Fringe religions helped propel rise of Nazis
Karla Poewe, an emerita professor who, as a little girl growing up in wartime Germany was forced to flee her home, attempted to get into the minds of pre-war Germans by immersing herself in a variety of archival material. She looked at letters, diaries, lecture notes, popular literature, and newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the correspondence between leading intellectuals and religious leaders of the day.
She presents her findings about this neglected chapter in German history in New Religions and the Nazis, published earlier this year by Routledge.
"The question I want answered is, 'Why did Germans support National Socialism in the first place? You can't ask a thinking person born during the war not to go over that history themselves, but personal experience is not enough," Poewe says. "You have to do the research."
Poewe spent nearly 10 years on the project, painstakingly translating thousands of documents to maintain the nuances inherent in the language of the day. No other single study of the subject has as much source material behind it. She looked at archival documents that have largely been ignored by English speaking historians, as well as correspondence that has only recently become accessible to scholars without restrictions.
Although she doesn't say so in her book, Poewe notes that many of the factors that contributed to Germany's drift toward Nazism are apparent today in countries under the sway of Islamic fundamentalists. "You have large populations of disillusioned young men, sensitized to violence, who deliberately fuse radical religious and political ideologies. This is a frightening combination and potentially a force to be reckoned with," she warns.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the defeated Germans increasingly saw capitalism, internationalism and "Jewish imperialism" as the principal hallmarks of their enemies, Poewe says.
Christianity, too, was viewed suspiciously, with its roots in the Jewish world; revisionist theologians therefore rewrote the tradition: Christ was Aryan, not Jewish, they said, He was heroic, but not divine, and most of the Gospels were unreliable except for Mark, the oldest.
"One of the dangers of liberal Christianity, where all sorts of interpretations are permitted, is that it can easily slip into becoming a new religion," Poewe says. "This is what happened. In a bid to rid Germany of what it saw as Jewish Christianity, several home-grown practices sprang up, including some that incorporated Icelandic and pre-Christian sagas, as well as ideas from German Idealism."
Although initially these new religions were separate and disorganized entities, they eventually came under the umbrella of what was known as the German Faith Movement. Hitler saw in the German Faith Movement a mechanism for transmitting and reinforcing the National Socialist worldview; "He shaped its followers into a disciplined political force but dismissed its leaders later when they were no longer needed," Poewe says.
Reading circles, which were small groups devoted to the study of books and ideas, were extremely popular at the time and one of the first avenues through which Germans began to pick up many of the philosophies of the new religions. "Many Germans were highly sophisticated," Poewe says. "But in the end they were just human beings muddling about who made some really bad choices – choices that led to disaster."
Poewe situates her work among a growing body of scholarship by Germans who grew up during the war and have long been asking the question, Why? "It has been difficult for us to speak about our own suffering in the face of the enormity of the Holocaust," she says. "We want to remain respectful of that, but German scholars are now writing childhood memories, they're writing books about the perpetrators of these crimes, and they're writing biographies."
Poewe was born in Königsberg, East Prussia. In August 1944, then three years old, she, her mother and five sisters fled the city when allied bombers attacked. The family temporarily moved to an estate in what is now eastern Poland. In February 1945 they were again on the move and stayed overnight outside Dresden on the night of Feb. 13; they watched in fear as the Allies destroyed the city in a firestorm.
Eventually they reached Werdau, east of Frankfurt. Over the next four years Poewe experienced hunger and witnessed the murder of civilians, rapes by Russian soldiers, and the suicide of an older cousin. For several months in 1947 she and her sisters lived in the Lutheran Orphanage of Telz outside Berlin. Her mother took her and her younger sister out of the orphanage and back to Werdau. This was the last time Poewe saw her other sisters for over 40 years. In 1948 her father returned from a Russian prisoner of war camp but died shortly after from gangrenous lungs.
"My generation and younger are now doing meticulous research about who actually did the killing," Poewe says. "The experiences are something you'll never be free of, so as a thinking person the only way to handle it, for me, is of course to research it and try to understand it."
For more information about New Religions and the Nazis, see the web site, www.nazireligions.com. To speak to Karla Poewe about her research, phone (403) 220-3280, or email [email protected], or contact Greg Harris, U of C media relations, (403) 220-3506, cell, 540-7306, or email [email protected].
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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