Adolf Hitler was one of the most evil figures of the twentieth century. His ideology of war and racism led to millions of deaths. What was it that drove him to adopt the abominable policies he did? Did his views on religion play any role in this?
There’s a startling lack of information on this subject—and much of what you hear is wrong. So let’s set the record straight.
Ideologues have ideas
I’ve looked into the question of Hitler’s religion for decades. I remember in the 1990s leafing through the indices of biographies of Hitler in bookstores, searching for information on the subject. Yet these biographies said little, and it was hard to find concrete information. They discussed his persecution of Jews and, to a lesser extent, Christians, but they didn’t devote much space to what he believed personally.
It was as if Hitler either didn’t have religious views, or they weren’t important. That never struck me as plausible because of the kind of figure Hitler was.
It isn’t just that he was an authoritarian dictator. I can imagine someone who has no particular views on questions about God and the afterlife ending up in political power and then doing awful things to maintain it. Such a person would be simply an opportunist. He might have a personality disorder that led him to do extreme things to maintain his hold on power, but that wouldn’t mean he had strong views on religious questions.
Yet Hitler wasn’t simply an opportunist. He was an ideologue. His rabid anti-Semitism was indicative of that. So was his Aryan master-race ideology, his plan to build a “Thousand-Year Reich” for Germany, and his belief in his movement’s overarching destiny.
Ideologues are obsessed with ideas, and that means they inevitably have views on the Big Questions. Is there a God or not? What does he want? Is there an afterlife? What’s our ultimate destiny?
Ideologues don’t have to be favorable to traditional religions. Since the nineteenth century, Communist ideologues have fiercely opposed belief in God and the afterlife. However, that only replaced traditional religions with a new one: atheism. Further, instead of seeing a divine plan behind history, they saw the laws of the material universe providing an inescapable triumph of communism over other systems.
It thus seemed inevitable that Hitler would have some kind of views on religious subjects—views that would have inspired his ideology of war, racism, and destiny.
A practical question
I was interested in the subject for its own sake—just to understand a seemingly inexplicable historical evil—but it was also a partly practical question for me.
Hitler—and ninety percent of everyone born in Austria at the time—was baptized a Catholic. This made it easy for anti-Catholics to portray Hitler as a loyal son of the Church who simply took the anti-Semitism found in European Christian circles to its logical and murderous extreme.
In 1963, German playwright Rolf Hoccuth published a play called The Deputy that portrayed Pope Pius XII, the pontiff during World War II, as having failed to take action against or even condemn the Holocaust. In 1999, British journalist John Cornwell published the book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII in which he argued that the wartime pontiff was anti-Semitic and silent in the face of the murder of six million European Jews.
Historians roundly criticized both works, but this literature helped fuel the fires of those who wished to portray the Catholic Church as having a cozy relationship with Nazism.
In reality, the Church vigorously opposed it. Even before the war, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli—the future Pius XII—contributed to the 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (German, “With Burning Concern”), which condemned Nazi ideology. To underscore the Church’s forceful rejection of it, this encyclical was written in German instead of the usual Latin and smuggled into Germany to be read from the pulpit of every Catholic church on Palm Sunday.
It condemned the Nazi’s “so-called myth of race and blood” as well as numerous actions of the German state, and after it was released, “Hitler was beside himself with rage. Twelve presses were seized, and hundreds of people sent either to prison or the camps” (Anton Gill, An Honorable Defeat; A History of the German Resistance to Hitler).
During the war, Pius XII oversaw clandestine Catholic efforts to save Jewish people from the concentration camps, and in his book Three Popes and the Jews, Orthodox Rabbi Pinchas Lapide estimated that “the final number of Jewish lives in whose rescue the Catholic Church had been the instrument is thus at least 700,000 souls, but in all probability, it is much closer to . . . 860,000.”
Pius XII’s opposition to Hitler was so well known that he wrote a letter of resignation in the event that he was captured by the Nazis so that a new pope could be elected in a neutral country, away from Nazi control (Andrea Tornielli, Francis: Pope of a New World).
Upon Pius XII’s death, Golda Meir, who was to be the prime minister of Israel, stated: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.”
False starts, better information
Despite the Church’s opposition to Nazi ideology, the question of Hitler’s religion had a practical aspect for me from an apologetic perspective. It was one thing to show that Hitler had turned his back on Catholic teaching, but it would be better to be able to identify exactly what he came to believe.
I thought I had a promising lead when I found the 1989 book The Nazis and the Occult by American journalist Dusty Sklar. He linked Nazi ideology to various occult and neo-pagan ideas that were floating around Austria at the time, and for a while I relied on this book.
However, I came to realize that, while Sklar was correct that such ideas were present in the ethos of the time, the book was unscholarly, and these ideas could not simply be attributed to Hitler. I also came across unreliable documentaries that similarly sought to portray Nazism as a fundamentally occult/neopagan movement.
Fortunately, in recent years much more information about Hitler’s religious beliefs has become available and easier to find due to the Internet. Today there are several quality treatments of the subject.
