By Kate Daley-Bailey, Religion Bulletin
In my two previous Bulletin posts, I discussed the efforts of prominent Nazi intellectuals (such as Gerhard Kittel and Alfred Rosenberg) who, during the 1930s, worked to buttress the German Reich through the appropriation of Christian symbols, images, and narratives. It is worth noting that Rosenberg and Kittel offered competing presentations of a Nazi Jesus and a Nazi Christianity, each of which was intended to unify the German churches and people. For Kittel, this meant the wholesale separation of Judaism and Christianity in hopes of persuading fellow Nazis that the Christian narrative was ideologically compatible with larger Nazi social projects. For Rosenberg, it meant reclaiming the image of Jesus as an Aryan warrior-chief in the age-old battle against Judaism. This present post looks at yet another attempted Nazi Christianity, so-called “Positive Christianity” in the discourse of the NSDAP (The National Socialist German Worker’s Party).
The term ‘positive Christianity,’ a vague type of non-denominationalism not beholden to any particular religious institution, makes an appearance in the 25 points of the NSDAP (set forth in 1920 by the founding party members). Point 24 is brief but significant, considering that the Nazi party is so often cast as monolithically anti-Christian. These points demonstrate an attempt to present a systematic worldview to the German population. Point 24 distances Positive Christianity from the denominational conflicts (and institutional oversight) of the day and binds it to a nationalistic rhetoric which links Christian morality with the Germanic race:
24. We demand freedom of religion for all religious denominations within the state so long as they do not endanger its existence or oppose the moral senses of the Germanic race. The Party as such advocates the standpoint of a positive Christianity without binding itself confessionally to any one denomination. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the framework: common utility precedes individual utility. (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/1708-ps.asp)
This somewhat amorphous sense of religious community was defined primarily by its struggle against the perceived threat that German Jews were said to represent, and its concurrent desire to protect “the moral senses of the Germanic Race.” It resisted any absolute expression of institutional form… or rather had too many institutions vying to represent it. In the nascent years of the NSDAP, the party offered a synthesis of various Christian ideologies, nationalistic loyalties, and racial/cultural investments, and honed in on the characteristics and beliefs which many at the time shared, such as a belief that Jesus was not Jewish, a desire to define Christianity in opposition to Judaism, a hope for a unified and empowered Germany, and an antagonism towards Capitalism, liberalism, Marxism, and secularism.
Also referred to as ‘Practical Christianity’ or ‘Active Christianity,’ this protean tradition was meant to supersede the denominational strife in Germany and unite German Christians under one banner- the Reich. Hitler repeatedly stated that to get bogged down in theological details was political suicide and would only help Germany’s true enemy- the Jew. In Mein Kampf, he writes that Jesus as a critic of Judaism who “drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God” and was “nailed to the Cross for his attitude towards the Jews.” In a 1939 speech in Munich, Hitler claimed that the party was itself more Christian in deed than their Christian critics. According to his reasoning, National Socialist Germany programs were Christian in that they “cloth the poor and feed the poor.”
For example, the Winter Relief Program (Winterhilfswerk), while not an innovation of the Nazi Party, quickly became an institutionalized part of its public outreach. With unemployment and poverty high, this program clothed, warmed (via coal and fire wood), fed, and employed many destitute Germans (in the winter months) from 1933 until the regime’s demise in 1945. Public funding of this program was ‘voluntary,’ although intimidation and shaming tactics were utilized to bolster funds. The program was also local in nature… meant to be reminiscent of the Germanic clan ideal. According to Thomas E. de Witt’s article, “The Struggle Against Hunger and Cold”: Winter Relief in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939, the first winter program received support from 1.5 million volunteers. For Hitler, the purpose of the Winter Relief Program was to create solidarity between fellow Germans as well as assist the needy, and it appealed to many German Christians who saw it as their duty as Christians and Germans to help their fellow man.
How could such a program, which appeared to engender a type of Christian brotherhood, be driven by such a ruthless regime? The answer rests in the concept of categories: for these Nazi Christians, Jews and other ‘deviant’ groups were not categorized by the Nazis as ‘brothers.’ Even Jewish coverts to Christianity were seen as problematic because for the Nazis being Jewish, just like being German, was about blood not about religious choice.
What is unclear is precisely how much social and ideological force Nazi Christianity, as opposed to welfare programs like that discussed above, actually exerted. Susannah Heschel’s book, Aryan Jesus, describes the anti-Semitism in the German churches as “the glue that united the otherwise warring factions” (7). She argues that Nazi ideology represented “a colonization of Christian theology,” one which utilized Christian anti-Semitism for its own purposes (8). Luther had already planted anti-Jewish ‘seeds’ in the church… the economic and social repercussions of the Versailles treaty simply cultivated the growth of anti-liberal, anti-Jewish, German nationalism. Thus, racializing processes had been set in place centuries before the Nazis came to power, and some scholars have suggested that it was not merely coincidence that Kristallnacht fell on Martin Luther’s birthday.
More of Kate’s work can be read on Religion Bulletin