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2023-04-17 at 13:43 #400381Nat QuinnKeymaster
I look forward to the contributions by Ivo Vegter; logical, cogently argued, empirically illustrated and typically well sourced. Agree with him or not, and I do both in some measure, he always produces a stimulating read. And so it was that I clicked on his piece of 7 April, ‘The rise of theonomic authoritarianism on the right’.
As it happens, I’m broadly in sympathy with the thrust of this article. Religious freedom means the freedom to practise it, to reject it or to be indifferent to it – all in their fullest sense (beware the insidious phrase ‘freedom of worship’). Enforced deference to religion is a thoroughly bad idea; and if the goal is to promote virtue, such an approach at best enforces the appearance of virtue, not its true embrace.
I also agree that Ivo is correct in contending that religion is not a precondition for morality.
However, the case is rather overstated towards the end, which presents the following quote:
The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past years.
These words are from Adolf Hitler; and are followed in the article by this comment to conclude the article: ‘The Christian right has tried to distance itself from Hitler by calling him an atheist. This claim is false. That’s what I mean when I said Christians aren’t very good about upholding their own commandments: one kills millions with wild-eyed abandon, and the others bear false witness to avoid having to explain his actions. That alone is reason enough to keep religion out of public education, public law and public institutions.’
That is quite a condemnation of religion in general, of Christianity specifically, and of Christians too. Well, each to his or her own. Personally, I’ve never killed millions of people, nor do I think that I’ve borne false witness about this. I’ve never felt much need to explain what Hitler and the Nazis did, nor any particular responsibility for it – for what it’s worth, no religious instruction I’ve ever had has justified genocide (and yes, I’m well aware there are bits of Scripture that get a bit hairy on that issue…) or the race-and-eugenics beliefs that were associated with the Holocaust. Plus, my father grew up in wartime Britain and my maternal grandfather was one of the first men in Natal to volunteer for military service in the War. I grew up smugly convinced that I could take some vicarious credit for having beaten the Nazis. (Come to think of it, maybe I am guilty of the sin of pride. Among numerous others…)
Nevertheless, Hitler and Nazism are in a sense the ultimate trump cards (pardon the expression). Played appropriately, they are the emotional guillotine that settles an issue. ‘Hitler was’ or ‘Hitler said’ is deployed with great conviction and to great effect on any number of issues, and this is not the first time I’ve encountered the ‘Hitler was an atheist/Hitler was a Christian’ contretemps.
Richard Steigmann-Gall, an American historian, has put it this way: ‘Nazism serves as a useful foil, a way of gauging good and evil in the world. We are given to presuming that the things we tend to dislike in modern society must have reigned triumphant in Nazism.’
Hitler’s religious beliefs have been the subject of a lot of study and commentary by historians. Two books on the subject that I can highly recommend are Richard Weikart’s Hitler’s Religion: the Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich and Steigmann-Gall’s The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, the former attempting to put together a picture of Hitler’s personal and political outlook, and the other an examination of the orientation of the state as a whole.
In claiming that Hitler was a Christian (‘one of them’) Ivo is incorrect. That is, if by Christian one means adhering to pretty much any of the cardinal beliefs of the faith – the existence of an identifiable God, the divinity of Jesus, and redemption, and also the responsibility of individuals to comport themselves in such a way as to earn salvation. This just didn’t represent Hitler’s worldview.
Claims that Hitler was a Christian often draw on remarks, public and private, that seem to indicate a positive disposition to the faith. One of the most often cited is from an address in Munich in 1922: ‘My Christian feeling directs me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter…. As a Christian I do not have the duty to allow the wool to be pulled over my eyes, but I have the duty to be a fighter for the truth and for what is right… As a Christian I also have a duty toward my own people.’
‘Hitler is an atheist’
On the other hand, the testimony of several people who’d known Hitler intimately reveals the opposite. Otto Strasser, an early member of the Nazi movement who fell out with Hitler and fled into exile, told his brother: ‘We are Christians; without Christianity Europe is lost. Hitler is an atheist.’
Ernst Hanfstaengl, also an early collaborator with Hitler who later worked with the US government providing wartime intelligence on leading Nazis, described Hitler as ‘to all intents and purposes an atheist by the time I got to know him, although he still paid lip-service to religious beliefs and certainly acknowledged them as the basis for the thinking of others.’
Hanfstaengl’s remarks point to an obvious truth that the ‘was-he-wasn’t-he’ binaries fail to accommodate. Hitler was a master politician, and understood – to the world’s great misfortune – how to appeal to an audience and manipulate it. His public rhetoric, and to an extent his recorded private remarks (about which there is a great deal of debate) need to be understood in light of this. In particular contexts – the heavily Catholic Bavaria of 1922, reeling from the recent memory of a short-lived Communist state, the Bavarian Soviet Republic – his appeal to tradition, nationalism and piety would be an effective one, and he’d make the pitch accordingly.
