One of the pleasures (really) of blogging away on an interesting topic is when a reader alerts you to an angle or a source of which you were previously unaware. That brings me to a book called The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-45, by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Cambridge University Press). To say that it appears to be relevant to my earlier post concerning the pope’s curious comments on the “atheist” Third Reich is an understatement.
Here’s part of the publisher’s blurb:
Analyzing the previously unexplored religious views of the Nazi elite, Richard Steigmann-Gall argues against the consensus that Nazism as a whole was either unrelated to Christianity or actively opposed to it. He demonstrates that many participants in the Nazi movement believed that the contours of their ideology were based on a Christian understanding of Germany’s ills and their cure. A program usually regarded as secular in inspiration – the creation of a racialist ‘people’s community’ embracing antisemitism, antiliberalism and anti-Marxism – was, for these Nazis, conceived in explicitly Christian terms. His examination centers on the concept of ‘positive Christianity,’ a religion espoused by many members of the party leadership. He also explores the struggle the ‘positive Christians’ waged with the party’s paganists – those who rejected Christianity in toto as foreign and corrupting – and demonstrates that this was not just a conflict over religion, but over the very meaning of Nazi ideology itself.
The work of a crank? Well, when one reads extracts from reviews like this one by Richard Evans (Regius Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge), you are inclined to think not:
‘There has been a huge amount of research on the attitude of the Christian Churches to the Nazis and their policies, but astonishingly until now there has been no thorough study of the Nazis’ own religious beliefs. Richard Steigmann-Gall has now provided it. He has trawled through a lot of very turgid literature to show that active Nazis from the leadership down to the lower levels of the party were bitterly opposed to the Catholic Church, but had a much more ambivalent attitude to Protestantism and to Christianity in a wider sense … Far from being uniformly anti-Christian, Nazism contained a wide variety of religious beliefs, and Steigmann-Gall has performed a valuable service in providing a meticulously documented account of them in all their bizarre variety.’
The book’s introduction is online here, and it concludes with these words:
“For many of its leaders, Nazism was not the result of a “Death of God” in secularized society, but rather a radicalized and singularly horrific attempt to preserve God against secularized society.”
I’ll have to actually read the book (of course!) before coming to any judgement. On the basis of its introduction, however, it seems that some of my own assumptions about this whole topic may well not emerge unscathed. Much more importantly, to the extent that the author’s arguments hold up, they will (again) raise the question of what the pope, who must be assumed to be well-versed in these matters, thought he was doing when he described Nazism as an atheist creed.
I note, incidentally, that among the reviews extracted by the publishers is one by Michael Burleigh, a fine historian of the Third Reich, a great historian of ‘political religion’, a conservative and, I should add, a devout Roman Catholic. The extract reads as follows:
‘The Holy Reich is both deeply researched and thoughtfully argued. It is the first comparative analysis of the religious beliefs of leading Nazis and a timely reminder of the intimate relations between liberal Protestantism and National Socialism. This is an important and original book by a talented young scholar that deserves as wide a readership as possible.’
So many books, so little time.