Review of Manfred Gailus and Armin Nolzen, eds., Zerstrittene “Volksgemeinschaft”: Glaube, Konfession und Religion im Nationalsozialismus

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ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2012

Review of Manfred Gailus and Armin Nolzen, eds., Zerstrittene “Volksgemeinschaft”: Glaube, Konfession und Religion im Nationalsozialismus (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2011).

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University

“Woran glaubten die Menschen im ‘Dritten Reich?’” Gailus and Nolzen open their book with this question, arguing that it has received surprisingly little attention within the massive historiography devoted to the Nazi period. This work represents an attempt to evaluate the state of current research on Protestants and Catholics in Nazi Germany. It also includes a chapter by Merit Petersen on two smaller groups, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses; a chapter by Horst Junginger on German paganism (the German Faith Movement); and a chapter by Beth Griech-Polelle on National Socialism as a “political religion.” Two themes emerge in this volume. One is a refutation of the postwar charge that the Nazi era represented a period of intense secularization. In fact, Gailus and Nolzen argue, the Nazi period was intensely religious. Along with the early postwar era, it marked a break in the twentieth-century secularization that preceded and followed this middle period of nearly three decades. Secondly, the editors argue for increased attention to religion under the Nazis, especially by scholars not defending a piece of the religious turf. Such work should acknowledge regional differences as well as the complex and overlapping varieties of religious faith to be found.

Olaf Blaschke’s contribution picks up on an issue highlighted in Doris Bergen’s Twisted Cross (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), i.e., the importance of gender in understanding the pro-Nazi “German Christians.” Blaschke begins with the nineteenth century, arguing that Protestants in Bismarck’s Germany, epitomized by Heinrich von Treitschke, considered themselves the masculine Christians, with an emphasis on courage, strength, and the use of reason. Catholics were thought to be feminine, with more emotion, more sensitivity, and more resort to the superstitious side of religious belief (38). Protestants too, however, could be considered feminized, given the “soft” side of Christian beliefs and the percentage of women in the pews. By World War I, both religious faiths worked to “masculinize” their image and their message. Bergen points out the hyper-masculine nature of “German Christian” identity. Blaschke then describes “remasculination” efforts among Catholic theologians, including their hope to save piety from its soft, feminine image and remake it into an image of courage and strength. Blaschke argues throughout that these gender issues, largely ignored by historians, should have a significant place in our understanding of religion in the modern world, especially in the hyper-masculine world espoused by Nazi ideology.

Manfred Gailus offers a chapter on Protestants in which the title, “Keine gute Performance,” quite clearly indicates the message to be found. Noting that it took several decades for a critical and honest postwar assessment to develop, he describes the first generation to write the history with these words, “Die Erlebnisgeneration selbst erinnerte sich. Und natürlich legitimierte sie sich durch die Art ihrer Erinnerung” (98). Now we know better, in Gailus’s view. “Gegen langlebige Widerstands- und Kirchenkampflegenden ist zu betonen: Es bedurfte 1933 überhaupt keines Zwangs, keines gewaltsamen Angriffs von aussen—der Protestantismus öffnete dem anschwellenden Nationalsozialismus bereitwillig, vielfach fasziniert seine Türen, um die ‘Ideen von 1933’ einströmen zu lassen” (102). As for the question of Christians and Jews, “Protestanten haben im Kontext der so genannten Judenfrage nicht nur nicht genug für die Verfolgten getan, sondern zu nicht geringen Teilen haben sie selbst aktiv verachtet, ausgegrenzt, denunziert, verfolgt. Protestantismugeschichte ist an dieser Stelle zu erheblichen Anteilen auch Täter- und Mittätergeschichte” (111). Gailus acknowledges many differences to be found throughout the regional churches in Germany. He encourages historians to fill in these regional gaps, and also to write biographies of the broad range of church figures still without serious historical treatment. He also notes that some of the intensified religious commitment in the period turned toward the political religion of Nazism, with its opposition to the Enlightenment, to the “ideas of 1789,” and to the liberalism and democracy to be found in the West. He sees the Nazi period as intensely religious, but now with a three-part competition between Protestants, Catholics, and those who made a religion of National Socialism.

The second editor of this book, Armin Nolzen, attempts in his chapter the sort of statistical analysis rarely undertaken. What percentage of Nazi leaders, functionaries, and party members belonged to the Protestant or Catholic Church? He notes the difficulty of finding statistics. For example, according to the “positive Christianity” espoused in the Party Program in 1920, no one would be expected to have a particular faith. Thus no questions about one’s religious faith appeared on the membership application. A statistical record created in 1939, however, allowed party members to check a box for religion. This shows that 70 to 75 percent of party members checked either Protestant or Catholic, with 20-25 percent checking “gottglaubig.” Protestants were over-represented in comparison to their numbers in a given region, Catholics were under-represented, and “gottgläubig” were over-represented by a factor of four to five (158-59). The latter figure reflects the attempt within the Nazi Party to discourage church membership, as well as to separate church and state. Despite this, however, up to three-quarters of party members retained contact with their church. Even in the Allgemeine SS, reputedly the most anti-Christian organization in Nazi Germany, of nearly 250,000 members in December 1938, 51 percent were Protestant and 23 percent were Catholic (171). These figures match other indicators to suggest that three of four people inside the Nazi movement resisted pressure to leave their church. Furthermore, during World War II the number of party members laid to rest in church burials increased (170). At the same time, the total number of party members incorporated more and more of the German population, increasing  from 4.8 million in 1938 to over 9 million by May 1945 (156). Finally, as Nolzen argues, an enormous number of Germans belonged  to one of the many supporting organizations of the Nazi Party, if not to the Party itself. That figure was two-thirds of all Germans in May 1939, and Nolzen claims that it grew continually during six years of war (171). This leads to his conclusion: “Die meisten Deutschen konnten jedenfalls beides mit ihrem Gewissen vereinbaren: Ihren Glauben an den ‘Führer’ und den Nationalsozialismus sowie ihren Glauben an Gott und die Zugehörigket zu einer christlichen Kirche” (172).

This book includes much more of interest, including Kevin Spicer’s assessment of the Catholic Church under Nazism and Matthew Hockenos’s description of the churches after 1945. Many readers of this journal will be familiar with their books on these subjects. Beth Griech-Polelle gives a very useful overview and analysis of “political religion” and its place in the Nazi state. Dietmar Süss writes about religion on the home front during World War II, especially as the air war brought terror to those far behind the front lines. Dagmar Pöpping writes about the role of military chaplains, especially on the brutal eastern front from 1941-45. As a whole, the book highlights our present understanding of the role of religion in Nazi Germany and it calls upon scholars to work toward filling the gaps that remain. Gailus and Nolzen show that many varying claims were made upon “Volksgemeinschaft” in Nazi Germany. That complex story continues to unfold.