“New Religions and the Nazis” by Karla Poewe , Routledge , New York and London , 2006. Review by
Rev Dr Ross Clifford
Principal, Morling Theological College Sydney
President, Baptist Union of Australia
This book claims to highlight an important but neglected part of Nazi history, that being the role of new religions to the emergence of Nazi ideology. Its genesis is the burning question, “how Germans came to support the National Socialist worldview that ended in the Holocaust and the loss of countless lives”. The author’s quandary is surely universally held. Its ultimate findings about the role of New Religions – neo-pagan/New Age – are significant in the light of the rise of such movements today (p.95).
The author is not guilty of reductionism as she documents other factors such as an unwanted Weimar democracy and “the postwar punishment of the Treaty of Versailles”, however her additional insights into the role played by “new religions” deserve serious consideration. This is not based on conspiracy theories or secondary sources, but rather a painstaking investigation of primary sources (letters, diaries, articles, conference papers etc.) of the German Faith movements over an eight year period.
A valid methodology of exploring a worldview is to focus on one of its key exponents. Poewe, with academic rigour, takes the reader into the life and work of the founder and “fuhrer” of the German Faith Movement, Jacob Wilhelm Hauer . She claims Hauer sought a national regeneration that gave birth to a community of one Volk. A Völkisch worldview puts priority on group and personality above the individual and individualism. The group is a biological entity made up of a distinct racial, cultural and intellectual substance. It is a worldview of a community of one people (p.175). Hauer was not envisioning a Judaic-Christian faith based political Volk, but a genuinely German (Nordic) one.
The relativism of postmodern spirituality is not a new thing, as this faith based movement was just as eclectic. In Hauer’s list of the “concrete content” of German Faith there is a reliance on Hinduism, especially the Bhagavad Gita as the language “eternal fate”, “eternal law,” “battle and tragedy” has its source in that sacred text (p.76-77). There are other elements, as Poewe documents that the founders of these deutsch-Germanic religions deliberately chose elements of “the Yogic tradition, pre-Christian Germanic beliefs, and German philosophical idealism”(p.34). Like postmodern spirituality of today the German Faith Movement was not without metanarrative, it was also based on myth, in this case a focus on Germanic/Icelandic sagas.
The German Faith Movement of Hauer and others was not just anti-Jewish, but also anti- Christian; it worked for the decline of Christianity. It also believed it was time for “a new conception of God, not as one grasped by thought, but as the reality of inner experience” (p.34). As one can imagine Poewe reveals how neither insipid German theological liberalism or irrational pietism could answer such a challenge, which is surely a lesson for today as neo-paganism battles with Christianity for the hearts of those spiritually searching. It was said of some “their path to National Socialism went through the door of liberal theology” (p.25).
This is not to say that Hauer had no role for the Bible. He used the Old Testament’s eighth to sixth century prophets to support his contention that a Volk must be led by heroic individuals who emerged from their own bloodline and culture. As prophets such as Amos were needed to deliver the people from hostile forces and give new hope to the future, so a new prophet will do so today. This, by the way, highlights another concern for contemporary spirituality: its often overstressed reliance on charismatic leaders.
Hauer portrays these Biblical prophets as having been, like himself, against church, temple and established ritual. Poewe states that “while anti-Semitism may not have been intended here, separation of the Jew, as belonging to a Volk different from the German is” (p.62). From such sentiments comes a ringing endorsement of National Socialism’s unconditional allegiance to a Prophet/Fuhrer.
What about the origins of anti-Semitism and Nazism? Poewe argues and documents that to blame it on Christianity and the cross of Christ is misleading at best. This is not to say the church escapes responsibility for its often blind eye towards, or co-operation with Nazism; however, Nazism looked elsewhere for its anti-Semitism. This study shows how Hauer’s German Faith Movement wished to free Germany of Jewish Christianity and to bring in a “race-specific religion”, a holy society that “groomed its race specific biological and cultural heritage”.
Incredibly Hauer did not see himself as anti-Semitic. From his worldview perspective the Jewish people belonged to a foreign race that could only be treated as a foreign Volk, one not assimilated into an Aryan Volk. And Zionism was a possible solution, the absorption of the Jew into his own state (p.137-139). However the German Volk must be rid of an inclusive religion like Christianity, and of the Jew.
