TAG | National Socialism
The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on a new exhibit on Berlin dedicated to the Third Reich.
This passage in particular caught my eye:
BERLIN — As artifacts go, they are mere trinkets — an old purse, playing cards, a lantern. Even the display that caused the crowds to stop and stare is a simple embroidered tapestry, stitched by village women. But the exhibits that opened Friday at the German Historical Museum are intentionally prosaic: they emphasize the everyday way that ordinary Germans once accepted, and often celebrated, Hitler. The household items had Nazi logos and colors. The tapestry, a tribute to the union of church, state and party, was woven by a church congregation at the behest of their priest.
And yet the pope, a “subtle historian”, people tell me, is a man, who despite education, heritage and, quite possibly, the experiences of his youth, who chooses to claim that the Nazis were atheists. Odd that.
And it’s not just the pope. Here we have Chris Patten, a less than positive presence in British public life and the individual given the task of extricating the recent papal visit from the chaos to which the church’s incompetence had reduced it, writing in the latest European Voice:
Many secularists argue that ever since the Enlightenment, reason has been enough to guide governance and policymaking, buttressed by the rule of law if a community is lucky. But Benedict asserted the importance of faith alongside reason and law in safeguarding our civilisation. Europe’s foundations lie not just in Aristotle, reason, and classical Greece, and not just in Rome with its understanding of the importance of the law, but also in Jerusalem and the Abrahamic faith groups – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Reason devoid of ethics can prove insufficient to support the survival of civilisation, a point that the pope’s own homeland, Germany, discovered in the 1930s.
“Reason devoid of ethics” has to be one of the more boneheaded descriptions I have yet read of Nazi ideology, a mish-mash of beliefs that were, at their core, not only profoundly irrationalist but also explicitly and perversely “moral”. That morality may have been grotesque, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was quite deliberately intended to supplement and, where necessary, supplant the exercise of reason.
The whole Patten piece is instructive reading, both for its exaggerated sense of the importance of the papal visit (in the end, a modest success that confounded some of its more dunderheaded critics, but which is likely to prove of little lasting significance) and for the usual hymn to Thomas More, a man who certainly stood up with some courage for what he believed to be right, but also an apparatchik with relatively few qualms about using state power to crush the freedom of conscience of others. More should be judged by the standards of his time, not ours, but it is still possible to discern within this tough, convinced and clever thinker the first glimpses of the Bolshevik nightmare to come. I’ll pick someone else to mourn, thank you.
One academic’s (the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College) response to the pope’s claim that the Nazis were atheists (in reality, some were and some were not) can be found here. An extract follows:
Christian theologians, Catholic and Protestant, reassured Germans that Nazism was in full accord with Christian principles. This was not a marginal effort; at the 1934 Oberammergau passion play, watching Jesus being hoisted on the cross, the audience saw a parable of the Third Reich, calling out: “There he is. That is our Führer, our Hitler!”
Hitler became Christ, the redeemer of Germany, thanks to a reinterpretation of the Gospels: Jesus was not a Jew, but an Aryan who came to redeem them from the Jews who sought their destruction. Karl Adam, the prominent German Catholic theologian, affirmed in 1933 that Hitler was the one “prophesied by our poets and our wise men” who suffered in his fight for Germany’s salvation. Adam continued in 1941: “Christ’s teaching was entirely anti-Jewish in its tenor (that is why he was crucified).”
Nuts, of course, but atheist?
Well, here is Hitler (cited in Table Talk) on October 24, 1941:
It’s senseless to encourage man in the idea that he’s a king of creation, as the scientist of the past century tried to make him believe…The Russians 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.”
Hitler’s comments on this topic are often contradictory, and often self-serving, but those remarks do not sound like the opinions of an atheist to me.
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.
Here’s a curious passage from the first speech that the pope made on arriving in Britain:
“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society…As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’ (Caritas in Veritate, 29).”
Why curious? Because of this phrase:
“a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”
The pope is not only a clever and highly-educated man, he is also someone who grew into adolescence under the Third Reich. He will thus know perfectly well that the Nazi attitude towards religion is a highly complex topic. It is true, of course, that a number of leading Nazis were atheists. It is also true that the Nazi accommodation with Germany’s Christian churches was largely a matter of cynical political calculation (at its core National Socialism was profoundly anti-Christian), but if and when the time came to replace Christianity the best guess is that the regime would have adopted some form of neo-paganism rather than the nominal atheism of the Soviet or Communist Chinese states. At the same time (and as discussed before on this site), Hitler himself does not appear to have been an atheist, and atheism was not something required of those in his inner circle.
None of this would be news to Benedict, so why then did he say what he did?