Lessons of Atheist Dictatorships

One of my favorite moments in the current series of atheist versus Christian debates occurs when the defender of the faith – confronted with contradictions and crimes in Holy Writ – drops the Christian identity and begins championing a vague form of Deism (much like the Rev. Al Sharpton in the Sharpton-Christopher Hitchens Debate). Suddenly all talk of the resurrection and the miraculous vanishes, supplanted by faith in a celestial watchmaker who created this complicated but cockeyed timepiece of a universe, wound it up and then went about His business for the next 13 billion years.

Less amusing is the part where the Christian proponent attempts to blame the worst 20th century atrocities on atheism, which, to my mind, shows only a sad and unwitting lack of scholarship. In particular when the Christian attempts to lump fascists, Nazis, communists and agrarian utopians into the same bloody basket.

Even the most cursory review of the literature reveals how many 20th century Catholic or Protestant parties openly supported fascist regimes, often contributing clergy to leading government posts. If it is examples you want, there is the PPI in Italy, the Ustashe in Croatia, National Catholicism in Franco’s Spain, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Rexists in Belgium, and the movements of António Salazar in Portugal, Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria, and Jozef Tiso in Slovakia, all Christian, all supporters of fascist governments.

Throughout World War II it was Vatican policy to go to extraordinary lengths to further the destruction of the godless communists and protect the foundations of Christendom – a policy reminescent of American support for right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War. Not least was Rome’s decision to remain virtually silent on the Holocaust as long as the Hitler government was useful in destroying the Red Army. This policy continued post-World War II, as the Rome-based Hitler supporter Bishop Alois Hudal (a very close friend of the Pope Pius XII, according to Jakob Weinbacher, auxiliary Bishop of Vienna) smuggled hundreds of Nazi war criminals to South America. War criminals like Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic (responsible for 700,000 deaths) would also flee to Rome before being smuggled to Peron’s Argentina.

Why shouldn’t Rome support the Nazis? With the exception of Hitler they were in the main spiritual, church-going Catholics and Lutherans. According to Klaus Barbi’s biographer, there was no more devout Catholic than the Butcher of Lyon. And while Goebbels was eventually excommunicated, it was not for crimes against humanity, but for marrying a protestant.

But what of der Führer himself?

For reasons that should be obvious, atheists are seldom, if ever, heard invoking God’s name in their public statements. Yet one would be hard pressed to find a speech in which Hitler did not summon divine providence:

I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work. —Mein Kampf

Secular schools can never be tolerated because such a school has no religious instruction and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith…. We need believing people. — Speech made during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of 1933, April 26, 1933

I go the way that Providence dictates for me with all the assurance of a sleepwalker. — Speech of March 14, 1936, Munich

God has created this people and it has grown according to His will. And according to our will it shall remain and never shall it pass away. — Speech of July 31, 1937, Breslau

I believe that it was God’s will that from here a boy was sent into the Reich and that he grew up to become the leader of the nation. — Speech of April 9, 1938, Vienna

[W]e National Socialists have resolutely championed belief in our own people, starting from that watchword of eternal validity: God helps only those who are prepared and determined to help themselves. — Speech Nov. 6, 1938, Weimar

We pray to God that He may lead our soldiers on the path and bless them as hitherto. — Hitler’s Order of the Day, April 6, 1941, Berlin

Pius XII seems to have regarded Hitler, not as a godless tyrant, but as a crusader. So too did the bulk of the German people. Hitler may have believed privately – after Nietzsche – that the “Judeo-Christian slave morality” was a malignancy infecting the West, and one that should be cut out, or at the very least transformed into a form of “Positive Christianity” which stressed Christ’s strengths, rather than his weakness, but that is not the same as being an atheist. Indeed Hitler believed in a strong Nordic God, one his SS troops honored with the prayer “God is with us,” etched on their belt buckles.

Marxist-Leninists or egalitarian-utopian despots were another matter. No doubt Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot were skeptics, but if there is a legitimate link between a lack of supernatural beliefs and a propensity to commit atrocities it is not to be found in the actions of 20th century dictators. Of the worst 20th century government-backed genocides or mass killings four were carried out by states with officially atheist states (Communist China, USSR, North Vietnam, Khmer Rouge Cambodia), and six were carried out by non-atheist states (Nazi Germany, Chinese Nationals, Turkey, Imperial Japan, Poland and Pakistan[1]). One could find many things these latter regimes had in common—radical nationalism, the perceived need to eliminate the enemy–but one thing they definitely did not have in common was atheism. Rather to understand the communists’ genocidal actions we must look to the ideologies they espoused, beginning with Karl Marx.

