Friday, January 20, 2012

Hitler Revisioned: A Strange Way of Demonizing One's Opponents

Adolf Hitler seems to be making a political comeback of sorts: in the past several years, conservative politicians, media personalities and Baptists have increasingly invoked the Führers name in denouncing their opponents.

In 2009, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, caused an uproar when he denounced Health Care reform by accusing President Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders of attempting to do "precisely what the Nazis did."

In 2010, Delaware Republican Glen Urquhart blamed Hitler for church state separation: "Do you know, where does this phrase 'separation of church and state' come from? It was not in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. …The exact phrase 'separation of Church and State' came out of Adolf Hitler's mouth, that's where it comes from. So the next time your liberal friends tlk about the separation of Church and State, ask them why they're Nazis.” (Not only did Hitler not make such a statement, but he supported the marriage of church and state. Baptists, of course, were the earliest champions of church state separation. Which makes me wonder if Urquhart considers Baptists to be Nazis?)

Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich (current Republican presidential candidate) in 2010 declared Obama, Democrats and liberalism (lumped together as the “secular socialist machine”) "as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." In addition, media superstars Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have repeatedly equated Obama to Hitler.

This month, Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, equated the convictions of America’s Religious Right as similar to that of Hitler’s opponents. George’s statement was in reference to a 2009 document entitled “The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” a conservative rallying cry against abortion and homosexuality and for traditional (Western) marriage. Crafters of the Manhattan Declaration point to the 1934 “Theological Declaration of Barmen” (written by Karl Barth) as inspiration for the Manhattan Declaration.

Also this month, popular conservative evangelical author Andy Andrews released a new volume entitled, How do You Kill 11 Million People? Andrews equates the current political climate in America with that of Nazi Germany, warning that if American citizens continue to believe the lies of national politicians, a similar fate may await America. While not explicitly calling out politicians by name, Andrews is pitching his book by making the rounds of Right-wing talk shows and fundamentalist Baptist congregations.

Historically, the growing conservative rage against perceived Hitler-like opponents is a bit strange. During the 1930s and early 1940s, many political conservatives in America -- including the early Christian Right -- in opposition to both Franklin D. Roosevelt and communism, embraced fascism and Nazism, a story well documented by Allan J. Lichtman in White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. William Loyd Allen, in an essay entitled “How Baptists Assessed Hitler,” documents how even some Baptists in America praised Hitler.

Strange also is the argument that the 1934 Barmen Declaration, authored by a theologian whom modern Christian conservative consider to be a liberal, is a reflection of the 21st century agenda of the Religious Right. The Barmen declaration was a statement against church state entanglement, a position that America’s Religious Right supports (indeed, evangelical conservatives largely view church state separation as anathema, if not heresy). And while there was much discussion of conservative Christianity, abortion and homosexuality during Germany’s Nazi years, much of the rhetoric came from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, which proudly wore the label of Christian Nationalism and mandated conservative religious and family values.

In a 1933 radio speech, Adolf Hitler publicly stated his intention to elevate “Christianity as the basis of our [Germany’s] morality, and the family as the nucleus of our nation and our state.

Hitler’s view of the family was that women must be subject to their husbands. In a 1934 speech to the National Socialist Women’s League he declared, "If the man's world is said to be the State . . . her world is her husband, her family, her children and her home . . . What the man gives in courage on the battlefield, the woman gives in eternal self-sacrifice, in eternal pain and suffering. Every child that a woman brings into the world is a battle, a battle waged for the existence of her people.... It is not true ... that respect depends on the overlapping of the spheres of activity of the sexes; this respect demands that neither sex should try to do that which belongs to the sphere of the other."

Of abortion, Adolf Hitler declared: "Nazi ideals demand that the practice of abortion ... shall be exterminated with a strong hand. Women inflamed by Marxist propaganda claim the right to bear children only when they desire.” He also insisted that "the use of contraceptives [by Aryan women] means a violation of nature, a degradation of womanhood, motherhood, and love." In the 1930s, the Nazis outlawed contraceptives and closed all birth control clinics. In 1943, as the Nazis were seeking to conquer Europe, the Nazi Party mandated the death penalty for abortion providers.

As to homosexuality, in the early 1930s the Nazi Party began a systematic campaign of imprisoning and/or killing all homosexuals in Germany. The Gestapo on April 4, 1938 issued an order to consign convicted homosexuals to concentration camps. Altogether, the Nazis arrested over 100,000 homosexual males, most of whom served time in prison and/or concentration camps. Nazi prison guards systematically sought to cure imprisoned homosexuals of their “disease.”

