Article Note: Amit Varshizky, ‘The Metaphysics of Race: Revisiting Nazism and Religion

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 3 (September 2020)

Article Note: Amit Varshizky, ‘The Metaphysics of Race: Revisiting Nazism and Religion,’ Central European History 52, no.2 (2019), 252–88;

By Samuel Koehne, Trinity Grammar School

In this article, Varshizky returns to the topic of Nazism and religion in order to consider the ways in which National Socialism and its core concepts of ‘race’ may be understood as not simply an amalgam of a fascination with genetics, racial science and ‘biological determinism’ but as a ‘new form of religiosity’ (252). In this sense, Varshizky draws on earlier works, such as Goodrick-Clarke and Mosse, as well as places his article very much in the current debate around whether Nazism had any core spiritual direction whatsoever.

Much of the paper considers intellectual trends within German society, and the ways in which debates in the fields of both philosophy and anthropology possibly underpinned concepts used by leading Nazis. Varshizky has previously written some very insightful work on Alfred Rosenberg, including his article on the Nazi ‘world-view’ (Weltanschauung) as a kind of ‘modern gnosis’ (Politics, Religion and Ideology 13, no.3 (2012), 311–31). The present article begins with a useful precis of the current debates on Nazism and religion, and Varshizky identifies three major schools of thought on Nazism and religion. These portray the Nazis as ‘secular and atheistic’ while making use of religious forms for a kind of ‘political religion,’ as ‘pagan’ and driven by an ‘anti-Christian impulse,’ or as identifying ‘ideological and institutional links between Nazism and Christianity (usually Protestantism)’ (254). However, Varshizky places his own paper solidly within a fourth historiographical ‘school’ that has emerged in recent years (Burrin, Koehne), which recognizes that Nazism could be all of these things at once and that ‘syncretism’ in the party was such that ‘[each] of these three narratives [political religion, paganism, Nazi Christianity] refers to a certain stream that existed within the Nazi ideological establishment’ (253–55).

For his part, Varshizky believes that the ‘most acceptable’ view on Nazism and religion is that of Wolfgang Bilias and Anson Rabinbach, that Nazi ideology was more of an ‘ethos or Gesinnung’ that was ‘vague and indistinct enough to embrace a variety of related perspectives’ (255). In common with other scholars in recent years, Varshizky therefore sees the Nazi aspect of ‘syncretism’ as a ‘racialized form of religiosity’ rather than necessarily an ideology that adhered to a ‘systematic or organized form of religion.’ Opposing the notion of a simplistic dichotomy in the field of Nazism and religion (such as ‘Christian/pagan’ or ‘atheist/religious’), Varshizky locates the origins of a blended Nazi scientific-religious approach in ‘vitalist biology’ in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, and traces the debates that existed in both theological circles and in anthropology in Germany from around 1900 (257–61; 261–68). In both cases, Varshizky argues that Nazism could form links to ‘paradigmatic transitions in philosophical and scientific thought’ in Germany including a growing use of ‘biocentric jargon’ in ‘life-philosophy (Lebensphilosophie)’ (257).

Varshizky points out that the theological and philosophical responses to secularization and modernity included debates that depicted ‘Judaism as the source of modernity and its crisis’ (258),’ which could form a nexus with both völkisch antisemitism and the antisemitism of ‘conservative revolutionary circles.’ (258). Varshizky places these in historical context, noting that such debates, combined with a sense of crisis in modernity and concepts of alienation, created a concept of ‘race’ that amounted to ‘a broad cultural and epistemological category’ rather than any narrowly defined or ‘scientific’ concept (261). Drawing on writers that were highly influential in the fields of genetics, anthropology and ‘racial science’– such as Walter Scheidt, Hans F.K. Günther, Fritz Lenz, Ernst Krieck – he also traces the idea of science performing the role of ‘instrument’ within a concept of race as a ‘faith’ or a ‘total reality, verified by its own factuality from its being-in-itself’ (266). This is a fascinating argument, and certainly draws on writers who heavily influenced the Nazis directly. It correlates with previous explications of Nazism and race, including leading Nazis’ obsession with salvational nationalism, but Varshizky here identifies the manner in which the Nazis might also be – in my view – rightly considered as a conspiracy group, adhering to a ‘total reality’ that dictated the manner in which they perceived the world. This had a direct impact under Nazi rule, as Varshizky notes that such an approach meant that the Nazi regime attempted to create a bewildering array of ‘Aryan’ sciences (‘Aryan physics,’ ‘Aryan mathematics,’ ‘Aryan biology’). Varshizky sees this as not only then being driven by a kind of metaphysical fascination with race, but as ultimately combining religious experience and science to some degree. The leitmotif in his consideration of Rosenberg and Gross, both of whom were leading Nazis who were deeply involved in the study of ‘racial values,’ is that their writings show the interweaving of ‘biological racism’ and ‘theological narratives employing vitalist language’ (273).

Some of the most valuable material in this paper appears in the section on Rosenberg and Bergmann (279–83), where Varshizky explores their writings in considerable depth, noting the philosophical approach that they adopt revolved around concepts of blood but also a kind of ‘pantheistic religiosity’ in which religion ‘had to be evaluated in accordance with [the Nazis’] “hyperracialized and antisemitic ideology.”’ (282). His work provides further evidence for the concept of ‘ethnotheism’ (Koehne) in the Nazi Party, as he concludes: ‘The demand to reconcile all religious views with the “moral feelings of the Germanic Race” [Point 24, Nazi Program]…resulted in a largely cohesive, if flexible, attitude toward religion,’ in which ‘all spiritual values were ultimately race-determined.’ In his view, such supposedly ‘biologically-based spirituality’ could provide an ‘all-encompassing’ world-view in a time of severe crisis during the Weimar Republic.

Indeed, it is perhaps the more pertinent to us now to return to these concepts, as many present-day crises have seen the rise of conspiracy theories and the amalgam of people’s concerns and fears with vast, fictional, but deeply held views in which a ‘total reality’ is stood against actual reality. In such crises, people are indeed turning to explanatory frameworks or a ‘conceptual grid’ that simplifies and ‘holistically’ explains the world in terms of some larger conspiracy or ‘cabal.’  While race may not necessarily be the core of such conspiracy groups today – although sadly antisemitism is often a core component – reading Varshizky’s article was a timely reminder that we perhaps have greater insight presently into the ways in which Nazi ideology worked: as a racial world-view that (to its adherents) revealed the ‘true’ nature of the world as one of ‘racial struggle.’