Adolph Hitler, German politician, leader of the Nazi Party, and by near-universal accounts the most monstrous and terrifying leader in the twentieth century, led his nation into a disastrous war and triggered the extermination of millions of his own citizens due to his anti-Semitic ideology.
This page features a comprehensive resource on Adolph Hitler’s background, beliefs, religious ideology, and explanations of his rise to power.
(See main article: Hitler — Historical People)
Famous for being fascist Dictator of Germany
Born – 20th April 1889, Braunau am Inn, Austria
Parents – Alois Hitler, Klara Hitler
Siblings – Edmund, Paula
Married – Eva Braun
Children – None
Died – 30th April 1945, Berlin, Germany committed suicide
Adolph Hitler was born in the Austrian town of Braunau-am-Inn on 20th April 1889. The town was close to the Austro-German border and his father, Alois, worked as a border control clerk. His mother, Klara, was a housekeeper.
As a child he got on very well with his mother but he didn’t get on well with his father, a strict authoritative disciplinarian. He attended school from the age of six years but did not do well in academic subjects. His school record showed reasonable grades for PE and some artistic talent.
Adolph Hitler left school at the age of sixteen and went to Vienna where he hoped to enter the Academy and become a painter. His application to enter the academy was rejected when he was 17 years old and a year later his mother died from cancer. His father had died four years earlier and with no relatives willing to support him Adolph Hitler found himself living rough on the streets of Vienna. He became interested in politics and was heavily influenced by the climate of anti-Semitism that existed in Austria at that time.
In 1914, Hitler crossed the border to Germany and joined the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. He fought on the Western Front and was awarded the Iron Cross for his bravery in battle. In 1918 he was temporarily blinded from a gas attack and was invalided out of the war. Hitler was dismayed when Germany lost the war and hated the Versailles Treaty and the Weimar government for signing the treaty. He dreamed of a return to the days of the Kaiser.
After the war he stayed in the army, but in intelligence. His activities led him to the German Worker’s Party led by Anton Drexler. He liked the ideas of the party and joined in 1919. Drexler realised that Adolph Hitler was something special and put him in charge of the political ideas and propaganda of the party.
In 1920, the party announced its 25-point program and was renamed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party – NAZIs.
In 1921, Hitler became leader of the party and soon began attracting attention, especially for his powerful speeches. Hitler stirred up Nationalist passion giving the people something to blame for Germany’s problems. Hitler’s opponents tried to disrupt the meetings so for protection Hitler set up the SA – Stormtroopers. Although the actual membership of the NAZI party remained quite low in this period, Hitler, through his meetings and speeches had given them a very high profile.
In March 1924, Adolph Hitler was imprisoned for his part in the Munich Putsch, which failed to overthrow the Bavarian government. While in prison he wrote his book Mein Kampf which set out his thoughts and philosophies. The book was published a year after Hitler’s release from prison.
The Great Depression, which saw a downturn in people’s lives, helped to gain support for the Nazi party and by 1932 the Nazi party was the largest party in the Reichstag but did not have a majority. On January 30th 1933 Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. A month later on February 27th, the Reichstag building was set alight. The fire was blamed on the Communists and the Communist party was banned in Germany. This gave the Nazis a clear majority in the government.
On 23rd March 1933 the Enabling Act gave Adolph Hitler power to make laws without consulting the Reichstag for a period of four years. Over the next four months Hitler took steps towards dictatorship – trade unions and all other political parties were banned, the Nazis took control of all local government and Germany withdrew from the League of Nations. When President Hindenburg died in August 1934 Hitler combined the position of Chancellor and President and made himself Fuhrer of Germany.
As Fuhrer, Hitler began building his Third Reich. Ignoring the terms of the Treaty of Versailles he began building up the army and weapons. The Nuremburg Laws passed in 1935 defined Hitler’s ideal pure Aryan German citizen and barred Jews from holding any form of Public office. In March 1936 Hitler began reclaiming land taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles by re-occupying the Rhineland. The move was unopposed by Britain and France. Anschluss with Austria in Spring 1938 was followed in the Autumn by the reclaiming of the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia.
Although he had agreed by the terms of the Munich Agreement not to make further territorial claims, in March 1939 Hitler invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. His subsequent invasion and occupation of Poland on 1st September 1939 led to the outbreak of World War Two. Despite the outbreak of war, Hitler continued his policy of aggression and by May 1940 Britain was the only western European country that had not been invaded and occupied by the Nazis. The loss of the Battle of Britain led Hitler to abandon plans to invade Britain in favour of an invasion of Russia.
Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists and other ‘undesirables’ from Germany and Nazi-controlled countries were forced to wear identification badges. Jews were sent to concentration camps where the fit and healthy were put to forced labour while the young, old and sick were exterminated in gas chambers. In January 1942 plans to exterminate the entire Jewish population known as ‘The Final Solution’ were approved.
Defeat at the second battle of El Alamein in November 1942 was followed by defeat at Stalingrad. Adolph Hitler’s refusal to allow soldiers to retreat and blind perusal of his goals led some Nazi members to question his leadership. In July 1944 an attempt was made to assassinate Hitler. The attempt failed and the perpetrators were executed.
Throughout late 1944 and early 1945 the Germans were pushed back towards Berlin by the Allies in the west and the Russians in the East. On April 29th, 1945, Adolph Hitler married his long-term mistress Eva Braun, and a day later the pair committed suicide.
(See main article: Where Was Hitler Born?)
Interestingly enough, Adolph Hitler was not born in Germany, but in a small village in Austria, Braunau am Inn. The building where he was born has been used as a workshop, school, library, home for the disabled and a bank through the years, but as of 2014 there are plans to turn it into a “House of Responsibility” museum.
Adolph Hitler Could Have Had a Different Surname
Another interesting piece of trivia relating to Hitler’s ancestry is that his surname would have been “Schicklgruber,” had his father, Alois, not decided to have a name change. Alois was an illegitimate child and went by his mother’s name until he changed it to “Hiedler” later in life. The spelling was somehow changed to “Hitler” in the record book. Today, it is very hard to imagine crowds of people yelling “Heil Schicklgruber” instead of “Heil Hitler.”
Adolph Hitler’s childhood years were not particularly happy. He was Alois Hitler and Klara Polzl’s fourth child, but all of his older siblings died during infancy. The family moved to Germany when Adolph was three years old, and this is where he got his Bavarian accent. Adolph Hitler clashed a lot with his father, who wanted him to become a customs officer, while he was more interested in the arts. Hitler did not do very well in school and left school early. He also drifted between jobs, unable to settle and was rejected from the arts academy in Vienna as well as the School of Architecture.
An Interest in Politics
He discovered an interest in politics and the anti-Semitic climate in Austria at that time heavily influenced his views. Hitler volunteered for the German army in 1914 and his bravery in battle on the Western Front earned him the Iron Cross award. In 1918 he had to stop fighting due to temporary blindness caused by a gas attack and was very disappointed when Germany lost the war. Hitler hated the Treaty of Versailles and despised the Weimar Government for signing it in the first place. In his eyes, Germany needed a Kaiser again.
(See main article: What Is Mein Kampf?)
