Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

What did the Nazis believe about religion? Simply asking the question suggests some difficulties. “The Nazis” implies a homogenous group with clearly articulated and uniformly held positions. There were of course many different kinds of Nazis who held diverse and changing views on everything. The only common and consistent thread seems to have been racial ideology. When it came to issues other than politics, Nazis weren’t well known for systematic thinking. On the issue of religion, this lack of clarity continues to exorcize historians and pundits.

Just last week, Richard Dawkins debated Cardinal George Pell in another installment of the interminable debates which convince atheists that atheism is best and theists that theism is best. Pell, on par for the theist course, argued that atheism leads to bad things like Hitler and the Nazis. Dawkins responded by observing that Hitler wasn’t an atheist.

This exchange, unenlightening though it was, at least generated useful commentary by an historian familiar with the debates about Nazis and religion. He notes that scholars are of three schools of thought: (1) the Nazis were neo-pagans, (2) Naziism was a political religion, or (3) Nazis were peculiar Christians. Based on everything I’ve read over the years, all three descriptions seem to be correct — they aren’t mutually exclusive. Hitler himself admired the Catholic Church and used it as a model for his own movement.

One thing is clear: Hitler wasn’t an atheist and almost no Nazis were. However idiosyncratic, Hitler clearly had creationist ideas:

Hitler argued for a critical review of the Bible, to discover what sections met an “Aryan” spirit. In these same notes, he took a “biogenetic” history as the main biblical emphasis, arguing that original sin was solely racial degeneration – sin against the blood. He also argued in favour of the notion of a creator, a deity whose work was nature and natural laws, conflating God and nature to the extent that they became one and the same thing. This again came back to race, and meant that he argued in Mein Kampf that one could not avoid the “commands” of “eternal nature” or the “Almighty Creator”: “in that I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

For theists this sort of thing is best ignored, as is the fact that 99% of Germans were avowed Christians during the Nazi era. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is its relationship to evolution. Aside from mistakenly believing that Nazis were atheists, most theists assume that the Nazis were Darwinian evolutionists. They weren’t.

As Coel Hellier documents in this superb post, Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist, and opposed to evolution. After an extensive examination of Nazi ideas, Hellier concludes:

The main ideas of Darwinism are that natural selection, operating over lengthy time periods, can cause species to transform into other species, and that all modern mammals descend from a common ancestor. Both of these notions the Nazis explicitly rejected, finding them abhorrent, materialistic notions that would strip man of his soul and of his special status. The Nazis preferred, as do many other religious people, to see man as God’s special creation. It was seeing, in particular, the Aryan race as “God’s handiwork” that led the Nazis to consider it sinful to allow the destruction of the Aryan race by allowing racial inter-marriage, and hence the necessity for removing the possibility by finding a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.”

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

The labeling of the Nazis as “atheistic” is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it “atheistic.”

It would be splendid if, before the next debate, the theist representative would read Hellier’s piece and leave the Hitler-Nazi-atheist canard out of it.

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11 thoughts on “Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    A most poignant summary, to suggest that everyone left the field confident that their side had won.

  2. Gerry Norris

    We happened upon the castle of Wewelsburg, while driving around in Germany. Reconstructed by Himmler, it had a pretty creepy vibe… I had thought that hints of SS occultism were fantasy until we saw the crypt. Yeesh

  3. Cris Post author

    My understanding is that the SS more or less did their own supernatural thing and didn’t advertise this to Hitler, who thought it all a bit odd and too unorthodox even for him. The SS may have been outliers of sorts when it came to the Germans in general and Nazis in particular.

  4. Dr. David Tee

    If you are going to declare something Christian ornot, then you need to use the criteria found in the Bible. Only God & Jesus define what a folllwer of theirs is.

    A secular human certainly can’t. By God’s and Jesus’ standard Hitler was Not a Christian nor was the NAZI party made up of Christian let alone christian itself.

    I am sure some Christians did join the party but such membership does not make the leaders or the party Christian.

  5. Cris Post author

    Does the bible contain a clear definition of “Christian”? Are there clear passages which state that if a person has these particular beliefs, then that person can be considered a “Christian” and can only then be considered a “Christian”? I can answer for you: it doesn’t.

    This explains why there are so many definitions of “Christian” and disagreements about what it means to be “Christian.” I’m not particularly interested in theological arguments about who is or who isn’t a “Christian.” Your simplistic admonishment to “use criteria found in the bible” has generated 2,000 years of debate on this issue and it is nowhere close to being resolved. It will never be resolved because there are no definitions and people interpret the writing and tradition differently.

  6. Jason Schoenbein

    First I’d like to say I’ve been a long time reader and really enjoy this blog although I have never commented on it before. I’m slightly ashamed that my first comment here is somewhat negative.

    It seems to me that Coel Hellier is relying on the general ignorance of creationist viewpoints and beliefs in order to advance his hypothesis.
    Though I am a secular agnostic myself, my Father was an avowed creationist and I’m quite familiar with their ideology and doctrines. Mr. Hellier seems to be too, but is deliberately misrepresenting them.
    For instance he holds up “Gott und Vaterland” campaign speeches as policy (and takes many out of context deliberately), pretends the Nazi’s pop Ufology was creationism, slides around Borrman, ignores Weißbrot and Goebbels, and “forgets” the Darwinist portions of Mein Kampf such as; “In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak and sickly or less determined succumb, while the struggle of the males for the female grants the right or opportunity to propagate only to the healthiest. And struggle is always a means for improving a species’ health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher development.”

    Mr.Hellier was just as dishonest in his article as bishops who say the Nazi’s were a gaggle of atheists and Darwinists.

    The fact of the matter is that the National Socialists were Christians, Darwinists, creationists, atheists, Catholics, Nietzscheans, Lutherans, and aggressive secularists. They came from every niche of German society.

    Not to be unduly equitable, but they are everybody’s shame, and any efforts to tie them to Christianity, secularism, atheism, the left or the right is the result of partisan demagoguery.

  7. Cris Post author

    There is no shame in your welcome and articulate comment. I’m not an expert on Nazi ideology but it seemed to me that Hellier researched the issues and made a prima facie case for a streak of creationist and quasi-creationist ideas running through Naziism. Thanks for alerting me to the possibility that all is not well with his research and argument.

    I know that others have written books, some of them quite well respected, on the strong connections between Naziism and religious faith, with some of those connections being directly to German Catholic and Lutheran Christianity. Others have made connections between Naziism and an admittedly peculiar form of (Nazi) Christianity. When I have some time, I’ll search for those and post the titles here.

    Your penultimate paragraph resonates — it’s unfortunate that Nazis came from all segments of German society, including the intelligentsia.

  8. Willie B.

    “… the experience of our times shoes those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains … it is necessary to be able to disguise [faithlessness] well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived … Everybody sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are, and those few will not dare to oppose themselves to the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them;”
    – Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince, Ch. 18

    During his conquests, Alexander the Great slept with Homer’s Iliad under his pillow — under Hitler’s lied The Prince. Hitler was only religious insofar as he used the logic-disarming tool of faith as a means to advance the agenda of the Third Reich. Getting tangled up in the particularities of Hitler’s religious beliefs is entirely missing the big picture: The Third Reich is profound historical evidence attesting to the power of religion in steering even the most ostensibly civilized society into embracing the most reprehensible evils that violate the very tenets of the religion. I’ve done a significant amount of research into this issue, so perhaps I can paint a better context with the following facts:

    1. Your claim that Hitler admired the Catholic Church and used it as a model does not cohere with history. The Nazi Party despised the extranationally-influenced Catholic Church for its resistance to the state eugenics program and attempted to secularize all abbeys and monasteries. Additionally, a notable number of Catholic priests were sent to concentration camps.

    2. Using a religion contrived in ancient Judea by Jews to promote antisemitism serves as proof that anyone can contort the most confounded ideas into Christian principles. The Nazis were masters at appropriating Christianity while rejecting it at the same time.

    3a. Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as “striking the Nordic race at its most vulnerable point: sexual life”. They were depicted as lepers, rapists and Jewish doctors were expelled for aborting Aryan babies. This demonization of the Jews as “the other” instilled fear of de-Aryanization of Germany while diverting the attention of the Church away from the Third Reich’s hyper-sexualization of Germans as a means to maximize positive eugenics. This amounted to rampant state-promoted premarital sex, borderline-pornographic imagery in public and the promotion of rape in the battlefield.
    b. Additionally, fighting the atheist Bolsheviks was another utilization of the Church for war.

    4. Himmler labeled monogamy as “the Catholic Church’s most satanic achievement” and “immoral”

    5. “Providing sexual gratification must be one of the main devices of our propaganda … I shall not spoil the fun for any of my lads. If i demand the supreme effort from them, I must also give them the right to carouse as they please, not as it suits a lot of church-going old women.”
    – Hitler

    6. “one cannot come at a soldier with the religious doctrine of abstinence in the realm of love if one wants him to stay steeled for battle”
    – Hitler

    7. All anti-Nazi clergy were put in concentration camps to enforce church compliance with malevolent Nazi beliefs. After the war, a religious revival occurred to absolve German guilt, and the religious immorality of the Third Reich became secret and taboo. The following generation that was involved in the sexual liberation movements of the 60’s perceived the social conservatism of the Nazi generation as a societal feature of the Third Reich; combined with East German atheism, these forces have led to secularism sweeping modern Germany.

    I drew most of this from “Sex after Fascism” by Dagmar Herzog — a fascinating historical revision of the conventional beliefs about religion and sexuality in Nazi Germany.

  9. fitz

    “Hitler himself admired the Catholic Church and used it as a model for his own movement” i know you’re not mad but probably ignorant & definitely biased…everyone knows hitler despised the junkers, the church, the emperor, and the nobles in that order

  10. Cris Post author

    It’s a fact that he studied the church with admiration, not for its beliefs, but for its authoritarian structure and ability to mobilize the masses through ritual.

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