Fascism, National-Socialism and the Churches

AS a means of addressing the issue of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and their attitude towards the churches, to some extent we have to examine the personal backgrounds of both Hitler and Mussolini. It also goes without saying that a proper examination of this subject must include a summary of Fascist and National-Socialist policy towards the churches as formulated within their earliest programmes and policy statements. I will then attempt to demonstrate how the temporary flirtation between the political and religious spheres were, for a variety of reasons, eventually threatened by a gradual change in disposition.

Adolf Hitler was, at least in terms of his native Austrian upbringing, a Catholic. So, by the time the emerging NSDAP chief came to write Mein Kampf, he was fully aware of the power and influence which religion could exert over its devoted followers. Indeed, whilst Hitler was obviously highly critical of Judaism – an historical phenomenon which he regarded as a method of advancing the “commercial interests”[1] of its adherents – he also used the figure of Christ with which to praise Christianity for “its estimation of the Jewish people”[2]. In short, certain passages in Mein Kampf reveal a secret admiration for the pivotal role of the churches in the societal fabric of his adopted Germany. During his analysis concerning the development of National-Socialism, Hitler used the example of Christianity in order to justify the creation of a dedicated hardcore of Party activists, claiming that

“[the] greatness of Christianity did not arise from attempts to make compromises with those philosophical opinions of the ancient world which had some resemblance to its own doctrine, but in the unrelenting and fanatical proclamation and defence of its own teaching.” [3]

Benito Mussolini, however, came from a different background to that of his future ally. During his early days as a revolutionary Socialist, the Duce was vigorously opposed to the Catholic Church and fiercely proud of his atheism. He had inherited this streak of anti-clericalism from his father, and during public meetings the young Marxist would try to shock his audience “by calling on God to strike him dead.”[4] For him, religion was little more than “a disease of the psyche, an epidemic to be cured by psychiatrists”[5] and his love of Marx was shared with a developing penchant for the neo-Darwinism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Mussolini also wrote a pamphlet entitled God Does Not Exist, an anti-Christian booklet on John Huss and a cheap novel whose principal villain “was a lecherous cardinal”[6]. Needless to say, years later when his totalitarian State began to forge an alliance with the Vatican, all three were heavily suppressed.

In the days when the NSDAP was simply another run-of-the-mill electoral entity, Hitler and his followers were keen to incorporate Christianity within their political manifesto. One in three Germans came from a Catholic background, although the ratio was even higher in Bavaria. In the years directly preceding the Nazi seizure of power, Catholicism had frequently sought to regularise its position and teachers in Catholic schools were paid by the State. However, whilst Christians of all shades came under attack from various sides of the contentious political arena, the Catholic Centre Party (Zentrum) was thought to be “debasing Catholicism by politicising it”[7] in the first place. Meanwhile, Gottfried Feder’s Twenty-Five Points emphasised the fact that “[t]he Party, as such, stands for positive Christianity, but does not bind itself in the matter of creed to any particular confession”[8], although, in his more detailed ideological pronouncements, Feder provided the German public with a more ominous preview of their standardised and ritualistic future by stating that “the German nation may at some time discover some new form for its religious beliefs and experiences”[9]. Elsewhere, Feder’s programme declared that “the NSDAP is not dreaming of attacking the Christian religion and its worthy servants”[10] due to the Party’s reluctance “to see religion besmirched with the dirt of political conflict.”[11] But the sheer fact that the Nazis obviously envied the mass influence of organised religion meant that, at least with regard to most of Germany’s religious denominations, the NSDAP would be unprepared to tolerate any potential interference relating to its plans to “transform not only the State and its institutions but also its substructure – the social system, manners of living and even attitudes to life.”[12] Quite simply, obedience to Nazism meant giving one’s loyalty to the nation, rather than God.

Despite Mussolini’s initial hatred of Christianity and the fact that he had audaciously called for “the Pope to leave Rome for good”[13], by 1921 he began to modify his approach. Opportunism was Mussolini’s middle name, and he changed his mind more times than he changed his women. When he realised that an alliance between the growing Fascist movement and the Church may suit his objectives, he “began to advocate that the government should subsidise churches and religious schools, hoping that in return the Vatican – which had already condemned liberalism and socialism – would take a further step of discountenancing the Catholic Popolari as being too far to the Left.”[14] The Duce was no fool. He knew fully well that Italy was the cradle of Catholicism and that most of her citizens would follow any party which had the blessing of the capital’s powerful religious hierarchy. But, unlike the Nazi Party’s Twenty-Five Points, the Fascists did not attempt to incorporate Christianity within its political Weltanschauung, something which was partly due to the Duce’s efforts to appeal simultaneously to “aristocrats and democrats, revolutionaries and reactionaries, proletarians and anti-proletarians, pacifists and antipacifists.”[15] At the same time, Mussolini did not want to alienate his existing supporters by being seen to exchange his open hostility towards the church for a sympathetic defence of its financial maintenance. On the one hand, he wanted to unite Italy in a common cause, something which, give the country’s notoriously unpredictable political climate seemed rather utopian to say the least. On the other hand, if he was to secure the ultimate triumph of Fascism it was necessary to neutralise “both the Vatican and King.”[16]

