But I didn't feel I could let one particular comment go by without raising a small, humble protest.
Now, I know that the fact that a Catholic bishop has opened his mouth and something ridiculous and offensive has crawled out of it is hardly news. (They've been on quite a roll lately.)
Still, I found a few sentences from the Easter sermon from Augsburg's bishop Walter Mixa particularly striking, the ones where he paints national socialism as a direct result of atheism.
'The inhumanity of atheism in practice has been cruelly proven in the last century by the godless regimes of national socialism and communism, with their prison camps, secret police and mass murders.'*
Mixa also emphasised that in these systems Christians and the church were singled out for persecution.
Now, the 'godless' character of communism isn't all that hard to prove, even if the extent to which that specific quality has motivated, say, the gulag, is more than a bit less clear. Anyone looking for cruelty at the hands of believers of all varieties, after all, doesn't have to look very hard.
Like...for example...oh, I don't know, the other ideology Bishop Mixa referred to as 'godless': Nazism.
Yes, that one stuck a bit in my ears when I heard it. Perhaps it's because I'm currently working my way though Richard Evans's excellent series of books on the Third Reich. Perhaps it's because I'd like to have thought that a German bishop wouldn't have gotten something like this so terribly wrong.
Now, the attitudes of the Nazis to religion and the attitudes of religious people to the Nazis are related, but they are not entirely the same thing. Both were complicated. I think this is important, since it's possible to find both anti-Christian beliefs in the party (not all of them by 'atheists' as such) as well as resistance to Nazism inspired by people's Christian beliefs.
Still, taking the first issue, while there were differences of opinion within the party about religion on the part of a few thoroughgoing atheists and (rather more) esoteric 'neo-pagans'...these are not the same thing, please remember...there were also plenty who had constructed a form of Christianity that they found perfectly compatible with the Party's ideology.
In his interesting book Hitlers Theologie, Catholic theologian Rainer Bucher examines the strange amalgam of beliefs that motivated the NSDAP's leader. Bucher observes,
As is well known, Hitler referred to himself as a 'theist', and no less than Cardinal Faulhaber attested to that after his visit to Obersalzberg on 4 November 1936: 'The Reich Chancellor is without a doubt a believer in God', wrote Faulhaber in a letter to the Bavarian bishops.**
Hitler's attitude to the churches was 'semi-instrumental', Bucher thinks, but points out there is much evidence suggesting he believed his oft-repeated references to God, providence, belief, predestination, etc.
There is also a difference between the Nazi party's view of belief per se, and its view of the organised churches, and the latter changed over time as the Nazis cemented their hold on power and influence over German society.
To the extent that churches acted as a potential alternative power base and source of ideology, they were seen as a threat.
But this was not, primarily, a debate about theology.
And while there certainly were individuals who resisted the regime based upon their deeply felt religious convictions, there were plenty of religious people were all-too-happy to give their allegiance to a party that they might even see as a vehicle for religious renewal.
On this point: some excerpts from Evans's chapter, 'Matters of Faith', which opens with some comments about protestantism and Martin Niemöller (yes, he of 'first they came for' fame):
Committed right-wing but populist pastors like Niemöller were particularly susceptible to the appeal of the Nazis, and Niemöller voted for Hitler in March 1933. In 1931 he had already delivered a radio broadcast calling for the emergence of a new national leader, and in 1933 he thought one had at last arrived in the shape of Adolf Hitler. His sermons of this period took up the Nazi call for a united, positive Christianity that would overcome the religious divisions that had plagued Germany for so many years. And he echoed the Nazi claim that the Jews had been unduly influential in the Weimar Republic. In 1935 he sermonized about the poisonous influence of the Jews in world history, the outcome, he thought, of the curse that had lain on them since the Crucifixion.Nazi-supporters within the Protestant clergy even formed their own pressure-group (the 'German Christians') in May 1932.
For nationalist Protestants like Niemöller, the enemy was Marxism, in both its Communist and Social Democratic variants. Its atheistic doctrines had been dechristianising the working class since well before the end of the nineteenth century. Many Protestants, including senior figures such as the Lutheran bishop Theophil Wurm, saw the advent of the Third Reich as an opportunity finally to reverse this trend, especially since point 24 of the Nazi Party programme presented the movement in terms of 'positive Christianity' and announced its fight against 'Jewish materialism'. And indeed, in the first months of the Third Reich, enthusiastic Protestant pastors staged a number of spectacular mass baptisms of children who had been left unbaptised during the Weimar years, and even mass simultaneous weddings of brownshirts and their brides who had only undergone a secular marriage under the old regime. The Protestant population, numbering about 40 million, almost two-thirds of the population of the Reich as a whole, had also provided the broadest and deepest reservoir of support for the Nazi Party in all social groups during its electoral triumphs of the early 1930s. (Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 222.)
