Hitler’s Religious Beliefs are Irrelevant When Discussing the Holocaust
I usually can’t go two weeks without stumbling across a debate about Hitler’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. The debate has always frustrated me as people seem to think that the answer to the question of Hitler’s beliefs is also the answer to his motivations behind the holocaust; it isn’t. Also, Hitler is used as a convenient boogeyman when in reality there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of individuals who were complicit in the Holocaust, some of whom were atheists and some of whom were Christians. To ignore all these individuals of varying beliefs and attach sole blame to Hitler is irresponsible and it makes it impossible to ascertain the true motivations behind the Holocaust. The fact that atheist (although very few) and Christian alike were anitsemitic and this antisemitism was pandemic throughout Germany shows that its origins lie beyond immediate religious beliefs.
Much of human morality is informed through environmental factors such as family and society. If, for example, you grow up in an era where slavery is acceptable and your family are slave owners then it is highly probable, although not certain, that you too would be an advocate for slavery. Morality is somewhat deterministic and the more prevalent a certain moral code the more likely these morals will be preserved in future generations. This is especially the case in societies where critical thinking and dissent is discouraged and often punished. So to determine the cause of the antisemitism which was prevalent in Germany prior to WWII we must look at both its origins and how it was maintained.
Although there was hatred shown towards Jewish communities during antiquity, it was mainly based on ethnicity rather than religion. Nor were Jews singled out, anyone who wasn’t Greek or Roman was seen as a barbarian and targeted for abuse. So it would be impossible to call this antisemitism in the modern sense. In fact, although Jews were treated harshly, they were granted some privileges which other foreigners were not allowed: they could continue to practice their religion unmolested, were not forced to observe local customs and were the only ethnic group to be permitted to practice circumcision. Specific and targeted intolerance wasn’t shown towards the Jews until the 4th century AD when Christianity finally came to prominence in the Roman Empire. Numerous edicts actively discriminated against the Jews: preventing inter-marriage, forbidding Jews to own Christian slaves, and making it illegal for Christians to convert to Judaism. Synagogues were regularly attacked and confiscated for Christian use. In 438AD the Codex Theodosianus barred Jews from several prominent professions such as the civil service and legal profession. It was during this time Jews were accused of deicide: the killing of Christ. Jews were often derogatorily referred to as “Christ-Killers”.
The persecutions increased both in numerosity and severity in the Middle Ages, especially during the Crusades as Christians were particularly pious during this period and mistreated their ideological opponents extremely harshly. In 1096, as the First Crusade was ushered, Jews became targets for killings as they were seen as enemies equal to Muslims. During the Rhineland massacres some 2000 Jews were killed for refusing to convert to Christianity. Jews experienced increasing hostility throughout the Middles Ages including forced conversions and expulsions, most fervently during times of crusades. In 1396 over 100,000 Jews were expelled from France, many fleeing to Poland. There were similar, albeit smaller, expulsions in England, Portugal, Germany and Spain. Social and economic sanctions were also furthered during this period. Jews were now limited to certain occupations and areas where they could live. Jews were also accused of drinking the blood of Christian children and the desecration of hosts. Such false propaganda only increased the local populace’s hatred of the Jewish community
Due to the high level of discrimination suffered by the Jews in Spain, many decided to convert to Christianity. However, there was deep mistrust regarding those who converted so the Inquisition was instituted in 1478 to assure that their conversions were honest. Over 30,000 Jews were put to death during the inquisition, many of whom were severely tortured and burnt to death. Eventually in 1492 Spain issued an edict of expulsion, allowing Jews four months to either convert or leave Spain. Over 150,000 fled Spain while another 50,000 converted.
Antisemitism continued in the Reformation and print era and antisemitic propaganda began to be circulated by notable theologians and clerics. Most famous of these is Martin Luther who wrote the treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies”. In his thesis Luther argued
- for Jewish synagogues and schools to be burned to the ground, and the remnants buried out of sight;
- for houses owned by Jews to be likewise razed, and the owners made to live in agricultural outbuildings;
- for their religious writings to be taken away;
- for rabbis to be forbidden to preach, and to be executed if they do;
- for safe conduct on the roads to be abolished for Jews;
- for usury to be prohibited, and for all silver and gold to be removed and “put aside for safekeeping”; and
- for the Jewish population to be put to work as agricultural slave laborers.
