Josh Klein: Can we compare America with pre-Hitler Germany? Only if we are willing to examine Christian complicity

In a recent article published by the Deseret News, Brigham Young University professor Evan Ward draws a compelling parallel between the beleaguered state of interwar German democracy and our own.

His argument is that the rise of fascism in Germany, and simultaneous decline of democracy, was preconditioned by a collapse of public trust in the mainstream institutions of democracy such as the moderate political parties of the Weimar Republic. As they lost trust in democracy, they turned to the radical solution offered by Hitler’s Nazi movement.

Fair enough. But perhaps we can benefit from a more uncomfortable analysis that begs the question why Germans lost trust in democratic institutions. And, even more importantly, what institutions they did trust as they fell victim to Nazi seductions. How about, for example, examining the Christian churches?

We can start by acknowledging something Ward conveniently leaves out of the story: those political parties which lost public confidence and subsequently collapsed were the nationalist right-wing parties that had hitherto been the traditional home of Germany’s most Protestant voters. Unlike the secular Marxist parties of the left (which to considerable degree maintained their numbers and presented a left-wing challenge to the Nazis’ rise), these conservative Christian parties collapsed as their voters turned to the new, more radical right-wing alternative of the day: Hitler’s Nazis.

Indeed, Nazism was a movement comprised predominantly of conservative Christians. This is not intended as a cheap shot against Christianity. It is important to acknowledge that the relationship between Nazism and German Christianity was not random but rather ideological. Nazism as a political ideology appealed to many reactionary sentiments, one of which was Christian nationalism.

In fact, original Nazi Party platforms promised a re-Christianization of society. The Nazis appealed to hyperbolic and apocalyptic Christian anxieties about the rise of Marxism, feminism, atheism and Jewish cultural influence in the “decadent” society of Weimar democracy. As historical research has shown, Protestant and Catholic leaders in Germany after World War II went to great length to hide this fact and re-write the history of their dalliance with Nazism.

This is not to say that all German Christians were fanatical Nazis. It is to say that most Nazi voters were Christians. Christians who at the very least swallowed their misgivings about Nazi radicalism, turned a blind eye to Nazi lies and ignored or rationalized the unjustifiable behavior of the Nazis — all in order to fight back against the perceived modern threats to Christianity and traditional values. Sound familiar?

Not for nothing, the German soldiers of the Wehrmacht who eventually marched into the “godless” Soviet Union, leaving a blood-soaked trail of genocide in their wake, did so with the slogan “Gott mit uns” (God is with us) stamped onto their belt-buckles. Ultimately, as the Nazi regime replaced democracy with dictatorship and began to implement antisemitic discriminatory legislations, the German Protestant and Catholic churches either openly supported or silently consented.

As the United States Holocaust Museum explains, “there was virtually no public opposition to antisemitism or any readiness by church leaders to publicly oppose the regime on the issues of antisemitism and state-sanctioned violence against the Jews.”

This brings us to today. If we are seriously interested in assessing American institutional decline, then we need to assess those institutions in civic society which still marshal public trust, and which therefore have enormous power to either buttress or destabilize democracy. Perhaps Professor Ward would agree that the greatest threats to democratic institutional trust today include: belief in 2020 election conspiracies; acceptance of QAnon; opposition to vaccines, masks and science; willingness to consider violence and coups as acceptable political strategies; and, last but certainly not least, support for insurrectionist politicians like Donald Trump and the “Freedom” Caucus who tried desperately to overthrow the 2020 election and who are currently pursuing political avenues for overthrowing future elections.

Does it concern Ward that all of these disconcerting sentiments are highly correlated with modern Christianity in America? Correlation is not always causation, but one thing is as clear today as it was in 1920s Germany: the Christian churches are doing very little to discourage these dangerous anti-democratic sentiments in their ranks.

If we want to compare our faltering democracy to the decline of Weimar Germany, then we should start by critically examining the most powerful institutions in society that neglect their civic responsibility and contribute to radicalization.

In their silence and acquiescence to right-wing Christian nationalism, America’s Christian institutions (such as the church that operates Professor Ward’s university) are utterly failing, today just as they did then.

Perhaps they should re-direct their musket fire.

Joshua Klein

Josh Klein, West Bountiful, graduated as the Brigham Young University history valedictorian in 2013. He received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland in 2019, with a dissertation on the history of German conservatism from the 1930s-1950s. He teaches concurrent enrollment U.S. history at Woods Cross High School.