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Public Theology: Nazism had Strong Ideological Roots in Christianity
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Nazism had Strong Ideological Roots in Christianity
A new book by Richard Steigmann-Gall called The Holy Reich argues Nazism was not just a neo-pagan movement.

The ABC radio network in Australia has a project called The Religion Report which on Septembe 17, 2003, presented an interview with Richard Steigmann-Gall concerning his book The Holy Reich. We are reprinting the transcript of the interview below for archival purposes due to its significance for the topic of public theology.


The Religion Report: 17 September 2003 - The Holy Reich

[This is the print version of story]

Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.


Who said that Jesus was “the true God”, that the goal of his own movement was to “translate the ideals of Christ into deeds”; who said “we are the first to exhume these teachings through us alone, and not until now do these teachings celebrate their resurrection. Mary and Magdalene stood at the empty tomb, for they were seeking the dead man, but we intend to raise the treasures of the living Christ”.

Well, you may be surprised to learn that those are the words of Adolf Hitler, quoted in an important new book that challenges the conventional wisdom that Nazism was a neo-pagan movement, and that it was hostile not just to the Christian churches, but to Christianity itself.

Richard Steigmann-Gall is Assistant Professor of History at Kent State University in Ohio, and his new book The Holy Reich has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

He argues that far from being anti-Christian, Nazism saw itself as the embodiment of practical Christianity. Indeed, Point 24 of the Nazi Party Program of 1920 says the Party represents the standpoint of “positive Christianity”, without tying itself to a particular confession. Many Nazi Party elite had a serious interest in religious questions that went well beyond the pragmatic or cynical manipulation of conservative mainstream German public opinion. Some leading Nazis even saw the movement as a completion of the Reformation begun by Martin Luther.

Richard Steigmann-Gall is speaking to me from the studios of Radio WKSU-FM in Ohio.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: What we’ve learned a great deal about in the last several decades is that churchmen in Germany – and churchwomen for that matter – oftentimes held a very favourable view of Nazism, but that has always been assumed to be part of a larger picture where the Nazis never reciprocated the affections. Hitler’s Pope is a book that’s just come out, as well as others, that suggests that even as far up as the Papacy, the Vatican, you had either an ambivalent attitude towards Nazism or outright affection for Nazism – but again, the flipside of the coin, what the Nazis had to say about Christians has until now, not really been systematically analysed.

Stephen Crittenden: Well, let’s come to the Catholics in a moment, but let’s start with the idea that Nazism was a neo-pagan movement. That’s a very widely held popular view, isn’t it, that Nazism grew out of the secularisation of German culture in the 19th century, and that it’s particularly associated with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the death of God? Now, having read your book, you come away with the sense that it was anything but.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: In a word: yes. There is a branch of the Nazi movement, which I label paganist, and they are people who supposed that they were trying to propagate a new faith which was actually based on an old faith, that Nazis supposed that the Teutonic forefathers of Germany back in the misty Middle Ages, had been worshipping more Germanic religions, Wotan, this sort of thing.

Stephen Crittenden: Blood and soil.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Exactly. And Himmler and his cohorts profess an interest in resurrecting these older religions.

Stephen Crittenden: Right. And what about Rosenberg, who is the ideologue of this kind of view?

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Absolutely. He’s front and centre, he writes prolifically about the new religion that he wants to shape for the “New Germany”, as the Nazis call it, and so he is very much squarely in the middle of this movement to put in a new religion, if you will.

Stephen Crittenden: There’s a key book by Rosenberg, isn’t there, called The Myth of the 20th Century?

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, absolutely, a very thick book, seven-hundred-plus pages, which – as he discovered after 1945 during the Nuremberg trials – few of his colleagues ever actually read, it was just so ponderous. The point I would make, Stephen, about that cohort – again, I call them the paganists – is that they were not as hegemonic in their religious views as historians have conventionally assumed. In other words, because Rosenberg called himself the Party ideologue, and because he wrote so prolifically on this new religion he was trying to set up – which was actually in his view an old religion being restored – there’s a tendency in certainly the popular culture, there’s a presumption that somehow every Nazi was to some degree a paganist or a mystic – and in fact it is limited to a small cohort, I would say. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the individual players, but to presume that these people had religious ideas that all Nazis had to subscribe to, is completely false. If you look at Hitler’s own ideas, and his reactions to Himmler’s and Rosenberg’s writings, he (if anything) ridiculed the paganism of these sort of second-tier Nazi henchmen.

