Easter of 1934. At the same time, Steinbauer was warned to exercise restraint in ecclesio-political issues in the future. The fundamental conflict between Steinbauer and Meiser – the vicar uncompromisingly bound to Christ and conscience on the one side and the bishop willing to make accommodations for the sake of the church’s survival and the protection of its employees on the other side – flared up time and again during the Nazi regime and persisted even after World War II had ended.
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- © Private collection of Elisabeth Giesen, née Steinbauer, Cologne