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National Socialism, Christianity, and Atheism

A common remark you hear from some Christians when attacking atheism is that it caused Communism and Nazism. For example, take Bill O’Reilly:

Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, all of them. That’s the first step. Get the religion out of there, so that we can impose our big-government, progressive agenda.

While it’s impossible to argue that Communism is not atheistic, what about Nazism? You can find different perspectives. From About.com’s atheism page, a comparison of Nazism and Christianity. From Answers in Genesis, the claim that the Nazis were out to destroy Christianity. Those views aren’t actually contradictory, as you may notice.

So then, what are the problems here? First of all, it’s wrong to link an ideology that includes atheism with atheism itself. Atheism implies nothing more than a rejection of theism. Atheists can be Communists, Conservatives, Liberals, Nazis, Libertarians, etc. Even if Nazism is atheistic, there is no political conclusion required by a rejection of religion.

Ok, is Nazism atheistic, then? No. As Hitler said in Mein Kampf:

I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.

The Nazis essentially viewed themselves as acting in accordance with Nature’s Laws (hence the Social Darwinism), which were given by God and were therefore fulfilling his will. Nazism was, at a minimum, deistic.

It doesn’t stop there, however. The Nazis did attempt to create a sort of religion of Nazism. They envisioned a single church of the Third Reich that embodied Nazi principles. They first set off to do this through the creation of what’s called “German Christianity.” Protestants made up a substantial portion of supporters of the Nazi Party. The German Evangelical Church, being very conservative, was in particular a strong supporter. The About.com link above will give you an idea of the intersections of the political beliefs of Christians in Germany and the Nazi Party. The German Christianity movement began there and succeeded in taking it over for a short time. German Christianity was a quite radical reformulation of Christianity. It rejected the Old Testament and some of the doctrines of “Rabbi Paul” due to their relationship with Judaism. More fundamentalist Christians didn’t take to this lightly, even though they were in general not opposed to the Nazi Party. They formed the “Confessing Church,” which opposed German Christianity. In the face of this opposition, even with the Nazis’ typical fascist tactics, German Christianity eventually collapsed.

The other segment of the Christian population, Catholics, had a much more difficult time. Not strong supporters of the Nazi Party anyway, Hitler regarded Catholics as beholden to the Catholic Church, something that would not be tolerated in the Third Reich. The Nazis engaged in a brutal campaign (including, interestingly, sexual abuse allegations against priests) against all Catholic organizations with the aim of ended Catholic influence over the everyday life of Germans. In the end, both Catholic and Protestant influence in society was severely diminished.

That’s not the end of the story, however. After failing to create a German Christian movement (which, along with the campaign against Catholics, led to more hostility towards Christianity in the Third Reich leadership), the Nazis attempted to create a new German religion. Using rituals from Viking and pagan religious traditions, liberal doses of Wagner, and symbols that were simply made up, they attempted to create a religion that embodied their “blood and soil” ethic. Party members were now encouraged to renounce Church ties and declare “Deism,” a broad designation that included the new pagan religion. In the end, this new religion didn’t really catch on either.

In conclusion, National Socialism can’t be used as an argument against secularism or atheism in any way. The religious beliefs of the party leadership ranged from deism to muddled Christianity to paganist beliefs as described above. Nazi attacks on Christianity were generally attempting to remove competitors in their drive for the total domination of every aspect of the lives of Germans. On the flip side, Christian resistance to the Nazis was typically only resistance to the Nazis attacks on their traditions and beliefs, best illustrated in this famous quote by Pastor Martin Niemöller, leader of the “Confessing Church”:

First they took the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they took the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then it was the trade unionists’ turn, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they took the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came and took me, there was no one left who could have stood up for me.

The fact remains that when the Nazi Party was taking power, Protestant Christians were the biggest supporters and the more secular Social Democrats and Communists the biggest opponents. It’s a gross oversimplification to blame Nazism on Christianity, but it’s even worse to blame it on atheism or secularism.

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