During World War II, chaplains of the German military found themselves in a difficult position. Having no support from their government, they served soldiers who were often hostile toward Christianity, in an environment where they could jeopardize their own lives by protesting mass killings or stand by and do nothing, tainting the perception of the Christian faith. Yet, their legitimacy as chaplains came not from the Nazi party, but from God, through their actions and services preformed under extremely difficult circumstances.
The challenges were many. German chaplains were intentionally viewed as less manly in a society that perpetuated a masculine image. Many of the soldiers held a poor perception of Christianity and its connection to the Jewish people. The number of chaplain positions was kept low and vacancies remained empty through out the war. No chaplains were allowed to serve in the SS or Luftwaffe, the branches closest to the fighting and likely the most in need of a chaplain’s services. Most, if not all of these efforts to weaken the chaplaincy came from the upper echelon. “Hitler and his inner circle expressed in private, if not publicly, their contempt for Christianity,” states Doris L. Bergen, “a religion they considered nothing but diluted Judaism propagated in a conspiratorial effort to weaken the so-called Aryan race” (2004, 174). Even Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bromann, once said that, “National Socialist and Christian concepts cannot be reconciled” (Gunter 1964, 253).
Even more challenging were the occurrences of genocidal killings. Often, chaplains stood by at these events, all but legitimatizing the practice. Bergen argues, “Merely the presence of chaplains, at sites of mass killing in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Byelorussia, and Ukraine, offered Germany’s warriors the comforting illusion that despite the blood on their hands, they remained decent people, linked to a venerable religious tradition” (2004, 166). This comfort may have, in fact, increase the ease and comfort in these slaughters. However, had a chaplain voiced his concerns or even taught counter to the mass executions, he likely would have found himself staring into his grave just before being shot. But by taking no action, the chaplains ended up representing Christianity to the German soldiers as a religion that would permit this type of military behavior.
However, the lack of government support and the anti-Christian atmosphere only resulted in sharper chaplains who had to work that much harder to defend the faith and then win over the trust and heart of the soldier. Bergen shares an account of German Chaplain Hans Leonhard. After entering a hospital, a soldier makes a statement attacking the chaplain and his faith. The chaplain then returns the soldier’s comments, being fully accustomed to the challenges (2004, 165). But more significant than the hostility of the soldiers, the lack of governmental support that exposed the chaplaincy to vulnerability may have actually provided the chaplains a greater encouragement to view their role as being in the service of God’s Kingdom and their local countrymen rather than keeping strong allegiances with the governing Nazi party.
Additionally, the harsh circumstances of the German warfront not only forced the chaplains to serve the Kingdom of Christ at a higher capacity, but also prohibited a behavior likely more readily found in the Allied Forces chaplain corps—the use of Christianity as propaganda. With the regime more concerned about carefully eliminating the chaplaincy all together, they did little to require the chaplain duties to include morale building or favorable message crafting. If anything, the propaganda was pointed at the chaplaincy.
While the case study of the Nazi party dictatorship serves to demonstrate the possible outcomes of a chaplaincy under an anti-Christian regime, it also acts as a guide for those who may presently or one-day serve under a government that is hostile to the Christian chaplaincy. We in America are blessed to have the prospect to serve with support from both the government and the soldiers; however, just as in Nazi Germany, we may not always be afforded such an opportunity.
Bergen, Doris L. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplain from the First to the Twenty-First Century. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2004.
Lewy, Gunter. The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.