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Posted by on Dec 17, 2013 in Atheism, Secularism | 13 comments

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.

  • No Gods No Glory

    A very helpful review of history – but I think you have omitted an important, perhaps obvious point: The ‘Hitler was atheist’ argument is often brought up to ‘prove’ that religion is morally superior to atheism.

    But everything you write underscores a simple fact: the Holocaust was a religious hate crime, committed by predominantly religious people.

    The victims were targeted for their belief, not ethnicity. It would be disingenuous to say (and you don’t) that religion did not play part in the Holocaust. Whenever the ‘Hitler’ argument comes up, atheists should point out the no matter who sat on the top spot, the Holocaust was a religious crime- one that even eclipses the crusades and inquisition. That it couldn’t have happened in an atheistic world.

    • Rob McClain

      What the religious often throw back at me is that Stalin’s regime killed more people in one year in Ukraine than Hitler killed in the Holocaust, and that his atheistic state was the driving force behind a more deadly genocide than Hitler. How might you respond to that?

      • Coel

        The usual reply is that they were not motivated by atheism, they were motivated by totalitarian communism. That totalitarian communism couldn’t tolerate any competing loyalties, thus they oppressed everyone and everything including religions. Their atheism was a product of their ideology, not a motivating factor. Thus Stalin’s regime is relevant to a discussion of what follows from communism, but not relevant to a discussion of what follows from atheism.

      • No Gods No Glory

        The best reply to all of these (‘Hitler was atheist’, ‘Stalin/Mao/atheist regimes killed more than others) is surprisingly simple:

        ‘What’s your point?’

        The reason for this is that these ‘questions’ are thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks on you. They try to inflict guilt by association: Hitler in Europe, Communists in the USA.

        By asking ‘What is your point’ you focus on that intent. There usually are only a couple of points to be made for the religious person, all rather bad.
        Your counterpart may say that atheistic regimes lack the morality of religious regimes and therefore kill more. Like faith, this is an assertion without proof, a simple correlation. Stalin, Mao and Hitler were all men – is it logical to conclude that regimes led by men killed more than regimes led by women – hence men have no morals?
        The next problem is that at maximum only one of the ‘religious’ regimes could believe in the one true god – all other regimes might as well be atheistic (their god doesn’t exist). Is the religious person of the opinion that mere belief in gods (even false ones) is sufficient to be morally better than an atheist? If so, how does morality exist, and why can’t atheists have it? And how would he prove moral superiority of religion when we can point to numerous ethical no-nos in the bible (slaves, genocide, homophobia, misogyny)?
        Finally, and that is what Coel already pointed out, you can say that their comment would be a natural mistake for a believer to make: religious people *do* kill for their religion. Atheists can’t kill for their religion, hence Hitler and the other monsters didn’t kill in the name of Atheism. This is when your counterpart will fall back to religious moral superiority. Once you get to this, the discussion is easy because today the moral inferiority of religious texts is obvious, and we can show that most sane, moral religious people ignore 99% of the rules of their ‘moral code’: when was the last time you stoned the policeman who worked on saturday/sunday?

        Personally I find the original argument silly. What it is saying to me is ‘religion kills fewer people than atheism’. Not only absurd, but this arithmetic of death is sick. A single person killed for religion or atheism is one too many. Saying ‘we are less bad’ is aiming too low, and betrays the moral ineptitude of the one bringing up the argument.

        As I said at the beginning, when your counterpart whips out this argument, the intent is not to prove anything, but to browbeat you with a direct attack on your integrity by trying to force you into a guilt by association with Hitler/Stalin/etc. Ask her/him what their point is, and you are back to discussing real issues within seconds.

        • Coel

          Atheists can’t kill for their religion, hence Hitler and the other monsters didn’t kill in the name of Atheism.

          While there is a lot of truth and sense in your comment, I disagree with replying as you do there, since it implies Hitler was indeed an atheist. This is the exact opposite of the truth, Hitler was not an atheist and was opposed to and oppressed atheists, including banning the German Freethinkers League on gaining power.

          “We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” (Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Berlin on Oct.24, 1933)

          It baffles me that atheists argue for the response “yes, but whether he was an atheist is irrelevant because …”, rather than the direct and true: “no, he was not an atheist, and the claim that he was is a Christian lie. Hitler blamed all the ills of society on people who refused to accept the society’s dominant god, and you are doing likewise”.

          Please don’t buy into Christian propaganda that Hitler was an atheist! You are effectively accepting “he was so vile he can only have been an atheist”. Why are you meekly acceding to that?