Mein Kampf, which means “My Struggle” or “My Fight” is Adolph Hitler’s autobiography in which he outlines his ideology and political plans for Germany. After the failure that was the Beer Hall Putch in which Hitler and a group of men tried to overthrow the Bavarian government, he was sentenced to 5 years in jail for treason. He used this time to dictate his book to Rudolf Hess and it was eventually published in two volumes, respectively in 1925 and 1926. Hitler’s views were popular at the time, his book sold close to 9,500 copies within its first year. He originally wanted to call the book “4 ½ years of struggle against lies stupidity and cowardice” but was advised to rather keep the name short.
Contents of Hitler’s Autobiography
Apart from an autobiography about Hitler’s youth and upbringing, Mein Kampf was also a bit of a blueprint of what Hitler had in store for what he called the Third Reich. If other European countries had taken Hitler seriously at the time and read this book they would have known what plans Hitler had for the expansion of Germany.
Hitler’s Jewish Conspiracy Theory
He painted the Jews as a threat, with a conspiracy to take over the world. He also emphasizes that before he went to Vienna, he was very tolerant toward Jews as he had not met any Jews previously. He claims to have only changed his mind later on and then describes his Aryan philosophy in detail.
Types of Humans
Adolph Hitler divided humans into several categories, depending on physical appearance, to determine the different types of humans. The Aryan race (Germanic, fair-skinned, blond hair and blue eyes) is, according to him, the master race and culturally superior.
Doing People a Favor By Conquering their Lands
Hitler also argues in his book that lower people actually benefit if they are conquered by Aryans, as they learn from them and start to develop culture. Aryans were also not to inter-marry with other, lowly human types, a philosophy that later resulted in the passing of certain marriage laws in Germany.
Hatred of Communism and Judaism
Hitler believed that Communism and Judaism were the world’s two greatest evils. Hitler also described the goal to create a “living space” for German people to live up to their “historic destiny” in his book and openly stated that Germany had to acquire land in the East by invading parts of Russia.
Flawed Parliamentary System
In is book, Adolph Hitler blames the Weimar Republic’s parliament, the Social Democrats, the Marxists and the Jews for Germany’s demise. He wanted to destroy the parliamentary system, which he thought to be corrupt in essence, calling the people who come to power opportunists.
Was Hitler Jewish?
(See main article: Was Hitler Jewish?)
For someone so obsessed with “ethnic cleansing” and ancestry, Adolph Hitler was quite vague about his own descent. In the years following the war, and the ascent of Freudian psychoanalysis in the mid-twentieth century, many rumors circulated that Hitler might have been related to the very people he despised and persecuted; it was a form of self loathing and projection that sadly culminated in the nearly-successful attempt to destroy those people he hated to belong to.
However, none of these rumors have been proven true beyond doubt. Hitler was definitely not a Jew in the true sense of word, but there is a faint possibility that one of his ancestors might have been Jewish.
Paternal Grandfather Theory
The identity of Adolph Hitler’s paternal grandfather is not known, because Hitler’s father has been registered as an illegitimate child. Hans Frank, a former Nazi official stated that Hitler’s grandmother used to work as a housekeeper for a Jewish family named Franken
berger, in Graz. He claimed that Alois, Hitler’s father, was the result of a sexual relationship with Leopold Frankenberger, the family’s 19-year old son. With further investigation, no records of the existence of a Leopold Frankenberger in Graz have been found, causing historians to dismiss this theory.
DNA Test Theory
The Daily Telegraph, a British paper reported in 2010 on a DNA study that was conducted on 39 known relatives of Hitler. Samples showed that these family members of the Fuhrer had a chromosome that is not commonly found in Western Europe. Apparently 18 to 20 percent of carriers of this chromosome (Haplogroup E1b1b1) are Ashkenazi Jews, making this scientific study largely inconclusive. DNA tests of hair found on the hair brush Eva Braun (Hitler’s mistress) also pointed to the same chromosome, suggesting that she, too, may have had Jewish ancestry.
(See main article: How Did Hitler Come to Power?)The process occurred over multiple decades. Adolph Hitler’s rise to power started when he became politically involved and joined the Deutsche Arbeiterspartei. From there he worked himself up in the party, which later became the Nazi Party, through charm, violence and cunning negotiations. He was an excellent speaker and surrounded himself with people who, like him, were not afraid to use violence to fulfil their political objectives. At one stage, Hitler recognized that he was one of the best speakers in the Nazi party and demanded that they make him party leader or he would walk out. They conceded and he became party leader.
Rise of the Nazi Party
The grim atmosphere of the early 1930s greatly contributed to the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party as it left the Germans desperate for a strong leader. They considered the German government to be weak and the actions of Bruning, the chancellor only added to the bitterness of the German nation. They suffered due to the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression left many with huge financial problems, which were only worsened by the chancellor’s decision to cut unemployment pay and wages. Thanks to a very successful propaganda campaign focused on the poor and the suffering, the Nazi Party rose from only 12 seats in Reichstag in 1928 to becoming the largest party in 1932 with 230 seats.
Although the Nazi Party had become very powerful, they lost close to two million votes in the November 1932 Reichstag elections, which meant that they only had 33 percent of the vote, and not the majority they needed. Papen, who wanted the position of vice chancellor and thought he could control Hitler, convinced Hindenburg to form a coalition with the Nazis and appoint Hitler as chancellor. Hindenburg finally gave in and appointed Hitler as chancellor. Hitler’s final grab for power was when he negotiated with the Reichstag members to give him temporary “emergency” powers for four years, enabling him to act without the consent of parliament or the German constitution. While negotiations were taking place, his large military force was surrounding parliament with the threat of war, should they refuse. They didn’t have much of a choice but grant him what he wanted and Hitler became absolute ruler of Germany.
(see main article: What Does Führer Mean?)
Before Adolph Hitler claimed it as his personal title, Führer simply meant “leader” or “guide” in German. It was also used as a military title for commanders who lacked the qualifications to hold permanent command. Since its connotation to Nazi Germany, führer is not used in political context anymore, but may be combined with other words to mean “guide.” For instance, a mountain guide would be called a Bergführer, with “berg” meaning “mountain.”
Führer as Hitler’s Title
Adolph Hitler claimed the word “Führer” as an unique name for himself and started using it when he became chairman of the Nazi Party. It was at the time not uncommon to call party leaders “Führer” but usually the word had an addition to indicate which party the leader belonged to. When adopting it as a single title, Hitler may have been inspired by Austrian politician, Georg von Schonerer who also used the word without a qualification and whose followers also made use of the “Sieg Heil” greeting.
After the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act which gave Hitler absolute power for four years, he dissolved the president’s office and made himself the successor of Paul von Hindenburg. This was however in breach of the Enabling Act, and Hitler did not use the title as “president” but called himself “Führer and Chancellor of the Reich.” He would, after that often make use of the title in combination with other political leadership positions he took, for instance ” Germanic Führer” or “Führer and Supreme Commander of the Army”
(See main article: The Enabling Act: Hitler Seizes Absolute Power)
The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) of 1933 gave the German Cabinet power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat, the legislative bodies of the Weimar government. It gave Adolph Hitler complete and absolute power.
The passage of the Enabling Act required Hitler to gain support from a quorum from a super-majority of the entire Reichstag; this process was made easier by nearly all Communist and some Social Democrat deputies being arrested under the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended civil liberties after the burning of the Reichstag under the auspices of the beginning of a Communist revolution. But to win the rest of the votes, he needed to convince religious parliamentarians that Germany’s religious life would be kept secure and that its civil society would not vanish.
