CATHOLICISM & THE ROOTS OF NAZISM: Religious Identity & National Socialism, by Derek Hastings. 290 pages, illustrated. Oxford
Although numerous Catholic apologists have been concerned to deny it, it goes without saying that a mass political party organized in 85% Catholic Bavaria must have been, in some sense, compatible with Roman Catholicism.
And so it was. In “Catholicism & the Roots of Nazism,” Derek Hastings shows precisely how this worked and, following the failed putsch of 1923, how Nazism left Catholicism behind.
Bavarian Catholics before 1914 were deeply divided between “politicals,” allied to the Center Party and the Vatican; and “religious,” nominally non-political and nationalist. The religious Catholics were Jew-haters while the politicals were Jew-dislikers.
Obviously, the religious were likely adherents of a racist-nationalist political grievance party, of which there were many in Germany. Of these, only the DAP (later NSDAP) was overwhelmingly Catholic. Hastings persuasively traces the symbiotic growth of the alliance, dominated by the once-central figure of the Catholic Jew-hater Franz Schronghamer-Heimdal.
But it was not until 1923, when numerous priests became active recruiters in a hugely successful membership drive, that Nazism took off. Hitler then overreached, and the party went into temporary eclipse.
His alliance with the Lutheran bigot Ludendorff, combined with political failure, drove Catholics out of the revived party from 1924; but in the only real failing of Hastings‘ impressive account, this is not described as what it was -- the abandonment of Catholicism by Nazism, rather than the other way around.
The Nazis briefly (through 1926) allied with Protestant anti-semites, then gathered self-confidence and abandoned dependence on confessional politics altogether.
The conflicts between Nazi politics and German religion, however, were never concerned with the two great crimes we revile the Nazis for -- violent conquest and Jew-murder. The religions never objected to either. Schronghamer remained a popular, locally revered Catholic publicist up to his death in 1962.
Hastings asks -- as writers of dissertations have to do -- what is the significance of his research; and his answer is thoughtful.
But for an American reader in the 21st century, there is an additional significance to his thorough inquiry into the (one imagines) turgid files of Bavarian religious publications of the early 20th century. We are now told by American rightwingers that Nazism learned racism from Darwinism.
This is improbable. Bavaria was saturated in Catholicism not Darwinism. Hastings shows (without drawing attention to his feat) that justifications for anti-Jewish racism in the publications of the nascent Nazi party, and in non-Nazi publications by its allies, never mentioned Darwinism but derived their Jew-hatred entirely from traditional and ancient folk and religious sources.
This archival excavation goes back far before Drexler started the DAP, and even before Hitler moved to Munich.
In his introduction, Hastings reviews other scholars who have inquired into Nazi racism, and gives the back of his hand to Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis of a pre-existing “eliminationist” German Jew-hatred. This is strange, since Hastings’ own excavations find numerous eliminationist and even exterminationist statements from Bavarian Catholic apologists from before 1914.
In 1919, for example, Schronghamer wrote: “The salvation of the world can only come through the extermination of the world poison whose destructive capacities we recognize in the intellectual foundations of Jewry.” The word Hastings translates as extermination is unequivocal: Vernichtung, and many other Catholic apologists used it, too.
Goldhagen has been disparaged by many academics, but “Catholicism & the Roots of Nazism” goes far to show he got it right.