Review of Klaus Vondung, Paths to Salvation: The National Socialist Religion

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 1 (March 2021)

Review of Klaus Vondung, Paths to Salvation: The National Socialist Religion, trans. William Petropulos (St Augustine’s Press: South Bend, Indiana, 2019). 168 Pp. ISBN: 978-1-58731-656-2.

By Samuel Koehne, Trinity Grammar School

In Paths to Salvation Klaus Vondung, with considerable nuance, examines the extent to which religious concepts may be applicable to National Socialism. The study in itself is complex and interesting, exploring what Vondung refers to as the ‘forms’ of ‘religiosity’ that might best characterise National Socialism – while still focusing on Nazism as principally a secular and even atheistic ideology. In broad terms, the work fits within the historiographical school of thought that explains Nazism as a kind of ‘political religion,’ and this has been a key focus in Vondung’s career, including his much earlier work Magie und Manipulation: Ideologischer Kult und politische Religion des Nationalsozialismus (Magic and Manipulation: The Ideological Cult and Political Religion of National Socialism). As a result, Vondung’s text explicitly focuses on particular ‘religious aspects’ that he believes are the ‘fundamental religious phenomena’ of National Socialism – Faith, Mysticism, Myth and Ritual, Cult, Theology, Apocalypse – and these then form the chapters of his book. As such, this publication fits into the recent revival of interest in the concept of ‘political religion.’ However, unlike some works which have considered a particular Nazi leader, a text or event, the author adopts what might be termed a ‘pointillist’ approach to the topic: layering smaller examples to illustrate his arguments.

Vondung is clear from the outset that he believes central religious notions such as redemption or salvation have also formed links to very different movements across Germany’s history, from nationalist movements arising out of the Napoleonic Wars through to intellectual movements, and that National Socialism must also be considered ‘a political movement’ with ‘political goals.’ The introduction in itself explores a fascinating and diverse cast of characters, ranging from Fichte to Johst to Mirbt to Gerstenhauer, but argues a kind of coherence around the central theme of a desire for ‘redemption.’ Vondung writes extremely well, and consistently draws on a broad knowledge of German history. His larger historical perspective does sometimes mean that comparisons are drawn from examples that range from the Napoleonic wars to the Nazi state. For readers familiar with the larger history of Germany, this poses no issue, but it does assume an understanding of key historical context. Despite the fact that figures which are quoted come from different periods of time, the central desire for ‘redemption’ is argued to have been born from a ‘complex of motives’ that are summarised as ‘a combination of national frustration, fundamental unease with modernity, and the feeling that life was devoid of meaning.’ While the Introduction does not fully explain the purpose of this book, it does illustrate the overarching approach of many scholars who write in the field of ‘political religion’– that that there is either a perceived inadequacy in religion or an inefficacy of religion to fill the need for meaning in modernity (dominated by ‘rationalism and materialism’) that has led people to seek ‘a new spiritual home.’

The first chapter of the book – ‘Political Religion?’ – is particularly useful in summarising the ways in which Nazism was considered either a ‘secular religion’ or ‘political religion’ by contemporaries, and Vondung summarises major scholars of the 1920s and 1930s who understood ‘Hitlerism’ and the Nazi Party in this way. Drawing especially on the work of Eric Voegelin on Political Religions, he provides a subtle and fascinating argument that balances explanations of political religion against those who critique it, pointing out that while that has been a revival of interest in ‘political religions’ there remain major objections to its use. Vondung notes that Voegelin believed National Socialism went beyond using ‘a religious vocabulary’ or ‘cultic forms of celebration’ and argues that ‘[Voegelin’s] analysis revealed the religious nature of [National Socialism’s] existential core’ in that ‘partial contents of the world’ – like ‘race’ – became ‘objects of faith.’ Yet he also summarises the criticisms, such as the arguments that it there was a ‘religious nature’ to Nazism, the ‘dogmas’ of Nazism were ‘empty’ (quoting de Rougemont) and that Nazism was not homogenous but instead embraced diverse religious positions and expressions of ‘faith.’ He also includes Mommsen’s fairly damning assessment that ‘The decisive object to applying the theory of political religion to National Socialism is that it attributes an ideological rigor and consistency to a movement that lacked any.’ In fact, it appears that Vondung does not fully embrace the concept of ‘political religion’ either, pointing out that Voegelin himself noted in later works that this term was ‘too vague.’ Nonetheless, the author sees much value in the very recent work of Emilio Gentile in this field, and views his own book as examining ‘the various forms in which religiosity is articulated in National Socialism.’ While his work does cover diverse topics, I believe that it is important to detail two particular foci – ‘Faith’ and ‘Apocalypse’ – as these help to give a sense of the remainder of the book.

