Hitler: just a good Catholic?

The history of Nazi Germany is no secret. There are probably thousands of reliable titles available that deal with various aspects of the regime, and all of them will tell you that the Nazis weren’t motivated by Christianity – unless you’re an atheist. If you’re an atheist, you have to filter your reading through the attempts of Christopher Hitches to associate Nazism with belief.

Enter PZ Myers, vocal atheist and lousy historian.


Just a humble suggestion to my fellow Christians: If you’re going to go argue with people who make a living attacking your beliefs, do some research first. The gentleman arguing with PZ Myers in the screenshot above stood there bewildered when Myers stated that Hitler was a “good Catholic.” After a long pause he replied, “No, I’m not for Catholicism…I’m for Christianity.” (7:07) Unbelievable.

I’m all for arguing about differences in theology, but in this instance attempting to separate Catholicism and Christianity is a terrible answer. A better answer would have been that Hitler was about as Catholic as I am a legendary country music artist.

An even better answer would have pointed out the way in which the Nazis persecuted anybody, including religious Germans, who didn’t fall into place. Such an answer also would have made clear that the Nazis manipulated the Catholic Church in Germany with their attempt to pass the Enabling Act, which effectively gave Hitler’s party control of the country. I’m rather curious how Dr. Myers, the biologist, would have dealt with such uncontroversial history.

Pharyngula readers respond

After the above post appeared on my blog, several of Myers’ fans responded to my arguments. Note that in response to the points I made about the Nazis’ contempt for Christianity (as most people would recognize it) and persecution of its adherents, this is the very best they could muster.

 Hitler was a baptised Catholic, he never renounced his Catholicism and was never excommunicated – nor were any of his chief followers except Goebbels, for whom it was the punishment for marrying a divorced Protestant. What Hitler’s personal beliefs were in his later years, we don’t know for certain, although the best evidence suggests that he was not a doctrinally orthodox Christian, but remained a theist.

Hitler’s baptism and lack of renunciation have nothing to do with the policies his regime pursued. The evidence indicates that the Nazis used religion to further their goals and then openly attacked it when they could safely do so. Now, what about Hitler’s background with Catholicism prohibits the Nazis from pursuing the hostile policy described above? Absolutely nothing. This is just an effort to distract from the facts. Anyway, if Hitler wasn’t a Christian, that would make Myers incorrect when he claimed that Hitler was a “good Catholic.”

To say the Nazis “manipulated” the Catholic Church in Germany is a disgustingly cowardly evasion of responsibility: the Catholic Centre Party provided Hitler with the votes to pass the Enabling Act and establish his dictatorship when they did not have to do so, and the Pope chose to sign a concordat with him – consonant with the history of Vatican support for fascism throughout the interwar period.

To say that the Nazis manipulated the Catholic Church is very reasonable. I agree that the Centre Party made a mistake by cutting a deal with the Nazis, but that doesn’t mean that the Nazis didn’t lie to them about legal protections they would retain for helping pass the Enabling Act.

The same can be said of the Concordat with the church in Rome. The Nazis continually violated it, even before it was ratified, by closing Catholic youth organizations, engaging in anti-Christian propaganda and banning Catholic publications, just to name a few examples. In 1937, Hitler even considered repudiating the Concordat, but decided that such a move could damage Germany on the international scene, according to historian Richard J Evans. This, again, doesn’t exonerate the church for its compromise, but illustrates how duplicitous the Nazis were in their dealings with religion.

In the period preceding the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, when he was first building up the Nazi party, Hitler was certainly a believing Catholic, and drew heavily on a south German tradition of antisemitic Catholic nationalism – see Derek Hastings Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism. Following the failure of the putsch, he reoriented the party to increase its appeal to Protestants.

As stated, Hitler used the church in attempt to advance policy. Any effort to link him to active religious practice fails in light of the Nazis’ efforts to undermine their religious opposition in Germany, as described here and here. Those posts explain that reorienting the party included co-opting the Protestant church and giving basic doctrines like atonement a flagrantly Nazi makeover. In any event, by the end of the 1930s the Nazis were shedding their ties (however tenuous they were) with organized Christianity. And from the very beginning, according to Evans again, the goal was to bring the churches under control and prevent them from providing an ideological alternative to Nazism.


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About Cameron English

Cameron is a freelance writer and editor from Northern California. He blogs about New Testament history, textual criticism, the historical Jesus, and other things on occasion.