The Nazi Party’s status as Germany’s Religious Right leads to the question of who resisted Hitler and the Nazis? In short, many liberal and secular scholars, as well as moderate to liberal Christian leaders, opposed the Christian Nationalist Nazi agenda. In his quest to eradicate abortion, homosexuality and secularism, Hitler did his best to purge from public life liberal scholars, politicians, religious figures and civil servants.

In short, not only did America’s early Religious Right applaud Hitler and Nazism, but today’s Religious Right seems (albeit not intentionally) to be following the same playbook that the Nazi Party utilized in order to establish (in Hitler’s words) “Christianity as the basis of our morality”: force women to be subjugated to men, criminalize abortion providers and eradicate the practice of abortion, and persecute homosexuals.

Fortunately, today’s rhetoric is not as strident as the Religious Right agenda of Germany’s Nazi Party. In addition, the American system of democracy guards against religious extremism of any stripe silencing opponents and subverting the nation in such a manner as did Germany’s Nazi Party.


foxofbama said...

Bruce: I read first few pages of Marilynne Robinson on Bonhoeffer again today in her collection the Death of Adam. What concerned DB most in 33 was Hitler's growing audience on race.
On NPR This American Life the weekend of Jan 28, the Harvard trained and Kansas Based Lawyer Kris Kobach was interviewed re his role in the Bama Immigration bill. Albert Lee Smith's widow Eunie introduced Kobach to Steve Gaines parishioner Scott Beason, now running for US Congress.
Kobach toured S.C. Primary not with Newt Gingrich--see Sarah Posner's concerns at religiondispatches--but with Mitt Romney.
Timothy George and the Manhattan Declaration to my knowledge to date have not channeled Bonhoeffer on Immigration reform.
BTW Metaxas was in S.C. as an apologist for the Tea Party.
Charles Marsh is coming out with a bio of DB soon this year. Hope you alert the leadership of the Baptist Covenant Movement, the wider circle of Dr. Flynt, Mercer's Underwood and Samford Westmoreland to the implications of the NPR Report, and you do it soon.
Looking forward to more insight from you at as this NPR report takes traction as some of us try to see it through the lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Edward said...

Strange indeed. Since, according to James McPherson, revisionism is “the lifeblood of historical scholarship” (rather than, say, “a consciously falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present”), I suppose this piece of yours serves as a valid counterweight to the efforts of some on the opposite side of the seesaw, but wouldn’t think that for a Christian (or is it just Baptist?), smearing ones fellow Christians would be all that satisfying, particularly since the tone you employ as well as the arguments themselves seem better suited to an atheist blog. The references you chose may suit your purpose, but they don’t demonstrate much depth of understanding of German history. The sections of the 1933 Hitler address you mention were added by von Papen, who of course was not a National Socialist but a member of the Catholic Centre party who was quickly outmaneuvered by Hitler. That Hitler and, more importantly, his regime had nothing but antipathy toward Christianity and Christian institutions and leaders is beyond question (whether you believe the Table Talk documents or not), so any suggestion to the contrary betrays either great ignorance or a willful distortion of the evidence. Any legitimate source will make that clear; e.g., Hans Rothfells in The German Opposition to Hitler writes, “the National Socialist attack on both Churches and on Christianity in any form soon fanned the smoldering conflict into open flame. The history of the Battle of the Churches in the Third Reich has been told so often that only some basic characteristics need be mentioned here. Besides inflated or artificially fabricated charges raised against individual Catholic priests or orders, besides the penetration attempted by the National Socialist shock troops of the “German Christians” into Protestant Churches and Church administration, there broke out the basic conflict of principles of which the Cross and the swastika were the symbols. Thus the Catholic bishops and the Confessing Church did not merely raise their voices against Gestapo interference or attempts to disrupt the Churches from within. What the attacked was rather the National Socialist system itself in its essential characteristics: the totalitarian claim with its complete disregard for the sanctity of life and its mockery of the most elementary conceptions of law; the reinterpretation of the Christian faith on the basis of racial dogma; the deification of Hitler and the exaltation of the blood-community of the chosen German people.” And far from being “Germany’s Religious Right,” as you would have it, National Socialism lies outside of the standard left/right political axis, and as the infamous judge Freisler put it “Only in one respect does National Socialism resemble Christianity: we demand the whole man.” Much of the opposition, as reflected for example in the members of the Kreisau circle, was made up of conservatives from the traditional Prussian aristocracy and was motivated by Christian belief, although there was definite ecumenism and unity of purpose. At his trial, von Moltke said he stood before Freisler "not as a Protestant, not as a great landowner, not as an aristocrat, not as a Prussian, not as a German...but as a Christian and nothing else". In a letter to his wife before his execution he wrote: "But what the Third Reich is so terrified of is ultimately the following: a private individual, your husband, of whom it is established that he discussed with 2 clergymen of both denominations questions of the practical, ethical demands of Christianity. Nothing else; for that alone we are condemned." I realize that contesting the liberal/conservative denomination split is your raison d'être but think that in this case you trivialize the true courage and Christian faith of men and women like von Moltke, Bonhoeffer, Kolbe, and the Scholls by attempting to deploy them in your partisan battles.