Stephen Crittenden: Yes that’s very interesting, isn’t it, that Hitler could love Wagner’s music, and love Wotan when he was on the stage, but he very definitely differentiated between that and any idea that you would import those kind of 19th century Wagnerian – or indeed pre-Christian – ideas into contemporary politics in Germany.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: That’s absolutely right. And actually, when it comes to Wagner himself, you will actually find in his operas certain pagan appropriations of sort of a misty German religious past. But in Wagner’s operas you also find very strong Christian metaphors, and this is especially notable in Hitler’s favourite opera Parsifal, which many commentators of the day have noted as a sort of metaphor for Christ. The Parsifal opera is in many ways a metaphor of Christ’s life, and this was Hitler’s favourite opera of all of Wagner’s. And furthermore, if you go into Wagner’s own writings, you’ll see that Wagner himself did feel himself to be a Christian. Now, when you say “what does that mean?” – or, for that matter, what does the idea that Hitler thought of himself as a Christian mean – then you have to obviously acknowledge that Wagner’s and Hitler’s religious views were not exactly orthodox. But insofar as Wagner wrote a lot with his wife about Jesus – about how he loved Jesus, how Jesus was important for him and for his art – then you see that in fact Wagner is not so clearly a pagan as some people might suppose. He in fact himself thought of himself as a Christian, I would suggest.


Stephen Crittenden: Music from Wagner’s Parsifal.

Richard, if you think of Hitler or Goebbels, both baptised Catholics, or Goering, a pretty active Protestant, none of them is an orthodox Christian, they’ve all got some pretty peculiar ideas.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Right. And it should be noted right off the bat that when I discuss Hitler’s conceptions of Christianity in the book, and contend that in some way or other Hitler regarded himself to be a Christian, that’s not to say that Hitler went by the benchmarks of typical Christian practice, and his religious views were unorthodox, as were those of his immediate associates. As you say, Goering was notable for being a Protestant. He wasn’t particularly an active churchgoer either, but what’s interesting is that the leadership of the Nazi party embraced the idea – at least those who weren’t the Pagans like Himmler and Rosenberg – embraced the idea of what got called “positive Christianity” within the Nazi party. And among other things, positive Christianity attempted to bridge the sectarian divide that had fractured German society between Catholic and Protestant. Hitler talks – in private as well as in public, but more especially in private – about the meanings of positive Christianity for him, and one of the things that became clear to me as I was analysing what the Nazis meant when they kept using this expression “positive Christianity” was that it would be a faith which no-one was ever baptised into, but rather would be a set of ideas and ethics, according to the Nazis, that would among other things emphasise commonalities – and including, in Hitler’s mind of course, anti-Semitism, which he I think (rather successfully, when you look at how people reacted to it), tied in with Christianity.

Stephen Crittenden: Richard, can we turn to the I think very ambiguous and ambivalent connection between Nazism and Catholicism. A lot of the Nazi leaders, Hitler and Himmler originally, Goebbels, are baptised Catholics, but there’s a lot of ambivalence from the word go about the Catholic Church, even to the point of some of these Catholics being quite pro-Protestant. So, quite open to Luther, for example.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, absolutely. You hear a lot about the fact that the Nazi leadership seemed to be disproportionately Catholic. Again, through the device of positive Christianity, when I looked at this concept and tried to explore it a little more deeply, what I discovered was that these Nazis, even the Catholic Nazis – especially, as odd as it may sound, Hitler himself – suggested that while everybody, Protestant and Catholic alike, could be embraced under the banner of positive Christianity, when you look at the actual discussions that they have of Protestantism and Catholicism, they keep privileging Protestantism over Catholicism. They believe that if Catholicism is an international religion, with a leader who is not part of Germany – obviously in Rome – that by contrast, Protestantism is more innately amenable to nationalist politics. They cast Luther as not just the first Protestant, but also the first German. Hitler’s saying this, but it’s certainly not new. What is notable about it, is that even nominal Catholics – as you point out, like Hitler – seem to have a greater appreciation for at least the political and social dimensions of Protestantism than they do their own nominal faith Catholicism. And so again, it’s no surprise when you look at it that way, that Hitler obviously had long before 1933, when he comes to power, stopped attending Catholic church; for him, Protestantism was more valued. Now, because he was a politician, and he wanted to get Catholics on board his movement, he wasn’t about to convert to Protestantism, but when you look at his private conversations behind closed doors – when the curtain of Nazi performance, if you will, comes down – what you hear Hitler saying over and over again, is among other thing, a much higher estimation of Protestantism as what he calls “the natural religion of the German”.

