When Pope Benedict visited Britain in 2010, he began his trip with a speech addressing the Queen; this speech infuriated a host of atheists, as they thought it outrageous that he had, to their minds, conflated atheism with Nazism. All else aside, some quipped, Benedict had fallen victim to Godwin’s Law, by being the first person in a debate to mention Nazi Germany.
It’s worth looking at what he said:
‘Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, 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" (Caritas in Veritate, 29).’
I found it odd that people thought it disgraceful, even ludicrous, that Benedict would have said just this, not least because given his own history there is surely at least a chance that he knew rather more about Nazi Germany than any of those jeering; he had grown up in the Reich, after all, and as a teenager had been forced to join the Hitler Youth, though he seems not to have attended meetings; he served in the war, too, being drafted into an antiaircraft unit, and subsequently into the regular army, though he deserted a few months later.
The views of any thoughtful, intelligent, and erudite individual who’d experienced this should surely be recognised by any fair person as worthy of attention; that they should have been met out of hand with such scorn said rather more about those scoffing than the Pope himself.
A few weeks after his trip to Britain, Benedict wrote a letter to the Church’s seminarians, beginning with an anecdote about what happened when he joined the regular army.
‘When in December 1944 I was drafted for military service, the company commander asked each of us what we planned to do in the future. I answered that I wanted to become a Catholic priest. The lieutenant replied: “Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed”. I knew that this “new Germany” was already coming to an end, and that, after the enormous devastation which that madness had brought upon the country, priests would be needed more than ever.’
The notion that the Reich wouldn’t want priests certainly tallied with Benedict’s own experience. His seminary rector had been interned in Dachau, for instance, where a thousand Catholic priests had been killed and so many were imprisoned that they had their own barracks, and he began his life as a priest in a parish where the Nazis had executed both of his predecessors.
Regardless of what conclusion we might reach when we study the facts for ourselves, it is at least understandable that Benedict would be of the view that the Nazis sought ‘to eradicate God from society’.
I had recommended the book, to be fair…
Back around New Year, I wound up in a protracted disagreement with a good friend who’d been reading Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership, a book I’d recommended and that he’d found abysmal. Disagreement started early on when I received a text criticising Sacks for having supposedly referred to Nazi Germany as an ‘atheist state’, subsequent texts taking issue with him for sniping at secularism and criticising the Third Reich and the Soviet Union as ‘godless societies’.
I reread the book in response to the texts, and couldn’t find any references to Nazi Germany as an atheist state; what Sacks said, as far as I could tell, was that:
‘In the past the danger – and it was a real danger – was a godless society. That led to four terrifying experiments in history, the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.’
Just a few sentences later he mentions how he fears the profoundly modern phenomenon of apocalyptic religiosity as much as he does ‘secular totalitarianism’, such that I think it’s reasonable to see ‘secular totalitarianism’ as his description of the four aforementioned experiments.
I don’t think ‘secular totalitarianism’ is an unfair description of them: all four experiments sought to establish a unipolar society where the sole focus of loyalty was the state, and none of these states recognised a higher spiritual authority from which rights could derive, as did the United States in its Declaration of Independence, let alone a religious or spiritual basis for their states or societies, as, for instance, does the Irish Constitution.
It’s important to note that while he identifies these as experiments in secular totalitarianism, he certainly doesn’t say these have been the only ever secular states.
It’s important to note that while he identifies these as experiments in secular totalitarianism, he certainly doesn’t say these have been the only ever secular states.
It’s important to note too that Sacks doesn’t call these ‘godless societies’, instead saying that they arose because of godless societies. There’s quite a difference between the two, and later in the book he considers the kind of ‘godless society’ he believed responsible for these experiments.
Origins of a Godless Society
In the context of Nazism, he looks at those Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment, depending on whether you think said project ended in the late eighteenth century or so, or continued long beyond it, arguably even to this day) thinkers who formed the intellectual milieu of the German cultured classes during the wars. It was those thinkers, and those who were formed by their ideas – in the 1960s Eric Voegelin characterised the inter-war German elite as a ‘rabble’ – that comprised the ‘godless society’ that gave birth to the Nazi experiment. As Sacks puts it later on:
‘Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century. These were programmes carried out under the influence of ideas produced by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth century to fill the vacuum left by a widespread loss of faith in God and religion.’
To explain this, Sacks surveys in potted form certain key features of the intellectual history of the modern West, homing in, as you might expect, on the anti-Semitism that scarred the writings of the likes of Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, but also looking at the impact of the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. While deploring how their ideas were abused, he is adamant that we cannot afford to ignore the effect that their ideas had: human dignity, he argues, is a very fragile concept, and one which can all too easily be obscured or lost.
