Do Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther and Christ really have anything in common? Consider the story of Hitler’s battle against Luther over the soul of Germany. This event reveals the political side of religion in Hitler’s Germany, found in the Nazis and their propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934), placed against Luther’s greatest work—Bondage of the Will (1525). Hitler sought to move Germany beyond indomitable Luther and his Bible by sheer humanistic effort. Here was a politician trying to advance his cause by undermining traditional religion, which still occurs today, perhaps more than ever.
When analyzing Nazis beliefs, much like totalitarian regimes of Italy, the USSR and China, we are presented with a single theme. The claim is mankind alone is sufficient for any problem or achievement. This atheistic foundation is the premise and purpose of the entire system. Hitler well-understood the Bible could only cause division since it offered an external standard outside of German society. It would undermine Nazi aspirations to wholly remake society. Therefore, when he commissioned Triumph of the Will it was in the interest of removing, root and branch, Luther’s achievement of building a society upon God’s Things. This timeless struggle between humanism and revelation is the topic of this essay.
Adolf Hitler (1889—1945) came into pubic life at a time of grave doubt, anger and confusion in Germany, after the humiliation of World War I. The substance of Hitler’s policy is described by Eberhard Jackel, in Hitler’s World View, A Blueprint For Power. It consisted of a few basic themes. First, and most important, Hitler craved power; but he wanted power for a Germanic mission to produce a neo-pagan thousand-year-reign.
Hitler’s policies reveal these beliefs:
Germany’s fascism is an elusive subject. According to Kevin Passmore’s Fascism, A Very Short Introduction, it is not synonymous with communism, but bears much in common. These similar traits are discernible in Fascism:
Nazism was a hodgepodge of racist, ultra-national and pseudo-scientific beliefs under a veneer of contradictory religious notions. It rejected genuine Christianity, but tried to return to mythical paganism, meant to revive Germany’s vital volk roots.
There is no doubt Nazism is a highly anti-biblical philosophy, making all the more puzzling repeated claims Hitler was Christian. For example, it makes little sense to suggest hating and killing Jews is “Christian” when their same Bible describes the Jews as God’s “Chosen People.” That being said, there were unfortunate cases of Catholic and Protestant Nazi sympathizers. This cannot be surprising given the menace of the regime.
Karla Poewe, in her important book New Religions And The Nazis, explains how New Age, Eastern and pagan religions came to dominate much German thinking in the early 20th century. Exemplified by the German Faith Movement, apostate Jakob Wilhelm Hauer railed against confining German Christianity to the Bible, a theme Hitler pounced on. Nazis were appalled by a racially inferior sect teaching others about morality through such doctrines as the Ten Commandments.
German thinkers like mentally deranged Friedrich Nietzsche—who absolutely hated Christianity and Judaism—became dominant to the Nazis. Son of a Protestant pastor, Nietzsche claimed Christianity was a faith for weaklings. Nazis came to favor Hinduism and Buddhism, which appealed to Hitler’s desire to cancel the rule of law. Nietzsche loved Islam for its Christian repudiation.
Important Nazi influences, such as Nietzsche, were infatuated with ancient Greek paganism. Giant halls were constructed across Germany to help revive a Teutonic volk religion based upon the old Norse and Germanic gods. In keeping with ancient Greece, a strong thread of homosexuality also ran through Nazism. For example, Ernst Rohm, founder and leader of the Nazi Storm Troopers, or Sturm Abteilung, was a vociferously open homosexual, well-described in the Pink Triangle. Hitler may have been homosexual himself. Fascism was an overly-dramatic, hyper-masculine movement, strongly anti-Feminist. It is well known that Hitler was into the occult, deeply influenced by such writers as Guido von Liszt.
Darwinism was a key element of Nazi beliefs, eminently justifying Third Reich eugenics, racial theories, antisemitism, and the Aryan fixation on the Master Race. Many cruel and bizarre experiments were done in the name of Nazi “science,” such as Heinrich Himmler’s quest to trace German blood Aryan race back to the Himalayas, noted in Christopher Hale’s Himmler’s Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race.
Martin Luther lived during the Renaissance, from 1483-1546. Humanism, in its original sense, refers to works of classical writers rediscovered during this period, writes James Mackinnon in Luther And The Reformation. But the combination of pagan philosophy and the Bible caused tensions. The great humanist Erasmus debated Luther over the meaning of the Bible and the place of the Church in society and salvation. Erasmus was essentially what we would consider today as a religious liberal.
