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.
Hitler’s Table Talk, a revealing collection of the Fuhrer’s private opinions, assembled by a close aide during the war years, shows Hitler to be rabidly anti-religious. He called Christianity one of the great “scourges” of history, and said of the Germans, “Let’s be the only people who are immunized against this disease.” He promised that “through the peasantry we shall be able to destroy Christianity.” In fact, he blamed the Jews for inventing Christianity. He also condemned Christianity for its opposition to evolution.
Hitler reserved special scorn for the Christian values of equality and compassion, which he identified with weakness. Hitler’s leading advisers like Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich and Bormann were atheists who hated religion and sought to eradicate its influence in Germany.
In his multi-volume history of the Third Reich, historian Richard Evans writes that “the Nazis regarded the churches as the strongest and toughest reservoirs of ideological opposition to the principles they believed in.” Once Hitler and the Nazis came to power, they launched a ruthless drive to subdue and weaken the Christian churches in Germany. Evans points out that after 1937 the policies of Hitler’s government became increasingly anti-religious.
The Nazis stopped celebrating Christmas, and the Hitler Youth recited a prayer thanking the Fuhrer rather than God for their blessings. Clergy regarded as “troublemakers” were ordered not to preach, hundreds of them were imprisoned, and many were simply murdered. Churches were under constant Gestapo surveillance. The Nazis closed religious schools, forced Christian organizations to disband, dismissed civil servants who were practicing Christians, confiscated church property, and censored religious newspapers. Poor Sam Harris cannot explain how an ideology that Hitler and his associates perceived as a repudiation of Christianity can be portrayed as a “culmination” of Christianity.
If Nazism represented the culmination of anything, it was that of the nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century ideology of social Darwinism. As historian Richard Weikart documents, both Hitler and Himmler were admirers of Darwin and often spoke of their role as enacting a “law of nature” that guaranteed the “elimination of the unfit.” Weikart argues that Hitler himself “drew upon a bountiful fund of social Darwinist thought to construct his own racist philosophy” and concludes that while Darwinism is not a “sufficient” intellectual explanation for Nazism, it is a “necessary” one. Without Darwinism, there might not have been Nazism.
The Nazis also drew on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, adapting his atheist philosophy to their crude purposes. Nietzsche’s vision of the ubermensch and his elevation of a new ethic “beyond good and evil” were avidly embraced by Nazi propagandists. Nietzsche’s “will to power” almost became a Nazi recruitment slogan. I am not for a moment suggesting that Darwin or Nietzsche would have approved of Hitler’s ideas. But Hitler and his henchmen approved of Darwin’s and Nietzsche’s ideas. Harris simply ignores the evidence of the Nazis’ sympathies for Darwin, Nietzsche, and atheism. So what sense can we make of his claim that the leading Nazis were “knowingly or unknowingly” agents of religion? Clearly, it is nonsense.
So in addition to the mountain of corpses that the God-hating regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pot Pot and others have produced, we must add the body count of the God-hating Nazi regime. The Nazis, like the Communists, deliberately targeted the churches and the believers because they wanted to create a new man and a new utopia freed from the shackles of traditional religion and traditional morality. In an earlier blog, I asked what is atheism’s contribution to civilization? One answer to that question: Genocide.