Regional Church: Struggle for Autonomy
Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller (1883–1945) and his “legal administrator” August Jäger (1887–1949) had been pursuing the forcible incorporation of the Protestant regional churches in the Reich Church since early 1934. They intended to thusly transform federally structured German Protestantism into one unified church submissive to the Nazis.
The Bavarian church government rejected the incorporation in the Reich Church led by the German Christians as illegal and contrary to the Confessions. Nevertheless, Müller and Jäger found support in Bavaria for their plans among the German Christians under Wolf Meyer-Erlach (1891–1982) and among some of the Nazi pastors and, above all, among such party bigwigs as Julius Streicher (1885–1946) and Karl Holz (1895–1945).
In the summer of 1934, individual pastors and synod members demanded voluntary incorporation or the resignation of Regional Bishop Hans Meiser (1881–1956). Meiser renounced his allegiance to the Reich Bishop and protested to Hitler against the Reich Church government’s violations of the law and coercive measures.
In August of 1934, the regional synod passed a vote of confidence in Meiser and resolved to reject incorporation. Reich Bishop Müller nevertheless decreed the incorporation of the Bavarian regional church in the Reich Church in early September. Regional bishop Meiser declared this decree to be invalid and called upon pastors and parishes to follow his and the regional consistory’s instructions only.
The German Christians and the leadership of the NSDAP’s Gau of Central Franconia consequently started a large-scale smear campaign against Meiser. The “Fränkische Tageszeitung” printed a defamatory article with the headline Away with Regional Bishop D. Meiser! He is disloyal and breaks his word – He is acting treacherously – He is bringing the Protestant church into disrepute (C. Nicolaisen, Opposition, 42). The propaganda campaign against Meiser was supported by handbill and poster campaigns.
Pastors and parishes gave the bishop their backing, though. Hundreds of confessional worship services were held all over Bavaria, which became demonstrations for Meiser. The bishop himself traveled from place to place and explained his stance at countless events.
In this situation, the Reich Church government resorted to force. With the consent of the party leadership and the Political Police, “legal administrator” August Jäger forced entry into the Munich regional consistory on October 11, 1934, declared Regional Bishop Meiser to be removed from office, suspended several members of the high consistory and announced the partitioning of the Bavarian regional church into two ecclesiastical territories under German Christian bishops.
News of these events spread like wildfire. Thousands of parishioners gathered in St. Matthew’s Church in Munich for a worship service with the bishop, who had returned to the city hastily. From the pulpit, Meiser proclaimed: But we are not among those who lose their faith, I do not intend to retreat and I lodge protest here against the force being used against our church and I am unwilling to lay down the episcopal office conferred on me by our church.
After the worship service, Meiser proceeded to his house arrest in his official residence in the regional consistory’s building, which had been ordered by the Political Police. His appeal to the parishes – faithfulness is the deed now demanded from you, parish – became the routine in the ensuing weeks:
Church superiors instructed pastors to refrain from any official relations with the illegitimate church government and not to follow its instructions. Nearly all of the Bavarian clergy demanded Meiser’s reinstatement. Confessional Church worship services were held all over Bavaria for the arrested regional bishop.
Delegations of Franconian farmers protested with political authorities in Munich und Berlin. Numerous parishioners took special trains to Munich to confessional worship services and protested on behalf of Regional Bishop Meiser. The entire Confessing Church in Germany showed its solidarity with the Bavarian regional church and took the events in Southern Germany as an opportunity to summon the National Synod of the Confessing Church for the second time.
The surprisingly public church protest sparked public unrest, which ran counter to Hitler’s interests. What is more, concerned messages from various embassies arrived at the Foreign Office in Berlin, prompting fears of undesired harm to relations between the Reich government and foreign countries.
The disputes within the church thus became a domestic and foreign policy problem. Hitler therefore felt compelled to invite Regional Bishop Hans Meiser, under house arrest, and his fellow bishop of Württemberg Theophil Wurm (1868–1953), likewise under arrest, to an audience in Berlin at the end of October of 1934. Meiser was thus de facto back in office and was able to rescind the Reich Church government’s actions.
The resistance of the regional bishop, church government, pastors and parishioners assured that the regional church remained outwardly “intact” during the Nazi regime. The events in Bavaria – and similarly in Württemberg as well – brought Hitler his arguably sole domestic policy defeat.
Resistance was directed against the German Christians’ heresies and their conflation of Christianity and Nazi ideology rather than against the Nazi Regime as such. Later, however, the “collective experience of resistance” of the fall of 1934 was reinterpreted as resistance against the Nazi regime per se, thus enabling the Bavarian regional church to portray itself after the end of World War II as an organization that resisted National Socialism politically.
Source / title
- © 1-3: Evangelische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte München, A 30.5+7