Some youth groups developed programs designed to weaken or destroy Christianity, such as the
Hitler Youth. As most Germans were Christians, the NAZIs had to peruse this goal with some
circumspection rather than the overt atheism of the Communist Young Pioneers. Concerning
religion the NAZIS through the Hitler Youth pursued activities with a two-fold purpose. The first
was to help break the children's ties to what ever affiliation with organized religious groups they
received from their parents as well as any religious training they had received. This may have
been more intense with the Hitler Youth than the BDM. Hitler Youth activities were often
sponsored on Sunday to conflict with church attendance. At Hitler Youth activities, especially
summer camps, away from their parents, the campaign against religion may have even been more
effective than in the NAZI-controlled schools. Hitler Youth Leader, Grupenführer Baldur von
Schirach composed catchy little marching ditties as, "We are the rollicking Hitler Youth; We have
no need of Christian truth; no evil old priest these ties can sever; We're Hitler's children now and
ever." The second was to sponsor a new pagan pseudo religious creed that would embrace
NAZI values, especially volk culture, xenophobic nationalism, and racial hatred.
The NAZI approach to religion did not occur in a vacuum. From the beginning of the 19th
century, various religious trends in Germany led to the development of highly varied spiritual
movements, many of which rejected democracy. These trends were at first very limited,
expoused by a few isolated intellectuals. By the late 19th century, however, a some social
movements began to crystallize and attract an increasing number of followers. One of the most
important youth groups was the Wandervogel. Many of these movements were Christian moves
of varying descriptions. Other movements emphasized volk culture and some of the more
virulently nationalistic groups harkened back to Germany's pre-Christian past. While the
extremists were still fringe groups, by the 20th century, especially after the disaster of World War
I (1914-18) elements of volk culture and interest in pre-Christian sagas and heroes touched many
Germans. German composer Richard Wagner, for example, used the old Germanic sagas for
many of his operas.
Some youth groups developed programs designed to weaken or destroy Christianity, such
as the Hitler Youth. As most Germans were Christians, the NAZIs had to pursue this goal with some circumspection rather than the overt atheism of the Communist Young Pioneers. The Hitler Youth profram, however, left no doubt about how religion was viewed in the New Order. A typical marching chant was, "We are the rollickig Hitler Youth, We haveno need of Christian truth, No evil old priest these ties can sever, We're Hitler's children now and ever". [Conot, p. 422.]
Concerning religion the NAZIS through the Hitler Youth pursued activities with a two-fold
purpose. The first was to help break the children's ties to what ever affiliation with organized religious groups they received from their parents as well as any religious training they had received.
The principal architect of the Hitler Youth was Grupenführer Baldur von Schirach, often
referred to as "the American NAZI". At the Nuremberg trials, part of von Schirach's defense
was based on the fact that he unlike other top NAZIs continued to practice his Christian religion and that he pursued correct ties with Christian church groups in Germany and later in Austria after he was appointed Gauleiters, the German term for a kind of govenor or regional party leader. We know the devotion to Christianity is correct as regards his wife, who actually raised the treatment of the Jews with Hitler. We are less sure about von Schirach himself. HBU is unsure at this time how to evaluate these claims.
The NAZI attack on Christianity may have been more intense with the Hitler Youth than the
BDM. This requires, however, further investigation.
Christianity since the conversion of the German tribes has been a major force in German life.
Germany as the birth place of Martin Luther and the Reformation became divided with the north largely Protestant and the south along with Austria largely Catholic. Catholicism continued to strong in Bavaria
and other areas of southern Germany. Catholics were also a majority in Austria which was
added to the Reich in 1938 by the Anchluss. Gradually Germany itself became increasingly Protestant. There were major differences between the Catholic and Protestabt churches besides theological issues. The Roman Catholic Church was an international institution. Thec Proitestant churches were not. And important segments of the Protestaht churche were intensly nationalistic and influenced by Volkish thought that was so strong in the NAZI Party.
Some background on German religious life is available in HBC. Christianity
was assaulted by the NAZIs although often not overtly. Had the NAZIs emerged triumphant in
World War II they would have initiated a much more overt and ditect assault on Christianity.
The Protestant Luthern (Evangelical) Church during the Weimar Republic and early NAZI era was divided into 28 Landeskirchen (provincial churches). The largest of these churches was in the Old Prussian Union around which the German Empire was built after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71).
Each provincial church was supported socially and financially by a ruling monarch which also offered institutional support. This also provided for a degree of independence from the state. The Church had what might be described as parliamentary system made up of two houses to address arange of theological and organizational issues. The German Workers' Party (which evolved into the NAZI Party) after World war I adopted a manifesto that was stridently anti-Semitic (1920). The Manifesto read, "We demand the freedom of all religious denominations in the State insofar as they do not endanger its existence or violate the ethical and moral feelings of the Germanic race. The Party as such takes its stand on a positive Christianity but does not tie itself in the matter of confession to any particular denomination. It fights the spirit of Jewish materialism inside and outside ourselves and it is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only come from within and on the basis of the principle that the common good comes before the selfish good.” [Rhum von Oppen, p. 25] Although the clear implication was a limit on religious freedom not only for Jews, but Christains as well, there was no ourtrage from the country's Protestant establishment. The twenty fourth point of the manifesto advocates the institution of a "positive" Christianity. The Protestant establishment only began to react to the NAZIs when the NAZIs seized control and began to move against the Church's autonomy (1933).
