For many centuries, the grand legitimizer of hatred in our culture was called Religion. Then, after the great surfeit of the Wars of Religion, the power of religion to legitimize war and persecution began to fade. The more optimistic among the thinkers of the Enlightenment—and even the less optimistic in their more optimistic moments—were inclined to believe that war, persecution, and the spirit of intolerance would fade away along with the authority which had legitimized these things. The Age of Reason would, of its very nature, be an Age of Tolerance.

No need to labor the fact that that didn’t happen. What went wrong?

The main thing that went wrong, I think, is that “the Age of Reason” proved to be a misnomer. The older supernatural God had faded into the distance indeed, but it was not Reason, mostly, that took His place. It was new terrestrial creeds with new Revelations, and exponents who were often as arbitrary, as arrogant, and as fanatical as the worst of the old persecuting priests and monks.

The new terrestrial creeds were presented in various forms. But the most enduring, the most seductive, and the bloodiest by far of all the new terrestrial creeds is Nationalism. The cult of the Nation proved to be the most effective engine for the mobilization of hatred and destruction that the world has ever known.

It is often said that the growth of nationalism is a consequence of the French Revolution. In reality, it would be nearer the truth to say that the French Revolution is a consequence of the growth of nationalism. If you consult the principal textbooks in the English language about the French Revolution, you won’t find much about nationalism there. But if you read the principal documents of the French Revolution itself, you will find these to be saturated in nationalism. The very first political act of the Revolution is the creation of an entirely new body, the National Assembly, merging the old States-General, representing the different orders of society, into a body representative of the nation as a whole. And the Abbé Sieyès, proclaiming the need for this measure, does so in the language of totalitarian nationalism: “The nation exists before all, it is the origin of everything, it is the law itself.”

That was to be the doctrine of the Third Reich regarding the authority of the German Volk. And it is already present, fully formed, in 1789 in France. The nation has become God. In a petition addressed to the Legislative Assembly in 1792, this belief is explicit. “The image of the Patrie,” say the petitioners, “is the sole divinity which it is permitted to worship.” Permitted… The new religion is already just as intolerant as any of the old ones. And the new religion is already calling for blood. The indictment of the king is drawn up in nationalist terms: “dictating laws to the nation,” “designs against national liberty,” “trampling on the national cockade,” “blaspheming against the nation.” Robespierre, calling for the execution of the king, describes this as “an act of Providence nationale. Louis must die, because la Patrie must live.” And on the following day Louis’s head had fallen into the basket of the guillotine amid cries of Vive la Nation!

Subjectively, in the intentions of its protagonists, the Enlightenment was a movement of tolerance, and a tradition of tolerance is the most precious of its legacies, in the few regions and countries that have been irradiated by the Enlightenment. But even where it to a great extent prevailed, the Enlightenment never entirely dissipated the spirit of intolerance, collective hatred, and the urge to persecute. In many millions of minds and hearts, the effect of the Enlightenment was not to extirpate these dark forces, but to divert them into a new channel. The distancing of God, and consequent delegitimizing of monarchy, left an emotional vacuum which many people found intolerable. The gap, for many of these, was filled by a cult of the nation. We have seen the exaltation of this cult in the French Revolution. Henceforward, it was in the name of the nation that men would be most likely to feel it legitimate to hate and kill other men, and women and children.

The greatest concentration of murderous hatred ever attained on earth came about in our own century in the shape of Hitler’s Third Reich. And that concentration would not have been possible without the bonding of collective passion brought about by German nationalism.

It became distinctly unpopular, in the aftermath of the cold war, to draw attention to the fact that National Socialism was a malignant outgrowth of German nationalism. People affected by the climate of the cold war, including some scholars, liked to represent Nazism as some kind of inexplicable aberration, precipitated by the equally inexplicable ascendancy of a single individual, who happened to be a homicidal lunatic. The truth that National Socialism grew out of, and was sustained by, German nationalism had become unacceptable, because German nationalism had come to be needed, as an ally in the cold war. Perhaps we can come to see the past more clearly now with the new political perspectives of the late twentieth century. And it is important, in the context of our discussions here, that we should see the role of nationalism in making National Socialism possible. If we see that, we can also identify the general direction from which danger is most likely to come in the future.


