Book Review: Hitler’s Religion

352 PP.

In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s dystopian tale of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan conquering America, a supremely rational Japanese diplomat listens with mounting horror as a comrade describes the biography and characteristics of Adolf Hitler. Unable to take anymore, he bolts away and concludes for the first time in his life, “There is evil! It’s actual, like cement.”

This anecdote is just one example comparable to normally rational atheists, who when confronted with Hitler, throw up their hands and seek a supernatural explanation for him. George Orwell once credited those who “say that Hitler is the Antichrist” as being “nearer the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera.” Robert Conquest, an empirical historian if there ever was one, was once asked who he thought was worse, Stalin (about whom he had written so blisteringly that the Soviet government designated him “Anti-Apparchik No.1”) or Hitler. Despite Stalin’s being responsible for a much higher body count than Hitler, Conquest chose the latter, not based on any methodical reasoning but simply because he “felt” Hitler to be more evil.

Taking the opposite perspective, Leni Riefenstahl introduced Hitler in German propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, by having him descend godlike from the clouds in his airplane. The filmmaker’s obvious intent of attaching angel’s wings to Hitler makes noticing the airplane a bit of a challenge. Nuremberg rallies also borrowed from religious symbolism. One hundred fifty klieg lights pointing heavenward while speakers, such as Nazi Front labor leader Robert Ley, warmed up the crowd by declaring that God sent Hitler to save Germany.

After such a buildup, did Hitler see himself as the Messiah? Did he, as many of his followers did, regard himself as the standard-bearer of White Christian Europe, standing against atheistic Jews, clustered around Stalin and the banks of the world?

At first glance, one might think so. In Mein Kampf, Hitler writes that upon hearing the news that World War I had started, he fell down on his knees and “thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” Two decades later, Hitler fell to his knees again, urging Germans to “beg the Almighty to grant us the strength to prevail in the struggle for freedom and the future and the honor and the peace of our Volk, so help us God.”

Yet this same historical and political figure, who was raised Catholic, told Josef Goebbels that he wanted to “wage war against” the Catholic Church. In one instance, Hitler called Jews “Christ-killers,” but in another instance, he blamed Christianity for elevating them.

In Hitler’s Religion, author Richard Weikart demonstrates his skill in that he is able to parse out and make sense of Hitler’s religion. Some atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have portrayed Hitler as a Christian warmonger who believe that he was endowed by a fictitious “God” to destroy Bolshevism. However, Weikart’s Hitler declares Christianity a “spiritual terror.” Weikart also shows that Hitler didn’t believe in the power of prayer, an afterlife, or Christian charity. Indeed, in private Hitler was outright hostile to Christianity, telling Goebbels, “The best way to finish off the churches is to pretend to be a more positive Christian.”

But nor was Hitler an atheist, according to Weikart. He believed in an “impersonal God,” who created the unalterable laws of nature and defined religion as one of struggle by the races. Hitler saw the Aryans, not the Jews, as the “chosen ones” in this war.

Hitler rejected mysticism, unlike Nazi Germany Party leader Heinrich Himmler, who performed rituals to conjure the Aryan Gods of old. In speeches, Hitler portrayed the Nazi movement as “a cool and highly reasoned approach to reality” and not an embrace of the supernatural. Nazism, he stated, was based on science and had “no desire of instilling in the Volk, a mysticism that transcends the purpose and goals of our teachings.”

Having dispensed with Hitler as Christian or atheist or occultist, Weikart defines him as a pantheist who believed that “God was an impersonal force” who set down immutable “laws of nature” that demanded a race war where only the “fittest”—read Aryans—could survive.

Pantheism certainly explains much, particularly Hitler’s “morality.” For him, moral goodness was anything that advanced Aryans, the superior race. Hence, he could justify sterilizing the handicapped and conquering and murdering Jews and Slavs as carrying out “God’s will.”

But that leaves the thorny matter of Hitler’s religious speeches. It is here that Weikart effectively demonstrates that Hitler was merely acting as a politician in a predominantly religious country by telling audiences what they wanted to hear. This argument is strengthened when one considers that Hitler denounced Christianity only in private.

Hitler’s Religion can be heavy going at times. In one sentence, Weikart claims to have cracked the code of Hitler’s religious views, but in another he calls Hitler’s religion “muddled.” He looks into the history of religion in Germany, including its pantheist versions, without examining how its family structure was constructed from traditional Catholicism.

Weikart claims that in Germany, more than in any other country at the time save Russia, the father was venerated as the unquestioned, iron ruler of the family unit, with mothers relegated to providing a perfect home life and serving as birthing machines. It’s a short leap from here to understanding how Hitler became the iron father of an entire nation.  Women were already primed to obey a patriarchal figure, and after Hitler’s rise to power, now they saw having children as  a sacred role to provide the Fuhrer with soldiers in his race war.

There are more layers to Hitler’s sexism, which paradoxically included homophobia and a subtle homoeroticism. During the Night of Long Knives, in which Hitler purged rebellious elements within the Nazi movement, he lectured the gay Ernest Roehm on his “degeneracy” and then had him shot in his bed beside a male companion. However, he also favored male bonding in suspect communal-type settings free from the “taint” of any heterosexuality. In Triumph of the Will, shirtless men clad only in trunks ate, bathed, and performed gymnastics together in sexually suggestive positions.

Unfortunately, Weikart neglects to examine the history of Germany with respect to the Enlightenment. Many scholars who see Germany as backward in terms of human rights and democratic government attribute these problems to a prevalence of Roman ideas and to Enlightenment philosophy not taking hold in Germany.

These oversights aside, Hitler’s Religion provides an invaluable and insightful look at the twisted beliefs of a figure many still regard as proof of sin in the world.