Where did Nazism get the inner fortitude to carry out the Holocaust as the way forward to an Aryan Volk? Poewe observes that Himmler defended his lethal decisions and his detachment from their consequences, from his Buddhist and Hindu ideas. Hauer popularised these concepts in his 1934 publication on the Bhagavad Gita . He laid out “systematically the justification for doing the deed that a man is called to do by fate even if that deed is steeped in guilt. Hauer calls such a deed an innate or hereditary duty (angeborene Pflicht) and there can be little doubt that Himmler saw his destruction of the Jews in that light” (p.31). One wonders if today’s political leaders would not benefit from a deep reflection on the consequences of such an ethical contradiction.
One of the strengths of this book is the documenting of the relationship between the German Faith Movement and Nazism. Poewe confidently asserts: “In matters of organisation, as in all other matters pertaining to the German Faith Movement and his academic life, Hauer co-operated deliberately and carefully with the Nazis”. He brought or welcomed National Socialist writers into his movement. Throughout this time it is shown how Hauer had contacts with SS, SA and Hitler youth. Poewe observes, “from Hitler , to Rosenberg , to Himmler , to Heydrich, to Klagges, to Hauer, to Grimm and innumerable others” there was a uniform obsession with overcoming Christianity and persuading others to do likewise (p.150). Hauer was in “good” company.
However, whilst movements such as German Faith were foundational to Nazism, Hauer himself did not live on as a “fuhrer”. He resigned in April 1936, replaced by the radicals he helped radicalise, not knowing that SS- Fuhrer Reinhard Heydrich had encouraged the radicals. It appears Hitler and the Nazis had no further room for Hauer and even the Movement was out of favour. By October of 1935, Hitler had lost all interest in making a place for the church in his state and therefore there was no real role for a transforming agent like German Faith (p.139-140).
Chapter 3 is an important chapter as it records the role of the Bünde in the development of German Faith movements. It was a Bünde environment between the 1920’s and 1932 as Germans, especially the youth, took politics into their own hands. There was an ever-growing number of small organisations (Bünde); philosophical, poetic, political and religious. And as Poewe states Hauer’s Bünde;
. had in common with all emerging National Socialists the notion that society was moved in new direction, not by political parties, but by leaders of genius (Fuhrer). Such leaders, it was thought knew how to propagate their inspired ideas (propaganda). They tested their ideas in the völkisch (folkish), bündisch (youth group), and Nordic-religious social environments, a ‘milieu” that consisted of an interwoven network of personalities ( Führergrössen ) who were political activists, writers, trained speakers, and/or managers of interpersonal and inter-group relations . Hauer was very much part of what the sociologist Colin Campbell, looking at recent expressions of religiosity, called the “cultic milieu,” namely, that “cultural underground of society” that is kept alive by everything from mysticism to unorthodox science and the publications of those who preach it (p.36).
At times this is not an easy book. Poewe does not waste words. While it lacks the flair of much of today’s literature, it is an important text. To treat a person as a non-person is the denial of the biblical imperative of living out human dignity and human worth to all. This sin occurred in Germany . It was not as a result of a spontaneous idea but of a destructive worldview. Religion played its part in this, and Poewe documents the shape of such movements and their involvement with the political and cultural process. This denial of human dignity continues today and Poewe’s book drives us to consider the ramifications of evil and exclusive worldviews. It helps us understand why the holocaust occurred and challenges our preconceived ideas. The book should be in all theological college/seminary libraries and on the shelves of all those who take seriously human rights, or the lack of them.
Poewe goes on to speak about the rise and strategies of today’s New Right and neo-paganism. She briefly addresses whether the New Age and neo-pagan movements are Left or Right, Green or Brown. This discussion needs more clarity and work. However, for such of those movements with a political/religious brief there is the concern that they will become heirs of Hauer. The “German Faith Movement” of today may well usher in an unholy new society. Western democracy is at its best when rooted in the Christian worldview.
Her conclusion is sobering. “While the constitutions of western liberal democracies preserve the freedom of new religions, I am not sure whether new religions, including New Age and Neo-paganism, preserve western liberal democracies. In Weirmar they did not” (p.174).