The development of German nationalism into its manic and malignant forms after the First World War was a product of the tremendous ups and downs of modern German history. First there was triumph of a most spectacular order: military victory over France, followed by national unification. Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf, tells us how his youthful imagination was dominated, and national pride aroused, by contemplating pictures of these heady events. German nationalism, after 1870, took an especially triumphalist and militaristic form. The cult of the Volk was exalted to great heights. (And Volk had racist as well as national connotations.) Then, less than fifty years after the spectacular triumph, came no less spectacular humiliation: total military defeat at the end of the bloodiest war in history up to that date.

It is at that Nullpunkt of 1918 that the political career of Adolf Hitler, as a preacher of hatred and revenge, began. And what sustained him, and carried him to the top, was the hate-filled and vengeful nationalism of Germans. Jews were identified as a people who had pretended to be part of the Volk, and then stabbed the Volk in the back. And in this way the seeds of the destruction of the Jews of Europe were sown.

The clearest illustration of the power of nationalism in legitimizing the rise to power of the Nazis, and then their actions, consists of the language and actions of the Christian churches in Germany at that time. Followers of Jesus Christ might perhaps have been expected to manifest some disapproval of the greatest preacher and practitioner of hatred and revenge who ever walked the earth. But the Christian churches—with the exception of a few brave individuals—manifested no disapproval of Hitler and National Socialism. On the contrary, in statement after statement they hailed Adolf Hitler as the savior of the Volk. The reason was that the churches were so saturated in German nationalism themselves—as their statements showed—that they were incapable of offering any resistance to National Socialism, which was a particularly militant—and therefore particularly impressive—manifestation of German nationalism.

The infestation—it is nothing less—of German Christianity by German nationalism is most clearly seen in the Lutheran and Evangelical churches, which were more “German” than the German Catholics could allow themselves to be, at least in their doctrinal statements. The Protestant churches in Germany were virtually taken over by the Deutsche Christen: “German Christians,” with the accent on the “German”; nationalists and anti-Semites who openly demanded a Germanized and de-Judaized Christianity. But even some of the most respected Protestant theologians, who would not go the whole way with the Deutsche Christen, literally made belief in the German Volk an integral part of the Christian religion.

Gerhard Kittel (1888–1948), one of the more moderate of the German Protestant völkisch theologians, wrote, in his book Die Judenfrage (1933):

We must not allow ourselves to be crippled because the whole world screams at us of barbarism and a reversion to the past…. How the German Volk regulate its own cultural affairs does not concern anyone else in the world…. “Justice” is not an abstraction but something which grows out of the blood and soil and history of a Volk.

Paul Althaus (1888–1966), who has been described as a “Lutheran theologian of great stature in twentieth-century Germany,” is regarded as having held “the middle ground” among German theologians. This was a middle-grounder who could write: “We Christians know ourselves bound by God’s will to the promotion of National Socialism, so that all members and ranks of the Volk will be ready for service and sacrifice to one another” (1935). “In this knowledge we as believing Christians thank God our father that he has given to our Volk in its time of need the Führer as a ‘pious and faithful sovereign,’ and that he wants to prepare for us in the National Socialist system of government ‘good rule,’ a government with new ‘inner discipline and honor’ ” (1934). “As a creation of God, the Volk is the law of our life” (1937).

Enanuel Hirsch (1888–1972) has been hailed as “the last prince of Protestant theology.” Hirsch was certainly the most thoroughgoing of the exponents of a völkisch theology. In a book called The Essence of Christianity, published in 1939, Hirsch wrote:


We set our entire power of life and spirit on this, to bring on Volk and Reich into a healthy life-protecting order, and to create for them a durable and honorable existence in the circle of the white ruling peoples to which God has entrusted the responsibility for the history of humanity.*

There were certainly dissenters from völkisch theology; the most notable of these was Karl Barth, who had to leave Germany for Switzerland. But it was völkisch theology—or rather völkisch feelings, with a theology in thrall to those feelings—that dominated the German Protestant churches, not only under Hitler but even under the Weimar Republic, in which theology of that type helped to prepare the way for the advent of Hitler. The Volk was the carrier of God’s will in history, according to these theologians, and therefore a legitimate object of worship. Once you had brought yourself to believe that, it was only a short step further to believing that Adolf Hitler, the savior of the Volk, was the carrier of God’s will in history and a legitimate object of worship.

