Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich and others were all drawn to Nazism after rejecting their Catholic faith. Were they searching for a new saviour?


There is a well-known story about the novelist Evelyn Waugh. He was once very rude and his hostess remonstrated: “How can you behave so badly – and you a Catholic!” Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” We remember this riposte both because it is redolent of Waugh’s mordant humour and because it reminds us that, without grace, we would all “hardly be a human being”.

But it is the shocked reaction to Waugh’s behaviour that interests me. His hostess had assumed a higher standard of behaviour on the part of Catholics than for others. This should be a chastening reminder. We boast of the holiness of the great saints of the Church, at the same time reminding those outside it that we are the historical Church founded by Christ himself. We should not be surprised when outsiders are scandalised when we lapse from grace. Like Waugh’s friend, they know, because we have told them so, that we have supernatural aids to help us do battle against the common vices of humanity. Thus when we fall their dismay is all the greater.

Seen in this light, the active complicity of men from a Catholic background in senior positions of authority during the Third Reich is particularly shameful, forcing one to ask the question: is there any truth to the allegations, often put forward by the Church’s critics, that Catholics were particularly vulnerable to fascist dictators such as Hitler because of their respect for hierarchy and authority, the Church’s emphasis on obedience, the horror felt towards atheistic communism and so on?

Although it should be emphasised that notorious public personalities, men such as Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich, Frank, Streicher and Höss – as well as Hitler himself – had all long lapsed from the practice of their faith, one must reluctantly concede it is likely that, having rejected a powerful religious system such as Catholicism, they were particularly vulnerable to filling the void by embracing an alternative and false “faith”, equally demanding and potent. In examining these men this seems to be a common thread.

It is an old canard, regularly trotted out, that “Hitler was a Catholic”, as if his crimes can somehow be laid at the feet of the Church. Yet by the time Hitler entered adult life he had long rejected the religion of his childhood. The head of this idler and fantasist, who lived in Viennese doss-houses and struggled to sell his postcard sketches, was filled with a toxic mixture of extreme German nationalism, resentment against the bourgeoisie, in particular the academicians who hadn’t recognised his “artistic genius”, and growing hatred of Jews.

Hitler’s loathing of the Church is well documented. During negotiations preceding the Concordat of 1933 between the Holy See and Germany, he arrested 92 priests and closed down nine Catholic publications. He knew the Church’s teachings stood in implacable opposition to the Nazi ideology. David G Dalin, author of The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, records that Pius XII regarded the Nazis as “diabolical” and commented that “[Hitler] is capable of trampling on corpses”. So much for Hitler’s relationship with the Church.

But what of the henchmen who enthusiastically endorsed his poisonous creed? Heinrich Himmler, minister of the interior and head of the SS, is one of the most notorious. From a comfortable, Catholic, middle-class family in Munich, where his father was headmaster of the Wittelsbach Gymnasium (grammar school) and his uncle a Jesuit priest, Himmler imbibed the virtues of discipline and conscientiousness that were to help him organise the SS into a ruthlessly efficient organisation. In The Himmler Brothers by Katrin Himmler, his great-niece, we learn that he joined the Nazi Party early, as did his two brothers and his parents, who were dazzled by the reflected power and status of their middle son.

Like Hitler, Himmler admired the Church’s administrative organisation and the structure of his crack troops was influenced by it. There were special ranks and uniforms, insignia and regalia, pseudo-religious rites and rituals and the demand for obedience: a perverted reflection of features of the Church. As with Hitler, Himmler had discarded Catholicism as a young man, replacing it with a cranky mixture of homeopathy, spiritualism and the occult. In 1924 he was exulting that Hitler’s speeches were “magnificent examples of the German and Aryan spirit”.

Joseph Goebbels, minister of public enlightenment and propaganda, provides a more interesting case history than the colourless Himmler. His brilliant use of propaganda, whether in posters, films, newspapers, photography, radio and cinema, pays malign tribute to the Church’s own skilful use of word and image to spread her teachings. The 1934 Nuremberg rally, which was carefully stage-managed and choreographed and which became the subject of Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Triumph of the Will, bears witness to Goebbels’s understanding of the potency of the Catholic liturgy he had been familiar with since his childhood. Goebbels’s parents were faithful, working-class Catholics who found their son’s highly self-centred and erratic behaviour difficult to understand.

According to Hugh Trevor-Roper, who edited Final Entries 1945, Goebbels’s last diaries, his life was emotionally empty until he discovered Hitler. “Thereafter he lived on Hitler … Left to himself his only ideal was destruction … hymns of hate against the bourgeoisie the Bolsheviks, the Jews.” It is salutary to note the pseudo-religious language Goebbels used when describing meeting Hitler for the first time: “resurrection”, “sacrifice” and “faith” suggest that, having lost the faith of his childhood, he found a new and perverted alternative in his hero-worship of Hitler.

