“Hitler was an atheist!”, many conservatives Christians have cried, “look at what the atheist religion leads to: the Holocaust!” On more than occasion, I have heard that claim trumpeted from members of the religious right who also believe that free market capitalism is the work of Jesus Christ and God favors the middle country in the North American continent over every other possible place on Earth. While I’m not going to dignify the latter claims that Christianity has an official stance in comparative economic policy or geography, I would like to explore the reality of the claims that Hitler was an atheist. When Hitler rose to be the Supreme Chancellor of Germany, one of his first acts in 1933 was to dismantle the Freethinker clubs in Germany and ban atheism from the Fatherland. To understand the rise of Nazism in Germany, one must take into account the role that Christianity played in legitimizing the National Socialist Party.
Adolf Hitler was most definitely not an atheist. Raised a Roman Catholic, Hitler was a devout Christian. But he wasn’t a Christian in the same sense that Pope Pius XII was a Christian; Hitler worshiped in a very idiosyncratic faith called Positive Christianity. His Christianity was portrayed Jesus as a fighter, one who allowed himself to be nailed to the cross because he chose defeat over compromise with the Jews. Repeatedly, he made claims that Jesus’ teachings were about his struggle against Jews (and appears to have overlooked the fact that Jesus was Jewish…). Arguably, Hitler’s religious ideology can be thought of as a racial dialectic. Hitler saw the arc of human history as a struggle between opposing races; the Jews versus the rest of Humanity. In Mein Kampf, Hitler makes dehumanizing remarks against the Jewish people, comparing them to venomous snakes, or more often, rats and other vermin. His religious convictions dictated that to fulfill his duty to God, he was to annihilate the Jews. Again, writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler declares, “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
The Holocaust represents perhaps one of the greatest black marks on Christianity; not only did the Catholic Church fail prevent the Holocaust of seven million Jews, but prominent members within the Catholic Church gave legitimacy to Hitler’s Reich. In 1933, a treaty between Nazi Germany and Vatican City called the Reichskonkordat was signed by then Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (who later became Pope Pius XII), Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen on behalf of Pope Pius XI and President Paul von Hindenburg. The treaty outlined among other provisions that, “the clergy and the religious will be forbidden to be members of political parties or to be active on their behalf”, effectively dissolving the Catholic Center Party that opposed the National Socialist Party and effectively silencing German bishops from any future criticism of the Reich. While it can be argued that open opposition against Hitler would have perhaps endangered the lives of many Catholics and Jews and that the called the Reichskonkordat insulated the Church from the barbarism of National Socialism, there are examples of Christian groups within Germany that defied the Reich.
In the midst of Hitler’s pogroms against racial, religious, ethnic, and other minority groups, a Lutheran minister by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped to establish a resistance. Living in Germany during the Nazi Reich, Bonhoeffer sympathized with Jews in his community, but ultimately saw the need to convert them to Christianity as of higher importance than exterminating them. He also believed that, in time, Jews would convert to Christianity and leave their outmoded faith in the Torah behind if faced with an existential threat. When he saw that Hitler had no intention of letting Jews live, whether or not they expressed a desire to convert to Christianity, Bonhoeffer began to voice his opposition to the Reich and the Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer grew into an ardent opponent of the Nazi state and joined the Confessing Church that arose in Germany after the National Socialist Party took over the German Protestant Church. After playing part in a botched assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to prison where he watched his conspirators become executed before he himself was killed in 1945. During his time in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote of a religionless Christianity, designed for a more reasoned world that had finally “come of age”. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer outlines what a religionless Christianity would look like; a faith freed from ritual, dogma and the institutions that enforce them.
Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s work is incomplete. The last years of his life were spent in prison and so oftentimes the intended meaning of his writing is unclear; this requires the interpretation of his words. Drawing on the work of Karl Barth, he believed that religion was a human activity that speculated about the divine and could only approximate truth. Barth said that only the forgiving presence of God can give religion reality, and that can be found only in Jesus Christ. One interpretation of his phrase religionless Christianity means a Christianity stripped of clergy, rites, holy things, beliefs, and morality. All that would remain of a religionless Christianity would be intercessionary prayer and righteous action. Bonhoeffer highlighted praying for others as an important action all Christians must do. But rather than calling on God to make the changes they want to see in the world, Bonhoeffer believed that prayers should ask God for empowerment so that we can be the ones who make change in the world. His prison letters mention his notion of the church in a “world come of age”, where human beings no longer use God-in-the-Gaps arguments to justify the existence of God. In such a world, Christians would be called to suffer as Christ did on Earth and only by taking part in society and working to fix the political, social, and economic systems in our society do Christians achieve righteous action.
Bonhoeffer calls for churches to give up their wealth and property in the service of society and to suffer on Earth as Christ did. I am a big fan of removing churches’ tax-exempt status, especially headed by ministers who lobby their congregation on political issues outside of their church. I also especially like the idea of giving up on the God in the Gaps arguments that float around. Truly, these are awful arguments that lose their credibility as science chips away at human ignorance (but they do make for great memes). Along with other Neo-orthodox thinkers, Bonhoeffer recognized that the Bible was decidedly not inerrant and that God was so transcendent that scripture could adequately express the nature of God; only direct revelation could do that. Where I tend to disagree with the Neo-orthodox thinking of Bonhoeffer (besides on the question of the existence of God…) is the insistence that revelation trumps reason as a way of knowing. I also can’t let Bonhoeffer off the hook for his anti-Semitic tendencies, but compared with the Nazis I can confidently say that Bonhoeffer was definitely the lesser of two evils.