Stephen Crittenden: Richard, I think because of a lot of recent attacks on Pope Pius XII and his failure to do enough in support of European Jewry, we also have a somewhat distorted picture of the relationship between Nazism and the Catholic Church. You make it clear that was mutually hostile from the word go, and that the Catholic Church actively opposed Nazi racial policies, even though there was a lot of Catholic anti-Semitism in this period as well.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Well, I would say that it’s right that the Nazis had an antagonistic view to Catholicism, certainly when certain scholars today seek out the roots of Nazi anti-Semitism and claim to find the roots in Catholic anti-Semitism, I think they’re not getting as close to the matter as had they not gone to an alternative, and namely, that is Protestant sources. Because within certain Protestant religions, you find a much closer theological accommodation of racialism or racism. Now you talked, Stephen, a while ago about active Catholic resistance to Nazi racism. In Germany itself, of course, it’s hard to gauge just how active it was. You do have a couple of outspoken clergymen in Germany, like the famous Bishop von Galen, who from the pulpit decries the euthanasia campaign. But he was much more of an exception than the rule.

Stephen Crittenden: But the German bishops, as a group, do come out and officially express their opposition to Nazism fairly early on, don’t they?

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Before 1933, correct, yes. Things change after the Nazis come to power in ways that I think you had an interview some months ago with Michael Marrus at the University of Toronto, in which you talked with him about this so-called hidden encyclical which never came to light.

Stephen Crittenden: This is Pope Pius XI’s hidden encyclical for 1938.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Right. I would agree with Michael’s estimation that there’s ambiguity, yes: the Catholic Church is, from a doctrinal point of view, taking a clear stance against racism, but in ways that paradoxically leave open the idea that had been long current in Catholic thinking: that the Jews were still somehow responsible, for instance, for the death of Christ, and they still had to atone for that. But, Stephen, your larger point – that the Catholic Church took a doctrinal stand against racism, and contrast that to the Protestant churches, many of which actually embraced racialism from the theological point of view – that is absolutely correct.

Stephen Crittenden: Let’s stick to the Protestant churches now. There’s wide public awareness, these days, of Christian anti-Semitism, and that Christian anti-Semitism was almost a necessary precondition for Nazi anti-Semitism. What I don’t think many people will be aware of, is the extent to which Nazi persecution of the Jews was underwritten by German Protestant theology in particular, and that it wasn’t just sort of contemporary 1920s theology, it pre-existed Nazism.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: That’s absolutely right, and one can start with Luther’s infamous tract called On the Jews and their Lies, in which Luther says, among other things – and this quote is to this day almost unbelievable when it’s heard – but Luther is known to say “we are at fault in not slaying them”. So Luther himself, certainly, was unfortunately rather a virulent anti-Semite. Now, that’s not to say that every single Lutheran after Luther had to be as intensely anti-Semitic as he was. I would put it this way though, and that is that within Lutheranism rested certain traditions of anti-Semitism which Nazis could and did draw upon.

Stephen Crittenden: Apart from the fact of Luther being a nationalist figure, if you like, one of the key ideas is the idea that Jesus was not a Jew – an idea that I think came from Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the idea that the Galileans weren’t Jews, that Jesus was is fact an archetypal – even the original – anti-Semite. And at one point you even quote Martin Bormann’s father-in-law, Walter Buch, who believes that Jesus’ entire character and learning betray the fact that he was German.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, there are the most notable aspects of – if it could be called this – Nazi theology. Almost to a man, the Nazis insisted (a) that Jesus was in fact not Jewish but an Aryan; and (b) that the Old Testament should be dispensed with as a Jewish tract, and that it should be removed from the Christian canon. Now, Christians these days, at least in mainstream culture, would claim either of these things. And yet these were ideas that were not invented by the Nazis, no-one would ever suggest that Hitler had any ingenuity as a thinker, he was no bona fide intellectual in his own right, his ideas were borrowed – and in the same way, the idea of Christ being an Aryan was also borrowed. Now, as you indicated, Stephen, it sort of begins with Houston Stewart Chamberlain; I would suggest it goes back even a little further than that, within the theological tradition in the 19th century known as biblical criticism. One of the leaders of the biblical criticism movement, if it could be called that, is a Frenchman actually, Ernest Renan, and Renan anticipates later Nazi thinking, he refers to Jesus as someone who almost is entirely Aryan, and uses a great deal of racialist discourse, which the Nazis will later adapt. So it’s about Houston Stewart Chamberlain, you’re quite right, this notable philosopher of the Wilhelmine German period, but it’s also about this larger movement of biblical criticism – which was pan-European, in fact.

