Dear Straight Dope:
In my numerous online debates in various chatrooms, I have learned the following: many Christians seem to think that Adolf Hitler was an atheist (or at least wasn't "Christian"). Of course I and my fellow atheists know better, as Hitler mentions his devotion to Christianity numerous times in his writings. Can you clear this up for me? Was Hitler an "honest to God" Christian, or was he simply using religion as a means of control?
The short answer is a definite "maybe" or, more precisely, "probably neither." The looooong answer is somewhat more complicated.
You are right that Hitler did mention Christianity many times in his writings. He paid Christianity a lot of lip service in Mein Kampf, and he claimed to be a Christian. But Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, also declared that "National Socialism [Nazism] and Christianity are irreconcilable" and Hitler didn’t squawk too much about it. Similarly, Hermann Rauschning, a Hitler associate, said, "One is either a Christian or a German. You can’t be both." In addition, Hitler declared Nazism the state religion and the Bible was replaced by Mein Kampf in the schools. You really want confusion? Randy Alley, one of my best WWII history sources, noted that the SS were supposedly forbidden to believe in God–yet the military’s belt buckles said "Gott mit uns" ("God is with us")! See photo, below.
First, let’s look at what he said that seems to put him on the anti-Christian side:
According to a press release from Catholic League President, William A. Donohue (2/4/99): "Hitler was a neo-pagan terrorist whose conscience was not informed by Christianity, but by pseudo-scientific racist philosophies. Hitler hated the Catholic Church, made plans to kill the Pope, authorized the murder of thousands of priests and nuns, and did everything he could to suppress the influence of the Church. In 1933, Hitler said, ‘It is through the peasantry that we shall really be able to destroy Christianity because there is in them a true religion rooted in nature and blood.’" The Catholic League also quoted Hitler, in a 4/23/99 Op-Ed ad in the New York Times, as saying, "Antiquity was better than modern times, because it didn’t know Christianity and syphilis." Ouch!
Unfortunately, the press release had no citations attached and the Catholic League did not include any reference to it in the package they sent when I asked about them. The syphilis quote is cited as having come from Hitler’s Third Reich: A Documentary History, by Louis Snyder, but they are quoting Patrick Buchanan quoting this book. In other words, they may not have actually checked the source themselves (if they did, why mention Buchanan?). This makes me a bit worried about the validity of both of these (I have not been able to find the book to check on my own). While this doesn’t necessarily make them untrue, we have to recognize that there are a lot of bogus Hitler quotes floating around, some allegedly coming directly from Mein Kampf, for example. The problem is that people who have actually read Mein Kampf find that they aren’t in there anywhere! I’m not saying these quotes fall into that category, but just a note to be wary of lots of the unsourced "quotes" that are around. (I did my best to check out the various Mein Kampf quotes that I use here, including referencing a friend who actually plowed through the whole thing.)
That said, we can move on to some other relevant info. Jehuda Bauer, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describes the real "god" of Hitler and the Nazis in his article, "The Trauma of the Holocaust: Some Historical Perspectives," by saying: ""They wanted to go back to a pagan world, beautiful, naturalistic, where natural hierarchies based on the supremacy of the strong would be established, because strong equaled good, powerful equaled civilized. The world did have a kind of God, the merciless God of nature, the brutal God of races, the oppressive God of hierarchies." In other words, definitely non-Christian.
Historian Paul Johnson wrote that Hitler hated Christianity with a passion, adding that shortly after assuming power in 1933, Hitler told Hermann Rauschnig that he intended "to stamp out Christianity root and branch."
As Hitler grew in power, he made other anti-Christian statements. For example, he was quoted in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, by Allan Bullock, as saying: "I’ll make these damned parsons feel the power of the state in a way they would have never believed possible. For the moment, I am just keeping my eye upon them: if I ever have the slightest suspicion that they are getting dangerous, I will shoot the lot of them. This filthy reptile raises its head whenever there is a sign of weakness in the State, and therefore it must be stamped on. We have no sort of use for a fairy story invented by the Jews."
But in contrast to these quotes, some of Hitler’s speeches definitely seem to put him in the Christian camp as a fighter against atheism. For example, he said, on signing the Nazi-Vatican Concordat, April 26, 1933: "Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . ."
An Associated Press article from the Lansing State Journal, February 23, 1933, is headlined, "Hitler Aims Blow at ‘Godless’ Move," and talks about how Hitler was campaigning against atheist communists and wanted support from Catholic Nazis. One line in the article specifically says, "Hitler, himself, is a Catholic." (You can see the entire article at http://www.infidels.org/library/his torical/unknown/hitler.html .) In addition, in 1941, Hitler told General Gerhart Engel: "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so." He never left the church. He was baptized a Roman Catholic as an infant and was a communicant and altar boy in his youth.
In a speech at Koblenz, August 26, 1934, Hitler said: "National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary it stands on the ground of a real Christianity . . . For their interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of today, in our fight against a Bolshevist culture, against atheistic movement, against criminality, and in our struggle for a consciousness of a community in our national life . . . These are not anti-Christian, these are Christian principles!"
Related to the above, the "Religion" article in The Oxford Companion to World War II notes that early on in his career, Hitler sponsored something called "practical Christianity," and that "German Christians emerged who claimed to be able to synthesize the best of National Socialism [Nazism] and the best of Christianity. Many Christians seemed to be able to reconcile themselves to at least certain aspects of anti-Semitic legislation. Those who could not . . . often ended up in concentration camps . . . Many anguished Christians serving in the Wehrmacht began to feel a little more comfortable about supporting a war that now included the overthrow of godless communism."
Getting back to quotes, on October 24, 1933, in a speech in Berlin, Hitler said: "We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out."
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews. I am doing the Lord’s work." In 1938, he quoted those same words in a Reichstag speech.
In a speech delivered April 12, 1922, published in "My New Order," and quoted in Freethought Today (April 1990), Hitler said:
My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only 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.
Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.
As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice . . .
And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only for their wages wretchedness and misery.
When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people are plundered and exploited.""
I could probably find more speeches in which Hitler claims himself to be a Christian, but I think the point has been made. He said it. Now, what did it mean?
It seems Hitler, like many modern-day politicians, spoke out of both sides of his mouth. And when he didn’t, his lackeys did. It may have been political pandering, just like many of our current politicians who invoke God’s name to gain support.
Also, it seems probable that Hitler, being the great manipulator, knew that he couldn’t fight the Christian churches and their members right off the bat. So he made statements to put the church at ease and may have patronized religion as a way to prevent having to fight the Christian-based church.
In fact, Anton Gil notes in his book, An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945: "For his part, Hitler naturally wanted to bring the church into line with everything else in his scheme of things. He knew he dare not simply eradicate it: that would not have been possible with such an international organisation, and he would have lost many Christian supporters had he tried to. His principal aim was to unify the German Evangelical Church under a pro-Nazi banner, and to come to an accommodation with the Catholics."
In other words, while he was certainly evil, he also usually knew which wars he could win (at least until 1941) and only fought those. He knew he could beat the Polish, French, and British armies and he allegedly counseled the Japanese against attacking the U.S.; he also requested that they open up a front against Russia. He couldn’t beat the church in open warfare–so he took control and then attacked them piecemeal while making statements to put them at ease. Think about it–how many other times did Hitler break his word or ignore a treaty? He said whatever would make things easiest, and then ignored it later.
Author Doug Krueger notes that "so many Germans were religious believers that Hitler, if not religious himself, at least had to pretend to be a believer in order to gain support." He adds, "If the [Christian] message won converts, it would seem that most Nazis were probably [Christians] too. After all, would appeal to divine mandate win more theists or atheists to the cause?" He also points out that "Even if Hitler was not a [Christian], he could still have been a theist. Or a deist" (www.infidels.org/library /modern/doug_krueger/copin.html). Remember that being a non-Christian is not equal to being an atheist.
When all is said and done, Krueger says that anecdotal evidence from those close to him near the end of his life suggests that he was a at least a deist, if not a theist. Krueger concludes: "So here’s what evidence we have. There is a certain worldview, Nazism. Its leader, Hitler, professes on many occasions to be religious, and he often states that he’s doing the will of god. The majority of his followers are openly religious. There is no evidence anywhere that this leader ever professed to anyone that he is an atheist. He and his followers actively campaign against atheism, even to the point of physical force, and this leader allies himself with religious organizations and churches. This is the evidence. So where does atheism fit in?" As Krueger notes, there seems to be no real evidence that Hitler was an atheist. On the other hand, since one could never be sure when he was speaking his real thoughts and when he was simply riling up the masses, it’s difficult to say for certain.
An interesting side note: Two of my sources, both of whom are well-versed in WWII history, said something to the effect that Hitler acted as if he had a messianic complex and perhaps believed himself to essentially be a god or the messiah. As one put it, you could certainly make the argument that he was a firm believer in God, if by "God" you mean "Adolf Hitler."
As for your chat-room experiences, well, my friend and source David Gehrig noted that Hitler still sets the gold standard for "easiest rhetorical cheap shot." He related a comment from Usenet that there is an empirical law: As a Usenet discussion gets longer, the probability that someone in it will compare someone else in it to Hitler asymptotically approaches 1. In other words, atheists looking for a quick cheap-shot may claim Hitler was a Christian; similarly, Christians looking for a quick shot may claim he was an atheist. Know what? Hitler was a vegetarian! Oooh, those evil vegetarians! He also recommended that parents give their children milk to drink instead of beer and started the first anti-smoking campaign. (So by the "reasoning" used in these types of arguments, if you are truly anti-Hitler, you should smoke heavily and only give your baby beer!) Better watch out, though he was an oxygen-breather, too! In other words, does it really matter whether Hitler was an atheist or a Christian or whatever? Just because somebody may hold a particular worldview (along with other views) doesn’t make him a spokesman for that view, or even remotely representative of others who hold that view. No matter how his madness is painted, he was still evil incarnate.
I have one more quote to share on this topic. This, again, from David Gehrig: "Let’s save the rhetorical comparisons to Hitler and Nazis for those who really deserve them–hate groups who proudly assume the Nazi mantle, and ‘Holocaust revisionists’ who would fantasize away Hitler’s genocidal crimes."
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