Religion of the Third Reich

Transformation of Religion from the 19th to the 20th Century: The Innerworldly Eschatology

Drawing the basic lines of the project ‘Religion of the Third Reich’, one will soon encounter the discussion whether the NS regime and ideology should be seen as highlights of atheism, a substitute religion, or even abuse of religion. On the other hand, the question arises whether the NS regime managed to integrate religious elements and relied to a large part on religious acceptance to found their power. An approach from the perspective of Religionswissenschaft is not bound to proceed from the assumption that institutionally framed religion is at the same time the only true, authentic religion, the more so given that in the aftermath of 1945, this institutionalized religion has apologetically constructed a historical perception of the Third Reich as struggle between church and state – the so called Kirchenkampf. The distinctive feature of my approach is that I perceive the social movement of National Socialism (NS) as a religious movement at the same time. At the head of this movement stood the NS regime in all its manifoldness, inconsistency and polycracy. Radical atheistic, voelkish, racist, anti-Semitic, millenarian or bündische groups associated themselves with NS, but the acceptance of ecclesiastically socialized groups was a crucial prerequisite of the NS state. To make my point very clear, the reverse is surely not that NS evolved from Liberal Christianity or Catholics became ‘willing executioners’ (Steigmann-Gall, Goldhagen). An analysis deriving from Religionswissenschaft postulates a wide and flexible definition of religion which covers atheism, as it does not reduce religion to a system of beliefs, which is evident in the reproach against political religion ‘lacking the transcendental reference’. Rather one has to ask: why and by whom is transcendence elevated to the determining criterion for religion or non-religion? The discourse about the supernaturalism of the man Jesus – see the Life-of-Jesus-research – unsheathes the problem’s long history. During the 19th century, an anticlerical lay theology and a new mythology (‘Neue Mythologie’) evolved in emphatic distance to academic and church theology but nevertheless on the matrix of protestant post-enlightment students (Aufklärungstheologie) who in many cases did not achieve at ecclesiastical office. This anti-clerical lay theology was strongly framed by the arising NS.

I will focus on master narratives which reveal the lopsidedness and reduction underlying the predominant Lutheran-Protestant-Prussian history of European religion which is led by vested interests. Up to today, one historical line often remains covered or underestimated: the innerworldly eschatology. One can distinguish multiple historical threads within it.

I will proceed from the model of history divided in Three Ages, which was first drafted by Joachim of Fiore. His Third (and last) Age is characterised by a sanctification of this world. While Joachim had seen himself on the verge of this eschatology, Franciscans adapted his concept and identified it with their group. It was carried on by Franciscan Spirituals, who later on were branded as heretics. In the following historical development, it is difficult to distinguish between chiliasm and Third Age, given their immanent similarities. Joachimites in any case centered around innerworldy sanctification, which was adapted by the Anabaptists and brutally persecuted by the Protestant Reformers. Calvinist conceptions and pietism or revivalism or awakening are associated with this movement. A second line starts with the manifesto of Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing‘s „The Education of Humankind (Die Erziehung des Menschen­geschlechts)“ in 1777/80. In this work, he draws on “the 13th century mystics” Joachim of Fiore and Meister Eckart who for him became church fathers and founders of a non-transcendent eschatology. The progressive, anti-clerical (‚freisinnig-spirituelle‘) theology has commonalities with both Liberal Theology and a national religion. This discussion peaked in Paul De Lagarde‘s speeches, expecially in his „Religion of the Future (Religion der Zukunft)“ (1878). The convergence of revolutionary attentism and apocalyptic fear in the last decades of the 19th century has already been subject to extensive scholarly analysis. While much emphasis is put on apocalyptic aspects, this period is mainly understood as crisis, as a moment of decision. This crisis, however, has to be seen in correspondence to the kairós, as the intensive discussion during the years of the Weimar Republic reveals: Do not miss the right moment, when the “Reich”, both the reign of Christ and the national movement, arises to prevail! Origin and destination of my research is the period from 1918-1945, respectively an outlook at the year 1968. My goal is to present a history of Third Reich Religion (Religionsgeschichte des Dritten Reiches) and its underlying processes of selection and reception – not just an account of the pre-text of 1933.

Affiliated Persons


Prof. Dr. Dr. Christoph Auffarth

Individual Researcher