Karl Steinbauer was the most important opponent of the National Socialists’ anti-church and ant-Christian ideology in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria. At the same time, he was an unflagging critic of the Bavarian church government’s conciliatory course under Regional Bishop Hans Meiser (1881–1956). His courage and dauntlessness brought him renown far beyond Bavaria.
Steinbauer was born on September 2, 1906 into a pastor's family in Windsbach in Central Franconia. His father, Johann Steinbauer, was the principal of Windsbach junior high school. Karl Steinbauer studied Protestant theology at the universities in Erlangen, Königsberg and Tübingen from 1927 to 1931. He passed his 1st theological exam in 1931 and became a vicar in Heiligenstadt near Bamberg. He completed a year as a candidate at the theological seminary Nuremberg in April of 1932. Politically, German National, völkisch and anti-Semitic during his childhood and youth, Steinbauer categorically turned away from Hitler and the NSDAP in 1932. On April 1, 1933, he became the senior vicar in the heavily Communist Upper Bavarian mining town of Penzberg where he received his first parish of his own. On November 1, 1934, he married Eugenie Beckh, with whom he had six children.
Steinbauer had landed in numerous serious conflicts with the Nazi state since 1933. Deeply influenced by Luther and the theology of Karl Barth (1886–1968), he uncompromisingly opposed any cooption of the church by the National Socialists and their anti-Christian ideology. Whereas the majority of Lutheran theologians subordinated themselves to and accommodated the Nazi state based on the doctrine of the two kingdoms, Steinbauer considered it his duty as an ordained pastor to admonish political leaders in the state and the party by witnessing to Christian truth and to staunchly confront the Nazi claim to totality with the claim to totality of obedience to Christ.
Steinbauer’s defense of the unimpeded recognition of witness born to Christ in public life was so politically explosive for the National Socialists that, declared an enemy of the state after the imposition of public speaking and residence bans for “subversive agitation”, he was imprisoned several times and finally sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp for eight and a half months in 1939 (B. Hamm, p. 469). His uncompromising profession of faith with no regard for outward circumstances collided no less strongly with the cautious tactical maneuvering of the Bavarian church government under Regional Bishop Meiser directed toward the survival of the intact regional church, the preservation of the church government and the protection of church employees. He publicly criticized Regional Bishop Meiser’s conduct for the first time in February of 1934.
Steinbauer’s wife Eugenie and the Penzberg church council supported him courageously during his clashes with the state and the church government. Despite serious differences and repeated reprimands, the church government also made every effort to help him in his conflicts with the Nazi state. In 1938, he received a call as assistant pastor in Ay in Senden in the deanery of Neu-Ulm. Although he was made assistant pastor in Illenschwang parish in 1940, the position was legally unoccupied in order to be able to claim to state and party officials that Steinbauer no longer had a parish. Steinbauer himself did not become aware that he had been de facto only the occupant of the parsonage rather than the parish pastor until after the end of World War II (K. Steinbauer, Zeugnis 4, 81).
Following his release from the concentration camp in December of 1939, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in January of 1940. He took part in the Russian campaign in 1941. He was severely wounded in 1943 and could only be deployed on the “home front” afterward.
Steinbauer was charged with undermining the war effort after he preached a Christmas sermon in Illenschwang and Sinnbronn in 1944. His trial by court martial ended with an acquittal. He was taken prisoner of war (Marseille, France) near the war’s end and released at the end of September of 1945. He took on a parish in Lehengütingen near Dinkelsbühl in 1946 and additionally ministered in internment camps in 1947. He became the pastor in Wolfratshausen in Upper Bavaria in 1951, in Pettendorf near Bayreuth in 1962 and in Amberg in the Upper Palatinate in 1967. The relationship between Steinbauer and the church government remained strained even after the end of the Nazi regime. He returned the honorary title of “member of the church consistory” soon after having been awarded it in 1964.
Steinbauer entered retirement in 1971, which he used for extensive public speaking and lecturing. In the 1980s, he documented his disputes with the state and the church government during the Nazi regime and afterward in his multi-volume work “Einander das Zeugnis gönnen” (Bearing Witness Before One Another), the last volume of which was completed by Steinbauer’s daughter Elisabeth Giesen and son-in-law Martin Giesen shortly before his death on February 6, 1988 (K. Steinbauer, Zeugnis 1–4). Whereas the Bavarian church government marginalized Steinbauer’s courageous conduct during the Nazi regime long after the war’s end, he is now regarded as an unwavering and perspicacious witness to Christ in a period of blindness (B. Hamm, p. 456).