I have been reading an excellent book by Richard Overy entitled Why the Allies Won. Rather than a history of World War II, it provides overviews of key theaters and battles, and much discussion and analysis of the reasons for the Allies' victory. It is a very good book, though the propensity of otherwise intelligent British historians to heap praise on General Montgomery still mystifies me. In any event, in a chapter on the competing philosophies and moral positions in the war, I ran across some information of which I was previously unaware.
I knew that the Soviet Union had played into the nationalist sentiment of its Russian population. But I had not known the extent to which the Orthodox Church -- which had been oppressed by the atheist regime of Stalin and its predecessors -- was not only tolerated after the German invasion of the USSR but promoted.
Even in the Soviet Union, where God had been officially proscribed, religion was revived by the war. On the day of the German invasion Metropolitan Sergei, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, persecuted for years by the authorities, hounded by Emelian Yaroslavsky's League of the Godless, appealed to the Soviet faithful to do everything to help the regime: "The Lord will grant us Victory!" In the Soviet Union an estimated half of the population were still Orthodox Christians, forced to live a religious half-life under a thorougly secular regime. The number of priests was reduced by the 1930s to a few thousand. The churches were destroyed or in disrepair. No Patriarch, supreme father of the Church, had been permitted since 1926.
With the coming of war everything changed. Stalin wanted national unity. Propoganda emphasised patriotism and tradition. In this the Church had a part to play. Stalin stamped out the crude anti-Christian activities of the Party zealots. Money was made available to restore churches; religious observance was openly encouraged. A commissarait was set up for Church affairs, popularly nicknamed 'Narkombog', People's Commissar for God. In 1943 Stalin finally approved the restoration of Church authority.... Stalin, the ex-seminarian, permitted the reopening of seminaries, and the Church was legally allowed to own property....
The faithful responded to the revival. By 1943 the churches of Moscow were so crowded at Eastertime that the congregations spilled out into the surrounding streets. Though Stalin did not go so far as to allow chaplains to accompany the troops, it was noticed that soldiers on leave began to use the churches in large numbers too.
Overy, Why the Allines Won, pages 282-83.
Stalin's insincerity is obvious, but the fact that he was forced to tap the still strong religious sentiment of his people -- though actively suppressed for decades -- is telling. Sects other than the Orthodox did not fare so well. And after the war, the oppression resumed. Atheism was the law of the land and believers, especially non-Orthodox ones, suffered greatly.
An interesting juxtaposition is the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Overy:
Few American Christians took Soviet policy at face value. Roosevelt did believe in God, devoutly so. His faith carried him through the terrible years of illness. A lifelong Episcopalian, his religous conviction was strengthened by his struggle with his disability, the succcessful outcome of which he attributed to Divine Providence. The first official statement following the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, approved by Roosevelt and broadcast on 23 June, made no distinction between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russian on the question of "freedom to worship God". Both states denied this "fundamental right". The atheist principles of communism were "as intolerable and alien" as the doctrines of Nazism".
Overy, op. cit., page 283.
What about Nazi Germany? The Cadre has a page devoted to the spurious and usually insincere claim that Hitler was a Christian. Overy, who is a secular historian, notes that Nazism was incompatible, and seen as such by Hitler, with Christianity. Paganism, though not something Hitler actively engaged in, was popular among important Nazi leaders:
Italy was the home of Roman Catholicism; Germany's population was one-third Catholic. Religion in both states lived in uneasy proximity with regimes that were strongly anti-clerical in outlook peddling new secular religions of their own. The same month that the Papacy condemned communism, a second encyclical was published, "Mit Brennender Sorge" ("With Burning Anxiety"), which condemned the Nazi persecution of the churches, Nazi racism and Mussolini's deification of the state. Though Hitler often invoked God or Providence when he spoke, he was a thoroughly lapsed Catholic. Hitler considered Christianity incompatible with with the new National-Socialist age--it was "merely whole-hearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics". He deplored the survivalof religious observance among German ministers and generals, "little children who have learnt nothing else". He regarded Christianity and communism as two sides of the same coin, sharing in St. Paul a common Jewish ancesteor. Hitler took the German nation as his religion. This did not make him a pagan as was widely believed, although paganism was practised under the Third Reich. The German Faith Movement, under the banner of the golden sun-wheel, with the "Song of the Goths" as their anthem, indulged in pagan festivals and invoked the gods of pre-Christian Germany. Heinrich Himmler's SS generated a pagan theology, a pagan litury, even a pagan credo.
Overy, op. cit., page 284.