Was Hitler Christian? Was Nazism? An authoritative new book gives the answer.
Hitler is the trump card. Even if you hold a royal flush, if your opponent plays the Hitler card, you lose. Those arguing for Western Civilization or the Judeo-Christian tradition frequently fold when confronted by the mustachioed monster. Mention of Hitler is used to insist that we need to throw out the baby, throw out the bath water, and accept just about any alternative to Western Civilization as more peaceful, less genocidal, shinier and newer.
What is the genesis of Political Correctness? One good place to start seeking for that genesis is the West’s horrified backlash against, and attempt to compensate for, Nazism.
In the early twentieth century, society’s best and the brightest, including US presidents, The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly, Ivy League Universities and Congress accepted scientific racism. This Darwin-inspired worldview placed Nordic people at the pinnacle of human evolution. Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger advised abortion and sterilization for less-evolved humans. Carl Brigham invented intelligence tests, the ancestors of the SAT, that proved Polish immigrants incapable of education. Madison Grant, cofounder of the Bronx Zoo and board member at the Museum of Natural History, recommended elimination of the unfit. Hitler dubbed Grant’s 1916 book Passing of the Great Race his “Bible.” At the Nuremberg Trials, Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, would blame another publication from America’s scientific racism era, Henry Ford’s The International Jew, for his becoming an anti-Semite.
Grant and Lothrop Stoddard positioned their scientific racism in opposition to Christianity. Racism was supported by science, they insisted. Christianity was absurd, and its championing of the oppressed weakened society.
What happened? How did a society that had been excessively arrogant a hundred years ago become a society that expresses Politically Correct self-condemnation and shame today? World War II happened.
Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin killed more people than Hitler. Tamerlane, the fourteenth-century “Sword of Islam,” killed five percent of the world’s population. There are two important differences between other notorious genocides and Nazism. We read of Tamerlane’s mountains of skulls, his 1398 massacre of a hundred thousand infidels in Delhi, and his burying alive four thousand Armenian Christians in the name of Islam, but we do not witness these horrors. Hollywood directors did not film the eighteen million prisoners of the Soviet Gulag. Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock and George Stevens did participate in documentation of Nazi concentration camps. We don’t just read about Nazi horrors; we see them in documentary footage produced by experts.
There is a second important difference between the Holocaust and other horrors. Russia with its serfs, czars, and commissars, perennial enemy of Bond films; China, land of foot-binders and dog-eaters: they are alien to us. The Nazis are us. Germany was democratic, secular, capitalist, educated and industrialized. Beethoven, Einstein, Thomas Mann, hot dogs, hamburgers, Christmas trees: all German. More Americans trace their ancestry back to Germany than to any other country. English is a Germanic language.
Americans watching film footage of Nazis horrors felt shattered in a way that reading of a fourteenth-century massacre of Hindus by a Muslim could never shatter them. We in the West have looked at Nazi crimes and said, “There is something wrong with us. We must change.”
If quality X is associated with Hitler, we want to reject quality X. Hitler was a vegetarian; if someone wanted to prove that Hitler did what he did because he was a vegetarian, we might reject vegetarianism. This “logic” is fodder for jokes: “Do you drink water? So did Hitler!” an internet meme mock accuses.
It is exactly because the Hitler card is played against Western Civilization that everyone ought to read Richard Weikart’s new book, Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich. The book’s substance justifies Weikart’s clam that it is “the most extensive to date in the English language” on its topic. Weikart makes the case that Hitler’s God was a Darwin-inspired, non-personal, pantheistic deity exacting a pitiless survival-of-the-fittest-through-struggle morality. Neither Hitler nor Nazism were Christian, and the elimination of Christianity was certainly one of the long-term goals of Nazism. Previous canonical scholars have asserted part or all of Weikart’s main thesis; thus, his book should not be controversial.
