The History of the Barmen Declaration

In January of 1933 Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and later took control as dictator. He was concerned about the reaction of the churches to his rule. He dealt first with the Roman Catholics. After discussions with the archbishops, who conferred with the pope, a concordat or agreement was signed in June 1933. The concordat assured the church (on paper) of its privileges and was intended to guarantee either its neutrality or its support for the Nazi regime.

When Hitler turned his attention to the Protestants, he faced a different situation. How does one deal with at least twenty-eight different church federations? The national assembly of these churches had no real authority, and the Protestants had neither archbishop nor pope. Hitler therefore decided to create such a figure. He suggested that the Protestant churches elect or appoint a national bishop who would sit in the religious affairs department (the Ministry of Cults) of the national government.

In April 1933 Hitler appointed his friend Ludwig Mueller as his advisor in church affairs and offered him as candidate for the position of national bishop. Mueller was supportive of the "German Christians", a movement which espoused the Nazi party's "positive Christianity," which is meant, among other things, that it denied sin and depravity, as well as humility, and that it stressed nationalism and the saving character of the state. The church, as part of the state, was to march along-side the people to bring it to its earthly paradise. Their champions were not "the crucified Christ" but "King Christ and the Fuehrer." The churches, at a national meeting held in May, put forth their own candidate, however, a respected conservative. Mueller was defeated. In revenge, the "German Christians" prevailed upon the government to dismiss various conservatives from church-governing bodies and to replace them with "German Christians." After these purges, and with the endorsement of Hitler himself, Mueller was now easily elected bishop at its national synod on 27 September 1933. His speech reflected his adoption of the totalitarian ideology of Hitler:

[A]s he has done to every people, so the eternal God has also to our people given its own particular innate law. This has materialized in the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler .... This law speaks to us through the history of our people as it has grown from blood and ground .... From this fellowship of German Christians in the national socialist state of Adolf Hitler shall grow the German Christian National Church which will include the entire people. One people! One God! One Reich! One church!

The church order was changed, and the so-called Aryan Paragraph introduced which stated that no one of non-Aryan background, or married to someone of non-Aryan background, could serve as either pastor or church official. Those pastors and officials who had married a non-Aryan were to be dismissed. They even advocated the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible.

From May 29 to 31, 1934 a combined synod of Reformed and Evangelical/Lutheran churches was held at Barmen. Twenty-six provincial churches had sent representatives. All the 138 delegates were examined before entering to make sure that no "German Christians" were present, and the members of the synod were to sign red membership cards and keep them on their persons at all times.

The synod accepted the "Barmen Declaration," which had been written by Karl Barth and two Lutheran theologians. Consisting of six articles or theses, this declaration rejected the false doctrines of the "German Christians" and recalled the churches to the central truths of Bible and confessions. It also rejected the totalitarian claims of the state, as well as the official church's reliance on the state.

Barth and the other theologians who framed the Barmen declaration realized that the error to which the "German Christian" movement had fallen prey was more than an ethical or political one; it was first and foremost a theological one. The German Christians believed that God was revealing himself through events, powers, figures and truths - they took their human experience as mediated through German culture of the time as an ultimate truth apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ mediated through his word. They also believed that the church was an expression of latent religious powers in the German nation which were released by faith and baptism. Instead of the church being an instrument and an expression of the transforming power of God through Jesus Christ, it became both an expression of, and an instrument for the affirmation of 'German-ness'.

The "German Christians" also believed that what they were in themselves was already whole and holy; they had no need therefore of any justification, any sanctification or transformation. Barmen countered that salvation in Christ is linked to the Lordship of Christ, and that it is a false doctrine that claims there are areas of our lives that do not need sanctification through the agency of Christ's Lordship.