In June 1941, Martin Bormann, head of the new Nazi Party Chancellery, sent a secret circular to Nazi district leaders proclaiming that "National Socialist and Christian conceptions are incompatible". Such a statement is what we would expect from a Nazi leader. It is a revelation, therefore, to discover that Bormann's view was far from representative and, indeed, fiercely opposed by other party leaders.
This is the conclusion of Richard Steigmann-Gall's important book on the religious views of the Nazi elite. In the crowded field of Third Reich history, The Holy Reich really does have something original to say. Examining the truism that Christian support for Nazism was an "unrequited affection", Steigmann-Gall analyses the religious views expressed, publicly and privately, not only by Hitler and his immediate circle, but also by national, district and ideological leaders of the party. Astonishingly, he is the first historian to do so. He meticulously charts the evolution of Nazi attitudes to Christianity and concludes that Bormann's obsessive anticlericalism "arguably constituted a departure from Nazism as much as its most radical expression".
Steigmann-Gall makes no attempt to sensationalise his material. But his carefully argued book demolishes several widely held assumptions. It has long been assumed that Nazism was a secular and explicitly anti-Christian movement. But Steigmann-Gall argues that the Nazi ideology of "positive Christians" such as Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering appears to have been based on an explicitly Christian understanding of Germany's ills. This went far beyond an opportunistic exploitation of Christian sentiment for political gain. Many Nazis were deeply anticlerical, but not necessarily anti-Christian. Julius Streicher, for example, editor of the anti-Semitic Der Stürmer newspaper, was a fanatical anticlerical who nevertheless proclaimed Christianity to be "one of the great anti-Jewish movements".
Even Hitler expressed his admiration for Christ, "our greatest Aryan leader". However, leading Nazis stopped short of presenting their political party as a religious movement. Artur Dinter's attempt to turn the Nazi movement into a sectarian religious revival led to his expulsion from the party.
Another truism demolished by Steigmann-Gall is the assumption that Nazism was closely associated with the paganist predilections of prominent leaders such as Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler. In fact, as Steigmann-Gall reveals, their attempts to replace Christianity with a paganist faith of Germanic blood and soil were derided and never became the dominant view of the Nazi elite. Hitler found Himmler's mysticism and occultism absurd:
"What nonsense! To think that I may some day be turned into an SS saint!"
The paganists found themselves locked in an ultimately futile battle for influence over the "positive Christians" who dominated the higher echelons of the party. While Christians were tolerated, the paganist organisation, the "German faith movement", was banned by the Nazis in 1935.
The assumption that the Nazis sought to destroy institutional Christianity is also subjected to rigorous scrutiny. By contrast, it appears that up to 1937 leading Nazis promoted the creation of a Protestant National church as a bulwark against the Catholic church. These plans to harness the Protestant church as an ideological ally were abandoned in 1937 as a result of insurmountable factionalism within German Protestantism. Only at this stage were actions taken against Protestant clergymen within the Nazi Party. Many of the anti-Christian measures taken later in the regime by Bormann were opposed by other Nazi leaders. Until the end of the regime, moreover, the Nazis affirmed the right of the churches to exist. As Hitler claimed: "Against a Church that identifies itself with the State, as in England, I have nothing to say."
Almost all the Nazi leaders surveyed, even those brought up as Catholics, displayed a clear ideological preference for Protestantism because of its perceived affinity with the tradition of German nationalism. "Just as Protestantism was a marker of national feeling, Catholicism was a marker of national betrayal," Steigmann-Gall concludes. Many Nazis took an active part in Protestant, though not Catholic, religious activities, and the party actively supported cooperation with Protestant welfare organisations.
Steigmann-Gall also makes us realise that the boundary between religious anti-Semitism and its secular racialist successor is not as clear cut as some historians have thought. Many Nazis "commingled racial and religious categories of the Jew and conversely used Aryan and Christian as interchangeable". Nazism was not a replacement faith but rather a complementary ideology.
The Holy Reich should prompt a critical re-evaluation of the nature of Nazi ideology, not least because we need a clearer sense of the relative importance of religious debates and disagreements within the party than there is space for in this book. Whether it was "a political necessity" during the cold war for western historians to maintain that Nazism was anti-Christian is highly debatable and arguably feeds off anti-western conspiracy theories so fashionable at present.
In places the editing of The Holy Reich reveals the perils of relying too heavily on a spellcheck. A "conversation" mutates, rather inappropriately, into a "conversion" of Hitler and we are treated to the bucolic image of Rosenberg heaping scorn on a political rival "in his dairy". These are minor quibbles, however, about an uncomfortably thought-provoking work of admirable scholarship.
Anita Bunyan is director of studies in modern languages, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945
Author - Richard Steigmann-Gall
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 294
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 521 82371 4