Immediately before and after the opening of parliament, Hitler negotiated with the Center Party to get their support for the Enabling Act, which needed a two-thirds margin to pass. The legislation set aside parts of the Weimar Constitution, granting Hitler and his cabinet the right to rule by decree. Hitler personally negotiated with the leaders of the Center Party on March 20 and 22, promising that he would respect their rights and freedoms. He gave the following assurances to entice them to vote for the Enabling Act:
The promises helped secure the Center Party’s votes for the Enabling Act. Unfortunately for the Center Party, Adolph Hitler would use the power they bestowed on him to violate every one of these promises.
Over the next few months, Hitler swept away all political opposition—including the Catholic Center Party—while simultaneously negotiating a concordat with the Catholic Church. Hitler claimed he only wanted to eliminate political Catholicism, not the religious functions of the Catholic Church. In a meeting with Bishop Wilhelm Berning on April 26, and in other meetings with Catholic leaders, he insisted that his regime would not restrict organizations sponsored by the Catholic Church. He also feigned being offended by accusations that he would attack Christianity. On the contrary, he lied, he would never think of intervening in the rights of the Church and would not touch the Catholic youth organizations nor interfere with religious education. Two days later, Hitler wrote to Cardinal Adolf Bertram, assuring him that Catholic organizations had nothing to fear. Hitler again expressed his desire to live in peace with the Catholic Church when he met with the papal nuncio, Cesare Orsenigo, on May 8.
How Hitler used Christianity to pass the Enabling Act
Another reason Adolph Hitler needed to reassure Germans in 1933 that his regime supported Christianity was to deflect growing unease over the anticlerical elements of the Nazi Party. By early 1933, German Catholic bishops had even banned Catholics from joining the Nazi Party (though this ban was lifted in late March 1933). To allay the growing criticism of Nazism as anti-Christian in 1933, Hitler stressed his regime’s commitment to Christianity. In his first radio speech to the nation after becoming chancellor, Hitler promised to protect Christianity, since it was the basis for Germany’s morality and family life, though in the speech, he did not explicitly claim that he or his party was Christian.
Indeed, most of his speeches between 1933–34 that mentioned his support for Christianity stopped short of professing any personal faith in it or Jesus. The closest he came during that time to professing Christian faith publicly was during a mid-February speech in 1933. As in his 1922 profession of faith, he was responding to criticism from the Center Party that Nazism was a danger to Christianity. Adolph Hitler countered this opposition by proclaiming that with his regime “Christians and not international atheists” were leading the nation.
Even this was not a clear-cut profession of personal faith, though it implied he was a Christian. In his speech to the German parliament on March 23, 1933, he acknowledged the Christian churches as important institutions in the preservation of the German people, and he called it the basis of morality; still, he stopped short of identifying himself or his party as essentially Christian.
(See main article: Why did Hitler hate the Jews?)
Looking at the horrible way Jews were treated during the Holocaust, Hitler’s hate for them must have been really extreme and apparently there were enough Germans supporting his notion that Jews needed to be eradicated. But what caused all of this?
Historians today still debate the reasons for the Nazi hate for Jews, as there are many factors that might have played a role.
Factors That May Have Contributed
These factors are only explain part of the answer to the question. For more information on this topic, we recommend listening to an interview with European History Richard Weikart, who discusses the religious beliefs of Adolph Hitler. A cursory look at Hitler’s value system goes a long way toward explaining why he thought it was in the best interest of the German people to murder millions of its own fellow citizens.
(See main article: What Did Hitler Believe In?)
When Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture Him was placed in the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in December 2012, it provoked considerable contention and even ire. In that exhibit, only the back of the kneeling supplicant is visible. In earlier displays of Him at art galleries around the world, visitors usually approached the praying figure from the back and received a jolt when they walked around to the front and recognized the face: a youthful rendition of Adolph Hitler. According to the notes accompanying one exhibition of Him, the “dictator is represented in the act of pleading for forgiveness.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish organization, roundly criticized the statue’s display at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial as “a senseless provocation which insults the memory of the Nazis’ Jewish victims.”
There is certainly no evidence he ever sought forgiveness from God, for he was convinced to the end of his life that he was obeying his God. However, in his unreliable memoir, Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler claimed he did kneel in prayer, at least on one occasion. To atheists, they argue that what Hitler believed in was Christianity. When World War I broke out, he wrote, “Overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” After Hitler came to power, he enjoined his fellow Germans in a 1936 speech, “Let us fall down upon our knees and 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!” Hitler intentionally cultivated an image of piety and righteousness that served him well in his climb to power and in maintaining popularity after achieving power. He wanted people to see him as a kneeling, devout supplicant.
Some people still believe in the image of Adolph Hitler the Pious and use it as a weapon against religion, while others recoil in horror at the thought that Hitler could have been religious. One of the most famous atheists in the world, Richard Dawkins, crossed swords intellectually with Pope Benedict XVI over the religious identity of Hitler and Nazism. On his papal visit to Britain in September 2010, Benedict harshly criticized atheism and secularism while lauding Britain for having fought “against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society.” Dawkins was livid. In his article “Ratzinger [i.e., Benedict] Is an Enemy of Humanity,” Dawkins reminded readers that Benedict was a former member of the Hitler Youth; thus, Dawkins maintained, Benedict should be more circumspect. Dawkins insisted that Hitler was not an atheist but a Catholic who sincerely believed in God. He even quoted a 1922 speech where Hitler called himself a Christian and referred to Jesus as “my Lord and Savior.”
Part 1: divergent views
This controversy over Adolph Hitler’s religion—as well as the relationship between religion and Nazism in general—has raged since Hitler emerged as a significant political figure in Munich in the early 1920s. Otto Strasser, a leader in the early Nazi movement who broke away from Hitler in 1930, told his brother in the late 1920s why he was increasingly dissatisfied with Hitler: “We are Christians; without Christianity Europe is lost. Hitler is an atheist.” Despite the fact that Hitler never renounced his membership in the Catholic Church, before he seized power in 1933 and for about two months thereafter, the Catholic hierarchy forbade Catholics from joining the Nazi Party because they viewed Hitler’s movement as fundamentally hostile to their faith. In 1937, Pope Pius XI condemned the Nazi regime, not only for persecuting the Catholic Church and harassing its clergy, but also for teaching ideology that conflicted with Catholic doctrines. The White Rose, a student resistance movement at the University of Munich that espoused Catholicism, wrote in a 1942 anti-Nazi pamphlet, “Every word that issues from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace he means war and when he most sinfully names the name of the Almighty, he means the force of evil, the fallen angel, Satan.” Hans and Sophie Scholl and other White Rose activists were guillotined after they were caught distributing leaflets denouncing the German atrocities in Eastern Europe and encouraging their fellow Germans to oppose the regime.
And yet, Hitler was incredibly popular during the Third Reich, almost to the very end. Most Germans who voted for Hitler or joined his party considered themselves good Christians, and many of them hailed Hitler as a protector of Christianity from the godless communists. Some Protestant pastors and Catholic priests joined the Nazi Party and cheered Hitler on, and some internationally respected Protestant theologians climbed aboard the Nazi juggernaut, too. By the mid-1930s, about 600,000 German Protestants had joined the German Christian movement, which synthesized Nazi ideology and liberal Protestant theology. In 1933, Hitler publicly promoted the German Christian candidates in the Protestant Church elections, giving encouragement to those who hoped for an amalgamation of Christianity and Nazism.
