A shocking story has been revealed: Adolf Hitler was not a Christian after all. Instead, he hoped to destroy Christianity. This news flash comes courtesy of a group of students at Rutgers University School of Law at Camden, who have posted papers on a website detailing Hitler's desire to eradicate Christianity. The documents are from the archives of Gen. William J. Donovan and were originally prepared for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, so we can safely assume they are authentic.
To be sure, Hitler's antagonism toward Christianity will not be news to everyone. That its central figure hails from a Jewish family did not set well with him, and its teachings of universal love ran contrary to his violent precepts. Yet one could easily get the impression, these days, that Hitler believed himself to be something of an altar boy on a mission for God.
The Rutgers project's editor, for example, seems to have been taken a bit by surprise. Julie Seltzer Mandel told the Philadelphia Enquirer that "When people think about the Holocaust, they think about the crimes against Jews, but here's a different perspective." The Nazis, she says, "wanted to eliminate the Jews altogether, but they were also looking to eliminate Christianity."
That will unsettle those who have been taught that Hitler was a Christian of some stripe - and indeed, by some accountings, an enthusiastic Catholic. Bill Clinton, for example, said at the 1999 National Prayer Breakfast that "I do believe that even though Adolf Hitler preached a perverted form of Christianity, God did not want him to prevail." Meanwhile, at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, a film portrayed Hitler as an overzealous son of Rome. "Enter Adolf Hitler," the narrator intoned, "Austrian born and baptized a Catholic." Hitler's mission: "In defending myself against the Jews," he is quoted as saying, "I am acting for the Lord. The difference between the Church and me is that I am finishing the job."
That film was altered after protests by, among others, conservative Jewish writers. But the same message crops up elsewhere. Soon after the September 11 attacks, a spokeswoman for the Freedom From Religion organization pronounced Hitler a Catholic. In 1999, Maureen Dowd included Hitler as yet another Christian zealot. According to Dowd, "History teaches that when religion is injected into politics - the Crusades, Henry VIII, Salem, Father Coughlin, Hitler, Kosovo - disaster follows."
Hitler was indeed a baptized Catholic, but his rejection of the faith was profound. "My pedagogy is strict," he once explained. "I want a powerful, masterly, cruel and fearless youth... There must be nothing weak or tender about them. The freedom and dignity of the wild beast must shine from their eyes... That is how I will root out a thousand years of human domestication."
That domestication, of course, was in large part due to the influence of Christianity. Hitler was blunter still on other occasions. "It is through the peasantry that we shall really be able to destroy Christianity," he said in 1933, "because there is in them a true religion rooted in nature and blood." His countrymen would have to choose: "One is either a Christian or a German. You can't be both."
Indeed, he understood all too well that Christianity, in the long run, was his enemy. "Pure Christianity - the Christianity of the catacombs – is concerned with translating the Christian doctrine into fact. It leads simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely wholehearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics." Switch a few words around and you'd think you were listening to Joseph Stalin. And like Stalin, Hitler believed history was on his side: "Do you really believe the masses will ever be Christian again? Nonsense. Never again. The tale is finished... but we can hasten matters. The parsons will be made to dig their own graves."
That promise was to come true in a frightful number of cases. Polish Christians felt the full force of the persecution, as historian John Morley reminds us. "In Poland, both Jews and Christians were objects of Nazi oppression and manipulation." The clergy were a chief target: "In West Prussia, out of 690 parish priests, at least two-thirds were arrested, and the remainder escaped only by fleeing from their parishes. After a month's imprisonment, no less than 214 of these priests were executed... by the end of 1940 only twenty priests were left in their parishes - about three percent of the number of parish priests in the pre-war era." The toll of murdered Polish priests would rise into the thousands; their Protestant counterparts (though a much smaller group) fared no better, with many members of the clergy perishing in the camps.
The Rutgers site's presentation is entitled "The Nazi Master Plan: The Persecution of the Christian Churches," and it notes a deep hatred of Christianity throughout the higher echelons. "Important leaders of the National Socialist party would have liked to meet this situation [church influence] by complete extirpation of Christianity and the substitution of a purely racial religion." Their assault was massive: "Different steps in that persecution, such as the campaign for the suppression of denominational and youth organizations, the campaign against denominational schools, the defamation campaign against the clergy, started on the same day in the whole area of the Reich... and were supported by the entire regimented press, by Nazi Party meetings, by traveling party speakers."
None of which is to suggest that Christians were uniformly opposed to Hitler, or that some did not actually embrace the Reich. The lesson from Rutgers, however, is that Hitler was no altar boy, acting on behalf of the Christian faith. Indeed, his hope was to be its undertaker - which was another of his profound miscalculations, and should not be forgotten today.