Reinhard Heydrich was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. (He chaired the Wannsee Conference in 1942, which formalised plans for the “Final Solution”.) Heydrich came from a highly cultured and musical family and was baptised a Catholic at the behest of his devout mother. Hitler, no doubt approvingly, called him “the man with the iron heart”. Similarly, Hermann Göring, minister of aviation, had a Catholic mother to whom he was close. Yet, echoing the kind of language used by Goebbels, he was to proclaim that “God gave a saviour to the German people. We have faith, deep and unshakeable faith that [Hitler] was sent to us by God to save Germany.”

Other formerly Catholic members of the Nazi high command include Arthur Seyss-Inquart, in charge of the Netherlands between 1940 and 1945 and responsible for the deportation of Jews in that country; he was condemned to death at Nuremberg. More notorious still is Hans Frank, the “butcher of Poland”, where all six of the Nazi specialised death camps were situated. A clever boy from an unhappy home, he abandoned his faith as an adult, falling under Hitler’s spell in 1919. In his memoirs, written in prison, he blamed Hitler for his own misdeeds, writing: “Hitler was the devil. He seduced us all that way.” Of all the men condemned at Nuremberg Frank alone showed some remorse for his crimes. Under the influence of a US prison chaplain he was reconciled to the Church before he was hanged.

Other ex-Catholic Nazis include Klaus Barbie, known as the “butcher of Lyon”, and Amon Göth, the “butcher of Płaszów”, whose crimes are depicted in the film Schindler’s List. Julius Streicher, from a large, close-knit Bavarian Catholic family, easily shrugged off his faith in adult life. Condemned at Nuremberg, he had been the publisher of the rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, which constantly incited extermination of the Jews. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, also sentenced to death, had been the police chief of the Waffen-SS, serving under Himmler. Having discarded Catholicism, he described himself, curiously, as Gottgläubig, ie believing in God, but outside a particular religious affiliation.

Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, the most infamous of all the concentration camps, related in prison that his Catholic upbringing had been harsh. “I had to do penance over the slightest misdeed,” he recalled. The militaristic discipline of his father instilled in him the central role of “duty” in life. He was tried in Warsaw. Four days before his execution he acknowledged that “I have sinned gravely against humanity … May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done.” Like Frank, he was reconciled to the Church.

This is a roll call of degradation. If these men had not come across the malign, magnetic personality of Hitler they would most likely have led undistinguished, relatively blameless lives. Nonetheless, I conjecture that their Catholic faith would have been essentially moribund; the moral and spiritual bankruptcy they displayed did not come about overnight. Other factors, well-known to historians of the period, should be mentioned in this context: the First World War, which had led to the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the rise of the Right in Germany; the economic instability of the Weimar Republic, during which the middle classes saw their savings wiped out; and fear of the rise of atheistic communism.

It must also be said that there were certain anti-Semitic elements in the German Catholic Church. The Great War brought cynicism and disillusionment in its wake. The old certainties had been destroyed and there was a yearning after strange gods. In his book Sacred Causes, historian Michael Burleigh quotes a Franciscan friar, Erhard Schlund, who in 1924 commented that in Germany there were many people “who preferred Wotan to Christ”. Hitler’s love for Wagnerian operatic mythology is well attested. The quotations from his principal henchmen indicate that, having rejected their Catholic heritage, they still yearned for a saviour. They fell, as the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, for “the spirit of the Antichrist”.

Victor Klemperer, who wrote a study of the Nazi debasement of language in his book The Language of the Third Reich, concluded that the party deliberately set out to be an alternative religious cult, with its spectacles “a mixture of religious and theatrical ceremony”. Yet none of this fully explains the spectacular fall from grace of these men in Hitler’s entourage. They deliberately chose to do evil. Behind this choice one might reflect on flawed personality types, in the case of Goebbels; merely conventional, outward piety, as with Himmler; or an unhappy childhood, as with Hans Frank. However, as the writer AN Wilson has observed, many boys throughout history have been beaten by their fathers – yet they don’t grow up to become a Hitler. Ultimately it remains a mystery of ill will, freely chosen.

In contrast to the scandal of their shameful behaviour, it should be noted that some Germans chose to act differently. In his memoir of childhood, Not Me, the historian Joachim Fest reflected on his father, Johannes, a gymnasium headmaster who refused to join the Nazi Party when it came to power in 1933, with the consequence that the family suffered considerable hardship. Selecting the four qualities that contributed to his father’s strength of personality, Fest described them as loyalty to the ideals of the Weimar Republic; the traits of duty and honour imbibed from his Prussian background; membership of the cultured German middle classes; and a strong Catholic faith. This last is the key. After all, Heydrich was a fine violinist; Himmler and Höss sincerely believed in doing their duty; Goebbels was literary. But having discarded their faith they had no longer had a moral or spiritual compass. Without this everything else became merely a civilised veneer.

Francis Phillips is a book reviewer and blogger for the Catholic Herald