Certainly when Nazism was arising, its flamboyant flirtations with Neo-Paganism and its attacks on Christianity were so obvious that in 1942, Polish-Jewish artist Artur Szyk depicted Hitler as the anti-Christ. Nazism declared itself a break with the Judeo-Christian tradition, obedient to science in a way that Christianity could never be, and a return to Pagan values rooted in one’s natal blood and soil. In his 1930 book The Myth of the Twentieth Century, Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg declared the “collapse” of all that had come before and a “new dawn” and “new faith” a “new light” a “new mission:” “blood and blood, race and race, folk and folk.” “That is the task of our century; to create a new human type out of a new view of life.” Goebbels wrote in his novel Michael of “demolishing his old faith world.” “The churches have failed. Totally failed. Millions await a new religion.”
The Third Reich flag is one of the most famous and in-your-face graphic designs in history: red field, white disc, black swastika. Dating back at least 11,000 years, the swastika is a near universal Pagan symbol for eternity, representing the path of the sun in the sky. TIME film critic Richard Corliss called the Hitler of Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous 1935 film, Triumph of the Will, a “Wagnerian deity.” Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia, documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympics, opens with a lengthy homage to Ancient Greece and Rome. Marble gods appear to spring to life in the bodies of German athletes. This homage makes clear that Nazism plans to skip over the inconvenient rise of Christianity and resurrect virile Pagan virtues. Hitler regarded pre-Christian Rome as humanity’s high point. The Luftwaffe bombed Coventry’s 14th century cathedral to a ruin, but Hitler would not allow Athens to be bombed.
Nazi Neo-Paganism was a lived experienced that bonded followers to one another and inspired them to reject their own reason and adopt the group’s morality. Historian Manfred Gailus wrote that Nazi religiosity was felt as “a mass experience, cult, ritual, as highly symbolic and sacred actions in the context of a novel NS annual calendar of festivals and celebrations of life.” “The whole country was as if under a kind of a spell,” reported Brunhilde Pomsel, Goebbels’ secretary, in 2016.
Living, nocturnal swastikas constituted of thousands of marchers carrying torches high aloft, the Blutfahne ceremony, in which a new swastika was consecrated through physical contact with a flag bearing Nazi blood, or the roll call for the martyrs of the Beer Hall Putsch: Nazis were diabolically clever at creating rituals that erased the past and sucked the participant into a new ethic. These rituals intoxicate audiences, even today. The London Times called Olympia “visually ravishing.” The spectacle, the camaraderie, the meaning, order and self-discipline, the loss of self and sacrificial surrender to a moving historical wave: watching Nazi spectacle, one is both moved and one is horrified by being moved. We are not immune to fascism’s appeal.
Nazi Neo-Paganism was inscribed into material culture including grave markers, jewelry and clothing. The SS insignia is in fact two runes: the doppelte Siegrune. Runes were letters of an ancient Germanic alphabet used in divination and magic. During the Nazi era, an extra key was added to German typewriters to make possible the typing of the double sieg rune with one stroke. The hagal rune was used at weddings to symbolize unshakeable faith in Nazism. The todesrune replaced the Christian cross in death notices and grave markers.
Nazi ritual inserted itself into spaces previously occupied by Christianity. Speer’s “Cathedral of Light,” created with anti-aircraft searchlights, was a new kind of church. The swastika was paraded through the streets at the center of a simulated monstrance – the golden container of the Eucharist. In classrooms, crucifixes were removed and replaced with Hitler’s photo. Hitler youth meetings were held on Sunday morning to make it impossible to attend church. Hitler youth sang “We need no Christian virtue. We follow not Christ but Horst Wessel.” “This [Nazi] cult cycle competed with the traditional Christian cycle,” writes Gailus.
Nazism’s targeting of Christianity, like its Neo-Pagan spectacles, was also obvious to the nervously watching world. By 1937, 12,000 Catholic priests had been persecuted by the Nazi regime. The Dachau concentration camp established a priests’ barracks for clergy in 1940. Catholic presses were closed. Catholic dissidents were murdered during the 1934 Night of the Long Knives. In 1935, seven hundred pastors of the Confessing Church were arrested. Catholic schools were disbanded. One of the first and one of the few wartime Hollywood films to address concentration camps was titled The Seventh Cross. The film’s title suggests American awareness of Nazism’s anti-Christian stance.
