No Atheists in Communist Foxholes & Other Religious Facts from WWII

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.


Steven Carr said…
'Mit Brennender Sorge', while denouncing the Nazi policy of sport on Sunday for children, never mentioned Jews, except for an oblique reference to the people who crucified Christ.

Mind you, I'm not sure what good it would have done for the Pope to have denounced the anti-Jewish laws that were being passed. After all, the encyclical couldn't even stop sport on Sunday, despite the terms used to condemn such sports.

Hitler, of course, was a creationist, who believed in God.

From Hitler's Tischgespraeche for the night of the 25th to 26th 1942 'Woher nehmen wir das Recht zu glauben, der Mensch sei nicht von Uranfaengen das gewesen , was er heute ist? Der Blick in die Natur zeigt uns, dass im Bereich der Pflanzen und Tiere Veraenderungen und Weiterbildungen vorkommen. Aber nirgends zeigt sich innherhalb einer Gattung eine Entwicklung von der Weite des Sprungs, den der Mensch gemacht haben muesste, sollte er sich aus einem affenartigen Zustand zu dem, was er ist, fortgebildet haben.'

And in the entry for 27 February 1942 , Hitler says 'Das, was der Mensch von dem Tier voraushat, der veilleicht wunderbarste Beweis fuer die Ueberlegenheit des Menschen ist, dass er begriffen hat, dass es eine Schoepferkraft geben muss.'
Steven Carr said…
'Mit Brenneder Sorge' was as scathing of non-Catholics as it was of Hitler 'The live history of other national churches with their paralysis, their domestication and subjection to worldly powers, is sufficient evidence of the sterility to which is condemned every branch that is severed from the trunk of the living Church.'

And where does the encyclical ever even mention Mussolini or Italy, still less condemn Benito?

It was Mussolini who signed the treaty bringing the Vatican City into being.

Other Fascists, Franco especially, also had good relations with Christians.
Steven Carr said…
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, he knew that Nazis would only support him if he invoked God.

So he did. See for his speech
Layman said…
I agree that the Catholic Church could have and should have been more vocal in its opposition to Hitler. But I won't ignore the fact that thousands of clerics also died in the concentration camps because of their opposition to Hitler.

As for Hitler, it is pretty obvious he was not a Christian and despised the Christian faith. But he was also a politician who knew he had to pander to a populace that included many Christian and nominially Christian members.

And Great Britian had good relations with the Anglican Church and the US with most of its resident denominations. Roosevelt was a sincere believer. I think Churchill was as well but haven't read up on him lately.
Steven Carr said…
'Of Germany's 17,000 Protestant pastors, 3000 were fervent enough in the support of Hitler to join the German Faith movement.'

Almost 20 percent!

The United States Holocaust Memorial has a table of deaths at

When I lived in Neuss I saw a metal book fastened to the town hall , detailing some of the local victims of persecution. A good many were Jehovah's Witnesses. I think because for some reason the Nazis recorded the affiliations of the JWs that they killed, while they didn't do so for other groups.

Hitler thought Christianity went wrong from Paul onwards (who was Jewish, while Christ was an Aryan!)

Hitler was a nutcase.

In his table talk entry for 25/1/1942, Hitler says he favours theories that about 10,000 years ago a catastrophe happened between the Moon and the Earth, with floods and fires , causing a calamitous collapse of the golden civilisations which existed then, and leaving just a few people alive on the world, who were able to find higher ground. (Hitler also claims the Bible contains a garbled recollection of this event)

He thinks that just before this time, there might have been superior beings to us, as they would not have had to cope with the earth's atmospheric pressure.

He thinks religions contain a memory of this event and came into being because of it.
Layman said…

JWs are well known for their refusal to pledge loyalty to secular governments. No doubt this feature of their religion placed them in the cross-hairs of the Nazis by mere affiliation.
Layman said…
Other quotes from Hitler about Christianity:

Night of 11th-12th July, 1941:

National Socialism and religion cannot exist together.... The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity.... Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the natural order of things. (p 6 & 7)

10th October, 1941, midday:

Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure. (p 43)

14th October, 1941, midday:

The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death.... When understanding of the universe has become widespread... Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.... Christianity has reached the peak of absurdity.... And that's why someday its structure will collapse.... ...the only way to get rid of Christianity is to allow it to die little by little.... Christianity the liar.... We'll see to it that the Churches cannot spread abroad teachings in conflict with the interests of the State. (p 49-52)

19th October, 1941, night:

The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

21st October, 1941, midday:

Originally, Christianity was merely an incarnation of Bolshevism, the destroyer.... The decisive falsification of Jesus' doctrine was the work of St.Paul. He gave himself to this work... for the purposes of personal exploitation.... Didn't the world see, carried on right into the Middle Ages, the same old system of martyrs, tortures, faggots? Of old, it was in the name of Christianity. Today, it's in the name of Bolshevism. Yesterday the instigator was Saul: the instigator today, Mardochai. Saul was changed into St.Paul, and Mardochai into Karl Marx. By exterminating this pest, we shall do humanity a service of which our soldiers can have no idea. (p 63-65)
Jason Pratt said…
Actually, those quotes could all still fit under Steven's claim that Hitler was in fact a Christian (in the sense that Hitler claimed and even in private believed he was following Jesus.) Hit's position (as presented so far in this discussion by both parties) would be a variation of something C. S. Lewis had found to be a prevalent position during the same years before the war: that Jesus preached something which was changed into a manifest falsity by Paul.

Of course, if we're going to connect Hitler-the-nut to various ideas in order to malign those ideas by association, we might as well add the doctrine of evolutionism to that list... {g} Or, for that matter, judge atheism by the atrocities of Stalin, Mao, et al. One can hardly claim they weren't being atheistic (or even survival-of-the-fittest) _enough_!

(Come to think of it, the idea that Jesus preached one thing, which was later corrupted resulting in a significantly different thing when the Gospels were written, seems to be fairly popular as a position today, too... If we're going to assassinate ideas by association to the Hit-man, let's be sure to add _that_ to the list.)

Anyway, since _both_ side have now established that Hitler was against Christianity per se, they may now move along and describe how Hitler was actually a believer in a supernatural morally grounding God Who created and sustains the natural world. Or not. (My German is admittedly more than a little rusty, but identifying the Aryan people as being divine doesn't seem to me to be quite the same thing.)

Personally, though, I prefer not to appeal to Arguments from Sociopathy against my opponents; seeing as how sociopaths are likely to pick up any idea they think they can use to promote themselves and exercise power over other people, regardless of the worthiness of the idea otherwise.

Jason Pratt
Siamang said…
I just love the pun:

Argumentum ad nazium
Jason Pratt said…
Oh, that's good. That's _really_ good... {ggg!} {bow!} I may have to use that as a standard reply to arguments-by-association in the future!


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