In Bonhoeffer’s context, Hitler and the Nazis harnessed populist energy from Germany’s post-WWI humiliation to spread propaganda aimed to essentially “make Germany great again” in the image of national socialism and its charismatic demi-god. Hitler cast himself as the pinnacle strongman—chosen by “God” nonetheless—to purge the nation of its weaknesses and impurities, promising to restore Germany to her former glory and strength.
In the editor’s introduction to Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, Dean G. Stroud shares of few shocking examples of how Hitler used propaganda to garner the favor of Christians:
“Just two days after becoming chancellor, Hitler delivered a radio speech in which he asserted that God had removed his blessings from Germany because Germans had disobeyed him by surrendering to Germany’s enemies in 1918. Hitler enlisted the Christian God as a divine endorsement for his own nationalism. The new führer then linked his nationalistic view of Christianity to the Nazi program for the future. He assured his listeners that the new government ‘regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.’ Hitler identified his nationalistic understanding of Christianity with the foundational institutions of German society. The new führer ended his address with a prayer, ‘May God Almighty give our work His blessing, strengthen our purpose, and endow us with wisdom and the trust of our people, for we are fighting not for ourselves but for Germany.’” (p.5).
Hitler’s militant and nationalistic agenda (“we are fighting…for Germany”) would be supported by the many German Christians because “Almighty God” had ordained him to bring power and strength back to a nation that was in desperate need of a reawakening of sorts. “Every aspect of society had to be bent to his single will as Führer. Most church people didn’t grasp this at first, and they supported Hitler’s National Socialist nation-building program” (The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Vol. 1, xvii). By tapping into the religious convictions of the German people, Hitler succeeded with relative ease at merging his political empire with civil religion. Hitler’s deity was a militaristic god of glory and strength who blessed the powerful and scorned the weak. A second example from Stroud illustrates this point:
“In yet another speech, one the Nazi newspaper the People’s Observer referred to as ‘the pronouncement of the Gospel of a reawakened Germany,’ a prayerful Adolf Hitler ended with the pious words, ‘Lord God, never let us become shaky or cowardly, let us never forget the duty we have taken on.’ Here again we hear reference to a god of combat and weaklings who might become ‘shaky’ and ‘cowardly.’ These are not words of the Sermon on the Mount but of a bellicose divinity of Germanic myth” (p. 5-6).
Hitler’s brand of Christianity was in direct contrast to Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross, where Hitler’s theology can be said to have been more in line with a “theology of glory” than anything, because it was based on valuing the strong and powerful at the expense of the suffering and oppression of the weak. Hitler’s militant and cruel theology of glory, known as “positive Christianity,” was rooted in the violent and power-hungry god Hitler created in the image and ideologies of Nazism, of which he ultimately had come to manifest in bodily form, and through the ideologies represented by the Swastika, became what Stroud cleverly depicts (in a subtitle) as the “Twisted Cross of Nazism” (p. 6)
The basic idea behind Hitler’s positive Christianity was to control how people thought about Jesus and Christian theology for the purpose of aligning Germany’s churches with Nazism’s racist, glory-seeking, and dehumanizing political agenda. For the Nazis, this meant attacking whatever aspect of Christianity they deemed to be “negative,” and threatening anyone who practiced or promoted such theology in the open (Stroud, p. 7). “Negativity in Nazi Germany was anything that emphasized the individual’s unique worth and dignity over the Nazi herd,” writes Stroud. “Negativity in Nazi Germany was anything that suggested that Jews were human beings created by God and loved by him” (Stroud, p. 7). We can see plainly how Nazism’s positive Christianity was completely opposed to both the teachings of Jesus and Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross, for the simple reason that it devalues and even despises the weak and vulnerable in our midst.
In April 1933, Bonhoeffer published a resistance essay that became famous, called “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which
“declared boldly that the church must stand up against interference by the state, must aid the victims crushed by the state’s relentless wheel of oppression, and ultimately must seize and stop the wheel itself. In Hitler’s Germany, the victims included not only ethnic Jews and political opponents of the regime but also mentally ill and disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities” (Collected Sermons Vol. 1, xvii).
The Nazis—who honoured brute power and “glorified the hero who bends the world to his will”— were repulsed by Jesus’ teachings of cruciform love (including loving our neighbours and enemies), humility, peacemaking, caring for the sick, and dignifying people with disabilities (Stroud, p. 20). Their god was a “Germanic hero, not a crucified Jew” (ibid.).
Stroud says it’s “simply remarkable,” and I totally agree, that self-proclaimed Christians in Germany who were in support of Hitler’s positive Christianity and its nationalistic emphasis, would find it even remotely possible to reconcile basic Christian beliefs with Nazism’s counterfeit Christianity (ibid.).
Most striking, Stroud explains, was the rejection by Nazi-supporting Christians of the core biblical teaching
“that God is love, [and] that we are to be imitators of Christ whose love for us reaches its pinnacle at Golgotha…” (ibid.).