Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “Reassessing The Holy Reich: Leading Nazis’ Views on Confession, Community and ‘Jewish’ Materialism”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “Reassessing The Holy Reich: Leading Nazis’ Views on Confession, Community and ‘Jewish’ Materialism,” Journal of Contemporary History 48 No. 3 (July 2013): 423-445.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University College

Samuel Koehne is a young Australian scholar who has been researching on the twin topics of how liberal and conservative Christians interpreted and responded to the rise of the National Socialist movement and how the Nazi movement developed its official policy on religion (see our summary of his research in Contemporary Church History Quarterly 18, no. 4 (December 2012)). In his recent article in the Journal of Contemporary History, Koehne revisits the controversy surrounding the Richard Steigmann-Gall book, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945—a controversy which featured prominently in the pages of the same journal back in early 2007. Koehne examines one of Steigmann-Gall’s key arguments in The Holy Reich, that the “positive Christianity” of Point 24 in the 1920 NSDAP Programme represented a coherent Nazi version of Christianity, which was supra-confessional (uncoupled from any Protestant or Catholic dogmatism), antisemitic (rooted in the German racial community), and socially ethical (placing common interest before private interest). In contrast, Koehne argues that “the notion of ‘positive Christianity’ as a Nazi ‘religious system’ has been largely invented” (423). Koehne makes his case by analyzing the public statements of Nazi leaders Adolf Hitler, Gottfried Feder, and Alfred Rosenberg on confession, community, and “Jewish” materialism, finding that all three ideas were “openly depicted as part of Nazi a racial-nationalist ideology,” and not portrayed as part of some kind of Nazi Christianity (424). In terms of source material, Koehne focuses on Hitler’s statements prior to the Munich Putsch and his writing in Mein Kampf, along with published explanations of the party programme by Rosenberg and Feder, from 1933 and 1934 respectively.

Koehne makes his case well. By the end of the article, there is little question that German racial purity, antisemitism, and Volksgemeinschaft were essential components of Nazi ideology, as opposed to core beliefs in a kind of Nazi Christianity. As a result, the “positive Christianity” of Point 24 remains ambiguous—social cohesion in Hitler’s Germany would not be achieved through an “’interconfessional’ religion but by a kind of salvational nationalism” (444). But if Koehne’s conclusion casts doubt on one of Richard Steigmann-Gall’s key arguments in The Holy Reich, it doesn’t clarify the questions the latter raises about individual Nazis’ attitudes towards Jesus or Christianity (444) or about the nature of National Socialist ecclesiastical policy. Amid Koehne’s examples of Hitler’s criticisms of the churches for the insufficiency of their Germanness and antisemitism are other references that suggest Christianity and the churches could play a positive role in German political life, as they had during the First World War (432-434). Nonetheless, Koehne’s article is an important reminder that religion was of minor importance to Hitler and other leading Nazis as they formulated and later implemented their antisemitic völkisch ideology, even if the their movement posed difficult challenges to Christianity and the German churches.