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Was Hitler an Atheist or a Christian?
The religious orientation of Adolf Hitler is a divisive issue in debates, with each side clamoring to dissociate itself from this infamous historical figure. Christians and atheists often argue the matter, expecting that his religious allegiance will discredit the entirety of the opposing argument. Ignored is the question of whether one man’s perspective can singularly vilify an entire philosophy.
Before analyzing Mein Kampf and other quotes from Adolf Hitler, it's worth reminding ourselves why this matter is important. Godwin’s Law states that as debates progress, the probability of invoking a tactless, hyperbolic comparison with Hitler or the Nazis increases. Without clear data to guide those who revert to playing the Hitler card, arguments about this extraneous issue could rage indefinitely!
Despite the heedless defiers of Godwin, this question does have fascinating historical significance. Indeed, the lies and fabrications surrounding Hitler’s religious orientation evince a remarkable story and a surprising conclusion.
Was Hitler a Christian?
Consistent with his country of birth (Austria) and the beliefs of his mother, Hitler was born into the Roman Catholic branch of the Christian faith. Religion was part of Hitler’s life whether he desired it or not, and while this suggests a belief in Christianity, such familiarity with Christian culture might only have led to its use in metaphor and analogy. For example, Albert Einstein often referred to God without a clear belief in his existence. Nevertheless, there are numerous public and private quotes that support the notion of Hitler being a religious man. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote:
- “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” - Adolf Hitler (1925, Mein Kampf)
This sounds unequivocal, though some argue it was said to gain Church support. However, if it was opportunistic, why would this statement persuade the Church to follow him? Hitler’s brand of `Aryan Christianity’ deviated from Christian teachings, and was dismissed by Pope Pius XI. So either Hitler didn't know the view of the Church (unlikely) or he genuinely believed he was doing the Lord’s work.
Christians often argue that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was based on ideas of race, not religion, and therefore he wasn't religious. This is a red herring because one can be religious as well as racially intolerant. It's actually quite common! In fact, Hitler only preferred racial intolerance for its effectiveness:
- “The anti-Semitism of the Christian-Socialists was based on religious instead of racial principles… [and it] turned out to be quite ineffective.” - Adolf Hitler (1925, Mein Kampf)
Hitler repeatedly referred to Jews as being responsible for the death of the `Aryan’ Jesus, and claimed that by shunning Jews at the Temple, Jesus was anti-Semitic:
- “[The Jew’s] life is only of this world, and his spirit is inwardly as alien to true Christianity as his nature two thousand years previous was to the great founder of the new doctrine. Of course, the latter made no secret of his attitude toward the Jewish people, and when necessary he even took to the whip to drive from the temple of the Lord this adversary of all humanity, who then as always saw in religion nothing but an instrument for his business existence. In return, Christ was nailed to the cross, while our present-day party Christians debase themselves to begging for Jewish votes at elections and later try to arrange political swindles with atheistic Jewish parties.” - Adolf Hitler (1925, Mein Kampf)
In this quote, Hitler refers to a true Christianity, suggesting an interpretation of the Christian faith that he believed in. Curiously, he then associated the Jews with atheism and criticized their lack of faith. This suggests he never viewed the Jews as particularly religious, and had an equally poor opinion of atheists. Indeed, Hitler claimed prior to Mein Kampf that Jews “dance around the golden calf” (1919)– a Biblical reference to those who worship false idols, which in this case refers to a love of money. This evidence makes it abundantly clear that Hitler rooted his anti-Semitism within Christian beliefs. Hitler also said:
- “This human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief.” - Adolf Hitler (1925, Mein Kampf)
- “[One] has the sacred duty, each in his own denomination, of making people stop just talking superficially of God's will, and actually fulfill God's will, and not let God's word be desecrated. For God's will gave men their form, their essence and their abilities. Anyone who destroys His work is declaring war on the Lord's creation, the divine will." - Adolf Hitler (1925, Mein Kampf)
- “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter ... In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders ... As a Christian, I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice." - Adolf Hitler (1922, Munich speech)
- “I believe in God, and I am convinced that he will not desert 67 million Germans.” - Adolf Hitler (1937, Ward Price interview)
Finally, Hitler formed a movement called `Deutsche Christen’ to unify Protestantism with Nazi philosophy; he outlawed homosexuality; his army wore the inscription `God is with us’ on their belt buckles; and Nazi statutes demanded that Christianity be taught in schools:
- “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith."- Adolf Hitler (1933, Concordat negotiations)
Was Hitler an Atheist?
The historian Allan Bullock wrote that Hitler: "had no time at all for Catholic teaching, regarding it as a religion fit only for slaves and detesting its ethics". Bullock appears to be drawing on Hitler’s apparent affiliation with Nietzschean philosophy. While Friedrich Nietzsche was a vehement critic of Christianity, Hitler probably never read a word of his work. Acclaimed philosopher, Weaver Santaniello, analyzed Nietzsche’s influence on Hitler, finding that his understanding of Nietzsche came second hand via coffeehouse conversations.
