Evil and Us: Hitler as a Religious Figure

We are meditating on Evil and how it succeeds so often: how it is that Hitler prevailed in his malevolent dreams so successfully.

A synagogue burns during Kristallnacht, the “November pogrom” in which 267 synagogues and more than 7000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Only two of the perpetrators were prosecuted in criminal courts: for “racial defilement” through the rape of Jewish women. Photo uploaded to Flickr by Jeff Barnes.

What forces were behind Hitler’s “success” in his lifetime?  Paul Ricoeur, in his classic work, The Symbolism of Evil, addresses such questions in depth.  He analyzes the first level of human evil as defilement and the fight against impurity.

In doing so he is also naming the first tenet of belief in Hitler’s religion: “Some are pure and other are impure; preserve yourself from all impurities. Non-Aryans are impure. Therefore do what it takes to rid yourself of non-Aryans. They have no rights anyway because they are defiled.”

This religious appeal on Hitler’s part helps explain his success: It was so profound in the sense that it appealed to a race that felt defiled, i.e., an uncommon self-loathing that followed on the defeat of the imperial German people in the World War I, as well as the guilty conscience of a pseudo-Christianity. 

Propaganda for Nazi Germany’s T-4 Euthanasia Program, published in the Office of Racial Policy’s magazine Neues Volk.: “This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money, too.” The medically-administered program claimed 200,000 victims in Germany and Austria, with about 100,000 victims in other European countries. From the German government and Deutsches Historisches Museum, on Wikimedia Commons.

The question for today: Is a profound self-loathing also currently penetrating many in our society?  Adrienne Rich has warned that patriarchy includes self-loathing which she calls a “fatalistic self-hatred.” 

Is this why many powerful men and their powerful institutions of media as well as political partying are in denial about climate change and are actively committed to silencing the young (and others including Pope Francis) who call us to action?  Is there a collective death wish in the air today?  Is it born of species narcissism but also of patriarchy? 

Just a week ago, while lecturing in Calgary, Canada, I met a woman whose teen age son attempted suicide.  As I told her, she was not alone. 

Suicides among the young are at all time highs today.  While the older ones fret over how to increase their gains in the Wall Street game of roulette, the earth burns. The future is for sale.  The young are afterthoughts. 

Graffiti from a Detroit school. Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

Is a myth that immigrants are “impure” capable of seizing our souls again today?  Or that people of dark skin?  Or people who worship as Muslim?  Or anyone who is not white or fully abled or does not identify as “Christian”(whatever that means in such a context)? 

Truth is it has to be manifested as Jesus said: “By their fruits you will know them.”). 

The signs of our times, which we are all obliged to pay attention to, would seem to be reminding us of the myth of defilement—a myth that propagated the Holocaust.

The Nazi party rally grounds at Nuremberg, 1934. Photo from the Russian historical site Feldgrau.info, on Wikimedia Commons.

Hitler generated religions rites of purification that ranged from setting the Reichstag on fire to the bloodletting of young men sacrificed to the gods of war and nationalism to mass rituals and finally to the “Ultimate Solution”.

Scapegoating Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and other “defiled ones” was a rite of purification to rid him and his followers of their defilement. The murder of the Jews was a “magical ritual slaughter,” says James Rhodes in his study on The Hitler Movement.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 389f.

Banner Image: Speech of Nazi theologian Ludwig Müller after his formal inauguration as Bishop Reich in Berliner Dom, September 23, 1934. Muller speaks to followers of the Deutsche Christen (“Positive Christianity”) religious arm of Naziism. Photo by Georg Pahl, from the German Federal Archive, on Wikimedia Commons 

Queries for Contemplation

Do you experience a sense of defilement alive and well in our times?  What would be some examples of that?  Does loss of a job arouse such a deep sense of failure?  How does one cleanse that sense before it leads to self destruction (such as drug addictions) and horrendous projections onto others?

Recommended Reading

Fox makes the point that religion has so often oversold the concept of “sin” that it has left us without language or power to combat evil. Through comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them.

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4 thoughts on “Evil and Us: Hitler as a Religious Figure”

  1. Avatar

    Matthew’s words today speak to a question I asked in an earlier post. How the Sacred is necessary to combat evil. Thank you for this continuing explanation.

  2. Avatar

    From the German’s euthanasia literature: “This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money, too.” From the Trump Administration: Immigrants who receive public assistance (i.e., “public charges”) cost citizens taxpayer dollars. ABC News, Jan 8, 2020: “The Trump administration argues that expanding the meaning of “public charge” helps “protect American taxpayers” and ensures “that noncitizens in this country are self-sufficient and not a strain on public resources.”
    https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/immigration-public-charge-trump-deportation/ (The change in what constitutes a “public charge” was blocked by some courts; then recently temporarily allowed to go forward by the Supreme Court, apparently while adjudicated.)
    Fact sheet: https://www.uscis.gov/news/fact-sheets/public-charge-fact-sheet

  3. Avatar

    ‘Suicides among the young are at all time highs today. ‘
    Heartbreaking. I live in an affluent community north of Boston. My granddaughter is a high school senior. We are mourning her classmate who took his life by delivering his last pizza then driving his car into his favorite fishing hole. Heartbreaking. No one knew! As his mother wrote in his obituary. He hid his darkness well. This is the second suicide for this class. The first their freshman year, violently by a gunshot.

    This morning I am reading in our local paper swastikas were found last night in the high school girls bathroom.

    What would a high school look like that offered spiritual counseling…places where students could go to talk about what is really going on within their precious hearts. Instead we have grief counselors on call. 911!!
    Holding my 6 grand babies age 3 to 20 close.

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