Some argue that what Hitler believed in were more nefarious beliefs. The conflicting views of Hitler as atheist or Hitler as devout Christian are further complicated by the widespread view of Hitler as a disciple of the occult. Hitler’s evil was so intense and inexplicable that some suspect he must have had supernatural connections with the underworld that enabled him to sway the masses and rise to power in Germany. Myriads of books and films purport to prove Hitler was a follower of the black arts.
So what did Adolph Hitler believe in? Was he an atheist, a Christian, or an occultist? He was none of these three. He was not an atheist, because he sincerely believed in the existence of God. He was not a Christian, because the God he believed in was not Jesus Christ or the God of the Christian Bible. He was not an occultist, because he overtly rejected occult beliefs and mystical practices.
What Adolph Hitler believed in was pantheism—or, if not pantheism, at least close to it. He believed that nature, or the entire cosmos, is God. At first glance, it might seem that Hitler’s pantheistic worship of nature is incidental, a bit of trivia that does little or nothing to help us understand the man and the atrocities that he committed. But to suppose this would be a mistake. Hitler’s devotion to nature as a divine being had a grim corollary: the laws of nature became his infallible guide to morality. Whatever conformed to the laws of nature was morally good, and whatever contravened nature and its ways was evil.
When Hitler explained how he hoped to harmonize human society with the scientific laws of nature, he emphasized principles derived from Darwinian theory, especially the racist forms of Darwinism prominent among Darwin’s German disciples. These laws included human biological inequality (especially racial inequality), the human struggle for existence, and natural selection. In the Darwinian struggle for existence, multitudes perish, and only a few of the fittest individuals survive and reproduce. If this is nature’s way, Hitler thought, then he should emulate nature by destroying those destined for death. Thus, in his twisted vision of religion, Hitler believed he was serving his God by annihilating the allegedly inferior humans and promoting the welfare and prolific reproduction of the supposedly superior Aryans.
Part 2: Nazism as a political religion
Another debate that has exercised historians is whether the Nazi regime itself should be characterized as a “political religion.” Most of those interpreting Nazism as such construe it as a secular substitute for the dominant religion in early twentieth-century Germany (i.e., Christianity). There are some historians who interpret Nazism as a purely political movement and thus question the analytical helpfulness of the idea of political religion. On the other extreme, historians insist that Nazism was not merely quasi-religious or pseudo-religious, but a full-blown religion. Since the debate influences perceptions of what did Adolph Hitler believe in, I will address it briefly in this introduction.
What Hitler did believe in was the use of religious symbols. There is no doubt Hitler and the Nazi Party appropriated religious symbols, terminology, and emotions in their speeches, mass rallies, and ceremonies. For instance, at the 1936 Nuremberg Party Congress, about 100,000 political leaders in the party gathered at the Zeppelin Field on Friday night. One hundred fifty powerful spotlights arranged in a rectangle around the crowd shined heavenward, creating pillars of light. The Nazis dubbed this spectacle a “cathedral of light,” and before Hitler stepped up to the tribune to deliver his speech, the German Labor Front leader Robert Ley led the Nazi leadership in what he called a “confession of faith,” stating, “In this hour of consecration, where an unending cathedral arches over us, proceeding into infinity, we vow: We believe in a Lord God in heaven, who created us, who guides and protects us, and who has sent you, my Führer, to us, so that you may liberate Germany. That is what we believe, my Führer.”
According to the official Nazi report, this “confession of faith” was greeted with a roar of approval. From the Nazi perspective, the beauty of this minimalist confession of faith in the outdoor cathedral was that it could potentially appeal to anyone who believed in any kind of God, whether Christian or anti-Christian, theist, deist, or pantheist. Indeed, the Nuremberg Party Rally continued through the weekend, and when it came time for the normal Sunday morning worship services for the Christian God, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy conspicuously participated in Nazi Party festivities instead of going to church. Instead of celebrating the Lord’s Day, Sunday at the Nuremberg Party Rally was SA Day, a time to honor the SA, or Nazi stormtroopers.
In his speech immediately after Ley’s “confession of faith,” Adolph Hitler gave this faith a slightly different twist, exhorting the party leaders to put their faith in the German Volk. He first rehearsed the way that Germany had risen up from its position of weakness and degradation since he had come to power four years earlier. This “miracle of renewal in our people (Volk),” Hitler suggested, came about not as a “gift from heaven for unworthy people” but because they had fanatically sacrificed for the “resurrection of a Volk.” “It is the faith in our Volk that has made us small people (Menschen) great,” Hitler pronounced. The future, he believed, was auspicious because the German Volk was “born again.” The speech was saturated with religious terminology, most of it directed not toward God, but toward the German Volk. Nonetheless, Hitler closed his speech by promising the young people in Germany that if they would do their duty, “then God the Lord will never forsake our Volk.” This 1936 speech was not unusual, as Hitler often invoked religious themes to arouse consecration to the German Fatherland while simultaneously appealing to God as the providential creator and sustainer of the German Volk.
Apparently, Adolph Hitler liked the effects of the “cathedral of light,” for the Nazis repeated it the following two years (the last party rallies held because of the advent of World War II). In his closing speech at the 1937 rally, Hitler reflected on the quasi-religious experience of that eventful week, stating, “What almost shook us several times this week was the confession of faith in a volkisch (nationalist-racist) worldview of a new generation, and more than once hundreds of thousands stood here, no longer under the impression of a political rally, but under the spell of deep prayer!” At the “cathedral of light” at the 1938 Nuremberg Rally, Ley took matters a step further by almost deifying Hitler before the Führer came to the podium. During the Second German Empire (1871–1918), a common nationalist slogan had been “One Volk—one Empire—one God.” Just about every German would have recognized this saying, since it was emblazoned on many postcards and even on a German postage stamp during the Second Empire. Ley used an altered version of that saying when he introduced Hitler to about 140,000 Nazi political leaders:
One Volk—one Empire—one Führer! How often in the last decade and above all in the last years has this call of all Germans resounded upward again and again. This battle cry of all Germans is jubilation and joy for some, confession and faith for others, and pride and power for the entire German nation. Young and old, rich and poor, without distinction all Germans repeat it again and again, and so we also want to let this confession of Germans ring out in this solemn hour in the cathedral of light: One Empire—One Volk—One Führer!
In this new slogan, which was widely disseminated in the Third Reich on posters and a postage stamp, the Führer had replaced God. Just two years earlier, Ley had led the gathered Nazi Party officials in confessing faith in a God who had sent the Führer. By 1938, the confession of faith did not even mention God and seemed to imply that Hitler was now filling His shoes.
