Lessons from Hitler’s Rise to Power – An Interview with Dr. Robert Ericksen

What lessons can we learn from Hitler’s rise to power?* How did the German people, including theologians and pastor, become complicit in the evil of Nazi Germany? And what can the United States learn from Hitler’s rise to power so that we don’t make the same mistakes?

We discussed those question in the interview below with Dr. Robert Ericksen, world renowned historian and Chair of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the Holocaust Museum. Dr. Ericksen is also the Kurt Mayer Chair in Holocaust Studies Emeritus at Pacific Lutheran University. He has authored multiple books and articles on Nazi Germany, including Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch and Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany. He co-edited Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. His book Theologians under Hitler was made into a documentary with the same name. You can read his recent article on the Huffington Post, “Trump, Christian ‘Value Voters,’ and the Nazi Comparison.” The recorded video, mp3, and show notes are below.



Show Notes

I discovered as I continued to research early in my career that Christians in Nazi Germany were much more likely to support Adolf Hitler than to oppose Adolf Hitler.

The important lesson is to recognize that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a possibility, and in fact I think the appropriate Christian response, but he was within a really tiny minority. Not just among theologians, but that is true. Yet pastors, church members, voters, Christians in Germany responded very positively to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. To our point of view, it’s shocking. And in fact, it turned out so badly that in 1945, in the post war period, most Christians in Germany denied that they had supported Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said Christians must learn to live in a world come of age. He didn’t want to fight against the modern world. He wanted to understand what it means to be a follower of Christ, what it means to be committed to Christ, in a world of the 20th century, and I would say now the 21st century, and that does in fact impact Christian ideas, Christian theology, Christian behavior, quite a lot.

Social Crises Leading Up to Nazi Germany

Leading up to WWII, Germany experienced a series of crises… which are unparalleled in modern history. They are a little bit like the crisis atmosphere that we have in the US today, but I would suggest that the Germans faced much worse, and much more threatening circumstances… We have to understand German support for Hitler in that context. The first crisis was to lose WWI. Germans lost 2 million soldiers… Second, the suffered the Versailles Treaty, which was quite harsh, taking away much German territory… They also had to pay very large reparations payments… The Germans always blamed the Western powers for destroying the German economy… The second economic issue was inflation. German inflation in 1922 was about a trillion to one. If one day you could pay 1 mark for a loaf of bread, 6 months later you would have to pay a trillion marks for the same loaf of bread… Then they suffered the great depression in 1930-1933, when Hitler came to power.

There was a social crisis in the 1920s, and I would blame it on democracy. For the first time in German history, they had a democratic government, the Weimar Republic, created after WWI. They no longer had a system of government that enforced Christian middle class values dominated by an aristocracy. In the Weimar Republic, they had a thorough going democracy, which meant freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to vote for all minorities, as well as women for the first time. All of this meant that the dominance of the Christian middle class world and upper middle class world disappeared. The culture became quite open and a group of people, including theologians, became quite horrified by what they saw as a moral breakdown. They were looking for someone to save them, and Christians looked to Hitler.

The most Christian protestant regions of Germany gave the highest level of votes to Hitler. And really what you could call the German Bible Belt is what put him into office in 1933.

Theological Roots for Christian Support of Hitler

A theological root for support for Hitler was the “Luther renaissance” at the beginning of the 20th century. Luther had prescribed a 2 kingdoms doctrine, taking it directly out of the New Testament when Jesus was asked about whether to support Jesus. He said, “Whose picture is on that coin? Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Luther stressed that in the kingdom of this world, there has to be government. No government is perfect. Some governments are even not Christian or unChristian. He said that it is God’s will that those governments be supported and people should be loyal. And then in the Kingdom of God, you can expect he command of the sermon on the Mount to apply. Many theologians took that to mean that support of the authority of the state was God’s will. Someone like Bonhoeffer would say that it’s not unqualified support and you have to ask whether the goal of that political authority endorses the most important Christian features of morality, for example, the mistreatment of minorities, stepping on other people, the brutality. Bonhoeffer opposed all of that.”

The second root, was that virtually all of the Christians who supported Hitler believed that God wanted them to be patriotic Germans and work for the strengthening of Germany within the world… they believed that the two most important things for a Christian are God and country. And that meant, for them, Hitler’s country. Nationalism was a really important reason why Christians supported Hitler and didn’t see what we see as the immorality of that regime.

German Christians was a group that wanted to prove that they were just as good Nazis as they were Christians.

Paul Althaus, an influential theologian of the 20th century, said that they perceived 1933 and the rise of Hitler as a “gift from God.”

Scapegoating the Jews

The Jews were less than one percent of the German population. Kittel said they were the greatest problem for Germany. He said in a speech, “God does not ask us to be sentimental or soft.” …Kittel said that “the Christian church and Adolf Hitler provided the twin bulwarks against the Jewish menace.” Kittel was very prominent and very pious. He and his family read from the Bible and sang hymns every day.

