On the Trail of Bogus Quotes (November 2002)

This essay excerpts research currently under review for publication by the journal German Studies Review.

We often hear accusations that “Adolf Hitler was an atheist and look what he did!” The idea that Hitler believed in God, that he even claimed Christ as his own, is so shocking to people that they will go to any lengths to deny it. But the notion that Hitler was an atheist has already been soundly refuted.1 He was unmistakably a god-fearing Christian.

It is claimed that the quotations and evidence of Hitler’s belief were a ruse, propaganda for the benefit of his Nazi followers. This is hardly plausible. After all, if Hitler had to pretend to be a god-fearing Christian to sway his Nazi supporters, that means Nazis had to have been god-fearing Christians. Certainly, Nazism in general was no kind of atheism. It was without doubt a Christian movement, even rabidly anti-atheist. Like the McCarthyites that came after them, the Nazis equated atheism with their arch-enemy Bolshevism. Atheism was among their many charges against the Jews. Even the SS wore Gott mit uns, “God is with us,” on their belt buckles.

This was the official position of the Nazi party. And it went to the very same extremes that we see among Christian Fundamentalists in America today. For instance, read this excerpt from the 24th principle of the Nazi party, from the infamous Twenty Five Points (1920):

We demand the freedom of religion in the Reich so long as they do not endanger the position of the state or adversely affect the moral standards of the German race. As such the Party represents a positively Christian position without binding itself to one particular faith.

Likewise, the 1933 Nazi Concordat with the Catholic Church, Article 21:

Catholic religious instruction in elementary, senior, secondary and vocational schools constitutes a regular portion of the curriculum, and is to be taught in accordance with the principles of the Catholic Church. In religious instruction, special care will be taken to inculcate patriotic, civic and social consciousness and sense of duty in the spirit of the Christian Faith and the moral code, precisely as in the case of other subjects.

So there can be no doubt that the Nazis were thoroughly and devotedly Christian, eager to inculcate Christian theism for future generations.

This is especially important, since hundreds of thousands of Nazis carried out the Final Solution, not one man. If they disagreed with Hitler’s orders, they could have ignored them or sandbagged the process. To the contrary, all survivor accounts agree:

Nazis involved in carrying out Hitler’s orders were eager, even zealous for the task. So what Hitler himself believed is almost irrelevant. Had he rejected certain elements of Nazism openly, he would likely have been deposed and replaced with a more suitably Christian villain to carry out the Final Solution.

“God with us,” the Nazi motto on military belt buckles.

But we have no evidence that he was perpetuating a ruse. Even in unguarded moments, he asserted faith in God and Christ. His entire philosophy was thoroughly intertwined with and built upon the religious assumptions of Christian theism.
Even so, a more subtle argument has arisen about Hitler: that yes, he was a believer, but he was vehemently anti-Christian. Unlike the accusation that he was an atheist, which is based on no evidence whatsoever, this claim at least rests on supposed direct quotations of Hitler. Though Hitler did criticize priests and the church and certain Christian dogmas quite a bit, so do many god-fearing Christians. But clear attacks on the whole of Christian theism are also attributed to him. Here is a typical example from Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999, pp. 355-6):

Hitler was passionately hostile to Christianity: “I shall never come to terms with the Christian lie . . . Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity. It will last another hundred years, two hundred years perhaps. My regret will have been that I couldn’t, like whoever the prophet was, behold the promised land from afar.” He accepted a broadly Nietzschean account of Christianity as a conspiracy of Jews for a slave revolt against their Roman conquerors: “Christianity is a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilisation by the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society.”

All of these quotations (and others like them that you will probably see bandied about on the web) come from a single source: Hitler’s Table Talk. This is purportedly a notebook based on the shorthand of two secretaries to Hitler, Heinrich Heim and Henry Picker, instructed by Hitler’s right-hand-man Martin Bormann to record for posterity whatever Hitler said in his bunker in Berlin, usually at tea. They recorded official orders as well as things he said off the cuff, and logged entries by date and time of day. Bormann intended to edit the notes and publish them as a definitive party manifesto for the victorious Reich.

