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.



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:

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.[1]

General contents

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.[2] 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.[3]  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.’[4] 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).[5]

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.[6]  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.[7] 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.’[8]

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.’[9] 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’:

Research Bible
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


National Socialism



Creation of the World 4000 BC


10 Commandments of Moses 1300 BC


Christ’s Birth


Diaspora of the Jews


Jewish International

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.[10] 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.[11]  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.[12]

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.’[13] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Michael Buddrus, Totale Erziehung für den totalen Krieg: Hitlerjugend und nationalsozialistische Jugendpolitik (München: K.G.Saur, 2003), 64n.21.

[5] 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.

[6] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), 304-7.

[7] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (München: Franz Eher/Zentralverlag der NSDAP, 1936),


[8] 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.

[9] Hans F. K. Günther, Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (München: J.F. Lehmann, 1922), 398–99.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] Edgar List, ‘Is Frau Holda the Virgin Mary?’, The German Quarterly, 29, no.2 (1958): 80–4, here 80.


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.’