Book Review: Hitler’s Theology – By Rainer Bucher

Hitlers Theology Bucher
Letter TThere aren’t many individuals in modern history more studied – or at least referenced – that Adolf Hitler. As we know from Godwin’s Law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

One of the areas which has received less attention in all of this discussion is the topic of Hitler’s theology. Many assume that Hitler was an atheist, others that he was a Christian, and others believe that it is irrelevant what his thoughts about the theological were. A sea’s worth of ink has spilled trying to discern what happened in Germany during the early part of the 20th century, but very little on the topic of Hitler’s theological system. Enter Rainer Bucher.

Mr. Bucher’s goal in this is not to argue against or disprove Hitler’s theological views, but merely to study what they were, and to furthermore study why many theologians (and philosophers and scientists in actuality) welcomed his views so enthusiastically.

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Summary

Bucher discusses the theological system of Hilter in three key areas: his use of theological ideas in his own theo-political theory, how his system appealed to Catholic theologians (such that they would attempt to reconcile it with their own views), and how Hitler’s system can be understood as an alternative to the critique modernity, to the Kulturpessimismus of the period, and to secularization.

The thesis of the book is that Hilter’s theology promised to provide the benefits of modernity (industrial and technological progress, a type of social equality, and economic growth) while facing the threat of modernity’s demand for pluralism and social disintegration.

Bucher begins his book by exploring on a broad scale what Hitler’s theology was about, noting that “Hitler was looking for a new, non-restorative and yet anti-pluralist social basis for integration” such that “Hitler’s project boils down to a racially defined ‘Volksgemeinsschaft’, inwardly characterised by ‘harmonious’ unity and outwardly characterised by belligerent heroism” (p.4-5). He addresses whether it was a merely political entity and whether Hitler’s talk of ‘God’ was merely rhetoric.

After offering a brief survey to how he will be approaching Hitler’s theological views, Bucher assesses Hitler’s relationship with the Catholic Church, noting how the Catholic Church served in a sense a role model for Hilter as he sought to exploit the Church’s system as a social organization. The thing he admired most about the Catholic Church was what he viewed as it’s ability to adjust its dogmas while still claiming infallibility; this, Hitler argued, was key for a proper Weltanschauung.

While Hitler admired the effectiveness of the Church, he did not value it on the metaphysical level or believe it embodied any real truth. Rather, Bucher notes, Hitler was convinced that the popularization of scientific insights would ultimately undermine the Church’s credibility. Ultimately, Hilter adhered to a certain scientism; his faith was in science (p.27). Science, he believed, would ultimately do away with Christianity and theism in general.

This approach is best summed up in Bucher’s statement that:

“Hitler’s examination of the Christian Church was above all a formal analysis of its constitutional principles. Simultaneously, he massively critiques the contents of Christian preaching. On the whole, he deems the Church refuted by the Enlightenment and by science and sees it as an institutionalization of religion incompatible with modernity. Put slightly more bluntly: Through his examination of the Church Hitler develops the beginnings of his ‘Practical Theology’, that is, a theology that asks: ‘How does Church (as an organization delivering a Weltanschauung) work practically and what can I take away from it.” (p.43)

Having addressed Hitler’s relationship with the Catholic Church, Bucher goes on to address his relationship with the Volkisch movement (a sort of cultic movement based around the Aryan race). Despite the seemingly similar nature of the Volkisch movement to that of Hitler (both holding the Aryan race in exceptionally high regard), he dismissed the Volkisch as being too backward looking; Hitler wanted to move forward, not to look back to old mythologies.

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After surveying Hitler’s relationships with the pre-existing religious movements, Bucher goes on to analyze the specifics of Hitler’s own views.

This portion of the book begins by analyzing Hitler’s view of providence and his philosophy of history. By and large, Hitler used the notion of providence as a “category of legitimization” (p.50) or justification for his actions: “It serves as the central legitimising category from the perspective of the theology of history for his own project” (p.55) His success, Hitler believed, proved that what he was doing was in line with providence (or God’s will) – afterall, if it wasn’t, then he wouldn’t have been successful. Thus in Hitler’s eyes, to be successful was to be in the right.

