What did the Nazis believe in?
Religion in Nazi Germany is not often discussed, but it played an important role in the way the Nazi party and German society viewed and understood their everyday lives. My research involves looking into a specific generation, the Hitler Youth generation, who were children born around 1929 in Nazi Germany. I was extremely curious about what their parents, often Nazis themselves, believed in and how their religious and political worldviews (Weltanschauung) collided in everyday life.
The stormtroopers (SA), a formal Nazi party paramilitary group until it was disbanded in 1934 in the Night of the Long Knives to become superseded by the elite SS, and their relationship to religion is grossly understudied, as Andrew Wackerfuss points out in his book Stormtrooper Families. The stormtroopers, and the Nazi party as whole, wanted to create closer ties with the local community in the early 1930s to ensure political victory. This led to closer relations between the Protestant Church and the stormtroopers. SA soldiers would attend church services together in their uniforms to show unity, an act that helped attract more voters.
Gottgläubig: A new religion?
Within my own research, I have found that religion played a large role in family dynamics before and after the fall of the Third Reich. Irmgard Hunt, a memoirist, whose house was situated near Hitler’s summer retreat, writes of how her father joined the Nazi party early on and many of her relatives were supporters. Her father decided that the entire family had to be gottgläubig (‘believers in God’)–a Nazi trend that began around 1937.
Gottgläubig was most likely a spontaneous movement, as it was not a top-down directive, the first ones to join were often Catholics, although relations with the Protestant Church had begun to crumble a bit earlier. Himmler (leader of the SS) and Heydrich (SS Obergruppenführer, head of the Gestapo) left the Catholic church in 1936, and many followed suit, including Hunt’s father. This new belief is mentioned briefly, and often in passing in memoirs. For example, the brevity of the religion is noticeable in her memoir On Hitler’s Mountain, as Hunt recalls sparingly, “My light coloring, rather good High German, and the fact that I was Gottgläubig could not save me entirely from Fräulein Stöhr’s wrath.”
In Erika S.’s (born 1933) unpublished memoir (DTA Sig. Reg. 3087), the tension between her mother’s Catholicism and her father’s irreligiosity (which may have been gottgläubig, but we are not told) is remarkable. Adoring her father for his Nazi uniform and being stationed in France for five years during the war, Erika S. remembers him fondly. Her mother, a hard worker in the house, took care of the family whilst her father was fighting. When it came to religious questions and practices, however, her parents were at odds. At school Erika S. was taught that the church and Nazism were incompatible, and her father was strongly against her taking her first communion–which he found out about only after the event. He had been terribly angry at her mother, Erika S. remarks, and she had been upset that she had not been allowed to tell him of the communion.
As these few examples show, religion played an important role in many people’s lives. However, the role of religion in Nazism needs further research, and it seems that now German scholarship is aware that more work needs to be done to create a more complete picture of the role that religion played in Nazi Germany. Whilst we know of the formal relationships between Pope Pius XII and Hitler, and the reactions of the Protestant church to Nazism, we do not really know what this looked like in the everyday life of the average German.