From the cross to the swastika

Was that why Nazi Germany broke so completely with everything that had hitherto been considered holy and good, because the Germans’ belief in God was driven out? Or are the excesses of violence perpetrated in the Shoah and on the Eastern Front, on the contrary, the result of religious madness? Manfred Gailus, Professor of Modern History at the TU Berlin, gives a clear answer to this “Collective hunger for salvation”, a “return of the religious” under Hitler and generally from “believing times”. The book on the topic, just published, brings together the results of his three decades of research on the relationship between religion, church, denominations and National Socialism in a concentrated form the question of how the Germans could be at home in “both worlds” despite the propagated opposition between National Socialism and Christianity. The figures from the religious statistics do indeed reveal a strange picture.

Völkisch-Christian double faith

96 percent of the Germans belonged the Christian denominations. Two thirds of them were Protestant, the other third Catholic. At the same time, the mass party NSDAP had nine million members at weddings. “Numerous people practiced double faith, they remained attached to their Christian socialization and at the same time were enthusiastic about the German people and their alleged leader with believing emphasis”, says Gailus in an interview with the Tagesspiegel.

According to the historian, the fact that National Socialism represented a conspiracy-based belief system in which Christian theology was replaced by a metaphysically inflated popular term is only partially correct. For although the Nazis intended to completely marginalize the churches as social forces, Christian religiosity was often not suppressed by the new folk beliefs, but rather overpowered. that Christianity was “abolished” by National Socialism in the dialectical sense, i.e. “negated” and yet “preserved”.

1933 as a religious awakening experience

Because not only in folkish Religious anti-Judaism translated into categories indicates continuities in change. In this way, Hitlerism also inherited the Christian messianism. In any case, the year 300 was perceived as a religious awakening experience by Christians, Conservatives, German Nationals and National Socialists alike sealed the end of the so-called “godless republic” of Weimar, says Gailus.

Hitler was seen by many as a Jesus-like redeemer figure. “The First World War, the subsequent revolutionary unrest, the modern shock from the collapse of the monarchy, the Versailles Treaty, the hyperinflationary period at the beginning of the 20 years and the global economic crisis towards its end promoted an immense hunger for salvation, “says Manfred Gailus.

Many political parties, First and foremost the NSDAP have mutated into “bearers of world views that promise salvation and offer not only solutions, but redemption”.

Redemption anti-Semitism

The Jews were described in the National Socialist story of salvation as the absolute antipode to the good, as the “counter-race” of the Aryans and mortal enemy of the Germans. Manfred Gailus ties in with Saul Friedländer’s much-discussed thesis of “redemption anti-Semitism”. Friedländer emphasized that Auschwitz could only happen because the great majority of the German people had a quasi-religious relationship with the Führer Adolf Hitler and had largely surrendered to the anti-Semitic fantasy of redemption.

Accordingly the story was read as a battle of fate between good and evil forces, which satisfied the religion-typical needs for meaning, orientation and complexity reduction. Gailus also believes that the Holocaust’s claim to total annihilation can ultimately only be explained by the religious character of National Socialism – which clearly distinguishes it from other genocides.

Berlin 1933. Christen, Deutschnationale und Nationalsozialisten feierten die Machtübernahme Hitlers als Ende der vermeintlich

Berlin 1933. Christians, German Nationalists and National Socialists celebrated Hitler’s takeover as the end of the supposedly … Photo: picture-alliance / dpa

On the individual level, for many Germans there is a Christian-folk “syncretism” was characteristic, thinks Gailus. “In variously composed religious conglomerates, many contemporaries mixed Christian beliefs and traditions with a German belief in God.”

A few years ago, the Berlin historian also interwoven biblical and ethnic motifs Dagmar Pöpping examined in her study of war pastors on the Eastern Front. As far as anti-Bolshevism is concerned, for example, the Christian and National Socialist discourses could hardly be distinguished, says Pöpping.

Both the Catholic and the Protestant pastors understood the atheist Bolsheviks as soulless creatures. This reading, with which the communists were interpreted beyond being human, was almost seamlessly interwoven with the National Socialist idea of ​​”subhuman”. With regard to “the Jews”, the diary sources examined by Pöpping sometimes also contain the idea that their destruction should be interpreted as a divine consequence of the “ancient Jewish national guilt”.

Religious competition in the NSDAP

But not only on an individual level, but also on a religious-political level, there was opposition, cooperation and interaction different religious currents. “Outside the churches and beyond the Hitler Party, post-Protestant German believers with the right to state recognition as a third denomination came together”, Gailus writes in his book “Believing Times”. These had competed with the other two denominations to become the religion appropriate to the German people in the “Third Reich”.

There were also hidden religious rivalries within the NSDAP itself. According to Gailus, “Christian National Socialists” and “anti-Christian believers in God” faced each other as groups of opinions. It is significant that Protestantism was penetrated by National Socialism much more deeply than Catholicism.

Die Juden galten in der NS-Heilserzählung als

The Jews were considered in the Nazi salvation story as the “counter-race” of the Aryans and antipodes to the good. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa

So it was easier to integrate that into the völkisch Nazi ideology because, unlike in the Catholic faith, there is no connection to Rome and the Pope and thus no “leadership competition” and no rivalry between belonging to the German people and belonging to the church.

Protestants, Catholics and the Shoah

“About 20 percent of the Protestant pastors were Party members, the number of Catholic priests was under a pro cent, ”says Gailus. Catholics were also persecuted more intensely. “In addition to about 20 Protestant pastors were in the Dachau pastor block over 300 Catholic clergy from the German Reich interned. “

However, should these numbers do not lead to an amnesty of the Catholics as a whole from their equally blatant complicity. There was a broad knowledge of the Holocaust in both churches, but almost no public contradiction. Instead, apart from exceptions, silence and complicity – which Dagmar Pöpping’s research also underlines.

In addition, the difference between Protestant and Catholic Nazi affinity can only be determined on a professional level, says Gailus. The completely normal believers took nothing.

The historian sums up laconically: “The annihilation took place. It was carried out out of a Christian society. “

[Manfred Gailus: Gläubige Zeiten. Religiosität im Dritten Reich. Herder Verlag, 2021. 224 Seiten, 20 Euro.]

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