A secular criticism of Richard Steigmann-Gall’s book The Holy Reich (1 of 2)
|January 25, 2014||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
About ten years ago Richard Steigmann-Gall, an American university professor, published a book called The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2004). The main purpose of the book was to show the importance, even the predominance, of Christian influences on the emergence of Hitler and of Nazi ideology.
As far as I know, there was little Christian response to the book. Most believers probably never heard of it, not being too interested in the burgeoning field of Hitler studies. Those who did probably assumed it was not worth dignifying with a refutation. Yet, as absurd as its thesis seems to us, it has had an influence. Its arguments frequently crop up on internet websites and in debates dedicated to proving that Christianity is an irrational religion of potentially dangerous intolerance. It is widely believed even among Christianity’s more educated and responsible opponents that faith in God is related to an inability to face scientific reality, a fundamental defect that opens the doors to extremists like Hitler.
Interestingly, a number of secular historians and scholars who are not attempting to defend Christianity have noticed serious problems with Steigmann-Gall’s methods and conclusions. Articles in a 2007 edition of the prestigious Journal of Contemporary History (vol. 42 no. 1) noted Steigmann-Gall’s failure to represent Hitler’s views objectively, as well as his failure to consider important evidence contrary to his thesis. For example, Goebbels’ direct expressions of his and Hitler’s contempt for and rejection of Christianity in Goebbels’ diaries, a well-known and reputable source, were completely ignored, while vague religious references by the protagonist of Michael, a novel written by Joseph Goebbels in the 1920s, were blown up out of all proportion and seriously misrepresented.
The issue of Steigmann-Gall’s scholarship came up again in a recent article in that same journal (“Reassessing The Holy Reich: Leading Nazis’ Views on Confession, Community and ‘Jewish’ Materialism,” by Samuel Koehne, Journal of Contemporary History 2013 48: 423) (online version at <http://jch.sagepub.com/content/48/3/423>). The article focuses on Steigmann-Gall’s interpretation of Point 24 of the Nazi Party platform:
We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state so long as they do not endanger its existence or offend the ethical and moral feelings of the Germanic race.
The Party as such stands for a positive Christianity, without binding itself confessionally to any one denomination. It combats the Jewish-materialist spirit within and without us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the principle: The general interest before self-interest (Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz).
Steigmann-Gall attempts to show that this represented a serious interest in religion, that the “positive Christianity” of the Nazis was a legitimate type of Christianity with an “inner logic,” an authentic religious system by which the Nazis sought to bridge the gap between Catholics and Protestants. In support of this thesis, he stressed three aspects of Point 24 which he thought demonstrated not merely Nazi ideology, but an authentic variety of Christianity as well: (1) the “promulgation of a social ethic”; (2) the “spiritual struggle against the Jews”; and (3) “a new syncretism that would bridge Germany’s confessional divide.”
Koehne’s response to this is to assert that Steigmann-Gall ignored or was unaware of much important evidence showing that racial ideology, not Christianity or religion, was central to the Nazi ideology, and that even the religious-seeming Point 24 was never intended to be anything other than subordinate to the primary and dominant racial-nationalist ideology. Writing as a historian and a scholar, Koehne (who is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute in Australia) approaches this from a professionally academic point of view. His concern is with a historically accurate understanding of National Socialism, not the defense of Christianity. He argues that Steigmann-Gall’s efforts do not help to such an understanding but ignore significant parts of the historical record.
Koehne’s first point is that explanations of Point 24 by three Nazi leaders – Hitler, Alfred Rosenberg, and Gottfried Feder – show that their intent was to strengthen their nationalist and racist ideology, not to promote a coherent and legitimate variety of Christianity. This is not difficult to demonstrate, as Koehne more than adequately does with extended quotations from primary sources. The priority of Race and Volk – not any version of Christianity – was foundational to Nazi views. This should have been self-evident, and is self-evident to many reputable historians.
One interesting quote from Rosenberg in the article contrasts the “negative” Christianity found in conventional Catholicism and Protestantism with a so-called “positive” Christianity which does not “stand in the way of the organic strengths of the Nordic-racial peoples” [p. 428, quoting Rosenberg’s book The Myth of the Twentieth Century]. Thus we can define “positive” Christianity as that which was docile and obedient to Hitler, and “negative” Christianity as that which was not.
Koehne not only demonstrates that Steigmann-Gall ignored or overlooked much evidence that directly contradicted his thesis. He also shows how Steigmann-Gall selectively manipulated quotes to make them more suitable to his purposes. Steigmann-Gall for example found a quote in Mein Kampf that seemed sympathetic to Protestantism, yet omitted parts from the same passage that were critical. Hitler stated that, while Protestantism was more amenable to change than Catholicism (not being anchored in Rome), it did not meet the needs of the German people and failed completely on the (to Hitler) essential Jewish question [pp. 432-433].