Nevertheless, Hitler appeared to dislike the Catholic Church and persecuted a number of clergymen. When the Nazis invaded Poland, large numbers of the Catholic clergy were executed. In fact, during his time as leader, Hitler clearly sought to diminish the power and influence of the Catholic Church.
The majority of evidence for Hitler’s atheism comes from a single source called `Hitler’s Table Talk’; a collection of conversations with two of his closest aids. It allegedly contains such gems as:
- “Our epoch will see the end of the disease that is Christianity”
- “I shall never come to terms with the Christian lie".
However, the oft-cited English version of this work is an inaccurate translation of the German transcript. Indeed, the original German quotes do not even refer to Christianity. Furthermore, the translation omits passages that confirm Hitler’s religious views. These discrepancies can be attributed to the man who produced the French translation that subsequently spawned the English version. The translator, Francois Genoud, confessed to his fabrication years later, though his work still remains popular among historians willing to believe it. Additionally, many authors on the subject were unaware that their source material was bogus.
We know that Hitler despised Bolshevism (Communism), and following the rise of atheism in the Soviet Union, Hitler frequently associated the two doctrines. For example, he said:
- “The Church's interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of today, in our fight against the Bolshevist culture, against an atheistic movement”. - Adolf Hitler (1934, Koblenz speech)
Indeed, Stalin feared persecuting the clergy in Western regions of Russia because he thought it might antagonize the Germans. Conversely, Hitler banned most atheist groups, saying:
- "We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” - Adolf Hitler (1933, Berlin speech)
Was Hitler a Catholic or a Protestant?
From the original German version of Hitler’s Table Talk, we gain some insight into Hitler’s religious beliefs. He says:
- "The most marvelous proof of the superiority of Man, which puts man ahead of the animals, is the fact that he understands that there must be a Creator." - Hitler's Table Talk (1941-1944)
- “Christ was an Aryan, but Paul used his teachings to mobilize the underworld and organize a proto-Bolshevism. With its breakdown, the beautiful clarity of the ancient world was lost." - Hitler's Table Talk (1941-1944)
Hitler's issue with Christianity centered on the distortion of Christ’s teachings by the Catholic religious leaders that followed; notably St. Paul. This may explain his later persecution of the Catholic clergy. Indeed, Hitler's antagonism towards Catholicism was apparent by the time he was 15 years old. According to historian, Michael Rissmann (2001, Hitler's Gott), Hitler was extremely reluctant to undergo his Catholic confirmation ceremony, and his repugnance for the task meant the words had to be “dragged out of him”.
Nevertheless, Hitler still believed in the resurrection, and in Table Talk he promoted the Protestant idea that the resurrection was spiritual rather than physical. Thus, Hitler’s eventual religious orientation, as well as his anti-Semitism, paralleled the views of Martin Luther; the instigator of the Protestant Reformation.
In office, Hitler signed a Concordat (truce) with the German Catholic Church, which spared them destruction in return for a withdrawal from politics. The Nazi regime repeatedly violated the truce by arresting prominent Catholics, subjecting them to show trials or assassinating them outright. However, on Protestantism, Hitler told his associate Albert Speer:
- “Through me the Protestant Church could become the established church.” - Adolf Hitler (Inside the Third Reich, 1970, Albert Speer)
Hitler sought to unify the Protestant Churches and align them with Nazism. He called this the `Deutsche Christen’ movement or `positive Christianity’, with its primary alterations being the divine assurance of Aryan superiority over other races, and a rejection of guilt, meekness, and the Old `Jewish’ Testament. However, many Protestant Churches saw this as incompatible with traditional teachings, and rebelled against the proposed union. This led to the persecution of some of the Protestant clergy, and the failure of Hitler’s plans. Despite his bias on the matter, Hitler said:
- “It does not matter which of the two triumphs over the other, the Catholic or the Protestant” - Adolf Hitler (1925, Mein Kampf)
This confirms that his beliefs constituted little more than a preference for Protestantism, with neither denomination directly matching the version of Christianity he wished to see.
Was Hitler a Christian or Atheistic?
Hitler was a Christian, as evidenced by the plethora of public and private quotes that confirm his love of Christ, and the rooting of his anti-Semitism within Christian beliefs regarding the crucifixion. While Hitler’s opposition to the Catholic Church is often cited as evidence for his atheism, it cohered with his predominantly Protestant ideals. The persecution of various Protestants occurred after they rejected the proposed union of their faith with Nazism.
Given the fabrication of the English version of Hitler’s Table Talk, we are left without a single piece of evidence to suggest Hitler was an atheist. Rather, all of the evidence points to him being a Christian with many Protestant views, though ultimately, Hitler wanted his own brand of Christianity.