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Nazis and Religion

Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, future Pius XII, attacked by Nazi papers as a friend of Jews and western communists. Das Schwarze Korps ran many anti-Catholic articles and cartoons, in likeness to Streicher's Der Stürmer.
Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, future Pius XII, attacked by Nazi papers as a friend of Jews and western communists. Das Schwarze Korps ran many anti-Catholic articles and cartoons, in likeness to Streicher's Der Stürmer.

Nazis and religion is a controversial area of study, with much debate centered on two key issues: the role of Protestant and Catholic clergy and hierarchies in defending, criticizing, or ignoring the Nazi regime and its inceasingly repressive actions towards Jews, religious and political minorities, and others; and the role of paganism, the occult and mysticism in formulating the views of Hitler and the Nazi Party

Nazis and Christianity

Hitler and other Nazi leaders clearly made use of both Christian symbolism combined indigenous Germanic pagan imagery mixed with ancient Roman symbolism and emotion in propaganda for the German public.

Many Nazi leaders subscribed either to a mixture of then modern scientific theories, as Hitler himself did, or to mysticism and occultism, which was especially strong in the Nazi SS. Central to both groupings was the belief in Germanic (white Northern-european) racial superiority. The existence of a Ministry of Church Affairs, instituted in 1935 and headed by Hanns Kerrl, was hardly recognized by ideologists such as Alfred Rosenberg or by other political decision-makers.

Despite Germany's long history as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the birthplace of the Reformation, Christianity was in a decline during the rise of the Nazi Party. Some of the factors leading to this decline were the after affects of World War I which challenged "traditional" European viewpoints.

Nazism claimed to adhere to Positive Christianity which attempted to replace traditional Christian beliefs with those agreeable with Nazism, which many German Christians accepted. Even in the later years of the Third Reich, many Protestant and Catholic clergy within Germany persisted in believing that Nazism was in its essence in accordance with Christian precepts.

In 1941, Martin Bormann, a close associate of Hitler said publicly "National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable" In 1942 he also declared in a confidential memo to Gauleiters that the Christian Churches 'must absolutely and finally be broken.' Since he understood that Nazism, based as it was on a 'scientific' world-view, was completely incompatible with Christianity

When we [National Socialists] speak of belief in God, we do not mean, like the naive Christians and their spiritual exploiters, a man-like being sitting around somewhere in the universe. The force governed by natural law by which all these countless planets move in the universe, we call omnipotence or God. The assertion that this universal force can trouble itself about the destiny of each individual being, every smallest earthly bacillus, can be influenced by so-called prayers or other surprising things, depends upon a requisite dose of naivety or else upon shameless professional self-interest.

Other members of the Hitler government, including Rosenberg, during the war formulated a thirty-point program for the "National Reich Church" which included:

  • The National Reich Church claims exclusive right and control over all Churches.
  • The National Church is determined to exterminate foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill omened year 800.
  • The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible.
  • The National Church will clear away from its alters all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.
  • On the alters there must be nothing but Mein Kampf and to the left of the alter a sword


Thule Society emblem
Thule Society emblem

The level of ties between Nazism and the Protestant churches has been a contentious issue for decades. One difficulty is that Protestantism includes a vast number of religious bodies many of whom had little relation to each other. Added to that, Protestantism tends to allow more variation among individual congregations than Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which makes statements about "official positions" of denominations problematic. Still, many Protestant organizations or denominations were solidly opposed to Nazism and many Protestants died fighting it. The forms or offshoots of Protestantism that advocated pacificism, anti-nationalism, or racial equality tended to oppose in the strongest terms. Prominent Protestant, or Protestant offshoot, groups known for their efforts against Nazism include the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Confessing Church. Many of their members died in the camps or struggled fiercely against the Nazis.

Yet Lutherans voted for Hitler more than Catholics. Different German states possessed regional social variations as to class densities and religious denomination; Richard Steigmann-Gall alleges a linkage between several Protestant churches and Nazism, the main aspect being Hitler's citing anti-Semitic pamphlets by Martin Luther and accusations that the Lutheran establishment supported Hitler. The small Methodist population at times was deemed foreign; this stemmed from the fact that Methodism began in England, while it did not develop in Germany until the nineteenth century with Christoph Gottlob Müller and Louis Jacoby. Because of this history they felt the urge to be "more German than the Germans" to avoid suspicion. Methodist Bishop John L. Nelsen toured the U.S. on Hitler's behalf to protect his church, but in private letters indicated that he feared or hated Nazism, and so retired to Switzerland. Methodist Bishop F. H. Otto Melle took a far more collaborationist position that included apparently sincere support for Nazism. He felt that serving the Reich was both a patriotic duty and a means of advancement. To show his gratitude, Hitler made a gift of 10,000 marks in 1939 to a Methodist congregation to purchase an organ. Outside of Germany, Melle's views were overwhelmingly rejected by most Methodists. The leader of pro-Nazi segment of Baptists was Paul Schmidt. Hitler also led to the unification of Pro-Nazi Protestants in the Protestant Reich Church which was led by Ludwig Müller. The idea of such a "national church" was possible in the history of mainstream German Protestantism, but National Churches devoted primarily to the state were generally forbidden among the Anabaptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and in Catholicism.

During the 1930s Hitler tried to nationalize Germany's churches (German Christian), with restrictions allowing only German membership. Only some Protestants resisted by forming the Confessing Church. A common Nazi song replaced the words to the German carol Silent Night with the following lyrics:

Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, and all is bright Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight Watches o’er Germany by day and by night Always caring for us. Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, and all is bright Adolf Hitler is Germany’s wealth Brings us greatness, favour and health Oh give us Germans all power!

After a failed assassination on Hitler's life in 1943 which involved elements of the Confessing Church (a Protestant organization), Hitler ordered the arrest of Protestant, mainly Lutheran clergy. Catholic clergy were also suppressed if they spoke out against the regime.


Bernhard Stempfle

A certain priest called Father Bernhard Stempfle is credited with having helped editing Mein Kampf during his imprisoned days in the state prison at Landsberg am Lech together with Hitler. However, in 1934, after the Night of the Long Knives Stempfle was found dead in a wood near Munich, with his heart pierced and three bullets through his head. Stempfle is said to have been a member of the Hieronymites, and sources mention that the reason for his assassination was probably secret, private knowledge about Hitler. Allegations that Stempfle was the confessor of Hitler must however be firmly dismissed, as Hitler no longer received any of the sacraments after he had left the Austrian family home many years before the First World War.

Church hierarchy

The nature of the Nazi Party's relations with the Catholic Church is also complicated. Before Hitler rose to power, many Catholic priests and leaders vociferously opposed Nazism on the grounds of its incompatibility with Christian morals. Nazi Party membership was forbidden until the takeover and a policy reversal. At his trial Franz von Papen said that until 1936 the Catholic Church hoped for a Christian alignment to the beneficial aspects he said they saw in national socialism. (This statement came after Pope Pius XII ended Von Papen's appointment as Papal chamberlain and ambassador to the Holy See, but before his restoration under Pope John XXIII.) With the Church's strong view against Communism and its cooperation with Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy, some in the Church looked at the Nazi party as an ally at first.

In 1937 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge condemning Nazi ideology, notably the Gleichschaltung policy directed against religious influence upon education, as well as Nazi racism and antisemitism. The encyclical Humani Generis Unitas however was never published. The massive Catholic opposition to the euthanasia programs led them to be quietly ended in August 28, 1941, (according to Spielvogel pp. 257-258) but the German Catholics only at some occasions actively and openly protested Nazi anti-Semitism in any comparable way, except for several bishops and priests like bishop Clemens von Galen of Münster; this might have been due to the restrictions imposed upon the small, remaining Catholic press by the Nazi government after the 1941 debacle about euthanasia.

In Nazi Germany, all known political dissenters were imprisoned, and many German priests were sent to the concentration camps for their opposition, including the parson of the Berlin Cathedral Bernhard Lichtenberg and seminarian Karl Leisner. Hitler was never directly excommunicated by the Catholic Church and several Catholic bishops in Germany or Austria are recorded as encouraging prayers of support for "The Führer"; this despite the fact the original Reichskonkordat (1933) of Germany with the Holy See proscribed any active political participation by the priesthood.

Criticism also arose in that the Vatican pontificate headed by Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII had remained circumspect about the national-scale race hatred before 1937 (Mit brennender Sorge). In 1937, just before the publishing of the anti-Nazi encyclical, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli in Lourdes, France condemned discrimination against Jews and the alleged neopaganism of the Nazi regime. A statement by Pius XI on 8 September 1938 spoke of the "inadmissibility" of anti-semitism, but Pius XII is criticised by people like John Cornwell for being unspecific. Pius XI may have underestimated the degree that Hitler's ideas influenced the laity in light of hopes the Concordate would preserve Catholic influences amongst them. The evolution of the Vatican's understanding has faced criticism of weakness, slowness, or even culpability. On culpability this is perhaps clearest with regards to the German hierarchy as after the Concordate there was a radical reversal of the former episcopal condemnation of Nazism, according to Daniel Goldhagen and others. It is less certain in other cases. From the other extreme the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the Netherlands officially and formally condemned Nazism in 1941 and therefore faced violence and deportation of its priests, along with attacks upon monasteries and Catholic hospitals. Likewise, the Polish Roman Catholic hierarchy was violently attacked by the Nazis and saw many of its clerics sent to concentration camps, a famous example of this being Father Maksymilian Kolbe. Most nations' hierarchy took a mixture of the two positions, oscillating between collaboration and active resistance.

Tangential to the more extreme of collaborationist accusations is the characterisation that Nazism actively based itself on a similar pontifical structure and corps of functionaries. For example the special clothing, ghettoization, and badges demanded of Jews were once common or even began in the Papal States. Also that the Nazis saw themselves as an effective replacement of Catholicism that would co-opt its unity and respect for hierarchy. Hence attempts were made to unite other religions, as in the earlier example of the Protestant Reich Church.

In 1941 the Nazi authorities decreed the dissolution of all monasteries and abbeys in the German Reich, many of them effectively being occupied and secularized by the Allgemeine Nazi SS under Himmler. However on July 30, 1941 the Aktion Klostersturm (Operation Monastery Sacking) was put to an end by a decree of Hitler, who feared the increasing protests by the Catholic part of German population might result in passive rebellions and thereby harm the Nazi war effort at the eastern front

Christianity and Nazi Anti-Semitism

According to American historian Lucy Dawidowicz, Anti-Semitism has a long history within Christianity. The line of "anti-Semitic descent" from Luther, the author of On the Jews and Their Lies, to Hitler is "easy to draw." In her The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945, she contends that Luther and Hitler were obsessed by the "demonologized universe" inhabited by Jews. Dawidowicz writes that the similarities between Luther's anti-Jewish writings and modern anti-Semitism are no coincidence, because they derived from a common history of Judenhass, which can be traced to Haman's advice to Ahasuerus. Although modern German anti-Semitism also has its roots in German nationalism and the liberal revolution of 1848, Christian Anti-Semitism she writes is a foundation that was laid by the Roman Catholic Church and "upon which Luther built." Dawidowicz' allegations and positions are criticized and not accepted by most historians however.

Future plans of the Nazi government

Historian Heinz Hürten (professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Eichstaett) argued that the Nazi party had plans for the Roman Catholic Church, according to which the Church was supposed to "eat from the hands of the government." The sequence of these plans, he states, follow this sequence: an abolition of the priestly celibacy and a nationalisation of all church property, the dissolution of monastic orders and religious congregations, and the influence of the Catholic Church upon education. Hutzen states that Hitler proposed to reduce vocations to the priesthood by forbidding seminaries from receiving applicants before their 25th birthdays, and thus had hoped that these men would marry beforehand, during the time (18 - 25 years) in which they were obliged to work in military or labour service. Also, along with this process, the Church's sacraments would be revised and changed to so-called "Lebensfeiern", the non-Christian celebrations of different periods of life.

There existed some considerable differences among officials within the Nazi Party on the question of Christianity. Goebbels, is purported to have feared the creation of a third front of Catholics against their regime in Germany itself. In his diary, Goebbels wrote about the "traitors of the Black International who again stabbed our glorious government in the back by their criticism", by which Hutzen states meant the indirectly or actively resisting Catholic clergymen (who wore black cassocks).

Prayer to Hitler

In Nazism, Adolf Hitler was occasionally compared with Jesus, or revered as a savior sent by God. A prayer recited by orphans at orphanages runs as follows: This could be used as an indication that Nazism was a political religion or for the political messianism of Hitler.

Führer, mein Führer, von Gott mir gegeben, beschütz und erhalte noch lange mein Leben Du hast Deutschland errettet aus tiefster Not, Dir verdank ich mein tägliches Brot Führer, mein Führer, mein Glaube, mein Licht Führer mein Führer, verlasse mich nicht

This translates roughly as:

Leader, my Leader, given to me by God, protect me and sustain my life for a long time you have rescued Germany out of deepest misery, to you I owe my daily bread Leader, my Leader, my belief, my light Leader my Leader, do not abandon me

Nazi mysticism

Nazi mysticism is a term used to describe a semi-religious undercurrent of Nazism which denotes the combination of Nazism with theosophy, antroposophy, occultism, esotericism, cryptohistory, and/or the paranormal. The esoteric Thule Society and Germanenorden were secret societies which while only a small part of the Völkisch movement, led into the Nazi party.

Dietrich Eckart, a member of Thule, actually coached Hitler on his public speaking skills, and while Hitler has not been shown to have been a member of Thule, he received support from the group. Hitler later on dedicated Mein Kampf to Eckart. Heinrich Himmler showed a strong interest in such matters, although as Steigmann-Gall points out, Hitler and many of his key associates sometimes still attended Christian services of the nazified Reich Church.

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