          • No Gods No Glory

            Ouch, I was careless there – thanks! Indeed, as ‘Mein Kampf’, Vol II, Chap 1 proves, Hitler *did* believe in the Christian god (‘Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the almighty Lord…’, loosely translated from “Wer die Hand an das höchste Ebenbild des Herrn zu legen wagt…”). I carelessly included Hitler in the line not because he was an Atheist, but because the idea of Atheists killing for their non-belief is absurd. My bad. It was important for me to show that these ‘arguments’ are not made for the sake of discussion, but merely as a cheap ad hominem.

            While we are at it – this has come up in discussions before – it is a little known, but proven fact that the SS was *entirely* made from ‘gottesfürchtigen’ members, i.e. believers in god. Heinrich Himmler deeply distrusted atheists, and made it a law that only those who were religious were accepted into the SS, and had to sign a paper searing towards that fact. It’s therefore extremely likely that atheists were disproportionally *less* implicated by the Holocaust than their population share would suggest.

            This whole line of discussion (war crimes) is just plain silly, as it was shown long ago (I believe it was Plato, 500BC, with Eutyphron) that belief and morals are independent from each other. Just because someone is religious doesn’t make him moral, not is being religious a prerequisite to being moral. The war crimes ‘argument’ completely disregards that. I guess that is why people say ‘irrelevant’ what Hitler believed in the context of morality. It is. But *historically* correct would be to say that Hitler was a devout Catholic.

            Sorry for the confusion.

          • Coel

            Heinrich Himmler deeply distrusted atheists, and made it a law that only those who were religious were accepted into the SS

            Agreed. Himmler said in 1944: “I have never tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God …” (p220 of “Heinrich Himmler, a life” by Longerich, OUP 2012).

            It’s therefore extremely likely that atheists were disproportionally *less* implicated by the Holocaust than their population share would suggest.

            Agreed, and that population share was only about 1.5 per cent (1939 German census, where people self-recorded as 54% Catholic, 40% Protestant, and only 1.5% “non-believer”).

  • Terry Firma

    Did you mean to feature a Dutch ad for this German film? Seems a bit odd.

  • Coel

    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.

    Sorry, I don’t agree. Hitler wrote a book, Mein Kampf, in which he expounded at great length a religious and creationist justification for the “final solution” to the Jewish “problem”. Why would he do that if these beliefs had “nothing to do with it”? You are right that the long history of anti-Semitism was also an important factor in forming Hitler’s attitudes, but the Nazi belief in separately created races, and God’s will that they remain separate, was a clear motivating factor.

    I wrote about Mein Kampf and Hitler’s religious and creationist justification for the holocaust at length here.

    if not hundreds of thousands of individuals who were complicit in the
    Holocaust, some of whom were atheists and some of whom were Christians.

    Maybe some of them were atheists, but can you name any atheist who was involved? They are likely few enough to be irrelevant. The SS guards at Auschwitz declared themselves to be Catholic (42.6%), Protestant (36.5%), the Nazi Deutsche Christen church (20.1%) — not one in the records self-labelled as an atheist or unbeliever.

    • http://skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

      Agreed. Perhaps irrelevant was too strong a term to use but I still don’t think it was the overriding or most important factor. I have made an amendment above to reflect the criticism I have received.

      Martin Bormann was an atheist and was private secretary to Hitler. But I agree, few enough to irrelevant but it shows antisemitism doesn’t hinge upon being a Christian.

      • Coel

        Do you have a quote that shows that Martin Bormann was an atheist, as oppose to being anti-clerical and opposed to the established churches?

    • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

      Usually I’m vaguely annoyed when people do blog plugs in comments sections, but Coel’s post is an epic takedown of the idea that there is any supportive relationship between Darwinism and Naziism: http://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/nazi-racial-ideology-was-religious-creationist-and-opposed-to-darwinism/

      Possibly it is the definitive final word on the subject. I encourage everyone to read it when you get some time. The Nazi view turns out to be much closer to the creationist and Tower of Babel biblical literalists than you may’ve thought.

  • pdxprogressiveX

    This is historically accurate and well presented. However, I disagree with the thesis. Religious beliefs, and in particular the manipulation of religious beliefs by Hitler, had everything to do with the holocaust.
    Also, to claim that atheists were complicit in the holocaust is grossly misleading. Most atheists in Germany at the time were communists, and, indeed, atheism was a very important part of the appeal of communism at that time. And it is no secret that Hitler hated the communist as much as he hated the Jews, and that communists (atheists) were more often than not sent to the camps to die.