Embarrassed at the murderous legacy of atheist Communist regimes in the twentieth century, leading atheists seek to even the score with believers by portraying Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime as theist and specifically Christian. Atheist websites routinely claim that Hitler was a Christian because he was born Catholic, he never publicly renounced his Catholicism, and he wrote in Mein Kampf, “By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” Atheist writer Sam Harris writes that since “the Holocaust marked the culmination of…two hundred years of Christian fulminating against the Jews,” therefore “knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion.”
How persuasive are these claims? Hitler was born Catholic just as Stalin was born into the Russian Orthodox Church and Mao was raised as a Buddhist. These facts prove nothing as many people reject their religious upbringing, as these three men did. From an early age, historian Allan Bullock writes, Hitler “had no time at all for Catholic teaching, regarding it as a religion fit only for slaves and detesting its ethics.”
How then do we account for Hitler’s claim that in carrying out his anti-Semitic program he was an instrument of divine providence? During his ascent to power, Hitler needed the support of the German people—both the Bavarian Catholics and the Prussian Lutherans—and to secure this he occasionally used rhetoric such as “I am doing the Lord’s work.” To claim that this rhetoric makes Hitler a Christian is to confuse political opportunism with personal conviction. Hitler himself says in Mein Kampf that his public statements should be understood as propaganda that bears no relation to the truth but is designed to sway the masses.
The Nazi idea of an Aryan Christ who uses the sword to cleanse the earth of the Jews—what historians call “Aryan Christianity”—was obviously a radical departure from the traditional Christian understanding and was condemned as such by Pope Pius XI at the time. Moreover, Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not religious, it was racial. Jews were targeted not because of their religion—indeed many German Jews were completely secular in their way of life—but because of their racial identity. This was an ethnic and not a religious designation. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was secular.