Gary Scott Smith
February 13, 2017
n this fascinating, meticulous study of Adolf Hitler’s religion, historian Richard Weikart poses two questions: what beliefs did Hitler espouse; and how did they affect him as a person and a political actor? Scholarly and popular books, Weikart points out, have classified the German dictator as a proponent of most major religious positions held in Germany in the early decades of the 20th century—Catholicism, Protestantism, a non-Christian monotheism, pantheism, deism, occultism, agnosticism, and atheism.
Carefully shifting through a variety of sources—Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Second Book, his speeches, and first-hand accounts by dozens of people, including his secretaries and political cronies, who all recorded his private comments and offered their own perspectives of Hitler’s convictions—Weikart weaves a compelling interpretation of Hitler’s somewhat inscrutable and complicated religious beliefs. Weikart carefully analyzes numerous individuals, most notably philosophers Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, composer Richard Wagner, racist ideologue Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and publisher Julius Friedrich Lehmann, several philosophies, especially social Darwinism, and a few religious movements, which he argues all helped shape Hitler’s worldview.
Hitler’s Religion provides substantial evidence for why Hitler should not be considered an atheist, Christian, or occultist. Hitler repeatedly affirmed the existence of God, but his conception of God differed substantially from the Bible’s. He rejected Christ’s divinity and frequently mocked Christianity. Hitler, Weikart points out, was a baptized, confirmed Catholic raised in Austria, a predominately Catholic country, and he retained some vestiges of Christianity. Nevertheless, he repeatedly repudiated Christianity (especially privately) as “a Jewish plot to undermine the heroic ideals of the Aryan-dominated Roman Empire.” Hitler denounced Christianity as a poison, outmoded and dying, ridiculed its teachings, and persecuted Protestant and Catholic alike churches during the Third Reich. Nor was Hitler an occultist, since he explicitly repudiated key occult convictions and mystical practices.
Weikart argues that Hitler is best understood as a pantheist, one who believes that nature is God and that the cosmos provides principles to guide human conduct. He frequently deified nature, referring to it as eternal and all powerful. One of the reasons it’s difficult to determine Hitler’s actual beliefs, however, is that he said different things in public than in private, like many politicians, and because he often portrayed himself as a pious Catholic and applauded Christianity in his speeches (especially before the late 1930s) to gain political capital, public approval, and greater popularity. Moreover, Hitler was a “religious chameleon” and notorious liar who continually obfuscated to serve his purposes. Most Germans who joined the Nazi Party or at least voted for Hitler professed to be devout Christians, and many even saw him as protecting Christianity from the threat of godless communism.
While presenting God as the creator and sustainer of the Volk—the German people—Hitler and the Nazis used religious symbols, terms, and passion in their speeches, rallies, and ceremonies to create an alternative faith. Hitler fully expected the Nazi worldview to soon replace Christianity in Germany and transform its culture and life. Moreover, Nazi propaganda depicted Hitler as a messianic figure, a savior chosen by God to liberate Germany from the punitive Versailles Treaty and restore its power and place in the world.
Hitler’s worldview is even more difficult to delineate because he usually portrayed God as an impersonal force, but sometimes insinuated that God was personally interested in human beings, especially the destiny of the German people. Weikart concludes that his religious beliefs had a powerful impact on Hitler’s policies and actions as Germany’s leader from 1933 to 1945: Hitler was convinced that he was obeying the will of God as he understood it.
Hitler’s belief that nature was a divine being, Weikart maintains, led him to make its laws his moral foundation. What he perceived to be the will of nature, rather than the Bible or any other sacred text or transcendent principles, determined his morality. His belief in natural selection and the continuous human struggle for existence led Hitler to conclude that he served his god by obliterating allegedly inferior people and advancing the well-being of purportedly superior Aryans. God’s plan was for the stronger to triumph over the weaker, so “right” was determined by whatever the powerful imposed on the impotent. Individuals were expendable: their worth was determined solely by their ability to promote the German people’s welfare and destiny.
Hitler was convinced that “God” would reward his fervor and actions. He believed that he had a divine mission to exterminate the Jews, Gypsies, and people with disabilities, while expanding the living space of the German people by whatever means were required, including lying, stealing, destroying, and murdering. This faith gave Hitler hope even when circumstances near the end of World War II appeared to be desperate. Because preserving and advancing the welfare of the Volk was Hitler’s highest aim, he evaluated all ethical principles and life circumstances by their ability to further this goal.
Hitler’s atrocities, Weikart contends, were not inspired by a nihilistic or atheistic worldview. (Nor, I would add, is a relativist worldview to be blamed for the Third Reich.) The pernicious Nazi ideology was based on a consistent ethical position: everything that furthered evolutionary progress—which in practice meant the progress of the German people—was morally justified and praiseworthy. We are indebted to Weikart for elucidating the ideology that motivated some of the world’s most horrific events.