A question was recently put to me by a reader who was curious to hear my thoughts on whether Hitler should be considered a “Christian” or an “atheist.” What had spurred this on was this reader’s consideration of the somewhat ambiguous topic of “Positive Christianity” — the allegedly Aryanized form of Christian doctrine that was to have served as National Socialism’s official form of religion.
Issues surrounding Hitler’s views on the person of Jesus Christ and the institution of the church are frequently obscured by prior ideological or religious commitments. On the one hand are those who have sought to restore the integrity of Christianity in light of accusations that it played an important historic role in the justification for anti-Semitism. This process of reconstruction required identifying occasions where Nazi ideology was opposed to the normative framework of Christian ethics. The suggestion was that the outcomes of Nazi policy were so clearly at odds with Christian moral teaching that both Hitler and the National Socialists more broadly could not be seen as “Christian” in any meaningful sense. This hermeneutical approach tended also to accentuate the völkisch, pagan, and esoteric elements of some aspects of Nazi philosophy as evidence of its radical break with Christianity. Blame for the violent excesses of Nazism could then be dispersed amongst various contributing elements, thus diffusing the culpability of the Christian tradition within German religious history.
This was a major trend in scholarship in the decades following the war, and there was much that could be cited as evidence to support this interpretation. The Nazi persecution of the churches, which intensified in some areas throughout the 1930s, was considered representative of their general disdain toward Christianity. John S. Conway’s book on the topic remains a useful account of this aspect of Nazi policy. Hitler’s private conversations as revealed in the diaries of Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer also point to the dictator’s fundamental loathing for the church, clergy, and internal doctrinal squabbling. In his diaries for 1942-43, Goebbels would additionally reflect Hitler’s post-war plans for the abolition of the churches, in which the Nazis would exact their vengeance for ecclesiastical failure to offer united support to National Socialism. Speer, too, would recount an occasion in which Hitler suggested that the appearance of Christianity in Germany was a historical misfortune. Finally, the alleged occult foundations of Nazi ideology, which have been documented by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, were often perceived as a distorting influence on Germanic religion. A familiar refrain in this regard was that the worship of volk and race that was a feature of many esoteric ideologues and preached by Hitler replaced the proper worship of God. A Lutheran understanding of sin would have prevented recourse to a national mythology that understood the German volk (racially conceived) in divine terms.
The scholarly tide turned in the late 1980s and continues to the present day. In terms of the study of Nazism and the churches, the focus now is on exploring the links between theology and anti-Semitism as they have been expressed throughout major strands of German intellectual, political, and cultural history. There is now less importance placed on protecting the reputation of the church from their involvement in the Third Reich through movements like the German Christians (Deutsche Christen). Aside from the role of institutional Christianity in facilitating Nazism, it is often pointed out that there is evidence too of Hitler’s high regard for Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ. Positive references to Jesus can be found in Mein Kampf and many of his early speeches, in which the historical figure of Jesus was extolled for his fearless polemic against Judaism. Curiously, Hitler (along with Goebbels) was one of the few Nazi leaders to retain their membership of the church at a time when other leaders (such as the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler and party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg) were actively encouraging the renunciation of denominational affiliation. Some have pointed to Hitler’s regard for the Catholic church as a symbol of enduring institutional power as evidence of his favourable disposition toward Christianity. These factors can be construed as pointing towards a degree of sympathy between Hitler and Christianity that has been too easy to dismiss.
In response, others have suggested that any positive reference to Jesus or Christianity showed by Hitler was mere political manipulation. Hitler knew that he could not achieve power without the support of the churches, and his proclamations endorsing the church as the backbone of German society should be seen in the light of his attempts to convince voters and consolidate power. There is truth to this, but I do not think it warrants the conclusion that Hitler was a religious cynic or firm atheist (itself a popular way for some Christian apologists to deal with the problem of Nazism). Yet nor was Hitler a Christian. While there is much in Hitler’s rhetoric that points to some belief in the transcendent, I suggest that this was more in line with a German philosophical tradition (primarily, Idealism) that viewed the concepts of the will and the collective human spirit in metaphysical terms. This would help explain his somewhat vague language of “providence”, which need not reference a Christian God —or indeed any God— but might simply point to a Hegelian understanding of history as moving toward a higher teleological purpose.
Bergen, Doris L. Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Buesnel, Ryan, “Positive Christianity: Theological Rationales and Legacies,” Religion Compass (2020), https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12353
Conway, John S. The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-1945. Vancouver: Regent College, 2001 (original 1968).
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology. London: Tauris Parke, 2004.
Heschel, Susannah. The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Koehne, Samuel, “Nazi Germany as a Christian State: The “Protestant Experience” of 1933 in Württemberg,” Central European History 46/1 (2013): 97-123.
Lochner, Louis Paul. (ed). The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943. New York: Doubleday, 1948.
Scholder, Klaus. The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. London: SCM, 1988.
Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. London: Phoenix, 1995.
Steigmann-Gall, Richard. The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Ullrich, Volker, Hitler: A Biography, 2 vols. London: Vintage, 2017.