Vondung is very convincing in his argument that Hitler saw ‘faith’ as one of the core and necessary methods to building a powerful political movement, and that this drew on existing religious notions and traditions. It has been well established that Hitler not only admired the dogmatic method of the Catholic Church (while fundamentally rejecting the content of such dogmas) but that he also thought such assurance and ‘apodictic force’ was absolutely essential to the creation of a ‘brazen cliff of solid unity in faith and will’ (Mein Kampf) that would draw the diverse völkisch movement into a powerful political vehicle. For that matter, the page headings of Mein Kampf summarised this neatly: ‘From religious sentiment to an apodictic belief / From völkisch feeling to a political confession.’ Vondung examines this, and elaborates on it, noting that this ‘faith’ then formed a powerful method by which people were drawn to central tenets of Nazism. Most especially, there was ‘faith’ in Hitler himself, but Vondung also believes that other such objects of faith were ‘Blood and Soil, Volk and Reich’ and the swastika flag itself. The argument is well made that this then formed a far more fanatical adherence and ‘stronger commitment’ to the Nazi Party that merely agreeing to follow a party platform. Although Voegelin believed that Nazism went beyond ‘cultic forms of celebration,’ Vondung notes that these actually form the strongest examples of a commitment to ‘faith’ and belief: noting the consecration of flags at the Nuremberg rallies (with the ‘blood flag’ of the Munich Putsch) and ‘swearing-in ceremonies’ that formed a common part of events for new members of both the NSDAP and the SS. Vondung uses a powerful example of ‘liturgical forms of declarations of faith’ that repeated the mantra of ‘We believe…’ Providing multiple examples of both songs and poems, as well as personal diary entries of such figures as Goebbels, Vondung points out that much of what would commonly be accepted as religious declarations of faith were indeed both applied to new ‘catechisms’ of race, blood, and the Volk and experienced by some Nazi adherents as a genuine expression of faith. Nonetheless, he does urge caution and notes that there were also party adherents who were quite ‘cynical’ in joining the party, or those who only participated in the sense of ‘command and obedience’ without necessarily experiencing either an emotional connection – as others certainly did – or feeling any deeper commitment. Nonetheless, while Vondung feels that it is difficult to ascertain the ‘earnestness’ of those professing a Nazi faith, it is clear that the intention was to build such faith in Nazi Germany and its aims. What this does show is there is some strong evidence and support for the argument that ‘religious phenomena’ could be either used by the Nazis or genuinely adapted to a new form of racial faith. However, it does not necessarily follow that this shows the ‘religious nature of [National Socialism’s] existential core.’ This is illustrated by the final chapter of the work, which in some ways counter-balances the very strong chapter on ‘Faith.’

When it comes to the final chapter of his work, Vondung sees the ‘apocalyptic’ view of the Nazis (relying particularly on Hitler and Rosenberg) as the ‘extreme manifestation’ of Nazi religiosity. However, he goes further, arguing that this is the ‘only plausible explanation for the intention to destroy the Jews.’ This is difficult to sustain on the face of it, even though it does fit with the notion of ‘redemptive antisemitism’ that Saul Friedländer proposed as the core of National Socialism. For that matter, Vondung’s view that the Nazis’ world-view was akin to that of an ‘apocalyptic visionary’ does in broad terms fit with the famous definition of Fascism by Roger Griffin: ‘Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.’

Yet Vondung locates the notion of the apocalypse not only in the kind of approach that characterized the work of early figures such as Eric Voegelin or later scholars like Hans Mommsen – that Nazism was a ‘political messianism’ or that Nazism possessed a ‘chiliastic character’ – but in the context of this term both within the book of Daniel and in the book of Revelation. In this regard, and it is worth quoting at length, Vondung believes that ‘the apocalyptic message’ in either the Old or New Testament ‘was originally for those who longed for redemption because they were oppressed and persecuted, and because their suffering was so extreme that a change for the better no longer seemed possible,’ but he also notes that it therefore offered ‘consolation.’ While thereafter arguing that the core of the apocalyptic is ‘destruction and renewal…annihilation and redemption’ it appears to be deeply problematic to take these notions and directly link them to the Nazis. This is because in either the accounts of Daniel or Revelation the key focus was on people who were oppressed and that the change in their situation was to be brought about by God, that is, by a force that was greater than the people involved, and in faith that such a change would occur without human intervention. Neither of these appear to be strictly applicable to the Nazis.

