Kirchenkampf (German: [ˈkɪʁçn̩kampf], lit. "church struggle") is a German term pertaining to the situation of the Christian churches in Germany during the Nazi period (1933–1945). Sometimes used ambiguously, the term may refer to one or more of the following different "church struggles":
the internal dispute between the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) and the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) over control of the Protestant churches;
the battle between the Nazi regime and the Protestant church bodies; and
the battle between the Nazi regime and the Roman Catholic Church.
When the Nazis took power in 1933, 95.2% of Germans were Christian, with 62.7% being Protestant and 32.5% being Catholic. Many historians maintain that Hitler's goal in the Kirchenkampf entailed not only ideological struggle, but ultimately the eradication of the churches. Other historians maintain no such plan existed. The Salvation Army, Christian Saints, Bruderhof, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church all disappeared from Germany during the Nazi era.
Nazi ideology was hostile to traditional Christianity in various respects and the Nazi Party saw the Church Struggle as an important ideological battleground. Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw wrote of the struggle in terms of an ongoing and escalating conflict between the Nazi state and the Christian churches. Historian Susannah Heschel wrote that the Kirchenkampf refers only to an internal dispute between members of the Confessing Church and members of the (Nazi-backed) "German Christians" over control of the Protestant church. Pierre Aycoberry wrote that for Catholics the phrase kirchenkampf was reminiscent of the kulturkampf of Otto von Bismarck's time – a campaign which had sought to destroy the influence of Catholicism in majority Protestant Germany.
Nazism wanted to transform the subjective consciousness of the German people – their attitudes, values, and mentalities – into a single-minded, obedient "national community". According to Ian Kershaw, in order to achieve this, the Nazis believed they would have to replace class, religious and regional allegiances by a "massively enhanced national self-awareness to mobilize the German people psychologically for the coming struggle and to boost their morale during the inevitable war". The Nazis disliked universities, intellectuals and the Catholic and Protestant churches. According to Anton Gill, their long term plan was to "de-Christianise Germany after the final victory". The Nazis co-opted the term Gleichschaltung (coordination) to mean conformity and subservience to the National Socialist German Workers' Party line: "there was to be no law but Hitler, and ultimately no god but Hitler".
Nazi ideology conflicted with traditional Christian beliefs in various respects – Nazis criticized Christian notions of "meekness and guilt" on the basis that they "repressed the violent instincts necessary to prevent inferior races from dominating Aryans". Aggressive anti-church radicals like Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann saw the conflict with the churches as a priority concern, and anti-church and anti-clerical sentiments were strong among grassroots party activists. East Prussian Party Gauleiter Erich Koch on the other hand, said that Nazism "had to develop from a basic Prussian-Protestant attitude and from Luther's unfinished Reformation". Hitler himself disdained Christianity, as Alan Bullock noted:
In Hitler's eyes, Christianity was a religion fit only for slaves; he detested its ethics in particular. Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle and the survival of the fittest.
In Mein Kampf, although Hitler claimed that he was doing the work of the Lord by fighting Jews, nevertheless, in another chapter, Philosophy and Organization, he denounced Christianity as a "spiritual terror" that spread into the Ancient world.
Though raised a Catholic, Hitler rejected the Judeo-Christian conception of God and religion. Though he retained some regard for the organizational power of Catholicism, he had utter contempt for its central teachings, which he said, if taken to their conclusion, "would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure". Hitler ultimately believed "one is either a Christian or a German" – to be both was impossible. However, important German conservative elements, such as the officer corps, opposed Nazi persecution of the churches and, in office, Hitler restrained his anticlerical instincts out of political considerations.
Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw wrote that, while many ordinary people were apathetic, after years of warning from Catholic clergy, Germany's Catholic population greeted the Nazi takeover with apprehension and uncertainty, while among German Protestants, many were optimistic a strengthened Germany might bring with it "inner, moral revitalisation". However, within a short period, the Nazi government's conflict with the churches was to become a source of great bitterness.