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The Christian Nazis?

RECENT DECADES HAVE seen endless interpretive battles over the Nazis. The Holocaust was an evil genius's long-prepared scheme, or an improvised response to developments during World War IIone of several possible ``Final Solutions.'' German soldiers were only willing to commit genocide after participating in brutal warfare on the Eastern front, or they were eager killers from the start. Churches resisted the Third Reich, or they legitimated it.

Until now, though, one piece of conventional wisdom has gone unchallenged: that the Nazis disliked Christianity. The standard view has been that while Hitler and his deputies may have feigned respect for religion during their ascent to power, they essentially believed, with Nietzsche, in the ``death of God.'' They were as anti-Christian as the Soviets, but with a pagan twist: Some of them hoped to turn mutant versions of dormant Germanic and Norse legends into a state religion. In the place of the cross, think Wagner and Wotan, swords and horned helmets.

Richard Steigmann-Gall, an assistant professor of history at Kent State in Ohio, thinks otherwise. In his new book, The Holy Reich (Cambridge), he argues that many Nazis and their followers were sincere Christian believers. Nazism was the opposite of atheistic: It was a ``singularly horrific attempt to preserve God against secular society.'' Indeed, ``the battles waged against Germany's enemies constituted a war in the name of Christianity.'' The modern tendency to paint Hitler and his allies as anti-Christian ``kooks,'' he explains in an interview, is just another way to put an artificial distance between them and us and thereby to avoid the toughest questions about our own susceptibility to evil.

There were a handful of self-styled pagans in the Nazi regime, notably Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg. But ``many other Nazis thought their religious views were ridiculous,'' Steigmann-Gall says. ``Hitler didn't hesitate to mock their ideas behind their back.'' Additionally, the 1939 book ``Hitler Speaks,'' in which the Fhrer was quoted as saying that his future plans included ``stamping out Christianity in Germany, root and branch,'' is now widely viewed as a fraud.

Though Hitler did view Roman Catholicism as a threat to German nationalism, Steigmann-Gall points out, his hope until the late 1930s was to unite Protestants under one state church. Plenty were willing to go along, but dissenters, including Martin Niemller and his ``Pastors' Emergency League,'' fended off the plan. Imprisoned for his efforts, Niemller was lauded as a hero after the war.

Steigmann-Gall emphasizes that Niemller and his peers were far more concerned with preserving their churches' autonomy than with opposing the regime's ideology. In fact, Niemller voiced vicious anti-Semitic sentiments of his own. Moreover, Steigmann-Gall argues, historians have failed to come to grips with the tight interweaving of Protestantism and German identity. In the 1920s, one of Hitler's intellectual mentors, Dietrich Eckart, talked up parallels between Christianity and muscular nationalism: ``In Christ, the embodiment of all manliness, we find all that we need.'' In 1933, after the Nazis assumed power, ministers argued from the pulpit that it was fitting that this social revolution had come on the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth.

Is Steigmann-Gall's argument fair? Several critics have pointed out that the conception of Christianity held by most National Socialists was far from a conventional one. As Jack Fischel, a historian at Millersville University, argued in The Weekly Standard last month, ``By eliminating the Old Testament from the biblical canon, reinventing Jesus as an Aryan, and depicting the struggles of Christ as the archetype of the eternal battle between the Aryan and the Semite . . . the Nazis altered fundamental Christian doctrine.''

John S. Conway, author of ``The Nazi Persecution of the Churches'' (1968), agrees: ``The kind of Christianity they thought they believed in was so diluted of orthodoxy that it was just a mishmash which even the most liberal Protestant would find difficult to swallow.''

Yet many did swallow it, Steigmann-Gall counters. To say Nazis weren't Christians because their views were a mishmash ``is too convenient,'' he says. ``It doesn't explain Nazi conceptions of Christianity. It explains away Nazi conceptions of Christianity.''

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail:

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