Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Did Hitler Have a "Fully Christian Ethos"?
In the previous post, I typed the words:
"Yet I have shown how easily it is to come to just that conclusion without ever invoking the concept of God. It is only a matter of logic, given once we begin with certain (atheist and utopian) premises.
"And of course, this wasn't really a hypothetical. It was this same reasoning which licensed the persecution of religious believers in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, etc."
(My language was sloppy here; I would never say Hitler was a pure atheist, nor did I; his beliefs were too muddled for that. What I meant was that the rationale for persecuting religious believers was not itself religious or sectarian).
In response, Anonymous wrote:
"Hitler, who claimed again and again in speeches that 'I am a Christian,' who sent his soldiers into battle with their belt buckles emblazoned Gott Mit Uns, 'God With Us,' who in fact derived his borrowed justifications for extermination of the Jews from the New Testament itself, could not rightly be called an atheist, nor could his cause be said to have been championed under the banner of atheism.
"No, his was a fully Christian ethos that he adapted and integrated to become part of his cult of the Third Reich".
So, did Hitler have a "fully Christian ethos", as Anonymous claims? Let's see what the record, and historians, have to say.
First, it is absolutely the case that Hitler often paid public lip service to Christianity; but it is a credulous observer of politics who believes that public expressions always reveal private convictions. The truth is that while Hitler seemed to believe in "providence" and "destiny", he was in no sense a believing Christian. In fact, not only did he not abide by a "fully Christian ethos", he despised Christianity. I think it can be fairly said that the only correspondence between Hitler's program and New Testament Christianity was that Christ and his followers sometimes used vituperative language against Jews. That, and maybe the idea of some destiny to the cosmos (an idea not specifically Christian at all)...but as far as I can see, that is it.
The evidently popular idea that Hitler was actually a believing Christian, or that he had a "fully Christian ethos", or that Hitler's National Socialism was some sort of sincere but misguided attempt to implement a specifically Christian "heaven on earth", is not warranted by any substantial evidence, and in fact is contradicted by almost everything we know about the beliefs of the lead architects of National Socialism. Nor am I alone in the view that, for reasons of political pragmatism, Hitler's occasional public expressions did not represent his private views on this (I have to wonder why anyone would doubt that Hitler would lie in public for political purposes!).
Anonymous claims that scholars view "Hitler's Table Talk" (a collection of anecdotes recorded by private observes of Hitler speaking casually) as largely spurious. This is the opposite of the truth. But for argument's sake, let's ignore that book until the end.
Let's instead go first to Duke history professor Claudia Koonz, who notes that "during (1933-34) Hitler virtually never mentioned the three controversial themes that shaped his covert political agenda: crude antisemitism, contempt for Christianity, and preparation for a war of conquest". (From "The Nazi Conscience", p. 79).
Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans writes:
..."Hitler and most of his leading advocates were aware of the breadth and depth of Christian allegiance in the majority of the population, and did not want to antagonize it in the course of suppressing parties such as the (Catholic Centre Party). They were thus careful in the early months of 1933 to insist repeatedly on the adherence of the new government to the Christian faith."
(From "The Coming of the Third Reich", by Richard L. Evans, pp. 362-363).
University of Sheffield historian Ian Kershaw writes:
"Relations between the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party remained chequered throughout the period of the rise to power. The evident anti-Christian strain in Nazi doctrine, epitomized above all in Rosenberg's writings, evoked stringent condemnation from the Catholic hierarchy...Hitler's own concerted efforts to deny the slur that he headed an anti-religious movement were far from convincing to Catholic opinion-leaders...Despite the high expectations placed in the Concordat with the Papacy, ratified in summer 1933, it soon became obvious that the fears about the anti-Church thrust of Nazi ideology and policy were well-founded".
(From "Hitler", by Ian Kershaw, pp. 103-14).
Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of London, Fellow of the British Academy and winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for military history, adds:
"Hitler saw the relationship (with the Deutsche Christen church) in political terms. He was not a practicing Christian, but had somehow succeeded in masking his own religious skepticism from millions of German voters...His few private remarks on Christianity betray a profound contempt and indififference. Forty years afterwards he could still recall facing up to a clergyman-teacher at his school when told how unhappy he would be in the afterlife: 'I've heard of a scientist who doubts whether there is a next world'. Hitler believed that all religions were 'now decadent'...
"Hitler, like Stalin, took a very modern view of the incompatibility of religious and scientific explanation. 'The dogma of Christianity', he told Himmler in October 1941, 'gets worn away before the advances of science'...'Scientific truth', Hitler announced in an after-dinner conversation some months later, 'is the indispensable formulation'. There was nothing to offer anyone who looked for 'needs of a metaphysical nature' in the party. Truth lay in natural science, and for Hitler that meant the truth of racial biology - natural selection, racial struggle, 'identity of kind'.
