The Nazis and Religion: Digital Visual Resources for Research and Teaching
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 26, Number 3 (September 2020)
The Nazis and Religion: Digital Visual Resources for Research and Teaching
By Samuel Koehne, Trinity Grammar School
Given the continuing interruption that COVID-19 poses around the world, this review considers three readily available resources on the Hitler Youth that are either digitalized or available in digital format from the following institutions:
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)
- Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections (PLU)
- Deutsches Bildband-Archiv (DBA)
Each of these provides access to materials from film strips in the form of slides (Bildbänder) that were sent out by the Hitler Youth to ‘explain’ certain topics and propagandize for the Nazis. Although not commonly used in the literature, these are helpful for both research and teaching. As they were produced by the Amt der weltanschauulichen Schulung der Hitlerjugend (Division for Ideological Education of the Hitler Youth) they may also be particularly useful for university students – they are readily available, they are quite striking visual sources, and they effectively summarize key topics in Nazism (including Nazi views on religion). In addition to this, they are useful as official productions of the Nazi state in the 1930s that were aimed at the youth, and because some of them do not require German – for example, the USHMM and PLU slides and booklets have English translations or captions of the German text. Not least, students may very readily understand these Bildbänder, given they were essentially the ‘PowerPoints’ of their day. As a result, it is well worth bringing these resources to the attention of scholars more generally, as a potential digital resource.
The slide-shows produced by the Hitler Youth often had instructional booklets that allowed those screening the materials to use this as (effectively) a kind of introduction and script when showing the films, in order to both create a consistent message and minimize the extra work that would be required by any Hitler Youth leader who was using this for ‘ideological instruction.’ Both the German Bild-Archiv and Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections still have many of the original script booklets, but they are not extant for those in the USHMM.
Many of the Bildbänder were focused on the military and war, including one curious slide-show (available through the PLU) that dealt with the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, and another that depicted the English as a state that was seeking world domination. The latter (Englands Griff nach der Welt) begins with an image of a clawed hand seizing the world, an image normally used by the Nazis to depict the Jews, but here used to portray England. The slide-show itself argued England had sought to control the entire world through its empire, that they had ‘poisoned the Chinese people’ through opium, and – a particularly interesting aspect for any scholar of Nazism – they demonized the English for the following: ‘Their troops exterminated Australian aborigines, plundered the rich land of the Boers and dragged women and children into concentration camps.’ The accompanying booklet appears to indicate that this was produced just before World War II. There is a terrible irony in the ways that the slide-show depicted both concentration camps under the British – with a drawing of people desperately rushing the fences while guards watch them unconcerned – and declared the ‘bloody suffering’ of British rule was due to ‘shameless violence’ and ruling through ‘brutality and force.’ Given that we now associate these very things with Nazi Germany, it is curious that they also argued the ‘High-Church of England’ gave its ‘blessing’ to such violence, an interesting point of comparison to the ways in which some Christian groups and churches (like the German Christians) comparably ‘blessed’ the Nazis and their ideology. Much of the remainder of this slide-show argued that Jews controlled England, and focused on the concept of Lebensraum. Other slide-shows contained advice to the youth in serving the nation through being physically fit, with one (‘You have the duty to be healthy’) containing such basic advice as brushing one’s teeth or washing regularly, alongside warnings against smoking and drinking alcohol. Michael Buddrus points out that the range of materials offered in the full series ranged from the Treaty of Versailles to the rebuilding of the German army, colonies to Erbkranker Nachwuchs, ‘Hereditarily diseased offspring.’ Many of them contain a core Nazi message, such as a slide-show that was a series of pleasant images of nature on ‘The Natural World’ (Lebendige Welt) but contained in the script such messages as these: ‘Life is struggle (Kampf), and victory is its validation.’ The same slide-show began with a statement by Hans Schemm that identified God simply as ‘nature’: ‘National Socialism at its most fundamental is nothing other, than a wonderful Confession to the organic, to growth, to comply together [presumably to ‘laws of nature’], and at the same time a Confession to God’ (Der Nationalsozialismus ist im Grundprinzip nichts anderes, als ein wundervolles Bekenntnis zum Organischen, zum Wachsen, zum Sichzusammenfügen und zu gleicher Zeit ein Bekenntnis zu Gott).