To be sure, Adolph Hitler likely never thought he was God. But as many historians have suggested, he reveled in Messianism and often portrayed himself as the man chosen by Providence to liberate Germany and lead it to greatness. Derek Hastings concludes in his detailed examination of Hitler’s early religious identity that by the time Hitler left prison in late 1924, he had come “to see his political mission in increasingly all-encompassing messianic terms.” In The “Hitler Myth,” Ian Kershaw does not use the term Messianism, as Hastings and some other historians do, but he does note that a “pseudo-religious motivation . . . obviously lay for many behind the Hitler cult.” Indeed, plenty of Germans looked upon their Führer as a quasi-deity, elevating him high above mere mortals. After Goebbels finished reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf in October 1925, he raved in his diary, “Who is this man? Half plebeian, half God! Actually the Christ or only John [the Baptist]?” The messianic thrust of the Hitler cult manifested itself frequently, as in this Hitler Youth song at the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally:
We are the joyful Hitler Youth
We need no Christian virtue For our Führer Adolf Hitler Is ever our Mediator.
No pastor, no evil one, can hinder Us from feeling as Hitler’s children. We follow not Christ but Horst Wessel, Away with incense and holy water.
The church can be taken away from me,
The swastika is redemption on the earth,
It will I follow everywhere,
Baldur von Schirach [leader of the Hitler Youth], take me along!
Not only was this a clear expression of a desire to replace Christianity with Nazism, but it also exalted Hitler to a position that the Christian churches gave Jesus, who is often called the Mediator in the Bible and Christian theology.
In the end, if all one means by “political religion” is the political appropriation of religious symbols, terminology, rites, ceremonies, and emotions, then clearly the Nazis excelled at this. However, is this enough for Nazism to qualify as a religion, a political religion, or a secular religion, all terms used at times to describe Nazism?
Moreover, what did Adolph Hitler believe in regarding Nazism as a religion? This is easier to decipher, since he explicitly answered this question more than once. In Mein Kampf, he explicitly rejected the idea that he should become a religious reformer, insisting that Nazism was a political, not a religious movement. In fact, throughout his career, Hitler urged neutrality on purely religious questions, and he tolerated a variety of views about religion within the Nazi Party. Some leading Nazis considered themselves Christians, while others were staunchly and forthrightly anti-Christian. Some Nazis embraced occultism, while others scoffed at it. Some promoted neo-paganism, while others considered pagan rites and ceremonies absurd. Hitler really did not care what they believed about the spiritual realm as long as it did not conflict with Nazi political and racial ideology. In October 1941, in the midst of a diatribe against the Christian churches, Hitler admitted that Nazism could never be a complete substitute for religion because it did not offer anyone a coherent position on metaphysics. Thus he counseled toleration for those who had a heartfelt desire for religion. He remarked that someone feeling a need for metaphysics cannot simply be handed the Party Program.
Though Adolph Hitler dismissed the idea that Nazism was a religion, he did consider it more than just a political party or movement. He often presented Nazism as a fundamental worldview that provided a foundation for his political ideology and policies. The second volume of Mein Kampf contains two chapters on Weltanschauung, or worldview (rendered as “philosophy” in the standard English translation), in which Hitler argued that any successful political movement must be built on a coherent worldview. Hitler expressed the kernel of this worldview in one of these chapters:
The folkish worldview [i.e., Hitler’s own position] finds the importance of mankind in its basic racial elements. In the state it sees in principle only a means to an end and construes its end as the preservation of the racial existence of man. Thus, it by no means believes in an equality of the races, but along with their difference it recognizes their higher or lesser value and feels itself obligated, through this knowledge, to promote the victory of the better and stronger, and demand the subordination of the inferior and weaker in accordance with the eternal will that dominates this universe. Thus, in principle, it serves the basic aristocratic idea of Nature and believes in the validity of this law down to the last individual. It sees not only the different value of the races, but also the different value of individuals. . . . But it cannot grant the right to existence even to an ethical idea if this idea represents a danger for the racial life of the bearers of a higher ethics.
In this passage, Adolph Hitler hinted at his pantheism by equating the “eternal will that dominates the universe” with the “aristocratic idea of Nature.” However, he clearly enunciated the central tenet of his worldview: the primacy of race. This racial worldview attempted to explain the essence of human existence and the meaning of history, while also providing moral guidance. Therefore, what did Hitler believe in regarding pantheism? Though this does not make Hitler’s ideology a religion per se, his comprehensive philosophy of life inevitably came into conflict with many religions, because most religions also claim to provide answers to these fundamental questions. Hitler recognized this problem, maintaining in Mein Kampf that a worldview such as his own must be intolerant toward any other worldview that conflicts with it—and here he specifically mentioned Christianity as a rival.
He knew that converting Germans to his worldview of what Hitler believed in would not leave the religious landscape unchanged. In an August 1933 speech, Hitler stated, “The unity of the Germans must be guaranteed by a new worldview, since Christianity in its present form is no longer equal to the demands being placed on the bearers of national unity.” Three years later, in his cultural speech to the Nuremberg Party Rally, he told the party faithful, “A Christian era can only possess a Christian art, a National Socialist era only a National Socialist art.” Hitler believed that the triumph of his worldview would transform the entire culture of Germany, whereupon it would no longer reflect previous religious concerns.
What did Adolph Hitler believe in regarding secularism? Did Hitler’s desire to supplant Christian culture with Nazi culture mean he was intent on secularizing German society? This is hotly debated. Already in 1947, the German theologian Walter Künneth argued that Nazism was the result of religious decay and secularization. The roots of Nazi ideology, he thought, were found in Darwin, Nietzsche, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Oswald Spengler, whose ideas he considered products of secularization. Many scholars today agree with Künneth that Nazism is a manifestation of secularization. Detlev Peukert, for instance, argued in his seminal essay, “The Genesis of the ‘Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science,” for the importance of a secularized version of science in shaping Nazi ideology. Claudia Koonz explicitly calls Nazis “modern secularists” and interprets the Nazi conscience as a “secular ethos.” Richard Steigmann-Gall, meanwhile, strenuously objects to this interpretation, arguing instead that “Nazism was not the result of a ‘Death of God’ in secularized society, but rather a radicalized and singularly horrific attempt to preserve God against secularized society.” And Todd Weir, while admitting that the Nazi stance toward secularism was ambiguous and even paradoxical, nevertheless argues that the Nazi’s espousal of “positive Christianity” made them opponents of secularism.
Scholars and especially popular works on Hitler, in fact, have identified him with just about every major expression of religion present in early twentieth-century Germany: Catholic Christianity, non-Catholic Christianity, non-Christian monotheism, deism, pantheism, occultism, agnosticism, and atheism. One reason for this confusion is that Hitler consciously obfuscated his position whenever he thought he could gain political capital needed to secure power or retain popularity. While many of his long-term goals were fixed, he was flexible about short-term policies, and he was not averse to concealing his goals if he knew they would not be popular.
Another problem creating confusion about what Hitler believed in is that some people (though usually not historians, who know better) think the Nazis had a coherent religious position. Some wrongly assume that because Rosenberg or Himmler embraced neo-paganism, this must have been the official Nazi position. However, there was no official Nazi position on religion, except perhaps for the rather vague and minimalist position that some kind of God existed.
(See main article: Was Hitler a Christian?)