"Hitler was politically prudent enough not to trumpet his scientific views publicly, not least because he had to maintain the distinction between his own movement and the godlessness of Soviet communism. Nor was he a thorough atheist. His public utterancees are peppered with references to 'God' and 'spirit'. For Hitler the eschatological truths that he found in his perception of the race represented the real 'eternal will that rules the univers'' in the infinite value of the race and the struggle to sustain it men find what they might call God, and inner sense of the unity and purposiveness of nature and history'...What Hitler could not accept was that Christianity could offer anything other than 'false ideas' to sustain its claim to moral certitude".
Once again, I am quite unable to understand why anyone would take at face value Hitler's public expressions of piety. It's not like William Shirer's now canonical "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" only came out yesterday. Under the chapter heading "The Persecution of the Christian Churches", for example, Shirer writes:
"The Nazi war on the Christian churches began more moderately. Though Hitler, nominally a Catholic, had inveighed against political Catholicism in Mein Kampf and attacked both of the Christian churches for their failure to recognize the racial problem, he had, as we have seen, warned in his book that 'a political party must never...lose sight of the fact that in all previous historical experience a purely political party has never succeeded in producing a religious reformation'...
"In his speech of March 23, 1933, to the Reichstag when the legislative body of Germany abandoned its functions to the dictator, Hitler paid tribute to the Christian faiths as 'essential elements for safequarding the soul of the German people', promised to respect their rights, declared that his government's 'ambition is a peaceful accord between Church and State' and added - with an eye to the votes of the Catholic Centre Party, which he received - that 'we hope to improve our friendly relations with the Holy See'.
"Scarcely four months later, on July 20, the Nazi government concluded a concordat with the Vatican in which it guaranteed the freedom of the Catholic religion and the right of the Church to 'regulate her own affairs'. The agreement..was hardly put to paper before it was broken by the Nazi government...
"On July 25, five days after ratification of the concordat, the German government promulgated a sterilization law, which particularly offended the Catholic Church. Five days later the first steps were taken to dissolve the Catholic Youth League. During the next years thousands of Catholic priests, nuns, and lay leaders were arrested, many of them on trumped-up charges of 'immorality' or of 'smuggling foreign currency'. Erich Klausener, leader of Catholic Action, was, as we have seen, murdered in the June 30, 1934, purge. Scores of Catholic publications were suppressed, and even the sanctity of the confessional was violated by Gestapo agents...On March 14, 1937, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical, 'Mit Brennender Sorge' (With Burning Sorrow), charging the Nazi government with 'evasion' and 'violation' of the concordat and accusing it of sowing 'the tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny, of secret and open fundamental hostility to Christ and his Church'". (pp. 324-325).
Well, yes. The Nazi government did possess a "fundamental hostility to Christ". How could it be more obvious?
(Nor was it only Catholics Hitler had contempt for. Shirer reports that about Protestants, Hitler once said to an aide: "You can do anything you want with them. They will submit....they are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them". [p. 329].)
Speaking of Article 24, Overy notes:
"Article 24 of the party programme accepted 'positive Christianity', but also called on the churches to do nothing to offend 'the sense of morality of the German race'. This injunction placed the moral outlook of the party above that of all religions. That moral outlook was rooted in 'the acknowledgement and ruthless exploitation of the iron laws of nature'. The primary law, and the 'source of all genuineness and truth', was the unconditional defence of the race and its blood".
"From the mid-1930s the regime and the party were dominated much more by the prominent anti-Christians in their ranks - Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, Heydrich...Religious youth movements were closed down or merged with the Hitler Youth, from which all religious instruction was excluded. In August 1937 Himmler banned all Confessing Church seminaries and instruction. Dissident Protestants were barred from universities. State-sponsored denomination schools were closed by 1939, together with private ecclesiastical school. Religious education by clergymen was eliminated. Religions were prevented from publicly collecting for charity. The new generation of Germans was taught to despise the characteristics of the Christian man as tainted with a degenerate, Jewish effeminacy and to seek within themselves the strength to assert and defend the race.
"Both Stalin and Hitler wanted a neutered religion, subservient to the state, while the slow programme of scientific revelation destroyed the foundation of religious myth".
(From "The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia", by R. Overy, pp. 280-286).
I submit that we need a lot more than a belt buckle slogan and a few calculated utterances in public speeches to establish that Hitler had a "fully Christian ethos", especially when there are so many evidences that he loathed Christianity.
So, about that ethos:
In his brilliant little book "From Darwin to Hitler", historian Richard Weikart echoes the historians quoted above:
"Hitler's morality was not based on traditional Judeo-Christian ethics nor Kant's categorical imperative, but was rather a complete repudiation of them. Instead, Hitler embraced an evolutionary ethic that made Darwinian fitness and health the only criteria for moral standards. The Darwinian struggle for existence, especially the struggle between different races, became the sole arbiter of morality...He scorned humaneness and Christian morality, which would promote weakness, thereby producing decline, degradation, and ultimately the demise of the human species...