It is likely these notes were real. Six original pages from the notebook still exist in the Adolf Hitler Collection at the Library of Congress, which should be authentic.3 There are also two completely independent manuscripts that agree in such a way as to corroborate the existence of a genuine original, and historian Werner Jochmann, in his edition of one of these, cites several notes and letters confirming that the Table Talk was indeed being made and collated by Bormann during the war. And one of the note-takers, Henry Picker, kept his copy of the notes and published them soon after the war, swearing to their authenticity. He later procured sworn testimonials to this by fellow bunker officers, even arch-Nazi Engel himself.

There are two versions of the original German of Hitler’s Table Talk. One version of the notebooks was edited and collated by Martin Bormann, called the Bormann Vermerke (“Bormann Notes”), which until recently existed only in the private collection of Franois Genoud. He bought it in 1948 from an Italian official, who in turn received it from Bormann’s wife Gerda, who took the manuscript with her when she fled the Allied invasion in 1945, dying in an Italian detention camp in 1946. This text continues to 1944. The other version is that of Picker, who received his copy from Heim upon replacing him, then added his own entries until Heim’s return. This text only reaches to mid-1942, because Picker was then reassigned and no longer had access to Heim’s notes. The Bormann Vermerke also contains entries made by Bormann, and presumably Heim, during the period covered by Picker’s text, which are inexplicably not found in his copy. There is also supposed to be a third copy, which Bormann forwarded to an office in MŸnich, but it was lost (most likely destroyed by Allied bombs).

The two surviving manuscripts have spawned an endless number of printed editions in various languages. Apart from changes of title, publisher, and publication date, these are the major variants: First came the German of Henry Picker in 1951 (2nd ed. in 1963; 3rd in 1976) entitled Hitler’s TischgesprŠche im FŸhrerhauptquartier, 1941-42 (“Hitler’s Table Talk in the Central Headquarters”). In 1952 came a French translation of half the Bormann Vermerke, by Genoud himself, called Libres Propos sur la Guerre et la Paix: Recueillis sur l’Ordre de Martin Bormann (“Candid Remarks on the War and the Peace: Collected by Order of Martin Bormann”). A second volume was promised but never produced. Then in 1953 the entire Bormann Vermerke appeared in English, edited by H. R. Trevor-Roper (but translated by R. H. Stevens and Norman Cameron). This bore the titles Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944 and Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 1941-1944. A new edition of this appeared in 1973, and a third in 2000.
However, the original German of the Bormann Vermerke did not appear until 1980, presented by Werner Jochmann in Monologe im FŸhrerhauptquartier 1941-1944: die Aufzeichnungen Heinrich Heims herausgegeben von Werner Jochmann (i.e., “Monologue in the Central Headquarters . . . the Notes of Heinrich Heim edited by Werner Jochmann”), which had appeared piecemeal in a German periodical some years earlier. But Jochmann’s text lacks the entries made by Picker, due to a copyright dispute.

Picker’s edition carries the strongest claim to authenticity. It has the actual German, was the first to be published, and has the support of eyewitness testimony. It also had scholarly backing, “Arranged on behalf of the German Institute for the History of National Socialism, initiated and published by Gerhard Ritter, professor of history at the University of Freiburg” (translated from the title page). Not only was Picker one of the actual stenographers (from 21 March to 2 August 1942), he also acquired Heim’s notes directly, bypassing Bormann. Another historian, Walter Mediger, even checked Picker’s first edition against these original notes, made corrections in the second edition, and testified to its accuracy.

Next in authority is the scholarly work of Werner Jochmann, who publishes the German of the Bormann manuscript employed by Genoud and Trevor-Roper’s translators. Though it passed through many hands, including Bormann’s, it agrees with Picker’s text to such a detailed extent that we can be assured the two texts have a common ancestor, which must be the actual bunker notes themselves. The Jochmann text contains some entries lacking from Picker, but otherwise there are only trivial variations in wording here and there. Jochmann supports his text’s authority by including photocopies of actual pages from the manuscript, handwritten notes by Heim and Bormann, and other items. He also demonstrates from letters and documents how the notes came to be made. Of course, even at best, Picker and Jochmann only present hasty notes made by a second party, not necessarily a true verbatim record of what Hitler said. Everyone underplays this fact, except Jochmann, who emphasizes it. And since everyone involved, including Hitler, saw this as the basis of a future published manifesto, it was not the entirely unguarded commentary that some claim.