In Germany, Hitler’s election as Chancellor had partly relied upon the Catholic support he had poached from the Centre Party. Following Mussolini’s example [see below], the Fuhrer set out to limit the power of the German churches and one of his first tasks was to arrange for a Concordat between the Nazi State and the Vatican. This rather unlikely alliance took place on 20th July 1933 and allowed Hitler to safeguard from any potential opposition from those Catholics who were hostile to his new regime. In addition, the Enabling Act of 24th March – which was designed to help the Nazi Government “introduce legislative measures independently of the legislature, including alterations to the Constitution”[17] – had basically forced the church into such an alliance in the first place. In the period directly preceding the Enabling Act, the Catholic Church authorities had used their influence in the Centre Party to express their hostility to the Nazi regime. On 19th March, Cardinal Bertram had remarked in a confidential statement to his German bishops that “as a result of biased announcements to the effect that the Church will revise its attitude to the National Socialists, Vice-Chancellor Von Papen brought up the question during his visit yesterday. I replied that it is for the leader of the National Socialists to revise his attitude.”[18] Thus, in recognition of the fact that he was now forced to exert a considerable degree of diplomacy towards his potential Catholic supporters, Hitler even went so far as to politely seek the permission of the Church before using their records in order to search meticulously for evidence of genealogical Aryanism. In addition, during a speech to the Reichstag Hitler pledged to defend Christianity in general and “permit and guarantee to the Christian denominations the enjoyment of their due influence in schools and education.”[19] But, despite cynically deceiving his own Catholic supporters and winning many more of them over from the Centre Party, this sentence was deliberately omitted from the text of his speech when it subsequently appeared in the pages of the Volkischer Beobachter and, once Hitler had been granted full powers over the State, there was nothing the German churches could do about it.

Meanwhile, and by way of contrast, in Italy the developing relationship between the Fascist Party and the Catholic church was becoming significantly more amiable. Whilst Hitler had been angered by the interference of the Catholic Church during his first months in power, the consolidation of the Duce’s own rule led to a renunciation of his former atheism and “the stridently anti-clerical programme of early fascism”[20]. He also initiated a whole series of pro-Catholic measures, among them the banning of Freemasonry, contraception, swearing and obscene publications. In addition, the Duce “restricted the work of Protestant missions in Italy and forbade the construction of a mosque in Rome.”[21] At the same time, the continual threat of a Marxist revival in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia meant that the Church began to express more sympathy towards Mussolini’s government and the Pope even ordered Italy’s most anti-Fascist priest, Don Sturzo, to leave the country immediately. Meanwhile, Italy’s second largest party, the Popolari, went into severe decline as “the ‘clerical-fascists’ rallied”[22] behind the Mussolinian cause. But most notably, however, whereas the Nazis had merely their Concordat with Rome to further strengthen their totalitarian regime, the February 1929 Concordat between Italian Fascism and Catholicism was a fundamental tenet of the regime’s very existence. Taking into account the fact that Church and State had been at loggerheads ever since Italian troops stormed Rome in 1870, this was perhaps Mussolini’s finest achievement. Whilst the Vatican “criticised the Fascist use of violence and knew Mussolini to be perfectly responsible for it”[23], the Duce eventually managed to convince his spiritual counterparts that he was prepared to compromise in order to solidify their mutual relationship.

In Germany, however, things were far from amiable and Christianity’s growing opposition to National-Socialism saw Hitler launch a plethora of repressive measures, each designed erode its influence once for all. But what actually led the unbridgeable gulf between churches, which, by 1945, had caused Pope Pius XII to describe the Third Reich as

“the arrogant apostasy from Jesus Christ, the denial of his doctrine and of his work of redemption, the cult of violence, the idolatry of race and blood, the overthrow of human liberty and dignity.” [24]

