- The Nazis' Religionspolitik:An Assessment of Recent Literature
Scholarly investigation into the relationship between the German churches and National Socialism invites controversy. The judgments meted out by historians, journalists, and theologians reveal little consensus even after almost forty years of acrimonious exchanges and debates. They have portrayed the churches as beleaguered institutions struggling to keep their heads above water in the face of relentless state persecution, as heroic individuals courageously spearheading resistance against Nazism, or as opportunists eagerly offering to collaborate with the regime either out of tactical calculations or ideological conviction. 1 Yet in spite of these clashing verdicts, most scholarly [End Page 252] accounts show a great deal of unanimity in their depictions of the churches as the objects of unwelcome intrusions and outright persecution from the National Socialist state, in which the initiative lay almost completely with the Nazi regime. To date, most depictions of the churches under Nazi rule have portrayed this complex relationship between religious and secular authorities primarily through the eyes of the churches themselves.
Two notable recent works turn this picture upside down. They focus on the motivations and tactics not of church luminaries but of the Nazis themselves, who usually (but not always) remained in the driver's seat in this relationship. Arguing that many Nazis sincerely believed themselves to be good Christians, Richard Steigmann-Gall elucidates the religious beliefs of the leading Nazis, including Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Bormann. Though he covers this same terrain, Wolfgang Dierker analyzes in great detail the religious politics and religious beliefs of one particular branch of the Nazi state, the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers SS. The SD was an offshoot of the SS created to gather intelligence on ideological enemies of National Socialism. Only recently have historians researched its activities. 2
These two books have certain superficial features in common. Both appeared with first-rate publishing houses at roughly the same time. Wolfgang Dierker's book, Himmlers Glaubenskrieger: Der Sicherheitsdienst der SS und seine Religionspolitik, 1933–1941, arrived in 2002 as part of the so-called Blaue Reihe, or blue series, an extremely well-regarded series produced by the Roman Catholic historical association, Die Kommission für Zeitgeschichte. Richard Steigmann-Gall's book, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945, was published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press. Both works were the outgrowths of dissertations by promising younger scholars who had carried out their research in the 1990's.
But here the similarities end. Steigmann-Gall's book bears the burden of unusually high praise. On the cover-jacket, Helmut Walser Smith extolled this work "as a brilliant and provocative work that will recast the whole debate on Christianity and Nazism." Additional encomia by the eminent scholars Richard [End Page 253] Evans and Michael Burleigh only bolstered its reputation as a path-breaking revisionist work that would destroy existing orthodoxies. Such advance endorsements ensured of course that The Holy Reich would be widely reviewed. Its revisionism has earned it not only acclaim but also trenchant criticism, so much so that its claims are to be the subject of an upcoming forum in the Journal of Contemporary History, of which Evans himself is an editor. Dierker's unheralded work, in contrast, has been scandalously overlooked in the United States. Although it has been very well received in Germany, few American libraries have even purchased it—as of this writing, forty-five, according to World-Cat. The €82.20 price tag, its length, the lagging publicity, the fact that Dierker opted to pursue a non-academic career with Hewlett-Packard, and, above all, the absence of an...