Race and Antisemitism
This is not to say that the ideological films avoided the topics of antisemitism or eugenics, and one of the core collections in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is entitled Deutschland überwindet das Judentum, ‘Germany overcomes Jewry.’ The notion of ‘race’ was writ large in the films sent to Hitler Youth on ‘overcoming Jewry,’ with the first slide quoting Hitler: ‘Jewry was always a people [Volk] with particular racial characteristics and never a religion. The Jew is and remains a parasite [Schmarotzer]. Where he appears, the host-nation dies.’ The series went on to very clearly outline the Nazi perspective that Jews were to be attacked and removed from society as a ‘foreign race’ – although Jews were also depicted as a ‘bastard’ race. The slide-show for the Hitler Youth argued not only that Jews did not have the rights of citizenship in the Middle Ages and were forced to live in ghettoes, but directly argued that they had only received the same rights as ‘state-citizens of German blood’ (die deutschblütigen Staatsbürger) through the French Revolution. It repeated many of the stereotypes that the Nazis had used to characterise ‘Jewry’ from the very foundation of the German Workers’ Party, including the notions that Jews ran all money-markets, were the major bankers of the world, controlled literature, film, and the press. It also contained Hitler’s notion that Jews were incapable of culture: ‘The Jew possesses no culture-creating ability.’ As so often occurred in Nazi propaganda, there was a conflation of conspiratorial concepts, with freemasonry and Marxism being viewed as merely ‘tools in the fight for political power’ in the Bildband. The slide-show ended with the notion that ‘Adolf Hitler with his [Nazi] movement broke the Jewish domination’ through quoting the Nazi Party Programme, Point 4: ‘Only someone who is a Volk-comrade can be a citizen. A Volk-comrade can only be someone of German blood, regardless of confession. No Jew therefore can be a Volk-comrade.’ The Nuremberg Race Laws were also quoted, to the effect that a ‘citizen of the Reich can only be a state-citizen of German or racially-related blood,’ going on to note specific measures against Jews as public officials, authors, and against intermarriage, ‘[f]or the protection of German blood from foreign-racial intermixture’ – with a chart demonstrating who might ‘count’ as being of ‘German blood.’
The Bible and the Church
In terms of the topic of religion, at least two of the productions in the Bildbänder demonstrate that Christianity was viewed as negative because it was believed to somehow denigrate the ‘Germanic race,’ and any such supposed attack on ‘race’ was a cardinal sin in National Socialism. While this extended (as Burleigh and Wippermann identified) to ‘the exclusion and extermination of all those deemed to be “alien,” “hereditarily ill” or “asocial”’ it also appears to have been used in the Hitler Youth educational films to argue the ‘alien’ nature of Christianity. While ‘Germany overcomes Jewry’ was intended to promote racial concepts of blood and to establish the supposed enmity the Nazis believed existed between ‘Aryans’ and ‘Jews,’ the purpose of the slide-show ‘5000 Years of German Culture’ (5000 Jahre Germanentum) was intended to create pride in German history and opposition to the church.
In a booklet that came along with the film, it was clear that this was not only designed to create a sense of ‘Germanic’ superiority but to specifically attack the Catholic Church. The instructions – I have only been able to source a screenshot of the first pages – began with a comment on the ‘Church and German pre-history’ (Kirche und deutsche Vorgeschichte). The very first lines indicated the view of the church: ‘Two heavy shackles (Fesseln) have formerly hindered the wider promotion in the Volk of the findings from research into ancient German history: the lie of the barbarism of our forefathers and the Jewish teaching of the creation of the world, as it is found in the Bible.’ The blame for the former was placed solidly on ‘the church,’ which was accused of having created a ‘lie of the barbarism of the Germanic tribes (Germanen)’ as a ‘wild people’ that had only gained ‘Roman culture’ originally ‘through the missionaries of the church.’ The notion appears to have been part and parcel of the broader concept in Nazism – promote by various leaders, including Hitler – that the Germans, as ‘Aryans,’ were supposedly already creative and constructive as a ‘race,’ prior to their conversion to Christianity. For example, Hitler argued that ‘Aryans’ were the only ‘race’ to be able to create cultures, community or society in Mein Kampf. In his view – as for many other leading Nazis – Christianity therefore could be seen as essentially false for promoting religion over race, for portraying Jesus Christ as the sacrificial lamb or for ‘weakening’ racial ideology through such core orthodox Christian notions as original sin. By contrast, Hitler argued variously that ‘God’s work’ was race – ‘in that I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord’ – that Jesus Christ was a violent antisemite – ‘what today is a blackjack was earlier a whip’ [referring to Matthew 21] – and that ‘sin against blood and race is the original sin of this world.’
