Review of Uwe Puschner and Clemens Vollnhals, eds., Die völkisch-religiöse Bewegung im Nationalsozialismus. Ein Beziehungs- und Konfliktgeschichte

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2012

Review of Uwe Puschner and Clemens Vollnhals, eds., Die völkisch-religiöse Bewegung im Nationalsozialismus. Ein Beziehungs- und Konfliktgeschichte. Studien des Hannah Arendt Instituts für Totalitarismusforschung, 47 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), 592 Pp. ISBN 978-3-525-36956-8.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

This collection of essays, skilfully edited by two experienced historians of Germany’s early twentieth century, plunges us at once into the turgid controversies as to whether National Socialism was a “political religion” or a “surrogate or substitute faith”, and invites us to examine the role played by a whole bunch of so-called ethno-religious associations, in order to investigate the extent to which they may have contributed to or detracted from the Nazis’ successful exercise of power from 1933 onwards.

This massive volume is divided into three sections: the völkisch-pagan movements, völkisch Christianity, and the relationship between National Socialism and these völkisch factions. All are thoroughly dissected by the contributors, not one of whom, however, would appear to have any sympathy with the people about whom he or she is writing. Many of the contributors recapitulate what they have already written at greater length, or summarize the numerous studies of earlier years. The objective of the editors would therefore seem to be not to break new ground with fresh insights but to remind us of the marginal influence of such völkisch-religious adherents and the situations of conflict into which they were drawn.

The contributors certainly do well in reminding us of the enormous variety and the frenetic activity of these groups. More particularly, they successfully evoke the kind of climate in which any number of cranks, crackpots, charlatans or opportunists appeared to flourish in the 1920s and 1930s. As Klaus Vondung points out, these groups saw themselves as the heralds of the future. They sought to elevate the cause of Germany, its race and its blood to be a focus of loyalty for the whole nation. The Nazi Party very successfully mobilized such sentiments through its efficient rallies and parades. One common thread was the idea of national rebirth or redemption, which most of these groups fostered, and which easily enough led to support of Nazism and its charismatic leader. But as several contributors rightly point out, the pervasive characteristics of these movements were all negative—anti-liberalism, anti-Semitism, anti-democratic hatreds, fanatical nationalist beliefs in the worship of Germany or the Germanic God or ethno-centrism of the worst order. Typical of those in this category was Professor Ernst Bergmann, who already in 1923 was sending urgent messages to Hitler not to water down his anti-Semitic crusade. “What is needed is the complete extermination of Jewry in Germany by fire and sword. If you, my honoured Führer, make even the slightest concession on this matter, you will have lost my allegiance.”

Manfred Gailus leads off the section on völkisch Christianity. Its principal adherents were the so-called “German Christians” whose excessive distortions of the Gospel were so ably outlined for us by Doris Bergen nearly twenty years ago. Gailus’ analysis reinforces the view that these men’s motivation was opportunistic and superficial. Many of them preached nothing more than thinly-disguised apologias for their political ambitions, clothed in the garments of Christian righteousness, or faithfulness to the German spirit. Their arsenal of nationalist heresies was all too obviously drawn from Nazi sources. Their disdain for theology or abstract theorizing was matched with fervent expressions of loyalty to the Führer with Nazi flags swirling in or above their churches. But, as Gailus notes, they never achieved the support from the Nazi hierarchy they so enthusiastically longed for, and their internal squabbles soon led to their irrelevance and eventual disappearance.

Susannah Heschel does a suitable demolition job on the notorious Institute established in Eisenach to research and remove the Jewish influence from German church life, about which she has written before, and which she places in the context of racism and Christianity. So too, Lucia Scherzberg is suitably critical of those deluded Catholics, including some prominent priests and professors, who, like their Protestant counterparts, sought to amalgamate their Catholic faith with their pro-Nazi loyalty to the Third Reich, including its virulent anti-Semitism. Their totally nebulous ideas about uniting all Germans in a German national church soon enough ran into destructive criticisms and accusations of fostering a syncretistic cult. But, in fact, these Catholic spokesmen were never disciplined—even after 1945.

Martin Leutzsch provides an interesting pathological diagnosis of the career of the Aryan Jesus between 1918 and 1945. Hitler himself in 1922 called Jesus “our great Aryan leader.” Other Nazis, such as Rosenberg and Goebbels, were quick to take up this idea. Jesus as a Nordic hero was already being voiced in the nineteenth century, but the cult gained impetus through the rapid spread of anti-Semitism in and after the first world war. Its proponents had however to contend with their counterparts in other völkisch movements who wanted to eradicate the idea of Christianity altogether and substitute a purely Germanic deity. But they had the support of no less a figure than Hanns Kerrl, from 1935 Minister of Church Affairs, in whose opinion: “ it is intolerable that German children should be taught that Jesus was a Jew. . . This is an attempt to make the Party ridiculous. True Christianity is represented in the Party and the German people are being called to this true Christianity by the Party and especially by the Führer.” In the end, the issue was too contentious, so orders were given that further discussions were to be suppressed.

Similar prohibitions on almost all these variant sects and cults were implemented in stages by the Gestapo, on Heydrich’s orders. They were suspected of threatening the Nazi Party’s totalitarian controls. A good example can be seen in the case of the Anthroposophists, whose ambivalent position in the Nazi period is here excellently described by Peter Staudenmaier. He shows that many of this sect engaged themselves eagerly in the Nazi ranks, and were then bitterly disappointed to find that the SD dismissed their support by labelling them as “purely individualistic, and their teachings incompatible with the National Socialist ideas about Race”. Similarly, in the case of Freemasonry, as Marcus Meyer explains, the Nazi hostility to a group suspected of secrecy and conspiratorial rituals was long-standing, despite the evidence that many Masons were prominent supporters of the Nazi Party. In fact, as these essays show very well, the thoroughness with which these groups were watched by the Gestapo and the ruthlessness with which they were eventually stamped out was a measure of the Nazis’ determination not to tolerate the existence of any organization which might lay claims to loyalties other than their own.

The third section of this volume covers the attitudes towards Christianity and the churches held by the Nazi leadership.. As is well known, there were numerous and conflicting views held by the Nazi hierarchy which were never resolved. Ernst Piper gives a useful summary of Alfred Rosenberg’s anti-Christian polemics, and the plans he elaborated to institute a Germanic religion of the future. Heinrich Himmler, on the other hand, had his eyes firmly on the glories of the Germanic heathen past. Wolfgang Dierker ably summarizes the findings of his recent book on the policies of the SS and its Security Service, which was responsible for most of the predatory persecution of the churches. He again makes clear that the plans of such leaders as Bormann, Heydrich, Himmler and Goebbels called for the elimination of the Christian religion which would have no place in a future Nazi state. This would have been the end-product of a fateful combination of ideological fanaticism and the exercise of an all-encompassing totalitarian power.

With the Nazi defeat such nefarious schemes came to nothing. So too did the activities of the numerous völkisch-religious cults whose wayward perversity is amply documented in this volume. We can therefore be grateful to the contributors for what can be seen as a post-mortem evaluation of this regrettable chapter of recent German history.