The Good Report

Hitler, Christianity and Atheism

13 minutes reading time

What did Hitler really believe? Hitler’s mother was a devout Catholic. His father considered religion a scam. Hitler called himself a Christian and venerated Jesus as an anti-Jewish fighter. German churches replaced bibles on altars with copies of Mein Kampf and services were held in Hitler’s honour. He worked hard to harness the power of religion for his own ends, but the heart of his ideology was diametrically opposed to Christianity.

According to Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth movement, “the destruction of Christianity was explicitly recognized as a purpose of the National Socialist movement.” Rejecting Christianity outright, the Nazis changed the Bible to fit their ends. First, Jesus was rebranded as Aryan. While the New Testament is emphatic about Jesus’ Jewish identity, Hitler declared, “I can imagine Christ as nothing other than blond and with blue eyes, the Devil however only with a Jewish grimace.” Nazi-era Bibles removed the Old Testament and edited the gospels to purge references to Jesus’s Jewishness, his missional prioritization of the Israelites and his fulfilment of Hebrew scripture. Nazis edited New Testament texts to align with their ideology and militaristic mindset. Most stunningly of all, the Nazis even went to replace Jesus with Hitler himself. Joseph Goebbels, minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, said of Hitler: “We are witnessing the greatest miracle in history. A genius is building a new world!” Hitler’s youth were taught a prayer resembling the Lord’s prayer, but addressed to Fuhrer:

Adolf Hitler, you are our great Fuhrer.
Thy name makes the enemy tremble.
Thy Third Reich comes, thy will alone is law upon the earth.
Let us hear daily thy voice and order us by thy leadership,
For we will obey to the end and even with our lives.
We praise thee! Heil Hitler!

So Nazi Germany was founded on a new religion, with a new messiah and an ideology that could not have been further from Christianity. The Nazis mangled Christianity beyond recognition. Thousands of Protestants protested Nazi tactics and as a result seven hundred pastors were arrested. Many were executed or sent to concentration camps. This was not Christianity.

Hitler loathed Christianity and hated Judaism. In Hitler’s view, the Aryan race was simply superior, and maintaining racial purity was an evolutionary ethic: “The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker, which would signify the sacrifice of its own higher nature.” We can see the horrifying logic: if evolution is the reference to how we value things, then since evolution depends on the survival of the fittest, perhaps one race can claim to be more fit and out-compete the others. If we think that evolution created and defines all ethics then virtue equals “sacrifices that benefit one’s own group in competition with other groups,” and on these terms, Hitler’s fascism was “the ultimate virtuous ideology.” 

Hitler and Nietzsche

One of Hitler’s strongest intellectual influences was nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He was such a fan that he personally presented a copy of Nietzsche’s works to Benito Mussolini. Historian William Shirer wrote that “Hitler often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimer and published his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man.”

Now Nietzsche despised religion in general, and Christianity in particular. To Nietzsche, it was unreasonable that a man of strength should control his desires, seek to be humble, and have compassion for the weak. “Monkish” values like humility and the belief in the equality of human value only oppose the strong and their potential. For example, Nietzsche considered the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to be a damning approach to life, for they emphasise our responsibility towards the weak and poor of society. According to Nietzsche, a society driven by such an ethic, in effect, is controlled by the losers. So, the values esteemed and justified by Christianity were the very values holding back Nietzsche’s view of what the ideal man (or woman!) should be. In his Antichrist (1895), he said, “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground, and too petty.”

Nietzsche hated Christianity and rejected the idea of a God, yet to Nietzsche the non-existence of God wasn’t an entirely good thing either. He is well known for his famous statement: “God is dead.” Yet Nietzsche did not make this claim in a narcissistic or triumphant manner, but in absolute despair. He understood that in the denial of God, all the Judeo-Christian morals and values serving as the foundation of Western civilization could no longer be held as true. Nietzsche concluded from this that everything would soon fall apart, in a catastrophic manner both psychologically and socially. 

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), s.125

For Nietzsche, the collapse of Judeo-Christian society meant chaos. With God out the window, we don’t need to worry about sexual and religious Thou shalt nots anymore, but what we’re left with is even more awful than what we’ve gotten rid of. Nietzsche wanted to look life squarely in the eye, with no God to obstruct his vision, and the picture he was agonizing to his mind. He saw no vast mind behind the framing of this world; he heard no transcending voice giving counsel to this world; he saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and he felt the loneliness of existence in its most desolate form. In a sense, Nietzsche was the first western philosopher to face up fully to man’s loss of faith in religion. He put down in black and white what many around him felt to be true, but were unwilling to acknowledge as the logical end of their belief. The consequences of the death of God would penetrate every avenue of life, and that thought in and of itself would be unbearable. It could prove to be suicidal, if man did not rise up and take charge. 