Stephen Crittenden: Hitler really has this expectation that the Protestant churches – in Germany, at least – will unify themselves and bring themselves into some kind of co-ordination under Nazism. There’s this key figure, the Reich Bishop Müller, who turns out I think to be pretty incompetent as a politician, doesn’t he, and in the end it appears that Hitler moves away from this idea – and really, what starts to happen as the 1930s wear on, is that he distances himself from the Protestant churches slowly, doesn’t he?

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, he does. There is a movement within Protestantism – it’s not an imposition by the Nazis upon Protestantism, but rather begins within Protestantism – to unite all the different state churches within Germany into one big national church, what the Germans call a Reichskirche, to be headed by a Reich Bishop, as you said. And the advocates of this are known as the “German Christians”, they call themselves the German Christians.

Stephen Crittenden: And it’s important to say, too, isn’t it, that Hitler’s idea is that this will happen more or less at arm’s length from the Nazi party.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Right. But having said that, it is the case that you have very revealing overlaps in personnel. In other words, some of the most important players in the German Christians are also rather high up in the Nazi party hierarchy, and that’s a revealing overlap. But they do remain institutionally distinct. And when, as you say Stephen, that the idea of unifying all of these separate Protestant churches ultimately comes undone, then it becomes clear that these are two distinct bodies. Because the Nazis begin to give up on the idea; after four years of trying, finally in 1937 they decide “well, let’s forget about this, it’s not ever going to happen”, and then you see the German Christians more and more being ignored by the Nazi party – much to the disappointment of the German Christians, obviously.

Stephen Crittenden: You get this slow increase in sort of antipathy towards the institutional churches at first, but perhaps then even later, towards Christianity in general.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: I would say that certainly before 1937, the Nazis always had displayed some sort of anti-clericalism, but it was always when you looked at the specific targets of anti-clericalism, it would always be the Catholic Church, that the Protestant Church would always be somehow left untouched in anti-clerical attacks.

Stephen Crittenden: But what about during the war years?

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, I was going to say after 1937 you do see a big change. Because now it seemed that the Protestant national church just is never going to come into reality, and Hitler, being the sort of megalomaniac that he was, when he became sufficiently frustrated with a particular institution – or even an ally, a particular individual who had been a friend of his – he would sort of cast the whole thing off, and reject it entirely. So in the same way, Hitler seems after 1937 to become increasingly anti-clerical vis-à-vis both churches, not just the Catholic Church but the Protestant churches as well. Now, to the point of how anti-Christian he then became, there’s more ambivalence there. I analysed very carefully the various sources that historians use, namely Hitler’s so called “table talk”, conversations Hitler had with his confidants during the war years, where it is alleged, or where it is professed, that Hitler’s true feelings about Christianity – in other words, his anti-Christian feelings – really come out. And having explored those, Stephen, I came to the conclusion that in fact Hitler’s table talk, this one particular source, shows in fact ambivalence and ambiguity about Hitler. On the one hand he claims yes, Christianity should be rejected as Jewish; on the other hand he still is saving Jesus, the person of Jesus is never touched in his tirades. Jesus is always elevated as the Aryan; Jesus’ ideas were different.

Stephen Crittenden: The first Socialist, a muscular “doer”.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Exactly.


Stephen Crittenden: Richard, I want to turn if I could to the active support for Nazi eugenics – forced sterilisation and so forth – that comes from the Protestant church, particularly a group within the Protestant church called the Inner Mission, which I guess is essentially a Protestant welfare organisation. This is perhaps one of the most shocking parts of your book. It’s not just active support; you actually have this group, the Inner Mission, voluntarily sterilising people in its asylums, handing thousands of people over to be killed at one point, but also providing a kind of theological underpinning.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, and I think that’s really the crux. The question is, how could good Christians – good Protestants, running a group like the Inner Mission, devoted to Protestantisation of social policy in Germany – how could such a group advocate sterilisation, and even end up being drawn into the Nazi euthanasia program? And I think it’s very important to keep in mind that these are not people who didn’t realise what they were doing. The theological underpinnings of this, to borrow your expression, also in a broader sense explains why those Protestants who went to Hitler, did go to Hitler. And it’s an expression which is used in Germany – I won’t give you the German word, Stephen, but it translates roughly into “the theology of the orders of creation”. And what you start getting in Protestant circles is the idea – certainly by the turn of the century, this idea is getting currency – that the Volk, or the race, is one of God’s orders of creation. Now, Lutheran theology had always maintained that God had created certain orders in society, like the family, and the law and the state. And what you see increasingly among Luther scholars is the idea being suggested that the Volk as well – and again, Volk is a word which doesn’t translate easily into English, it’s translated as “people” or “race” – but the Volk is a divine order of creation. And here again I have to draw a parallel, Stephen, at least in my context in the United States, with the idea among people like Strom Thurmond in the United States, that miscegenation was something that God was opposed to.

