Q: Didn’t Lenin, Stalin and Hitler lead religious movements?
A: Some of their propaganda was pseudo-religious. But they were totalitarians, who could not permit authority outside the state. Churches had to to be controlled or eliminated because they appealed to the authority of God. There simply can be no doubt that Communism was violently anti-religious and especially anti-Christian.
After the Russian Revolution, the persecution came in three waves. First, Lenin struck a particularly vicious blow after the Civil War, during the famine of 1922. 2700 Priests and 5000 monks and nuns were executed, while the League of Militant Atheists closed churches and harassed believers.
During Collectivization (1928-32) Stalin’s forces ruthlessly attacked clergy, particularly in the Ukraine. By 1930 a person could be sent to a work-camp merely for associating with a Priest. Then during the Great Terror, from 1936-39, while Stalin was eliminating imaginary enemies in his own party, communists unleashed a third wave of terror on the Churches. Thousands of Priests and Monks were rounded up for the gulags. There were 20 000 churches and mosques in 1936; by 1941 fewer than 1000 were left.[i]
And it wasn’t just Lenin and Stalin who opposed religion. Archie Brown notes:
Kruschev was convinced that all religious belief was a hopeless relic of the past which needed to be swept aside as soon as possible. Between 1959 and 1964, about three-quarters of all Christian churches in the Soviet Union were closed down in defiance of the wishes of the believers. In comparison, the years between the Second World War and 1958 were a period of relative tolerance of religion in the Soviet Union. A leading specialist on religion in Communist countries, Michael Bourdeaux, went so far as to describe Khrushchev as ‘one of the greatest persecutors of the church that Christian history has known’.[ii]
Q: That was a bit long-winded! Will this “quick answer” take longer than usual?
A: I’m afraid so. It can’t be helped. Internet rumours can only be silenced with scholarship. So, I need to quote scholars.
Q: Fair enough. Communists weren’t Christian. But wasn’t Hitler baptised as a Catholic?
A: If you want to argue that Hitler’s baptism is evidence of religion’s pernicious power, you need to show how being baptised a Catholic influenced Hitler’s thought and actions – and it didn’t! Did Christian theology motivate Nazis? Did Catholic or Orthodox doctrine play any part in their thinking? Those are the important questions, and the answer is a resounding “no!” Nazis and Stalinists hated Christianity.
Q: Hold on, I was told that Hitler struck a deal with the Catholic Church and that his soldiers had “God with us” on their belt buckles….
A: He also struck a deal with Communist Russia in 1939. We’re fairly certain that he wasn’t a closet communist! Hitler was a Machiavellian politician, prepared to do a deal with whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted, so he could betray them at his leisure. He was also happy to use whatever slogans the people wanted to hear. Michael Burleigh summarises Hitler’s position neatly in his prize-winning “The Third Reich: A New History”
National Socialism, like other totalitarian dictatorships, parodied many of the eschatological and liturgical attributes of redemptive religions, while being fundamentally antagonistic towards the Churches: rivals, as the Nazis saw it, in the subtle, totalising control of minds. However, the overwhelmingly Christian character of the German people meant that Hitler dissembled his personal views behind preachy invocations of the Almighty, and distanced himself from the radically irreligious in his own Party, even though his own views were probably more extreme.”[iii]
Q: So Hitler wasn’t Christian?
A: He had a vague, undefined belief in providence at best -he wasn’t exactly a subtle, or even a consistent, thinker. But only the internet could have generated the rumour that Hitler was a devout Christian! He certainly believed that Christianity was “whole-hearted Bolshevism under a tinsel of metaphysics” and “an invention of sick brains”.[iv] Historian Ian Kershaw notes that Hitler’s hostility to Christianity led to sudden radical outbursts:
In early 1937 he was declaring that ‘Christianity was ripe for destruction’, and that the Churches must yield to the primacy of the State’, railing against and compromise with ‘the most horrible institution imaginable’.”[v]
Hitler outlined his vision for the German people in a speech to Gauleiters (Nazi political leaders) 12th December 1941.
There would, he made clear, be no place in this utopia for the Christian Churches. For the time being, he ordered slow progression in the ‘Church Question’. ‘But it is clear,’ noted Goebbels, himself amongst the most aggressive anti-Church radicals, ‘that after the war it has to be generally solved…There is, namely, an insoluble opposition between the Christian and a Germanic-heroic world-view.’”[vi]
Himmler also believed that the SS was involved in an ideological struggle with “Jewry, freemasonry, Marxism and the churches of the world.”[vii] Frankly, anyone who says that the Judaeo-Christian and Nazi worldviews were compatible should hang their heads in shame.
Q: OK, so Hitler and Stalin weren’t Christians. So what?
A: I’m not going to argue that atheism caused communism or the Third Reich. Many atheists opposed both. But, if the Nazis hated organised religion and Stalinists wanted to wipe religion of the face of the Earth, then it’s fairly clear that religion is not the root of all evil.
[i] Robert Gellately Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: the Age of Social Catastrophe (Vintage:2008) p248-250
[ii] Archie Brown The Rise and Fall of Communism (Random House UK. Kindle Edition) p 259
[iv] Ibid 718
[v] Hitler (Penguin:2008) p382 (Although historians like Richard Steigman-Gall argue that the Church was more likely to face increasing discrimination rather than outright persecution in a Nazi Europe.)
[vi] p ibid. 661
[vii] Ibid 449