Was Adolph Hitler a Christian? This question has been asked by historians and World War Two aficionados for decades. During Hitler’s lifetime, some observers warned that he was the Antichrist. In 1942, Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jew living in the United States, drew a caricature of Hitler as the Antichrist bringing death and destruction to humanity. Many Christian leaders in the 1930s and 1940s, both within and outside Germany, recognized Hitler was no friend to their religion. In 1936, Karl Spiecker, a German Catholic living in exile in France, detailed the Nazi fight against Christianity in his book Hitler gegen Christus (Hitler against Christ). The Swedish Lutheran bishop Nathan Soderblom, a leading figure in the early twentieth-century ecumenical movement, was not so ecumenical that he included Hitler in the ranks of Christianity. After meeting with Hitler sometime in the mid-1930s, he stated, “As far as Christianity is concerned, this man is chemically pure from it.”
Reasons to Believe
Many Germans, however, had quite a different image of their Führer. They rarely asked if Adolph Hitler was a Christian. Aside from those who saw him as a Messiah worthy of veneration and maybe even worship, many regarded him as a faithful Christian. Rumors circulated widely in Nazi Germany that Hitler carried a New Testament in his vest pocket, or that he read daily a Protestant devotional booklet. Though these rumors were false, at the time many Germans believed them.
Indeed, savvy politician that he was, Hitler often cultivated the image of being a Christian. One of the more spectacular examples was the striking photograph that Heinrich Hoffmann captured on April 23, 1932, as Hitler was exiting the Marienkirche (Mary’s Church) in Bremerhaven. In that photo, a bright cross is hovering directly over Hitler’s head, giving him a halo effect. This photo was included in Hoffmann’s popular book of Hitler photographs, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt (Hitler as no one knows him). The caption reinforced the image: “A photographic chance event becomes a symbol: Adolph Hitler, the supposed ‘heretic,’ leaving the Marinekirche [sic] in Wilhelmshaven.”
Hoffmann’s claim that this was a “chance event” is rather suspicious, as the photo looks too good to be true. The caption, meanwhile, implied that Hitler was not a heretic, as some presumed, because here he was at church. The photo was such brilliant propaganda that the historian Richard Steigmann-Gall used it on the dust jacket of his 2003 book, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919 –1945, in which he tries to show the affinities of Nazism and Christianity. Apparently, it still convinces some that Hitler is a Christian.
In any case, sometime between 1935 and 1938, Adolph Hitler apparently decided that he no longer needed to pander to the Christian sensibilities of the German public. In the 1938 edition of Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, Hoffmann altered the photo by removing the cross) (apparently, Hitler no longer wanted to be associated with this symbol). Hoffmann also changed the caption: “Adolph Hitler after sightseeing at the historic Marinekirche [sic] in Wilhelmshaven.” While Germans viewing the version with the cross would likely think Hitler was leaving a church service, the later caption made clear Hitler was not attending a worship service, but merely visiting a historic site.
Most historians today agree that Adolph Hitler was not a Christian in any meaningful sense. Neil Gregor, for instance, warns that Hitler’s “superficial deployment of elements of Christian discourse” should not mislead people to think that Hitler shared the views of “established religion.” Michael Burleigh argues that Nazism was anticlerical and despised Christianity. He recognizes that Hitler was not an atheist, but “Hitler’s God was not the Christian God, as conventionally understood.” In his withering but sober analysis of the complicity of the Christian churches in Nazi Germany, Robert Ericksen depicts Hitler as duplicitous when he presented himself publicly as a Christian.
Hitler’s anti-Christian outlook remained largely submerged before 1924, because—as Hitler himself explained in Mein Kampf— he did not want to offend possible supporters. In August 1924, while he was in Landsberg Prison, Hitler privately told Hess about having to camouflage his opposition to religion, just as he had to hide his enmity toward alcohol. Hitler had remained silent while Hess and fellow Nazis discussed their positions vis-à-vis the Protestant Church, but later he told Hess how he felt. Even though Hitler found playing a religious hypocrite distasteful, he dared not criticize the church, because he knew this might alienate people.
Hitler’s tirade against Christianity in Mein Kampf, including the threat to demolish it, diverged remarkably from his normal public persona. He was usually more circumspect, refraining from open criticism of Christianity. However, many of his colleagues testified that Hitler’s personal opinion about Christianity did not match his hypocritical public stance; Hitler, for his part, thought religion itself was hypocritical. According to Wagener, who accompanied Hitler from 1929 to 1933, Hitler honored Jesus as a great socialist but believed the Christian churches had completely perverted His teachings and were, in fact, teaching the exact opposite.
In reading through Goebbels’ Diaries, Adolph Hitler’s monologues, and Rosenberg’s Diaries, it is rather amazing how often Hitler discussed religion with his entourage, especially during World War II. He was clearly obsessed with the topic. On December 13, 1941, for example, just two days after declaring war on the United States, he told his Gauleiter (district leaders) that he was going to annihilate the Jews, but he was postponing his campaign against the church until after the war, when he would deal with them. According to Rosenberg, both on that day and the following, Hitler’s monologues were primarily about the “problem of Christianity.” In a letter to a friend in July 1941, Hitler’s secretary Christa Schroeder claimed that in Hitler’s evening discussions at the headquarters, “the church plays a large role.” She added that she found Hitler’s religious comments very illuminating, as he exposed the deception and hypocrisy of Christianity. Hitler’s own monologues confirm Schroeder’s impression.
Reasons to Disbelieve
In fact, Adolph Hitler contemptuously called Christianity a poison and a bacillus and openly mocked its teachings. In a long diatribe ridiculing many core Christian teachings, Hitler told his colleagues that the Christian concept of heaven was insipid and undesirable. After scoffing at doctrines such as the Fall, the Virgin Birth, and redemption through the death of Jesus, Hitler stated, “Christianity is the most insane thing that a human brain in its delusion has ever brought forth, a mockery of everything divine.” He followed this up with a hard right jab to any believing Catholic, claiming that a “Negro with his fetish” is far superior to someone who believes in transubstantiation.
Hitler, in his own twisted mind, believed black Africans were subhumans intellectually closer to apes than to Europeans, so to him, this was a spectacular insult to Catholics. In February 1942, Hitler again scoffed at the basic teachings of Christianity, sarcastically relating the story of humanity from a Christian standpoint. He implied that God was responsible for original sin and commented that God’s method of redemption by sending his Son was a “murderous subterfuge.” Then, according to Hitler, when others did not accept these strange teachings, the church tortured them into submission. In the course of this anti-Christian diatribe, Hitler called the Catholic Church a form of idolatry and “Satanic superstition.”
Another theme that surfaced frequently in Adolph Hitler’s monologues of 1941–42 was that the sneaky first-century rabbi Paul was responsible for repackaging the Jewish worldview in the guise of Christianity, thereby causing the downfall of the Roman Empire. In December 1941, Hitler stated that although Christ was an Aryan, “Paul used his teachings to mobilize the underworld and organize a proto-Bolshevism. With its emergence the beautiful clarity of the ancient world was lost.” In fact, since Christianity was tainted from the very start, Hitler sometimes referred to it as “Jew-Christianity.” While Hitler often associated Jesus with Aryan traits and socialism, he consistently lambasted Christianity as Jewish and communist. He denigrated the “Jew-Christians” of the fourth century for destroying Roman temples and even called the destruction of the Alexandrian library a “JewishChristian deed.” Hitler thus construed the contest between Christianity and the ancient pagan world as part of the racial struggle between Jews and Aryans.
In the end, the evidence is preponderant against Hitler embracing any form of Christianity for most of his adult life. Was Hitler a Christian? No.
