The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich
- ISBN: 9781621575009
- Published By: Regnery History
- Published: November 2016
The substance of Adolf Hitler’s religious views—along with the relationship of Nazism and religion in general—has been controversial since Hitler appeared on Germany’s troubled political scene in the 1920s. Scholars have advanced conflicting opinions, arguing that Hitler was an atheist, a Christian of sorts, an occultist, or a neo-paganist. Historian Richard Weikart has exhaustively examined Hitler’s many statements, the testimony of his associates, and the extensive historiographical literature to offer a convincing case that Hitler’s Religion was in the main pantheism, or something akin to it.
Weikart reaches his conclusion in a series of chapter-length essays that enable him to dismiss various plausible religious options for Hitler’s religion. This is not an easy task. Weikart rightly maintains that Hitler “was a religious chameleon [and] a quintessential religious hypocrite” (13). Hitler was definitely not a systematic thinker, and he made many seemingly contradictory statements regarding religion. One of the merits of this book is the manner in which Weikart places these statements in their proper context.
Space does not permit an exhaustive summary of Weikart’s discussion of Hitler’s religion. However, we can gain a serviceable understanding of his argument by looking briefly at a few of the plausible explanations for Hitler’s religion—options that Weikart rejects.
Given his freethinking proclivity, his many statements critical of traditional Christianity, and his exaltation of science—with its reputed better claim to knowledge—over religion, it might seem that Hitler was, at his core, an atheist. Weikart demonstrates, however, that in his typically confused manner, Hitler believed “that some kind of God existed” (65). And that “God”—often referred to as “Providence”—would lead Germany to victory, provided the German people would pursue the struggle—a key concept for Hitler—with “determination, willpower, diligence, and the willingness to sacrifice for their racial comrades” (65).
Although confirmed as a Catholic, Hitler was by no means a conventional Christian. He rejected such things as the deity, resurrection, and miracles of Jesus; the Christian ethic of love; the possibility of a personal relationship with God; and any appeal to revelation. Admittedly, he tried to “palm himself off as a Christian when it suited his political purposes” (105). Yet his public professions of Christian faith masked his warped, so-called “positive Christianity,” which predictably was a religion of struggle and violence. Indeed, Hitler’s Jesus was a “whip-wielding” Aryan who fought against “Jewish materialism.” And his St. Paul was a “sneaky first-century rabbi” (97) who “corrupted the teachings of Jesus” (97–98). Hitler’s long-tem goal was to abolish the Christian churches in Germany, but he opted for an incremental approach of control by increasing restrictions. In this, he was convinced that Christianity would “slowly fade away” (144) as science rendered its teachings absurd.
Some have viewed Hitler as an occultist or a paganist. No doubt, a few high-ranking Nazis—most notably Heinrich Himmler—leaned in those directions. But Weikart provides evidence that Hitler’s attitude toward both was “generally negative” (193).
After narrowing the range of Hitler’s religious options, Weikart candidly notes that reasonable cases can be made for other alternatives—agnosticism, deism, and non-Christian theism. However, in the final analysis, he concludes Hitler was most likely a “scientific pantheist,” one who stressed the determinism of natural laws. There is considerable evidence that Hitler equated eternal nature with God, “ascribing a will and actions to nature that are normally reserved for a deity” (210). Since nature, for Hitler, was the source of moral law, it is not surprising that he viewed “nature as justification for his violent policies” (216). Complicating the matter of Hitler’s pantheism was the fact that the dictator’s private religious convictions were often tempered by political expediency. He was politically savvy enough to recognize the need for popular support of his regime, especially during the war years. Thus, he would invoke the Almighty, Divine Providence, and the Creator and resort to some traditional religious terminology in his public pronouncements, while in private defining them in non-traditional ways. None of this, according to Weikart, alters the strongly likelihood that Hitler was a pantheist.
Building on his earlier work on Nazism and evolutionary ethics, Weikart concludes his book with two chapters dedicated to some of the chilling implications of Hitler’s religion. The dictator subscribed to an aggressive, Aryan-oriented social Darwinist position whereby anything that advanced the Nordic race was morally good and whatever led to biological degeneration was reprehensible. This translated into a “pitiless vision of the world” where “fighting in the struggle for existence was an ethical imperative with divine sanction” (253–54). Things like “cruelty, oppression, murder, and even genocide were [therefore] morally justified, in his view, if they advanced the cause of the German Volk. Hitler cultivated a heartless conscience “that did not care if some people were exterminated in the global struggle for existence” (262). His so-called religion justified “uninterrupted killing, so that the better [read Aryan and German in particular] will live” (269).
Weikart performs a great service in sorting through all of the evidence, providing clarity to a contentious debate, and pointing readers towards Hitler’s pantheism. His approach of eliminating possible religious options is a reasonable way to proceed, but it does lead to fair amount of overlap and repetition.
Surely, Hitler was a demonic, hate-filled opportunist. The Hitler that emerges from Weikart’s pages, moreover, was a freethinking pantheist who coldly embraced the harsh logic of a twisted set of beliefs. And those beliefs, we all know, had utterly horrific consequences.
Donald A. Yerxa is editor of Fides et Historia and professor of history emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College.Donald A. YerxaDate Of Review:June 6, 2017