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Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism.

Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism. By Derek Hastings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. xv+290 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Though previous scholarship has already shown that a significant number of Christians in the Third Reich embraced Nazism, Derek Hastings breaks new ground by demonstrating that volkisch Catholics in and around Munich played an essential role in the origin and establishment of the Nazi Party during the early 1920s. Not only did believing Catholics join the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), they also made substantial contributions to the party's ideology and the vocabulary with which it was expressed. Furthermore, their support helped the party present itself as a legitimate option for religious Catholics.

Like Richard Steigmann-Gall, Hastings is interested in the origins of the "Positive Christianity" the Nazis invoked in point 24 of their party program. However, whereas Steigmann-Gall locates the roots of Nazi conceptions of Christianity in liberal Protestantism, Hastings sees "a more immediate connection to the prewar phenomenon in Munich known as Reform Catholicism than to prewar Kulturprotestantismus elsewhere" (9). He describes Reform Catholicism as a loyal but non-dogmatic movement within the Church that emerged in opposition to ultramontanism and political Catholicism. Priests and publicists in this prewar milieu were already promoting a Catholic-oriented volkisch nationalism, railing against Marxists and Jews, denigrating the Old Testament, and in some cases promoting the idea of an Aryan Jesus. Their ideas about "Positive Christianity," a term they invented, set the stage for Nazi religious discourse in the early 1920s.

Hastings shows numerous examples of Catholic clergy and lay activists who moved from prewar Reform Catholic circles into the postwar Nazi Party. They were drawn to--and helped define--its aggressive nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, both of which they expressed in apocalyptic terms. Catholic priests, university students, and opinion leaders wrote articles for the Volkischer Beobachter, gave field sermons, blessed Sturmabteilung standards, promoted eugenics and racial purity, and participated in Catholic- oriented membership drives. One of their more interesting moves was to celebrate Albert Leo Schlageter, a Nazi Catholic who was executed by the French for terrorist activity during their occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, as the ideal embodiment of a heroic, volkisch Christianity.

Hastings also assesses the religious mentality of high-profile Nazis such as Anton Drexler, Dietrich Eckart, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Hitler, arguing that we should take their professions of faith seriously rather than writing them off as cynical attempts to deceive believing Christians. Like other Catholics in the party, they promoted a warrior Christianity capable of struggle against Jews and socialists--and their "accomplices" in the Center Party. If such statements were merely cynical manipulation and obfuscation, other Nazi Catholics who helped construct this version of Christianity were not aware of it.

The synthesis of Nazism and volkisch Catholicism was short-lived, and the final chapter of Hastings's book charts its demise after the summer of 1923. The break began when Hitler aligned the NSDAP with other volkisch groups in the Kampfbund (led by Erich Ludendorft) in preparation for the Beerhall Putsch. Even before the putsch, the anti-Catholic stance of Ludendorff and other Kampfbund members began to alienate Catholic Nazis. When the putsch failed, Ludendorff and his supporters intensified their rhetoric, accusing Catholics of deliberate sabotage and suggesting that priests who had joined the NSDAP were merely Jesuit spies. Hitler's own attitude toward Catholicism changed as he assumed the role of a political messiah and his re-founded NSDAP abandoned religious rituals, martyrs, and relics in favor of secular ones (for example, commemorations of Schlageter no longer mentioned his religious faith). The NSDAP also began to enjoy more success in Protestant regions, while believing Catholics who remained in the party were thoroughly marginalized. Although many Catholics gave selective support to the Nazi state after 1933, the original synthesis was never restored.

Hastings's book is a valuable contribution to ongoing discussions about the complicity of the Churches in Nazi Germany. His impressive review of the political and religious press, Church records, and private correspondence unveils a short-lived synthesis that both Catholics and Nazis preferred to forget by the 1930s. At the same time, his distinction between "internal-ideal" and "external-historical" approaches to the analysis of religion allows him to avoid the dubious claim that Catholicism (imagined as an "objective and timeless" ideal) was responsible for the rise of Nazism while still recognizing that individual Catholics "within a temporally specific context" were well-represented among the party's first members and were essential to its success in this early stage (179).

The book has a few weaknesses, but they do not detract from the main argument. Although Hastings demonstrates that many Reform Catholics were volkisch and drawn to Nazism, one cannot help but wonder whether at least some Reform Catholics displayed other political preferences in the pre-and postwar eras. Hastings does give some attention to Catholic opponents of Nazism, especially those aligned with the political Catholicism of the Bayerische Volkspartei, and he occasionally refers to "ecclesiastical superiors" who tried to reign in Nazi priests. However, these characters remain underdeveloped, with the notable exception of Archbishop Michael von Faulhaber, and we see them primarily through the eyes of Nazis who excoriated them for their alleged hypocrisy and treasonous compromises. There are also occasional references to continuity between Reform Catholicism and Vatican II, and it is unfortunate that such an interesting and startling claim is not accompanied by further explanation or analysis. Nevertheless, Hastings makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Nazism in its earliest stages, and along the way he reminds us just how malleable a religion can be in the hands of its adherents. Catholicism might not have been the "cause" of Nazism, but it is sobering enough to realize that it failed to deter many individual Catholics from joining the Nazi Party and helping to shape and promote its agenda.

doi: 10.1017/S0009640710000909

Heath A. Spencer

Seattle University
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Author:Spencer, Heath A.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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