Even though he tried to palm himself off as a Christian when it served his political purposes, none of his friends and comrades considered him one. Even though he never officially left the Catholic Church, Schroeder claimed he promised to withdraw from the church immediately after the war to symbolize the dawn of a new historical era. All of Adolph Hitler’s close associates agreed with Schroeder, testifying that he was antagonistic toward Christianity. He admired the whip-wielding Jesus, whom he considered a fellow Aryan warrior fighting against the allegedly infernal Jews, but he had utter contempt for the Jesus who told His followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.
He also did not believe that Jesus’s death had any significance other than showing the perfidy of the Jews, nor did he believe in Jesus’s resurrection. In private conversations and monologues he railed at Christianity because it had followed the lead of that insidious Jewish rabbi Paul. Despite Hitler’s disingenuous public statements, and despite his esteem for (his anti-Semitic version of) Jesus, it is abundantly clear that Hitler did not consider himself a Christian.
(See main article: Hitler’s Religion: Christianity, Atheism, Pantheism?)
In mid-January of 1940, Adolph Hitler was discussing with his colleagues a rather frequent topic of his conversations and monologues: the church. After he sarcastically imitated Niemöller, the Confessing Church leader who was incarcerated in a concentration camp, someone in his entourage indicated to him that posterity might not be able to figure out what Hitler’s religion was, because he never openly stated his beliefs. The person who brought this to Hitler’s attention had clearly noticed the discrepancy between his private expressions of intense antipathy to Christianity and his public religious image. Since many in Hitler’s entourage were also intensely anti-Christian, perhaps they were trying to provoke him to state his personal religious views publicly. In any case, this observation about the inscrutability of Hitler’s religious views still has merit today— even though we have far more information about Hitler available to us than most of his contemporaries had.That, of course, does not mean everyone draws the same conclusion. As we have seen, some people today interpret Hitler as an atheist, while others insist he was a Christian. In fact, he has been described as an adherent of just about every major religious position in twentieth-century European society (excepting Judaism, of course), which included agnosticism, pantheism, panentheism, occultism, deism, and non-Christian theism.
Interestingly, when he was confronted in January 1940 with the observation that people might not know Hitler’s religion, he suggested that, on the contrary, it should not be difficult for people to figure it out. After all, he asserted, he had never allowed any clergy to participate in his party meetings or even in funerals for party comrades. He continued, “The Christian-Jewish pestilence is surely approaching its end now. It is simply dreadful, that a religion has even been possible, that literally eats its God in Holy Communion.” Hitler clearly thought that anyone should be able to figure out that he was not a Christian. Nonetheless, Rosenberg reported in his diary later that year that Hitler had determined that he should divulge his negative views about Christianity in his last testament “so that no doubt about his position can surface. As head of state he naturally held back—but nevertheless after the war clear consequences will follow.” Many times, Hitler told his colleagues that he would reckon with Christianity after the successful conclusion of the war.
Interestingly, even in these conversations, Adolph Hitler only indicated what he did not believe. He did not explain at that time what he did believe about God, the after-life, or other religious issues. Indeed, it is much easier to figure out what Hitler did not believe than to figure out Hitler’s religion and feelings. Probably, this is partly because Hitler considered God ineffable. Hitler’s God was not one who revealed himself clearly to humanity, but a mysterious being who superseded human knowledge.
What he did not believe
So, what did Adolph Hitler not believe? He continually rejected Christianity, calling it a Jewish plot to undermine the heroic ideals of the (Aryan-dominated) Roman Empire. He did not accept the deity of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, or indeed any of the miracles of Jesus. There is no evidence that he believed in a triune God. Though he esteemed Jesus as an Aryan fighter against Jewish materialism who was martyred for his anti-Jewish stance, he did not ascribe to Jesus’s death any significance in human salvation. Indeed, he did not believe in salvation at all in the Christian sense of the term, because he denied a personal afterlife. Despite his public invocations to God, Hitler also did not believe in the efficacy of prayer. His God responded to people and judged them according to their works, not their words. Although he spurned Christianity, this did not lead him to disbelieve in every form of deity, however. He overtly rejected atheism, associating it with “Jewish-Bolshevism.” Further, he explicitly condemned mysticism, occultism, and neo-paganism. Thus, it is evident Hitler was neither a Christian, atheist, occultist, nor neo-paganist.
While this narrows the range of options of Hitler’s religion slightly, it still leaves us with agnosticism, pantheism, panentheism, deism, and non-Christian theism. A reasonable case could be made for more than one of these options. In order solve this puzzle, however, one must not only examine the full panoply of his religious statements but also decipher how to weigh those statements on Hitler’s religion. Are his private statements more revealing of his true convictions than his public speeches? Probably, but even his private statements must be used cautiously. Are his books a better indication of his personal beliefs than his speeches? This is likely, because he seemed to be more systematic in explaining his worldview in Mein Kampf and in his Second Book. However, they also served propaganda purposes and must be used carefully as well. There also remains the question of whether Hitler even had a coherent metaphysic; if not, perhaps there is no single answer to what Hitler’s religion was.
One problem is that Adolph Hitler often portrayed God as an impersonal force, yet sometimes he implied God did take a personal interest in humanity, or at least in the German people’s destiny. Though he usually insisted that God does not intervene in the natural cause-and-effect relationships in the universe, at times he seemed to ascribe a role to Providence in history. When he survived assassination attempts, for instance, he took it as a sign from Providence that he was specially chosen to fulfill a divine mission. Until the very end of World War II, he thought his God would not fail to bring victory to the German people.
One of the reasons it is unlikely that Hitler was a theist is because he did not seem to think God could contravene the laws of nature. Hitler often called the laws of nature eternal and inviolable, thus embracing determinism. He interpreted history as a course of events determined by the racial composition of people, not by their religion or other cultural factors. The way to understand humanity and history, according to Hitler, was to study the laws of nature. He considered science, not religious revelation, the most reliable path to knowledge. What Hitler thought science revealed was that races are unequal and locked in an ineluctable struggle for existence, which would determine the future destiny of humanity.
Whether Hitler construed the laws of nature as the creation of a deistic or theistic God, or the emanation of a pantheistic God, he clearly grounded his morality on the laws of nature, which he consistently portrayed as the will of God. Since nature brought about biological improvement through struggle, Hitler defined moral goodness as whatever contributed to biological progress. Evil or sin, in Hitler’s opinion, was anything that produced biological degeneration. Thus, Hitler thought he was operating in complete harmony with God’s will by sterilizing people with disabilities and forbidding the intermarriage of Germans and Jews. Killing the weak to make way for the strong was part of the divine plan revealed in nature, in Hitler’s view.
Thus, even murdering disabled Germans, launching expansionist wars to wrest territory from allegedly inferior races, and murdering millions of Jews, Sinti, Roma, Slavs, and others defined as subhumans, was not only morally permissible but also obedience to the voice of God and aspects of Hitler’s religion. After all, that was how nature operated, producing superabundantly and then destroying most of the progeny in the Darwinian struggle for existence. Hitler often reminded his fellow Germans that even if this seemed ruthless, it was actually wise. In any case, he warned that they could not moralize about it, because humans were completely subject to the laws of nature.
