Article Note: Samuel Koehne. “Religion in the Early Nazi Milieu: Towards a Greater Understanding of ‘Racist Culture’”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 1/2 (June 2017)

Article Note: Samuel Koehne. “Religion in the Early Nazi Milieu: Towards a Greater Understanding of ‘Racist Culture,’” Journal of Contemporary History.  Prepublished January 1, 2016, DOI: 10.1177/0022009416669420.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

While many recent studies of religion and Nazism begin with religious institutions and work outward from there, Samuel Koehne’s research begins with the early Nazi milieu and assesses its openness to various religious options within or outside of well-established traditions. To do so, he examines the religious orientation of key figures within the German-Socialist Party (Deutschsozialistische Partei, hereafter DSP), a relatively under-researched movement with numerous connections to the Nazi Party in terms of ideology and membership. Through his analysis of the DSP party conference in 1920 and DSP visions of “religious revival,” he identifies a spectrum of otherwise heterogeneous views united by antisemitism and a “racial spirituality that amounted to a kind of ‘ethnotheism’” (1).

Koehne’s demonstration of numerous connections between the Nazi Party and the DSP serves as a justification for using the latter to shed light on the former. For example, his comparison of the DSP and Nazi party programs shows that the two movements were responding to and largely affirming one another’s positions. Though they employed slightly different vocabularies in their references to “religious confessions,” “positive Christianity,” or “religion in an Aryan-Germanic sense,” they agreed that only an “Aryan-Germanic” religion that was free of “Jewish-materialist” elements would be acceptable (5, 9-10).

Within that framework, the DSP was willing to endorse a variety of different options. For example, Pastor Friedrich Andersen, one of the co-founders of the Bund für Deutsche Kirche, rejected the Old Testament due to its Jewish origins and promoted a Christianity centered on an Aryan Jesus and his teachings (understood to be a repudiation of Jews and Judaism). For Andersen, the principle “Germans first!” was the key to sound biblical scholarship (19). Pastor Joachim Kurd Niedlich went a step further by suggesting that the Old Testament be replaced with German myths and fairy tales, thereby displaying at least some affinity with völkisch neo-pagans who rejected Christianity in any form. The DSP also expressed support for the ideas of Julius Bode and Friedrich Döllinger (Karl Weinländer), both of whom asserted continuities between a “purified,” de-Judaized Christianity and the “pagan ‘sun-worship’ of their [pre-Christian German] ancestors” (21). For the DSP, as for the Nazis, it mattered little whether one embraced a German Christianity, a neo-pagan Germanic Faith, or a Christian-pagan hybrid, so long as it was antisemitic and compatible with the “moral feelings of the German race” (22).

Koehne’s article does not call for significant revision of mainstream scholarship on Nazism and religion. In fact, much of what he discovers in his analysis of the DSP reinforces what we already know about the interplay of Nazi ideology and various traditional and non-traditional religious movements and institutions. However, his research adds additional texture to this larger story by demonstrating the importance of a “racial spirituality” among members of the Nazi milieu in its earliest stages, as well as some of the völkisch influences that informed and inspired Nazi conceptions of religion and spirituality.