Did Twisted Christian Ideology Push Hitler's Soldiers To Annihilate The Enemy?

A new study in Germany explores the role of Christian belief in driving Nazi brutality.

A church in Meuchefitz, Germany
A church in Meuchefitz, Germany
Berthold Seewald

BERLIN - The question of what turned German soldiers on the Eastern Front during World War II into brutal murderers has been very much on the national mind since the airing of the recent German TV trilogy “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” (Our Mothers, Our Fathers).

What made people brought up with middle-class values massacre civilians and let their prisoners die of hunger, pursuing a course of annihilation that amounted to systematic genocide?

Answers fill whole libraries. Arguments include ideological indoctrination, anti-Semitism absorbed from previous generations, anti-Communism, racial or cultural arrogance, and not least theology – because most of those following Hitler’s orders and carrying out the war across Eastern Europe had been raised as far more serious Christians than we can imagine today.

Nevertheless, belief in the message of Christ did not stop the lack of restraint and inhumanity. On the contrary – it seems to have acted as a spur for the removal of all civilizing reins. The war against the Soviet Union was a crusade of the Christian West against Bolshevism and Judaism despite the fact that at its core the Nazi regime’s ideology was anti-Christian.

Today, we tend to remember the opposite picture. The thinking of Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is prevalent in German churches today. But in 1940 Bonhoeffer was a lonely voice when he said “We the church must confess that we have not proclaimed often or clearly enough the message of the One God .... She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. The church must confess that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred, and murder. And that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims.”

Because of such statements, Bonhoeffer was executed – on express orders from Hitler – at the Flosssenbürg concentration camp in 1945.

Ideological weapon

Just how Christian belief could be twisted into an ideological weapon during a war of annihilation is illustrated by a report written by the pastor of the Wehrmacht’s 7th Infantry Division, which is kept in German military archives. The Protestant minister worked alongside a Catholic priest in the elite unit that had been created in the 1920s in Munich as the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment (also referred to as the List Regiment) in which Hitler had been a runner during World War I.

From June 22, 1941 to the end of the war, the 7th Infantry Division was deployed on the Eastern Front. Their files indicate that the unit felt bound to a particularly strict code of military honor.

Even the notorious Reichenau Order – Field Marshal von Reichenau’s secret “Order Concerning Conduct of Troops in the Eastern Territories” dated Oct. 10, 1941, stating that “the soldier in the eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war but also a bearer of ruthless national ideology and the avenger of bestialities which have been inflicted upon German and racially related nations” – was communicated to this elite unit much later, and even then only incompletely. For a long time, the type of atrocities against civilians that other units deployed near the 7th Infantry engaged in remained absent from its legacy.

In his report covering the period from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 1943, pastor Grieninger sums up on two cramped pages the “pastoral care given to the 7th Infantry troops: Participation in services can be described as excellent. The man on the front line knows about the importance of a strong heart and the power of belief on good – and bad – days."

Unlike other divisions that were created later than the 7th Infantry and were often less well equipped and trained, the men in this proud Bavarian unit of longstanding tradition were staunchly loyal to their religious beliefs, Grieninger reported. His account was accepted by his superiors who allowed him and his Catholic colleague – this it itself was unusual enough – to continue their ministry.

Grieninger wrote that the power of religious belief was imperative to be able to withstand both the physical and spiritual burdens of combat, and that the soldiers were devoting their lives to protecting the fatherland that had been given them by God.

God didn’t put us in this world to be happy, the pastor preached, but rather to make us "Rise above our egos. Heartless blind fate is not at work here but rather our Father’s holy love. Trusting in this divine guidance summons us to service despite the dreadfulness of war.”

Such words have often been spoken in the past, and still are. That the pastor – even in this official report that would be read by other departments – avoided using pompous Nazi rhetoric is to his credit. Nevertheless it was only a short step from this theology of "divine guidance" to that of Hitler.

Reinhold Krause, the Berlin head of the Deutsche Christen, a pro-Nazi protestant movement, said in the 1930s: "Our religion – in the sense of fighting, heroic Christianity – is the honor of the nation."

Deutsche Christen aligned itself not only with the anti-Semitism of the Nazis and their “leader principle” – the Führerprinzip – according to which the word of the leader was above the law, but aimed to set Protestantism in Germany up along the same lines. This led to a schism within German Protestantism and the creation of the Confessing Church of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a founding member.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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