One is American historian Richard Weikart’s 2016 book Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich. It is a balanced, carefully argued work that interacts with the views of different scholars, and it documents Hitler’s beliefs using his own writings and speeches as well as memoirs by his associates. The quotations in the sections that follow can be found in it unless otherwise noted.
An occultist or a pagan?
Those who link Hitler to occultism or neopaganism can point to the fact that there were prominent occult societies in Vienna, Austria, where Hitler lived in early adulthood. Further, some of his associates were involved in these activities. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, the foremost agency of surveillance and terror within Germany and German-occupied Europe; and Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi educational leader, both favored the reintroduction of German paganism involving the worship of deities such as Wotan (Odin) and Thor.
But this didn’t mean Hitler subscribed to these views. Weikart notes: “At the Nuremberg Party Rally in September 1938, Hitler confronted head-on the neopaganism in his own party. Some Germans were becoming unsettled at Rosenberg’s and Himmler’s attempts to resurrect ancient Germanic gods, rites, and shrines. Hitler reassured his followers that this did not represent the official party position nor did it correspond with his own perspective.”
Not only did Hitler publicly distance himself from such views, he mocked them in private. According to Nazi architect Albert Speer, Hitler said of Himmler’s religious efforts: “What nonsense! Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind it, and now he wants to start that all over again. We might just as well have stayed with the church. At least it had tradition. To think that I may someday be turned into an SS saint! Can you imagine it? I would turn over in my grave.”
Weikart also notes: “Hitler’s military adjutant likewise recalled that Hitler disapproved of Himmler’s plans to reintroduce the cult of Wotan and Thor. In October 1941, Hitler ranted again about the foolishness of trying to resurrect the cult of Wotan.”
Hitler’s godless behavior made it easy for some to portray him as an atheist. The millions of deaths he was responsible for represent a slaughter comparable only to those of the atheistic, Communist dictators of the twentieth century such as Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot, and it’s easy to view Hitler as one who feared neither God nor man.
Some of Hitler’s contemporaries even described him in atheistic terms. One was the early Nazi Party official Otto Strasser. Another was Hitler’s friend Ernst Hanfstaengl, who said, “He was to all intents and purposes an atheist by the time I got to know him” (Hitler: The Memoir of the Nazi Insider Who Turned Against the Fuhrer).
But Strasser and Hanfstaengl both turned on Hitler, and their descriptions of him as an atheist may have been attempts to damage his reputation or distance themselves from him. Hanfstaengl in particular said that he was an atheist only “to all intents and purposes,” suggesting he was irreligious but not a committed disbeliever in God.
Hitler was not an atheist according to his public statements. In 1937, he remarked that the German national anthem “constitutes a pledge to the Almighty, to his will and to his work: for man has not created this Volk [i.e., the German people], but God, that God who stands above us all.”
However, many politicians engage in insincere God talk to curry favor with their constituents, and there is no doubt that Hitler was a prolific liar who refrained from fully disclosing his religious beliefs lest he lose support among believers. So it’s fair to ask whether Hitler actually believed in a deity or whether he simply said what he thought people wanted to hear.
“Was this just a pose for public consumption?” Weikart writes. “Not likely. Hitler not only appealed to Providence as his guide in many public speeches and in both his books, but he also did the same in his private monologues. His closest colleagues also testified that he believed Providence had anointed him for a special task.”
If Hitler professed a belief in God, even in private, we need to ask what kind of deity he believed in. Was it the Christian God?
In his speeches and writings, he attempted to give the impression that it was. However, his antagonism toward historic Christianity was so strong that he publicly reinterpreted it. Early in his career, he said he supported what he called “positive Christianity,” according to which Jesus was a great Aryan who fought against Jewish materialism.
He then used this image of Jesus-as-fighter to inspire his followers to fight. In 1923, he gave a speech in which he said, “We must bring Christianity to the fore again, but the fighting Christianity [Kampfchristentum],” which did not involve “mute acceptance and suffering but rather a doctrine of struggle” against injustice, saying, “Now is the time to fight with fist and sword.”
Hitler’s understanding of Christ was bizarre. According to him, Jesus was not a Jew. Weikart notes, “In April 1921, he told a crowd in Rosenheim that he could not imagine Christ as anything other than blond-haired and blue-eyed, making clear that he considered Jesus an Aryan. In an interview with a journalist in November 1922, he actually claimed Jesus was Germanic.”
Although Hitler was prepared to see Jesus as having been martyred because of his opposition to Jewish practices, he did not believe in the Resurrection. According to Hitler’s confidant Otto Wagener, Hitler stated that “Christ’s body was removed from the tomb to keep it from being an object of veneration and a tangible relic of the great new founder of a religion.”
As the years progressed, Hitler deemphasized “positive Christianity,” and in private he admitted this was a pose.
As early as 1931, Weikart writes, “Goebbels recorded that Hitler wished to withdraw from the Catholic Church but was waiting for the right moment. Hitler’s wish seemed to excite Goebbels, even though he admitted it would cause a scandal. But Goebbels relished the thought that he, Hitler, and other Nazi leaders would someday leave the churches en masse.”
Hitler also envisioned the overall demise of Christianity. In 1937, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, “The Fuhrer thinks Christianity is ripe for destruction. That may still take a long time, but it is coming.”
One reason it would take time was that Hitler felt he needed to keep the German people united in order to fight the war. Afterward, however, things would be different. In 1941 he told his district lieutenants, “There is an insoluble contradiction between the Christian and a Germanic-heroic worldview. However, this contradiction cannot be resolved during the war, but after the war we must step up to solve this contradiction.”
His rejection of Christianity did not mean embracing atheism, however. As Hitler privately told Nazi newspaper editor Hans Ziegler, “You must know, I am a heathen. I understand that to mean: a non-Christian. Of course, I have an inward relationship to a cosmic Almighty, to a Godhead.”
So what was Hitler?
If Hitler wasn’t an occultist, a neopagan, an atheist, or a Christian, then what was he?
The answer is that, religiously as in other matters, he was an eclectic who didn’t follow an established school of thought. Instead, he borrowed different ideas that were floating around in the culture of his day. If we had to describe his religious views in a single phrase, we could say that he was a pseudo-scientific evolutionary pantheist. Each of these elements requires some unpacking.
Pantheism is the view that God and the world are identical. It emphasizes the immanence of God in nature at the expense of his transcendence. It began to gain traction in Europe in the 1600s as a result of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza and, later, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.
Pantheism lacks a personal God separate from creation. Instead, the world itself is understood as a spiritual entity. This is why Hitler could still affirm a belief in “a cosmic Almighty” despite his rejection of the Judeo-Christian God.
Hitler was powerfully impressed with nature—as illustrated both by his racial theories and by nature imagery in Nazi propaganda—and so he tended to conflate God with nature.
In 1941, he spoke of “the helplessness of humanity in the face of the eternal law of nature. It is not harmful, if we only come to the knowledge that the entire salvation of humanity lies in trying to comprehend the divine Providence and not believing that he can rebel against that law.”
As Weikart points out, “In this passage, Hitler equated ‘divine Providence’ with natural laws that are also eternal.”
Hitler did not believe that the world was created. Instead, it was eternal, and rather than being able to appeal to a loving Creator who can intervene in human history, Hitler believed people must simply submit to the iron laws of nature.
This leads to the next element of Hitler’s religion: It was heavily focused on evolution. This is the reason for his racial policies.
Hitler believed that, through the process of evolution, nature had produced a hierarchy of races, with Nordic Germans at the top and groups such as Jews and Africans much further down. Since evolution involves survival of the fittest, Hitler believed that conflict between these races was natural and desirable, that the weaker should be subjugated or eliminated so that the superior might prosper.
It also is why he opposed race mixing, because it would mean weakening the superior strains of humanity by introducing genetically inferior material into their lines. And it is why he favored euthanasia, which he saw as helping to weed out the genetically defective and the weak from the gene pool. All of these things, according to Hitler, facilitated the process of evolution and thus corresponded to the “will” of nature.
This also explains Hitler’s antipathy toward Christianity, with its emphasis on the equality of all peoples and its efforts to help the weak.
Although some of Hitler’s ideas were shared by the Social Darwinists and eugenicists of his era, they remain fundamentally unscientific. Conceived of as a purely natural process (as opposed to the tool of an intelligent Creator), evolution would not produce a hierarchy of organisms or, within humanity, of races.
Hitler—like many others—misunderstood the concept of survival of the fittest. This does not mean the survival of the strongest or the most aggressive. Instead, it means the survival of those life forms that are most “fit” or adapted to their environment. Thus, fish have been evolutionarily fitted for life underwater, while humans have been evolutionarily fitted for life on land.
As environments change over time, what counts as “fit” changes. This is why the dinosaurs died out and mammals began to fill the ecological niches they left behind. It’s also why, during the Cold War, many feared that humans would not be fit for a post-nuclear-war environment, but cockroaches might.
If evolution were a purely natural process, as Hitler believed, then there would be no permanent, overall standard of fitness, only adaptation to changing environments.
Hitler had a simplistic understanding of evolution and did not take into account things such as the development of altruistic behaviors or how a species’ overall survival might be promoted by it helping its physically weaker members so they could make whatever unique contributions they could.
The pseudo-scientific nature of his understanding can be seen by considering his policy against race mixing. Why should this apply only on the level of races? Why not apply it to individual bloodlines within races?
On Hitler’s logic, one could argue that a superior family should never breed with lesser families lest it taint its genes, but we know what the result of that would be: inbreeding and every negative thing that follows from it. Not only are highly genetically similar populations prone to birth defects, they also are more vulnerable to diseases, because if a germ comes along that works against a given set of genes, and everyone has those genes, the population can be fatally damaged.
Consequently, breeding outside of one’s group often promotes greater population resilience, and individuals who result from such unions often display greater strengths—a phenomenon known in biology as hybrid vigor.
It is horrific that Hitler’s pseudo-scientific ideas led him to embrace a pseudo-religion that resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people through genocide and war. His example stands as a witness to the evil that can result from blinding oneself to the true God and his message of love and compassion for all.