Yet there was also a more ‘hidden’ critique of Christianity in such statements, as was identified by Hans F.K. Günther, the so-called ‘Race Pope,’ who argued that ‘pure-blooded ancient Germans were fundamentally capable, fundamentally good, and not originally sinful.’ This identified the fact that orthodox Christianity, by its very insistence on sin, argued that people were not perfect. Concomitant with this, the introduction of Christianity and the conversion of the German peoples was seen as a positive change and an advancement in Germany. For the Nazis, the ‘Aryans’ were supposedly already perfect, cultured and advanced, so that the claim that the Germanic peoples were not ‘civilized’ was seen as opposing this racial world-view. ‘5000 Years of German Culture’ encapsulated this, by arguing that the ‘lie promoted by the Catholic Church’ was that ‘the ancient Germanic peoples [Germanen] had only adopted agriculture, animal husbandry, horticulture, and all artisanal work and art from the Romans and monks.’ The purpose of the slide-show then was to show that this was incorrect, and that the Germanic tribes had possessed all of these for thousands of years. In another comparable ‘educational film for the Hitler Youth’ – ‘So lived our Forefathers’ (So lebten unserer Vorfahren) – the primary issue taken with such concepts was that the Hitler Youth leadership saw it as promoting a ‘completely false’ notion of ‘our forefathers’ that did not fit with the Nazi notion of a ‘superior race.’ As a result, it was argued that to see Germans as barbarians ‘placed the Germanic tribes on the same level as the uncultured Negro [kulturloser Negerstamm].’ This is an interesting form of ‘cultural’ attack on the churches – it did not attack religion per se, but attacked the churches as institutions for daring to claim that the Germanen were ever anything but perfect. In a sense, the notion of thousands of years of German culture – 5000 years in 5000 Jahre Germanentum or up to 7000 years in So lebten unserer Vorfahren – indicated a kind of cultural cringe. In ‘5000 Years of German Culture’ one slide quoted Hitler to the effect that Germans should not be ‘ashamed’ of their ‘forefathers,’ but take pride in their ancestors, just as the Italians, Greeks, or British did for their ancestors. The church was clearly attacked for portraying the Germanic tribes as pagan, and the ‘cardinal sin’ of denigrating race was directly identified in one of the final slides of ‘5000 Years of German Culture,’ quoting Hans Schemm: ‘Whoever claims, that the Germanic tribes were uncultured pagans, falsifies history and commits a crime against German blood.’ The Catholic Church was seen as committing precisely this ‘crime.’
What is more interesting is that the Hitler Youth were being directly encouraged to place the Bible in direct opposition to ‘Research’ and to see the Bible itself as fundamentally opposed to National Socialism. This was very clearly outlined in one of the earliest slides of 5000 Jahre Germanentum, which argued that ‘Research’ led to ‘National Socialism’ while ‘the Bible’ led to the ‘Jewish International’:
|Time of the prehistoric peoples [Urmenschen] 300,000 to 5000 before the turning-point of the age [vor Zeitwende]
Germanic period 5000 v.Ztw – 800 n.Ztw.