"Hitler's view that morality is purely a human construction undermines any system of ethics claiming transcendence, such as Judeo-Christian ethics or Kantian ethics. Hitler clearly did not believe in the existence of immutable, universal moral standards.
"Hitler derided any morality inimical to the increased vitality of the 'Aryan' race, especially traditional Christian values of humility, pity, and sympathy...In Hitler's mind Darwinism provided the moral justification for infanticide, euthanasia, genocide, and other policies that had been (and thankfully still are) considered immoral by more conventional moral standards". (pp. 210-215).
In his autobiography "Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs", Hitler's architect Albert Speer writes:
"Hitler usually concluded this historical speculation by remarking: 'You see, it's been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?" (p. 115).
NOW...about the book Hitler's Table Talk. This book is a compendium of private, after-dinner monologues by Hitler, recorded by various scribes under the direction of Martin Bormann, Hitler's private secretary. Hitler's confidante and architect Albert Speer is but one of the many witnesses who have confirmed the authenticity of these notes. Indeed, it is beyond my ability to fathom how anyone, save one blinded by a particular, peculiar prejudice, could ever regard them as spurious. And what, pray tell, might that peculiar prejudice be? Why, exactly the one which has possessed Anonymous: the stupid, completely unhistorical belief that Adolf Hitler was a believing Christian, and National Socialism his way of implementing a "Christian ethos". (There are evidently quite a number of atheists so committed to the dogma that evil is the sole province of religion, that anything showing just how stupid this idea is they immediately regard, on that basis alone, as "spurious". I might also ask, since we're on the subject of prejudice-induced blindness, how different this type of "thinking" is from that displayed by a fundamentalist Christian, who "knows" that carbon dating is wrong because he already "knows" that God created the earth only 5000 years ago?).
I ask readers to judge for themselves, after reading all of the quotes above, whether it is more likely that someone completely invented the following quotes and falsely attributed them to Hitler, or maybe translated them all wrong (as one crank atheist activist has alleged).....or that these are just Hitler's comments:
"The Christian religion is an enemy to beauty" (p. 246)
"Since my fourteenth year I have felt liberated from the superstition that the priests used to teach. Apart from the Holy Joes, I can say that none of my comrades went on believing in the miracle of the Eucharist" (p. 246).
"It was Christianity that brought about the fall of Rome - not the Germans or the Huns" (p. 193).
"While we're on the subject, let's add that, even amongst those who claim to be good Catholics, very few really believe in this humbug. Only old women, who have given up everything because life has already withdrawn from them, go regularly to church" (p. 258).
"I shall never come personally to terms with the Christian lie" (p. 259).
"The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity" (p. 8).
"The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity. Christianity is a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilization of the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society" (p. 60).
"It's striking to observe that Christian ideas, despite all St. Pauls's efforts, had no success in Athens. The philosophy of the Greeks was so much superior to this poverty-stricken rubbish that the Athenians burst out laughing when they listened to him" (p. 63).
"What is ruining Christianity today is what once ruined the ancient world...as soon as the idea was introduced that all men were equal before God, that world was bound to collapse" (p. 254).
"Kerrl, with the noblest of intentions, wanted to attempt a synthesis between National Socialism and Christianity. I don't believe the thing's possible, and I see the obstacle in Christianity itself...Pure Christianity...leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely wholehearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics" (p. 112).
"When understanding of the universe has become widespread, when the majority of men know that the stars are not sources of light but worlds, perhaps inhabited worlds like ours, then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity...Christianity has reached the peak of absurdity in this respect. And that's why one day its structure will collapse. Science has already impregnated humanity. Consequently, the more Christianity clings to its dogmas, the quicker it will decline" (p. 48).
"It's Christianity that's the liar" (p. 49).
"Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure" (p. 41).
To summarize my own views, and those of the historians quoted above:
Hitler did not have a "fully Christian ethos". Rather, he had a "fully ANTI-Christian ethos". He viewed Christianity as "weak" and "flabby", and for that reason, as an enemy to a National Socialism, the job of which was to preserve the volk through struggle. He had contempt for both Catholics and Protestants, and showed it repeatedly.
Moreover, he did not rationalize his persecution of religious believers with theist arguments, but with secular arguments, nor were his motivations in persecuting religious believers (or anyone else), themselves religious.
The broadest point is that whether we start out with atheist, theist, or somewhere-in-between premises, we can always wind up, seemingly logically, at the conclusion that we may do evil. Neither atheism nor theism in themselves can provide salvation.