Vondung argues – and powerfully so – that many of those drawn into the Nazi Party and forming part of its leadership experienced the entire post-war period as a time of despair and hopelessness, that might draw them then to a promise of redemption. While it is undoubtedly correct that they felt ‘oppressed and persecuted’ in the wake of World War I, the Nazis and the German state that they controlled were also clearly the oppressors by the outbreak of the Second World War. This is countered somewhat by Vondung, in that he does state that the perception of oppression may be a ‘false interpretation’ while still maintaining that a person with an apocalyptic mindset ‘experiences the world as suffering and longs for redemption.’ This still implies a far more cohesive perspective than that argued by scholars like Jeffrey Herf, who noted in his detailed study of National Socialist propaganda that the Nazis ‘were able to entertain completely contradictory versions of events simultaneously, one rooted in the grandiose idea of a master race and world domination, and the other in the self-pitying paranoia of the innocent, beleaguered victim.’

Vondung does caution that ‘Jewish and Christian visions of the apocalypse’ did not create ‘activists’ but rather led to ‘quietists,’ and that perhaps the consolation they experienced was that derived simply from ‘fantasies of revenge.’ This forms a stark contrast to either the Nazis or Communists, although both movements were held to be ‘political religions’ by Voegelin. While Vondung believes that ‘modern political apocalyptic movements’ drew on religious traditions but then ‘broke with their roots,’ there seems to be little other than analogy that is offered to support this interpretation. In a broad sense, it certainly is correct that notions of ‘destruction and renewal, of annihilation and redemption’ were core aspects of the Nazi Party, and that they saw ‘national salvation’ (Kershaw) as their major aim. But the desire to therefore see them as the modern incarnation of religious apocalyptic tradition involves such key conceptual shifts that one wonders whether the analogy suffices.

He identifies ‘modern apocalyptic movements’ as having ‘real violence’ because it is not God but rather ‘human beings’ that are meant to bring ‘salvation’ (whether it is a social class in ‘the Marxist drama of history’ or ‘race’ in Nazism) and states that the focus has shifted to an ‘earthly paradise’ rather than ‘a Heavenly Jerusalem.’ While Vondung relies on a general comparison to Judeo-Christian .apocalyptic traditions, there were also secular and even more specifically völkisch traditions within Germany that had already developed harrowing notions of a degenerate and decaying world that did not necessarily draw in any direct sense on Judeo-Christian tradition, but instead on notions of disconnected industrialised and urbanised populations – the ‘Asphalt-menschen’ as Goebbels and Feder disparagingly called them – or on concepts of Nordic ‘apocalypse’ as they existed within the idea of Ragnarok. For instance, Gottfried Feder used this in the official commentary on the Nazi Programme in order to explain view of the post-war period as ‘the twilight of the gods…[a] time of the wolf and the axe…fire falls from heaven and gods and men pass away,’ quoting the Norse Edda. In all fairness, this directly supports Vondung’s central argument: that leading Nazis viewed the world in an apocalyptic way. Yet it simultaneously indicates that we may be looking at the wrong apocalyptic framework if we turn to the Book of Daniel.

Vondung notes that Hitler and Rosenberg viewed the world in Manichean terms – with the Jews representing all evil and their destruction representing ‘salvation’ for the world. While this does not take account of Hitler’s views of a supposedly ‘racial’ group between these two (‘culture-bearers,’ as he put it in Mein Kampf) it certainly does fit with the broader writings and speeches of both men. Nonetheless, one feature that does not appear to be accounted for is that Hitler did not merely view the world as a great struggle between Aryans and Jews, but argued a racial-historical perspective akin to Houston Stewart Chamberlain. This tended to portray the victory of ‘Jews’ as a complete destruction of the world, an apocalyptic vision where ‘this planet will…move through the ether devoid of men’ (Mein Kampf), while believing that somehow the culture of the world had only ever been created by ‘Aryans’ and that ensuring no ‘blood intermixture’ would be sufficient for the world to continue as it was, rather than fundamentally changing. Put another way, this was not an approach that necessarily saw change or redemption, but mere survival and stasis as the best possible outcome – if ‘Aryans’ survived, so too did the world.