In short, it’s hardly a leap to refer to Nazism as anti-Christian and Neo-Pagan.
Why, then, is Weikart’s book so essential?
Because Hitler is the trump card, and cultural warriors want badly to play him.
Recent years have seen a new trend in publishing about the Holocaust. Authors link Nazism to Christianity. Richard Steigmann-Gall’s 2004 The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity 1919-1945 is one such book.
The Holy Reich states that “Christianity did not constitute a barrier to Nazism.” And that Nazi Germany was waging “a war in the name of Christianity.” Steigmann-Gall quotes John 16:2 “Whoever kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” This verse appears to support Steigmann-Gall’s insistence that Nazis were Christians murdering in obedience to unambiguous Biblical commands to do so. An Amazon reviewer says that Holy Reich convinced him that “the Nazis were inspired by Jesus’ message as delivered by the New Testament.”
New Atheists also play the Hitler card. The Richard Dawkins Foundation hosts a piece by Michael Sherlock stating “Hitler was a Christian … Christianity played a pivotal part in the heinous atrocities [committed by Hitler’s] Christian Nazi Party.” In his last interview, Christopher Hitchens insisted that 1930s fascism was equivalent to an “extreme-right Catholic party.” Atheist actor Stephen Fry attributed the Holocaust to right-wing Polish Catholics.
Are recent revisionist histories and New Atheist proselytizers correct? Was Hitler Christian? Was Nazism? No. And that “no” matters a lot.
None of us are Ancient Greek Pagans, but it would matter to us if Ancient Greece were misrepresented, because Ancient Greece is our roots. It matters to non-Christians when Christianity is represented as inherently genocidal and sadistic, because Christianity is one of the foundations of Western Civilization. When presidents insist that Islamic terror is merely payback for crimes committed by Christian Crusaders against inoffensive practitioners of the Religion of Peace, that matters. When universities teach that the only place Jews could thrive in pre-modern Europe was the “paradise” of “tolerant” “Golden Age” Al-Andalus, that matters. When social engineers declare that our Founding Fathers’ understanding of the right to life or the concept of marriage are merely waste products of a benighted worldview, that matters. When atheist ethicists like Peter Singer tell us that parents should be allowed to murder their own children, that matters. When Michael Shermer and Steven Pinker produce well-reviewed books that insist that as time passes evolution makes mankind more secular and more ethical, that matters.
It always matters when a scorched-earth Utopian comes along and says, “Everything about the past is corrupt, and everyone who came before us was a fool. Let’s erase the past and start fresh with a blank slate.” “Pure” people who offer this menu item tend to rack up large body counts. Christianity’s impact on Western Civilization is one baby and one basin of bath water we cannot allow to be falsified. The hero we need in this battle in the culture war is Richard Weikart.
Weikart points out that anyone who, as Hitchens does, quotes Hitler as if his every word were scrupulously true is naïve at best and consciously lying at worst. Hitler was a ruthless opportunist. Hitler’s 1938 insistence that the Sudetenland was “the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe” was one of the most notorious and consequential lies in history. Hitler mentions God in Mein Kampf; New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens insist that these mentions prove that Hitler was a Christian.
Let’s get real. Hitler mentioned God for two reasons: he was playing to his audience, and he was couching his own beliefs in language his followers would naively swallow. Hitler recognized that most Germans were Christian and that overt expression of his own contempt for Christianity would unnecessarily alienate people he wanted to keep on his team. Weikart makes this point abundantly clear with ample and unambiguous quotes from Hitler speaking with trusted intimates like Albert Speer, Martin Bormann, and Joseph Goebbels.
