The religion of the Nazis

Dr Koenraad Elst

Contemporary historians, along with novelists and filmmakers, just can't get enough of Nazi Germany. Scholars of religion too are now frequently zooming in on this subject, though often with more polemical than scholarly purposes. The stakes are high, so competing ideologies invest heavily in showing their own dissociation from and their opponents' association with Nazism. Therefore, when anthropologist Prof. Em. Karla Poewe of Calgary University in Canada comes out with a book titled New Religions and the Nazis (Routledge, Oxon & New York 2006), critics are on the alert for signs of bias.

But let us first of all appreciate the new factual data presented by the author. Prof. Poewe does a real historian's job. Instead of synthesizing existing books by older colleagues into yet another "interpretation" of history, she has spent months and months in several German archives reading a lot of hitherto unexplored primary source material. This consists mainly of unpublished letters, speech transcripts and testimonies by or about the leading religious ideologues of the 1920s and 30s in Germany. Somebody had to do this job, and now it has been done.

1. An underground religion comes to the surface

The book's main focus is on new religious movements of the German interbellum and their leaders, such as Mathilde Ludendorff (née von Kemnitz, wife of WW1 general Erich Ludendorff) and her Deutsche Gotterkenntnis (German God-knowledge) movement; and especially Jakob Wilhelm Hauer and his associates in his Deutsche Glaubensbewegung (DGB, German Faith Movement). Hauer was originally a Christian missionary planning to spend a lifetime in India converting Hindus. His studies led him to a favourable interest in Hinduism, then in hypothetically reconstructed Indo-European religion, and finally in "West-Indo-Germanic" religion, i.e. minus the "Indo-". According to Poewe, "the new religions founded in the pre-Nazi and Nazi years, especially Jakob Hauer's German Faith Movement, would be a model for how German fascism distilled aspects of religious doctrine into political extremism". (back cover text).

When trying to establish himself in the ascendant Nazi movement, and after violent criticism of his Oriental exoticism by the Ludendorff couple (who saw the Asian cultural influx, from Christianity down to Theosophy and neo-Vedanta, as the result of Jewish conspiracies), Hauer found he had to drop the Indian part and highlight an "Indo-Germanic minus Indian" religion, i.e. European religion rooted in the ethnic soul of the Germans and more broadly the Europeans. The emphasis during the Nazi period was more on the narrowly Germanic element (Nazism was "Aryan" only in slogans, its focus was German and at best Germanic, with steep contempt for fellow "Aryans" such as the Slavs, the Armenians and Indians and of course the Gypsies), but his post-war followers such as Sigrid Hunke broadened it to all Europeans.

Of this supposed "truly European" religion, few pure formulations exist, but it is said to be visible through the writings of Christian heretics who dressed it in Christian language, though the Church often saw through their un-Christian inspiration. Poewe lists mystics, philosophers and poets like Pelagius, the early heretic who disbelieved in Original Sin; Johannes Scotus Eriugena, the 9th-century philosopher; Francis of Assisi, the nature-loving saint who conversed with animals; a high tide with the late-medieval German monistic mystics Nikolaus Krebs von Kues (Cusanus), Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, Heinrich Seuse (Suso) and Johannes Tauler; the natural philosopher and medic Paracelsus; the angel visionary Jakob Boehme; the twilight-Christian poets Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke; and the Christian evolutionist Teilhard de Chardin. (p.170)

To be sure, this supposed non-Christian thread was sometimes badly blurred by conjunction with Christian positions, e.g. Francis of Assisi was also a great popularizer of Original Sin, till then a minority belief among Christian commoners; Eriugena was accused of heresy but was an active opponent of heresy himself, in particular against Gotteschalk, the preacher of predestination, who also figures on Hunke's list of true European religionists; while Gotteschalk himself was a leading light to later militant Christian dissenters like Calvinists and Jansenists; and Suso was such a heretic that the Church canonized him as a saint. But by and large, the contributions of these religious explorers purportedly show a common thread of what Hunke called "an underground religion" (p.170). Intertwined with Christianity for centuries, it decisively seceded from the latter with the anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. And now, Providence had made the 20th century into the age of its long-awaited blossoming.

