“Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
‘Ireland shall get her beedom and you shall break stone.'”

—W. Yeats

That some Protestant theologians meshed Christianity with Nazism and became ardent supporters of Hider should surprise no one familiar with the activities of theologians who support a Marxist-Leninism dedicated to destruction of religion.

Robert Ericksen focuses upon the careers and writings of three pro-Nazi by Daniel J. O’Neil theologians in order to understand their gospel and their motivation. He examines the records of Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsh. Each was a scholar who had acquired a reputation before the dawn of Hitler’s National Socialism. Kittel was a student of Judaism, Althaus a Luther scholar, and Hirsh a Kierkegaard scholar. Each in his own way embraced National Socialism and contributed to Nazi legitimacy.

In focusing on the churchmen, Ericksen portrays men of conservative family background and limited foreign contact who had reacted to the 19th-century rationalist critique of Christianity. They were strongly influenced by the trauma of World War I. They suffered through the humiliating German defeat, the disintegration of a comfortable world, and the chaos of Weimar. All three had witnessed the massive unemployment and the inflation that destroyed a large part of the middle class. Each was greatly affected by the revolution of modernity with its unwelcome secularization, pluralism, and democracy. Each sought a national revitalization rooted in Christianity. Alliance with National Socialism seemed a remedy.

But there were many who had experienced the same upbringing, who had witnessed the same derangement, and yet did not join the Nazis. In fact, the leading domestic opponents of Hitler usually came from a similar milieu. A disproportionate percentage of the ethnic German dissenters were religiously motivated. Germany had its Deutsche Christen movement, but it also had its Christian martyrs. Although the record of the German churches leaves much to be desired, it seems less barren when viewed comparatively. The churches provided considerably more opposition than the business community, the universities, the media establishment, the trade unions, or the traditional political parties. Only the churches maintained some autonomy within Nazi Germany, which explains their importance to the reconstruction of postwar Germany. Out of the religious opposition would emerge the ecumenical spirit that would bear fruit in the 60’s. Still, if heroic martyrdom was expected of the Churches, they were not prepared to play that part.

There is a vast literature that attempts to explain the Hitler experience. Works have stressed the charismatic appeal of Hitler, the cultural vulnerability of German society, and “German psychopathology.” Some have cited the uniqueness of the Nazi experience while others have placed it in a historical/comparative perspective. Marxists interpreted Nazism as the last gasp of capitalism, anti-German polemicists condemned it as endemic to German character, and others saw it as exaggerated nationalism.

There are many reasons for studying Nazi Germany 40 years after its demise. One is that many post-World War II societies, as unstable as Weimar Germany, are tempted by totalitarian movements. Like Germany, many of the new countries achieved national identity fairly late in world history, and only with great difficulty. The ruling elites had simultaneously to build nations, to build states, and to satisfy economic needs raised by media exposure to the more affluent world. There existed what political scientists refer to as “systemic overload.” Mass unemployment and staggering inflation have persisted. The break with tradition—i.e., extended family, rural environment, numerous psychic supports and certitudes—means no refuge for many. The onslaught of modernity with its appeal to reason and science, its secularity, and its pluralism of alternatives is confusing and disorienting. Emerging societies are especially vulnerable to panaceas.

Regimes not unlike German National Socialism have appeared in numerous decolonized regions. Although they never label themselves Nazi or fascist, they possess the relevant characteristics. They center around an all-powerful charismatic leader who claims to personify the nation and who cites a litany of wrongs due to some foreign demonology. They purport to blend nationalism with socialism, promising the evolution of a “new man” and social justice. They stress the temporary necessity of the cult of violence. They engage in massive regimentation, tolerate one official political party, eliminate autonomous interest groups, and control the media. They ruthlessly eliminate their enemies and suspected enemies. They control politics, economics, and culture. They have so far failed to act on the Nazi scale of evil more because of their lack of technological sophistication than because of their intent.

The Marxist-Christian syncretism labeled Liberation Theology has been especially attractive to certain elites in Third World societies. Christianity, being an incarnational religion, is rich in syncretism. As it moved from its Jewish origin, it borrowed from the cultures it encountered. Quite early it explained its mysteries in the language of Greek philosophy. Later it co-opted Roman legal and bureaucratic structures. But syncretism has its limits; there is always the temptation to link Christianity with the latest fad. A mixture might be conjured that ceases to be Christian. If, as the Reformers charged, the Renaissance Church was more pagan than Christian, Ericksen suggests that the Nazi theologians were more Nazi than Christian. Today the latest exercise in syncretism—Liberation Theology—is subjected to a similar charge.

Most clergy are genuinely concerned about improving the lot of the poor. Often they have led sheltered lives and are genuinely shocked by their first confrontation with poverty. The most prominent liberation theologians come from the traditional ruling class and were educated abroad. Assuming affluence to be the natural condition of man, they are appalled by what they see in the Third World. They rarely understand the cultural roots of wealth that have been uncovered by Max Weber, Edward Banfield, and Lucien Pye: a cohesive family system, a view of work as vocation, discipline, a willingness to sacrifice today for future gratification, and a general honesty. Societies lacking these cultural underpinnings are doomed to poverty despite the slogans and ideologies spewed by the ruling politicians, Oblivious of this persuasive cultural interpretation, the liberation theologians instead embrace the Leninist theory of imperialism, which blames the successful for Third World poverty and encourages a spirit of secular guilt.

The liberation theologians have embraced the cult of the relevant. Christianity must adapt to modernity. This time the church must not oppose inevitable revolution. It must accommodate change and become progressive. Its traditional concern with the transcendent, the spiritual, and individual transformation is but obscurantism. The mystery and mysticism must be rejected or directed toward a mundane objective. There must be quick results in this world.

It is difficult to forgive, or presume to forgive, Ericksen’s Nazi theologians. Their apology for a pagan, totalitarian ideology is a scandal to Christian believers. To mitigate their guilt, however, it might be noted that Hitler represented a “first.” There was no precedent to warn them in their naiveté. Italy’s fascism was little more than traditional authoritarianism and vastly different from German National Socialism. The Germans had to learn through error and through other peoples’ suffering. (Little did they suspect that Hitler was literal in espousing his Final Solution.) In contrast, the liberation theologians can look back on a variety of Marxist-Leninist experiments. They can see clearly the regimentation, the Gulags, the persecution of religious communities, the mass emigrations, and the economic chaos. Future generations may not be any kinder to Boff, Gutierrez, and Cardenal than we are to Kittel, Althaus, and Hirsh.


[Theologians Under Hitler, by Robert P. Ericksen; New Haven and London: Yale University Press]