Godwin’s Pope? (2)

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.

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15 Responses to Godwin’s Pope? (2)

  1. David Hume says:

    in university i took a minor concentration in history, and most of my coursework was on german history. i did a lot of reading on the religious/ideological motivations, attitudes, etc., of the national socialist movement and its antecedents. unlike something like communism the proto-nazis and nazis seem to have had a diversity of views, and there were debates even at the highest reaches. e.g., himmler was very much in favor of a revival of organized paganism, while hitler seemed more ambivalent, and his personal private religiosity was probably what we would describe as ‘new age.’ from what i recall goebbels was not interested in religion except in an instrumental sense, so he was probably atheistic/apatheist.

    i can give a piece of data though. circa 1935 95% of german citizens were paying church tax, which is an indicator of at least minimal affiliation with organized christianity. but in the SS officer corps in 1940 ~90% gave their religion as “god believers,” which was vague unspecified theism. the waffen SS in france was also associated with sacrilege of catholic cemeteries.

  2. David Hume says:

    the nazis were atheist in a very specific way: they clearly were in general suspicious of christianity as it was conventionally understood. i do not believe that ‘german christianity’ would have succeeded as a long term project, it seems that they were always on the defensive because it was really hard to consistently deny christianity’s jewish origins (though there were plenty of ways of aryanizing christ, and turning race into a sacrament). many christians confuse anti-christianity with atheism. i think this is somewhat ironic, because the roman pagan state regularly accused christians of atheism because the christians denied all gods but theirs.

  3. Dan B says:

    It seems to me that the framework of religion greased the skids of the Nazis. Religion sets the precedent for there being a leader and for blind devotion to that leader. Unplug Jesus and plug in Hitler. The framework is already there. Christianity certainly spent centuries vilifying Jews and made sport of killing them. Once again the pope is trying to blame someone else when his church played a very big role in the holocaust. Germany was a Christian nation and the Nazis were a product of that Christian culture.

  4. Art says:

    “… a timely reminder of the intimate relations between liberal Protestantism and National Socialism.”

    Yeah, the relations were particularly intimate on the beaches of Normandy, June 6th, 1944 .

    Only a blithering idiot could associate anything the Nazi’s did with Christianity. In what way was Nazism compatible with the Gospel of Christ? In what way was Nazism incompatible with atheism?

    You may call anything you like “Christian”, but that may only reveal what a fool and a bigot you are.

  5. David Hume says:

    . In what way was Nazism compatible with the Gospel of Christ? In what way was Nazism incompatible with atheism?

    You may call anything you like “Christian”, but that may only reveal what a fool and a bigot you are.

    i let the comment through to illustrate how “christian” some people can behave….

    (the comment is stupid yes, but just because someone is ignorant or stupid doesn’t mean they have to be uncharitable)

  6. jamesofengland says:

    Sorry to be leaving this on the wrong thread, but I couldn’t comment on the older thread and it seems somewhat relevant here, too.

    You responded to a commenter saying that atheists had committed all the really huge atrocities of the C20 by suggesting that Communism might be a religion. Do I understand you to believe that if Communism is a religion it might be a theistic one, or that there is a sense in which self-identified communist atheists of the Stalin/ Mao variety are actually theists, agnostics, or members of another category?

  7. Cyg says:

    Hitler considered himself a Christian when he wrote Mein Kampf. PZ Meyers has reproduced a list of quotes from that book and other sources showing Hitler did not consider himself an Atheist: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/09/list_of_hitler_quotes_in_honor.php

    Also from the Web: “Raised as Catholic, [Hitler] went to a monastery school and, interestingly, walked everyday past a stone arch which was carved the monastery’s coat of arms which included a swastika. As a young boy, Hitler’s most ardent goal was to become a priest.” http://www.nobeliefs.com/hitler.htm

    One might argue this is “early 1925 Hitler.” But he encouraged everyone to read Mein Kampf long after he became Fuhrer.

    It might also be argued that his views do not represent “true” Christianity. Admitedly, Hitler’s Christianity was not of the “turn the other cheek” variety that is today’s norm.

    For example, he says, “My feelings as a Christian point me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison.” (quoted from PZ’s list of Hitler quotes cited above)

    Hitler was against not only the Jews as a people, but also “Jewish ideas” more broadly. For example, he considered the Ten Commandments a Jewish idea, especially the commandment not to kill, which he felt weakened Germans and kept them from achieving their full lebensraumic potential.

    So, compared to modern Christians who may passively believe Christianity supplanted Judaism, Hitler urged the active suppression of everything Jewish. After all, isn’t it he natural order of things for the superior culture to dominate the weaker? In fact weakness in all forms must be eradicated.

    As Hitler said, “The worst danger is that we are interrupting the natural selection process ourselves (by caring for the sick and the weak). … The most far-sighted racial state in history, Sparta, systematically implemented these racial laws.”


    It’s Darwinist phrases like “natural selection” that Christians pick up on to prove Hitler’s atheism. But clearly, it’s an open question.

  8. Andrew Stuttaford says:

    James of England (the fellow who had a rough 1688?), this is a very interesting topic – and a huge one. I’ve touched upon it here and there on this site and elsewhere. Anything I write in a comments box is inevitably going to be a gross oversimplification, but, put very briefly, I see communism (at least when we are talking about its true believers) as a millennial cult possessing very many of the characteristics of a religion. With the exception of a brief time and place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution,communism was, of course,explictly atheist, but it’s better understood as an atheist faith. There was still plenty to worship, not least an almost supernatural concept of “history”.

    Can you attribute the savagery of communism specifically to its atheism?

    I’m not convinced. I suspect that the explanation for those horrors are better found (a) in Communism’s willingness–like so many other creeds–to divide humanity into the Saved and the rest; (b) in the prior history of many of the societies in which it came to prevail; (c)in brutal power politics: and (d)in the availability of technologies that made slaughtering those tens of millions so much easier than would have been the case in earlier centuries.

    Do I think, however, that the absence of a divine brake on behavior made things worse in many individual cases? Yes.

  9. तथागत) says:

    Just a footnote: Rudolph Hoss, who ran Auschwitz, grew up in a strict Catholic family, had notions of becoming a priest, and asked for Allah’s forgiveness prior to his execution.

  10. Natalie says:

    I’m not sure if this has been mentioned, but (as shown in the picture) Nazi soldiers’ helmets said “Gott mit uns”–“God with us.”

  11. Andrew Stuttaford says:

    James of England, I should add that the North Korean variant of communism has at times appeared to have room for the idea that there was something of the supernatural about both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

  12. Eugene says:

    The Nazis were a broad “church” to coin the term. Most of the SS were anti-Christian, and specifically anti-Catholic. The Polish clergy were treated as an intellectual elite to be eliminated.

    “”The day after the occupation of Warsaw the Germans arrested some 330 priests. In Cracow the closest collaborators of Archbishop Monsignor Sapicha were arrested and sent to Germany. The Rev. Canon Czaplicki, 75 years of age, and his assistant, were executed in November, 1939.”
    The report of the Polish Government quotes the following words of Cardinal Hlond:-
    “The clergy are persecuted very harshly. Those who have been permitted to stay are subjected to humiliation, are paralysed in the exercise of their pastoral duties, and are stripped of parochial benefices and of all their rights. They are entirely at the mercy of the Gestapo.” It is like the Apocalyptic vision of the ‘Fides Depopulata”

    From the nuremberg trials.


  13. Eugene says:

    by the way the Pope said

    “Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

    “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of 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 a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.””

    the first part referenced Naziism, the second paragraph references atheist extremism ( covering both Nazis and , no doubt, communists).

    Modern Atheists are pretty thick, these days, ( posters to Secular Right and GNXP generally excepted). That said, ( even if we accept that the the Pope is wrong in calling the Nazis’ Atheists), it is clear to anybody with logic 101 that the Pope does not call Atheists Nazis, but Nazis atheists.

    Am I saying all black things are dogs, because I think all dogs are black?

    It was the Guardian who reported this nonsense,it’s headlines were Atheists are Nazis, that vile rag is the Der Strummer of England’s resurgent anti-Catholicism.

  14. BOB says:

    Natalie: No, they did not. Soldiers of the German army had “Gott Mit Uns,” the motto of the House of Hohenzollern, on their belt buckles during the Third Reich, as they did during the Weimar Republic and the German Empire. This was an army tradition, and the Nazis had to step very carefully around army traditions until 1944. When the Party created its own army, the Waffen-SS, there was no sign of “Gott Mit Uns,” or any other mention of God, anywhere about them.

  15. BOB says:

    Which pretty much sums up what happened. Most ordinary Germans still thought of themselves as Christians and were perfectly willing to come up with whatever rationalization would allow them to keep their faith and still prosper in the New Order. The established churches rolled over and showed their bellies like dogs. But that shouldn’t indicate a sympathy for Christianity among the party’s leaders. Himmler and Bormann despised Christianity, and had Germany won the war, I’m sure they would have taken advantage of the situation to lessen Christian influence wherever they could.

    The idea that Hitler was an atheist is absurd, though. Even a cursory glance over his biographies show him, in modern parlance, to be “spiritual, but not religious.” Gobbels was much the same way. But neither man had any love for organized religion.

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