Raised in a Jewish family that nominally converted to Lutheranism, Karl Marx believed religion was an expression of material realities and economic injustice, and was one of many factors or traditions keeping the masses docile, benumbed and complacent, thereby maintaining the status quo, and thus delaying the revolt of the proletariat. Marx’s unbelief was an offshoot of his economic theories, which held that religion, once a rather harmless superstition, had become a tool of the ruling class. Yet once the socialist nirvana had been attained religion, like the state, would wither and die. (Later, a rift would develop between those Bolsheviks who thought the death of religion should take its course naturally, and those who felt it needed a push. Not surprisingly the pushers won out.) Ultimately, what Stalin objected to was not so much the complacency that religion caused, but the influence of the Church and in particular its hierarchy. There was room in Stalin’s Soviet Union for but one patriarch.

In his essay “Socialism and Religion,” Lenin argued that, “Religion is a sort of spiritual booze.” This notion was adopted by the Bolsheviks, but a similar idea had been that of the French revolutionaries before them. During the French Revolution the Legislative Assembly set about dechristianizing France. The Assembly anticipated the communists in its confiscation of church property, legalization of divorce, and its shuttering of churches. In each instance the confiscation also served as a land grab (in France the Catholic Church was the largest landowner, taxed crops, controlled monopolized education). The most radical of these revolutionary groups, the hébertists (after Jacques Hébert), established a cult of reason, and in a ceremony in 1793 at Notre Dame in Paris, crowned a courtesan “the Goddess of Reason.” When the Catholic Church was seen as being counter-revolutionary, there followed a bloody massacre (now known as the September Massacres) during which angry mobs massacred three bishops, including the Archbishop of Arles, and more than two hundred priests.

The atrocities of the French revolutionaries were caused not by their new-found atheism, so much as by their hatred of the ancien regime and its close alliance with the Church, coupled with their desire for liberty and justice and a desire to access the wealth of church property and to minimize the power of the clergy. Likewise the atrocities committed by communist dictators were the result–not of a fanatical unbelief in God–but of a fanatical belief in the doctrine of communism, which required collectivization, the stamping out of dissent and perceived enemies of the state and an irrational hatred of intellectuals and the petit bourgeoisie.

Under Stalin’s rule an estimated 7 million died during the 1932-33 forced famine to stomp out the Ukrainian independence movement. Again, what had atheism to do with the deaths? The simplistic argument is that Stalin was an atheist, Stalin created the conditions that led to mass starvation, therefore, atheism leads to mass starvation and genocide. Apparently a religious person would have been incapable of such barbarities. Yet the historian knows otherwise.

Indeed until Lenin’s rule – and with the very brief exception of Revolutionary France – all leaders would have been religious, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or, like Hitler, pagan. Most would have considered themselves divine. Their religion or divinity, however, did not seem to have had much of an impact on the frequency of massacres, pogroms and genocides. In history’s worst case of genocide, scholars estimate that China’s population was halved in a half century of Mongol rule, from 120 million to 60 million people, in 1300. What is more, about half of the Russian and Hungarian populations died during the invasions. While beseiging a Genoese trading post in the Crimea, the Kipchak Mongols, led by Jani Beg, catapulted plague infested corpses into the city infecting the population with bubonic plague in the first documented instance of biological warfare. The Geneose returned to Italy carrying the plague with them. Over the next three years an estimated 40 million persons died on the continent. Jani Beg was no atheist. Rather he forced Islam upon all of his subjects, and sought out Saint Alexius of Kiev to cure his wife’s blindness (which he supposedly did). Indeed all of the Mongol leaders were religious. Genghis Khan practiced Shamanism, and his daughter in law was a Christian.

Contemporary accounts by European diplomats of the Armenian Genocide (1915-16) note that the massacres were “perpetrated in the context of a formal jihad against Armenians who had attempted to throw off the yoke of dhimmitude by seeking equal rights and autonomy, notes Andrew G. Bostom, MD, author of The Legacy of Jihad. “The Ottoman Turkish destruction of the Armenian people, beginning in the late 19th and intensifying in the early 20th century, was a genocide, and jihad ideology contributed significantly to this decades long human liquidation process,” notes Bostom. Most scholars now agree that the genocide was both racially and religiously motivated.