We have seen how deists, in the French Revolution, discovered their deity to be la nation. In Germany between the wars, professed Christians turned their churches into temples of the Volk. And the deity they worshiped turned out to be the Moloch which decreed the incineration of millions of innocent men, women, and children. The Christian churches saw the pogroms of the Kristallnacht taking place before their eyes and preserved a frigid and universal silence about what they had witnessed. Adolf Hitler, understandably, took that Christian silence for consent. It gave the green light for the preparation of the Holocaust.

I believe that German Christians could have averted the Holocaust, if they had spoken out as a body—or even if any sizable number of them had done so—against the persecution of the Jews, either at the time of the Kristallnacht or earlier. Or even, perhaps, later. They did protest vigorously, in 1940 and 1941, against the implementation of Hitler’s euthanasia program—which included the murder of “unfit” Gentile Christians—and Hitler, because of these protests, dropped his euthanasia program, in August 1941. He didn’t think he was dropping it. He thought he was deferring it until after the war. The same might well have applied to the Holocaust, had the Christian churches spoken out against the persecution of the Jews with the same vigor as they had shown in the case of euthanasia. But they were incapable of doing that, because the Volk came ahead of any Gospel message in their hearts and minds.

The Jews were seen as the enemies of the Volk. This powerfully reinforced traditional Christian anti-Semitism. The same people who had betrayed Jesus had also betrayed the Volk (with the Dolchstoss—stab in the back—in 1918). So most German Christians could readily reconcile what was left of their traditional Christianity with their new cult of the Volk, and with license given to hatred, revenge, and persecution. So the Christian churches of Germany came to give silent consent to the Final Solution.

There is one great might-have-been, and it concerns the Catholics of Germany. Several modern writers—both Catholic and non-Catholic—have argued that the position of German Catholics, in relation to Nazism, contrasts favorably with that of German Protestants. I agree that it does, but I don’t find the contrast quite as impressive as some of these writers appear to do. Certainly, before Hitler actually came to power, German Catholics appeared to be much less Nazified than their Protestant compatriots with their völkisch theology. Some have seen in this difference an index of a greater ideological propensity, on the Catholic side, to resist the Nazi form of ideology. Personally, I would be inclined to ascribe the difference more to Catholic confessional sluggishness, entrenched in segregated institutions, than to any other factor. In any case, the sequel does not suggest that the alleged differential in propensity was very marked, if indeed it existed at all.

When Hitler, having come to power, offered the Catholic Church the concordat for which it had been angling without success under both imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic, the Catholics—both in Germany and in the Vatican—snapped up the craftily presented bait with avidity. Thereafter German Catholics dumped the old Center party, which had served their interests for so long, and eagerly vied with German Protestants in demonstrations of loyalty to the Third Reich and—especially—to the person of the Führer, Saviour of Germany. It was a stiff competition between the Protestants and the Catholics and it would be hard to say which side won.

The Catholics were anxious to show themselves just as good German nationalists, every bit as völkisch as the Protestants. Völkisch meant nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic all at the same time. You were not accepted as being a true German nationalist unless you were also racist and anti-Semitic. Most German Catholics seemed to have had little personal difficulty passing those tests.

But there was one test the German Catholics could not pass, dearly though they might have liked to do so. They could not, as the Protestants did, adapt their doctrine, in order to accommodate the Volk. They were a branch of an international church. The head of the Church was an infallible foreigner, who lived in a foreign city, and who alone could tell German Catholics what to believe and what truths it was their duty to expound.

This is where the great might-have-been comes in. It concerns a “lost” encyclical, prepared on the orders of Pope Pius XI, but never delivered. The encyclical had the noble title Humani Generis Unitas, and it was directed against racism, anti-Semitism, and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. The draft was prepared, to the Pope’s specifications, by two Jesuits, an American and an Austrian, and in July 1938 submitted by them to—or, as they believed, through—the general of their order, Wladimir Ledochowski. Ledochowski was a “conservative,” in the sense of being a strong anticommunist, who saw Nazi Germany primarily as a barrier against the expansion of Soviet power and influence. He therefore delayed its transmission. Pius XI died in 1939 without having approved it, and probably without having seen it. His successor, Pius XII—who shared the opinions of Ledochowski—read the draft encyclical, but declined to approve it. During his pontificate—which outlasted the Third Reich—Pius XII never, while Hitler was alive, published anything that could have angered Hitler.

Might the publication of the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas have averted the Holocaust? I believe that it might. The protests of the Christians against euthanasia did avert the mass murder of Gentiles who were physically and mentally “unfit.” The German Catholic hierarchy was obedient to the head of the Church, and the bishops had shown themselves willing even to incur the wrath of their Führer, over Pius XI’s 1937 pastoral letter, “Mit Brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Concern”). “Mit Brennender Sorge” was much milder than Humani Generis Unitas had been intended to be, but even so it was the strongest remonstrance ever delivered to the Third Reich by any Church leader (with the exception of the churchmen of Allied countries from 1939 on). And the pastoral letter contained a sentence in which Pius XI put his finger on the source of all the evil, when he condemned “the idolatrous cult of Volk and Race!” Yet the German bishops smuggled “Mit Brennender Sorge” into Germany and had it read out in all Catholic churches. The Nazis were livid with rage, and for some days the German press and radio, under Nazi control, rang with scurrilous abuse of Pope Pius XI. But then Hitler put a stop to the press campaign. He backed away from confrontation with the Catholic Church over “Mit Brennender Sorge,” just as he was later to back away from confrontation with the churches over euthanasia.

The reason, in both cases, was the same. Hitler wanted to avoid confrontation with the churches, because he thought this was bad for the morale of Germany’s armed forces. This was always a primary concern with him, because it was on the high morale of those forces that the expansion of his own power depended. For that reason I believe he would also have backed away from Humani Generis Unitas. Backing away, in that case, would have meant soft-pedaling the persecution of the Jews for the time being, and postponing the Final Solution until after the war—as was done with euthanasia. And that would have meant the saving of millions of lives.

We cannot know for certain. But what is certain is that the failure to publish Humani Generis Unitas—that is, the failure of the churches even to try to stop the persecution of the Jews—was one of the greatest and most tragic missed opportunities in history.

I have been talking about Germany, because it was in Germany in the present century that there occurred, under the auspices of excited nationalism, the greatest explosion of murderous hatred in human history. But I wouldn’t want you to think that I am accusing the German people of a peculiar propensity to hatred. No; it was to Germany that the events happened which produced the explosion: intoxicating victory, followed by humiliating defeat. If it had been England, not Germany, that was defeated in the First World War, it would have been England, not Germany, that would have been filled with hatred and revenge, and looking for scapegoats.

In conclusion, I should like to stress that all of us who are concerned with the potential for hatred in our societies should keep a wary eye on nationalism, and, in particular, be watchful for signs of increasing hubris in nationalism anywhere. Some of us think we have seen a few such signs in American nationalism, during the past decade, and most conspicuously during the recent presidential election campaign. Like many others, I did not at all like the combination, in that campaign, of strident displays of nationalism—in the so-called issue of the Pledge to the Flag—with subliminal appeals to racist feelings—the Willie Horton case. That combination of nationalism and racism has a little taste of the old heady völkisch cocktail, has it not?

Please don’t mistake my intention there. I am not trying to assimilate George Bush to Adolf Hitler. What I am suggesting is that Bush, during the campaign, and for limited electoral purposes, flirted with those same dark forces which, in another land, and in very different circumstances, brought Adolf Hitler to power.

I think that when we see any powerful person start such a flirtation we have a right and a duty to call on them, by whatever means are available to us, to break it off. For if such a flirtation should ever develop into something more permanent—a liaison dangereuse and the most dangereuse of all liaisons—then it might be too late to call a halt to the resurgence of hatred and persecution.

This Issue

April 27, 1989