- Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich by Richard Weikart
For more than a decade Richard Weikart has been making a case that Nazi ideology represents social Darwinism with a political face. His detailed analysis of social Darwinist thought in Germany, published in 2004, bears the telling title From Darwin to Hitler. A subsequent study, Hitler’s Ethic (2009), portrays the Führer’s social imaginary as the extension of a moral code. That code elevated promotion of the German Volk to the status of a categorical imperative, a dictate of evolutionary necessity in a world marked by ineluctable struggles between superior and inferior races for resources, living space, and cultural dominance. This argument provides an obvious backdrop to Weikart’s new book, which seeks to define the content of Adolf Hitler’s religious outlook. Hitler’s religion, Weikart contends, can best be characterized as a species of pantheism, a belief that the ultimate locus of the divine can be found in nature and nature’s laws.
Weikart has combed a wide range of printed sources, from Mein Kampf and collections of speeches to records of table talk and the reports of contemporaries—notably the diaries of Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg—in search of clues to Hitler’s religious attitudes. As he aptly observes, Hitler was in many respects a “religious chameleon” (p. 13); his numerous deliverances on the subject were often ambiguous, not to say contradictory, leaving the nature of his private views open to conflicting interpretations. After reviewing some of the major figures whose ideas provided raw material for Hitler’s intellectual bricolage, from Arthur Schopenhauer to Friedrich Nietzsche and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Weikart devotes most of his book to testing what Hitler is recorded as saying about religion against a series of possible religious options, presented as questions posed catechism-like in successive chapter titles (“Was Hitler an Atheist?” “Was Hitler an Occultist or Paganist?”).
Not surprisingly, perhaps, his inquiry takes him down a via negativa of sorts, since documenting what Hitler did not believe poses less of a challenge than establishing what he may actually have believed. Like most observers, Weikart dismisses the possibility that Hitler was an atheist. Notwithstanding the influence of anti-religious thinkers and his oft-stated conviction that science had effectively rendered religion obsolete, Hitler consistently manifested a strong belief in some form of Providence, a belief reinforced by his messianic sense of personal vocation. Beyond this, however, the evidence becomes less clear. Hitler seems to have shown little interest in the occult enthusiasms and Nordic fantasies of his paladins Heinrich Himmler and Rosenberg. Nor did the evident political utility of a personal Führer cult lead him to support making a surrogate folk religion out of National Socialism itself.
As might be expected, the most extensive sections of the book deal with Hitler’s attitudes toward Christianity and the churches. Here too Weikart argues for a negative conclusion. It is well [End Page 120] known, of course, that Hitler never officially left the Catholic Church of his boyhood, but Weikart attributes this to political calculation rather than any residual identification with Catholicism. He is at pains, in fact, to discount any possible congruence between Hitler’s beliefs and classic tenets of the Christian faith; he takes particular issue with Richard Steigmann-Gall’s revisionist case for elective affinities between Nazi and Christian worldviews (pp. 71–85, passim).
While Article 25 of the Party Program famously identified National Socialism with a nonsectarian “positive Christianity,” and while Hitler himself often deployed conventional tropes of piety, especially prior to the mid-1930s, Weikart regards these gestures, like the faux-liturgical trappings of Party events such as the Nuremberg rallies, as nothing but calculated exercises in hypocrisy, the stuff of a cynical image-building strategy by a “savvy politician” (p. 68), calculated to resonate with the sensibilities of a nominally Christian populace. Hitler regularly expressed contempt for clergy of both major confessions and had little patience for the doctrinal...