This is a fascinating article about Hitler’s library: he was an avid collector and reader, and part of his collection still exists, and you can even stroll down to the Library of Congress and ask to browse through the stockpile. The bulk of the books are about military strategy and tactics, and a subset are Hitler’s personal favorite light reading, cowboy stories. But there are also many religious texts that give insight into the way his mind worked.
Experts since then have been of two minds on the matter of Hitler’s spiritual beliefs. Ian Kershaw argues that Hitler consciously constructed an image of himself as a messianic figure, and eventually came to believe the very myth he had helped to fashion. “The more he succumbed to the allure of his own Führer cult and came to believe in his own myth, the more his judgment became impaired by faith in his own infallibility,” Kershaw writes in The Hitler Myth (1987). But believing in a messianic myth is not the same as believing in God. When I asked Kershaw in 2001 whether he thought Hitler actually believed in divine providence, he dismissed the notion. “I don’t think that he had any real belief in a deity of any sort, only in himself as a ‘man of destiny’ who would bring about Germany’s ‘salvation,’” he declared. Gerhard Weinberg, who helped sort through the Hitler Library back in the 1950s, likewise dismisses the notion of Hitler as a religious believer, insisting that he was driven by the twin passions of Blut und Boden–racial purity and territorial expansion. “He didn’t believe in anything but himself,” Weinberg told me last summer. Most historians tend to agree.
Some non-historians, however, have different views. In the 1960s Friedrich Heer, a prominent and controversial Viennese theologian, identified Hitler as a misguided “Austrian Catholic,” a man whose faith was disastrously misplaced but nevertheless sincere. In a dense, 750-page treatise Heer saw Hitler the Austrian Catholic at every turn: the nine-year-old choirboy catching his first glimpse of a swastika in the coat of arms at the Lambach Monastery; the beer-hall orator whose speeches resound with biblical allusions; the Führer of the Reich who re-created the splendor of the Catholic mass at the annual Nuremberg rally. Even his virulent hatred of Jewry found sustenance in those roots. Fritz Redlich, an eminent Yale psychiatrist, asserts in his book, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, that Hitler acted from a profound belief in God. Noting Hitler’s own words “Man kommt um den Gottesbegriff nicht um” (“You cannot get around the concept of God”), Redlich told me last summer that he was certain Hitler believed in a “divine creature.” He rejected suggestions that Hitler’s invocations of the divine were little more than cynical public posturing and insisted that we ought to take Hitler at his word: “In a way, Hitler was a terrible liar, but he was a tactical liar. In his essential line of thinking he was honest.”
I tend to favor the opinion that he was a lousy Catholic…but an even lousier atheist.