Supporting this, Sacks tosses out a list of respectable names to show just how mainstream eugenicist thought had become in the first half of the twentieth century, and it’s in light of this that we can understand why Robert Graves observed in 1960 that those Nazi surgeons who experimented on their 'non-Aryan' prisoners were ‘dedicated scientists taking full advantage of the unusual opportunities offered them by Hitler's irreligion’.
(Hitler’s irreligion, as Graves puts it, I’ll come to in a bit.)
Orwell, of course, described Nazi Germany as a state in which science fought on the side of superstition, and lamented that this wasn’t really surprising: the energies that shape the world, he observed, are such things as racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, and love of war. These things don’t go away, and it was the genius of the likes of Robespierre and Hitler to tap into them, whether in the name of ‘Reason’, ‘Liberty’, ‘the Fatherland’, or the German ‘race’; indeed, as Primo Levi pointed back in the day, the leader-cult that marked Nazi Germany entailed Hitler being believed and adored as though he were divine; it is in human nature to worship, after all, with the real question being to what – or to whom – that natural drive should point.
The answer to that from Sacks’ point of view should be fairly obvious, of course, but it’s especially worth paying attention to what he has to say about Nietzsche in this regard, not merely because there’s a strong case that he and Schopenhauer were the most important ingredients in the heady ideological cocktail from which the Nazis imbibed. Nietzsche regarded Christianity in particular and religion in general as emasculating forces, things that denied nature and constrained mankind; for him traditional Christian morality was perverse, with the Christian insistence that we are all equally valuable in God’s eyes particularly unnatural. God is dead, he held, and we should have the courage to face and embrace the consequences of that reality.
With such attitudes, and being so influential, it’s hardly surprising that back in the 1940s Henri de Lubac identified Nietzsche as – along with Comte, Marx, and Feuerbach – one of the fathers of what he described as a new ‘atheist humanism’, distinct from the older Christian humanism and the atheism that was at least as old as Lucretius. De Lubac saw this new ‘atheist humanism’ as a new phenomenon in which religion was regarded not merely as false but as degrading; God, for all of these, was an enemy of human dignity, and until belief in God was cast aside, mankind could never be free to forge its own destiny.
At this point it might perhaps legitimately be countered that while Germany’s chattering classes may well have comprised a ‘godless society’, drunk on Nietzsche’s will-fetishizing and Schopenhauer’s anti-Semitism, this seems an unfair thing to say of German society in general. Intellectuals may have jettisoned God and elevated man – whether the man-made state or the race of man or a particular man called Hitler – to the status of a god, but what of the ordinary German?
Liberal Protestantism, and the Depreciation of the Divine
Without getting bogged down in the details of Germany’s religious demographics, it’s important to stress that unlike modern Germany, Germany at the time of Hitler’s ascent to power was a primarily Protestant nation; somewhere in the region of two-thirds of Germans were Protestant, and remained so throughout the Nazi period. This matters, and not merely because German Protestants tended to support the Nazis in greater numbers, proportionately as well as absolutely, than German Catholics, while Catholic intellectuals and clergy had a better record of speaking out against the Nazis, as Michael Burleigh details in Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, than is commonly recognised: rather, it points to the fact that if we must speak of German society in general, we are obliged to speak in large part of Protestant society.
A priest friend of mine remarked to me in September that for all that English Dominicans sing the praises of the late Herbert McCabe (as indeed do I), England is not a country where theology is deemed to matter; Germany, on the other hand, very much is such a country, such that insofar as there has been a language of theology over the last couple of centuries, that language was German. The first half of the twentieth century was in many respects a golden age of German theology, with the vast majority of German Protestant pastors and theologians subscribing to one variant or another of liberal Protestantism, following in the footsteps of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Arnold von Harnack.
While this liberal Protestantism took many forms, it tended to play down or even reject the divinity of Jesus, to treat the books of the Bible solely as historical books rather than as agents of revelation, to deny the reality of the miracles related in the New Testament accounts, and to dispute the canonicity of various Biblical books, notably ones from the Old Testament. Although this approach has continued to this day, with those who’ve followed in this line including the German Paul Tillich and after him the English John Robinson and the American John Shelby Spong (about whom, more another time), it peaked before the war, when in Germany it was confronted to great effect by the Swiss Calvinist Karl Barth, arguably the most important theologian of the last hundred years.
As Eric Metaxas explains in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Barth scandalised the German theological establishment by insisting on the reality of God, and on how all theological and biblical reflection must rest on this: he further insisted on the reality of revelation, and rejected extremist versions of the historico-critical approach to Scripture. One of the hallmarks of liberal Protestantism, this ‘higher criticism’ indisputably yielded great fruits but also yielded a tendency for scholars to interpret Christ not as a figure who challenged them, but as a historical construct who reflected their own values.