When Nazis did praise “Christianity” or “Jesus,” they were invoking an invented version of each, a version exclusive to Nazism, a version that Nazis themselves jettisoned when it ceased to serve their purposes. The Nazi Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. He performed no miracles. He was a violent, armed, blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan warrior against Jewish capitalism. Jews crucified him for this and he died, period. His death saved no one.
The Bible records that Jesus was the divine son of God. He performed miracles. Jesus was Jewish, the Temple was Jewish, and Jesus’ milieu was Jewish. Romans crucified him. Jesus chose not to fight back, but went like a lamb to slaughter. He rose from the dead, thus saving mankind. His opponent was not capitalism but original sin. Hitler denounced these beliefs as a “Jewish plot” to destroy the Ancient Pagan world. In any case, by 1940, Nazism’s so-called “Positive Christianity” was abandoned as a failed scheme.
When Hitler mentioned God, this is what he meant: the laws of nature reward unquestioning loyalty to one’s own breed and constant struggle to the death with outsiders and inferior specimens. God – in the form of natural cause and effect – rewards those who struggle for their own folk. This struggle is so ruthless that Germans ought to have many children in order that the bulk of them die, preserving the most fit. Hitler guestimated that killing seventy to eighty percent of German babies would result in an improved species.
The Lebensborn program mass produced German babies through breeding SS men with unwed women. Also, Nazis kidnapped tens of thousands of Polish children who showed what the Nazis assessed as Aryan traits. Kidnapped children were tested. If tests showed these children to be undesirable, they were killed in Auschwitz. If tests proved that they exhibited authentic Nordic traits, they were forcibly Germanized. Discipline of these kidnapped children was harsh. In one instance, institutionalized children undergoing Germanization were required to watch an SS man use a butcher’s ax to decapitate a misbehaving twelve-year-old Polish boy.
Conversely, 400,000 Germans with illnesses like epilepsy, alcoholism and depression were sterilized. Aktion T-4 murdered 200,000 handicapped Germans. The doctors and nurses who carried out these killings began the program by murdering German newborns and children under three years old.
Nazi mass-murder began with German babies and ended in an orgy of suicides. “We spoke about committing suicide as other people talk about fashions,” reported Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary. Suicidal Nazis often took entire families with them. Magda Goebbels rejected offers of escape. Rather, she fed her own six children cyanide before killing herself.
If Weikart is correct, what to make of all the new books identifying Nazism with Christianity? An Amazon reviewer called The Holy Reich “The most important study on Nazism. Ever.” Is that Amazon reviewer wrong? Yes, he is wrong.
In 2007 and 2013, The Journal of Contemporary History published several scholars’ critiques of The Holy Reich. These scholars include Manfred Gailus, Irving Hexham, Ernst Piper, and Samuel Koehne. These scholars make the following points about The Holy Reich. The book includes numerous errors of fact, including, in one instance, misspelling one historical figure’s name three different ways. “So considerable is the catalogue of skewed and distorted constructions and misinterpretations, of factual errors and slapdash work that I cannot pass over them without comment,” complained Manfred Gailus.
There’s more. Steigmann-Gall does not refer to pertinent scholarship, and he cherry-picks quotes that support his thesis, and leaves out material, often from the same source, that contradicts his thesis. Steigmann-Gall never addresses why Christians resisted Nazism while citing Christianity as their motive for that resistance.
Historian Ernst Piper simply states that “the contention that National Socialism was a profoundly anti-Christian movement endured for so long not because it was convenient for researchers not to prove otherwise but because it is a fact.” Samuel Koehne dismisses Holy Reich in similarly global terms.
As mentioned above, Steigmann-Gall quotes Christian scripture in a way that implies that the Bible orders Christians to murder Jews. It doesn’t. That quote is about early Christians being martyred for their faith.
Most readers will remain completely unaware of scholarly detractors from Steigmann-Gall’s work. Most readers will see a book entitled Holy Reich, view its cover photo of Hitler under a cross, and decide that yes, Nazism was Christian.
