Other Religions Atheism and Agnosticism Hitler, Nationalism, and Positive Christianity Share Flipboard Email Print Hulton Archive/Getty Images Other Religions Belief Systems Atheism and Agnosticism Logic Ethics Key Figures in Atheism Evolution Atheism Myths and Misconceptions By Austin Cline Atheism Expert M.A., Princeton University B.A., University of Pennsylvania Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, writes and lectures extensively about atheism and agnosticism. our editorial process Austin Cline Updated February 16, 2019 A popular image of the Nazis is that they were fundamentally anti-Christian while devout Christians were anti-Nazi. The truth is that German Christians supported the Nazis because they believed that Adolf Hitler was a gift to the German people from God. German Christianity was a divinely sanctioned religious movement which combined Christian doctrine and German character in a unique and desirable manner: True Christianity was German and True German-ness was Christian. What Was Positive Christianity? The NSDAP Party Program stated in part: “We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without owing itself to a particular confession....” Positive Christianity adhered to basic orthodox doctrines and asserted that Christianity must make a practical, positive difference in people’s lives. Christian Anti-Semitism Anti-Semitism was an important aspect of the Nazi state, but the Nazis didn’t invent it. Instead, they drew upon centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and extensive anti-Semitic theology in Germany’s Christian community. The Nazis believed that Jewishness was more than just a religion, a position which was supported by religious leaders who supplied the Nazis with baptismal and marriage records to help identify converted Jews. Christian Anti-Communism Anti-communism was probably more fundamental to the Nazi ideology than anti-Semitism. Many Germans were frightened of communism and saw Hitler as their Christian salvation. The communist threat appeared very real because communists had taken over Russia at the end of World War I and briefly took control in Bavaria. The Nazi party was also intensely anti-socialist, in the sense that traditional socialism was derided as atheistic and Jewish. Christian Anti-Modernism The key to understanding Nazism’s popularity with Christians is the Nazi condemnation of everything modern. Germany after World War I was regarded as a godless, secular, materialistic republic which betrayed all of Germany’s traditional values and religious beliefs. Christians saw the social fabric of their community unraveling and the Nazis promised to restore order by attacking godlessness, homosexuality, abortion, liberalism, prostitution, pornography, obscenity, and so forth. Protestant Christianity and Nazism It is widely recognized that Protestants were more attracted to Nazism than Catholics. This wasn’t true everywhere in Germany, but we can’t ignore the fact that Protestants, not Catholics, produced a movement (German Christians) dedicated to blending Nazi ideology and Christian doctrine. Protestant women were especially attracted to Nazism because of the cultural conservatism and promotion of traditional female social roles. Nazism was non-denominational, but Protestants favored it. Catholic Christianity and Nazism Early on, many Catholic leaders criticized Nazism. After 1933, criticism turned to support and praise. Commonalities between Nazism and Catholics were anti-communism, anti-atheism, and anti-secularism. Catholic churches helped identify Jews for extermination. After the war, Catholic leaders helped former Nazis back into power (Nazis were better than socialists). The legacy of Catholicism from Nazi Germany is cooperation, not resistance and not a defense of principle but a defense of social power. Christian Resistance to Nazism Too often, Christian “resistance” was to efforts to exert greater control over church activities. Christian churches were willing to tolerate widespread violence against Jews, military rearmament, invasions of foreign nations, banning labor unions, imprisonment of political dissenters, detention of people who had committed no crimes, sterilization of the handicapped, etc. This includes the Confessing Church. Why? Hitler was seen as someone restoring traditional values and morality to Germany. Christianity in Private, Christianity in Public Did Hitler and the Nazis only appeal to Christianity as a political ploy and emphasize Christianity in public without intending to promote Christianity in reality? There is no evidence that Hitler and top Nazis only endorsed Christianity for public consumption. Private remarks on religion and Christianity were the same as public remarks, indicating that they believed what they said and intended to act as they claimed. The few Nazis who endorsed paganism did so publicly, without official support. Adolf Hitler, Nazism, and the Problem of Christian Nationalism Traditional evaluation of Christian complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes focuses on the degree to which Christians allowed themselves to be used for Nazi purposes, but this presupposes a distinction between Nazis and Christians which didn’t exist. Christians actively supported the Nazi agenda. Most Nazis were devout Christians and believed that Nazi philosophy was animated by Christian doctrine. Christians today find it implausible that their religion could have anything in common with Nazism, but they need to recognize that Christianity — including their own — is always conditioned by the culture around it. For Germans at the beginning of the 20th century, Christianity was often profoundly anti-Semitic and nationalistic. This was the same ground which the Nazis found so fertile for their own ideology — it would have been amazing had the two systems not found much in common and been unable to work together. Nazi Christians didn’t abandon basic Christian doctrines, like the divinity of Jesus. Their oddest religious belief was a denial of the Jewishness of Jesus, but even today there are Christians in Germany who object when Jesus’ Jewishness is focused upon. Nazi Christians didn’t follow an idiosyncratic version of Christianity and Christianity was not “infected” with hate and nationalism. Everything about Nazi Christianity already existed in German Christianity before the Nazis came on the scene. The actions of Hitler and the Nazis were as “Christian” as those of people during the Crusades or the Inquisition. Some leading Nazis preferred a neo-pagan theistic religion over Christianity, but this was never officially endorsed by the Nazi Party or by Adolf Hitler. Christians may not like seeing Nazism as having anything to do with Christianity, but Germany saw itself as a fundamentally Christian nation and millions of Christians in Germany enthusiastically endorsed Hitler and the Nazi Party, in part because they saw both as embodiments of German and Christian ideals.