Monday, 16 July 2012

The religious views of Adolf Hitler.

  Was Hitler a Catholic, an Atheist, or otherwise?

Mythical depiction of Hitler as a knight by
Hubert Lanzinger.
 In this post I am not going to discuss the official Nazi policy towards established religion, the collaboration with and attacks against the church, nor do I intend to cover the martyrdom of theologians such a Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is all well documented and widely known about.* We must not fall into the trap of assuming we can infer Hitler's views on religion by simply observing the party actions. This omnipotent image of Hitler has long fallen out of fashion amongst historians.
Instead, the focus will be on Hitler's own personal spiritual beliefs, and the only way to do this is to examine his own words.

 It has become very popular for atheists to claim Hitler was religious, and for the religious to declare the opposite. A perfect example can be seen in this interview below, in which conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly says that it is "well documented" that Hitler was an atheist, to which Richard Dawkins responds by saying Hitler was a Catholic. 

 It is true that Hitler remained a member of the Catholic church up to his death, as did Goering and Goebbels at the Fuhrer's orders. Nevertheless, formal membership of a religious organization tells us nothing of an individual's personal beliefs, and as Hitler's minister for armaments and war production Albert Speer recalled, despite his continued membership of the Catholic church, Hitler "had no real attachment to it".
 Other atheists like to take certain quotes from Hitler which indicate that his actions were taken with religious motivation. A popular quote is: "I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the mighty creator."(1)
 The problem with quotes such as these is that they are all from Mein Kampf, which was a book written for the public in the 20s, a semi manifesto. Let us not forget that Adolf Hitler was a politician, and politicians above all have the incentive to mask their true opinions in order to appeal to the population. Therefore we must recognise that there were two Hitlers: the public man and the private man. As Speer also described: "Amid his political associates in Berlin, Hitler made harsh pronouncements against the church, but in the presence of women he adopted a milder tone - one of the instances where he adapted his remarks to the surroundings." According to Speer, Hitler hoped to one day unite the Catholic and Protestant churches, but did not have confidence Reich Bishop Muller's ability to carry out such a radical proposal. (2)

One of the last ditch efforts of objectors is often to say that party radicals such as Bormann and Goebbels may have been anti-church radicals, but that Hitler was personally more favourable to religion. This modern day reasoning bares striking resemblance to the same view of Hitler that was held throughout large parts of the Third Reich. "The Fuhrer does not want this!" and "...inside you are Bolsheviks and Jews! Otherwise you wouldn't be able to carry on behind the Fuhrer's back!" were common objections raised against party upstarts (3). There was no truth behind these rationalisations, which were ultimately the intended result of the 'Fuhrer Myth' that had been constructed by Nazi propaganda. In truth, despite there being no written order for it by the Fuhrer himself, Hitler was in full approval of the closing down of Catholic monasteries. " must rejoice that the closing of the monasteries enables us to restore to the life of society many men who are capable of rendering services to the community and wishful to work... monasteries are generally corporations, and consequently can be dissolved by means of private agreements made with the Prior." (4).

 Hitler nevertheless spoke of the inevitable clash between National Socialism and religion, but rather than advocating a war, instead proposed to let the different religions "devour themselves, without persecution."

"...we must not replace the church with something equivalent. That would be terrifying! It goes without saying that the whole thing needs a lot of thought. Everything will occur in due time. It is a simple question of honesty... The German people's especial quality is patience; and it's the only one of the peoples capable of undertaking a revolution in this sphere." (5)

 Hitler would often speak of Bolshevism and Christianity as greatly intertwined, referring to the former as the "illegitimate child" of the latter. (6) It was discussed on the Night of the 29th-30th of November 1944 the relationship between Christianity, Communism, and Jewry. 

 "Jesus was certainly not a Jew. The Jews would never have handed one of their own people to the Roman courts; they would have condemned Him themselves. It is quite probable that a large number of the descendants of the Roman legionaries, mostly Gauls, were living in Galilee, and Jesus was probably one of them. His mother may well have been a Jewess. Jesus fought against the materialism of His age, and, therefore, against the Jews. 
Paul of Tarsus, who was originally one of the most stubborn enemies of the Christians, suddenly realised the immense possibilities of using, intelligently and for other ends, an idea which was exercising such great powers of fascination. He realised that the judicious exploitation of this idea among non-Jews would give him far greater power in the world than would the promise of material profit to the Jews themselves. It was then that the future St. Paul distorted with diabolical cunning the Christian idea. Out of this idea, which was a declaration of the Jews, he created a rallying point for slaves of all kinds against those in dominant authority." The religion fabricated by Paul of Tarsus which was later called Christianity, is nothing but the Communism of to-day.

(Martin) Bormann intervened. Jewish methods, he said, have never varied in their essentials. Everywhere they have stirred up the plebs against the ruling classes. Everywhere they have fostered discontent against the established power. For these are the seeds which produce the crop they hope later to gather. Everywhere they fan the flames of hatred between peoples of the same blood. It is they who invented class-warfare, and the repudiation of this theory must therefore always be an anti-Jewish measure. In the same way, any doctrine which is anti-Communist, any doctrine which is anti-Christian must, ipso facto, be anti-Jewish as well. The National Socialist doctrine is therefore anti-Jewish in excelsis, for it is both anti-Communist and anti-Christian. National Socialism is solid to the core, and the whole of its strength is concentrated against the Jews, even in matters which appear to have a purely social aspect and are designed for the furtherance of the social amenities of our own people. The Fuehrer concluded:

Burgdorff has just given me a paper which deals with the relationship between Communism and Christianity. It is comforting to see how, even in these days, the fatal relationship between the two is daily becoming clearer to the human intelligence."(7)

 This extract gives us much to ponder. Firstly, the opening statement that Jesus was not a Jew, coupled with the speculation about the ethnicity of his mother tells us a great deal about Hitler's own opinion towards the status of those with one Jewish parent. However, on the subject of religion it reveals once again the hostile attitude towards Christianity, but shows explicitly that it was due to its Jewish corruption. Remarks like this bear a striking resemblance to those of Arthur Schopenhauer, who in his magnum opus spoke of the restriction upon Christianity by "an element quite foreign to it", which was the "Jewish doctrine of faith."

German philosophers, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer,
& Friederich Nietzsche

"The sublime founder of Christianity had necessarily to adapt and accomodate himself, partly consciously, partly, it may be, unconsciously, to this doctrine; and so Christianity is composed of two very heterogeneous elements." (8)

 It is more than possible that this speculation was inspired by Schopenhauer, as on the 16th of May 1944, Hitler spoke praisingly of German philosophers Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and referred to them as the "greatest of (German) thinkers, in comparison with whom the British, the French and the Americans have nothing to offer."

"His complete refutation of the teachings which were a heritage from the Middle Ages, and of the dogmatic philosophy of the Church, is the greatest of the services which Kant has rendered to us. It is on the foundation of Kant's theory of knowledge that Schopenhauer built the edifice of his own philosophy, and it is Schopenhauer who annihilated the pragmatism of Hegel. I carried Schopenhauer's works with me throughout the whole of the first World War." 

 Hegel would later on act as the basis for Karl Marx's own theory of Historical Materialism, and so it is no wonder that Hitler marvelled at Schopenhauer's refutation of him. However, Hitler also rejected Schopenhauer's pessimism, believing it to have "been far surpassed by Nietzsche." (9) Therefore it would be wrong to label Hitler as a Schopenhauerian, especially given Schopenhauer's views on nationalism and individualism.

"Individuality is a far more important thing than nationality... National character is only another name for the particular platform which the littleness, perversity and baseness of mankind take in every country. Every nation mocks at other nations, and they are all right." (10)

 It would also be wrong to label Hitler's views as anything more than "quasi-Nietzschean". As Michael Burleigh argued, the Nazis latched onto a distorted version of Nietzsche that originated with his sister Elizabeth and her "barmy husband, Bernhard Forster". 

 "Much of Nietzsche's thought has to be suppressed to construe him as a proto-Nazi, principally his view of antisemites as part of the nihilistic 'herd', or 'mob' whom he despised: 'worm-eaten physiological casualties [are] all men of Ressentiment, a whole vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge. Nietzsche welcomed the creative involvement of Jews in what he hoped would be 'the strongest possible European mixed race', a notion hard to square with Hitler's obsession with racial purity." (11)

 In this extract Hitler also refers to Jesus' fight against the "materialism of His age", which is a common theme throughout his conversations. In fact, Hitler feared that the increasingly apparent problems inherent in Christianity were "ripening mankind for conversion to materialistic Bolshevism" which would be a "terrible tragedy" because mankind would "lose all sense of proportion, and once he considers himself to be the lord of the universe, it will be the end of everything." (12) The absurdity of Christianity then, in Hitler's eyes would give birth to an age of atheism, which was hated at least equally! This echoes his previous denunciation of the Catholic Centre Party during the Weimar years for all too willingly engaging in coalitions with the 'atheist internationalists' of the Social Democrat Party. (13) This view was also carried into the policy of the SS, which forbade atheism as a declared option for its members, leaving only Protestant, Catholic, or 'believer in God' (which appears to mean a non religious theism). This was because atheism signified a denial of higher powers, which constituted a potential source for indiscipline (14).

 Hitler was not always hostile to the "materialistic" Bolsheviks however. On the night of July the 11th 1941, Hitler used the Russians an an example of a people who were unafraid of death despite their lack of belief in a God. This he believed, refuted the idea that religion was necessary because everyone needs "a refuge where he can find consolation and help in unhappiness." Hitler compared this phenomena to two children raised in different environments:

"When one provokes in a child a fear of the dark, one awakens in him a feeling of atavistic dread. Thus this child will be ruled all his life by this dread, whereas another child, who has been intelligently brought up, will be free of it."

 This ability to face death in the absence of a God, due to long being free from dogmatic religious teaching, was "a lesson" that could be "drawn from the Bolshevik front." (15). Hitler declared that "man has discovered in nature the wonderful notion of that all-mighty being whose law he worships." and described the "God" or "the almighty" as "the domination of natural laws throughout the whole universe." (which combined with his belief in divine providence, sounds remarkably like Stoic pantheism) (16).

 One of Christianity's weaknesses in Hitler's eyes, was the precision with which God is explained. This meant that if the Church were to advance with the times and keep up with science (which was never stationary), the ground would "inevitably be cut from under her feet." It was for this reason then, that the Church was opposed to all progress. Islam had an advantage over Christianity in this respect. This was because according to the Islamic faith, "to form a conception of Allah is not vouchsafed to man."(17). Thus Islam could continuously adapt itself to modern science by making the nature of God as mysterious and as nebulous as necessary, unlike the the Christian "conception of the Beyond" which exposed itself to "attacks of unceasing progress". This was not the only positive remark Hitler had towards the Islamic faith. Hitler could "imagine people being enthusiastic about the paradise of Mahomet", but not for the "insipid paradise of the Christians" where one would after having listened to Wagner while alive, hear "nothing but hallelujahs"(18). Furthermore, according to Albert Speer:"Hitler had been much impressed by a scrap of history he had learned from a delegation of distinguished Arabs." Had the Mohammedans won the battle of Tours in the eighth century, they would have moved beyond France and into Central Europe, and thus the world would have been Mohammedan. "For theirs was a religion that believed in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that faith." Due to their racial inferiority, Hitler speculated, the Arabs would have eventually abandonded the harsh European climate,  leaving "Islamized Germans" standing "at the head of this Mohammedan Empire." Hitler regretted that Europe inherited Christianity with its "meekness and flabbiness". "Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity." (19). 
Instead, Europe was left with Christanity with its "degenerative effects" which were allegedly partly to blame for the decline of the Roman Empire (20). As an interesting sidenote, Heinrich Himmler made similar remarks to his Croatian volunteers in 1944, stating that he had "nothing against Islam; for it preaches to its members in this division and promises them paradise if they fought and died. A practical and agreeable religion for soldiers!"(21)

 If it is possible to conclude on such a complex subject, it would appear that Hitler was not an atheist, nor was he a Catholic. He shared the same sentiments of Anti-theism with many well known atheists however this hatred was directed almost entirely towards the Christian church which he referred to as "nothing more than a hereditary joint stock company for the exploitation of human stupidity." (22).  Due to the influence of the established Churches over the German population at the time, he had to be strategic and wait patiently for the eventual disappearance of religion from society.
 Though, not a follower of any particular religion, Hitler was by no means an atheist, and remained incredibly hostile towards materialism and Bolshevism, which he tied together with the biggest target of his hatred, the Jews.

* If you want to know more about this I highly recommend The Nazi Persecution of the Churches by J.S Conway. 
(1) Taken from Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf Volume I. Multiple other quotes of this nature can be found at
(2) (1995) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, Phoenix, pp.148-149.
(3) (2001) Ian Kershaw, The Hitler Myth, Oxford University Press, pp.178-179.
(4) (1973) Hitler's Table Talk, 1941-44, Introduced by H.R. Trevor Roper, 7th April 1942.
(5) ibidNight of the 11th-12th July 1941, pp.6-7.
(6) ibid.
(7) ibid, pp.721-22.
(8) (1819) Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, Dover Publications Inc, New York, 1969, pp.387-388.
(9) Table Talk, pp.720.
(10) (1851) Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, The Wisdom of Life, Cosimo Inc, New York, 2007.
(11) (2001) Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich, A New History, Macmillan, London, pp.98. "worm-eaten physiological casualties..."is from Nietzsche's The Geneology of Morals.
(12) Table Talk, 1st Aug, 1942, pp.607.
(13) Burleigh, The Third Reich, pp.717.
(14) ibid, pp.196-197.
(15) Table Talk, pp.6.
(16) ibid.
(17) ibid, pp.606.
(18) ibid, 13th Dec, 1941, pp.143.
(19) Speer, Inside, pp.149-150.
(20) (2001) Jeremy Noakes & Geoffrey Pridham, Nazism: 1919-1945, A Documentary Reader, Volume III, 3rd Ed, University of Exeter Press, pp.75 (Doc: 503. Hossbach report 5th Nov, 1937.)
(21) (2012) Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life, Oxford University Press, pp.677.
(22) Table Talk, pp.606.

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