In Hitler’s Religion, Richard Weikart takes Steigmann-Gall on repeatedly. In a telling passage, Weikart reveals some hidden truths about Steigmann-Gall’s deceptive cover for Holy Reich. The cover depicts Hitler exiting a church. A brightly lit cross appears to spring from Hitler’s head.
Not so fast, Weikart warns. He reveals that the 1932 photograph was used in the 1933 propaganda pamphlet Hitler as No One Knows Him. Under it appeared the caption, “Hitler, the supposed ‘heretic’ leaving the Marinekirche [sic].” (Alas the Nazi pamphlet even misspelled the name of the church. The correct spelling is Marienkirche.) The photo’s original caption is telling. It reveals that Christians were condemning Hitler as a “heretic,” and that that criticism was causing damage. Nazis realized that they needed to sell him as a Christian. The cover of Hitler as No One Knows Him is a hideously awkward shot of Hitler casually lounging in an alpine meadow, a dog next to him. No intelligent person would accept this warm and cuddly Hitler at face value, nor should anyone uncritically embrace Hitler in the doorway of a church. Indeed, in the 1938 version of the pamphlet, the cross has been airbrushed out of the photo. The caption has been changed. The 1938 caption reads, “after sightseeing in the historic Marinekirche [sic].” By that time, Nazis were closer to abandoning the pretense that they were Christian, and more willing to signal that to them, Christianity was ready to be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Jews and Christians are important allies in the culture wars. An artificial construction of Nazism as Christian should not be a roadblock to our alliance. To anyone tempted to support this fallacy, please consider.
Understanding genocide as something Westerners, Christians, or white people do hampers our understanding of genocide as a phenomenon. In 1969, anthropologist Christy Turner began presenting evidence of a genocide of Anasazi by Toltecs in the Four Corners area. Toltecs mass-murdered Anasazi, and then ate their flesh. This genocide took place a thousand years ago, before Columbus arrived. Native Americans and Turner’s fellow anthropologists were scandalized and refused to believe his irrefutable forensic evidence. Many insist that genocide was strictly a practice of European Christians, and they insist on denying that this Native American genocide ever took place.
Christophobes allege that only two thousand years of uninterrupted hatred could cause humans to commit genocide. There are two things wrong with this assertion. First, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides were not preceded by millennia of training. We need to acknowledge that humans commit genocide even without thousands of years of rehearsal.
Second, anti-Semitism is a pathology. Like TB and plague, it spreads and retreats with historical circumstances. Christians have not practiced two thousand years of hate. There have been periods and regions when Christians were anti-Semitic, others when they were philosemitic, and still others when they were more or less indifferent. To understand genocide, we must understand temporary and local conditions that facilitate hatred.
Understanding anti-Semitism as a purely Christian phenomenon forces us to ignore the Roman, Pagan persecution of Jews of 70 AD, arguably the most cataclysmic persecution Jews endured before the Holocaust. Roman Pagans drove Jews out of Jerusalem and into diaspora, ending Temple Judaism and beginning rabbinical Judaism, and contributed to a massive drop in the world population of Jews, a population drop from which Jews did not recover for centuries. Roman Pagans renamed Judea “Palestine” in order to erase even the memory of Jews ever having lived there. We can’t understand Pagan anti-Semitism, Islamic anti-Semitism, or left-wing anti-Semitism on today’s campuses if we insist that anti-Semitism is a Christian monopoly.
Falsely identifying Nazism as a Christian phenomenon prevents us from understanding Nazism. Sam Harris, in his “Atheist Manifesto,” writes, “The anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity.” Harris insists, without support, that the Vatican perpetuated the blood libel “as late as 1914.” Harris doesn’t mention that popes, going back at least to the thirteenth century, took the lead in repeatedly and emphatically condemning blood libel.