Althaus, Hirsch, and Kittel were Germany’s smartest theological leaders and they were pulling Germans down the path of Nazism.

Different groups of Christians in Germany

The Confession Church wrote the Barmen Declaration and were opposed to the German Christian group, they were almost opponents of the Nazis… The Barmen Declaration was not anti-Nazi. Hitler was never mentioned, nor was the persecution of Jews mentioned. A very clear reason is that those who wrote the Barmen Declaration wanted to make sure that they would get the maximum support and they realized that they wanted members of the Nazi party to be able to sign the document. The Confessing Church wasn’t an anti-Nazi organization, although when you look for anti-Nazis, most of them would be in that group. A very large percentage of Confessing Church members were anti-Semitic.

The Hitler Comparison and Today

It is so easy to make comparisons with Hitler. I’m fully aware that the Holocaust is a dramatically evil moment in history and that Adolf Hitler’s role was really horrific. And so I want to be very careful about not saying “Oh, we’ve got Nazis in this country.” Of course, we do have some racists, some KKK, and some white supremacists people. That all coordinates with Nazi ideas, but to try to say, “This is like Hitler, or Trump is like Hitler, I think that’s almost always going to be a tremendous exaggeration and it minimizes who Hitler was and what he did.”

If we don’t compare Trump and Hitler, but if we compare Christian voters, in 1933 Germany and 2016 America, there are some things that are worth comparing and to me, somewhat scary.

When Christians voted for Adolf Hitler, the thing that astonishes me, is that Hitler, in his life, was anything but a Christian. He was baptized a Catholic, he never went to church after his adolescence, he was very critical of the institutional Catholic Church, and there was absolutely no reason to think he was a Christian. And yet, in the Nazi Party platform, they made one claim – We support positive Christianity as the foundation of the German nation.

The middle class conservative Christians in Germany loved the idea that the Nazis were against vice. Hitler promised to get rid of prostitution, and he did. He cleaned up the streets. He promised to get rid of pornography, and he did. We know that this had nothing to do with his own moral values, and he did set up brothels for SS officers, where they tried to create more babies for Hitler. His moral values hardly fit within this image.

When asked in Britain how he could support Hitler, Gerhard Kittel said, “Hitler carries a New Testament in his pocket and reads from it every day.” That was a wide spread rumor. Many Christians were convinced that Hitler was on their side, and when we look back and see his immorality, they weren’t seeing it that way. Whatever we can say about Trump, I do think he does not look like a particularly good Christian – his lifestyle, the brutality of his language, the way he talks harshly about any opponents, the fact that he once said he never had to ask God for forgiveness… that’s a pretty poor understanding of Christian doctrine.

Christians who thought Hitler was wonderful, and we now would say were mistaken, there are also Christians who think Trump is just right for a Christian president. And I find that hard to accept, but I also worry that some of what Trump could do as president is rather chilling. I don’t know that he will. We might look back in 4 years or 8 years and if he becomes president, we might say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” But there’s also a greater possibility in my mind that we could say, not that he was a Hitler, not that set up death camps and killed 11 million people, but the chances that it would not represent the best of American and the best of Christian values, I think is fairly high.

How do we have political conversations with those whom we disagree?

I would suggest that behavior that stays within the values that we most treasure within the Christian tradition, which is essentially love for other people, fair treatment, following the Golden Rule, which by the way is a part of the Jewish and Islamic tradition, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” those would be the things that I think should be our first guide in any conversations we have.


*This interview is part of our series, “Raven ReViews Election 2016: Weekly Interviews on 6 Crucial Topics”

Explore what’s at stake in this pivotal election.

“If you are a part of the (racist) system, and you participate in the privileging of yourself, or the unprivileging of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, then that makes you a part of the system.”

“The solidarity we have is a solidarity of enmity, not a solidarity of friendship. The implosion of the Republican party under Trump is a very good example of the instant solidarity of enmity. It’s very interesting for someone in another country, but as an American it’s more that interesting in the context of the next president. But whoever the next president is has implications throughout the world. It’s an issue that concerns us all.”

“Some activism in the past has tended to demonized our opponents and ascribing the worst possible motives to their actions. What would happen if we did the opposite? If we ascribed the best motives to those we disagree with? We give them every benefit of the doubt we can and in that spirit we disagree.”

“Trump is afraid of Muslims coming in who do not share Americans values. But how well does Donald Trump represent basic American values? His extreme misogyny, regarding women as play things on recent tapes shows he has very little respect for women.”

“So, this good thing of listening to the voice of the victim can be abused by ‘playing the victim card.’ But there are real victims. The danger is that we can play the victim card in a way that seeks revenge, not justice. We do this by projecting guilt upon another person or institution.”

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