This proved especially inconvenient when Hitler took power, talking of how he could only ever imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan Christ, with the new German Christian movement happily excising the Old Testament from the Bible as ‘too Jewish’.
For many liberal Protestants in Hitler’s Germany, the notion of ‘race’ was an ‘order of creation’ comparable to the family; individual lives were thus less important than the well-being and purity of the collective nation or state, and given that as early as 1931 the main Protestant welfare association in Germany decreed the sterilisation of ‘undesirables’ to be not merely legitimate but a duty , it should not surprise us that many liberal Protestantism found a natural ally in National Socialism. Roughly 14,000 of the approximately 17,000 Protestant pastors in Germany in 1933 ended up supporting Hitler, for some value of ‘support’, about 3,000 of these becoming members of the explicitly Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement. Given the extent to which they’d abandoned God for a pseudo-historical ‘Christ’ of their own making, mouldable into whatever image suited them, there is a very real sense, in which key elements in mainstream German liberal Protestantism – or at least its leadership at both a national and a local level – was, in Hitler’s day, itself a ‘godless society’.
It all comes down to terminology, as tends to be the way. Still, I think that when Sacks used the term ‘godless society’ we can be confident that he was speaking most definitely of the intelligentsia of Hitler’s day and the decades prior to him.
Secularism, Atheist States, and Venn Diagrams
What then of this term ‘atheist state’?
I can’t find the phrase in the book, as I've said, and so can’t get it in context, but I would say that if Sacks did describe the Third Reich as such, this certainly shouldn’t be shouted down as a crude error. It might be a contentious point, but it’s clearly not something that’s been refuted in so thoroughly a way that it can be dismissed as flat-out wrong; it is, rather, the sort of thing that would be the subject of a typical undergraduate essay, where a student could reasonably be expected to argue the case in any number of ways.
My own feeling on this is that while Nazi Germany was not formally an atheist state, there’s a strong case to be made that it was materially one, and that it certainly was a state directed towards atheism. Of course, the first thing you’d have to do in addressing this kind of question is define how you understand the term ‘atheist state’, and this isn’t something that’s simple to do.
Think, for instance, of how people might contest descriptions of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China as ‘secular states’. Dictionary definitions, at least in English, are really just useful starting points, but the primary meaning of ‘secular’, according to the Concise OED in front of me, is ‘not religious, sacred, or spiritual’; by this definition they would seem very much to be secular states, in that neither state recognised religious roots, let alone the notion of a spiritual reality greater than themselves.
I’d therefore say it’s entirely fair to call Nazi Germany a secular state, if not necessarily an atheist one, but it could be countered that nothing in that Concise OED definition says ‘openly hostile toward’, which Soviets certainly were, for instance. It’s quite true that nothing in the definition says that but neither does anything in the definition say anything to the contrary. Even Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, concedes that ‘the hatred of Jews in [Nazi] Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way,’ though of course he tries to get round this by blaming this on Germany’s religious culture more than four hundred years earlier, as though neither the Reformation nor the Enlightenment had happened in the meantime.
(Leaving aside how those who are so keen to blame modern problems on our medieval forebears tend to be rather less willing to give them credit for universities, the banking system, science, and a host of other things they really did bequeath to us.)
Anyway, if we accept the basic OED definition and use a bit of set theory, we should say:
‘The set of secular states is the set of all states that do not recognise a religious, sacred, or spiritual reality including both those states that are openly hostile toward religion and those that are not openly hostile toward religion’.
Given this, what might constitute an ‘atheist state’, and how might it differ from a ‘secular state’? People have a tendency to conflate secularism with atheism, but I think this such conflation as inaccurate as the conflation of atheism with humanism; while atheist states would surely be secular ones, atheist states hardly exhaust the limits of what secular states could be, said states presumably having the capacity to be agnostic or simply apathetic in character. Presumably, then, an atheist state would be a state which recognised nothing higher than itself, and which sought to abolish or to subordinate religious activity and belief.
That last point could be contentious, of course, but I think it matters; religious activity is essentially idolatrous if it is not directed above all to God, and if the state seeks to subordinate or control religious activity so that its focus is other than God, its aim can accurately be described as the corruption of religion and the denial of worship to God. This was something Karl Barth came to believe during the rise of the Nazis: that their basic crime was an offence against the First Commandment, with all the other offences and horrors they’d go on to commit being consequences of that.
And that brings us to Hitler…
More specifically, what can we say of Nazi Germany? Well, if we start by looking at the German political leadership, we immediately hit a stumbling block in Hitler himself: sometimes he appears to be a devotee of a ‘Christ’ of his own creation, an Aryan who fought against Jews; in private conversations he was scathing about Christianity; in public he would often talk up Christianity especially as a cultural phenomenon; on many other occasions he described himself as an agent of ‘Providence’; and at other times he presented himself and put forward the views of a solid and cynical materialist.
