Biology Magazine

Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

By Cris

What did the Nazis believe about religion? Simply asking the question suggests some difficulties. “The Nazis” implies a homogenous group with clearly articulated and uniformly held positions. There were of course many different kinds of Nazis who held diverse and changing views on everything. The only common and consistent thread seems to have been racial ideology. When it came to issues other than politics, Nazis weren’t well known for systematic thinking. On the issue of religion, this lack of clarity continues to exorcize historians and pundits.

Just last week, Richard Dawkins debated Cardinal George Pell in another installment of the interminable debates which convince atheists that atheism is best and theists that theism is best. Pell, on par for the theist course, argued that atheism leads to bad things like Hitler and the Nazis. Dawkins responded by observing that Hitler wasn’t an atheist.

This exchange, unenlightening though it was, at least generated useful commentary by an historian familiar with the debates about Nazis and religion. He notes that scholars are of three schools of thought: (1) the Nazis were neo-pagans, (2) Naziism was a political religion, or (3) Nazis were peculiar Christians. Based on everything I’ve read over the years, all three descriptions seem to be correct — they aren’t mutually exclusive. Hitler himself admired the Catholic Church and used it as a model for his own movement.

Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

One thing is clear: Hitler wasn’t an atheist and almost no Nazis were. However idiosyncratic, Hitler clearly had creationist ideas:

Hitler argued for a critical review of the Bible, to discover what sections met an “Aryan” spirit. In these same notes, he took a “biogenetic” history as the main biblical emphasis, arguing that original sin was solely racial degeneration – sin against the blood. He also argued in favour of the notion of a creator, a deity whose work was nature and natural laws, conflating God and nature to the extent that they became one and the same thing. This again came back to race, and meant that he argued in Mein Kampf that one could not avoid the “commands” of “eternal nature” or the “Almighty Creator”: “in that I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

For theists this sort of thing is best ignored, as is the fact that 99% of Germans were avowed Christians during the Nazi era. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is its relationship to evolution. Aside from mistakenly believing that Nazis were atheists, most theists assume that the Nazis were Darwinian evolutionists. They weren’t.

As Coel Hellier documents in this superb post, Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist, and opposed to evolution. After an extensive examination of Nazi ideas, Hellier concludes:

The main ideas of Darwinism are that natural selection, operating over lengthy time periods, can cause species to transform into other species, and that all modern mammals descend from a common ancestor. Both of these notions the Nazis explicitly rejected, finding them abhorrent, materialistic notions that would strip man of his soul and of his special status. The Nazis preferred, as do many other religious people, to see man as God’s special creation. It was seeing, in particular, the Aryan race as “God’s handiwork” that led the Nazis to consider it sinful to allow the destruction of the Aryan race by allowing racial inter-marriage, and hence the necessity for removing the possibility by finding a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.”

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

The labeling of the Nazis as “atheistic” is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it “atheistic.”

It would be splendid if, before the next debate, the theist representative would read Hellier’s piece and leave the Hitler-Nazi-atheist canard out of it.

Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

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