Pantheism and brutal power politics
In the end, while recognizing that Adolph Hitler’s religion was somewhat muddled, it seems evident his religion was closest to pantheism. He often deified nature, calling it eternal and all-powerful at various times throughout his career. He frequently used the word “nature” interchangeably with God, Providence, or the Almighty. While on some occasions he claimed God had created people or organisms, at other times (or sometimes in the same breath) he claimed nature had created them. Further, he wanted to cultivate a certain veneration of nature through a reinvented Christmas festival that turned the focus away from Christianity. He also hoped to build an observatory-planetarium complex in Linz that would serve as a religious pilgrimage site to dazzle Germans with the wonders of the cosmos. Overall, it appears a pantheist worldview was where Hitler felt closest to home.
Since it is so difficult to pinpoint exactly what Hitler’s religion was, it might seem his religion was historically inconsequential. However, hopefully this study of Hitler’s religion sheds light on a number of important issues. First, his anti-Christianity obviously shaped the persecution of the Christian churches during the Third Reich. Second, his religious hypocrisy helped explain his ability to appeal to a broad constituency. Third, his trust that his God would reward his efforts and willpower, together with his sense of divine mission, imbued him with hope, even in hopeless circumstances. This helps us understand why he was so optimistic until the very end, when it should have been obvious much earlier that the game was up.
Finally, and most importantly, his religion did not provide him any transcendent morality. Whatever Hitler’s stance on other religious issues, his morality was entirely of this world, derived from his understanding of the workings of nature. This was the most pernicious element of his religion. Adolph Hitler followed what he considered the dictates of nature by stealing, killing, and destroying.
(See main article: Hitler’s Views on Eugenics and Aryan Supremacism)
Adolph Hitler’s views on eugenics were based on social policies that placed the biological improvement of the Aryan Race, or the Germanic “master race” through eugenics at the center of Nazi belief. But Hitler did not create these views. He merely put into policy ideas that circulated throughout the western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The roots of Nazi ideology were found in Darwin, Nietzsche, and philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain. They made their way to Hitler by way of Julius Friedrich Lehmann, a Munich publisher specializing in medical texts, as well as works disseminating scientific racism and eugenics. Lehmann befriended Hitler in the early 1920s and sent him inscribed copies of many of the racist books churned out by his publishing house, including books that popularized racist anthropology. Lehmann also published the journal Deutschlands Erneuerung (Germany’s Renewal), which was filled with articles promoting racism and eugenics. In a March 1922 circular, Hitler recommended that Nazi Party members read this journal, and in 1924 he published an article in it himself (in part because the Nazi press had been banned in the wake of the Beer Hall Putsch).
Hitler’s views of eugenics in his own words
In his two books, Adolph Hitler discussed evolutionary theory as vital to his theory of racial struggle and eugenics. Several times throughout Mein Kampf, he specifically employs the term “struggle for existence” (“Kampf um das Dasein”); in fact, the phrase or its plural appears three times in a passage several pages long where Hitler described why the Germans should be both pro-natalist and expansionist. Historian Robert Richards, however, inexplicably claims that Hitler’s views in this passage are un-Darwinian, because—according to Richards— a Darwinian should supposedly want population expansion only within restricted borders, which would allow the fit to triumph over the unfit.
One of the most important factors in Hitler’s reasoning was the living space (Lebensraum) is to be taken from allegedly inferior races. Thus, expanding is part of the Darwinian racial struggle that allows the allegedly fitter Nordic race to outcompete allegedly inferior races. Contra Richards, Hitler’s discussion makes perfect sense in a Darwinian world if unequal races are waging a struggle for existence. In fact, the whole idea of Lebensraum was first formulated by Friedrich Ratzel, a Darwinian biologist who later became a geographer. In addition, many pro-natalist eugenicists with impeccable Darwinian credentials, such as Alfred Ploetz or Max von Gruber, agreed with Hitler’s position on expansionism (indeed, they may have influenced Hitler in this matter).
Later in Mein Kampf, in the chapter on “Nation and Race,” Adolph Hitler discussed biological evolution in the context of racial purity. He argued that racial mixing is deleterious to biological organisms, precisely because it would stymie biological evolution. His reasoning was thus: If two organisms at different levels mate, this will result in offspring below the level of the higher parent—“consequently, it will later succumb in the struggle against the higher level.” Hitler did not use the term “struggle for existence” here, but he described this struggle as a contest between organisms in which the stronger prevail and the weaker are eliminated. He then stated, “If this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher evolution (Höherentwicklung) of organic living beings would be unthinkable.
Adolph Hitler did indeed believe in human evolution. It was not a peripheral element of his worldview, either. It helped shape his understanding of the human struggle for existence, natural selection among humans and human races, eugenics, pronatalism, killing the disabled, and expansionism. Of course, Hitler’s evolutionary views were synthesized with many other influences, such as anti-Semitism and nationalism; it was by no means the sole influence on his ideology or policies. But in addition to all the times Hitler explicitly broached the topic of human evolution, he even more frequently discussed the racial struggle for existence, the struggle for existence within the Nordic race, natural selection, and many other Darwinian themes.
Hitler often abbreviated these terms as “racial struggle,” “struggle,” and “selection,” just as many of his contemporaries, including biologists and eugenicists, did, but key issue here is the concept, not the exact terminology. When Hitler spoke about the “selection” of the strongest organisms and the elimination of the weakest, it did not matter whether he used the exact term “natural selection” (though he did at times). He was obviously describing it, and that is the crucial issue.
Eugenics as a scientific policy
After coming to power, Adolph Hitler continued to prioritize science over religion. When meeting with Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, Hitler reminded him that the world was changing, and he thought the Catholic Church should change with it. He reminded the cardinal of the Church’s past conflicts with science over its belief in a six-day creation and the geocentric theory of the solar system. Then he told Faulhaber that the Church must abandon its opposition to Nazi racial and eugenics legislation, because such policies “rest on absolute scientific research.” Strange as it may seem to us today, Hitler saw his racial and eugenics agenda as scientific and all opposition to it as the product of benighted, outmoded religion.
In April 1940, Goebbels reported that, in Hitler’s view, Catholicism was “setting itself in ever sharper contrast to the exact sciences. Its [Catholicism’s] end will be accelerated by this.” In November 1941, Hitler overtly dismissed the teachings of Catholicism and any other religion that contradicted the findings of science. He stated, “Today no one who is familiar with natural science can any longer take seriously the teaching of the church. What stands in contradiction to natural laws cannot be from God.” Again, Hitler was not discounting all religion, but he clearly thought science had a superior claim to knowledge. As Michael Burleigh argues, Hitler “subscribed to the view that science had largely supplanted Christianity, without rationalism eradicating the need for belief, or undermining the existence of a creator God in whom he continued to believe.
Core tenets of Adolph Hitler’s worldview were that the primacy of race in determining historical developments, Aryan superiority (with the Aryans being the sole creators of culture), the Darwinian racial struggle, the need for eugenics policies, and the evils of racial mixing. Hitler also held a view that Aryans had developed an ancient civilization in the mythical Atlantis. In a passage of Mein Kampf that decries racial mixing writings, Hitler admonished the state to elevate the status of marriage, which under the present system was supposedly contributing to biological decline. By hindering the marriages of those he dubbed inferior, he hoped marriages could “produce images of the Lord and not monstrosities halfway between man and ape.
Mein Kampf – Adolph Hitler
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