Having grown up in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and having been conscripted into the Hitler Youth, you’d think Pope Benedict would have a firmer grasp on the German history of that period. Yet his groundbreaking visit to the U.K began with a clear and stern warning that excluding religion from public life could lead to the “atheist extremism” of the Nazis and Soviet Russia.
It’s not unexpected for any religious leader to try to steer people away from atheism. That’s to be expected. But the notion that atheism had anything to do with the rise of the Nazis or Soviets is simply wrong.
In the case of the Soviets, the cause and effect is backwards. Atheism in the populace didn’t open the door for Lenin. Rather, Lenin went to great lengths to stamp out religion in the populace. Karl Marx famously said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Marxism views religion as competition for political power, and hence wants it eliminated. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Orthodox church was a wealthy and influential organization. It was a force to be reckoned with, and Lenin treated it as such. Religion was deemed unconstitutional and churches were confiscated or destroyed. Atheism didn’t give rise to the Soviets. The Soviets gave rise to atheism—by force.
As for the Nazis, the notion they were atheists seems a more recent invention, although not one unique to Pope Benedict. In reality, Hitler and the Nazis masterfully used Christianity to fuel their rise to power.
In 1933 Hitler stated, “The National Government… regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life.” Biographer Ian Kershaw wrote that Hitler used his “ability to simulate, even to potentially critical Church leaders, an image of a leader keen to uphold and protect Christianity.” Eventually, Hitler even began to view himself as a spiritual icon. He stated, “We are not a movement, rather we are a religion. I’m going to become a religious figure.”
Granted, Hitler wasn’t adhering to the teachings of the Catholic church or any other Christian denomination. Instead, he was using Christianity as a tool to manipulate the German people. Even to the point of rationalizing that in exterminating the Jews he was the avenging hand of God, seeking retribution for the death of Jesus. In that light, it’s understandable that Christians now want to distance themselves from Nazi spirituality, but that hardly makes the Nazis atheists.
It’s fair and reasonable for Pope Benedict to caution against atheism… or Hinduism, Buddhism, and Lutheranism for that matter. He is, after all, the Pope. But atheists are responsible for Soviets and Nazis like puddles and dancing (respectively) are responsible for rain.