So, this is a strange thing to note: whereas the stated focus of the book is the "new religions" of some Nazi-related thinkers, and while the term "neo-Paganism" is frequently used, the inspiration of these ideologues (as amply and faithfully documented by Poewe) is a line of thinkers of whom most have always been booked as Christian. It is not uncommon to pretend that Nazism was a "Pagan" movement, e.g. Pope Benedict XVI called Nazism "an insane racist ideology born of neopaganism" ("Pope warns of rising anti-Semitism", 20 August 2005, The Hindu). Such claims are typically illustrated with some old drawing of the Germanic god Wotan/Odin (e.g. Robert L. Bartley: "Christians, Jews and Wotan: What we still need to learn from Nazism", 25 March 2002, Wall Street Journal online) but the one-eyed god didn't figure in Nazi iconography at all. The true picture is far more complex and far more interesting.

2. The way out of Christianity

Before embarking on her historical excursus, the author clearly lays out her views, i.e. her interpretation of these data. She argues that Nazism had an outspoken religious dimension, which she describes as neo-Pagan. But it soon transpires that "Pagan" in this case does not have its simple dictionary meaning of "non-Christian". The term is actually used here in three senses: historical pre-Christian religions (but not Judaism), post-Christian "new religions", and certain unorthodox tendencies within Christianity itself. Hence expressions that may sound contradictory at first, like "neo-Pagans both within and outside the Church" (p.14). Being a Church member and a declared Christian is apparently not enough to be a real Christian.

In the Muslim world, we are rather familiar with the phenomenon of takfir, or excommunicating a fellow Muslim by declaring him to be an unbeliever (kafir) at heart, but in Christianity, we had developed the impression that this was a thing of the past, now only extant among so-called fundamentalists. Then again, in a vaguer sense this excommunication of fellow Christians as crypto-Pagans is now more common than ever: not only Popes and preachers of fire and brimstone do it, but also glib liberal vicars smiling into the camera as they tell you that opponents of the latest political fad (from socialism to lesbigay liberation) are "un-Christian". And come to think of it, in principle they all may have a point. After all, Christianity is a demanding religion and the fullness of being Christian requires more than just being baptized and paying Church dues. It only remains to be determined who are the real ones and who the crypto-Pagans. Who are these un-Christian Christians in Poewe's view? German history has had many "heretics" who provided inspiration to religious ideologues in the Nazi orbit, like to many others earlier and later. Meister Eckhart, the famous Neoplatonist mystic, was one such "heretic" (p.6): though never disowning Christianity, he was recognized as a peddler of un-Christian mystical practices by Christian critics who correctly argued that Christian salvation is only through Christ, not through some funny mental experiences resulting from introspection. From Church doctors of yore criticizing the mystics down to modern New-Agers celebrating them, there is wide agreement that the Christian mystics were heterodox, arguably in tune with some putative "original teachings of Jesus" (a free-for-all, ever more prolific as lost early Christian writings keep on getting discovered) but not with historical Church teachings.

And like those premodern mystics, the self-described Deutsche Christen ("German Christians"), i.e. the majority of German Protestants supporting the Nazi regime, are classified as "not Christians but Pagans" (p.8). This is a bit of a jump, from the premodern mystics seeking direct experience of God to the modern Churchmen making deals with the Nazi state. Moreover, it was not these bourgeois Church spokesmen but its errant ex-members who were cultivating the memory of those heretics of yore.

Since it would be ludicrous to pretend that 20th-century German Protestants were somehow adherents of Pagan religion, worshipping Wotan and Donar and Freia, and since they were not even particularly concerned with crypto-Pagan mystics from the Christian Middle Ages either, the term "Paganism" clearly refers to something else, something modern. The culprit is an aspect of modern secularism, viz. relativism, possibly not excluding epistemological relativism (the disbelief in the existence of final truth), but mostly meaning moral relativism. In fact, the two go hand in hand and can be deduced from the rejection of monotheism: "To neopagans, human beings are the measure of all things. There is no single God, anymore than there is one truth, nor one humanity". (p.173)