In his book ‘The Will to Power’, Nietzsche prophesied that two major consequences would arise in the denial of God’s existence, both beginning in the twentieth century. Firstly, as the purpose of human life became uncertain outside the purposeful structure of monotheistic thought and the meaningful world it proposed, we would experience an existential devastating rise in nihilism. Secondly, he suggested people would turn from religion to rigid, totalitarian ideology substituting God’s wisdom for man’s. As a result, Nietzsche predicted that the twentieth century would become the bloodiest century in history and that also a universal madness would break out. He has been right on both counts. More people have been killed because of ideological differences, and destroyed on the battlefields of geopolitical maneuvering, in the twentieth century than in any other century in history, and by some calculations, more than in the previous nineteen centuries put together.

Now Nietzsche wasn’t so keen on the two logical outcomes of God’s denial, so he proposed, rather inconsistently, a single remaining escape from nihilism and totalitarianism: the emergence of an individual strong enough to create his own set of values, project them onto a valueless reality, and then abide by them. The issue is that this solution is ignorant of the fact that if there is no God, nihilism is your only consistent alternative worldview. You can’t just create your own morals and values and then conclude that reality must adhere to them. There is nothing objective or true about those values, they are merely subjective. And if you create values and ethics in contradiction with mine, who is right? Neither of us. They are just made up. I remember a conversation I had with a work colleague where I made this point, that objective morality hinges on the existence of a transcendent source of right and wrong. When my work colleague said “But I’m not religious, and I know what right and wrong are!”, that wasn’t the slam-dunk argument they thought it was, because where did you learn right and wrong? Who taught you? “Well, my parents taught me what’s right and what’s wrong!” And… that’s not a great argument either. As we look at human history, how many parents taught their children that slavery was okay, or that racial segregation was a good thing? What’s right or wrong isn’t based on subjective reasoning or the consensus of the masses. Also, if each of us lives by our own created and projected values, what remains to unite us? We are left with war with the winning team imposing their values on the rest of us simply because they are the winning team. Does such an arbitrary, violent way of resolving moral dilemmas appeal to you? It sure doesn’t sound great to me! And yet, that was exactly what Hitler attempted.

Nietzsche saw that “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole. It stands or falls with faith in God.” He was right. You cannot rescue Christian morality while doing away with Christ. You cannot salvage the ten commandments while destroying the authority of the books of Moses. Nietzsche understood that the concept of moral truths depends on an authority outside ourselves, yet since he did not believe in a God of any sort, he concluded that moral “truth is fiction.” In ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’, he imagined an ‘Ubermensch’, or “Superhuman,” who would rise above the concepts of good and evil founded from Christianity, and throw off this “slave morality”, and instead create their own values and moral code. This human would find a way to live amidst and beyond these blasted ruins of Christian ethics and moral philosophies, and so would have qualities even quite disturbing to many today.  Hitler (although most likely against Nietzsche’s intentions) mapped this idea onto Aryan Germans and rejected the “morality of weakness” offered by Christianity. Like Nietzsche, Hitler abhorred Christian morality such as the belief in human rights and that all human life has equal objective value. In effect Hitler saw himself as Nietzsche’s superhuman who had evolved beyond Christian ethics. As the British historian Alan Bullock wrote: “In Hitler’s eyes, Christianity was a religion fit only for slaves; he detested its ethics in particular. Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle and the survival of the fittest.” 

In taking Nietzsche’s atheistic worldview to its logical conclusion, the Nazis were trying to create a post-Christian, post-religious perfect man, the ideal Aryan. In a secular view there are no objective grounds to justify the equality of human value or the existence of moral duties. Morals are subjective, so let’s create our own rules and drive the peddle of evolution. Destroy the weak. Lift up the strong. In Auschwitz the words of Hitler are clearly stated: “I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality… We will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence – imperious, relentless and cruel.” Hitler saw himself as Nietzsche’s “Superman” solving the problem by getting rid of what he saw as inferior. The “inferior” were to be obliterated; the “superior” were to determine destiny, and the will and power of the superman would dominate.

Relativized mortality, when it has had its day, will have trivialized human beings and made us expendable statistics in fulfilling the ideological plan of some superhuman. Disregard for the sanctity of life – and its resultant corollary of estimating the value of a life by its quality – provided some of the Third Reich’s metaphysical moorings. 

The real voice of atheism

Many secular scholars have attempted to re-establish a basis for human rights that is untethered to religious moorings. Philosopher Ronald E. Osborn surveys some recent forays into this territory, but concludes that the core humanistic values of inviolable human dignity, inalienable human rights, and intrinsic human equality cannot be upheld by naturalism (and so atheism) that will always crumble into nihilism. Most of my friends who identify as nonreligious are passionately committed to human rights, and many secular philosophers argue for human rights and equality as a must, but when it comes to an objective philosophical foundation for human rights from a secular perspective, building materials are hard to come by. Many atheists today anchor themselves on humanism, believing in the human spirit and capacity for progress, creativity and love without any need for a “God hypothesis.” But Richard Dawkins’s relentless claim that there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” – illuminates a problem. This bleak, secular view of the universe erodes the foundations on which we balance life and humanness itself. If there is no good or evil, why do we lament? If our sympathy for others is just a byproduct of evolutionary kinship, why empathize with the suffering of those outside our tribe? And if our sense of self, our soul, is just a delusion, moral agency evaporates and so do human rights. As the late Christopher Hitchens, former champion of atheism, declared: “How do I know there are such things as human rights? I don’t. I don’t know if there are such things… Our grounding (for human rights) is about as tenuous as our position as a primate species on a rather dodgy planet.”

Human equality has no firm secular foundation and there is no escaping it. 

Hitler understood this, and by it, he justified his atrocities against other humans who were not part of his ‘pack’. Think about it: competition, violence, and the eradication of the weak fuel the engine that drives evolution, it is the key to natural selection; so if you reduce humans down to just their scientific components and exclude deeper levels of meaning, then you are left with a worldview incompatible with a belief system that values humans equally. 

Hitler took the metaphysics of Darwinian theory, and in his Mein Kampf said: “If nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race (like the Germanic race) should inter-mingle with an inferior (like the Jewish race). Why? because, in such a case her efforts, throughout hundreds and thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile.” What is truly instructive about Hitler’s use of natural selection is that Darwin himself foresaw such implications and repercussions from his theory. Darwin said, “In the long run a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity.” Elsewhere, he remarked, “Looking at the world at no sitant date, what an endless number of lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.”

It is not wise to judge a philosophy by its abuse, both in the case of Darwinistic evolutionary theory, and in the case of Christian metaphysics. But the theory of the domination of the strong over the weak is not the abuse of natural selection; rather, it is at the heart of it. Hitler unintentionally exposed atheism and dragged it where it was reluctantly, but logically, forced into its consequences. The denuding of people that took place in the concentration camps, brought about the logical outworking of the demise of God and the extermination of moral law.

Today there are philosophers who have followed the footsteps Hitler left behind, perhaps unknowingly. Consider the words of the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who makes the calculation that even “a week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many nonhuman animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity, and so on, exceed that of a human baby of a week or a month old.” Therefore, Singer concludes that “the life of a newborn baby is of less value… than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” Medical ethicists Alberto Guibilini and Francesca Minerva also argue that “after-birth abortion (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” You may find this uncompassionate, after all these so-called “ethicists” are talking about being able to kill a newborn baby, but they are only being consistent with their secular worldview. If we are not in a special category of personhood by virtue of our creation in the image of God, perhaps we can judge our value according to our capacities. Hitler also thought this, denying the life of those who were disabled or weak because they were less useful.

If you maintain a belief in human equality and the objective value of life while assenting to a secular worldview, then make no mistake about it, you are inconsistent! The fact is, today’s secular humanism offers a worldview in which its conceptions of morality and reality are at odds: human beings are a collection of atoms labouring under a false belief that they are moral agents. And yet humans are of immense, equal, and inalienable worth. What will be the outcome? Hitler applied the reality of secularism for his own ambitions. If there is no God, if we are purposeless biological robots controlled by the outcomes of physical laws alone, then our sense of self is just an illusion. We have no moral agency; morality is no more than preference. As MIT professor Alan Lightman put it, “We are a bunch of atoms, like trees, and like doughnuts,” so, eat a doughnut, or eat a child. Anything goes – or, as you might have heard the paraphrased line from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted.’

This is not to say all atheists are immoral, but morality as goodness cannot be justified with atheist presuppositions. An atheist may be morally minded, but he happens to be living better than his belief about what the nature of man warrants. He may have personal moral values, but he cannot have any sense of compelling and universal moral obligation. Moral duty cannot logically operate without a moral law; and there is no moral law in an amoral world.

Hitler had his own twisted view of human progress, and secularism provided the justification he needed to carry it out. Without the Christian concept of God Hitler was free from the concepts of good and evil which would restrain his own interest. In that case, it can be said with confidence that Hitler did nothing objectively wrong. Reject God, and you lose a philosophical foundation by which you can objectively justify the concepts of justice, purpose, meaning and true value. 

I have come to believe that there are only two consistent worldviews – Christianity and nihilism. Your pick.

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