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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter 2022 (Print 2022)

National Socialism/Nazism

Paul Hinlicky and Claudia Lepp
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InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents
Paul Hinlicky

I Introduction

Nationalism, authoritarianism, and an organic-hierarchical vision of society characterized the fascism of the 20th century. The Nazi variant added to these a Darwinistic view of racial competition for limited living space. Yet the conceptualization and interpretation of Nazism remain controversial. Major explanations range from (1) Marxist understandings of it as an expression of the contradictions of late capitalism; (2) liberal depictions of an ideologically incoherent, pragmatic quest for power in reaction to unique circumstances; and (3) theologically and philosophically informed historical understandings of an “Ersatzreligion” arising in response to modern crises.

Ernst Nolte’s massively documented study would “wipe out the impression that Hitler was a rather incomprehensible accident in the history of Germany and Europe.” Instead, Nazism represented “the most desperate assault ever made upon the human being and the transcendence within him … [i.e., the] ‘going beyond’ in human nature which is capable of transforming the essence of human order and relation …” (Nolte: 424–25). Nolte’s post-war interpretation correlates with the significant contemporaneous analysis of the Jewish thinker, Maurice Samuel. For Samuel too the antisemitism of Nazism is a function of its religious hatred of transcendence.

Though Hitler’s Table Talks must be used with caution, the following statements are illustrative (see Trevor-Roper). “It is deplorable that the Bible should have been translated into German, and that the whole of the German people should have thus become exposed to the whole of this Jewish mumbo-jumbo” (June 5, 1942). “The earth continues to go round, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal. There are some who say the world is evil and that they wish to depart from it. For my part, I like the world!” (September 23, 1941).

When the Bible is read canonically to figure transcendence in its message of the eschatological God who brings the messianic kingdom both Nazi hostility to canonical faith and the counter-effort of more traditional Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, to understand the two testaments as a unity become comprehensible.

The pro-Nazi biblical scholar Walter Grundmann argued that his objectively researched “historical” Jesus “the Galilean” was the Aryan offspring of a Roman soldier. The intellectual acrobatics involved in Grundmann’s de-Judaizing of the NT are stunning, all the more so because of his strong claim to disinterested scholarly objectivity (Heschel: 58, 225–7). A more complex case is Gerhard Kittel. The famous editor of the Theological Word Book of the New Testament regarded re-ghettoization of the Jews as a severe mercy that would save this “Volk” from assimilation and return it to traditional piety (Ericksen: 35–75).

The Barmen Declaration of 1934 did not directly engage controversy over the Bible. The papal encyclical of 1937, “Mit brennender Sorge” (With Deep Anxiety), parallels the abortive Lutheran Bethel Confession of 1933 (directed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Both affirmed the “Old” Testament. The encyclical declares: “The sacred books of the Old Testament are exclusively the word of God, and constitute a substantial part of his revelation …” Whoever denies the OT denies “the true Christ, such as He appeared in the flesh, the Christ who took His human nature from a people that was to crucify Him …” (§15). Likewise, the Bethel Confession: “We reject the false doctrine that tears apart the unity of the Holy Scriptures, rejecting the Old Testament … God glorifies his overflowing faithfulness in remaining true to Israel according to the flesh, from which Christ was born in the flesh, despite all Israel’s unfaithfulness and even after the crucifixion” (§§1; 6:6). It is evident that the unity of the biblical testaments could be expressed only by accentuating the original schism of Jews and Christians. This dilemma haunts contemporary biblical scholarship.


Ericksen, R. P., Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven, CT 1985).Search in Google Scholar

Heschel, S., The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, NJ 2008).Search in Google Scholar

Nolte, E., Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise – Italian Fascism – National Socialism (trans. L. Vennewitz; New York 1966).Search in Google Scholar

Pope Pius XI, “Mit brennender Sorge” (1937). [Available at]Search in Google Scholar

Samuel, M., The Great Hatred (New York 1940).Search in Google Scholar

Scholder, K., Die Kirchen und das Dritte Reich, vol. 1: Vorgeschichte und Zeit der Illusionen 1918–1934 (Frankfurt a.M./Berlin 1986).Search in Google Scholar

Scholder, K., Die Kirchen und das Dritte Reich, vol. 2: Das Jahr der Ernüchterung 1934: Barmen und Rom (Frankfurt a.M./Berlin 1988).Search in Google Scholar

Trevor-Roper, H. R. (ed.), Hitler’s Table Talk 1941–1944: His Private Conversations (trans. N. Cameron/R. H. Stevens; New York 2008).Search in Google Scholar

