Hitler, Religion, and the Bible

By Philip L. Tite

In her recent blog on “The Curious Case of Gerhard Kittel,” Kate Daley-Bailey offers an important overview of the involvement of biblical scholars in promoting Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies. Kate’s blog has inspired me to write a follow up to her blog, though from a slightly different angle.

Before beginning, however, it might be helpful to direct readers to an important book on the topic that Kate addresses. Susannah Heschel, in The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press, 2008), as well as in numerous articles (e.g., Heschel, “Nazifying Christian Theology: Walter Grundmann and the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life,” Church History 63.4 [1994]: 587-605), has done much to elucidate the role of Christian scholarship, especially biblical scholarship, in offering intellectual grounding for Nazi policy toward Jewish communities. Of course not all of German biblical scholarship in the 1930s and 1940s supported such lines of research.

In a sense, I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s criticism of education that is nationalistic in focus (e.g., Russell, Principles of Social Reconstruction [Allen & Unwin, 1916; Routledge reprint, 1997], 100-116), as such education is driven to “keep alive a bigoted nationalism” by “promot[ing] national pride” (105), thereby enabling States to have ideological and practical support from the population for furthering the objectives of those governing institutions,  rather than to nurture a love of free inquiry that is necessary for “independence of mind” (107). The same is true for research, which should be the foundation and end goal for all education. Thus, Nazi Germany’s tapping scholarly resources makes a great deal of sense. It was a method of establishing intellectual support for an ideology underlying a set of political policies.

However, it is important to recall that Hitler’s regime did not limit itself to those with doctorates and professorships when it comes to the Bible. That was one side of the coin. The other side was the more popular or propagandistic understanding of biblical texts as applied to European Jewish communities. A few years ago, while studying anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic readings of the New Testament, I came across some curious passages in what was perhaps the “Caesar” of Nazi propaganda, i.e., Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (German edition, 2 vols published in 1925 and 1927; translated by Ralph Manheim; Houghton Mifflin Co., 1971). Hitler, for example, drew upon the Temple incident of John 2:12-25 to indicate the evil, this worldly character of the Jews:

“His [the Jew’s] life is only of this world, and his spirit is inwardly as alien to true Christianity as his nature two thousand years previous was to the founder [Jesus] of the new doctrine. Of course, the latter made no secret of his attitude toward Jewish people, and when necessary he even took to the whip to drive from the temple of the Lord this adversary of all humanity, who then as always saw in religion nothing but an instrument for his business existence. In return, Christ was nailed to the cross, while our present-day party Christians debase themselves to begging for Jewish votes at elections and later try to arrange political swindles with atheistic Jewish parties – and this against their own nation.” (307)

The concepts embedded in the above statement are not the product of scholarly endeavor, but rather a popular “street level” perception of Judaism, European culture, and biblical texts. Several observations can be made regarding Hitler’s statement.

First Jewish attitudes to religion are presented as self-centered, materialistic, and essentially anti-religious. Just before his use of the Temple “cleansing” from the Gospel of John, he offers his own understanding of religion:

“The Jew has always been a people with definite racial characteristics and never a religion; only in order to get ahead he early sought for a means which could distract unpleasant attention from his person. And what would have been more expedient and at the same time more innocent than the ’embezzled’ concept of a religious community? For here, too, everything is borrowed or stolen.  Due to his own original special nature, the Jew cannot possess a religious institution, if for no other reason because he lacks idealism in any form, and hence belief in a hereafter is absolutely foreign to him. And a religion in the Aryan sense cannot be imagined which lacks the conviction of survival after death in some form. Indeed, the Talmud is not a book to prepare man for the hereafter, but only for a practical and profitable life in this world.” (306)

For Hitler, ethnicity and religion are kept distinct. Religion and its institutions are seen as part of a “culture-building people” who hold to an idealism that allows a belief in the afterlife, i.e., as something that while of benefit in this world leads toward a higher, supramundane existence that transcends the material benefits of the mundane (thus, Hitler evokes a sacred/profane distinction). The Jew, however, is presented as bereft of a constructive, culture enhancing quality and thus is merely a member of a racial group that is parasitical. Indeed, religious community is merely a counterfeit or imitation that is misused by the Jews for non-religious ends. Hitler applies a conception of “religion” to his political philosophies that is meant to rhetorically relate to popular understandings of “religion” (which is certainly Christian in this context) that discursively functions to undermine the authenticity of Judaism: i.e., religion is seen as culture building (original rather than borrowed, progressive rather than regressive), non-materialistic, preparatory for an afterlife (which seems to be the function of religious texts and religious communities), all grounded upon a demarcation of mundane/profane and transmundane/sacred (with a value on the latter).

In his treatment of “religion” as a category, Hitler evokes a normative rhetoric, perhaps even with a sui generis subtext: “as alien to true Christianity” stands in contrast to “everything is borrowed or stolen”; thus, true religion is self-contained, not derivative from another context. Furthermore, such true religion (in a normative sense) is linked to right belief (note also the parallel of the terms “alien” and “foreign” in both passages, which serve to both correlate the normative with the doctrinal and demarcate Judaism from this category of “true” religion). It is due to the inauthentic “religion” of the Jews, Hitler contends, that the Temple is corrupted and in need of cleansing – a situation that is analogous for the current social and political condition of early 20th century Europe.

