The Most Famous Christian of the 20th Century?
Hint: He was born in Austria, tried to take over the world, and no, he’s not the Governor of California.
By Robert Flynn
Here’s a little trivia question for you. Who was the most famous Christian of the 20th century?
Mother Teresa? Nope. Billy Graham? Nope. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Guess again. Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, any and all popes, any and all U.S. presidents…Nah, throw ‘em out.
The most famous Christian of the 20th century was Adolf Hitler.
Sure, we call Hitler infamous today. But before he started gobbling up European countries like they were little bratwurst sausages, Hitler was famous as a world leader with high moral values and a distinctly Christian vision.
In fact, no present politician has more blatantly declared his Christianity than Hitler, or has had his faith so widely accepted. Millions of Christians around the world admired the savvy tyrant; a couple of his more recognizable fans included Britain’s Lloyd George and that all-American idol of idols, Charles Lindbergh. The most appealing of Hitler’s “Christian” attributes included:
•His morality. He did not smoke or drink and he abhorred pornography and homosexuality.
•His call for his nation to repent. “Providence withdrew its protection and our people fell… And in this hour we sink to our knees and beseech our almighty God that He may bless us, that He may give us the strength to carry on the struggle for the freedom, the future, the honor, and the peace of our people. So help us God.” (March 1936)
*His stand against secularism: “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith….” (April 1933)
*His war on atheism: “We were convinced that the people need and require [the Christian] faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” (October 1933)
*His blending of church and state: “National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary it stands on the ground of a real Christianity… For their interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of today, in our fight against a Bolshevist culture, against atheistic movement, against criminality, and in our struggle for a consciousness of a community in our national life…These are Christian principles!” (August 1934)
•His faith-based charity: “With a tenth of our budget for religion, we would thus have a Church devoted to the State and of unshakable loyalty.” (January 1939)
•His God-given mission to cleanse Germany of evil as personified by the Jews, liberals, homosexuals, labor leaders, homeless people, immigrants from inferior cultures, and the weak and sick. “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” And, “We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit… We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theater, and in the press—in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess…” (March 1936)
•His patriotism and the belief that his nation’s weakness was because “...the watchword of German foreign policy ceased to be: preservation of the German nation by all methods; but rather: preservation of world peace by all means.”
•His condemnation of others who sought to use religion for personal
gain. “Worst of all, however, is the devastation wrought by the misuse of religious conviction for political ends. In truth, we cannot sharply enough attack those wretched crooks who would like to make religion an implement to perform political or rather business services
•His vow to end terrorism: “…we must not dodge this struggle, but prepare for it, and for this reason acquire armament which alone offers protection against violence. Terror is not broken by the mind, but by terror.”
•His devotion to the Ten Commandments, which he proclaimed the foundation of Nazi Germany: “The Ten Commandments are a code of living to which there’s no refutation. These precepts correspond to irrefutable needs of the human soul.”
•His warriorship for the Lord. “I would like to thank Providence and the Almighty for choosing me of all people to be allowed to wage this battle for Germany.” “I follow the path assigned to me by Providence ... there is a God… And this God again has blessed our efforts during the past 13 years.” (February 1940)
Though Hitler talked a lot about being a Christian, the million-dollar question is: did he actually consider himself one? The answer isn’t simple. True, he was born and died a Roman Catholic; in fact, he was confirmed as a “soldier of Christ” in the church and served as an altar boy. And in 1941, the year he rolled into Russia, Hitler told General Gerhart Engel: “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.” The Vatican, for its part, considered Hitler Christian enough; they certainly didn’t excommunicate him.
On the other hand, Hitler privately loathed Christianity, calling it “a drug” and “senseless,” the “invention of sick brains.” He also perceived it as a potential threat to his leadership, and intended to abolish the church. And let’s not forget: He did make Nazism the official state religion and he replaced school and church Bibles with copies of “Mein Kampf.”
Over the years Christians have argued that Hitler was an atheist, a hard claim to defend. Never mind that he repeatedly attacked atheism, he never said anything to indicate he was an atheist. From what those who knew him later in life said, Hitler was a theist, viewing God as a somewhat distant figure, though not wholly removed from human affairs; after all, the S.S., Hitler’s elite soldiers and personal bodyguards, wore belt buckles that read, “Gott Mit Uns”—or “God Is With Us.”
And then there’s Hitler’s personal library. A 2003 Atlantic Monthly article notes that more than 130 books, included in a small portion of Hitler’s collection stored at the Library of Congress, deal with spiritual topics, from Occidental occultism and Eastern mysticism to the teachings of Jesus, revealing a deep interest in religion and theology.
Hitler was particularly taken with devotional books and works on Jesus. Titles included “On Prayer,” “Sunday Meditations,” “A Primer for Religious Questions Large and Small,” and “Large Truths About Mankind, the World, and God.” He also owned a translation of E. Stanley Jones’ 1931 bestseller, “The Christ of the Mount,” and a 500-page book on the life and teachings of Jesus called “The Son: The Evangelical Sources and Pronouncements of Jesus of Nazareth in Their Original Form and With the Jewish Influences.”
