How could Gerhard Kittel, one of the greatest Christian scholars of the 20th century, become the “Nazi Theologian”?
We have written a series of posts that deal with that question. Now, after reading Stephen R.C. Hicks’ book, Nietzsche and Nazis, I have some new insights that might help explain (but certainly not justify) this phenomenon.
In his fascinating book, Hicks, a Canadian-American philosopher and professor, reviews five “weak explanations” for the rise of Hitler and Nazism and then quickly dismisses each one. He points out that in the 1920s, Germany was the most educated country in the world, with the highest level of literacy and political engagement.
March 5, 1933 was the last free election until after WW II. Voter turnout was almost 89%, and Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party received 43.9% of the vote, by far the most of the nine contending parties.
Most Germans at this time were professing Christians divided into three major groups: “German Christians” rooted in the state rather than scripture, the “Confessing Church” rooted in the scripture as opposed to the state, and the Roman Catholic Church. The Nazi rise to power was largely supported at the polls by “Christians.”
Hicks writes: “Millions of voters in a democracy may be wrong, but it is unlikely that they were all deluded. A better explanation is that they knew what they were voting for and thought it the best course of action.” [emphasis added]
As is most often the case, it is the intellectual community—university professors—who shape the culture that subsequently empowers political and social movements. This was the case in Germany.
German contemporaries of Kittel
Hicks identifies the German intellectual leaders that created the climate for the Nazi rise to power. They included three Nobel Prize winners: Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark received the award in physics in 1905 and 1919 respectively, and Gerhart Hauptmann in literature in 1912. Also notable, the world-famous historian Dr. Oswald Spengler and equally famous philosopher Martin Heidegger.
In his book The Third Reich (1923), Moeller van den Bruck lay the theoretical foundations for National Socialism. The last of Hicks’ seven leading German intellectuals was Dr. Carl Schmitt, whom Hicks describes as “probably the sharpest legal and political mind of his generation.”
Hicks summarizes the impact of these scholars:
These seven men are among the most intelligent and powerful minds in Germany in the decade before the Nazis came to power. They are leading figures in German intellectual culture, spanning the arts, science, history, law, politics, and philosophy. All of them, to one degree or another, supported National Socialism. Was Hitler smart enough to fool all of these highly intelligent men? Or is it more likely that they knew what they believed and supported National Socialism because they thought it was true?
Why Hicks did not include the premier German linguist and theologian Gerhard Kittel is a mystery to me. His Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (commonly known as “Kittel”) is so highly acclaimed and used by pastors and theologians around the world surely he should have been on the list. In fact, whether knowingly or otherwise, Kittel established the theological foundations for the Nazis.
Kittel and other intellectuals launched the Nazi philosophy
Hicks continues by showing that these intellectuals were the fount of the ideas that captured the imagination of the German people.
The primary cause of Nazism lies in philosophy. Not economics, not psychology, and not even politics.
National Socialism was first a philosophy of life believed and advocated by highly intelligent men and women. Professors, public intellectuals, Nobel Prize-winners—all powerful minds working at the cutting edges of their disciplines. It was they who shaped the intellectual culture of Germany in the 1920s and who convinced millions of Germans that National Socialism was the best hope for Germany’s future.
As the graphic indicates, ideas spread from the intellectuals to the professional class and eventually to influence the common man. This is exactly what happened in the 1920s and 30s in Germany. Germans were looking for a noble cause worthy of their lives. The Nazi intellectuals articulated that cause. Hicks writes of their idealism and almost “heavenly” fervor.
I also want to suggest that the Nazi intellectuals and their followers thought of themselves as idealists and as crusaders for a noble cause. This may be even harder to accept. The National Socialists in the 1920s were passionate men and women who thought that the world was in a crisis and that a moral revolution was called for. They believed their ideas to be true, beautiful, noble, and the only hope for the world.
Intellectual leaders supported the rising Nazi tide
While the brown shirts and the prison guards may have been thugs, the intellectual leaders and thought shapers were idealists.
But soon their ranks were thinned. Many Jewish intellectuals were fired, some professors quit in protest, but many supported the rising Nazi tide their voices and writings had mobilized.
When the National Socialists took power, they prohibited all Jews from holding academic positions—this resulted in the firing of hundreds of tenured Jewish professors [forcing the Jewish intellectuals at the Frankfurt School to flee to the United States and take their Cultural Marxist ideology with them], including several Nobel Laureates. To their credit, many other professors resigned in protest or emigrated. But such professors were in the small minority.
A large majority of university professors remained on the job, either silently accepting the new regime or even actively supporting it. In 1933, for example, 960 professors, including prominent figures such as philosopher Martin Heidegger, made a public proclamation of their support for Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist regime.
The brilliant Kittel was one of these. He did not protest; he did not passively acquiesce. Perhaps in some demonic idealism, his communion with other public intellectuals led him to fully engaged with the leadership of the Third Reich to try to provide theological justification for this “noble” vision for future of Germany and all of humanity. In doing so he helped to seal the fate of 6,000,000 individual Jews for the sake of the Volkish German people.
May this perverse tale remind us to look carefully at our own blind spots so we do not unintentionally support evil in our own generation.
– Darrow Miller
 All quotations are from Nietzsche and the Nazis by Stephen R.C. Hicks