Liberals on the American campus scene are the ones who oppose the "imposition" of "Western" science as universal: "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go!" They think that "the Black experience", "the gay experience" etc. can found equally valid worldviews which heterosexual White males have so far suppressed with their pretence of universalism. White science is not only not better, it is worse than the rest, for it has caused environmental degradation and the nuclear threat. This diversity of worldviews was also accepted in Nazi Germany, at least by Nazis. Thus, there was good Aryan science, such as quantum physics, and there was evil Jewish science, such as relativity theory. For a different kind of relativistic downplaying of reason's universal claims, one of the ideologues discussed in this book, Ludwig Klages, valued image-consciousness (as in dreams or shamanic trances) and myths over reason; and this preference for "biocentrism" over "logocentrism", we "find also in Hauer and in numerous street philosophers" in interbellum Germany. (p.86)

Those are rather extreme examples, but relativism is all around us in less obtrusive forms. Particularly, in religion, liberals undermined the old certainties of the Bible (to Protestants) or Church tradition (to Catholics) by an appeal to reason and free interpretation of these sources of authority. This led to widely divergent schools of exegesis, and once those floodgates had been opened, other types of pluralization followed suit. One of these is along ethnic lines: nowadays, liberal Church leaders accept that Africans should have their own cultural emphases and give expression to these in an African liturgy, Indians should bring Hindu elements into their liturgy etc. This is not all that different from the Nazi-era idea that there should be a distinctive German Christianity.

The core of Poewe's thesis is that "liberal Christianity" was the gate through which millions of Christians removed themselves from the Christian spirit to embrace National-Socialism. This was true in the case of apostates like Hauer, through his liberal revaluation of Christian non-conformists frowned upon by the traditional Church, but also of Church-loyal "German Christians". Some kept on calling themselves Christians while others openly turned against Christ, but their ideological estrangement from true Christianity was fundamentally the same. The end result of relativism was this: "There is no dogma, word or scripture. German morality is not rigidly chained to words but changes as reality changes and as the original nature adapts to new conditions. It is a convenient moral relativism that Hauer and his cohorts developed. In the final analysis, it is (*) a fighter ethic that negates all moral ties except those with respect to the interests of one's own Volk." (p.15)

On one occasion, the author acknowledges the Christian elements in the Nazi blend: "the variant core elements of Goebbels' religiosity consisted of Christological symbols and Vitalism" (p.24), but this was not a deeply-held Christian faith anymore, for "Goebbels followed the stations of political ideologization from Catholicism toward freer forms of a Christian view of the world and self (as in liberal theology) and then National-Socialism". (p.7) The case of Goebbels is taken to illustrate very well how the modernist leftward drift inherent in liberal theology was an exit from or at least a "thinner" of true Christian convictions. Likewise, "it was precisely Hauer's and other Nazis' radical liberalism that led them to National Socialism". (p.20) And so: "Liberalism broke the ground enabling the emergence of radicalism." (p.21)

3. From völkisch to New Age ?

What I like about Prof. Poewe's approach of tracing certain developments to the corrosive impact of liberalism, is that it is unabashedly Christian. In recent decades, Christian scholars writing about politics have typically behaved like sheep obeying their Leftist sheepdogs, sincerely doing their best to toe the latest Leftist party-line. Here at last is a pro-Christian author defending the record of the Christian side and not afraid to denounce the Left and the liberal attitudes along with their Nazi (alleged) counterparts. Indeed, the terms "left" and "right", though certainly not obsolete or meaningless, happen to be unfit for a description of the political spectrum in interbellum Germany: "Hitler could as easily be ordered into the extreme left as the opposite. In fact, the traditional conservative opposition saw Hitler as standing left". (p.20)

This Christian vantage point beyond the animosities of Left vs. Right ought to shield the author from the excesses of denunciatory rhetoric so common in Leftist writing about the Nazi period. Leftists always love to cast the net of Nazi suspicions as widely as possible, dirtying as many people and organizations as possible with the Nazi brush. This satisfies their lust for power, for every accused becomes a helpless pleader for mercy (an appetizing sight, like that of a desperate mouse to a cat), and it restores legitimacy to their Marxism whenever people bring up its dark record: Hitler remains the best excuse for Stalin. In this book, my eye has been caught by only one lapse into this pattern of calumny, and it is precisely where she uses Marxist author Peter Kratz as her reference: "Kratz argues that not only the gods of neopaganism, but also those of the (European) New Age are Nazi brown. The spiritual movement centred on godliness in harmony with nature and the cosmos, working in and through all things human, is today called New Age. In the twenties it was called the völkisch movement." (p.173)