Claudia Lepp

II Bible in National Socialism

Within the church, the validity of the OT as proof of the revelation of God was fundamentally challenged by the nationalist religion of the 1920s, as well as by the adoption of nationalist religious thought in the form of a “natural theology” by National Socialist German Christians. The attack on the OT, most notably made by Alfred Rosenberg’s “The Myth of the 20th Century,” was widespread in nationalist antisemitic journalism. Throughout his book, Rosenberg (the leading ideologue of the Nazi Party) called for the abolition of the OT as a religious text, with its “stories of pimps and livestock dealers” (Rosenberg: 614). Hitler, for tactical reasons, initially tried to defuse the conflict surrounding Rosenberg’s religion of the blood (ibid.: 258) and the redundance of the OT. Rosenberg was forced to state that his book was an expression of personal opinion. Hitler’s own statements on Christianity remained ambivalent until the Second World War. Nevertheless, the racist polemic of National Socialists against the OT continued. On November 13, 1933, the Berlin members of the “Deutsche Christen” (German Christians) movement rallied en masse at the Sportpalast in Berlin, calling for the liberation of the “German National Church … from the OT with its Jewish morality of rewards” (“Entschließung des Gaues Groß-Berlin der Glaubensbewegung ‘Deutsche Christen’” of November 13, 1933: 29).

Within the Protestant Church, the dispute regarding the OT was a main point of conflict between the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) and the Deutsche Christen. The debate among German Protestant theologians about the significance of the OT for Christian doctrine was not a new one, but its politicization by the National Socialists gave it a different quality. Through confessions and brochures, the Bekennende Kirche attempted to substantiate their declaration of belief in the OT theologically, or apologetically refuted the attacks on it (Nicolaisen: 119).

The majority of OT scholars wanted to adhere to the OT, or at least to its older scriptures. This was based on their distinction between pre-exilic Israel and post-exilic Judaism (Koenen: 66). The OT’s legalism, this-worldliness, and national restrictions, however, were dismissed. Emanuel Hirsch (q.v.), for example, interpreted the relationship between the OT and NT in the dialectics of law and the Gospel. He understood the OT as a “document of a religion of laws abolished by the Christian faith” (Hirsch: 26). The OT scholar Johannes Hempel saw the present significance of the OT in the religious foundation of the concept of nationhood within the OT, which served to remind every nation of the religious foundation of their national existence. In this way, Hempel aimed to secure the lasting significance of the OT for the Christian church and theology, and at the same time to put the nationalist movement on Christian basis (Weber: 293). The OT, and particularly its treatment in religious education in school, remained a stumbling block for many National Socialists, in spite of its nationalist reinterpretation.

The demand for the OT to be abolished, devalued, or reinterpreted had a counterpart in the efforts to “cleanse” the NT of Jewish influences, and to make it compatible with the National Socialist worldview. Efforts to revise the NT, or parts of it, to suit National Socialist attitudes were made by various theologians during the 1930s (Heschel: 107–13). The Institute for the Research and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, founded in Eisenach in May 1939 by church leaders of the Deutsche Christen, was particularly active in this field. The aim of this antisemitic ecclesial institute was to remove Jewish elements from the theology and church in Germany through “scholarly” research, and to promote a specifically Germanic-German (germanisch-deutsche) piety. About two hundred church leaders, pastors, university teachers and academic theologians agreed to support and cooperate with this goal. Walter Grundmann, the professor at Jena for the NT and “nationalist (völkisch) theology,” was the director of the institute. This radical German Christian tried to prove in several publications that Jesus “was most probably not a Jew, but rather belonged to one of the groups in Galilee” (Grundmann: 175). Jesus’s “de-Jewification” had already begun in the 19th century (Heschel: 26–66) and was also adopted by Hitler at an early stage. In “Mein Kampf,” as well as in speeches and interviews between 1921 and 1929, Hitler repeatedly referred to the “gentile” Jesus who fought against the Jews, for example, reinterpreting the cleansing of the temple antisemitically.

Later, the NS leadership lost its political interest in an “Aryan” Jesus. Not so the German Christians: in 1940, under Grundmann’s leadership, the “de-Jewing” institute published a “de-Jewified” and anti-Jewish NT with the title Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God). This redacted Bible contained heavily edited texts from the NT in which the NT was shortened, rearranged, deliberately reinterpreted, with elements added or purposefully omitted. References to the Jewish roots of Jesus and early Christianity were removed. For example, in the nativity narrative in Luke, the question of Joseph’s origin was left open; and Jesus’s circumcision on the eighth day was not mentioned (Luke 2:3, 4, 21; Botschaft: 3–4). Furthermore, Jesus’s positive references to the Judaism of his time were negated within this version. Undeniably Jewish circumstances or opinions with positive connotations were presented as particularities of Jesus’s teaching and ministry. Jesus appeared as a “fighter” against Judaism, who took upon himself the associated suffering in obedience to his Father. In Die Botschaft Gottes, Jesus was not the “king of Israel” (John 13) but the “king of life” (Botschaft: 139); his death was interpreted as a brave “offering of life” (Botschaft: 135–39). In the adaptations of the NT epistolary literature, obedience, suffering, and an active risk to one’s life appeared as characteristics of an ideal Christian discipleship. This was intended to encourage the German soldiers in the Second World War to fight and make sacrifices (Lorenz: 483–93). However, even these attempts to reinterpret the NT to make it conform to National Socialist ideology could not convince the opponents in the Nazi Party such as Alfred Rosenberg, Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler, to merge National Socialism and Christianity.


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