Second, in his use of the Johannine Temple incident, Hitler presents Jesus not as a Jew but as the opponent of the Jewish people. If the Temple becomes analogous for the condition of Europe in the early 20th century, then Jesus becomes the analogy for Hitler’s own approach to the “problem”; a discursive move that sets Jesus in contrast with the parliamentary political system of the Weimar Republic that Hitler found so ineffectual while, simultaneously, lending religious backing to the political ideology in Mein Kampf. The use of “the whip” in the above quotation not only indicates that the Johannine account is what is in mind, but it also adds intensity to Jesus’ reaction. Jesus exemplifies explicit and forthright opposition to the Jews.

Third, not only are Jesus and Christianity seen as non-Jewish, being perceived as distinct and pure, but they are also presented as a positive ideological framework within which German zealous nationalism is to flourish. Hitler does not define himself, his ideas, or his audience as non-Christian or as a counter to Christianity. Rather, he presents himself as a Christian drawing upon Christian texts and kerygma. For Hitler this Christian basis for his anti-Semitism is cast into a conflict, even to the point of Jesus exemplifying sacrificial or martyrdom values. Just as Jesus faced a conflict, so also does National Socialism. Furthermore, in order to support his conflict model, he taps into a well-worn accusation against Jews: that they have not only rejected Christ but also are “Christ killers” (as he writes, “In return, Christ was nailed to the cross”). That Hitler’s book is entitled “My Struggle” certainly underlies his treatment of Jesus, i.e., as the one who struggled to the death against the international threat of the Jewish people.

To return to Russell’s discontent with nation-centered education, we see exemplified in this exegesis of John 2:12-25 from Mein Kampf the very processes that Russell tried to counter in his educational philosophy.

“Education ought to foster the wish for truth, not the conviction that some particular creed is the truth. But it is creeds that hold men together in fighting organizations: Churches, States, political parties. It is intensity of belief in a creed that produces efficiency in fighting: victory comes to those who feel the strongest certainty about matters on which doubt is the only rational attitude.” (Principles, 107)

“Finally, arising out of this moral damage to the individual, there is untold damage to society. Wars and persecutions are rife everywhere, and everywhere they are rendered possible by the teaching in the schools.” (Russell, “Freedom Versus Authority in Education,” in Sceptical Essays [Allen & Unwin, 1928; Routledge reprint, 1996], 151).

According to Russell, when education serves the needs of the State (including ecclesiastical institutions) rather than the individual, a society is cognitively mobilized for the fulfillment of national agendas, while those individuals simultaneously lack awareness of such influence: a normative social map has been drawn and internalized. The same dynamics come into play with propaganda, media consumption, and other forms of “learning” that occur beyond the classroom context.

For Hitler, religion, and in particular the Bible serves as one rhetorical tool to reorient people’s focus toward supporting a particular political agenda of the nation state. Religious discourse serves to chastise one political system (for not living up to the ideals of courage and moral correctness exemplified by Jesus) while granting a “sacred” identification to the other (i.e., Hitler is discursively presented as taking on the same role that Jesus did in the Gospel of John, though now in the context of modern Germany). Hitler, of course, was no biblical scholar or theologian. For that, he eventually had the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life (established in 1939; see Heschel, Aryan Jesus). But what he does do in Mein Kampf is to tap into a well-established European understanding of the Bible, along with a popular “folk” concept of blood purity, in order to evoke a reaction of outrage not only against Jews but against those who are seen as too weak to oppose such corrupting influences. Often Hitler is portrayed as an aberration or as an abuser of religion, specifically Christianity, but when we look closely at his propagandistic use of religion – not only in definition but in direct application to a biblical passage – we see instead that he is a product from, while also a manipulator of, a wellspring of ideologies, social forces, political concepts, and popular religious perspectives that were at work within his own cultural context.

The horrors to which he applied his understanding of religion are clearly part of the historical record. Yet, the importance of his religious discourse for the mobilization of zealous nationalism, especially (to return to Kate’s blog entry) in conjunction with supporting academic voices in biblical studies and theology, should not be glossed over. Such discursive processes are powerful rhetorical tools, used by various political agents in diverse historical contexts, in shaping and directing social perceptions.


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3 Responses to Hitler, Religion, and the Bible

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for posting on this issue! I’m working through both Heschel’s Aryan Jesus and Steigmann-Gall’s The Holy Reich at the moment. Your post so eloquently examines the rhetoric. The following passage struck a cord with me as I attempt to navigate this discursive landscape: “Often Hitler is portrayed as an aberration or as an abuser of religion, specifically Christianity, but when we look closely at his propagandistic use of religion – not only in definition but in direct application to a biblical passage – we see instead that he is a product from, while also a manipulator of, a wellspring of ideologies, social forces, political concepts, and popular religious perspectives that were at work within his own cultural context.”
    The more I read about Goebbels, Hitler, and even Rosenberg, as well as many lower-level Nazis, the more I recognize a correlation between the popular political and social ideologies of the German nationalist movement and various heavily politicized Christian narratives circulating in the Weimar republic. Add legitimization of these ideologies and narratives by members of the scholarly community and a composite of nationalism, religion, and scholarship is born. A common denominator between a handful of these disparate groups, which often fought vehemently among themselves, was anti-Semitism. Alfred Rosenberg echoes Hitler’s view of blood identity (which you cited from passages in Mein Kampf). For Rosenberg, on a national level at least, blood was fate.

    I hope to read more of your analysis on this topic in the future!

    Take care,

  2. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants

  3. Casper Denck says:

    The Aryan Jesus is on my to read list but read The Holy Reich last year, i echo the recommendation.

    I will mull over this post a bit and may well then post a follow up comment.

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