The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, by Richard Steigmann-Gall
A popular belief is that Nazism was the polar opposite of Christianity: in Germany, the Nazis planned to eliminate Christian churches while devout Christians opposed the Nazi agenda. Is this perception accurate? No. Some Nazis were anti-Christian and some Christians were anti-Nazi, but the majority were equally at home in both camps.
Traditional evaluation of Christian complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes focuses on the degree to which Christians allowed themselves to be used for Nazi purposes, but this presupposes a distinction between Nazis and Christians which did not entirely exist. Many Christians actively supported the Nazi agenda. Many Nazis were not only devout Christians, but also believed that Nazi philosophy was animated by Christian doctrine.
The Christianity promoted by the Nazis was labeled “positive Christianity,” a perspective that focused on the relationship between Christian promises of salvation and the German Volk as a special race of people. Point 24 of the NSDAP Party Program, created in 1920 and never rescinded, reads:
“We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without owing itself to a particular confession. It fights the spirit of Jewish materialism within us and without us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our Volk can only take place from within, on the basis of the principle: public need comes before private greed.”How is all of this possible? How can the reality of the relationship between Nazism and Christianity be so far removed from popular perception? The truth about all this is detailed in Richard Steigmann-Gall’s book The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945.
Christians avert their faces from the true relationship between their religion and Nazism in part because the truth is difficult to bear, but also in part because they simply don’t understand what Christianity was like in Germany at the time.
“Positive Christians may have said little or nothing about the Augsburg Confession or other signifiers of theological orthodoxy, but they nonetheless regarded Christian social theories — “practical Christianity” as it was also known — as a linchpin of their worldview. Although generally unconcerned with dogma, many of these Nazis nonetheless adhered to basic precepts of Christian doctrine — most importantly the divinity of Christ as the son of God. Although they clearly departed from conventional theology in their rejection of the Old Testament and insistence on Christ’s Aryanhood, they were not simply distorting Christianity for their own ends or engaging in idiosyncratic religious meandering. Only by ignoring the intellectual precedents for these ideas can we argue that positive Christianity was an “infection” of an otherwise pristine faith. Rather. These ideas found expression among bona fide voices of Kulturprotestantismus before the Nazi Party ever existed.”
Although Christians today may find it implausible that religion as they practice it could have anything in common with Nazism, they need to recognize that Christianity — including their own — is always conditioned by the culture where one finds it. For Germans at the beginning of the 20th century, this meant that Christianity was often profoundly anti-Semitic and nationalistic. This was the same ground which the Nazis found so fertile for their own ideology — it would have been amazing had the two systems not found a great deal in common and been unable to find a way to work together.
Germany after World War I was regarded as a godless, secular, materialistic republic which had betrayed all of Germany’s traditional morals, values, and religious beliefs. An important aspect of the Nazis’ appeal to the great mass of religiously conservative Germans was the fact that they said all the right things about the evils of atheism, materialism, greed, corruption, law and order, communism, and religious values.
Alongside the Christian Nazis were a number of anti-Christian Nazis who sought to create a new, neo-pagan religion for the German people. These were, however, relatively few in number and their views were never officially endorsed by the Party or by Hitler. Slightly more common were anti-clerical Nazis who continued to accept basic theistic and Christian doctrines, but who repudiated churches and priests. This seems to have been a view gradually adopted by Hitler himself.
Isn’t it true, though, that Hitler sought to eliminate churches and Christianity from Germany? It’s been said that Hitler only spoke positively about Christianity in public because he had to in order to maintain support from the German people; in private, he admitted to his true hatred of all things Christian. This view is based upon allegedly private comments recorded in the book Hitler Speaks, but Steigmann-Gall argues that the balance of evidence indicates that these statements are probably forgeries and are regarded as such by many scholars.
Sometimes people use passages from Hitler’s Table Talks to argue that Hitler was really anti-Christian, but even if the authenticity of this entire collection of reminiscences is acknowledged, there is far more ambiguity and pro-Christian commentary than is usually acknowledged. It would be surprising if Hitler had never said anything critical of churches, priests, and Christianity and so the existence of some negative quotes is expected. What matters most is the overall balance of his commentary — and that is indisputably pro-Christian and pro-religion.
The deliberate promotion of pagan beliefs was a minority within the Nazi Party. Alfred Rosenberg favored the creation of a new religion, but Hitler went so far as to threaten to take action against his book Mythus, and it was banned by some lower-ranking party organizations. Himmler was obsessed with ancient Germans, but Hitler dismissed this as ridiculous — and even Himmler insisted that Christian viewpoints be respected within the SS. At times he admitted that he was less anti-Christian than anti-clerical.
One important point about all this which may be missed is the fact that these and other pagan Nazis never pretended to be anything else — they never affected a pro-Christian stance in public in order to win over the approval of the German people. When Nazis were pagan, it appears that they were unabashedly and enthusiastically pagan, without apology.
This makes it difficult to argue that other leading Nazis, like Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler himself, only pretended to be pro-Christian for the sake of public relations. If they had wanted to endorse a new paganism in Germany, they had ample opportunity. Instead, what we have are a few Nazis publicly endorsing paganism, but most Nazis publicly endorsing Christianity and all official party organs endorsing Christianity, right up to the official party platform.
Reviewed by Austin Cline
- Hitler’s Christianity, by J.P. Holding: A Brief Response (arizonaatheist.blogspot.com)
- On Hitler’s Christianity: Another Factless Reply From J.P. Holding & My Response (arizonaatheist.blogspot.com)
- Does the Munich hoard turn the story of art and the Nazis on its head? (theguardian.com)
- Nazi Germany: A Christian Nation Run Amok? (atheistrev.com)
- “Hitler’s Furies” Reveals Nazi Women Who Were as Evil as the Men (warhistoryonline.com)
- Goebbels, Reich and Art (artlark.org)