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Origins of Nazism JOHN CORNWELL


Where was the Church in spring 1933?


Pope Benedict caused controversy during his recent state visit to Britain by criticising atheist extremism for its eradication of God from society in the twentieth century. So was atheism to blame for Nazism – or was the Catholic Church as much to blame for its spread through Germany?


Lennon’s famous song “Imagine”. “Imagine a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts … no Israeli/Palestinian wars … ” The catalogue, however, omitted to connect the abolition of religion with Stalin’s abom- inable purges, or the persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, under the Nazi regime. Clearly Stalin set out to eradicate reli- gion from the Soviet Union, but was atheism the cornerstone of National Socialist ideology? When Pope Benedict addressed the wel- coming party at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on his arrival on 16 September for his state visit to Britain, he attacked Nazism specifically for its eradication of “God from society”, prompting some commentators to conclude that Benedict believes atheism is to blame for Nazism and all its consequences. “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth cen- tury,” said the Pope, “let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’.” Benedict’s comments at Holyrood invite us, moreover, to reflect on the view he expressed in 2006 when visiting Auschwitz. He was, he said, “ a son of the German people … over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honour, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power”. This suggestion is one of two interpretations of the history of the Nazi period. Daniel Goldhagen, author of the much-hyped Hitler’s Willing Executioners, was widely criticised on its publication in 1997, in both Germany and the United States, for suggesting that guilt for the Nazi regime lay with the entire


A 8 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010


s Richard Dawkins warmed to his attack on religion in The God Delusion, he favoured his readers with a new version of John


German population, its culture and history, rather than the inner core of the regime’s leaders. Meanwhile the argument Benedict put for- ward at Auschwitz has been challenged from the opposite direction by those who see his denial of any measure of Germany’s collective guilt to be a travesty of history. Now his latest comments have raised questions about his account of the historical origins of Nazism. For example, the National Secular Society (NSS) of the United Kingdom complains that the association of atheism with Nazis “is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God”. The NSS claims, moreover, that the notion that non-religious people seek to impose their views on society is “surreal”, given the Catholic Church’s “narrow” morality that is critical of “gay people and many others”. Similar reactions have come from humanist organisations in Germany.


So, 65 years on from the collapse of Nazism, how should we assess the atheistic component of Nazi ideology, its persecution of religion, and the role of the papacy? Impressive scholar - ship was undertaken on these themes from the late 1960s to 1980s, including the work of the late Klaus Scholder, Ludwig Volk SJ and J.S. Conway. We can also benefit from the researches of more recent historians, including Hubert Wolf’s Pope and Devil, based on newly released Vatican papers up to 1939 (reviewed in these pages by Michael Walsh, 28 August 2010). In addition, we have the substantial back- ground histories of the Third Reich by Ian Kershaw, Richard J. Evans and Michael Burleigh. It is abundantly clear from these historians that the social, political and, indeed, religious, circumstances leading to Hitler’s rise to power are nothing if not opaque and complex. The role of the Churches in Hitler’s rise continues to be reviewed and debated, as does the murky nature of National Socialism itself.


What emerges, for example, from Professor Burleigh’s authoritative The Third Reich is that Nazism can in no sense be described as


A wooden frieze carved into a pulpit depicting Jesus standing next to a helmeted German soldier is seen inside the Nazi-era Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin. Photo: Reuters


atheistic in the same way as Stalin’s Communism, and that the anti-Semitism of the Christian confessions in Germany has as much at least to answer for as atheism. Writing to me in response to the papal state- ment at Holyrood, Professor Burleigh argues: “Nazism (like most other political movements) was a product of the Christian West. That means that all Nazis had a Christian back- ground, with north German Protestants more heavily represented than Catholics, whose external hierarchy deplored totalitarian ideologies.” On the question of Christian attitudes towards Jews in the rise of Nazism, he writes: “While anti-Semitism is not con- fined to Christians, it was part of the mulch in which Nazism flourished, though they gave it a more biological slant.” In addition there is the peculiar and com-


plex religiosity, rather than atheism, of National Socialism. “I think,” writes Burleigh, “they tried to create a counter-Church on the basis of Social Darwinian racism, with Christianity instrumentalised too, by way of redemptive patterns of thought and the claim to be remoralising German society. They were contemptuous of most clergy. While I suspect most of them were atheists, that was qualified by the fact that they thought ‘fanatical’ belief per se a good thing. That was focused on the Führer. I wouldn’t search for consistency of view among them, as opposed to a mishmash of prejudices and weird opinions.” Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the his-


tory of the Church at Oxford University, and author of A History of Christianity, also objects to the Holyrood statement as con-


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