Firstly, the Hitlerian strategy of large-scale persecution against Christians was aided by the establishment of a pseudo-religion, something which had initially been tried as early as 1932 with the formation of the so-called ‘German Christians’ movement, a Nazi church loosely based upon Protestantism. This group had been established by the NSDAP itself, although its attempts to interfere with the chief tenets of Christian doctrine failed miserably when the Confessional Church’s “opposition to the totalitarian claims of the Nazi regime implied a fundamental challenge”[25] to the attempted Nazification of Christianity. The guiding spirit of this Protestant resistance to Nazi rule was the Reverend Martin Niemoeller, the outspoken leader of the Pastor’s Emergency League and a man who had become a national hero due to his daring exploits as a U-boat commander during the First World War. Despite his initial support for National-Socialism, Niemoeller soon vigorously opposed any attempt to undermine what he saw as the vanguard of authentic German Protestantism. As a result, by the end of 1935 the regime had arrested around 700 Confessional Church pastors and either murdered or thrown many of its leading representatives into Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The leading German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also became a martyr to the Protestant cause and, after a series of beatings at the hands of the Hitler Jugend and a bomb attack on his home, on 1st July 1937 Niemoeller himself was arrested for making inflammatory sermons and interned in Berlin’s Moabit Prison before being fined DM2000 and imprisoned for a further seven months for “abuse of the pulpit”[26].

Meanwhile, Catholic bishops had voiced their own concern about the Hitler Government. In 1937, just four years after the Concordat, the Church declared that

“instead of the much wished-for friendship, there has developed an ever-growing struggle against the Papacy, a struggle carried out in writings and speeches, in books and study courses, in organisations, schools and camps.” [27]

In addition, Catholics were alarmed at the Nazi euthanasia programme and then, in 1941, Bishop Galen of Munster attacked “the murder of all unproductive people, that is to say, the incurably sick, people incapable of work, cripples, people who have become invalids through work or through the war, a principle which will licence the murder of all of us when we become senile and unproductive.”[28] But whilst some Nazis called for Galen to be hanged for his alleged manipulation of public opinion, Hitler remained characteristically undeterred. He realised, however, that a more concrete solution was required to deal with his Christian adversaries in order to bring an end to the provincial influence of religion and, in particular, the growing threat of Protestantism. The Fuhrer instructed Alfred Rosenberg – a committed pagan who had been influenced by the Occult theories of the nineteenth-century Thule Society – to create what became known as the National Reich Church of Germany. The hidden agenda behind Rosenberg’s attempt to replace Christianity by transforming Hitler and the NSDAP into figures of idolatrous worship, is clearly detectable throughout his thirty doctrinal articles. Led by Reich bishop Ludwig Mueller, the National Reich Church rejected “the strange and foreign faiths imported into Germany”[29] and, due to the fact that Mein Kampf was considered to be “the greatest of all documents”[30], ordered “the cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible”[31]. Rosenberg’s articles also stated that “the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and crypts … and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the Swastika.”[32] But most notably, the real intentions of the NSDAP leadership were characterised by the fact that the new ‘religion’ was to be granted bureaucratic powers to “control all churches within the borders of the Reich”[33]. Not only was this latter clause designed to curb the influence of the Catholic Church, but also the various Protestant denominations. Rosenberg’s superficial declaration of principles was only the latest in a series of pronouncements made by a government which was particularly fond of imitating the methodology of Christian ritual. Its huge Nuremburg rallies gave the Party an annual opportunity to indulge in a spectacular display of neo-paganism and hero-worship, thus consolidating its elevation of the fuhrer-princip. Meanwhile, of course, at spiritual centres like Castle Wewelsberg Hitler’s Schutzstaffel (SS) developed its own mysterious induction ceremonies, with many of them involving ancient runic symbols combined with a generous helping of mystical, semi-religious imagery designed and interpreted by leading Occultists like Guido Von List and Karl Maria Wiligut. But only one ‘god’ was permitted in Nazi Germany, and that was Adolf Hitler. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Martin Bormann declared Christianity to be fundamentally irreconcilable with National-Socialism and dismissed it along with “the harmful influence of astrologists, soothsayers, and other swindlers”[34]. The gulf had become a chasm.

But whilst the relationship between religion and German politics was markedly different to that which had initially existed between Church and State in Italy, the Vatican soon grew tired of Mussolini’s opportunism. In the aftermath of that historical Concordat, the Duce arrogantly claimed that “the Church, as a result of their treaty, was no longer free but subordinate to the State: he heretically referred to Catholicism as, in origin, a minor sect that had spread beyond Palestine only because it was grafted onto the organisation of the Roman Empire.”[35] He also described the Papacy as something which must “be rooted out once and for all”[36], announced that the Italian people “were anti-clerical at heart, and if he gave the word, were ready to get rid of the Pope for good”[37], and even stated that Islam “was perhaps a more effective religion than Christianity.”[38] So it seems that, despite the close links which had once existed between the Fascist Grand Council and the Vatican, Mussolini at least shared something with his Austrian counterpart: both men had used the Catholic Church for their own ends. However, Mussolini’s crude insincerity and increasing mockery of the Church led to a great deal of bitterness among many of its leading figures, a matter which saw the Italian leader confiscate “more issues of Catholic newspapers in the next few months than in the previous seven years.”[39] Pope Pius XI also criticised the government for its suppression of the Catholic Action group and the fact that Mussolini had ordered the closure of Catholic youth clubs.