Clever minds might consider the possibility that the Bormann Vermerke was actually fabricated by Genoud, by simply copying and expanding on Picker’s German. But we can actually rule that out from an examination of Picker’s first and second editions.Genoud correctly translates several words and sentences in 1952 that were accidentally omitted from Picker’s 1951 release, but restored by Mediger in 1963. Thus, Genoud must have had access to a genuine manuscript, and that must be the one Jochmann finally released in 1980. This, in fact, corroborates the authenticity of both German originals, at least where they agree.

Such is the state of the source for Hitler’s remarks. “I shall never come to terms with the Christian lie,” Hitler supposedly said on 27 February 1942. “Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity.” From this you would certainly conclude that Hitler believed all Christianity was a lie, a disease he wished gone. But the German does not say this! And there lies the scandal. The text of both Jochmann and (the corrected) Picker agree in every detail, yet say something completely different from the English everyone quotes. I will give you my own literal translations so you can see for yourself.

Let’s take the “disease” remark first. Here is what Picker/Jochmann says (the preceding three sentences must be included now for context, though all but the first of these sentences are completely missing from Trevor-Roper and Genoud):
I have never found pleasure in maltreating others, even if I know it isn’t possible to maintain oneself in the world without force. Life is granted only to those who fight the hardest. It is the law of life: Defend yourself!

The time in which we live has the appearance of the collapse of this idea. It can still take 100 or 200 years. I am sorry that, like Moses, I can only see the Promised Land from a distance.

At once you can see the English endorsed by Trevor-Roper and used by Glover (and everyone else: this is the only English translation in print) is a lie. There is no “disease of Christianity.” Rather, in place of that phrase is a reference to what Hitler says in the preceding sentences, which Trevor-Roper’s English doesn’t even include: the idea of expediency, survival of the fittest, the “necessary evil” of using force to implement your will. That is what Hitler wishes will end (and he certainly believed it would, when the Third Reich finally became the utopian state of every Nazi’s dreams).

The story doesn’t end there. The Trevor-Roper-endorsed translation of this passage is not from any German manuscript at all. It is a verbatim translation of Genoud’s French! Worse than that, it is an inept translation. Stevens and Cameron commit a common amateur’s mistake, one that only makes sense if they were translating from the French, for no other language has the construction that they bungle here. They give the first sentence above as “I admit that one cannot impose one’s will by force, but I have a horror of people who enjoy inflicting sufferings on others’ bodies and tyranny upon others’ souls.” This fanciful translation perfectly matches Genoud’s imaginative French rendering of Hitler’s much more concise and sober German. But it also contains a mistake. Here, they have Hitler saying that you cannot impose your will by force, whereas the German (and Genoud’s French) says that you cannot impose your will except by force (which makes much more sense given Hitler’s following ‘qualification’). As it happens, in French you would say this in a way that looks like you are saying the opposite: Genoud uses the infamous ne . . . que formation. Only a competent translator can spot the difference. Stevens and Cameron didn’t (at least not here–examination of other passages shows that they knew enough to translate the same construction correctly elsewhere).

Numerous other evidence like this confirms the general conclusion: the published English is from the French, not the German. This means that Stevens and Cameron must have lied to or misled Trevor-Roper, claiming they had translated Genoud’s German manuscript. Moreover, the ultimate source for the doctored quotations is Genoud. The immediate and most important conclusion is that the Trevor-Roper edition, the only English version in print, is worthless. No one who quotes this text is quoting what Hitler actually said.

Now let’s look at the “Christian lie” quote. Picker and Jochmann actually say (again giving the preceding sentence for context): “To do something false against one’s own knowledge, that is out of the question! One should never personally fall in line with such a lie” (Jochmann presents both sentences in first person).5 Though the context still happens to be a criticism of the Church–Hitler implying he followed the “true” Christianity that the Church somehow betrayed–he does not call Christianity a lie. And here it is even more clearly a distortion, since the sentence “I shall never come personally to terms with the Christian lie” does not seem to fit here, and is thus more evidently an interpolation, whereas its counterpart, “One should never personally fall in line with such a lie,” fits perfectly, carrying over and completing the thought of the previous sentence, which is about hypocrisy in general.

