Samuel Koehne has written a fascinating article that looks at historians’ attempts to understand the Nazi’s use of religion, and critiques the often simplistic attempts to put Hitler and Nazism in religious categories.
But how could there be such opposing views when it comes to Nazism and atheism? People may not generally realise it, but the divergence of opinion between Pell and Dawkins reflects deep divisions among historians themselves as to what the Nazis believed about religion.
Nazism itself was consistently a racial ideology, and Ian Kershaw noted in his definitive biography of Hitler that one of the few things we can be certain about is that from the start of his political career to the bitter end, Hitler adhered to “anti-Semitism based on race theory.”
When we look to religion, however, there is little agreement. The three main schools of thought are that the Nazis adhered to neo-paganism, that their ideology itself formed a “political religion” or that they advocated a particular form of Christianity.
Hitler himself was not a Christian, though — at least, not in any orthodox sense of the word.
Which brings us to the third perspective - was Hitler a Christian? Emphatically not, if we consider Christianity in its traditional or orthodox form: Jesus as the son of God, dying for the redemption of the sins of all humankind. It is a nonsense to state that Hitler (or any of the Nazis) adhered to Christianity of this form.
The idea of universal salvation through Christ dying on the cross - the core concern of the recent celebration of Easter - was complete anathema to the Nazis, who adhered to salvation by race rather than grace. However, it is equally true that there were leading Nazis who adhered to a form of Christianity that had been “aryanised.”
Overall, one could argue that all the leading Nazis measured religion by a series of racial hurdles, meaning that: Jesus could not be Jewish, he had to be Aryan; a heroic fighter, not a passive sacrifice; the Old Testament had to be rejected, and the New Testament purged.
But that doesn’t mean he was necessarily an atheist, either, as some Christian apologetics like to suggest.
Was Hitler an atheist? Probably not. But it remains very difficult to ascertain his personal religious beliefs, and the debate rages on. He was an astute propagandist, which makes distinguishing rhetoric from reality all the more difficult.
What historians continually confirm is that Hitler developed an absolute faith in two things: an extreme form of nationalism, and himself.