Convenient Christian Revisionism

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A growing meme over the past thirty years has been the notion that National Socialism in Germany, the Nazis, and Hitler were in no way Christian. That they were “pagans” or “neo-pagans”. The truth is that Hitler and other leaders within the Nazi party seized on elements of both Christianity, and romantic pre-Christian belief to create a twisted and perverse hybrid of both (Hitler believed himself to be a Catholic until the day he died). Members of occult orders who didn’t toe the Nazi line were imprisoned just as defiant Christians were. But this hasn’t stopped many from laying the blame in one place only, pre-Christian ideas and belief.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, while addressing the Jewish community of Cologne, laid out exactly what the new party line on Christian involvement in the Holocaust was.

“And in the 20th century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry. The result has passed into history as the Shoah.”

Comments like these conveniently sweep aside the long, long history of Christian persecution of the Jewish people. As columnist James Carroll pointed out, to not mention Christian culpability when discussing National Socialism can be a dangerous enterprise in the longer run.

“If the Holocaust is remembered as having been the work of a small “ring of criminals,” with no relation to the deep structures of Western civilization’s attitude toward “the other,” as centrally represented by Christian contempt for Jews, then sources of future crimes against “the other” remain protected. Roots of anti-Semitism, in particular, can sprout again.”

I bring up this somewhat controversial topic because of a recent interview posted at John Morehead’s site. John, a “missional” Christian who studies new religious movements, talks with anthropologist Dr. Karla Poewe, author of “New Religions and the Nazis”. A new book that claims to look at how esoteric and “volk” movements in the post-World War One era led to the formation of National Socialism in Germany.

In general, I’m all in favor of new information and illumination into complex subjects. Especially when they are as murky as the issue of religious identity under Nazi Germany. But I am worried that Poewe has entered into this project with an agenda, a fear that partially springs from her comments regarding Neo-Paganism on her web site.

“People who belong to new religions or new religious movements use the notion of neo-paganism to legitimize their supposed roots in a pre-Christian past. It implies worship of godliness in the human being through his or her direct connection to nature, culture, and/or a race specific ancestry. Whatever variations there are within neo-paganism and being both syncretistic and locally specific there are many, on one matter all neo-pagans are agreed: Christianity must be, if it is not already, overcome … neo-pagans are people who wish Christianity had never reached Europe. The fact is it did. It gave us a moral conscience that neo-pagans within and without the church of pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany saw fit to discard – at great human cost.”

A negative review on also raised several alarm bells.

“Karla Poewe may have proven that a few people in the Nazi orbit felt drawn to Heretic and Pagan forms of spirituality, but not that this belief somehow had a causal relation with the crimes of the Nazi regime. If the answer were yes, it would imply a terrible indictment against those Religions. However,the major flaw in Poewe’s thesis however, is the fallacy of “cum hoc ergo propter hoc”. Yes, there were some enthusiasts of New Religions, but there is no proof that they had any measurable influence on Nazi policies … the majority of German Protestants supporting the Nazi regime, are classified [in the book] as “not Christians but Pagans” (p.8).”

This raises concerns of revisionism and only looking at data that supports your thesis (though Poewes claims in the interview that the book doesn’t have a thesis). I was hoping that the interview could have shed some light on if my worries were valid, or if Poewe does indeed make clear that these movements were merely one piece of a large structure in which Christianity is also a part. Sadly, the interview shines little light on the intricacies of her work, and pitches what seem to be loaded questions like the following.

“In your book you mention certain forms of Neo-Paganism played a part in the National Socialism of Germany. Of course, National Socialism and racist ideologies are still to be found in Europe and the West today, and there also seems to be an increase of interest in certain expressions of Neo-Paganism with emphases on racial and ethnic emphases…”

Questions like these can create a subtle correlative link between National Socialism and modern Paganism (a link that she has denied in earlier publications). In reality, the vast majority of National Socialists are not “Pagans” but often consider themselves “good” Christians (or are committed secularists). This isn’t to brush aside racist Pagan groups, they do exist, but I have yet to see any hard evidence that they compose any sort of significant number within modern National Socialist movements, or in modern Paganism.

I am disappointed that this interview didn’t dig any deeper into the subject, and that her assertions were taken at face value with no further discussion. I think books like these are a step backwards for relations and dialog between Christians and modern Pagans. To discuss the influence of occult societies and “volk” groups on Naziism without also mentioning the cultural and structural role Christianity played teeters towards an unhealthy revisionism. Barring more reviews from unbiased sources, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, and would place it among other ill-conceived works that gloss over Christianity’s sins by blaming Pagans.

UPDATE: John Morehead has issued an apology and clarification in regards to the interview with Karla Poewe. He has also sent my post directly to Poewe for comment. I’ll update again once I hear more. But it is encouraging to see that Morehead understands why his original post was so troubling.

UPDATE II: Dr. Karla Poewe responds.