Martin Luther’s father wanted his gifted son to enter the law. But while traveling in a heavy storm by horseback through a deep forest, he was knocked from his mount by a lightning stroke. This apparent miracle, a seeming echo of Paul’s Road to Damascus epiphany, convinced him to change his godless ways. Martin left law and entered seminary. But Martin was bedeviled over the true meaning of salvation, and would not rest till he understood the Bible’s explanation.
When Luther challenged the Church over the definition of salvation, it set off a struggle resulting in the Reformation, the defining moment of Protestantism. And according to many theologians, the zenith of Reformed theology regarding salvation is Luther’s powerful Bondage of the Will.
The issue of “Will” looms large in German history. Free will represents humanism versus biblical literalism, or the choice between the power of man versus that of God. Hitler celebrated Nietzsche’s Will to Power which stood for the idea only power matters, no matter how depraved or evil its use.
Luther’s book Bondage of the Will established the core of Luther’s challenge to the Church, and also to the Christian humanists of his day. In fact, he dedicated the book to Erasmus who was perhaps the one man who could best challenge Luther in Greek translation.
The argument in Bondage of the Will is simple, yet profound, and devastating to the humanistic mindset. Luther argues the “Natural Man” or woman is born into this world in a state of spiritual death. A Natural Man is born only once in this world, never experiencing a second “spiritual birth.”
Sin results from Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden, which God promised would cause death. Luther argues that, because of this morbid state, no person has any choice in this world, except to sin, because they are spiritually dead. Therefore, the will of mankind has been made a slave to sin.
For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?
Luther referred to the natural human condition as Bondage of the Will. Only when a man or woman became saved, or regenerated, or “born again” could they could decide in any given moment whether they would sin. And so since mankind then had a choice, he was then spiritually alive, and his will could be used to choose whether he would sin or follow God’s will.
The movie Triumph of the Will was created to show the power and majesty of Nazism. Some consider it the greatest work of propaganda in history. It celebrates Nazism and especially the rise of Adolf Hitler (his speech) (entire film here). The message is Nazism is the new religion, the new salvation for people, where mankind saves himself through heroic deeds. Nietzsche celebrates this in Ecce Homo, demanding humans reject all previous beliefs and create a new moral system. Ironically, this book decisively proved Nietzsche was hopelessly insane.
Hitler himself chose the title, an explicit refutation of Martin Luther‘s Bondage of the Will and German Christianity in general. It’s easy to see now Hitler was likewise on an insane mission to replace God with the swastika over human ambition. This was set against Luther’s mantra, “The just shall live by faith.”
In a speech from Triumph one detects the extreme humanism of Nazism when Hitler states:
It is our wish and will that this State and Reich will endure for millennia to come. We are happy in the knowledge that this fortune belongs to us completely!...Only when the Party, with the cooperation of everyone, make it the highest embodiment of National Socialist thought and spirit will the Party be an eternal and indestructible pillar of the German people and of our Reich…
Yet, it is not generally admitted all totalitarian movements, from Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s communist China, to Lenin and Stalin’s Marxist USSR all suffered from the same delusion that man’s magnificent willpower trumps God.
So Luther’s view was man is utterly helpless without God; whereas ironically—Hitler believed mankind with the biblical God is also helpless. Nazis believed Christ was a sick man dragging humanity towards defeat. All totalitarian systems believed the Bible was for losers, so communism made religion illegal, while Fascism demanded the state formulate sermons.
The Bible presents a story about God come to earth as man, a sacrificial savior of the world. This is the story of Christmas. Repeated failures of regimes rejecting the Bible are proverbial. Economies collapsed under communism, human rights were canceled, and hundreds of millions murdered. In fact, perhaps 200 million were killed by totalitarian leaders last century.
For the practical minded, we can put aside whether the Bible’s claims are literally true under the Lockean theory government cannot properly judge religion. But from a public policy perspective, can we possibly ignore the fact that when Christianity is shunted aside and replaced by atheistic philosophies, it always results in untold suffering? Further, is it really so unacceptable to ask—when comparing the message of Christmas against leftism, while bearing in mind the latter’s appalling record of unmitigated failure—which one really seems the most incredible?
Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico. Kelly is now host of a daily, Monday to Friday talk show at AM KOBE called AM Las Cruces w/Kelly O’Connell
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