Karl Steinbauer: Refusal to Swear the Loyalty Oath

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The Reich Church synods controlled by the German Christians demanded an oath of allegiance to Hitler from pastors and church officials for the first time in August of 1934. This was intended to demonstrate the church’s loyalty to the Nazi state. The Confessing Church rejected such an oath, however. Like the other representatives of the Confessing Church, the Bavarian members of the synod also voted against the relevant law at the Reich Church synods.

The Bavarian church government under Regional Bishop Hans Meiser (1881–1956) also declared its opposition to the oath. In a communiqué of August 21, 1934, it described the oath as un-Lutheran and unscriptural. Ultimately, the German Christian Reich Church government had to drop its demand for the oath quietly because of the resistance from the Confessing Church.

In the national euphoria following the Austrian “Anschluss”, the German Christians demanded the oath of allegiance to Hitler once again in the spring of 1938 and enacted pertinent laws in the Reich Church and the regional churches it governed.

This landed the Confessing Church in a difficult situation since it did not want to subject itself the charge of being unpatriotic. It additionally assumed that the state itself would expect the oath and an oath demanded by the state appeared to be legitimate according to the church’s confession: The Bavarian church government’s communiqué of August of 1934 stated that the state can rightly demand an oath from its subjects in its sphere. This also applied to pastors, provided they are holders of public or special public offices recognized or conferred by the state in their service to the people’s church (Amtsblatt für die Ev.-Luth. Kirche in Bayern 1934, 119).

The small group of Bavarian German Christians preempted the Bavarian church government and had the oath administered to them by the radical Thuringian German Christians. The church government ordered all Bavarian pastors to swear the oath with its law of May 18, 1938. The wording of the oath was: I swear by God the Almighty and Omniscient I will be loyal and obedient to the Führer of the German Reich and nation, Adolf Hitler, observe the laws and faithfully perform my official duties, so help me God (Amtsblatt für die Ev.-Luth. Kirche in Bayern 1938, 95).

This law brought so many pastors in a dilemma of conscience that the Brotherhood of Pastors entreated the regional bishop to rescind it. Meiser, however, stressed the state’s expectations and potential consequences of refusal and nearly all Bavarian pastors took the oath.

Karl Steinbauer (1906-1988) was among the minority of Bavarian pastors who refused to swear the oath. In a letter of May 17, 1938, he warned Regional Bishop Meiser strongly against dealing with the issue of the oath by way of legislation. He cited the Bavarian church government’s clear rejection of the oath of allegiance to Hitler in 1934 and pointed out to Meiser that an oath in the Nazi state a was a very, very serious matter, which cannot be dealt with as if the year were say 1913 or 1800 so and so. He asked the regional bishop to have the issue of the oath deliberated on by parish first pastors before being settled by the church government.

The regional consistory and regional bishop enacted the church law on the pastors’ oath of allegiance one day later, however. At a meeting of the Bavarian Brotherhood of Pastors in Nuremberg shortly afterward, Steinbauer asked Regional Bishop Meiser to show the document that requires us pastors to swear an oath of allegiance to the state and Führer. Truthfully, Meiser was only able to reply that the church government “has the impression” that an oath to the Führer is desired; pastors could however be assured that nothing unpsychological would be demanded from them in the matter of the oath (K. Steinbauer, Zeugnis 3, 123). Steinbauer reacted with outrage and protested to the regional consistory in writing on June 12, 1938:

It is outrageous to ply us with psychology after thorough fundamental theological reflection. I will not allow myself to be plied with psychology when it is a matter of theology. He accused the church government of sending the living Lord of the church into retirement with its willingness to compromise toward the Nazi state, instead of placing everything in the Lord’s hands and not becoming foolishly and presumptuously irresponsible and wanting to do God’s job for him by posturing about human responsibility (K. Steinbauer, Zeugnis 3, 125–132).

Steinbauer protested to Regional Bishop Meiser several more times but was unable to achieve anything. He ignored his superior’s order to take the oath at the end of June of 1938.

A few weeks later, a circular to the Gauleiters from the chief of staff in the office of Hitler’s deputy, Martin Bormann (1900–1945), admitted that the Nazi state actually did not have any interest at all in administering the oath to pastors. This disgraced the Bavarian church government as well as the entire Confessing Church in Germany, which, in the wake of enervating disputes, had ultimately left the decision to swear the oath up to its pastors.

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  • © Private collection of Elisabeth Giesen, née Steinbauer, Cologne

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