In 1555 Pope Paul IV issued the papal bull Cum Nimis Absurdum which placed severe religious and economic sanctions upon the Jewish residents of Rome and forced them to live in a walled ghetto. Jewish males were forced to wear a pointed yellow hat and females a yellow handkerchief (sound familiar?). The bull stated
Since it is completely senseless and inappropriate to be in a situation where Christian piety allows the Jews (whose guilt—all of their own doing—has condemned them to eternal slavery) access to our society and even to live among us.
Numerous Italian towns copied the bull and established ghettos of their own. The ghetto in Rome was not abolished until 1882.
During the Enlightenment proscriptions against the Jews were eased somewhat but nothing substantial. The greatest liberties were granted to Jews in French controlled regions during the Napoleonic wars but most were immediately rescinded following his defeat. It was during this time that racial theorists and Social Darwinists entered the fray. Although many would like claim that Social Darwinism was the route cause for the hatred encountered by the Jews, this is simply not the case. As shown above, antisemitism was pandemic and socially ingrained at this point. Social Darwinism was merely a tool people used to reinforce and rationalise their hate, but it certainly wasn’t what caused the hate. It was during this time that antisemitism became a political movement in and of itself with parties such as the Christian Social Party, German Social Antisemitic Party, and the Antisemitic People’s Party. Thousands of antisemitic leaflets were being printed every week in Germany and Austria.
It was into this world that Hitler and the generation which carried out the Holocaust were born into. Antisemitism was rife and had been implanted into the zeitgeist of Europe for over a millennium. Although the above is merely the briefest of histories it is quite clear that the antisemitism which was so established in Europe in the early 20th century originated and was propagated for centuries by Christian doctrines, ordinary lay-persons, theologians, Popes etc. When this is considered it becomes all too clear why Hitler’s immediate beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to why he carried out the holocaust. Simply because his immediate beliefs had nothing to do with it. It was centuries of consistent persecution of the Jewish community at the hands of Christians which fed antisemitism into moral code of Hitler and the thousands of other Germans who carried out the holocaust. To lump all the blame on Hitler and his personal beliefs is all too easy and it ignores the real problems and the true route cause. If Hitler was born today with the same antisemitic sentiments, he would not get very far. Simply because there doesn’t exist the same level of antisemitism anywhere in Europe. He would be nothing but a fringe right-winger. Hitler and his countrymen grew up in a culture which allowed for antisemitism. The zeitgeist of antisemitism was promulgated by the Christian churches for centuries. Hitler’s hatred alone would not have sufficed to carry out the immense task of his ‘final solution’, but as antisemitism was ingrained into the psyche of society by the Christian churches, it created a scenario where it was possible.
The Dabru Emet, released in 2000 states:
Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews. Other Christians did not protest sufficiently against these atrocities.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie has said:
Without centuries of Christian antisemitism, Hitler’s passionate hatred would never have been so fervently echoed…because for centuries Christians have held Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. On Good Friday Jews, have in times past, cowered behind locked doors with fear of a Christian mob seeking ‘revenge’ for deicide. Without the poisoning of Christian minds through the centuries, the Holocaust is unthinkable.
So was Hitler an atheist or a Christian? It doesn’t matter when it comes to the Holocaust. Hitler’s personal religious beliefs had nothing to do with his decision to eradicate the Jews. The cause of his antisemitism was the centuries of persecution at the hands of Christian churches which long preceded Hitler’s birth and helped facilitate the Holocaust.
Edit: Thanks to some good criticism from the commentors below and elsewhere I’ve realised that “irrelevant” is too strong a word to use. The point I am trying to get across is that Hitler’s personal religious beliefs, although a factor, a more important one than I suggest in the above post, aren’t the most important nor overriding factor when it comes to this debate. It also lends to negate the “Hitler was an atheist” nonsense because even if he was Christianity was still the cause. I would also like the debate to move beyond his personal beliefs as he too often used as a scapegoat and we need to focus on how a whole society allowed something like this to happen and not just use Hitler as a boogeyman for all that went on during WWII.