Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “Were the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 3 (September 2016)

Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “Were the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas,” Central European History 47, no. 4 (2014): 760-790.

 By Christopher Probst, Washington University in St. Louis, University College

As Kyle Jantzen noted in our most recent issue, Samuel Koehne has published over the last several years a series of articles that offer significant insights on National Socialist views of religion. This study is no exception. Koehne offers nuanced conclusions based on meticulous research. The article is especially valuable for the light it sheds on the interaction between “the völkisch world of thought,” (764) which he dubs the “strange worldview out of which Nazism emerged,” (767) and Nazi views on religion as illuminated by their celebrations of Christmas in the early years of the Weimar Republic.

Koehne’s main argument is threefold: that “the Nazis were clearly a part of the völkisch movement, that they reflected the movement’s diverse religious trends, and that there is an urgent need for historians to reconnect the Nazi Party to the milieu from which it emerged” (762-763). While major histories of the Third Reich have examined the role played by antisemitism, eugenics, and Social Darwinism in the broader völkisch subculture in which the Nazis operated, he avers, “there is a need for a deeper analysis of the intellectual roots of National Socialism with respect to its religious beliefs—and to how those beliefs connected with earlier völkisch religious trends” (763). Koehne’s emphasis on the syncretistic interaction between Nazi ideology, the völkisch milieu of the early twentieth century, and Christianity is both welcome and thoroughly elucidated here.

Koehne’s conclusions are also threefold. First, he concludes that there was no “cohesive meaning” to “positive Christianity,” a much discussed phrase used in Point 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Program. Instead, the fact that this “positive Christian” party both promoted and reported its own Christmas celebrations as “the Germanic pagan festival of winter solstice” demonstrates both that leading Nazis (including Hitler) were not concerned about appearing as traditional Christians and that a wide array of religious views existed within the party (787). Second, he contends that “the early Nazi Party was immersed in the völkisch movement, including its pagan trends and traditions” (787). Koehne demonstrates that the party both promoted and was influenced to a significant degree by the ideas of people like Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Theodor Fritsch, and Arthur Dinter. Third, Koehne concludes both that there is no “inherent dichotomy” within the Nazi Party between its pagans and its Aryan Christians and that—because of the context and meaning poured into the terms by their Nazi adherents—references to Jesus Christ, Christianity, and the Bible do not necessarily exclude paganism (788). The picture that emerges here is one of a wide diversity of beliefs and indeed a great deal of syncretism between Christianity, Germanic paganism, and völkisch ideology.

Koehne’s study of a rather narrow topic—early Nazi views of the celebration of Christmas—offers tantalizing answers to much bigger questions, including the one posed in the article’s title. The study is extremely meticulous. The author’s nuanced conclusions are worthy of careful consideration and will no doubt propel others to plow further ground in this relatively fallow area of scholarly research.