In this sense, the notion of the ‘apocalypse’ in political or secular terms is also fundamentally different. The destruction of the ‘old world’ in religious terms is often seen as a complete destruction leading to a ‘new world.’ Hitler and others in the Nazi Party did not really seem to be seeking a ‘new world’ but – in their view – simply survival of the ‘Aryans’ or possibly a return to an ‘old world’ in which the supposed ‘Aryan race’ dominated. It was their view that all great civilisations had been created by Aryans because they were understood as the only ‘race’ capable of creation. Hitler and Rosenberg were both very clear that ‘sin against the blood’ was the central facet of the downfall of such societies as Persia, Greece, or Rome (viewed in somewhat paradisical terms as ‘Aryan’ societies) so that it was not only a stark dualism that defined their world-view, but a fear of the blending of ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ races that drove their agenda. This seems to draw their conceptual approach away from a purely ‘apocalyptic’ perspective to one that drew far more on scientific-rationalist notions relating to the early science of genetics. Vondung argues strongly for the Nazis as ‘apocalyptic’ because he believes that this is why Hitler (and others) thought that ‘unlimited violence against Jews [was] justified’ given the view that ‘Germany’s fate, indeed the fate of mankind, depends on the evil enemy being destroyed.’ He goes on to note that this was combined with the active demonisation of the Jews. Yet the Nazis did not simply use violence against the Jews, but against those they considered (on some levels) to be their own ‘race,’ and it is unclear whether the ‘apocalyptic vision’ can fully explain the kind of broader racial framework that antisemitism fitted within in Nazi ideology – ‘based upon the exclusion and extermination of all those deemed to be “alien,” “hereditarily ill” or “asocial”’ (Burleigh and Wippermann). This remains a core issue with arguing ‘religious phenomena’ should be applied to the Nazis as a political or ideological movement. If we become too focused on the notion of an apocalyptic ‘vision’ as the ‘only plausible explanation for the intention to destroy the Jews’ that it does not appear to deal adequately with the racial anxiety and even political or economic anxieties that were used to justify destroying the mentally ill as ‘ballast existences.’ If the first systematic destruction of life practiced by the Nazi state was aimed ‘within’ (through the T4 Aktion) and was based on eugenics concepts, then the question arises as to whether the notion of the ‘apocalypse’ as an explanatory framework is adequate to cover the ideas of racial salvation that drove Nazi violence. This remains unanswered in Vondung’s book, as the concept of ‘apocalypse’ is applied only to the destruction of the Jews.

Mommsen’s concepts of ‘cumulative radicalization’ and a gradual and changing process of antisemitic policy in Nazi Germany also appears to challenge the idea that an ‘apocalyptic vision’ is fundamental to explaining the destruction of the Jews. Vondung counters this by arguing that the process may have changed over time, but that the ‘general intention’ and justification for action was ‘the apocalyptic image of the evil enemy of mankind.’ Certainly he is correct that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews remained unchanged from the beginning of his political career, and that he consistently demonized the Jews as not only ‘vermin’ but a ‘racial tuberculosis.’ The challenge posed by Mommsen still remains a key issue, because at times figures like Hitler argued that the Nazis were combating a ‘racial illness,’ but their notions of how to (in the words of Hitler) ‘expel’ a ‘racial tuberculosis of the peoples’ might then vary (from the 1 April Boycott to purging Jews from the Civil Service; enacting Racial Laws through to the Shoah), whereas an ‘apocalyptic vision’ implies a far stronger intentionalist approach. In this regard, Vondung is very clear that such an ‘apocalyptic’ vision in itself is not sufficient to lead to actual violence and requires other factors, pointing out that there was ‘a broad spectrum of motives that led human beings to torment, persecute, and murder Jews.’ Yet he remains adamant that an ‘apocalyptic image’ was central to the Nazis’ approach, so that perpetrators of the Shoah at all levels ‘justified their actions by appealing to a system of values whose center is the apocalyptic world view of Hitler and other National Socialist leaders.’ Whether one agrees or disagrees with this perspective, the book certainly provides an interesting analysis and a thought-provoking consideration of whether key concepts of ‘religiosity’ are applicable to National Socialism.