German History 800 – 1933
Creation of the World 4000 BC
10 Commandments of Moses 1300 BC
Diaspora of the Jews
Unfortunately the instructional script for this slide is missing, but the overall concept was clear. Curiously enough, the Nazi version of events to the left did not even make use of Christ as a point of reference, while positioning the Bible entirely as ‘Jewish.’ The use of ‘vor Zeitwende’ rather than ‘vor Christus’ was partly explained, however, by the concept that Germans should not be seeking their culture outside of a fairly narrowly defined part of the world – and that this region (because of its connection to ‘race’) thereby became sacralized. In this sense, one entire slide simply asked ‘Where is our Holy Land?’ and answered it promptly: ‘North Germany. The original homeland of the Germanic tribes is our Holy Land.’ The concept of Germans as ‘culture creators’ then followed, with the claim that the ‘most ancient farmhouse of the earth’ was the Germanic long-house, and that both ‘ploughs and wagons’ were ‘early Germanic discoveries.’ Using examples of stone weapons and early German pottery, the continual theme was that Germanic tribes had been advanced, sophisticated and possessed a ‘high culture’ (Hochkultur) that supposedly derived from their ‘race.’ For that matter, a parallel slide-show on the ‘German impact in the East’ (Deutsche Leistung im Osten) in the USHMM argued that the ‘Germanic peoples created the foundations of European culture,’ which were then meant to have been transported to Eastern Europe by Germans. One of these was supposedly the ‘Germanic sacred symbol’ (Heilszeichen) of the swastika, as indicated by swastikas marked out on an old barn. In terms of culture, the invasions of Rome were promoted as a positive impact on the Roman Empire, seen as ‘rotting from within.’
It is here that ‘5000 Years of German Culture’ overlapped with the promotion of paganism as a kind of indication of Germanic spirituality, as the slide-show not only showed advances in materials and tools, from stone to bronze, but argued that the burial practices of the Germanic peoples showed a fine sense of religiosity, whether these involved burial or cremation. While showing artists’ recreations of the interior of long-houses, the slide-show noted that such ‘halls [of the German peoples] rang with the heroic songs of the Edda’ and it introduced instances of the swastika on weapons as an emblem. All of this appears to have led to the central identification of the swastika as apparently something both connected to being ‘godly’ (göttliches) and as a depiction of the sun. Unfortunately the slide in the USHMM that contains this information is damaged, but I suspect that it refers both to the Hakenkreuz and Sonne, from the text that remains. This would bear further investigation, but the following slide certainly continued to discuss the swastika as a symbol and the early German notions of the sun-wheel.
One fascinating omission in ‘5000 Years of German Culture’ is that it made no positive mention of Christianity or showed any indications of the impact of Christian faith on Germany. This ‘silence’ was significant, the more so given that Christianity was still the dominant religion in Germany at the time. Instead, all aspects of the slide-show focused on the achievements of Germans before Christianity. It is clear this was not accidental, as the slide-show from the same series for Christmas (Deutsche Weihnachten) continually emphasized that the Nazi Party intended to celebrate this as the pagan festival of solstice, not as a Christian festival. It is remarkable quite how open both of these slide-shows (‘5000 years of German Culture,’ ‘German Christmas’) were in terms of the way that they clearly and directly argued that the Nazi Party was focused on ancient Germanic notions, including religion. Scholars have already identified that the Nazis from early on celebrated Christmas as the Germanic ‘Yule’ or winter solstice festival. The Hitler Youth slide-show from the late 1930s linked directly to this by seeking to explain all aspects of Christmas in Germany as a kind of expression of the ‘racial soul’ in which original ‘markers’ or symbols of Germanic-pagan life were absorbed into the modern tradition. As Perry has pointed out, this was part and parcel of the Nazis attempting to ‘eliminate altogether’ the ‘Christian aspects of the holiday.’ Certainly the Hitler Youth slide-show (held by PLU) argued that Christmas was to be celebrated in the pagan form of the festival, not as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The ‘German Christmas’
The very introduction of the ‘German Christmas’ presented it as a time of anticipation, home, and baking. When children were mentioned as gathering around ‘the mother’ at twilight for ‘the most beautiful time’ of the day, it was to hear ‘fairy-tales’ and stories from ‘our sagas.’ This was linked to the main theme of the slide-show, that Christmas should be celebrated in the manner of ‘our forefathers’ who were argued to have ‘celebrated Christmas [Weihnachten] as the festival of the light rising again and the renewal of life’ (Unsere Vorfahren feierten Weihnachten als Fest des wieder aufsteigenden Lichtes und der Erneuerung des Lebens). Drawing on ‘history and sagas’ the instruction guide advised that the celebration of winter solstice was based on the hope for ‘new-born light,’ ‘the hope for the reawakening of life in nature [after winter], for warmth and the sun,’ that it was a time of ‘thinking of the dead’ and that (in their view) small trees were placed ‘at the grave and decorated with lights.’ These were seen as the traditions of the German people that has been: ‘reinterpreted and used for the form of a Christian festival. In place of the old Germanic forms came the saints of the Christian church.’
