In response to my blog post, Questions from Theists: What are the Tenets of Atheism, someone wrote to me, “My problem with human morality is that who defines what that is ? To show it in extreme, Hitler and the Nazis thought they were behaving very morally to rid the world of Jews …”
Ah, yes. Hitler. I’m going to put aside the “who defines what human morality is?” part of the question for another day, and today strictly address the Hitler-as-an-example part.
Discussion of atheism with theists usually comes around to Hitler, at some point or another, especially regarding the topic of morality without God. Thus, I knew I’d have to talk about him on this blog, eventually. So, let’s get this over with.
Theists like to bring up Hitler as an example of godless morality at its most extreme. Hitler is widely considered the worst humanity has to offer — a genocidal dictator, and one of the most hateful, flagitious, murderous people who ever lived. Thus, theists see him as a strong example of what can happen when you take away God as a moral compass.
Without God there’s no moral accountability, and without moral accountability, one is more likely to become a Hitlerian, bloodthirsty, psychopathic monster. Or so the argument goes.
However, there’s a significant problem with using Hitler as the trump card against the moral dangers of godlessness: Hitler was a devout Catholic. In Adolph Hitler’s own words:
“I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.” — Adolph Hitler to General Gerhard Engel, 1941
He was a baptized Catholic, in good standing throughout his entire life, and was never excommunicated. Hitler sought the Roman Catholic Church’s approval when he became the German Chancellor in 1933. This resulted in the Vatican Concordat of 1933 with the Third Reich, which has been described as “a marriage between church and state,” and which Hitler considered to be the approval he sought for himself and the Nazi regime. He met cordially with Pope Pius XI on several occasions, and the Vatican sent archbishops to represent the Pope at Hitler’s birthday parties, every year.
Hitler had the slogan “GOTT MIT UNS” (German for, “God with us”) put onto the belt buckles for all German soldiers. He called himself a Christian and made frequent references to God and Christ.
In accordance with the Law On the Allegiance of Civil Servants and Soldiers of the Armed Forces, all of the members of the SS had to swear this three-part oath:
“What is your oath ?” – “I vow to you, Adolf Hitler, as Führer and chancellor of the German Reich loyalty and bravery. I vow to you and to the leaders that you set for me, absolute allegiance until death. So help me God !”
“So you believe in a God ?” – “Yes, I believe in a Lord God.”
“What do you think about a man who does not believe in a God ?” – “I think he is arrogant, megalomaniacal and stupid; he is not eligible for us.”
When Hitler came to power, he outlawed the German Freethinker’s League, Germany’s largest atheist organization. On this topic, he said, “We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” — Adolph Hitler, Berlin, October 24, 1933
Furthermore, Hitler believed that he was acting on the behalf of God and Christ. His actions were not rooted in godlessness, but rather in godliness. Again, here are Hitler’s own words:
“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.” — Adolph Hitler, speech in Munich, April 12, 1922
“The work that Christ started but could not finish, I — Adolf Hitler — will conclude.” — Adolf Hitler, December 1926
“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” — Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
“Only in the steady and constant application of force lies the very first prerequisite for success. This persistence, however, can always and only arise from a definite spiritual conviction. Any violence which does not spring from a firm, spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain.” — Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
“As for the Jews, I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic Church has adopted for fifteen hundred years, when it has regarded the Jews as dangerous and pushed them into ghettos etc., because it knew what the Jews were like. I don’t put race above religion, but I do see the danger in the representatives of this race for Church and State, and perhaps I am doing Christianity a great service.” — Adolf Hitler, 1936, to Bishop Berning and Msg. Steinman, representatives of Pope Pius XI
“By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.” — Adolph Hitler, speech, Reichstag, 1936
Not only was Hitler a Christian, but almost all of Hitler’s high command were Christians, too. Some examples:
Adolph Eichmann, the main logistical organizer of the Holocaust: Protestant.
Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the S.S., the General Plenipotentiary of the entire Third Reich, and Hitler’s second-in-command: Catholic.
Hermann Goring, one of the heads of the Nazi party, and founder of the Gestapo: Catholic.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda: Catholic.
Reinhard Heydrich, General of the Police, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, the “Hangman of Prague,” and the main architect of the Holocaust: Catholic.
Rudolph Hess, Deputy Fuhrer to Adolph Hitler: Catholic.
(Note that some of the people mentioned above eventually separated from traditional Christianity because its semitic roots offended their anti-semitic sensibilities, and so they came to replace it with their own, Teutonic “Positive Christianity,” which renounced Christianity’s Jewish origins.)
What about the regular soldiers in the army? The population during the Nazi era was 54% Protestant, 40% Catholic, 3.5% deists, and 1.5% non-religious; assuming that the same was true for those in the army, that means that about 94% of those in the army were Christians, and less than 2% were non-religious.
So, in short, Hitler was a Christian, not an atheist, and almost everyone responsible for the Holocaust, from top to bottom, was Christian, not atheist.
This is all very well documented in film clips, Hitler’s preserved correspondence, his own book, book collections of his speeches, newspaper articles, and the like. You can research it for yourself.
The best that apologists can offer in response is, “Hitler wasn’t a real Christian. He was just cynically using Christianity for his desired ends.” For now, I’ll ignore the no true Scotsman fallacy involved with making this claim, and also set aside that such a view is speculation, in contradiction to the available data. Instead, let’s actually take the assertion seriously. If Hitler wasn’t a real Christian, and was merely using Christianity for his desired ends, what would that tell us? It would tell us that Hitler correctly recognized that Christianity was the perfect vehicle for rousing Germany into a warmongering and genocidal frenzy — which hardly helps the apologists’ case.
In the Bible, God committed genocide routinely, such as with the Egyptians in the Exodus story and all of humanity in the Noah story. God also commanded people to commit genocide on numerous occasions, such as with the Amalekites. Believers already train themselves to excuse their God’s genocidal tendencies in the Bible, and to convince themselves genocides can be godly and righteous. It wasn’t a big stretch for Hitler and his followers to think God was on their side for another religious genocide. Just like Christians thought about The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunts, the Russian pogroms, and so many other cases.
Of course, I’m not saying that theists in general, nor Christians in specific, are genocidal. That would be silly. Most folks, religious or otherwise, are kind, caring people. I’m simply pointing out that religion can be, and has been, tied to many genocides — including Christian ties to the Nazis who planned and executed the Holocaust.
And, of course, even if Hitler had been an atheist, the point would be completely preposterous. There have been genocidal dictators who believed in God and genocidal dictators who didn’t. Lunatics come in all stripes. I don’t think arguing from Hitler’s beliefs gets you very far on either side of the debate. The only thing I think the case example of Hitler certainly shows is that religious belief does not prevent such behavior. I wouldn’t have even bothered with this topic, if not for the fact that it’s already come up in a reply to a post on this website, and doubtless will come up again.
Theists try to pin Hitler on atheism, rather than take credit for Christianity’s role in Hitler’s actions. But this spurious, revisionist tactic backfires when the truth comes out. Rather than ask atheists how Hitler’s deeds were possible within the context of humanist morality, theists with such concerns should ask themselves how Hitler’s deeds were possible within the context of God-based morality. Or, better yet, drop this unproductive line of argument, entirely.
[Note that parts of this post borrow heavily from Devon Tracey. For more information, click here for a Google search of his online presence. Some may take issue with his approach, but his facts on this topic are supported.]