Nazi campaigning in Berlin during the 1933 church council elections
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
They were, Evans says, 'by no means a negligible minority': they numbered some 600,000 by the mid-30s and eventually came to dominate the centralised 'Reich Church' created with Hitler's support.
These moves brought to dominance Protestants whose declared aim since well before the Nazi seizure of power had been to oppose the 'Jewish mission in Germany', to reject 'the spirit of Christian cosmopolitanism' and to fight 'racial mixing' as part of its mission to establish a 'belief in Christ appropriate to our race'. Such views had wide support amongst Protestant clergymen and theologians. Already in April 1933 the Bavarian Protestant Church ordered flags to be flown from all its buildings on Hitler's birthday. By the summer, congregations were becoming used to seeing their German Christian pastors preaching in SA or even SS uniforms instead of surplices, and holding special services to dedicate flags and other emblems of the stormtroopers....(Ibid., 223)
Not all Protestants, of course, shared in the views of the 'German Christians', as Evans points out, and there was opposition to the complete Nazi takeover of Protestantism, including from Niemöller. Ultimately, those who resisted full Nazi control (the 'Confessing Churches', Bekennende Kirche) ensured that the creation of a unified Nazi Church in Germany failed.
But this was a disagreement among Christians about the role of their church in the new regime rather than a conflict between believers and 'atheists'. And it is hard to see that 'churches' in general or Christians as such (as Bishop Mixa put it in his Easter sermon) were singled out for persecution, although, yes, several individuals who resisted the regime did suffer.
This was more true for Catholics, and the Nazis did indeed engage in a broad attack on their organisations; but again, this was not about 'Christianity' as such, but about the Catholic church's anomalous position as a powerful, independent (and foreign-controlled) organisation within what was supposed to be becoming--from the Nazi point of view--a society unified according to 'nation' and 'Volk'.
The mixture of conflict and accommodation between Catholics and Nazis is too long to go into here, but Evans concludes:
For all the bitterness of the conflict, it did not result in any general alienation of the Catholic community from the Third Reich. Many Catholics were highly critical of the Nazi Party, and especially of zealots such as [Alfred] Rosenberg, but Hitler's standing even here was only mildly affected. The deep-seated desire of the Catholic community since Bismarck's time to be accepted as a full part of the German nation blunted the edge of its hostility to the anti-Christian policies of the regime, which many imagined were being pushed by radicals without the knowledge or approval of Hitler himself. (Ibid., 248)In Hitlers Theologie, Bucher describes the way that the Catholic Church managed to largely escape Nazification and might even be said to have served as a 'rival centre of loyalty' ('rivalisierendes Loyalitätszentrum') and occasionally active protest; however, it never achieved 'open or subversive resistance activities that worked toward overthrowing national socialism' (22).***
Given that Catholicism found its way of coexisting (to say the least) with other fascist regimes, this shouldn't be surprising. As Bucher somewhat drily observes,
Additionally, there was in the 1930s a certain overall susceptibility in the Church to authoritarian regimes. In Italy and Spain, the Church was a partner of fascism or Franco, and in Austria served as the protector of--indeed, the source of ideas for--the authoritarian corporative state. (23)****
As an aside sparked by the reference to Spain, I thought I might mention a book I bought a few years ago on a used-book table at--coincidentally--a local convent.
Wir Funken für Franco ('We Broadcast for Franco', 1936), by Hellmut Führing tells the story of Heinz Oppermann, one of the members of the Condor Legion sent by Hitler to Spain in the mid-30s to assist Franco's military putsch against the Republic.
Spending his first Christmas away from home in far-off Spain, Oppermann--who was part of a communications unit--relates listening to a German radio broadcast on Christmas Eve.
I'm sure you'll agree that his atheist, anti-Christian attitudes shine through.
As Rudolf Hess finished his speech, 'Silent Night, Holy Night' chimed through the loudspeakers!...Over thousands of kilometres German broadcasting built a bridge between us and our homeland. (51)
Later, touring a church 'defiled' by 'reds', he finds the body of the local bishop and decries the viciousness of the godless enemy.
In any case, it is clear that the Nazis were adept at cynically adapting all kinds of symbols to their purposes (especially when things turned against them), and, as their power grew, so did the desire by some in the higher reaches of the party to replace traditional Christianity.