There are many other suspect quotations. I checked over a dozen, in four separate entries. All of them ended with similar results. For example, one oft-repeated quote comes from 13 December 1941: “But Christianity is an invention of sick brains: one could imagine nothing more senseless, nor any more indecent way of turning the idea of the Godhead into a mockery” (Stevens and Cameron’s English, again matching Genoud’s French verbatim). But the original German says, “Christianity teaches ‘transubstantiation,’ which is the maddest thing ever concocted by a human mind in its delusions, a mockery of all that is godly.” The difference in meaning here is radical, and again shows how Genoud (hence the Trevor-Roper translation) has distorted Hitler’s criticism of one form of Christianity (which implies he believed there was a true Christianity) into a thoroughly anti-Christian sentiment.

However, for one quotation I ran into a different problem. We already saw Glover quoting an entry for 19 October 1941 where Hitler is made to say that all Christianity was “a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilisation by the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society.” This is, in fact, an accurate translation of what appears in the Bormann Vermerke. But Picker has no entry for this date at all. In it, Hitler equates Christianity to syphilis as the two diseases that destroyed Rome. The context indicates he means early Catholicism, not “true” Christianity, but it is strange that Picker never received this entry from Heim. Jochmann indicates that the following entry (for 21 October) was made by Bormann personally, and the 19 October entry might have been his, too.

This mysterious entry is remarkably similar to that of 13 December, which appears in all editions. I translate the relevant part here:

Christ was an Aryan. But Paul used his teachings to mobilize the underworld and organize a proto-bolshevism. With its breakdown, the beautiful clarity of the ancient world was lost.

Here, Hitler’s position is more subtle. First, Hitler does not deny Christ but claims Christ for himself (Jesus was an Aryan and therefore his noble predecessor). Second, he attacks not Christianity but the Catholic tradition, in effect the elements of church doctrine that are pro-communist and anti-fascist, and thus hostile to Hitler’s authoritarian program. As it happens, in both entries Hitler refers to the “ancient world” as “beautiful,” refers to its “breakdown,” and talks about the “mobilization” of “Proto-Bolshevism.” It seems possible, then, that the mysterious entry for 19 October is something Bormann reconstructed from a faulty memory of what was actually said three weeks later, which Picker and Heim produced correctly.

Stevens and Cameron are certainly guilty of some shameful incompetence, if not outright dishonesty. Nor does Trevor-Roper have much of an excuse. But the real culprit is Franois Genoud. David Irving tells how Genoud attempted to hoax him in the 1970s with a forgery of “Hitler’s Last Testament.” Genoud even confessed the forgery to Irving, declaring in his defense, “But it’s just what Hitler would have said, isn’t it?” He was evidently willing to perpetrate a hoax, thinking it permissible to fabricate the words of Hitler if it was what he believed Hitler “would have said.” His motives for doctoring the Table Talk may be unfathomable. Genoud was a very strange man with a colorful history: a Swiss banker and Nazi spy who laundered money for the Third Reich, a self-professed neo-Nazi even up to his suicide in 1996 (though, stranger still, he never supported the holocaust), a voracious purchaser and profiteer of Nazi archives, and an admitted financer of terrorists.

All this is not to say that Hitler does not criticize the Church and various Christian dogmas, even in Picker’s and Jochmann’s versions of the Table Talk. For instance, in an entry for the afternoon of 13 December 1941, Hitler rails against the idea of a physical resurrection and in favor of a spiritual one, and takes a very cynical view of Catholicism, voicing many of the same criticisms one might hear from a candid (and bigoted) Protestant. Of course, Hitler was raised Catholic and was never excommunicated, although he was apparently critical of many Catholic dogmas. Yet he makes it clear that he believes in God, Christ, the immortality of the soul, and divine providence. For instance, on 27 February 1942 Hitler is quoted as saying “The most marvelous proof of the superiority of Man, which puts man ahead of the animals, is the fact that he understands that there must be a Creator,” a sentence curiously omitted from Genoud and Trevor-Roper.

Surveying Hitler’s remarks on religion in the Table Talk, Jochmann remarks that “Hitler was by no means unreligious.” It is the Genoud-Trevor-Roper text that distorts this picture far beyond that, painting Hitler as a quasi-atheistic anti-Christian. It is clear that Picker and Jochmann have the correct text and Trevor-Roper’s is entirely untrustworthy. Hitler was no more anti-Christian than your run-of-the-mill Protestant bigot. His Christianity was odd, surely, but so is that of many die-hard believers today.
Richard Carrier is a member of the Internet Infidels with numerous writings on the Secular Web. He has an M.Phil in history and is writing his dissertation at Columbia University (New York) on the perception of scientists in the early Roman empire. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation