Monday, September 27, 2010

Nazis, atheists and a Pope

With a title like that, you know this one has got to be interesting. Right? OK, maybe not. But this post will put me in the schizophrenic position of kicking the Pope in the arse and then picking him up and fetching him a cup of tea afterwards.

It may or may not have escaped your notice that the Pope recently visited the UK, an event that had the BBC falling all over itself to cover favourably. Anyway, whilst the child rape covering up pontiff was there he made a statement that was guaranteed to set off both the atheist and the historian in me.

So, what happened?

Here's the key part of his speech:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

I also recall the regime's attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny' (Caritas in Veritate, 29).

I'm sorry, what now? Coming from a man who was actually there in Germany during the Nazi period this seems a remarkable piece of ahistorical dumbfuckery. There are three choices here as far as I can tell:
  1. Ratzinger is knowingly lying.
  2. Ratzinger is a senile old fool who can't remember what happened and therefore should keep his mouth shut.
  3. Ratzinger has never read a history book on the period and doesn't have a clue what went on.
None paint a very flattering picture - and since he grew up there, was consripted into the Hitler Youth and the German armed forces and his father was an opponent of the Nazis it is hard to believe he didn't understand what went on, and he doesn't seem to have lost his marbles yet. So let's face it, he is knowingly lying.

So, what's the problem?

Well, here's just a sample of what Ratzinger got wrong, missed out or doesn't seem to understand:

  1. The Nazis did not try to eradicate God from society. Note footnote 63, which cites Hitler claiming in a speech to have stamped out the 'atheistic movement'. Odd for an atheist to claim that, don't you think?
  2. The Nazis punished anyone who resisted them, not just pastors and priests, as Ratzinger implies.
  3. The Catholic church in the Third Reich and occupied territories worked alongside/supported the Nazis on a great many things, as well as opposing them.
  4. Hitler claimed to be doing God's work a great many times, in private, in speeches and in Mein Kampf.
  5. The Nazis executed Max Sievers in 1944, he was head of the German Freethinkers League. (who, it must be noted, was also a communist) 
  6. Almost all of the people who worked for or with the Third Reich were Christians. That includes those slaugthering their way around Europe and ensuring the industrialised genocide of millions went smoothly.
  7. There is no such thing as atheist extremism.
  8. Nazism was Nazism, not atheism (room for misquoting/quote mining in that article).
  9. God and religion have many times in the past also led to, as he puts it, "a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny' " The Bible has, throughout history and more often than not with the blessing of the Church, been used to justify slavery and genocide after all.
  10. The Wehrmacht belt buckle carried the phrase "Gott mit uns" on it. In case you were wondering, it means "God with us". Seems strange for the armed forces of an extremist atheist regime to carry that on its uniform, doesn't it? Since Ratzinger was actually in the Wehrmacht it seems strange he never noticed this.
  11. The Nazis did what they did not because of atheism, but because of NAZISM. Duh...

Cor blimey, what a tosser


There is ample evidence out there that Hitler and the Nazis were not even remotely an atheist regime - that in fact they called on God or exploited Christian religion quite openly and regularly and that the relationship with the Catholic Church was complex at best. German anti semitism was fueled by Martin Luther (a leading figure in the foundation of Protestantism) after all and goes back further than that. The Nazis actually banned books that ridiculed the Christian religion or faith in God. If they were atheists, then they were really really shit at it.


It is also abundantly obvious that a great many atheists have, in response to this, jumped in the opposite direction and done their level best to try and pin it all on religion, particularly Christianity. It should be obvious that, not surprisingly, this is an exercise in dumb no better than Ratzinger's claims. I'll give an example that annoyed me later.

Sorry, history doesn't neatly fit into personal bias.

A great deal of resistance did come from Christian churches, based on their Christian theology, throughout occupied Europe and the Nazis certainly had no intention of letting the Christian churches exist without toeing the party line - they were to become a tool of the state once final victory was won. Many of the articles I've cited here make it quite clear that the reality is much more complicated than a few quotes and photographs show - the point is that if either 'side' wants to blame it all or almost all on the other guys, then both are wrong.

The Nazis didn't do what they did because they were Christian. They didn't do what they did because they were atheists. They did what they did because they were Nazis. Anyone who can't understand this has no bloody business talking or writing about it.

However however...

In the long run, the Pope was 'being more wronger', to coin a phrase. Germany was a Christian nation. As one of the Holocuast Memorial Museum links states:

A religious census taken in 1925 revealed that of an overall German population of 65 million, 40 million belonged to the main Protestant (Evangelical Lutheran) church, 21 million to the Roman Catholic church, and 620,000 to various smaller, mostly Protestant denominations.

Does Ratzinger think they all deconverted in 1933 and immediately became atheist?

Likewise, Austria was a Christian nation. Italy, whilst not a Nazi state, was an Axis power and almost entirely Catholic. France was a Catholic nation, the Netherlands Protestant, Poland Catholic. The list goes on - in general, the inhabitants of the Axis powers and of the occupied nations cannot be called truly atheist  (with the exception, not unarguable, of areas of the USSR). Yet, it was these Christians that formed the armed and paramilitary forces of the Third Reich and its allies. It was these Christians that collaborated as well as resisted. It was these Christians from occupied nations that joined the Wehrmacht to fight for Nazi Germany (about 2,000,000 of them by the end of the war). It was these Christians that rounded up millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists, Slavs and political opponents and systematically worked them to death, shot them enmass, gassed them and attempted complete industrial genocide.

Certainly there were atheists amongst them - but they were a tiny minority so small as to be almost unidentifiable, and the atheism of the Nazis leaders is far from established and clear. The horrors of the Second World War were not the result of 'athiest extremism' since they were perpetrated almost exclusively by Christians.

Clearly, a lack of a belief in God is not the reason for the atrocities committed by the Third Reich and its allies during the Second World War since, just to make sure everyone understands this point, the atrocities were committed by people who, almost entirely, identified themselves as Christians.

Anyone who would claim otherwise would be a moron or a liar. Or both.

That misused term: Nazi

And whilst we are on the topic, I'm going to get someting off my chest. Something that really really bugs the shit out of me:

People abusing the term Nazi.

As far as I can tell there are roughly 4 versions of this term in common and not so common use:

  1. The childish insult - "You're a Nazi" - generally applied to someone the idiot using the insult thinks is a big meany head. Usually someone restricting the activities of the idiot or generally being authoritarian. This one annoys me.
  2. The general stereotype - basically applied to anyone who was German in the Second World War, or anyone serving the Axis powers who committed an atrocity during the Second World War. Holy fuck this one annoys me.
  3. The literal narrow (and more accurate) one - Technically the most accurate usage, but also the most narrowly applicable one, it refers only to someone who was at some point a member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - the National Socialist German Workers' Party, more commonly called the Nazi Party.
  4. The more usable and harder to define one - This is the one I feel is most commonly used in academic work, and its the one I use and prefer - it includes number 3, but is broadened to include those who were not necessarily party members but who certainly acted in accordance with Nazi ideology and practise, and believed what members of the party did, and at the sametime narrowed to exclude those who joined the party but left it (and may subsequently haveve resisted it) when they saw what it was.

I despise the first two but in the interest of fairness have to admit I used them in my younger days, and I despise anyone who uses them now. To me they trivialise the nature of the Nazis and as we move further away from the actual events trivialising them is a dangerous direction to take. The second one I also dislike on the grounds that it is just wrong - not every German was a Nazi, not every Nazi was a German (Hitler was Austrian, for one). I also think it is the most insidious because it attempts, in a strange way, to excuse humanity of the atrocities committed.

Using 'Nazi' as a label for anyone who took part in the Holocaust is an attempt to dehumanise those participants - they were 'Nazis', they weren't like us. Wrong. They were exactly like us, they just believed different things - most of them were not even Nazis (by the time of its dissolution the Nazi Party had only 8.5 million members). Even the ones who were Nazis were still human. Hitler was a flirt and good with children - he wasn't some strange kind of demon or different species called a 'Nazi'. He was a human. When people use the term Nazi in this way they are trying to make the person somehow not human or substantially different, which is dangerous. If we forget that normal humans can do these things then we have learned nothing from history. By labelling everyone a Nazi we cover up the true nature of the Third Reich and what it did, and the term becomes meaningless. The fact is that a great many of the people involved in what the Third Reich did were not Nazis in the sense of either definitions 3 or 4 above - they were only following orders, remember? (Note for the reading impaired, that last bit was sarcasm).

Definition 3 is the most accurate for usage, but it leaves us with no term for those who acted as Nazis but didn't join the party, and it leaves us in the strange position of having to call people who ended up leaving the party and resisting the Third Reich, Nazis. And it would include people who joined the party because of coercion, fear or simple ambition, rather than a devotion to Nazi ideology. So whilst it is the more technically accurate, it is too restrictive for anything but scholarly works and can be misleading.

Definition 4 is the most useful and the one I tend to use, but the hardest to pin down since it is is both broader than 3 and in a way more restrictive - simply being a party member is not enough to be termed a Nazi, you have to act like one. Whatever that means.

Why was this important?

Because a few atheists, in response to his comments, have tried to imply or argue that the current Pope was a Nazi. The evidence they use makes this a laughable claim.

The argument goes something like this:

"I found this picture:

And he was in the Hitler Youth and then the Wehrmacht, therefore he must have been a Nazi or at least supported them."

When I first saw this picture I immediately thought something was fishy, so I Googled "Ratzinger Nazi salute" and clicked on the first link that was returned to find that sure enough the image was a cropped hoax, the full image is this:

Note - that first link is to the website of a full on nutter, but that hasn't stopped a well known Science Blogger using him as a source, as we'll see.

As for the argument - Bollocks. Being in the Hitler Youth doesn't make Ratzinger a Nazi. Unless you want to also call Hans Scholl a Nazi. Being in the Wehrmacht does not make Ratzinger a Nazi - the enlisted ranks of the Heer were even resistant to Nazi ideology - unless you are one of those annoying wankers who misuses the term 'Nazi'. A faked picture does not make Ratzinger a Nazi, especially since it was probably taken six years after the war, at his ordination.

Of course, since Ratzinger was also conscripted into the Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht it is doubly stupid to argue that makes him a Nazi. By that absurd logic that makes me still a Catholic and Ayaan Hirsi Ali still a Muslim. He had no choice, he was 14. How many policed states involved in a world war did you resist on your own at age 14?

But it gets worse. Greg Laden was apparently making something similar to this argument, but when someone pointed out that the first picture was wrong he used another one to try and claim/show that Ratzinger supported the Nazis (actually his post title says that the Pope was a Nazi). He used this one, taken from that nutters site:

Laden specifically stated " But then, it turns out that he WAS giving a real lie Nazi salute in a different picture." and then links to this picture on the head cases website! Yes that's right, proof that Ratzinger was a Nazi is a low quality version of a 70+ year old black and white photo of a bloke with his hand in front of his face that some random whack-a-loon has written 'Ratzinger' on. All that's missing is some wax crayons.


And he calls himself any of critical thinker/skeptic/scientist/scholar/at least half intelligent? He's an archeologist apparently. Is that the standard of evidence that applies in archeology? [EDIT ADDED 08/02/2012: Laden is an anthropologist, not an archaeologist. Still, replace the terms 'archaeologist' and 'archaeology' here with 'anthropologist' and 'anthropology' and the sarcasm still stands. Possibly more so.]

It isn't hard to find better quality versions of this photograph, here's one (halfway down the page):

Now correct me if I am wrong, but that bloke labelled as Ratzinger is clearly a fat middle aged guy. Ratzinger was 6 when the Nazis came to power, 12 when war broke out, 14 when conscripted into the Hitler Youth, 16 when drafted into the Wehrmacht and 18 when the war ended. So at what point was he photographed in his middle age, at a Nazi rally, with Joseph Goebbels (thats him on the right), who died when Ratzinger was 18? In this Secular Humanism article the caption for this photo states it was taken when the Third Reich reoccupied the Saarland, which occurred in 1935. When Ratzinger was 8.

Seriously. WHAT.THE.FUCK.

Are some atheists so soft skinned that when someone says something stupid about them they have to respond with something even more stupid to try and 'win'? Five minutes on Google was all it took to disprove the claim that Ratzinger was in these two photos making a Nazi salute - one was fake and the other doesn't include him - the other couldn't include him.

The excuses that Laden and his followers come up with have to be seen to be believed (including denying that anyone had proven the photo wasn't Ratzinger and implying therefore it might still be him). And they say our side is the one able to admit they are wrong when shown new evidence. Shit, they say we are the ones who are supposed to be good at evaluating the evidence in the first place. Not here apparently.

Knee jerk reactionism, personal bias and a willingness to believe whatever you think agrees with you without checking it - not the traits we should be exhibiting. If we are going to combat Ratzinger's accusations we shouldn't do it by acting just like him.

Sometimes I just feel like giving up.

So to sum up:

Holocaust definitely not the fault of atheism.
Nazis did what they did because of Nazism, not atheism.
Christians perpetrated most if not all of the atrocities of the Second World War - but not because they were Christian.
Christian churches far from having clean hands in the events of 1933 to 1945.
Pope probably not a Nazi. Just a senile old fool or lying bastard.
Some prominent atheists talk out of their arse too, and should know better.

There. That should just about piss everybody off.


  1. Excellent post, Jim.

    As you know, I was dumb enough to post that cropped photo of the teenaged Ratzinger on my blog. After your comment there, I updated it with the original as well as the cropped pic. I trust that it was abundantly clear that I hadn't been using it to imply Ratzinger was a Nazi. I also added a pic of the English football in 1936 in Germany giving the Hitler salute, just to emphasize that point - that not everyone who gave the salute was a Nazi.

