The Chargé in Germany (Gordon) to the Acting Secretary of State

No. 2456

Sir: In continuation of section 9 of despatch No. 2415 of May 20, 1933, and with particular reference to despatch No. 2319 of April 21, 1933, I have the honor to report that, while the foundation for a Reich Evangelical Church has now been definitely laid, the selection of a Reich Bishop for the unified church has resulted in a conflict with the “German Christians.”

A special committee of three, representing the Federation of German Evangelical Churches, together with Army Chaplain Müller, who has been conducting negotiations with the churches as Chancellor Hitler’s personal representative, has agreed upon the outlines of the new Reich Evangelical Church, which is to embrace the whole of German Protestantism under a Reich Bishop. Pastor v. Bodelschwingh, the head of the Bethel Institutions, a charitable organization of the Evangelical [Page 296] movement located near Bielefeld, was selected by the committee as the first Reich Bishop. Pastor v. Bodelschwingh has not taken a prominent part in church politics, and this appears to be one of the main reasons for his selection.

The committee’s choice has been approved by the heads of the regional Evangelical churches. However, the “German Christians,” the Nazi movement within the Evangelical Church, refuse to recognize the new Bishop. They demand the appointment of Chaplain Müller, who has recently taken over the leadership of this militant Nazi reform group. Although the Reich Government is carefully abstaining from any action that might be regarded as an attempt to influence the decision of the representatives of the churches, Chaplain Müller’s frequent conferences with Chancellor Hitler and the liberal use of the Government-controlled radio by the “German Christians” would seem to indicate that the Chancellor is not indifferent on this point and that he would have preferred the selection of his friend Chaplain Müller, or at least some other trusted person from the ranks of the Nazi movement.

In a radio broadcast, Chaplain Müller openly opposed von Bodelschwingh’s selection on the ground that he was the candidate of the theologians who still dominated the Evangelical churches. These theologians, he charged, had not listened to “the call of the hour”—the call for the regeneration of the German people. The new Bishop did not meet the wishes of the entire Evangelical flock. The people who had fought for national regeneration during the past fourteen years wanted a man who would cheerfully take up the struggle against Marxism. The Nazi storm detachments, upon whom the State now rested, must feel that Christianity was an heroic faith; they must have the gospel preached to them in unadulterated words. The “German Christians” therefore refused to accept the decision of the Church representative and would continue the fight for an Evangelical Church under a Nazi Reich Bishop.

The “German Christians,” contending that they have the support of a majority of the members of the Evangelical churches, have formally demanded that the question of a Reich Bishop be submitted to a referendum on October 31st. They maintain that until this takes place, Pastor von Bodelschwingh is not justified in calling himself Reich Bishop.

The representatives of the regional Evangelical churches, however, refuse to submit the question to a referendum. They contend that Chaplain Müller himself signed the agreement which specifically stated that the deliberations on the framework for a new church Constitution should include an agreement with respect to the selection of a Reich Bishop and that this was precisely what they had done. They deny that [Page 297] the selection of a bishop requires further ballotting, pointing out that this would mean a reversion to the democratic system which the “German Christians” themselves opposed.

The conflict in the Evangelical Church threatens to become very bitter. The new Bishop is a highminded man who has devoted his whole life to charity and to the care of the sick and needy. He is a spiritual Christian in every sense of the word. His whole character is in marked contrast to his Nazi opponents, Chaplain Müller and Pastor Hossenfelder, whose actions appear to be governed by political, rather than religious, motives. It will be recalled that because of his militant and aggressive spirit, Pastor Hossenfelder had to relinquish his leadership of the “German Christians” to Chaplain Müller, whose views were supposedly less radical. The manner in which Chaplain Müller has been opposing the appointment of the new Bishop, however, puts him in an entirely different light.

Tomorrow, Whitsunday, greetings from the new Reich Bishop are to be read to the congregations from every pulpit. Chaplain Müller and Pastor Hossenfelder will jointly conduct divine services in Silesia. It is significant that whereas the Bishop’s message will be read from the different pulpits, the services of the two Nazi ministers will be broadcast over the Government radio.

Fired by the triumph of the national revolution, the Nazi organization within the Evangelical Church is demanding its unification on the Gleichschaltung principle, which has been applied so thoroughly in all branches of German national life. For obvious reasons there has been no notable attempt to bring about the Nazification of the Catholic Church in Germany. It is significant that the Nazis took the line of least resistance, concentrating their efforts on the loosely organized Protestant churches. As in business, industry and educational institutions, the purpose of the demanded Gleichschaltung of the Evangelical churches is, of course, to put them under Nazi control.

However, as a result of vigorous resistance by the heads of the Evangelical churches on the one hand, and their tactful negotiations with the representatives of the “German Christians” on the other, the unification of the churches was achieved without Gleichschaltung. Pastor von Bodelschwingh’s selection was clearly a victory of the Evangelical Church over those elements within the church which wished to subordinate it to the Nazi State. Since the framework for the new Constitution of the Unified German Evangelical Church, which is apparently to be its official designation, has been accepted by the “German Christians,” the reorganization of the Evangelical churches may be regarded as an actual fact.

This reorganization runs parallel to the administrative reform in the [Page 298] Reich. Up to now the 28 regional churches, comprising the Federation of Evangelical Churches, have been governed by a Reich parliament in conjunction with the Church Federal Council, representing the administrative bodies of the individual churches. In future, a national synod consisting partly of elected and partly of appointed members is to take the place of the church parliament. In line with the Nazi principle of leadership, the initiative in all measures will rest not with the synod but with the Reich Bishop, who must be of Lutheran faith and who will be assisted by a so-called clerical ministry consisting of representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed and Unionist movements—the three groups comprising the Unified German Evangelical Church.

Respectfully yours,

George A. Gordon