The instructional guide – available through PLU – was clear as to how the Nazis were reverting to the earlier tradition: ‘Today we reflect again on our old, original form, on that, which our forefathers passed down to us, and we wish to again celebrate Christmas as the festival of the returning light and the renewal of life [my emphasis].’ In ensuring that the message of returning to a pagan festival was clear, the slides identified the same point repeatedly: ‘Our forefathers celebrated Christmas as the festival of the light rising again and the renewal of life.’ It argued that the Christmas tree itself was a ‘symbol of life,’ but that it – like many of the ‘existing traditions of the homeland’ – had been used by ‘the church’ to create the ‘festival of the birth of Christ.’ In the slide-show, these were explained variously as ‘[t]he most beautiful symbol life, mother and child, becoming ‘Mary and the Christ-child,’ while ‘Frau Holle became the decorative angel’ and ‘St Nicholas took the place of Odin [Wodan].’ The last two of these are particularly striking, as they took up the notion that older Germanic gods had continued as traditions, but simply been ‘converted’ into new Christian forms. Frau Holle (sometimes also Frau Holda) had been perceived as ‘a benevolent goddess of German antiquity’ since Jacob Grimm had argued this in the nineteenth century, though he believed that ‘folk tales which are common to both Frau Holda and the Virgin Mary’ had been ‘originally’ about Holda, then ‘as a result of Christian influence she was debased and replaced by Mary.’ While other scholars later disagreed, this appears to be the interpretation offered by the Nazi Party, although obviously showing Frau Holle as becoming the angel on the tree, rather than Mary. With images showing Hitler Youth, the slide-show repeated that the Nazis did not aim to celebrate Christmas as a Christian festival of any kind, but as a ‘return to the old German form: as the reappearance of the light, and the renewal of life.’
In conclusion, then, these sources may serve as a useful point of either research for students or as ‘summaries’ for particular topics in teaching. In any case, they serve as a reminder that the Nazis were quite adept at using different media to attempt to communicate their ideas. Like their use of film, the Bildbänder appear to have been designed to create a direct, simplified message so as to communicate the more effectively with youth. Given this, what they were communicating by the 1930s about religion is rather striking.
 Enormous thanks are owed to Dr. Napp of the Deutsches Bild-Archiv and Anna Trammell of the Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections, for all their assistance.
 See Folders 1.18, Englands Griff nach der Welt; 1.22, Legion Condor; from the Bildband für die Schulung in der Hitler-Jugend Records OPVARCH6.4.3, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
 Folder 1.4, Du hast die Pflicht, gesund zu sein, from the Bildband für die Schulung in der Hitler-Jugend Records OPVARCH6.4.3, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
 Michael Buddrus, Totale Erziehung für den totalen Krieg: Hitlerjugend und nationalsozialistische Jugendpolitik (München: K.G.Saur, 2003), 64n.21.
 Folder 1.11, Lebendige Welt, from the Bildband für die Schulung in der Hitler-Jugend Records OPVARCH6.4.3, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
 Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), 304-7.
 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (München: Franz Eher/Zentralverlag der NSDAP, 1936),
 Respectively: Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Pimlico, 2004), 60; Speech, 2 November 1922, Hitler, Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen: 1905–1924, ed. Eberhard Jäckel and Axel Kuhn (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1980), 720; Hitler, Mein Kampf (München: Franz Eher/Zentralverlag der NSDAP, 1936), 272, 449.
 Hans F. K. Günther, Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (München: J.F. Lehmann, 1922), 398–99.
 See Folder 1.10, Deutsche Weihnachten, from the Bildband für die Schulung in der Hitler-Jugend Records OPVARCH6.4.3, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
 Joe Perry, ‘Nazifying Christmas: Political Culture and Popular Celebration in the Third Reich,’ Central European History 38 (2005): 572–605; Samuel Koehne, ‘Were the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas,’ Central European History 47 (2014): 760–90.
 All remaining materials refer to the Bildband and instructional booklet held in Folder 1.10, Deutsche Weihnachten, from the Bildband für die Schulung in der Hitler-Jugend Records OPVARCH6.4.3, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
 Edgar List, ‘Is Frau Holda the Virgin Mary?’, The German Quarterly, 29, no.2 (1958): 80–4, here 80.