Noting that attacks on Christianity were nothing new by the late 1930s, Evans writes that 'what was new, perhaps, was the Nazi rejection of rationalistic secularism' as an alternative.
What would replace the Churches in Germany when they finally disappeared? Leading Nazis took a variety of positions on this issue. Hitler and Goebbels's religious beliefs retained a residual element of Christianity [Bucher calls Hitler and Himmler 'monotheists', though with different attitudes toward the occult], albeit an eccentric one that became notably weaker after the failure of the German Christian project in 1934-5. Even Rosenberg qualified his anti-Christian stance with support for the German Christians until their failure to take over the Evangelical Church had become clear. Initially at any rate, he admired Luther, adapted doctrines from the medieval mystic Master Eckhart and thought that a racially amended Christianity could be merged into a new Germanic religion.... (249)Others tended toward a variety of pagan (especially Nordic, but sometimes Indian) and 'deist' beliefs.
As Evans sums up:
Nazi policy towards the Churches was thus in a state of some confusion and disarray by the eve of the war. The ideological drift was clearly away from Christianity, though there was a long way to go before the neopaganist alternative found general acceptance even within the Party. Yet for all the ideological in-fighting, one objective had remained clear from the very outset: the regime was determined to reduce, and if possible eliminate, the Churches as centres of real or potential alternative ideologies to its own. (254, emphasis added)As I noted earlier, it is necessary when considering Bishop Mixa's comments linking 'aggressive atheism' to Nazism to differentiate two things: the Party's view toward religion and the views of religious people toward the Party.
While there is plenty of evidence in the former case of a hostility to Christianity among some party leaders, their alternative was hardly atheism but a mix of Nordic mysticism and esoteric paganism.
However, in the latter case, it is equally clear that the Nazis' road to power was paved by the best wishes of a significant number of observantly religious people who--regardless of what Himmler or Goebbels or Rosenberg might have had planned--saw no contradiction between their belief in a Christian God and their support for the regime.
Atheism, of course, is no more a guarantee of morality than is theism. But what the current 'aggressive atheism'--in the words of a press release put out by the diocese of Augsburg--has to do with the history of Nazism is a mystery to me.
(While there's probably not any God, there are some long German words.)
(While there's probably not any God, there are some long German words.)
(All translations mine.)
*"Die Unmenschlichkeit des praktizierten Atheismus haben im vergangenen Jahrhundert die gottlosen Regime des Nationalsozialismus und des Kommunismus mit ihren Straflagern, ihrer Geheimpolizei und ihren Massenmorden in grausamer Weise bewiesen." In genau diesen Systemen seien "Christen und die Kirche besonders verfolgt" worden. (Via Spiegel online.)
**'Hitler hat sich bekanntlich selbst as 'gottgläubig' bezeichnet, und niemand Geringerer als Kardinal Faulhaber hat es ihm nach seinem besuch auf dem Obersalzberg am 4.11.1936 bescheinigt: "Der Reichskanzler lebt ohne Zweifel im Glauben an Gott", so Faulhaber in einem Schreiben an die bayerischen Bischöfe.' Bucher, 28-29.
NB: the word 'gottgläubig' has been defined as 'Deist', but our Oxford Duden dictionary offers either 'religious' or gottgläubig sein as 'to be a theist of no particular denomination'. Evans uses 'Deist', but I'm not sure, based on Bucher and other sources, that this accurately reflects Hitler's beliefs. 'Deism' is typically associated with an emphasis on reason and a rejection of the supernatural elements of faith. It is, moreover, related to Enlightenment approaches to religion. And this seems a far more specific meaning than that intended by 'gottgläubig' under National Socialism, i.e., rejecting the mainstream churches but asserting a belief in God. Hence, I'm going with 'theist'.
***'Im Sinne eines differenzierten Widerstandsbegriffs kann der katholischen Kirche als Ganzer also zugesprochen werden, in vielem ein 'rivalisierendes Loyalitätszentrum' geblieben zu sein; auch gab es regional mehr oder weniger spontan kirchlich organisierte Verweigerung und in seltenen Fällen auch aktiven Protest, nie aber offene oder subversive Widerstandstätigkeit, die auf den Sturz des Nationalsozialismus hinarbeitete.' Bucher, p. 22.
****'Es gab zudem in den 30er Jahren eine gewisse gesamt-kirchliche Anfälligkeit für autoritäre Regime. Die Kirche war in Italien und Spanien offen als Partnerin des Faschismus bzw. Francos und in Österreich als Protektorin, ja Ideen-geberin des autoritären Ständesstaates aufgetreten.' Bucher, p. 23.