Nazis and Christians

In a discussion about Nazi Germany recently with a few fellow amateur historians, the question of the role of religion in Naziism came up. The consensus of the group (which was made up primarily of atheists) was that Naziism was at its core a Christian movement, and they point to the use of the phrase “Gott Mit Uns” (“God is with us”) on Nazi heraldry at the time as prima facie evidence of their point.

It is worth pointing out, however that the use of “Gott Mit Uns” harkens back to the Teutonic Order of knights from the 12th Century, and used in Prussian heraldry from the time of Friedrich I in the 18th century. Indeed, if you pursue the history, it appears likely that the Nazis were simply trying to establish popular legitimacy by harkening back to both the Teutons and the rise of Prussia. This was likely less about any form of faith than an attempt to anchor National Socialism more deeply into the heart of German identity, and thus legitimize it.

What is more, historians like William Shirer suggest that the Nazis were trying to eliminate Christianity altogether, and that by instituting Kirchenkampf and making public examples of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the Christian Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists, the Nazis were able to cow the other churches into toeing the line.

Churches, like any other institution, are often led by humans who (sometimes for what appear to be good reasons) place the continuance of the institution above the mission it was created to conduct. This is why so many of the major denominations rolled over. This is why the resistance from Christians primarily came from individuals (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer), rather than religious institutions. Indeed, Eric Metaxas’s superb biography of Bonhoeffer offers substantial support to the idea that National Socialism was a rejection of Christianity, and that any association between the church and the Nazi regime was tenuous and best characterized by the image of a stormtrooper’s boot on the neck of a clergyman.

In their defense, I think the the religious leaders of the Third Reich knew that Nazism was anti-Christian, and they were trying to appease Hitler and his sociopathic coterie in a desperate effort to save themselves, their flocks, and their faiths from being tossed into the camps. If there is approbation or praise to be laid, it is upon individuals rather than the ethos they tried (with varying degrees of care and success) to uphold.

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