By Mike Magee | 5 November 2003
Petty tyrants such as Richard Nixon, or more successful tyrants such as Hitler, have regarded themselves as exemplary Christians, an estimate their followers had no trouble accepting. Hitler’s religiosity—he was a Catholic until his death—is often glossed over, but it is critical in understanding his motivation.
—Anne Nicol Gaylor
Since the second world war, there has been a convention that the Nazis were driven either by atheism or by all sorts of sinister occult fancies. Christians have been desperate to distance themselves from European fascism and Nazism. Yet “every tree is known by his own fruit,” said the Christian God (Lk 6:44), and European fascism was the fruit of Christianity. Christians were Nazis and took part in Nazi atrocities. Nazi practices pioneered by Catholics included the forced wearing of yellow markers, ghettoization, confiscation of Jewish property, and bans on intermarriage with Christians. Martin Luther’s book, On the Jews and Their Lies, deploring Jews and implying they would be better exterminated, inspired many parts of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which Hitler praised Luther as a hero of the Germans.
It is impossible to publish Luther’s treatise today… without noting how similar to his proposals were the actions of the National Socialist regime in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
—Chief US translator of Luther
The myth of Nazi occultism was brought to public attention in the early 1960s through The Dawn of Magic by L Pauwels and J Bergier, though it was not the first such book. As Wolfgang von Weisl observed in 1933, occultism was popular in the early 30s, but no more popular than crazy cults are today in an age of US Christian fundamentalism. The rise of spiritual fads and religious fundamentalism seem to go together as a litmus test of society’s disintegration into extremism.
Mostly, the Nazi regime was hostile to the occult, and Hitler tried to dissociate Nazism from the occultism associated with some individual Nazi leaders, who enjoyed fads like astrology and Mesmerism. Rudolf Hess parachuted into Britain attempting to end the war in 1941. His failure was a propaganda failure for the Nazis who had to paint Hess as a madman driven to treachery. The evidence they offered was his fancies for such as homeopathy and astrology. They were popular fads then, just as they are for many still, but Hess nevertheless, in his statement to the court in his trial at Nuremberg, said:
I shall some day stand before the judgement seat of the Eternal. I shall answer to Him. And, I know, he will judge me innocent.
It is no less than any Christian would say! And Hess’s treason was then used to crack down on the occult movement. A decree of 1937 had outlawed the Masons, Theosophists, and so on, but it was not particularly implemented. After Hess’s flight, it was! Hitler described astrologers as “riff raff”, and most Nazi leaders thought of them as superstitions that did no good for the “volk”. Police arrested occultists from spiritualists to astrologers, from faith healers to Anthroposophists, shoving them into work camps, along with Jews and communists, to make them free!
Christians were not generally included in this purge except Christian Scientists. Richard Steigmann-Gall (The Holy Reich—Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, 2003), has vigorously refuted the notion that Nazism was opposed to Christianity. Many Nazis believed their ideology was essentially Christian. Positive Christianity, as antisemitic, antiliberal, and anti-Marxist, immunized volk morality from lower influences. Earlier, Ernst Nolke (The Three Faces of Fascism, 1963) noted that, when Count Yorck von Wartenburg described fascism as including the elimination of the citizen’s “religious and moral obligations towards God”, he suited “Christian and conservative beliefs”. But Nolte thought it “hard to deny” that the churches in most European countries “encouraged fascism to a sometimes very considerable degree”. So, Wartenburg’s was another early attempt to get Christianity off the fascist hook.
Germany before the war was among the most Christian nations in the world, just like the modern US. Two-thirds of the people were Protestant, the rest mainly Catholic, while 1½ percent were unbelievers, in a 1939 census. So, most Nazis must have been Christians like the general population, and few of them could have been atheists. The truth is that Hitler was an Austrian, and Austria, like Italy, was a predominantly Catholic country. He was himself a baptized Roman Catholic, a communicant, an altar boy, was confirmed as a “soldier of Christ”, and considered entering the priesthood. He regarded himself a Catholic, and said that Christ was his saviour. In 1941, he said to General Gerhart Engel: “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.”
Judging from his “forgotten” library, T Ryback, (Atlantic Monthly 29:4, 2003), expressed ignorant but unwarranted surprise at Hitler’s interest in religion. Contemporaries confirm Hitler as a good Catholic Christian, as do contemporary photographs. He never left the Church, and the Church never excommunicated him, or even condemned him. Hitler biographer, John Toland, explained:
Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome… he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of god… extermination could be done without a twinge of conscience… he was merely acting as the avenging hand of god.
Careful apologists like to argue that fascist leaders were not practising Christians. They are careful to add the word “practising” because they know full well that these men were mostly Christians without a doubt. Those immediately beneath Hitler were not devout or traditional Christians, but there is no firm evidence that any top Nazi was against religion. All the Nazi leaders were born, baptized, and raised Christian, mainly in authoritarian, pious households where tolerance and democratic values were not valued. Hitler’s father was a non-believer, but his mother, whom he doted on, was a pious and devout Catholic. Other Catholic Nazis included Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Joseph Goebbels. The commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, where Zyklon-B gas was first used to kill Jews, had strict Catholic parents. Hermann Goering had mixed Catholic-Protestant parentage, while Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann, Albert Speer, and Adolf Eichmann had Protestant backgrounds. Martin Borman, rather lower in the early Nazi hierarchy, is the only well known Nazi who was against religion, and he was against it because he thought Naziism was more Christian than Christianity, saying in 1941:
The concepts of National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable… Our National Socialist ideology is far loftier than the concepts of Christianity, which in their essential points have been taken over from Jewry.
No top Nazi leaders had a liberal or atheistic family. Himmler regularly attended Catholic services, but became increasingly obsessed with the Aryans, sending out parties to find Christian and Cathar relics like the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. Even so, according to the head of the SD, he built the SS on Jesuit lines, especially their methods of psychological imprinting and conditioning. Hitler even called Himmler “my Ignatius Loyola”. Goering, least ideological among top Nazis, sometimes endorsed and sometimes criticized both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Goebbels turned against Catholicism and toward a reformed Aryan faith. Hitler’s appointed ruler of Yugoslavia, A Pavelic, was a Croatian Catholic, who set about murdering Slavs, the Greek Orthodox Serbs. Pope Pius received Pavelic in private audience, thereby approving his regime, and remained silent about its nature.
Christopher Hitchens – Hitler, Fascism and the Catholic Church
Geoffrey Robertson QC: Pope Pius XII did everything to help the Nazis, and nothing to save the Jews
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