The Crooked Cross and the Cross: Nazism and Christianity

Gott mit uns’ (God with us)
Kinder, Kirche, Kueche‘ ( Children, Church, Kitchen)
- National Socialist slogans

Gott mit uns Nazi belt buckle

Gott mit uns Nazi belt buckle

The extent to which the American Republican Party of 2010 is following in the footsteps of National Socialism is much debated. Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot offers us “Fascist America in 10 easy steps.” Without mentioning Christianity specifically, Wolf outlines in frightening detail what happened in Germany of the 1930s and shows how it could happen here. She bases her outline on events which took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, the man the Religious Right identified as “God’s chosen” – a return to the old Christian ideal of rule by divine right.

Both Adolf Hitler and George W. Bush (and now the post-Bush Republican Party) enjoyed the ardent – one might say fanatical – support of conservative Christians. I have argued elsewhere (Back to the 30′s: National Socialist and Republican Discourse) that these similarities are not superficial, but can be identified at the heart of the discourse and rhetoric employed by each movement. I touched in passing there National Socialism’s relationship with Christianity – my focus was more political – but here I will examine the religious aspects.

There is no real contradiction in calling Germany a Christian Nation while denying that epithet to America. The Old World had a long history of state religions – exactly what our 18th century Evangelicals and our Founding Fathers were trying to avoid in the New World – and it was that reality that drove the Founding Fathers to draft the First Amendment, thus freeing the new nation from that evil:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Before the Reformation, Europe was composed of kingdoms, duchies, principalities and so forth, all of them boasting Christianity as their state religion. In 1530 many German states declared their new state religion to be Protestant. Many of the first settlers in North America were fleeing religious wars and religious persecution that arose in this era. I have ancestors on my father’s side who were French Huguenots, fleeing Catholic persecution in France in the 17th century.

The people coming to these shores did not want state religion, or state interference in their religion. They did not want to be told how to worship or what to believe. But that is entirely contrary to the European experience.

In 1910 Richard Lempp noted that every German was by birth a member of the Church of his or her state – either Protestant or Catholic – just as he or she was a citizen of a state and each of the 26 German states had its own established Church. This has never been true of the United States, and we have the First Amendment to thank for this.

There are no state religions in American states or in the United States as a whole. The professors of theological faculties were appointed by the governments of the German states, not by the Church. German churches were state churches. When a child went to school, he received 2-12 hours of religious instruction each week all the way through the end of high school.

They were taught Christian theology, church history and ethics and during the last two years of one’s education the teaching was done by pastors, not by school teachers. Participation in state religion became voluntary only upon graduation.[1] This is what I mean when I say that Germany was a “Christian Nation.” This was the situation up until 1918. It must be remembered that the National Socialist hierarchy was a product of this pre-1918 era, as were many of the men of military age when war came in 1939 (when the class of 1918 would have been 21).

A church full of Nazis

A church full of Nazis

And Hitler himself disapproved of secular schools. On April 26, 1933, during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordant, he said: “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith …we need believing people.”

We have seen the degree to which modern Republican discourse agrees with Hitler’s summation. Morality, we are told, is impossible outside of a Christian context; secular schools cannot be trusted to properly indoctrinate our children.

Richard Lempp updated his study of German religion in 1921, post-Versailles Treaty, and spoke of the revolution of 1918, which had the effect of shattering the relationship between Church and State. Lempp saw as the cause of this separation the Socialists, who in 1891 in the Socialist Programme of Erfurt, had declared that religion was a private matter.

After the end of the Great War, “the ministry of public worship and education, which before the revolution had charge of the churches, now came into the hands of men who belonged to no church…in the most important state, Prussia, the “Kultusminister” was the well-known Adolf Hoffmann, a Berlin bookseller who for years had opposed both religion and the churches with malice and contempt,” says Mr. Lempp. “He began by prohibiting prayer in the Prussian schools and proclaiming the abolition of all religious instruction.” Religious instruction was also abolished in Saxony, Gotha, Brunswick and Hamburg without appeal to special legislation.

You can see at this point both the beginnings of an understanding of Church and State relations that would be recognizable to Americans and also the hostility with which this break is greeted by Mr. Lempp, himself a German Christian. But we are also told of the strength of Christian belief in the new Germany; in the Rhineland, Catholics threatened to secede if “irreligious radicals continued to dominate the government” and “In northern Germany alone seven million Protestants signed a protest against the abolition of religious instruction in schools.”

Again, this situation will seem familiar to readers today. There is talk of secession and it is in part due to conservative Christian feeling. Until recently, this is a situation you can never imagine having occurred in the United States with its long tradition of separation of Church and State.

In 1919, therefore, the American concept of separation of Church and State was rejected by German voters – just as it is being rejected by conservative Christian voters in the United States. “Rather it was universally demanded that the church, although now independent of the state, remain “Volkskirche,” a national church” with the result that religion continued to be taught in the schools.[2] The Germany that greeted the rise of National Socialism was still a Christian nation. The only real difference in 1919 was that the church was no longer state-sponsored, but the states paid the churches an annual annuity in its place, so the change was cosmetic only.

Nazi Christmas tree ornaments

Nazi Christmas tree ornaments

It is clear that Germany both before and after 1919 was overwhelmingly Christian and remained so into Hitler’s Third Reich. The people in charge had grown up in a Christian Germany and the people who followed their leaders had grown up either in the same period or in the early to mid-20s. It was both Protestants and Catholics who voted the National Socialists into power, not Pagans, not feminists, not homosexuals, not secular-minded socialists, not the despised atheistic communists. Those groups all ended up in concentration camps along with the Jews and Gypsies.

What Hitler did was simply a continuation of the Christian-sponsored anti-Jewish pogroms of the Middle Ages and later. Yet: another slander Christians lay at Paganism’s doorstep is equating Nazism with a Pagan revival. Perhaps the best witness we can call to the stand against this claim is Hitler himself, who stated in no uncertain terms,

It seems to me that nothing would be more foolish than to re-establish the worship of Wotan. Our old mythology had ceased to be viable when Christianity implanted itself. Nothing dies unless it is moribund.[3]

Compare and contrast with:

“The Ten Commandments are a code of living to which there’s no refutation. These precepts correspond to irrefragable needs of the human soul; they’re inspired by the best religious spirit, and the Churches here support themselves on a solid foundation.”[4]

While Hitler shoveled dirt on Paganism’s grave, he stated in Mein Kampf that he drew his inspiration for a zero-tolerance policy on competing worldviews directly from the history of Christianity, not, significantly, from the tolerance of Pagan societies.[5]

When Hitler spoke of the “Christian spirit” imbued in German culture, he was quite – and very deadly – serious.[6]

Both Protestant and Catholic Churches cooperated with the Nazi government, including the Papacy. Significantly, the groups mentioned above, did not. They opposed Hitler tooth and nail; conservative Christians welcomed him with open arms. It is not too much to call their support “messianic” in fervor. Whatever Hitler’s official religious stance – Hitler’s professed policy was to “let it wither on the vine.”[7] – National Socialist policies did nothing to destroy the Church and Christian support for the Nazi regime never wavered.

Given his belief in “providence” Hitler comes across privately someone who accepts the reality of God (a God who chose him to lead Germany just as God chose Bush to lead America) but rejects the attached Christian theology. Yet it cannot be forgotten that he himself never left the Catholic Church and retained cordial relations with the Vatican during the war.[8] For their part, the Protestants and Catholics both supported the Third Reich – a support that was unwavering.[9] And in the end, it is less important what Hitler thought than the overwhelming and enthusiastic support his programs received from Christians.

Hitler as best man while Reichbishop Müller presides

Goring's church wedding: Hitler as best man while Reichbishop Müller presides

During the National Socialist Era, some two-thirds of Germans were Protestant and the rest, Catholic. There were no discernible numbers of Pagans, and those few that existed were, as noted above thrown into concentration camps along with the Jews, political prisoners, gypsies and other “undesirables.” The Third Reich was, as the facts amply demonstrate, a conservative Christian undertaking.

To blame Hitler on the Left, to conjure up images of a Left-wing secular-atheist Hitler today (Mr. Obama or otherwise) is not only the height of hypocrisy but it is in complete contradiction of the historical record.

Yet from the Nazi Era on, we have been told by Christians that the Nazis were Heathens or Neo-Pagans, despite Hitler’s clear words to the contrary, and despite the fact that the population of Germany, excepting the Jews, was entirely and overwhelmingly Christian. The use of Heathen sacred symbols does not make Nazism Heathen, as even the Anti-Defamation League recognizes.[10]

The men and women who committed atrocities were themselves overwhelmingly Christians, or had been brought up as Christians, as indeed Hitler himself had been. Nazi racism and Antisemitism was dependent upon a long history of Christian Antisemitism, an attitude dating far back into Christianity’s past and continued by Martin Luther. Without Christianity, Nazism would be unimaginable.[11]

Similarly, without Christianity, today’s GOP would be impossible, a political party dedicated not to a social platform but to a narrow and restrictive view of what is right and wrong. The only striking difference seems to be that it was the Nazis who co-opted the Christianity that had birthed it, while today it is Christianity that has co-opted the GOP. In either case the aspirations of conservative Christians find a voice in the political arena.

Given America’s religio-political landscape (two terms that should not come into contact)  there is no reason to suppose that Sinclair Lewis was wrong when he said, “when fascism comes to America, it will be draped in the flag and carrying a cross.” After all, when fascism came to Germany, it was identically clothed.

Citations:

[1] Richard Lempp “Present Religious Conditions in Germany,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Jan., 1910), pp. 85-124.  From 1914-1918 Lempp was a chaplain in the German 26th Reserve Division serving in France and Belgium and after 1919 became secretary of the Evangelischer Volksbund für Württemberg

[2] Richard Lempp “Church and Religion in Germany,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 14, No. 1. (Jan., 1921), pp. 30-52.

[3] Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944 Trans. By Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, Hugh Trevor Roper, ed. NY: Enigma Books, 2000 [1953], 61, conversation of  14 October 1941.

[4] Ibid, 85, conversation of 24 October 1941, p. 85.

[5] Werner Ustorf, ‘Survival of the Fittest’: German Protestant Missions, Nazism and Neocolonialism, 1933-1945? Journal of Religion in Africa 28 (1998), 94. Ustorf argues that leading German mission thinkers even saw in National Socialism an opportunity to reverse the marginalization of Christianity and the influence of liberals, Jews, agnostics and others and re-Christianize Europe.

[6] Adolf Hitler, quoted in: The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939, Vol. 1 (London, Oxford University Press, 1942), 871-872.

[7] Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s Table Talk, 341-344, conversation of 27 February 1942.

[8] Hitler told General Gerhart Engel in 1941: “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.” He was a tithe paying Catholic till the day he died, was baptized a Roman Catholic, was an altar boy, and was never excommunicated.

[9] James E. Gilman, “R.G. Collingwood and the Religious Sources of Nazism” Journal of the Academy of Religion, 54 (1986), 125-126. “Ecclesiastical complicity with the National Socialists is well documented and familiar.” See also Robert P. Ericksen, Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust(Augsburg Fortress 1999).

[10] For those interested in the appropriation of Heathen symbols by the Nazis see the Anti-Defamation website page, A Visual Database of Extremist Symbols, Logos and Tattoos where proper identification of these symbols is made.

[11] Interestingly, one contemporary Christian assessment of Christianity and National Socialism asserted that “National Socialism cannot be understood unless it is seen ‘as a New Islam, its myth as a new Allah, and Hitler as this new Allah’s prophet.’”  See Wilhelm Pauck, “National Socialism and Christianity: Can they be Reconciled?” The Journal of Religion 20 (1940), 15-32. Here too the basic problem of Nazism’s Christian underpinnings is ignored.

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10 Responses to The Crooked Cross and the Cross: Nazism and Christianity

  1. Pingback:

    +1 Vote -1 Vote +1uberVU - social comments

  2. -1 Vote -1 Vote +1tom
    January 4, 2010 at 9:57 am

    - Jews, political prisoners, gypsies and other “undesirables.” -

    I was excited about your article until you decided to omit classes of people by grouping them in the “undesireables” category.

    • Vote -1 Vote +1brainwise
      January 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      The author did not group them as such. His use of quotes indicates this is the Third Reich’s grouping (one that I know Hraf does not personally subscribe to).

  3. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Dr. Homeskooled
    January 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I come from a Southern Christian Fundamentalist Republican Family. We have KKK members all the way back from my great grand father. My father also happens to be one of the largest dealer of Nazi antiques in the USA. He is considered an expert, people send him items to authenticate. His home is like a nazi museum. I have eaten from Hitlers private dinnerware and have held items that Hitler and his “Unholy Trinity” are pictured wearing.
    From my fathers POV,
    Nazi thinking, Republicanism, and fundamentalist christianity are compatible.
    Its is very sad and ignorant.
    The current leaders of the Republican Thought.. Glen Beck, Rush,, etc. do not conflict at all with Nazi Thought… very interesting, very disturbing.
    I think the term” Republican Nationalism” fits well the current direction of the Republican Party… .. Republicans need to find a new Identity , and its interesting/sad that it seem to be gravitating towards extreme Nationalism mixed with Christianity………History Repeats Itself. I have great respect for the Author to Recognize this emerging comparisons between Early Nazism and the Republican Nationalism

    • Ole Ole Olson
      Vote -1 Vote +1Ole Ole Olson
      January 4, 2010 at 9:51 pm

      Thank you for your personal story. I think many people with their eyes open can recognize the parallels between then and today, although any direct comparison provokes fierce attacks from those defending it.

  4. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Dr. Homeskooled
    January 4, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    I forgot to mention that my father has also met Bush and the vice president bought a ( non-nazi) gift from my dad( long story).. Not to imply Bush and DIck are secret Nazis… they are not,and they they DO NOT know my father personally, or are aware of his personal philosophies. It was a result of my fathers admiration of Bush and his personal motivations to meet his heros..Just a .very insightful and thought provoking example of the compatibility of Nazi and Republican thought.

  5. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Rev. Ray Dubuque
    January 4, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Great article. For anyone interested in more detail, check out my http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/RCscandal and related pages.

  6. Vote -1 Vote +1Makarios
    January 4, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    As usual, a well-documented and well-reasoned piece. I get so tired of hearing the various churches claim that one of the most thoroughly Christianized nations in the world suddenly, and for no good reason, turned Pagan and only then started killing people left and right.

  7. Vote -1 Vote +1AaronShafer
    January 7, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Ironically, Jesus Christ attacked the religious institutions. He would do the same today. Nothing new under the sun here.

  8. Vote -1 Vote +1brainwise
    January 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Hraf: This is another excellent article. I’m sorry that I only got around to reading it today (it’s been on my desktop since you first posted it).

    I always appreciate your well-researched and reasonable writing.