Bruce T. Gourley said...

Edward: Historically, Nazism was understood, internally and externally (including by many U.S. Christian conservatives of the 1930s), as a morally, politically conservative, nationalist movement that embraced (appropriated, utilized, confessed) conservative Christianity. Hitler cloaked himself in the mantle of Christ's will, and praised the reformer Martin Luther in Mein Kampf. The Third Reich as a movement appealed to the "Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther."

Why? They understood the popular power of Christian nationalism in the land of the Reformation. By presenting as a Religious Right movement (that is, at the intersection of political and religious conservatism) opposed to communism and Marxism, Hitler appropriated much of German Christianity (including many Baptists, as German historian Richard Pierard has long noted) and won the approval of an emerging Religious Right in 1930s America.

That today's American Religious Right continues to wrongly label Hitler and Nazism as liberals (despite testimony to the contrary from the early Religious Right movement in America) is a curious phenomenon. That today's American Religious Right utilizes religion as a tool for societal - and, they hope, national political and legal - reconstruction, a methodology shared with the Nazis of the 1930s, is more curious still.

The allure of Christian nationalism, from the days of Constantine forward, has been (and is) attractive to many politicians, parties and regimes who wish to impose their own brand of morality, racial structures, and ideologies upon the people.

But has this ever been legitimate Christianity? In the past, or now?

Edward said...

Hitler was a master politician/manipulator and used religious motifs in his public speeches and writings which, combined with a political program that presented an ordered alternative (Ordnung muss sein) to the social and economic chaos of the Weimar republic, attracted many conservative-minded cultural Christians as well as adherents of the heretical (or maybe just exercising their soul freedom) German Christian movement, who saw Nazism and Christianity as movements with shared values and a common agenda, and were used by the party as a means to undermine the traditional Protestant churches (the subject of the Barmen Declaration). But the Nazis always intended to eliminate the Church altogether eventually. As Conway says, “The Nazis’ antagonism towards the Churches arose from their intolerance of any compromise with a system of belief that spanned the centuries and embraced all men under a doctrine of equality before God. Though Hitler’s political shrewdness and sense of political tactics induced him from time to time to moderate the radical measures which his paranoid followers advocated, there can be no doubt of his innate antipathy to Christianity and to the Christian churches.”

You have your political categories a little confused, though, since Nazi Germany was of course the paradigmatic fascist, totalitarian state, a political system characterized by pervasive state control in every sphere of social existence, which, as I said before, doesn’t fit on the conventional left-right political spectrum. As far as the cultural and religious spectrum goes, according to Rothfells, “National Socialism can be considered as the final summit and an extreme consequence of the secularization movement of the nineteenth century. It follows that liberal Protestantism, which was imbued with an idealistic cultural philosophy and a metaphysic of progress, tended more to an attitude of laissez-faire in outward things and possessed less power of resistance to Nazism.”

The reference to Luther brings up an interesting point, though. In refuting the old cliché that Luther was the spiritual predecessor of Adolf Hitler, which originated with the liberal theologian Troeltsch, Siemon-Netto reflects on the role of clichés in modern discourse more generally: “The word cliché is the French vocable for a stereotype printing plate. Its function is to reproduce a likeness of a given object over and over again. A cliché does not give an altogether truthful picture of that object. For one thing, a cliché is never more than one dimensional; for another it is not alive – once cast it will never change. And even the best cliché is never more than a rough approximation of the real thing. Used as a metaphor for a particular way of thinking, clichés distinguish themselves by their capacity to bypass reflection and thus unconsciously to work on the mind, while excluding relativizations.” Just something to think about.

And by the way, Hitler did refer to separation of church and state, in the form of a threat (Jan 30, 1939 speech [Max Domarus, Hitler Reden, p. 1058]): “Wenn aber wirklich die Deutschen Kirchen diese Lage für sie als unerträglich ansehen sollten, dann ist der nationalsozialistische Staat jederzeit bereit, eine klare Trennung von Kirche and Staat vorzunehmen, wie dies in Frankreich, Amerika und anderen Ländern der Fall ist.” (If the German churches should really regard this situation as intolerable, then the National Socialist state is ready and willing at any time to institute a clear separation of church and state, such as is the case in France, America, and other countries.)

Bruce T. Gourley said...

Edward: As a reminder, Hitler himself claimed Luther as his spiritual predecessor, as I previously noted. This is not a cliche.

And as you know, in the early and mid-30s, Hitler sought to join church and state in order to grow his power, and did quite a good job of it. Only after he compromised the Church through his right-wing religious, moral and social agenda, did he dismiss the Church.

