All you need to know about religion in Germany

All you need to know about religion in Germany

by Leona Quigley

Updated February 15, 2023

Germany has a rich and fascinating religious history. As the home of the Protestant Reformation, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire and the site of many of the European Wars of Religion, faith has had an undeniable impression on Germany’s past. While most Germans no longer regard religion as an important part of their personal lives, there are still many diverse and active religious communities and traditions to be found in Germany.

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Religion in German history

For much of the past two millennia, Christianity has been the dominant faith in the lands that now make up Germany. The Christian faith spread out of Israel through the territories of the Roman Empire, and further consolidated by the work of Christian missionaries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. By the end of the eighth century CE German lands were thoroughly Christianized. 

The religious authority of the pope was rarely questioned throughout the Middle Ages, and any contestation was met with harsh suppression. The first great schism in Germanic religiosity came on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, a monk and theologian at the University of Wittenberg, published his 95 Theses. In this treatise, Luther attacked the Catholic Church’s corruption, primarily the practice of selling indulgences — the absolution of past sins in return for money. He argued that God alone could grant forgiveness for sins and furthermore that the Bible is the central source of religious authority rather than the dictate of the pope. 

This astonishing challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was translated from Latin to vernacular German and spread through the technology of the printing press. Quickly Luther’s arguments spread across Germany and the rest of Europe, triggering the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s translation of the New Testament of the Bible was revolutionary in standardizing the modern German language and October 31st is now a recognized holiday in some German states; Reformation Day.

A separate Lutheran church emerged and later new Protestant denominations in different parts of Europe. The divisions between Catholic and Protestant sects played a prominent role in the wars that wracked Europe in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, including the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which remains one of the most devastating wars in European history and was fought largely on German lands.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of Germany was almost entirely Christian, with Judaism and all other faiths accounting for less than 2% of the population, and Protestants (mostly Lutherans, die Evangelischen) outnumbering Catholics almost two to one. These numbers would only begin to change drastically in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Religion in East Germany

In the wake of the Second World War, Germany was divided into the eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The former GDR, as a socialist state, tried to weaken the power of religion in post-war German society. Particularly in the earlier years of the GDR the state regime made it deliberately difficult for church members to attain positions of prominence in society.

Nevertheless, in the 1970s the relationship between church and state began to relax. The communist regime believed the church could help promote stability. But because of the concessions the SED made to the church, the Lutheran church has played an important role in the growing dissent against the regimes. The church provided space for discussion and organization for the growing political movements of the 1980s. In the church, the congregation had certain freedoms to discuss their concerns. Therefore, the church could offer a certain level of protection for political activity. For example, some pastors made their rooms, financial aid, and printing facilities available to the dissidents, and some pastors even became organizers. 

In West Germany religiosity declined gradually in the late twentieth century, largely in line with its western European neighbors. Under East German socialism, from the end of the war to the fall of the wall, church membership fell from 90% to 25%. Although East Germany is the homeland of Lutheranism, the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of state atheism left a lasting impression and today East Germany is sometimes called “the most godless place on earth”.

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Christianity in Germany today

Because East Germany had been a predominantly Protestant region, state socialism has led to a relative decline in Protestantism relative to Catholicism amongst German Christians. Today German Christians are split quite evenly between Protestants and Catholics. Germany’s Protestant population is concentrated in the North and center of the republic, whereas the Catholic population predominates in the South and West.

Religiosity has also declined in western Germany and today agnostics and atheists make up around one-third of Germany’s population and the decline in church attendance, even amongst those who still identify themselves as Christian has been notable. Still many continue to pay the church tax (Kirchensteuer) in Germany, even if they are not regular attendees. This tax is collected by the state from registered members of the Evangelical churches, Roman Catholics and the Jewish religious communities, amongst others. If you wish to avoid it you may have to formally leave your church. If you are not a member of a taxable religious community you do not have to pay this tax.

Other religions in Germany today

Recent patterns of immigration have made Germany a more multi-religious country than ever before. There is a considerable community of Orthodox Christians from Greece, Serbia, Romania, Russia and other countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Near East. There is also a prospering Muslim population in Germany, Mostly practitioners of Sunni Islam or Alevism with a Turkish or Balkan background.

Perhaps surprisingly, Germany is also home to Europe’s third-largest population of Jewish people. Although Germany’s Jewish population was decimated during the Holocaust, and those who survived often emigrated after the war. Nevertheless, an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union has given new momentum to the German Jewish community and today it continues to grow and thrive, particularly in urban centers like Berlin and Hamburg.

Country of many faiths

While Germany has long been a Christian-dominated country, playing a key role in the reformation and conflicts of European Christianity, with the growth of immigration, has never been so diverse in its communities of faith. And while many in Germany have left religious practice behind, it is important to appreciate the rich cultures and communities attached to these faiths.

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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

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