I have three questions for Sam Harris. First, why did the Nazis themselves explicitly reject what you say? Again and again Nazis said that any anti-Jewish statements in Christianity were wrong, because they were about theological disagreements, not blood. Nazis did cite exactly the Darwin-inspired, race justifications that Weikart quotes at length. Read the actual words of scientific racists and Nazis, from Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant to Heinrich Himmler. Again and again, you will discover them speaking words that New Atheists themselves speak: “Christianity is absurd and unproven and it causes us to err through sentimentality. Science alone represents objective truth.” Christians have confronted and atoned for Christians’ failures. When will New Atheists acknowledge that their approach contributed to genocide?
Nazis didn’t murder only Jews. Nazis murdered three million Soviet POWs, and caused the death of an estimated 13.7 million Soviet civilians. In justifying their crimes against Jews, Slavs, and others, Nazis cited identical race-based justifications.
In speeches to his men, Heinrich Himmler offered a new ethic that justified the murder of Christian Slavs and Jews. Himmler said, “In Poland in weather forty degrees below zero, where we had to haul away thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, where we had to have the toughness – you should hear this but also forget it again immediately – to shoot thousands of leading Poles … The proud soldier says, ‘My God, why do I have to do that, this ridiculous job here!’ – It is much easier to go into combat with a company than to suppress an obstructive population of low cultural level, or to carry out executions, or to haul away people…
One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the S.S. men. We must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and nobody else. What happens to a Russian and a Czech does not interest me in the least. What the nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type we will take, if necessary by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us.
Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture: otherwise it is of no interest to me. Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished.”
I ask Sam Harris, if, as you say, the crematoria that incinerated Jews were constructed of Christian ideas, what about the crematoria that incinerated German children culled as evolutionarily unfit, or the Polish Catholics identified as Germans’ enemies in Nazism’s “survival of the fittest” morality?
It is undeniable that Nazism focused on Jews in a way that it did not focus on others, and that Nazis murdered almost six million Jews, or sixty percent of the world population. This is exceptional and is deservedly treated as exceptional. It is also true that anti-Semitism has been a plague in Christianity, and that Christians must never shirk the struggle against anti-Semitism. We all know that most Germans, including Germans who committed atrocities, identified as Christian. All these facts demand and receive massive attention. I have only praise for books like Robert P. Erickson’s Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany that demonstrate how Germany’s best and brightest, from university professors to theologians, abandoned their core values. There’s a difference between saying that Christians distorted their faith to support Nazism and saying that Nazism is Christian.
Every semester I ask my university students what group the Nazis mass murdered first and last, even after they surrendered to the Allies. “Nazis murdered Jews first,” my students respond. No. Communists. No. Homosexuals. No.
When I tell them it was handicapped Germans, they are dumbstruck and unbelieving. They have no pattern into which to fit this fact. They have been taught that Nazism is a function of Christianity, and a damning blot on Western Civilization. They have not been taught about how Nazi anti-Semitism fits into a Darwin-inspired, Neo-Pagan, nationalist worldview.
My students don’t know that Hitler expressed genocidal intent for Poles: “I have placed my death-head formation in readiness … with orders to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.” Poles were shot by Einsatzgruppen. Approximately two million non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered. Auschwitz was initially created, and run for its first 18 months, as a center of internment of Poles. Poles were tortured, dispossessed, and the subject of medical experimentation. Polish bodies were turned into soap. Between 1.5 and 3 million Poles were conscripted into forced labor. Almost twenty percent of Polish priests were murdered. Even as the advancing, victorious Red Army was within sight of soon-to-be-defeated Germans, even as the Allies advanced from the west, German soldiers went building to building in Warsaw, killing civilians with flamethrowers, targeting churches, museums, and libraries. Himmler ordered, “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth … No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.” There was no military reason for this. Sam Harris’ “explanation” that Christianity is responsible for Nazism is revealed as patently inadequate when one considers what Nazi Germany did to Catholic Poles, or the German handicapped, or Soviet POWs, or Romani.
Richard Weikart’s explanation works.