Not just on matters of religion, but on much else besides, Hitler’s positions could shift and appear contradictory (Mein Kampf is a painful read, and not only because of its lurid content). ‘Hitler consciously obfuscated his position whenever he thought he could gain political capital needed to secure power or retain popularity. While many of his long-term goals were fixed, he was flexible about short-term policies, and he was not averse to concealing his goals if he knew they would not be popular,’ writes Steigmann-Gall.
As it happens, a hostility to Christianity – certainly to organised religion, with a particular antipathy to the Catholicism in which he had been raised – was actually evident early in Hitler’s life. His friend from their time together in Vienna, August Kubizek, related that Hitler had raged against the Church, on account of the persecution of supposed witches and the Inquisition. In the 1920s he conducted an angry correspondence with a priest in which he denounced the Church for its complicity in a litany of misdeeds, including the destruction of the Aztec and Inca civilisations and the slave trade. These arguments too would not be unfamiliar to contemporary critics of Christianity.
Later in his career, Hitler would frequently return to this critique. Christianity was tarnished because of its Jewish origins and its inclination towards subservience. ‘The unity of the Germans must be guaranteed by a new worldview,’ he said in 1933, ‘since Christianity in its present form is no longer equal to the demands being placed on the bearers of national unity.’ Indeed, he seems to have become progressively more hostile as time went on. By 1942, he deplored Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, as this had foisted onto the culture ‘the whole of this Jewish mumbo-jumbo’. He pledged a reckoning with the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, as ‘an evil that’s gnawing our vitals’.
‘Pure Christianity – the Christianity of the catacombs – leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely whole-hearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics,’ he said.
Indeed, his architect and munitions czar Albert Speer recalled that Hitler expressed regret that Christianity (with its ‘meekness and flabbiness’) had claimed the Germans rather than Islam, to which their national character was more suited. And, being of superior racial stock, Islamicised Germans would have supplanted the Arabs and Turks as leaders of the Muslim world.
However, the description of Hitler as an atheist overstates the case, too. Weikert argues through a thorough analysis of Hitler’s recorded views, those of his contemporaries and the politics of the time that all evidence suggests that he had no meaningful Christian views, but retained a vague sense of the Divine, fused with a wonder at nature and an obsession with the pseudo-science of his ideology, perhaps something that might be described as pantheistic. (Weikert has in the past attracted some controversy for his own views on intelligent design, and for asserting a link between Darwinism and Nazism. Whatever the merits of those critiques, his treatment of Hitler’s religious views is not only worth reading, but in line with most other scholarship that I’m aware of.)
Hitler certainly had a fascination with science. ‘Today no one who is familiar with natural science can any longer take seriously the teaching of the church. What stands in contradiction to natural laws cannot be from God.,’ he said. He mused about the future design for the city of Linz – his childhood home – which would include an observatory that would bedazzle crowds and function as a sort of secular, priest-free place of pilgrimage.
Michael Burleigh, another prolific scholar of the Nazi period, concurs, stating in Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda that Hitler ‘subscribed to the view that science had largely supplanted Christianity, without rationalism eradicating the need for belief, or undermining the existence of a creator God in whom he continued to believe.’ Burleigh wrote elsewhere, in The Third Reich: A New History, (in my view one of the most insightful thematic treatments of Nazism), that ‘Hitler’s God was not the Christian God, as conventionally understood.’
Alan Bullock, one of the greatest historians of the period, described Hitler’s religious views as being those of a ‘rationalist and a materialist’. Bullock locates this within the process of the dethronement of religion by scientific progress in the nineteenth century. But Bullock is equally clear that Hitler was not drawn to Soviet-style atheism. The Soviets, Hitler remarked, ‘were entitled to attack their priests, but they had no right to assail the idea of a supreme force. It’s a fact that we’re feeble creatures and that a creative force exists.’
Bullock’s interpretation was that vague and undeveloped ideas around the Divine mirrored his personality and the politics he espoused:
What interested Hitler was power, and his belief in Providence or Destiny was only a projection of his own sense of power. He had no feeling or understanding for either the spiritual side of human life or its emotional, affective side. Emotion to him was the raw material of power. The pursuit of power cast its harsh shadow like a blight over the whole of his life. Everything was sacrificed to the ‘world historical’ image; hence the poverty of his private life and of his human relationships.