    I didn't even bother pointing that out specifically, coz I assumed that was obvious to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with reality. Had I seen Greg Laden's idiotic blog post, I would've been more careful.

    Laden's use of the Nazi label is a tool borrowed directly from the war propagandist's toolkit, with the war propagandist's level of commitment to accuracy. It's as if Nazism was a substance which, should one come into contact with it, marks one for life as being of the devil, and less than human.

    It's no surprise that the pope tried to do that to atheists, and in fact it's probably one of the less damaging lies to come out of his mouth. But for someone as smart as Laden to use it, is really a bit much.

    Even if Ratzinger had've been an actual Nazi, there is no reason why he couldn't have renounced it, like so many intellectuals of that time were communists, only to eventually shame-facedly renounce that.

    History could well have taken a different turn and Hitler would've been seen as Stalin is seen today (i.e. his crimes only to be read of in certain history books). He wasn't the devil incarnate as he is made out to be today, and it wasn't obvious to everyone at the time, as shown by the fact he was nominated for (and nearly won) the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938.

    The war crimes (and especially the post-war crimes) of the Allies is also swept neatly under the carpet by the perpetuation of the "Nazi" label. (I am refering to things like the internment of more than a million disarmed German troops, many of them conscripts, in appalling conditions; mass expulsions of refugees to certain death in Russia; the needless enforcement of starvation rations most of Germany.)

    None of these issues can be objectively addressed until this idiotic branding of people as Nazis stops. As you point out, the Nazis were bad because of the crimes they committed, not because of some inherently bad "Naziness".

    Your point about dehumanizing the Nazis and thereby excusing humanity of their crimes is also an excellent point.

  2. I trust that it was abundantly clear that I hadn't been using it to imply Ratzinger was a Nazi.

    Yep, I got the point you were making, which is why I only had a go at Laden! The England football team really rammed it home as well, excellent find.

    Even if Ratzinger had've been an actual Nazi, there is no reason why he couldn't have renounced it

    That's the other thing that annoys me - IF he was (and I don't think he was), has he renounced it? Apparently. I thought our side were ok with changing positions upon re-evalution of the evidence?

  3. Laden is really being a bit of a fuckwit. He posted this statement: "...which does not obviate the fact that he was a Nazi along with most of his Christian-German compatriots of the time"

    There were about 8.5 million members of the Nazi Party in 1939, from a population of 80.6 million.

  4. Agreed - hard to believe his claim that he is an archeologist because he seems to know bugger all about history, except perhaps the Hollywood version.

  5. god job, gretings from Poland :)

  6. This bullshit popped up on the Atheist Ireland FB page and as frustrated as I was with it, I was buoyed temporarily by the stream of 'what a load of shite' comments that followed (I paraphrase...) including a link to this excellent article. I've felt like giving up too. Too many non-religious assume that their atheism causes a critical thinking gene to switch on as their god gene switches off.

  7. Thanks - its nice to know every now and then someone reads the blog and likes a bit of it!

    I do completely agree that there are some out there whose critical thinking starts and ends with religion, which makes them no better than the religious.

    What was worse in this case is Greg Laden claims he's an archaeologist and is one of the founders of Freethoughtblogs, so he should know better and should have been honest enough to admit his mistake.

  8. And I just went back to Laden's post on that matter (which I didn't at the time after writing this) and all he did back then was double down on it and accuse me of being wrong and an arse, as well as some type of blog police for asking him to admit he is wrong.

    What a fucking baby.

  9. Doh and double doh.

    My mistake. In replying in haste I incorrectly said Laden was a founder of Freethought Blogs, but I was thinking of Ed Brayton.

    AND, I also got the archaeologst bit wrong - he is an anthropologist. I will of course edit the original blog to show this correction.

    Look how easy it is to say you got something wrong, and to correct it...

  10. I thought of this post recently, on hearing that Laden was kicked off FtB for unsound blogging practices. No surprises there.

  11. Nazism, Catholicism, Atheism, Comunism, Islam, are not but devil's tools in order to kill, destroy an lie... And deprive humankind of God's truth :/

    1. Riiiiggghhhhtt.

      Presumably this "God's truth" is different to all the other "God's truth" that almost all other religions claim, because this is the real "God's truth"? And you can prove that too, of course?

      Nazism has nothing to do with "God's truth" because it is a political ideology, not a religious one. Same with Communism. Atheism (in simplistic terms) is a lack of belief in gods and has nothing to do with lies, destroying or killing. Catholicism uses the same holy book as you, assuming you are a christian of some kind. Cut from the same damn cloth, the lot of you. Islam is the same as any other religion because you know what does have to do with lying, killing and destroying?

      Religions - every single fucking one of them in one form or another.

      Now piss off and peddle your religious nonsense somewhere else.