Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “The Racial Yardstick: ‘Ethnotheism’ and Official Nazi Views on Religion”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 2 (June 2016)

Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “The Racial Yardstick: ‘Ethnotheism’ and Official Nazi Views on Religion,” German Studies Review 37, no. 3 (2014): 575–596.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Over the past few years, Samuel Koehne of the University of Melbourne has published a series of insightful articles on National Socialist views of religion, as disseminated in various official publications. In this article, he revisits the problematic text of Article 24 in the 1920 Nazi Party Program, interpreting it in light of four other documents: the 1919 Grundsatz or Foundational Principle of the German Workers’ Party (predecessor to the 1920 Nazi Party Program), Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925-1926), and—most importantly—Alfred Rosenberg’s 1923 and Gottfried Feder’s 1927 commentaries on the Party Program. Koehne has chosen these in part because he wants to understand what National Socialists had to say about their religious policies before they took power in 1933.

Koehne is unsatisfied with the existing conflicting interpretations of Nazi religious policy. He argues that Nazism was neither a neo-pagan religious movement, nor a political religion, nor a quasi-Christian movement. Rather, he advances “a new conceptual approach: ‘ethnotheism,’ or religion defined by race and the supposed moral or spiritual characteristics that the Nazis believed were inherent in race” (576). Ethnotheism, writes Koehne, was the unifying principle around which a wide array of religious beliefs could flourish under National Socialism. Within Article 24 of the 1920 Party Program, ethnotheism is found in the Nazi determination to oppose any kind of religious doctrine which might “endanger [the state’s] existence or offend the ethical and moral feelings of the Germanic race” (588). Importantly, Koehne argues that the subsequent sentence about the Party’s support for “positive Christianity”—normally seen as the centrepiece of Nazi religious policy—was less important. It was purposely vague, he suggests, and had no precedent or subsequent life within Nazi statements on religion. In contrast to this, the 1919 Foundational Principle of the German Worker’s Party proposed “non-interference in religious matters, except as they were matters of state or threatened the existence of the people or nation (Volk) and its ‘morality and ethics,’” as did other völkisch parties (580). This elevation of race over religion was the central principle at work, and the source of Koehne’s ethnotheism.

Koehne identifies several key Nazi ideas: that religion caused division, which would only be overcome by a common commitment to antisemitic racial nationalism, and that morality was blood bound. As Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg put it, “Morality is completely racially conditioned, and not abstract Catholic, Protestant or Muslim” (582). Similarly, ideologue Gottfried Feder proclaimed that Nazism would attack any religious teachings that offended German morality (583). And Hitler wrote much the same thing in Mein Kampf, where he rejected mixing of politics and religion and argued that pious German Protestants and Catholics would be united in a joint völkisch world view and racial struggle against the Jew (585). Indeed, this “ecumenicism of National Socialism” was what accounted for the strange mixture of Norse religion and Christianity in the work of Rosenberg. Any number of religious beliefs could be practiced under the banner of antisemitism, racial morality, and the swastika, “an Aryan symbol of renewal” (587). All this is supported by Feder’s arresting assertion that Article 24 in the 1920 Party Program was “the spiritual foundation of the entire position of National Socialism towards the Jews” (588).

Koehne’s position draws on important sources and is well-argued. Moreover, it fits with other elements of Nazi ideology, such as Hitler’s assertion that the soul of a people was contained in its blood, or that Jews (with impure blood) were devoid of spiritual capacity. It also accounts for the confusing and contradictory religious statements made and religious practices supported by leading Nazis. There is good potential in Koehne’s concept of ethnotheism. We look forward to its continued development.