Michael Burleigh snootily observes in Sacred Causes that ‘Hitler was a lazy, dilettantish autodidact rather than a systematic thinker, so one should not strain to discover coherence or consistency in his views on religion or much else’, and indeed, when we look at major studies on Hitler and the Reich, we find very different analyses...
While Ian Kershaw regards Hitler’s pro-Christian statements as simulation, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, the first part of his recent two-volume biography of Hitler, finds plenty of evidence that Hitler was a devotee of ‘Providence’, regarding himself as an agent of it, and also cites him talking of his destiny to complete what he regarded as Christ’s ‘struggle against the Jew’.
Alan Bullock, however, reckoned that Hitler’s talk of ‘Providence’ was simple projection, a rhetorical way of expressing his own sense of purpose or destiny; in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, he says that aside from being contemptuous towards Christianity which he was determined to destroy when the war was over, ‘Hitler was a rationalist and a materialist, with no feeling or understanding for either the spiritual side of human life or its emotional, affective side’.
Richard Evans, in The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis led Germany from Conquest to Disaster, reckons that Hitler’s hatred of Christianity reached new heights during the war, with Hitler emphasizing again and again his belief that Nazism was ‘a secular ideology founded on modern science.’ He quotes Hitler as saying that in the long run, ‘National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together.’
Insofar as any kind of pattern can be discerned in Hitler’s views, Michael Burleigh argues in The Third Reich: A New History, that:
‘the overwhelmingly Christian character of the German people meant that Hitler dissembled his personal views behind preachy invocations of the Almighty, and distanced himself from the radically irreligious within his own party, even though his own views were probably more extreme. […] In reality his views were a mixture of materialist biology, a faux-Nietzschean contempt for core, as distinct from secondary, Christian values, and a visceral anti-clericalism.’
William L. Shirer, author of the controversial but highly influential The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, took the view that Nazism tapped into a principle central to German society since Luther’s time which entailed giving ultimate authority to a single temporal ruler; this view is highly unpopular in Germany, but nonetheless, Shirer is good on the whole ‘German Christian’ phenomenon. Noting that although Hitler was nominally a Catholic (and thus as a baptised person was ontologically a Christian), his 1920 party platform took the view that religious liberty was only acceptable insofar as it did not challenge ‘the moral feelings of the German race’. Whatever they were.
In 1932 the ‘German Christians Faith Movement’ was founded, with about 3,000 Protestant pastors being members by the following year, when a new ‘Reich Church’ was established. It was Hitler’s view that Ludwig Mueller, his ‘Reich Bishop’, would have to take control of the direction of those churches that did not voluntarily fall into line.
In 1935, Hitler appointed Hans Kerrl as minister for Church Affairs, a clear sign of the extent to which he expected the State to control religion in Germany. Shirer quotes Kerrl as saying that the Catholic bishop of Muenster had tried to make it clear to him that ‘Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the son of God,’ but that this made him laugh. ‘Christianity is not dependent on the Apostles’ Creed,’ he said, but was represented by the party in which ‘the Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation.’
A thirty-point programme for the Reich Church was drawn up during the war, claiming the right to control all churches within the Reich; determining to eradicate ‘the strange and foreign Christian faiths’; forbidding the publication and dissemination of the Bible; replacing priests and pastors with Reich orators, abolishing crosses, crucifixes, Bibles, and images of saints from the church buildings; and replacing these with swastikas, copies of Mein Kampf, and a sword which would stand to the left of the altar.
While it’s clear that given how he associated atheism with Bolshevism and Communism, Hitler would never have described himself as an atheist or Nazi Germany as an atheist state, it’s equally clear that in practical terms, Hitler’s aim was solidly atheistic: he sought to deny worship to God by setting up the State, the material expression of the German Race, as an object of worship, with him as its prophet. For Hitler, and for the Reich, there could be no ‘god’ other than the Fatherland itself. As Richard Evans puts it, to Hitler’s mind, ‘the future was Nazi and the future would be secular’.
Whether we call this radical secularism, atheist humanism, secular religion, or simple idolatry is, of course, something that can be debated. There’s a powerful case to be made, as did the writers of Kulturkampf: Reports from the Reich before and during the war, that Nazism was an Ersatzreligion, an atheistic substitute religion that denied honour to God in favour of an idolatrous devotion to ‘strength’ or sheer natural power. Churchill evidently shared this view, in some sense at any rate, describing Nazism and Communism in 1937 as ‘non-God religions,’ in which, he said, ‘You leave out God and you substitute the devil.’ But this, too, can be debated.
Nazi Germany was, after all, a work in progress. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it could have got even worse.
-- From the files, January 2014