The question of the religious or antireligious mind-set of the National Socialists has received frequent attention. Not long ago, for example, Free Inquiry devoted significant space to this question, particularly to the purported atheism of Hitler and the other Nazi leaders (Gregory S. Paul, “The Great Scandal: Christianity in the Rise of the Nazis,” October/November 2003 and December 2003/January 2004). The equation Nazism = atheism has gained wide currency, but it is plainly erroneous. The assertion that Hitler was an atheist (or even simply anti-Christian) has been convincingly refuted. Richard Carrier, for one, has exposed the various mistranslations, misunderstandings, and plain fabrications basic to the attribution of anti-religious, anti-Christian, and atheistic principles to Hitler and his associates (see harrington-sites.com/Carrier5.htm). Yet the fable persists.
The most recent perpetrator of this fabrication has been Walter Mixa, who recently resigned as the Roman Catholic bishop of Augsburg, Germany.* In his 2009 Easter sermon, Mixa declared: “During the past century, the inhumanity of practiced atheism has been demonstrated most cruelly by the godless regimes of Nazism and communism, with their penal camps, secret police, and mass murders.” Bishop Mixa further asserted that Christians and the church had suffered special persecution under these regimes. He also warned against the rising tide of “aggressive atheism” in Germany, which is another figment of priestly imagination. While Germany, as many other European countries, has seen a decline in formal church membership, “aggressive atheists” are difficult to find. In any case, self-identified agnostics and atheists comprise a mere 23 percent of contemporary Germans.
What produces such nonsense? One source may be self-interest and expedience. The equation Nazism = atheism is self-serving for religion in general and for German churches in particular. By identifying Nazism with atheism, religious believers gain two comforting nostrums: (1) atheists (nonbelievers) are bad—they are in fact Nazis (or other types of totalitarians); (2) believers are good; they are not Nazis (or Communists or other totalitarian extremists). Apart from the general comfort here to be gained, for the German churches there is the additional benefit of placing some distance between their rectories and the Nazis and of obscuring their collaboration with the Hitler regime. Of course, the clergy and factual truth always have had an uneasy relationship. Clerical approaches to the truth have been fully instrumental: if the truth is helpful, tell it; if it does not help, lie.
Another source may be a simple category error—though it is difficult to see how a reasonably well-educated person, such as a bishop, could make it. The problem is that of another equation: totalitarianism = atheism. For Communism, of course, the equation is accurate. What does not follow, however, is that therefore all totalitarianism is atheistic. Nazism and Communism, as well as atheism, are substantive theories; they proclaim substantive canons. In contrast, totalitarianism is a procedural doctrine. It does not advance particular substantive beliefs but specifies their scope of applicability: unrestricted and total. Whatever substantive principles may be proclaimed, the totalitarian construction gives them universal and unlimited pertinence. It follows that there can be a Christian totalitarianism no less than fascist or communist totalitarianism. But the substantive properties of one totalitarian system cannot be generalized to another. Communism was totalitarian and atheistic. Nazism was totalitarian but not atheistic. It will not do to confuse atheism and totalitarianism.
What about the actual religious mind-set of Hitler and the other Nazi leaders? The fact is that the Nazis were not only not atheists; many were militantly anti-atheist. Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), was the second-most influential and powerful leader of the Third Reich. His pronouncements carried authority and weight. In a letter of March 11, 1937, to a pastor, Himmler wrote: “Every SS-Man is free to belong to a church or not. This is his personal concern, a matter in which he is accountable only to God and his conscience.”
In a speech on September 2, 1938, Himmler stated: “I don’t tolerate anyone in the SS, who does not believe in God.” In a much later speech, on July 26, 1944, to SS leaders (showing that there had been no change of mind) he said: “Do not encourage your men to leave their churches.” (These are my translations from the original German—for which see Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: Biographie. Munich: Siedler Verlag, 2008, pp. 229, 831.) Finally, the official creed of the SS stated that “we believe in God, in Germany, and in the Fuhrer”—God having the priority of place! Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, made this statement at the Nuremberg trials, regarding the credibility to be given to his oath: “I am not a church-goer, I do not have a strong relationship to the churches, but I am a deeply religious man. I am convinced that my belief in God (Gottglaube) is stronger than that of most other people. I ask the court to take into account that I testify under oath with the explicit appeal to God.”
The story of Nazi atheism is a fable. In fact, anti-atheistic and pro-religious views prevailed among most of the Nazi leadership. Only Alfred Rosenberg, not one of the top leaders, can be said to have been truly anti-Christian. Hitler, like the other important leaders of the Third Reich, remained a church member, participated in standard religious ceremonies, and paid church taxes. Those few Germans who did not continue formal membership in the Christian churches were not categorized as atheists but as “God-believers.” It is also noteworthy that religious instruction remained part of the public-school curriculum throughout the Nazi period.
Neither Christianity nor religion generally were targets of Nazi aggression. The Nazis did not persecute Christians simply for being Christians. Of course, they did not tolerate religion-based opposition any more than they tolerated other forms of opposition. Persecution, however, was for being an opponent of the regime, not for being a religious believer. Encouraging atheism was in no way part of the Nazi agenda. To say that Nazism was a form of atheism is a transparent falsification—and clerical authorship does not make it any less so.
* Mixa’s reesignation in April 2010 in connection with allegations of fraud and violence toward children in his care does not diminish the cogency of his remarks on Nazism.