These were books Hitler collected from the 1920s until his final years, and they weren’t just for show. Many of them were well-read and contain margin notes in Hitler’s writing. Ironically, in a book entitled “The Words of Christ,” there’s a pencil line alongside this passage: “"You should love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your spirit: this is the foremost and greatest commandment. Another is equally important: Love your neighbor as you would love yourself."
A book on the trinity by Maximilian Reidel also captured Hitler’s imagination. He read it carefully and made extensive marginalia in it. He heavily underlined one passage that he later worked into a talk he gave to guests in December of 1941, when he said, "If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but also consciousness and awareness. If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith."
If Hitler were an American politician today, based solely on his faith and God-talk, he’d make an attractive candidate to the Christian right.
That Hitler exploited religion for political gain, however, is a given. He knew that he lived in a nation that was overwhelmingly Christian, and he used Christianity to pander to mass idiocy in order to draw the biggest crowd in history. Hitler’s image as a Christian on a mission from God spread the world over and reached America early. On February 23, 1933, the Associated Press ran a wire story under the headline, “Hitler Aims Blow at ‘Godless Move.” The article described Hitler reaching out to Catholics for support in his attack against the “spread of atheism,” citing a papal encyclical admonishing priests to “serve the religious interests of the nation.”
“Hitler, himself, is a Catholic,” the article noted.
Hitler definitely brought out the worst in Christians. Those who admired the Fuhrer were either mindless sheep or, like him, wolves in sheep’s clothing, hiding their decidedly un-Christian personas behind the hypocritical mask of organized religion. Lest anyone doubt that it could have happened here in the United States, the following excerpt, from an article written by Lloyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at the McAfee School of Theology is a chilling reminder that the basic tenets of Nazism were not the sole property of the Germans.
“I came to this conclusion (the Baptists’ reluctance to speak out on larger issues of the world’s economic, social and political scene) while writing an article on the Baptist World Alliance congress in Berlin in 1934. An immense Nazi flag, hung where the congress met, was a vivid reminder of the bloody purge executed only a few weeks before by anti-Semitic fascists.
“Most of the BWA delegates spoke out for soul liberty, the kinship of all humanity and the separation of church and state, but too many Baptist leaders did not. Indeed, a number of U.S. Baptists wrote sympathetically of Hitler’s Germany.
“John Sampey, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary cautioned against hasty judgment of a leader (Hitler) who had stopped German women from smoking cigarettes and wearing red lipstick in public.
“The Watchman-Examiner [a national Baptist newspaper] carried a letter by Boston pastor John Bradbury. Of the congress he wrote, ‘It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown.’
“Southern Baptist Convention President M.E. Dodd of Louisiana defended Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, who he declared were guilty of ‘self-aggrandizement to the injury of the German people.’ Besides, Dodd continued, most of the 200,000 Jewish refugees who went to Germany from Eastern Europe ‘were communist agitators against the government.’”
And you didn’t have to go all the way to Berlin to find Nazi Christian Americans congregating. German Bunds in America offered adult training, youth camps and propaganda distribution activities, taking orders directly from the Fatherland. There were the Hitler-inspired Silver Shirts, organized by William Dudley Pelley in North Carolina in the 1930s, and the Defenders of the Christian Faith, an organization founded by Reverend Gerald B. Winrod, a virulent anti-Semite who in the best KKK tradition organized the Knights of the White Camellia. It was standing room only on The American Christian Nazi bandwagon, whose overflow of passengers included the Black Legion; the Sentinels of the Republic; the American Vigilante Intelligence Federation; Father Charles E. Coughlin’s infamous Christian Front; and the America First Committee, dedicated to the Democratic principles of isolationism, pacifism and anti-Semitism, and boasting “Lindy” Lindbergh as its poster boy. (After the war, it was revealed that “America’s Firsters” had accepted financial support from Germany.)
Fortunately there were enough true Christians around to keep the essence of Christ’s message alive. Many died resisting the evils of Hitler’s regime, and millions more sacrificed their lives to defeat his armies. Nevertheless, the once vibrant churches of Europe are now largely deserted, at least in part because of Hitler’s excesses in the name of Jesus. And it’s not just ancient history: as we speak, the Christian Right is busy demolishing our civil and religious liberties in the name of America and Christ. A word to the wise, and to those who should be wiser: it can happen here.
All of Hitler’s quotes are either from his speeches, which are dated by month and year, or “Mein Kampf.”
If you’d like to comment on this article, click here. [Note: If you believe this piece argues that Hitler was a Christian—i.e., that he walked the walk, exemplified the teachings of Jesus—then either you did not read the piece, or you did not understand it. Please, save your breath.]
Robert Flynn is the author of 13 books including "Growing Up a Sullen Baptist" and "Slouching Toward Zion."
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