Stephen Crittenden: And so what you get in Germany is the Inner Mission puts out a public statement saying that the thirty thousand inmates of its asylums are victims of guilt and sin, you get a formulation: “life that is unworthy of life”.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, I don’t claim in the book that that expression “life unworthy of life” is an invention of a Protestant pastor or a Protestant theologian, but the key ingredient here is that if you believe that God created the races as distinct, and that God is opposed to any intermixing of the races, what you also are implying is that God believes that the body of the Volk needs to be preserved, and that the Volk as an organic whole needs to be protected as much as the individual does. So you get this idea that the strength and purity of the race is willed by God, and then it becomes possible, as perverse as it sounds, for Protestant theologians in the Inner Mission to suggest that we need to sterilise these people as being the issue of sin, the guilt and sin –

Stephen Crittenden: People with physical disabilities or who were mad, or whatever.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Right. And if you believe that God created races, then you will also believe that it was pleasing to God that these imperfections be removed from his holy creation of the Volk.

Stephen Crittenden: You’ve got the Lutheran Neuendetteslau Asylum in Franconia, in 1937 handing over 1900 of its 2100 patients to be killed.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: That’s right. Euthanasia is something that the Protestant – and, for that matter, Catholic – welfare organisations find themselves drawn into. And you find actually a lot of Protestants do begin to object not to sterilisation – again, many of these people within the Inner Mission actually had advocated laws for the sterilisation of certain types of people in Germany – when it comes to euthanasia, the actual killing of these people, a lot of Protestants begin to trip, they begin to ask themselves “oh, wait a minute, is this how far we really wanted this to go?” And because they have been so implicated in the logic of racial thinking, they find they’ve already entered into the euthanasia program with one hand tied behind their back, in a way, unable to defend their own charges when the Nazis come to basically round them up and mass murder them. The Inner Mission oftentimes will simply turn a blind eye, they’ll tell the Nazis “well, we’re not going to help you with getting our inmates out of our institutions, but here’s a list of people who are the really worst off”, and of course this is to give sort of sanction and at least acquiescence to Nazi euthanasia in ways that show that if they’re not completely approving of euthanasia, they’re certainly far from being condemning of it.

Stephen Crittenden: Indeed, you say that not one public protest against euthanasia was ever launched by a German Protestant churchman.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Correct.

Stephen Crittenden: Let me take you beyond the scope of your book, right up to 1945 to the fall of Berlin and beyond. Given this kind of theological underpinning was provided by German Protestantism, given this level of active assistance of all of the worst aspects of the Nazi program had occurred, what was the reaction of the Lutheran church in 1945? I mean, why didn’t it just close down, wind itself up out of shame? What happened in 1945? It must have been an incredible story in itself.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes, and there’s growing literature that addresses this question. One of the interesting things about German Protestantism is its institutionally fractured nature. So you had twenty-eight separate state churches – again, the Nazi ambition of uniting all the churches falls apart, so you get institutional fracturing – not only that, you get this internal war within Protestantism between the so-called German Christians and the so-called Confessing Church. And that has the effect, Stephen, of after the war, basically allowing Germans to believe a half-truth: that all Protestants in Germany belonged – or were at least ideologically allied – with the so-called Confessing Church, and the main figureheads of the Confessing Church were people who are well-known today.

Stephen Crittenden: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and people like that.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Yes.

Stephen Crittenden: So in other words, Bonhoeffer enables German Protestants to tell themselves a much sanitised story.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Exactly. And of course the German Christians, those who had been very pro-Hitler and pro-Nazi – even when the Nazis began to tire and increasingly reject the German Christians, these were people who had always been essentially pro-Nazi, certainly virulently anti-Semitic – after 1945, you get from them an embarrassed silence.

Stephen Crittenden: Richard Steigmann-Gall, thank you very much for joining us on The Religion Report. It’s been a most interesting conversation.

Richard Steigmann-Gall: Thank you very much, Stephen.

Stephen Crittenden: ”Our religion is Christ, our politics is Fatherland”. Richard Steigmann-Gall, Assistant Professor of History at Kent State University in Ohio, and his book The Holy Reich is published by Cambridge University Press.

That’s all this week, thanks to David Rutledge and John Diamond.


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