Some people say Adolf Hitler was an atheist. They blame atheism for Hitler’s philosophy and actions. But the historical record shows that Hitler believed in God and was convinced he was carrying out God’s will.
Hitler was raised in a Catholic family. He went to Catholic schools and served as an altar boy in the Catholic Church. Growing up in this environment, he surely learned something of the centuries of discrimination and persecution the Church had supported against Jews in Europe.
Former Jesuit theologian Peter de Rosa describes the groundwork Catholic theology laid for Hitler and the Nazis: “[Catholicism’s] disastrous theology had prepared the way for Hitler and his ‘final solution.’ [The Church published] over a hundred anti-Semitic documents. Not one conciliar decree, not one papal encyclical, bull, or pastoral directive suggest that Jesus’ command, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ applied to Jews.”
Not surprisingly, then, Hitler wrote in his book, Mein Kampf: “. . . I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” He made essentially the same claim in a speech before the Reichstag in 1938.
Hitler considered himself a Catholic until the day he died. In 1941 he told Gerhard Engel, one of his generals: “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.” In fact, Hitler was never excommunicated from the Catholic Church, and Mein Kampf was not placed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.
As for atheism, Hitler specifically opposed it in a 1933 speech in Berlin: “We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”
Hitler’s biographer John Toland explains Catholicism’s influence on the Holocaust. He says of Hitler: “Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy, he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of god. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of god. . ..”
Even after World War II, Catholic assistance to the Nazis continued. The Vatican aided the escape of more Nazis than any other governmental or private entity. Christopher Hitchens adds: “It was the Vatican itself, with its ability to provide passports, documents, money, and contacts, which organized the escape network and also the necessary shelter and succor at the other end.”
The Protestant influence on Nazi Germany was no better. Hitler is said to have greatly admired the German founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther. Among Luther’s many denunciations of the Jews, there are such religious sentiments as: “The Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows seven times higher than ordinary thieves,” and “We ought to take revenge on the Jews and kill them.”
When Hitler was asked in 1933 what he planned to do about the Jews, he said he would do what Christians had been preaching for centuries. And the Nazis carried out their first large-scale pogrom of Jews in honor of Luther’s birthday.
Christians constituted a wellspring of support for Hitler. Steve Allen notes that Nazi Germany in the 1930s “was the most church-affiliated nation in Europe. The German people were almost entirely Catholic and Lutheran. Despite such factors they launched the Holocaust and World War II.” Charles Kimball likewise says the Holocaust “would not have happened without the active participation of, sympathetic support of, and relative indifference exhibited by large numbers of Christians.”
Also in pre-World War II Germany, corporal punishment was used in the schools and schoolchildren were required to start their days with prayer. Today’s advocates of spanking and school prayer should consider that those practices, although supported by religion, proved ineffective in promoting high ethical standards and good behavior among German youth.
Further, Nazi Germany’s soldiers wore belt buckles inscribed “Gott mit uns” (“God is with us”). This slogan sounds eerily similar to Ohio’s present motto, “With God, all things are possible.”
Like many tyrants both past and present, Hitler used the mantle of religion to justify and further his selfish, hateful, and destructive philosophy. By conditioning people to blindly follow the pronouncements of authorities, instead of teaching them to think for themselves, religions often make it easy for such evil dictators and demagogues to succeed.