As for the notion that he may have had pagan or occultist leanings, this can be dispensed with. There is no evidence for this at all; they appealed to some of his party colleagues, but Hitler seems to have regarded such ideas with contempt.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels may have put it best: ‘The Führer is deeply religious, but entirely anti-Christian. He sees in Christianity a symptom of decay. Rightly so. It is a strata deposited by the Jewish race.’
So, Hitler was no Christian, nor conventionally religious in any sense – though also not an atheist, again in the sense that we might intuitively understand the concept.
Does that imply something similar about Nazi Germany? Veneration for religion within the state is, after all, what the quote that Ivo cites refers to.
This is probably a more complex matter that Hitler’s personal beliefs, although the historical record of the society is far more accessible that Hitler’s own thought processes. Nazi Germany was actually a chaotic state system, with power split along confusing lines of authority and contested by different factions as well as along regional lines, as local party barons carved out their own fiefdoms.
It’s worth noting, though, that Hitler’s comments about Christians being at the head of the country and respecting and protecting the Church were made in the context of a Concordat with the Vatican. At this point, the Nazis had not consolidated their power; reaching an agreement with the Vatican and the Catholic Church gave them a boost of legitimacy among German Catholics, and, crucially, helped to neuter the opposition Catholic Centre Party.
The Concordat supposedly guaranteed the rights of the Catholic Church, an appealing prospect for the latter given its uncomfortable relationship with German nationalism going back to the 19th Century – Catholicism was, after all, a belief system with universalist ideals – and its scepticism of Nazi ideology.
Whatever Hitler may have promised rapidly fell apart. Anton Gill describes it in An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945:
‘The advantage for the Catholic Church was that, under the terms of the agreement, the State would leave it alone. The advantage for Hitler was that he gained the support of the Catholic political parties (for the brief period that he needed it – ironically the Concordat was signed just after the abolition of all parties in Germany save the National Socialists). With his usual irresistible bullying technique, Hitler then proceeded to take a mile where he had been given an inch. Exploiting the imprecisions in the agreement, he proceeded to close down all Catholic organisations whose functions were not strictly religious, and it quickly became clear that he intended to imprison the Catholics, as it were, in their own churches. They could celebrate mass and retain their ritual as much as they liked, but they could have nothing at all to do with German society otherwise. Catholic schools and newspapers were closed, and a propaganda campaign against the Catholics was launched.’
Nazi policy towards the Christian Churches vacillated. Throughout much of the 1930s, there seems to have been a sense of consolidating a Nazified Protestant Church – the German Christian movement being the primary vehicle here – although this was paired with some crass anti-religiosity. This included the harassment of believers, the vandalism of church property and religious shrines, and attempts to supplant religious festivities with secular equivalents, sometimes even simply offering beer and sausage parties to attract the faithful who might otherwise have been in the pews. A flavour of this is seen in this Hitler Youth song from the Nuremburg Rally in 1934:
We are the joyful Hitler Youth
We need no Christian virtue
For our Führer Adolf Hitler Is ever our Mediator.
No pastor, no evil one,
can hinder Us from feeling as Hitler’s children.
We follow not Christ but Horst Wessel, [A Nazi Martyr]
Away with incense and holy water.
The church can be taken away from me,
The swastika is redemption on the earth,
It will I follow everywhere,
Baldur von Schirach [leader of the Hitler Youth], take me along!
The relationship between the Church and the Nazis was complicated. Many Christians and clergymen reconciled themselves to the new order, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes not. A few spoke out bravely against it, most notably over the ‘euthanasia’ of mentally handicapped people. Pope Pius XI wrote an Encyclical (Mit brennender Sorge) on the situation in Germany in 1937, criticising both the conduct of the state and its ideology. It was read by the clergy from the pulpit, to the anger of the Nazis ̶ and brought down a fresh wave of harassment. Some churchmen, Catholic and Protestant, paid for their stance through deportation to concentration camps.
The imperative of protecting their institutional interests – even as these were progressively restricted – and the position in German society of their adherents meant that relatively few Church officers were willing forthrightly to attempt to intervene on the direst Nazi policy, that towards the Jews. (This was also true of traditional Christian antisemitism, it can confidently be said, although here again it bears noting that this a very different idea from the eliminationist, pseudo-scientific Nazi version.)
Overt hostility to the Churches was dialled back somewhat with the outbreak of war. This is ascribed to the need to tap whatever emotional resources were available, and recognition of the view that absolution and the promise of an afterlife would count for a great deal for millions of young men and their families. German soldiers – though not SS troops – would wear belt buckles with the slogan ‘Gott mit Uns’ (‘God is with us’). They would be ministered to by Christian chaplains (though not in the air force, which was under the control of Hermann Goering, and was the most directly politicised branch of the military). At home, ministers would pray for their country, many asking specifically for victory over the godless Bolsheviks.