In Rwanda where 90 percent of the population was Christian, “numerous priests, pastors, nuns, brothers, catechists, and Catholic and Protestant lay leaders supported, participated in, or helped to organize the killings,” writes Timothy Longman in the essay collection In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century, which documents the religious motivations behind the Armenian, Jewish, Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. Meanwhile Charles de Lespinay charges the Rwandan clergy with being “propagators of false information tending to maintain a climate of fear, suspicion and hatred.” Prominent clergy refused to condemn the mass killing (characterizing it as wartime self-defense or “double genocide”), and even excused the murders as a sort of delayed justice for past wrongs. In Rwanda, Lespinay concludes, “the exacerbation of past and present rivalries is entirely the fault of the missionary-educated intellectual `elites.’ Of course, not only did most of the Christian clergy do nothing to prevent or stop the genocide, the “Christian” West did nothing either.

With Mao Zedong was added the necessity of stamping out traditional Chinese and foreign influences. When Mao declared war on religion it was part of a larger war on everything associated with traditional Chinese culture (Daoism and Buddhism, being at the top of the list) and Western influences. As in pre-revolutionary France and Russia, religion had been institutionalized in China with the Emperor praised as the “Son of Heaven.”

Finally, it was at the Wat Botum Vaddei Buddhist monastery, and not in the pages of Das Kapital, that the young Pol Pot learned about the suppression of individuality and abandonment of personal ties, essential elements of his political credo. Later he attended Catholic school, learned French, and, despite his poor scholastic record, won a scholarship in 1949 to study radio electronics in Paris. It was in the City of Lights that he was introduced to Marxism. Fleeing the U.S. backed Cambodian government, he moved his base to remote northeastern Cambodia, where he was influenced by the tribes of “original Khmers” who had no experience with Buddhism. Pol Pot’s vision of a Khmeresque agrarian utopia meant emptying the cities, butchering intellectuals and bourgeoisie, abolishing money and markets, private property and religion and setting up rural collectives. Presumably Pol Pot would not have turned out so badly had he remained a practicing Buddhist. Though an atheist radio electrician, who had not been exposed to Marxist thought, probably would not have had to flee into the jungles of Cambodia and would never have met the Khmers. It was an anti-Western, anti-urban and pro-nativist ideology that defined the Khmer Rouge, not atheism, which was but one aspect.

Communist countries that lacked a history of government entanglement with religion were another story. Poland is a case in point. Rather than being seen as an institution of the state, the Catholic Church remained a refuge, indeed a bulwark of nationhood, particularly during the partitions at a time when the Polish state was carved up by Protestant Prussia, Orthodox Russia and Catholic Austria. With Polish independence following World War I, the Church remained an entity separate from the state and thus became the Poles lone refuge during Nazi occupation. In the post-war period Stalin had no choice but to allow the Catholic Church to retain a (admittedly diminished) place in Polish society–doubtless a mistake as it would become one of the government’s greatest critics and eventually help undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet Union. Indeed it was mainly in kingdoms like pre-revolutionary France and Russia where the church was institutionalized or intertwined with the corrupt regime that it was regarded as a mortal enemy of the masses.

Contrast Poland with another former communist state: Albania. Until the end of the Ottoman Empire, Albania was a sultanate, with power in the hands of a titled Muslim class of pashas and beys endowed with both large estates and extensive political and administrative powers. Under communist rule, Albania became the only nation to officially ban religion and today the majority of Albanians claim to be atheist or agnostic, according to a US government report.

Doubtless the reason Americans remain so devoutly religious today has to do with their tradition of separation of church and state. Thus the citizenry, when disenchanted with the government, have had little reason to turn against the church. The lesson is not, however, that communist dictators’ lack of religious belief drove them to commit atrocities in the name of atheism. The lesson is that the best, most sure-fire way to eliminate religious belief in the U.S. is to do what the religious fundamentalists want done, that is to institutionalize religion.

1) Chinese Nationalists (1928-49) Purges of communists, etc. 10,214,000. Japan’s military (1936-45) Nanking massacre, etc. 5,964,000. Turkey’s Young Turks (1909-18) Slaughter of Turkey’s Armenians 1,883,000. Poland killed ethnic Germans 8 million fled Poland (1945-1948) 1,585,000. West Pakistan (1958-87) E. Pakistan Hindus killed or expelled 1,503,000. Figures from Death by Government by Rudolph J. Rummel, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Christopher Orlet is an essayist and book critic. He can be emailed here.

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