In 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, the Jewish population of Europe stood over nine million. The Nazi campaign to exclude and persecute Jews, and others, as “life unworthy of life” began. By war’s end, close to two out of every three Jews in Europe had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Although Jews were the primary victims of Nazi racism, others targeted for death included tens of thousands of Roma (Gypsies) and at least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled people (source:www.ushmm.org). As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, millions of people were persecuted and murdered. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease or maltreatment. The Nazis killed tens of thousands of Polish intellectual and religious leaders; deported millions of Polish and persecuted and incarcerated homosexuals.
It is also important to acknowledge the experience of atheism and atheists under the Nazis, although we should be careful not to let this become our primary motive for remembering the Holocaust – the terrible events were a travesty for humanity in its entirety.
Following World War I, the religious situation in Europe was complex. Scientific findings about the age of the Earth, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and biblical criticism had fueled the first major expansion of nontheism at Christianity’s expense among ordinary Europeans. The churches’ support for the catastrophic Great War further fueled public disaffection, as did (in Germany) the flight of the Kaiser, in whom both Protestant and Catholic clergy had vested heavily. But religion was not everywhere in retreat: postwar Germany experienced a Christian spiritual renaissance outside the traditional churches. Religious freedom was unprecedented, but the established churches enjoyed widespread state support and controlled their own education systems. They were far more influential than today.
Roughly two-thirds of Germans were Protestant, almost all of the rest Catholic. The pagan minority claimed at most 5 percent. Explicit nontheism was limited to an intellectual elite and to committed socialists. Just 1.5 percent of Germans identified themselves as unbelievers in a 1939 census, which means either that very few Nazis and National Socialist German Worker’s Party supporters were atheists, or that atheists feared to identify themselves to the pro-theistic regime.
Most religious Germans detested the impiety, secularism, and hedonistic decadence that they associated with such modernist ideas as democracy and free speech. If they feared democracy, they were terrified by Communism, to the point of being willing to accept extreme countermethods.
And so the persecution of atheism and atheists was not just the case of another victim group stacked up alongside European Jews but was seen very much as part of the same nexus of “liberalism, Judaism, communism and atheism” (Steigman-Gall 2003:p216) that together posed a degenerate influence on society and its traditional Christian values. As Darius Libionka describes, August Hlon, head of the Catholic Church in Poland, believed that “the Jews do battle against the Church and serve as the vanguard of atheism and Communism” (Libionka 2000:74).
Libionka, Dariusz (2000) ‘The Catholic Church in Poland and the Holocaust, 1939-1945’ in Rittner, Carol, Smith, Stephen D., Steinfeldt, Irena (eds) The Holocaust and the Christian World. Continuum: New York
Paul, Gregory S. ‘The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis’ in Free Inquiry Magazine Volume 23, Number 4.
Steigmann-Gall, Richard (2003) The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity 1939-45. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge