More than seven decades after his suicide, Adolf Hitler continues to play a surprisingly prominent role in America’s culture wars. In debates about the social and public role of religion, both Christians and secularists are fond of citing the example of Hitler—whose name is more synonymous with human depravity than perhaps anyone else’s—as an example of the evils either of religion or of irreligion. How is it possible that Hitler continues to be pegged as either a Christian or atheist, two completely contradictory positions, oftentimes by well-informed people? In his illuminating and well-argued new book Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs That Drove the Third Reich, historian Richard Weikart convincingly argues that Hitler was neither, and that as an adroit politician he often made mutually exclusive statements to appeal to various sectors of German society.
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful,” Seneca mused. Weikart’s book makes it clear that Hitler would likely agree. Drawing upon a plethora of English and German sources—such as Hitler’s radio addresses and statements for the Nazi press—Weikart cites many contradictory statements by Hitler about religion, some showing him to be anti-religious, others praising “the Almighty” and even sometimes Christianity. This was because Hitler was less interested in the veracity of religion and than in its political usefulness. Weikart notes, for example, that while Hitler approved of Martin Luther’s strong anti-Semitism, he ultimately passed a negative judgment on the father of the Reformation for breaking up German unity. In other words, Hitler’s evaluation of Luther had nothing to do with the latter’s doctrine on justification by faith alone or his approach to the Bible, but was based solely on the political consequences of his break with the Catholic Church.
Likewise, Hitler frequently tailored his statements on religion to appeal to various sectors of German society. Because German and Austrian society was still overwhelmingly Christian (split between Lutherans and Catholics) between 1933 and 1945, Hitler—who was, in Weikart’s words, “a religious chameleon, a quintessential religious hypocrite”—made statements that praised Germany’s Christian roots so as not to not alienate his supporters. An accomplished scholar of German history, Weikart notes that pragmatism has for years characterized many Germans’ approach to Christianity, and even today it’s not uncommon for Germans who have long abandoned faith in the transcendental realm to still pay the Church tax to secure their children spots in prestigious Catholic schools.
However, Weikart makes it clear that Hitler’s pro-Christian statements were little more than lip service to his churchgoing constituents. Although Hitler was born and raised in historically Catholic Austria, he lost his faith in the Church at an early age. Weikart writes that the young Adolf was a rebellious student who frequently quarreled with his high school religion teacher and often mocked Christianity in class. Weikart’s excellent command of German is on display when he notes that in Mein Kampf and in private correspondence Hitler frequently used the term Pfaffe, a disparaging German term for a priest, to refer to clergymen. Hitler’s long-established anti-clericalism was evident after his rise to power as well, when Goebbels’ propaganda machine portrayed the Catholic priesthood as dominated by sexual perverts (on a side note, does that tactic sound familiar?).
In fact, Hitler’s real views on Christianity were so bizarre that they would actually be amusing in their imaginative eccentricity, if not for the fact that they were part of the worldview of a psychopath whose genocidal policies killed 11 million civilians and unleashed the bloodiest war in history. Weikart writes that Hitler, like his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, disliked Christianity, but admired the figure of Jesus Christ. In Hitler’s view, Jesus himself was a Roman or Greek (Hitler believed that the ancient Greeks and Romans were the precursors of the Nordic “master race”) killed by the perfidious Jews.
Hitler’s Religion is also a readable work of intellectual history. It is quite telling that, according to Weikart’s account, while many German soldiers carried copies of the Bible with them during World War I, Hitler took a five-volume collection of Schopenhauer’s works to the trenches. Weikart argues that while Hitler cared little about the Gospels, he was profoundly influenced by four German thinkers: the anti-Semite Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel, and especially Nietzsche. In addition to the decades-long debate over Hitler’s religious views, Weikart also makes an important contribution to the equally contentious and unending debate among philosophers and intellectual historians on Hitler’s indebtedness to Nietzsche. Weikart convincingly argues that whereas Hitler undoubtedly used Nietzsche’s philosophy selectively, the Third Reich carried out certain aspects of the philosopher’s worldview to their logical conclusion. This was especially true in the case of Hitler’s euthanasia program; the fact that the first victims of Nazism were mentally ill or elderly Germans or those with disabilities clearly tracks with Nietzsche’s repulsion for the weak and suffering. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda’s characterization of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, blacks, and others as Untermenschen—“subhumans”—was an obvious reference to Nietzsche’s concept of the superman Übermensch.
Hitler’s Religion includes a brief overview of Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Christian churches; from Weikart’s book, it is clear that the Catholic Church was targeted more than the Lutherans. Upon coming to power in Germany, the Nazis liquidated the Catholic Center Party (although Weikart does not mention this, it is worth noting that Georg Ratzinger, the uncle of the future Pope Benedict XVI, was a Center Party parliamentary deputy) and disbanded Catholic youth organizations, newspapers, and civic organizations. Weikart briefly mentions the internment of thousands of priests at the Dachau concentration camp, although one wishes he would do so in greater detail. The story of the imprisonment of more than 2,000 priests from across Europe in the oldest Nazi concentration camp needs to be better known, as it is a graphic representation of Hitler’s disdain for Christianity.
Weikart also brings an important perspective to the debate on the relationship between traditional Christian anti-Judaism and Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism. Weikart does not sugarcoat anything and correctly notes that the Christian churches had a long history of disdain for the Jews and Judaism (although it should be mentioned that parallel to this tradition was also one of Christian support for the Jews centuries before the Second Vatican Council: in the Middle Ages, for instance, numerous popes beginning with Innocent IV in 1247 condemned the blood libel myth that often led to anti-Semitic violence across Europe). However, he brilliantly demonstrates how Christian anti-Judaism differed from Nazi anti-Semitism.
The former, Weikart notes, was related to theological matters. He notes that Jewish converts to Christianity were treated no differently than other Christians by the Christian churches.
Furthermore, Weikart writes that while the Christian churches were for centuries disdainful of Judaism, they at the same time preached love for one’s neighbor regardless of his or her origins. As St. Paul says in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Hitler’s anti-Semitism, however, had nothing to do with religion and was solely related to race. In fact, Hitler hated the Christian churches for refusing to see Jews as such after they were baptized. For Hitler, a Jew was a Jew, regardless of his or her membership in a church. Weikart’s book would be enhanced if he included an overview of the varied responses of the Christian churches—both in Germany and in the countries that it occupied during the war—to the Third Reich’s persecution and later slaughter of the Jews.
What, then, did Hitler believe? Weikart convincingly writes that, although there is no evidence that he explicitly applied the term to himself, Adolf Hitler was a pantheist. Hitler loved spending time in nature, and often spoke of nature and God interchangeably. Hitler believed that the world was willed and ordered by nature, which he gave divine properties. However, Hitler’s worldview was closer to an materialistic awe for the orderliness of the universe than to mystical panentheism. While Hitler saw nature as God, his worldview allowed little room for the supernatural. For example, Hitler did not believe in an afterlife in the way most people understand the term. Rather, his concept of the afterlife was that the collective memory of the greatness of a nation would be passed on in history. Weikart notes that while all nouns are capitalized in German, English translations of Mein Kampf—including the one billed as the “Official Nazi Translation”—consistently translate Natur as “Nature” with a capital “N.” In Weikart’s view, Hitler actually derived his anti-Semitism in part from the racist, pseudo-biological social Darwinism of German biologist Ernst Haeckel.
It is surprising, however, that Weikart does not mention Hitler’s vegetarianism at all. Just as the SS was killing millions in concentration camps or through mass shootings, Hitler often entertained his dinner guests with nauseating, visceral descriptions of what goes on in butcher shops and meat processing plants.
For all its many important contributions to intellectual history, Hitler’s Religion does have a couple flaws that should be noted. For instance, Weikart incorrectly writes that Hitler’s notion of the Volk “could even mean all those having Nordic racial characteristics, even if they were ethnically Danish or Dutch or Norwegian or Polish.” This error is quite striking. Whereas the Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians are undoubtedly Germanic nations, the Slavic Poles clearly are not. In the Nazi ideology, Poland and the Soviet Union were to be overrun and turned into Lebensraum, or living room, for German colonists. The Poles were to be exterminated or turned into slave laborers for the “master race.” This error is striking in that later in the book Weikart himself notes the extremely brutal persecution of Poland’s Catholic Church at the hands of Nazi Germany. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance has estimated that at least 2.5 million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by Nazi Germany. After the Jews, ethnic Poles were the second largest group of Hitler’s victims.
In the introduction to his book, Weikart notes that when during his (surprisingly successful, I might add) 2010 pilgrimage to the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict XVI lauded the British people for courageously fighting against Nazi Germany, the world’s noisiest atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote that as a former Hitler Youth member Benedict should have kept mum. The problem isn’t that this is false, but that Weikart leaves this without comment. It is a great public relations fiasco of the Catholic Church that the image of “Hitler Youth Ratzinger” has persisted, rather than that of the heroic man who risked his life rejecting Nazism. Indeed, the future pope was a member of the Hitler Youth. However, it is not widely known that all German youths were made mandatory members of the organization and that the young Joseph Ratzinger deserted from it. This was a courageous act of defiance, as if he were caught, he would have likely been shot and the world would never be blessed with the pontificate of Benedict XVI. (It is telling that the mainstream media was much more lenient toward German novelist Günter Grass—a great writer but a flawed man—when in 2006, after six decades of calling on his countrymen to reckon with their Nazi past, he revealed that he was a voluntary member of the Waffen-SS as an adolescent.)
Nonetheless, Hitler’s Religion is a work of momentous importance. One can hope that it will end the dispute on Hitler’s religion for good. After its publication, the intellectually honest atheist will no longer be able to falsely maintain that Hitler was a Christian, while the intellectually honest Christian who cares about being precise will have to give a more nuanced response than “Hitler did not believe in God.” He did, but Hitler’s God was vastly unlike the God of Christianity.
Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich
by Richard Weikart
Regnery History, 2016
Hardcover, 352 pages
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!