As a lifelong pacifist, I’ve never been a fan of war books. Indeed, war seems to be to an utterly useless waste of life and a source of herculean suffering. The fact that wars happen, and books about them depress me, causes me to avoid them. Still, Derek Hastings’ Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism is less about war and more about, as the subtitle phrases it, Religious Identity and National Socialism. As I read through this history of the early Nazi movement, it occurred to me that this was probably the first actual book I’ve ever read about it. My knowledge of the Nazis had previously come from articles, movies, and documentaries. And Hogan’s Heroes. Being largely of germanic pedigree, I suppose I bear some residual guilt. I have to remind myself that my ancestors had left Europe before Germany had even existed as a unified state. I like to think they would’ve left during the rise of the Nazis, if they hadn’t already left generations before.
In any case, I had no idea of how the Third Reich dealt with organized religion. I have heard anecdotal opinions from time to time that the Catholic Church should have been stronger in its condemnation of the atrocities that wartime Germany perpetrated, but I had no sense of their official outlook toward each other. Hastings makes clear that although Catholicism and Nazism came to distrust each other implicitly, at the beginning of the Nazi movement they were considerably more chummy. In fact, anti-Semitism was something they had in common. Many of the early member of the party were Catholics—some of them priests—who felt an accord with the developing ideology. As Hitler’s rise to power increased, his personal antipathy to Christianity widened the growing gap between his own outlook and that of the early Catholic Nazis.
The book has no schadenfreude for the church, however. This is academic history. As Hastings notes, few studies have focused on the early developments of Nazism. In today’s political climate, that struck a chord with me. It seems vitally important to be aware of how such movements start so that we can recognize them as they attempt to rise again. I have little confidence, reading the news, that we are any better in the 2010s than people were in the 1920s when political instability, economic distress, and hatred of those who were different led to a reactionary, fascist regime. Could it happen again? I look around at a culture in love with guns and endless, selfish gain, and distrust of those of different ethnic origins and I wonder. The early stages are, I think, the most crucial to recognize. Surely no German Catholics could’ve anticipated just what Nazism would become.