On 5th July 1931, the Pope published an encyclical – Non Abbiamo Bisogno – which made “a direct refutation of the Fascist claims for a monopoly on the education of youth.”[40] By the time Mussolini had fallen from grace, the disastrous results of his attempts to appeal to all and sundry by refusing to adhere to a fixed set of political principles were perhaps best characterised by the semi-anarchic, anti-clericalism of the Republic of Salo. Although Mussolini’s final months were spent trying to convince the Church that he had returned to the spiritual fold, “he still had little time for the priests and sacraments of the Church, and for a time (though he tried to deny the fact) encouraged a group of excommunicated priests who were threatening schism with Rome.”[41]

To conclude, it has been found that the Nazis did, indeed, differ from their Italian cousins on the question of their attitude towards the churches. Although Hitler was a Catholic by birth, it was the atheistic Mussolini who managed to cultivate a close working relationship with the Vatican. Similarly, another paradox exists in the fact that whilst the Nazis attempted to win the support of Christians by including a reference to religious matters in their original programme, Hitler soon rejected Christianity altogether. Meanwhile, whilst the original programme of the Fascist Party did not seek to court the Catholic Church, as time wore on Mussolini found it increasingly difficult to ignore a universal religion so peculiarly Italian and the two were soon to become heavily intertwined in the years that followed. Furthermore, whilst Hitler had openly persecuted the various Christian denominations in Germany before establishing his own religious substitute (albeit one which sought to impose itself upon others, rather than seek to convert), despite his occasional criticism of the Vatican the Duce had never resorted to such hostile means and, on the contrary, it was the Church which came to reject him. There were also, however, two important similarities between Fascism and National-Socialism. Apart from the fact that the German and Italian Concordats were used by their respective governments to control the Church, the Nazi regime wished to incorporate all religions within its concept of the national community (something which obviously alienated the more Calvinistic elements of individualistic Protestantism). In the case of Italian Fascism the State’s objectives were extremely similar in that, whilst Mussolini had originally “sought to secure the full endorsement of Fascism by the Vatican (…) he had since learnt the need for greater governmental control over religion.”[42] In short, Mussolini had failed to convert the Church to Fascism just as Hitler had failed to make a lasting success of his own religious cult. It is perhaps significant, therefore, that whilst Nazism and Fascism have since been eradicated, the various denominations which resisted such ideologies continue to prevail.


1. Hitler, Adolf; Mein Kampf (James Murphy Edition, 1942), p. 174.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Mack Smith, Denis; Mussolini (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1982), p. 8.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 16.
7. Grunberger, Richard; A Social History of the Third Reich (Penguin, 1974), p. 548.
8. Feder, Gottfried; The Programme of the NSDAP (B.P. Publications, 1980), p. 20.
9. Ibid., p. 50.
10. Ibid., p. 17.
11. Ibid., p. 17.
12. Ibid., p. 18.
13. Noakes, Jeremy & Pridham, Geoffrey; Documents On Nazism, 1919-1945 (Jonothan Cape, 1974), p. 369.
14. Susmel, E. & D. (ed.); Opera omnia di Benito Mussolini (Florence, 1951), Vol. 14, p.193.
15. Mack Smith, op. cit., pp. 44-45.
16. Susmel & Susmel (ed.), op. cit., Vol. 16, p. 212.
17. Mack Smith, op. cit., p. 50.
18. Noakes & Pridham, op. cit., p. 188.
19. Ibid., p. 190.
20. Ibid.
21. Mack Smith, op. cit., p. 65.
22. Uomini, G. Bastianini; Cose, fatti: Memorie di un ambasciatore (Milan, 1959), p. 26.
23. Ibid., p. 161.
24. Pius XII, Pius; Speech to the Sacred college, 2nd. June 1945.
25. Noakes & Pridham, op. cit., p. 369.
26. Shirer, William L.; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Secker & Warburg, 1970), p. 239.
27. Ibid., p. 371.
28. Ibid., p. 308.
29. Ibid., p. 240.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Mosse, George L.; Nazi Culture (Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), p. 247.
35. Mack Smith, op. cit., p. 162.
36. Ibid., p. 222.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid.
39. Ibid., p. 162.
40. Kent, Peter C.; The Pope and the Duce (St. Martin’s Press, 1981), p. 120.
41. Mack Smith, op. cit., p. 311.
42. Ibid.


D. A. Binchy, Church and State in Fascist Italy, (Oxford University Press, 1941).
Franz G. M. Feige, The Varieties of Protestantism in Nazi Germany (Toronto Studies in Theology, 1990).
Saul Friedlander, Pius XII and the Third Reich (Chatto & Windus, 1966).
Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1968).
Klaus Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, two volumes (SCM Press, 1977/8).

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