Individual Nazis spanned a wide range of religious convictions. These included people who might be described as sincere Christians in a more-or-less traditional casting. Erich Koch, Gauleiter (regional leader) of East Prussia and later involved in the occupied Eastern territories in Eastern Europe, was a senior member of the Synod of the Lutheran Church in his home district. By all accounts, his faith was real. So too were the crimes he presided over, for which he was ultimately sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment.)
Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private secretary, by contrast was viciously hostile to Christianity. ‘Christianity and National Socialism are phenomena that originated from entirely different causes,’ he wrote to a colleague, ‘Fundamentally both differ so strongly that it would not be possible to conduct a Christian teaching which would be completely compatible with the point of view of the National Socialist ideology.’ Interestingly, he couched the superiority of Nazism in a vocabulary of ‘science’ as opposed to the superstitions of the Church.
At one point, Bormann even attempted to ban the performance of religious music, though on this he received some pushback from party colleagues. Religious music, it was felt, constituted an important element of German culture. Walter Tiessler, an associate of Goebbels, responded: ‘If the Führer as a non-Christian nevertheless possesses enough piety to go to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus every year and listen for six hours to Parsifal, a completely “Christian” work, then we as National Socialists need be no more negative [about religious music] than the Führer himself.’
Steigmann-Gall argues that Nazism drew on some elements of Germany’s Christian heritage, ambiguously to be sure, and with an undertone of hostility. But Christian influences were not entirely absent: ‘The Nazis represented a departure from previous Christian practices. However, this did not make them un-Christian. Whereas millions of Catholics and Protestants in Germany did not think Nazism represented their interests or aims, there were many others who regarded Nazism as the correct Christian response to what they saw as harsh new realities.’
For Burleigh, it is worth noting that many Christians seem able to reconcile their faith with Marxism, its materialist ideology and historical record. To do so with an ideology that could at least pay lip service to the idea of the Divine was a ‘second-order obstacle’.
The goal of this was essentially politically totalitarian, not spiritual or esoteric. Nazism demanded unfettered obedience to itself and the remaking of German society. If people wished to pray to and commune with a distant and invisible God, that was to be discouraged, but tolerated as long as it had no political (or increasingly social) meaning – at least anything with an oppositional inflection. If it exhibited any it would be dealt with. Hitler expressed this in 1939 in terms that secular liberal democrats might approve of: ‘The National Socialist state is at any time ready to undertake a clear separation of church and state, as is already the case in France, America and other countries.’ He went on to warn that that state would not tolerate Church meddling in affairs of state.
A professor from my student days – Prof John Laband, better known for his work on Zulu history – described the Nazi view as being that the existing generations were effectively lost to the full Nazi worldview, including on matters of religion. It was in socialising the young and successive generations that their vision would come to fruition. And ultimately, Christianity as a whole was unlikely to be part of the long-term future to which Nazism aspired.
Does any of this really matter?
Well, I find it interesting for its own sake, but that’s really a personal indulgence – something I have the privilege of doing as a regular columnist.
More to the point, the enormity of the crimes of the Nazis and of Adolf Hitler means that to invoke it is to draw a pretty monstrous comparison, one that is often premised more on an emotional value than an intellectual one. It’s important I think to be very clear that such comparisons are valid.
It’s a long-standing rhetorical point in South Africa, for example, the extent to which apartheid can be compared or equated with Nazism. This is central to the framing of Reconciliation through Truth: A Reckoning of Apartheid’s Criminal Governance, by former cabinet minister, the late Kader Asmal, with his collaborators Louise Asmal and Ronald Suresh Roberts. As a rhetorical bludgeon, that comparison can be effective; as a tool for explanation, it is deficient. Overlaps between the two systems certainly existed, though their origins and motivations and modes of operation were vastly different. Each was a unique system that demands to be understood on its own terms.
For much the same reason, a Nazi comparison with religiously driven activists in a modern democracy misses the mark greatly. It does not describe the religious inclinations of Hitler or of the party and state he presided over.
I think that Ivo’s overall concern – as I read it, the intrusion of state-sponsored religion into public spaces – is a valid and serious one. I would not advocate the kind of total separation that he seems to be in favour of (which is a discussion for another day) but I’d agree that what is being proposed across the Atlantic is not an idea for us to follow. (Incidentally, there’s no need to go that far – Gayton McKenzie is adamant that he will insist on bringing God back into schools.) A reference to Nazism does nothing useful to make that point.
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