Catholicism was a special target for the NAZIs, not only because of the the Church's moral influence, but because of its international connections. And the Catholic Church in the 19th century and during the Weimar Republic had played an important role for moderation in German parliamentary politics. Also the German Catholic Church was under the authority of the Pope and thus more difficult to dominate than the various national Protestant churches. The Church also ran schools or played an important role in many schools that they did not actually administer. The Catholic Church not only stood in the way of the NAZIs brutal use of terror, but it also opposed some of the draconian racial and other eugenics programs such as sterilization and euthanasia which the NAZIs planned to adopt. Hitler soon after his seizure of power in 1933 negotiated a Concordat with the Vatican. Like the other agreements he signed, he violated the provisions of this agreement almost from the beginning and began almost immediately to attack the rights of Catholics. Catholics youth groups were exempted from the initial actions by von Schirach at the Hitler Youth when most German youth groups were either abolished or incorporated in the Hitler Youth. This was just temporary and a
series of actions by the Hitler Youth and NAZI Government made it increasingly difficult for those young people wanting to remain in Catholic youth groups. Members of the Hitler Youth were prohibited from belonging to Church youth groups and Catholic youth groups were the most numerous and important. Membership in the Church youth groups also complicated education, especially university admissions as well as career choices. HJ membership, for example, was necessary for civil service appointments. [Gilbert, p. 15-16.]
Hitler Youth activities were often sponsored on Sunday to conflict with church attendance. At Hitler Youth activities, especially summer camps, away from their parents, the campaign against religion may have even been more effective than in the NAZI-controlled schools. Hitler Youth Leader, Gruppenführer Baldur von Schirach composed catchy little marching ditties as, "We are the rollicking Hitler Youth; We have no need of Christian truth; no evil old priest these ties can sever; We're Hitler's children now and ever." The second was to sponsor a new pagan pseudo-religious creed that would embrace NAZI values, especially volk culture, xenophobic nationalism,
and racial hatred.
We are unsure to what extent German boys wore their Hitler Youth uniforms to church. We
suspect that each year after the NAZI take over that church attendance declined and that it amy
have been increasingly common for a boy to wear his Hitler Youth uniform to church. The
undated portrait here shows a boy wearing his Hitler Youth uniform for his Confirmation (figure
1). The portrait is undated, but looks to have been well before the War, perhaps about 1935. A
HBC reader writes, "... it's strange that there's no swastika on it. It's a 'S' instead on it." Actually
it is not an "S", but the single lightening bolt symbol of the Hitler Youth. Actually most available
Hitler Youth photographs show the boys without the swastika armband. As this was a formal
dress occasion, you would think that he might wear an armband. We do not know if this portrait
was taken before he was issued one or if he decided not to wear it for some religious reason.
This seems unlikely as he felt this way he could have just not worn the uniform.
Basic Christian values and the importance of Christianity in German cultural and moral life
posed a threat to Hitler and the NAZIs. Hitler was, however, convinced that he could undermine
the influence of Churches and Christian parents through control of the educational program and
even more importantly the Hitler Youth.
Religion was a difficult question for the NAZIs. Germany was a Christian nation. Most
Germans thought of themselves as Christians, even many NAZI Party members. Hitler and his
inner circle, however, were dismissive of Christianity. They wanted a new NAZI religion with
national and racial connotations. The problem for the NAZIs was how to wean the German
people from Christianity. Hitler had a very good sense about such matters, thus actions against
religious groups were only taken incrementally as the NAZIs established their hold over
Germany. Educating the children in schools was one approach. In this regards the German
education system varied from state to state, but religious education was part of the curriculum in
many German states.
A highly committed minority of Germans ardently believed in the NAZI creed when the
NAZIs seized power in 1933. Hitler believed that while many adults would be difficult to convert
that young people could be converted through the Hitler Youth. Some NAZIs like Himmler
believed that Aryan blood would eventually draw Germans to the NAZIs. Hitler thought that the
Hitler Youth program could be used to separate young people from the influence of Churches and
Christian parents and here he proved essentially correct. He made no secret of this. During a
NAZI rally on November 6, 1933 at Elbing in East Prussia, Hitler told the cheering audience,
"When an opponent declares, 'I will not come over to your side,' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs
to me already.' A people lives forever. What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants,
however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new
community." Here von Schirach took up the Führer's lead. In a speech 3 weeks later he
declared that the Party was hoping to educate the new generation "in the cult of race and nation" and would, despite the Con Concordant with the Vatican succeed in disassociating Catholic youth from the Catholic youth organizations. [Gilbert, p. 16.]
Conot, Robert E. Justice at Niremberg (Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York, 1983).
Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.
Rhum von Oppen, Beate. Religion and Resistance to Nazism (Center of international studies, Princeton University, 1971).
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