As to your reference to a "political system characterized by pervasive state control in every sphere of social existence," perhaps you are speaking to the Christian Right wing of today's American Republican Party?

It is no great surprise that the political Christian Right in 1930s America embraced fascism and Nazism.

JoeHill said...

Bruce, I see you have nearly no comments added to your posts. I was going to put something up, but Edward has said all that needs to be said about your twisting of history. What I find somewhat surprising about your blog about Baptist history is the lack of spiritual content. You apparently see "Baptism" only as a culture gone awry. You either ignore or don't know what Baptists are really all about. Sure there are some examples of un-Christ-like behavior; but the glee you express in pointing them out makes one question your spiritual acumen. You can spend the rest of your life poking sticks in the eyes of your Conservative brothers, but where will that get you, really.

Bruce T. Gourley said...


My primary interest is the truth ... even if it hurts. We can learn much from painful lessons of the past, or present.


JoeHill said...

But Bruce, the point is, you have not arrived at the truth yet. You totally do not understand, ignore the politics of Hitler's day. He tried to use the church for political gain, just as politicians on the left and the right do today. It worked for awhile, as he was able to play on sympathies of weak Christians. If you want to put labels on them, they would be the equivalent of Christian leftists today. But his methods did not work on people like Bonhofer, who held to the supremacy of Scripture over political expediency; people who dared swim against the current regardless of the cost. These would be roughly the equivalent of Christians on the right today. Certainly, we can find examples of failure on all fronts, but your indictments of your brothers on the right are not based on rational historical research but on a predetermined paradigm. If you are a seeker of truth, you must drop some of your favorite prejudices. f

Bruce T. Gourley said...

JoeHill, I've cited sources and documentation - including from America's Christian Right leaders of the 1930s - that refute your revisionist history of the era. Many of America's Christian Right leaders of the 1930s and early 1940s supported fascism and Nazism (including Hitler) precisely because they were religious nationalist movements ... even as they condemned Roosevelt for being a (liberal) socialist and communist. History speaks for itself ... if you dare listen.

JoeHill said...

I think it is your labeling that I find most irritating and may I say, deceptive. You call those Christian leaders who supported Hilter right wing. Why? Because it fits your template. I would call them leftists because they supported a socialist dictator. The Conservative Right as we know it today is a movement going back merely to the 1980's. The Moral Majority, if you please. It was a reaction to the wave of secular humanism which was undoing the foundational institutions of American society. To slap the label of Christian right on everything evil that has occurred in the last 400 years is dishonest and very poor scholarship. Yes, truth hurts. It also alludes those with preconceived prejudices. Your "documentation" means little if you don't understand context and view history with an agenda.

Bruce T. Gourley said...

JoeHill, the (American) Christian Right leaders and followers of the 1930s and 1940s, the very ones who embraced fascism and Nazism, called themselves (and fascists and Nazis) conservatives, and labeled their enemies (Roosevelt, socialists, communists) as liberals. If you know your history, you know that today's Christian Right is the latest incarnation of a movement which began in the early 20th century. The "Moral Majority" of the 1980s (which you reference) was merely the latest expression of a long-running, self-identified, conservative Christian Right. I have recently written of the history of America's Christian Right at

Lynn said...

Thank you for your timely article. I left the Southern Baptist Convention when it was coopted by the religious right. That was about the same time I learned of the Barmen Declaration, and came to appreciate its relevance to today's religio-political landscape in the United States.

Now I serve as Pastor in the much-maligned (by the Christian 'right')United Church of Christ.

Even here I struggle with the few who support a 'Christian' interpretation of our nation's founding. It has become such a prevalent cliche to bless 'God and country', and to place the US flag next to the Xn flag in our sanctuaries, and to feign the pretense of victimization when any but conservative Christians achieve their justifiable rights under our Constitution (like gays, people of other religions, and even people of no religion).

In my own opinion, the church has always been healthiest when it was the farthest from political power, especially before Constantine and Constantius decided to blend the two. Since then, we have always needed the refreshing breeze of voices in the wilderness, like Karl Barth--and you.

Thank you sir for your fine article. Lynn Martin

Daniel said...

Bruce, you should read "The Pink Swastika" by Lively and Abrams. This is an exceptionally well documented expose on the relationship between the Nazis and homosexuality.

The Nazi hostility to homosexuality was for public consumption only. For Instance, on the night of the long knives, of the top 13 gay leaders of the Brown Shirts, only six were killed! The rest made their way int leadership positions in the SS and the army!

Just as there is a hostility to effeminate homosexuals in Islam today, the molestation of young boys was common, as it is in Islam!

Hitlers conservatism was only a smoke-screen to hide what he and his followers really were!