Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Fritz Stern on Hitler and Religion

Fritz Stern, a distinguished historian from Columbia University whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1938, was recently awarded the Leo Baeck Medal from the Leo Baeck Institute. The LBI is devoted to studying the history and culture of German-speaking Jews and is named for the leader of Germany’s Jewish community, sent by the Nazis first to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. Stern, who barely managed to escape the concentration camps himself and had many family members die in them, was an ideal choice for such an award. His work as a scholar of European history has done much to provide the historical backdrop against which Hitler’s final solution played out. That backdrop is considerably different than the picture presented by Justice Scalia that I wrote about the other day. In his acceptance speech, Stern said:

Churchmen, especially Protestant clergy, shared his hostility to the liberal-secular state and its defenders, and they, too, were filled with anti-Semitic doctrine…

Twenty years ago, I wrote about “National Socialism as Temptation,” about what it was that induced so many Germans to embrace the terrifying specter. There were many reasons, but at the top ranks Hitler himself, a brilliant populist manipulator who insisted and probably believed that Providence had chosen him as Germany’s savior, that he was the instrument of Providence, a leader who was charged with executing a divine mission. God had been drafted into national politics before, but Hitler’s success in fusing racial dogma with a Germanic Christianity was an immensely powerful element in his electoral campaigns. Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics, but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas.

German moderates and German elites underestimated Hitler, assuming that most people would not succumb to his Manichean unreason; they didn’t think that his hatred and mendacity could be taken seriously. They were proven wrong. People were enthralled by the Nazis’ cunning transposition of politics into carefully staged pageantry, into flag-waving martial mass. At solemn moments, the National Socialists would shift from the pseudo-religious invocation of Providence to traditional Christian forms: In his first radio address to the German people, twenty-four hours after coming to power, Hitler declared, “The National Government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.”

Let me cite one example of the acknowledged appeal of unreason. Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker, Nobel-laureate in physics and a philosopher, wrote to me in the mid-1980s saying that he had never believed in Nazi ideology but that he had been tempted by the movement, which seemed to him then like “the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” On reflection, he thought that National Socialism had been part of a process that the National Socialists themselves hadn’t understood. He may well have been right: the Nazis didn’t realize that they were part of an historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason. German elites proved susceptible to this mystical brew of pseudo- religion and disguised interest. The Christian churches most readily fell into line as well, though with some heroic exceptions.

If the bolded portions sound like familiar rhetoric, that is not coincidental.