Review of Rainer Bucher, Hitler’s Theology: A Study in Political Religion

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2014)

Review of Rainer Bucher, Hitler’s Theology: A Study in Political Religion (London: Continuum Books 2011), Xx+ 140 Pp., ISBN PB 978-1-4411-4179-8.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Rainer Bucher is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Graz University in Austria. As a young seminarian, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, he was curious about and later dismayed by the stance of his older colleagues in the priesthood towards the Nazi regime, and subsequently by their reluctance or even refusal to come to terms with their failure to protest or resist the crimes and cruelties of Hitler’s regime. Two chapters of this book deal with the responses of the Catholic Church and the measures that need to be taken to avoid any repetition of these omissions, which Bucher largely attributes to the fascination exercised by Hitler’s flamboyant and seductive personality and ideas.

Bucher-HitlerThe bulk of the book, which is written in a somewhat convoluted Germanic style, but competently translated into English by Rebecca Pohl, is based on a thorough examination of all of Hitler’s surviving speeches and writings. Bucher’s main contention is that Hitler’s worldview was far more than just an ideology adopted for tactical reasons in order to gain political support. Rather, in Bucher’s view, Hitler’s ideas constituted a theology, even though it was an intellectually crude and merciless construct, and based on an abominable racism. Bucher is well aware that speaking of Hitler’s theology is provocative because it seems to associate what Christians believe with one of the worst criminals of our era. So he is careful to ensure that he cannot be accused of trying to undertake any kind of vindication. His task is therefore one of explanation rather than condemnation, let alone approbation. In this he succeeds with consummate skill.

Bucher seeks to determine the characteristics of Hitler’s creed which brought him such strong and long-lasting support from the German elites, as well as from broad sections of the wider population. It is not enough, he argues, to claim that Hitler’s fascination was due to his charismatic personality or to his undoubted rhetorical skills. Nor is it enough to suggest that Hitler’s hold was based on his political successes, since it is clear that many of his followers remained dedicated to his ideas even after his defeat and death. Instead Bucher argues that it was Hitler’s use of theological concepts, drawn from Christian traditions, but interpreted in a racialist setting, which appealed to many Catholics, and indeed to other Germans.

Hitler’s theology was not orthodox in any dogmatic or academic sense. But it was expressed in a politically decisive fashion, and provided the legitimization of his political creed of racism. It also adopted an apocalyptic dimension. As such, it attracted the support of a few of Germany’s more “progressive” Catholic theologians, such as Karl Adam, Joseph Lortz, and Michael Schmaus, who were eagerly looking for some new approach to modern society and found the teachings of the Catholic hierarchy to be irrelevant to the problems and issues of post-war Germany. In a bastardized form, the same attraction for Hitler’s ideas was found among the more politicized sections of German Protestantism, especially in the ranks of the so-called “German Christians”.

In fact, one reason for this fascination was the symbolic power of Hitler’s frequent references to a higher transcendent reality. But it was also due, as Ian Kershaw pointed out, to the “quasi-messianic commitment to a set of beliefs which were undeniably simple, internally consistent and comprehensive”. The essential characteristic of such beliefs was Hitler’s sharply racist anti-universalism. His appeal to his fellow-countrymen rested on his unshakable belief in the superiority of the German Volksgemeinschaft. He saw his mission as safeguarding this community, and expelling all those of inferior character, especially the Jews.

Why did this project receive such wide support? In part, it was undoubtedly due to the disillusionment caused by the disasters of the First World War. It was also due to the irrelevancy of much of the Church’s preaching, especially in the Catholic ranks, where any accommodation with modernism had been strongly suppressed by the Vatican. But in part it was due to Hitler’s confident and unchallenged proclamation of his faith in Germany and by the cultic mediation of his ideas in mass rallies, and what Bucher calls “collective experiential orgies” with their striking and impressive staging.

What did Hitler himself believe? In Bucher’s view, Hitler’s world-view was deeply influenced by his Catholic upbringing. He not only admired the Catholic Church as a successful organization which lad lasted for centuries, but was a model for the inculcation of religious loyalty and devotion. The Catholic Church was to be followed by its adoption of infallibility in its theories, and rejection of dangerous rivals, such as the Jews. Whereas political ideologies were liable to engage in compromises, Hitler’s version of National Socialism was exclusive and transformative. It could therefore follow Christianity’s record of intolerance, and single-mindedly fulfill its destiny for the German Volksgemeinschaft.

Bucher rightly suggests that it was this heritage which led Hitler to reject the kind of völkisch religiosity proposed by some of his followers. He quickly realized that the obscurantism and fake religiosity of neo-paganism would never be able to attract the majority of Germans. The ideas of such men as Alfred Rosenberg or the cultic fantasies of the Ludendorffs were therefore rejected as incompatible with his racist politics and political objectives. As early as 1922 Hitler was denouncing the völkisch movement as “a hotbed of well-meaning fools”. He continued to pour scorn on such fantasies, even when supported by leaders of his own party such as Heinrich Himmler, on the grounds that these concepts had lost touch with the scientific basis of modernity.

Hitler’s world-view clearly and consistently included a supra-natural dimension. Almost all of his speeches made use of the concept of Providence, which, as Bucher rightly points out, was cleverly positioned between traditional Christian language and general religious vocabulary. From Mein Kampf onwards Hitler used the idea of Providence to legitimate the National Socialist project, and later on he applied it to his own career. After 1933, Hitler frequently claimed that “Heaven and Providence has blessed our efforts”. This vindication of the Nazi struggle, indeed, became a stereotype in Hitler’s speeches “allowing our plans to ripen fully and visibly blessing their fruits”. Thus Hitler was able to attribute the failure of the assassination attempt in July 1944 to the protection of Providence, whose “warning finger tells me that I must continue my work”. With the help of this notion, Hitler’s concrete political actions were inserted into a divine project, through which God was enacting his plans.

So too, in Hitler’s view, National Socialism served to maintain a decisive work in fulfilment of a divine will. Its duty was to carry out God’s intention to make the German race the dominant force in the world and thus secure forever its eternal destiny. “The man who carries out this path will in the end receive the blessings of Providence”. It was through the use of such ideas that Hitler was able to define himself not as a mere power politician but as the executor of a divine will. By such means, he gave his aggressive nationalist racist concepts a quasi-religious legitimization. And the tragedy was that many people in Germany accepted such a creed, seeing Hitler as a religious savior, a divine messenger, or a prophet. Such was the impact of Hitler’s theology.