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American religious leaders, Nazi Germany – and the legacy of white supremacy

Originally published in The Conversation

This article’s authors examine American attitudes towards Hitler and the Nazi Party before the U.S. entered World War II, focusing on religious publications and the parallels that exist between the eras of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws in the mid-1930s and the rise of antisemitism and white supremacist ideology in the United States in September 2023, including neo-Nazi demonstrations.

Using historical religious texts to analyze the views of leaders in various religious groups in the 1930s, the research shows that some American religious leaders were critical of Hitler and Nazi Germany, while others were sympathetic or ambivalent. The key factors influencing these views were the embrace of white supremacist ideas and the religious hierarchy’s position.

Support for Hitler was most strongly linked to white supremacy concerning African Americans. Groups sympathizing with Hitler believed in the superiority of the white race and published literature claiming African Americans were inferior. The article concludes by reflecting on the relevance of these historical findings in today’s political climate, where authoritarianism and white nationalism remain significant issues in the United States.

The Conversation:

The Nuremberg Laws were a critical juncture on the Third Reich’s path toward bringing about “the full-scale creation of a racist state … on the road to the Holocaust,” according to legal historian James Whitman. Yet across the Atlantic, many Americans were unconcerned, and even admiring – including some religious leaders.

As a political scientist and a sociologist, we wanted to examine what Americans thought about Hitler and the National Socialist Party before the U.S. entered World War II – and see what lessons those findings might hold for our country today. Our recent research, which focused on religious publications, suggests that Americans’ support for Nazi Germany is best explained by belief in white supremacy.

As we analyzed the periodicals, we classified leaders’ writings into four categories. Beyond groups that clearly sympathized with Hitler or criticized him, the largest number were ambivalent, with mixed views. Others were “distant,” barely commenting on events in Europe.

We found that two main factors explain religious elites’ views of Hitler in 1935. The first is whether their group embraced white supremacist ideas. The second is whether they were atop the religious hierarchy – that is, mainstream Protestant denominations whose members would not have been at risk of persecution in Germany.

Read the full article here.

Photo by Lidia Stawinska on Unsplash

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