Next Bucher moves to Hitler’s notion of God. In essence, for Hitler God is the final and highest authority, in the sense that appeal to him Him guarantees a transcendent quality to Hitler’s ideas that are not merely particular. As with providence, God serves for Hitler as a legitimizing agent.

In turn, faith for Hitler provides the individual with aims and values and creates a willingness to fight along with a unity, such that, “Hitler develops his own theological framework for his politics of non-plural social modernization. He legitimizes it in the theology of history through the idea of Providence, he totalizes the topmost normative category of his political concept, ‘the German people’, through the notion of God, and he motivates the individual and unites it with its faith object, the German people, in his concept of faith” (p.71)

With this foundation laid, Bucher can then move on to discussing Hitler’s view of the Jews and his reasoning for their extermination. Hitler’s primary objective, Bucher argues, was “the ‘salvation of the world’ through the extermination of the Jews” (p.75). Hitler viewed the Jews as doing the opposite of what his own movement sought to accomplish: the Jews were “universalist in terms of religion, but in terms of politics and society it is consciously particularist” whereas Hitler saw his movement as reversing this, as being “particularist in terms of religion, for it posits the ‘German people’ as god-term where God is not the guarantor of an ethics of the preservation of individual life but functions as the guarantor of the ultimate validity of this god-term, ‘German people’, as well as its claim to dominion. Politically speaking, though, this project is universalist in the worst possible way, for the German people may – even has to, because it has been chosen for it by God – strive for world domination” (p.80). The goal of this was for him the need to exterminate the Jewish people.

Following this Bucher moves on to discuss the reforms that Hitler instituted, largely in the form of secularization. Furthermore, Hitler saw in modernism certain conflicting desires, on the one hand there was the desire for the dynamism of modernization and technology, etc, but also a desire for unity. Hitler saw his movement as satisfying both demands.

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Having laid this framework for Hitler’s theology, Bucher concludes by assessing the consequences of this. Many found this approach attractive, as Bucher notes:

“The promise of Hitler’s project is now threefold: for one, it will restore the social and individual relevance of religion, at least it will do so if Hitler can be successfully presented as ‘Catholic’ to the Catholics or at least if the set pieces of theology within his discourse can be proven to be compatible with Catholic doctrine. 

Secondly, a (moderate) adoption of the ‘idea of the Volkgemeinschaft’ would, for instance, allow – at least for the ‘German community of fate and sentiment’ – the restoration of the religious unity within the Church that had been lost through the Reformation and seemed to be increasingly lost even within Catholicism, a fact also deplored by Hitler.

But above all, it now seemed possible to overcome the inertia of the Catholic Church, its existential ‘distance from life’. For Hitler’s project allowed the taking up of certain elements of modernity without having to accept social plurality. Thus key concerns of the anti-pluralist modernisation of Catholicism seemed reasonable through Hitler… It raised hopes for the revision of all modern fragmentations and pluralities, but without championing a merely restorative, static, and premodern model of social order.” (p.97-98)

Bucher concludes by surveying some of the theologians who had actually opposed Hitler, and then offers some lessons for the [Catholic] Church and for faith in light of his studies. This includes the fact that this sort of ‘politics of salvation’ are not dead and gone, nor is the tendency for individuals to use the divine as a legitimization imposing their will through the political arena.

The appeals of Hitler’s sort of God are not gone;’ there is still a yearning for community, a desire for alleviation of humiliation, the desire for a heroic life and to be a part of something bigger, for a religious monism beyond the science-faith divide. “All of these then merge in one idea: the desire for self-redemption” (p.113). As Bucher notes: “Hitler’s God promised salvation to the many through mercilessness towards others. Hitler’s God is a God without grace… It longed for community because it could not bear the complexity of modernity, not least its cultural complexity” yet “political projects that operate with community idylls necessarily become totalitarian: either by excluding and often annihilating those who reject this community and its idyll for whatever reasons, or by denouncing others as incapable of community from the start.” (p.114)

The true Church is the opposite of this. Rather, “Church action does not begin with community; community is the result of Church action. The Church does not exist in order to facilitate shared experience, but it facilitates shared experience when it fulfils its purpose: to be God’s chosen people in the midst of humanity and to operate as the universal sacrament of salvation.”(p.116).

As a summary, Bucher states that: “All of this means that Hitler, like many others at the time, shared the desire for salvation, for salvation not through a Christian or Jewish God of grace and mercy, but through his own strength and effort. Within Hitler’s theology, this meant proving yourself to be a true member of the master race. For that was the imperative of this God: the German people were to prove themselves worthy of its ‘election’ that had been constituted through ‘Creation’… That is why this God’s faithful neither require nor know any mercy. Their God is not the giver of salvation, but the guarantor of mercilessness. Self-redemption, however, is merciless.” (p.119)

Bucher sees the implications of this being that we should focus on the rights of the individual rather than “the salvation vision of a harbouring community” and it means a need to avoid turning God into a “merciless singularity” rather than the merciful redeemer of all people.

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Analysis

Bucher offers many insights and perspectives that are not widely available in other texts and does so in a scholarly manner, pulling from a wide array of source material and avoiding reductionistic conclusions. Thus, he notes that Hitler used religious language to a large degree for it’s rhetorical effect, but doesn’t therefore dismiss Hitler’s belief in the divine as merely rhetorical.

Furthermore, Bucher walks well the line of where National Socialism falls in reference to modernity. He does well in describing how Hitler’s ideas were both a reaction to modernity and at the same time an expression of modernity; it is much too often that he is reduced to being merely one or the other. Bucher dissects Hitler’s exact motivations and rationale exceptionally well and ties it all together within a philosophical system expressed in the tension between the universal and the particular, between the pluralistic and the unified.

Finally, he offers an almost pastoral application of the insights of the analysis, and interestingly ties Hitler’s actions to a sort of works-righteousness.

On the other hand, I would have liked to have seen Bucher address the issue from a broader perspective (in terms of Christianity his focus is almost exclusively on Catholicism) and I would have enjoyed a greater analysis of the way that Hitler’s use of religious God-language waned as he gained power and had less need for it’s rhetorical power or feigning any true Christianity.

All in all, Hitler’s Theology is a dense but good and relatively short read. He can be over-technical at times, but on the whole any student of modernity, of the early Twentieth Century, or of political science would do well to read this book.

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Memorable Quotes:

“What is shocking, however, is the realization that National Socialism is not something entirely other to modernity, is not its wholesale denial, is not the absolute anti-modern project that has only to be overcome. Rather, National Socialism is the other, the darker side of modernity itself.”–85

“It is possible to revalue an entire legal order purely through interpretation.”–90, (Ruthers, Entartes Recht)

“[Supra-individual existentialism] refers to the National Socialist project’s ability to provide a rhetoric of authenticity for the individual while simultaneously projecting this rhetoric onto an entire people that demands total submission from the individual precisely in order to fulfil its nature. This attempt at synthesizing the individual’s deman for authentic existence and the collective’s demand for submission was ‘scientifically’ secured via racial doctrine.”–97

-“Temptations are unfounded promises, promises that can be made, but can never be kept.”–112

“At its core, Hitler’s theology is monistic. It levels the irresolvable difference between God and mankind, between belief and knowledge simply by inferring God’s Will from the (allegedly) racist order of nature which once more totalizes this racist construct.”–118

“Theological totalitarianism speaks of God as if he were unmyterious, it does what all totalitarianism does: it claims to occupy a singular central perspective but only totalizes its own view. Only God can take on the central perspective without totalization. He alone can occupy it simultaneously to all other positions; can be within and simultaneously beyond history. This is theologically expressed in the belief in God’s trinity.”–119

“The kind of theology we practice is not immaterial; it is not immaterial which God we believe in.”-123

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