The first legislative hearing I ever attended was in the mid-1960's at the Wisconsin capital, and the subject was the modernization of Wisconsin's birth control law. Wisconsin, the last state in the country to legalize contraceptives for unmarried persons, had a law until 1974 that was hostile to birth control for anyone and denied it to the unmarried, no matter what the circumstances. A fifty-year-old widower, for example, could not legally buy a condom.
Toward the end of the hearing, which had featured calm and reasonable presentations by professional people who supported liberalization of the law and emotional outbursts about morals from clergy and Catholic matrons opposed to change, a frail, elderly man took the podium. He explained that he was an atheist concerned with separation of state and church, and that he regarded the birth control issue as one where the Catholic Church was imposing its doctrine on the state, an observation that resulted in immediate uneasiness among the legislators hearing testimony, especially the Catholic chairperson. The atheist then began a brief summary of the historic problems of state-church entanglement, citing the bloodshed and wars in European history that were religion related. When he referred to religion's role in World War II and Adolf Hitler's Catholicism, the chairman of the committee became enraged, and, in a red-faced frenzy struck his gavel repeatedly until the elderly man tremblingly left the podium.
For some reason, Catholics are not eager to claim Hitler.
Even today, when I refer to Hitler's Catholicism in conversation or a speech, it immediately becomes apparent that I have said something "not quite nice," and I am often challenged. Nontheists, I then explain, know that many modern tyrants, whether petty tyrants such as Richard Nixon, or more successful tyrants such as Hitler, have regarded themselves as exemplary Christians, an estimate their followers had no trouble accepting. Hitler's religiosity -- he was a Catholic until his death -- is often glossed over, but it is critical in understanding his motivation.
I have often reflected, wistfully, on how much happier modern history might have been had Hitler been brought up as an atheist, an agnostic, or, at least, a Unitarian. Born and bred a Catholic, he grew up in a religion and in a culture that was anti-semitic, and in persecuting Jews, he repeatedly proclaimed he was doing the "Lord's work."
You will find it in Mein Kampf: "Therefore, I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's Work."
Hitler said it again at a Nazi Christmas celebration in 1926: "Christ was the greatest early fighter in the battle against the world enemy, the Jews ... The work that Christ started but could not finish, I -- Adolf Hitler -- will conclude."
In a Reichstag speech in 1938, Hitler again echoed the religious origins of his crusade. "I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord's work."
Hitler regarded himself as a Catholic until he died. "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so," he told Gerhard Engel, one of his generals, in 1941.
There was really no reason for Hitler to doubt his good standing as a Catholic. The Catholic press in Germany was eager to curry his favor, and the princes of the Catholic Church never asked for his excommunication. Religions encourage their followers to hold authority in unquestioning respect; this is what makes devout religionists such wonderful dupes for dictators.
When Hitler narrowly escaped assassination in Munich in November, 1939, he gave the credit to providence. "Now I am completely content," he exclaimed. "The fact that I left the Burgerbraukeller earlier than usual is a corroboration of Providence's intention to let me reach my goal." Catholic newspapers throughout the Reich echoed this, declaring that it was a miraculous working of providence that had protected their Fuhrer. One cardinal, Michael Faulhaber, sent a telegram instructing that a Te Deum be sung in the cathedral of Munich, "to thank Divine Providence in the name of the archdiocese for the Fuhrer's fortunate escape." The Pope also sent his special personal congratulations!
Later the Pope was to publicly describe Hitler's opposition to Russia as a "highminded gallantry in defense of the foundations of Christian culture." Several German bishops openly supported Hitler's invasion of Russia, calling it a "European crusade." One bishop exhorted all Catholics to fight for "a victory that will allow Europe to breathe freely again and will promise all nations a new future."
Biographer John Toland wrote of Hitler's religion: "Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy, he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of god. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of god -- so long as it was done impersonally, without cruelty. Himmler was pleased to murder with mercy. He ordered technical experts to devise gas chambers which would eliminate masses of Jews efficiently and 'humanely,' then crowded the victims into boxcars and sent them east to stay in ghettos until the killing centers in Poland were completed."
Jews, of course, were not the only "holy" victims. In Yugoslavia, Hitler installed a Croatian, Ante Pavelic, as his puppet, and Pavelic, a Catholic like Hitler, began extermination of the Serbs, who were Greek Orthodox. One of my relatives by marriage is a Yugoslavian, a Serb, who survived World War II by going "underground" with the advent of Nazism in his country. Out of his immediate family of 17 (this includes his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and first cousins), only three survived. His mother and sister just disappeared, his mother shortly after being given the opportunity to convert to Catholicism, an offer she refused. The Vatican was not unaware of the massacres conducted in Yugoslavia in the name of Catholicism, but Pope Pius remained diplomatically quiet. In fact, one of his actions was to receive Ante Pavelic in private audience, thereby giving his blessing to this regime.
War's causes, of course, are complex, but it would be difficult to overestimate the disastrous role religion played in World War II. Distrust, fear and hatred of Jews was a lesson Hitler learned early in life. It was taught by his church and reinforced by his culture. It became his obsession, his version of "the Lord's work." That Hitler, that supreme villain of the 20th century, could see himself, and be seen by others, as "providentially" guided, protected and inspired should certainly serve as an ominous clue to the dangers of religious belief. Just as the Vatican umbrella could be maneuvered to shield the massacres of Serbs by Catholics in Yugoslavia, so can religion validate any behavior, any atrocity, any war.
Anne Gaylor is a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.