This attempt to extend the denunciation of a few interbellum movements as Nazi-inspired to the totally unrelated New Age phenomenon is contemptible. The authors concerned are perfectly aware that the allegation of Nazi connections is the single gravest allegation that can be uttered in today's opinion climate, and throwing that kind of allegation around lightly (as here by claiming in passing that "völkisch" and "New Age" are synonyms) is simply vicious. To set the record straight: the New Age current is individualistic, xenophilic, mixophilic, futuristic, cosmopolitan, anti-authoritarian and eager to enlist the findings of science into its worldview. The völkisch movement, i.e. the neo-Romantic ethno-nationalistic movement, by total contrast (and incidentally also at variance on some points with more modernistic tributaries to the Nazi movement), was collectivistic, xenophobic, puristic, past-oriented, centred on national identity, welcoming of the Leader principle, and hostile to science.

Yes, they may have some ideas about enjoying outdoors life or experiencing the divine in common, but this says nothing about all the other things on which they are poles apart. It only proves that not too much should be deduced from the religious pastimes of people who otherwise also have political opinions, and widely divergent ones at that. Could this calumny be a Christian polemical attempt to discredit the most popular challenger to established religion among contemporary Westerners? Well, let's rather put it down as an instance of careless copying from a false authority.

4. Secularist modernism

Karla Poewe doesn't give any fodder to the consumers of the myth of Nazi occultism. We already knew that Nazi secularists like Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels and Martin Bormann held anything occultist and obscurantist in contempt and ordered a number of successive crackdowns on it, and that Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were forced to practise their occultish hobbies discreetly. Not the Nazi era but the Weimar Republic, so despised by the Nazis, was the high tide of occultism in Germany. Here Poewe shows that even the new quasi-religions which did have certain genuine links with the Nazi movement defined themselves within the framework of secular modernity.

Thus, she quotes Mathilde Ludendorff as writing in 1935 that her Weltanschauung is not concerned with relieving pain and promising an afterlife, but only with truth: "If you want sham consolation, it is better that you turn to a Christian or some other sort of non-Christian religion, or to any of the occult teachings*" (p.163) I would add that this corresponded to one of the crucial axes in the imagined Aryan/Semitic or European/Asian opposition: truth, along with wakefulness and freedom, is Aryan; while delusions and dreams, along with despotism and surrender, are Asian or Semitic.

Poewe frequently provides evidence that many of these ideologues (like, incidentally, Adolf Hitler himself) first of all broke with Christianity simply because modern scholarship has discredited it. Which, as a secular and scientific position, provides a perfectly respectable reason for apostasy, one that also applies to millions of other modern people unrelated to Nazism. Thus, summarizing then quoting Mathilde Ludendorff: "Christianity does not convince. 'Natural science has replaced it.'" (p.163) This is something on which all educated modern people should be able to agree, even if some Nazis also happen to agree with them: there may be room for religion, or rather for spirituality, in a modern or postmodern or hypermodern culture; this may even borrow or continue some contributions of Christianity to ethics or the arts; but even so, the irrational beliefs that make up the defining core of Christianity cannot be salvaged.

Instead of speaking of "new religions" in the Nazi age, it would be more appropriate to describe these fledgling doctrines as philosophies or worldviews (Weltanschauung). Thus, summarizing a speech by Nazi pedagogue Ernst Krieck, an associate of Hauer's, Poewe relates: "The Third Reich represented yearning for salvation from despair through the fount of power that had its source in the German people (Volkskraft), not in an otherworldly God. Krieck ended his midsummer night's talk with a hail to the German Youth, German Volk and Third Reich." (p.151) Not a hail to Wotan, nor to Krishna or Buddha for that matter, and indeed not to Christ either, but to the secular gods of nation and state.

So, the finality of the "new religion" was a secular one: "Development of the new faith: not Christ but the Third Reich". (p.148) Indeed: "The whole thrust of core Nazi radicals was to overcome what they regarded as an already secularized Christianity and replace it with a faith in the 'Third Reich'." (p.149)