Hitler, Stalin and Atheism
It is an often heard refrain among less well informed Christians that Hitler and Stalin (those slightly more knowledgeable sometimes add Pol Pot and Mao Zedong) were atheists and that their atheism led them to commit atrocities resulting in the deaths of millions of people. These claims are demonstrably false.
We see that in none of these cases could atheism be made to "take the blame" for the atrocities committed by these men.
- Hitler was never an atheist. The available evidence points to the fact that he remained a theist throughout his whole life.
- It is true that Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, were all atheists. But the primary influences that led to their atrocities were not atheism per se but their dogmatic Marxism and communist ideas.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the Führer of Nazi Germany was probably one of the most evil men to have ever walked on earth. He was responsible for the death of millions in World War II and for the "final solution" that led to the chillingly efficient murder of six million Jews. It must also remembered that Jews were not the only victims of the ruthless Nazi killing machine. An estimated five to six million Russians, Poles, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals - basically anyone considered sub-human - were murdered as well.
Hitler, however, was never an atheist.
Hitler was born and baptized as a Roman Catholic. He served mass as a young boy and actually contemplated becoming an abbot. He never publicly repudiated his Catholicism, nor did he ever cease paying his dues.  He wrote in his Mein Kampf (1924) (My Struggle) that "faith is the sole foundation of a moral attitude" and that an attack against religion "strongly resembles the struggle against the general legal foundations of the state."  Although Hitler did persecute some Protestant churches and the Catholic Church later on  he never ceased being a theist. As late as 1938, he can be heard making this statement in a speech: "I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work."  [a]
Article 24 of Hitler's Nazi party programs calls for "Positive Christianity". Among the 25 points of the core values of this new Christianity, as explained by German philosopher Ernst Bergmann in 1934, is point number six which states: "The German religion is a religion of the people. It has nothing in common with free thoughts, atheist propaganda, and the breakdown of current religions." 
Thus Hitler and his Nazi regime were anything but atheistic.
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While it is true that Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and Pol Pot (1925-1998) were all atheists, this is not the only thing they have in common. They were also men, political leaders and communists. Merely citing common denominators does not establish the cause of their actions. It is important to consider what was the main driving force in their committing atrocities against their own people. [b]
One could make a valid claim that since Stalin attended a Russian orthodox seminary (from 1894 to 1899) as a teenager in Tiflis, the dogmatic black or white outlook of the world influenced his subsequent actions. As the historian Alan Bullock in his book Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991) explained:
The fact that it was a Church education helped to form the mind of a man who was to become known for his dogmatism and his propensity for seeing issues in absolute terms, in black and white. Anyone reading Stalin's speeches and writings will notice their catechistic structure, the use of question and answer, the reduction of complex questions to a set of simplified formulas, the quoting of text to support his arguments. The same Church influence has been noted by biographers in his style of speaking or writing Russian: 'declamatory and repetitive, with liturgical overtones.' 
However the main influence on all these three men were dogmatic Marxism-Communism. Joseph M. Bochenski in his essay "A Critique of Communism" in the book Outline of Communism clearly showed what the shortcomings of this system are. [c]
Firstly, communists are prone to oversimplification. Complex problems of the real world are explained in simplistic terms. Thus the communist eschatology of a classless society leads them to believe that collectivization is the main source of human happiness. Never mind the fact that each human beings have different - and opposing - dreams, goals and desires. They also believe that all problems of labor can be resolved by nationalization of all industries and the banning of private ownership. This saps the human spirit of the will to excel. This simplistic outlook spills into their belief about moral issues. Since communism is the ultimate good, anyone who is opposed to it must necessarily be evil. Like religious fundamentalists, to the communists everything is in black and white. "You are either with us or against us."
Secondly, as can be seen above, communism resembles very closely the dogmatic faith of religious fundamentalist. It has, like other fundamentalist religions, a list of sacred writings known as the "communist classics". Infallible authority is ascribed to these writings. It pretends to represent the absolute truth by calling itself a "science". Yet it proceeds, as Bochenski wrote, "in the manner of a faith." 
Note that in no case is atheism central to the building of these dogmatic positions. [d]
Indeed to the founder of communist doctrines, Karl Marx (1818-1883), atheism, was just a stage on the path to communism, and it was ultimately "unreal" and "no longer needed" by socialism and communism.  This is what Karl Marx himself said about atheism:
Atheism as a denial of this unreality; has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a denial of God and tries to assert through this negation the existence of man; but socialism as such no longer needs this mediation... [Emphasis added]
It is important to pause for a moment and consider this statement carefully. If Karl Marx, the intellectual founder of Marxism and communism, repudiated atheism as meaningless and no longer needed, how then could atheism be considered the cause of the atrocities committed under communism?.
If we look in detail at the horrors committed by these men - Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot - we will see that the atrocities were the direct result of Marxist-communist doctrines that had nothing to do with atheism: collectivization, the idea of a classless society, a concomitant distrust of the bourgeoisie (i.e. the capitalists and the middle class - enemies of the classless society) and an intolerant view of dissent.
Let us now summarize what we have shown above.
- Estimates of deaths due to Stalin vary from as "low" as fifteen to as high as fifty million. Approximately twelve to fifteen million deaths were due the policy of farm collectivization. The farm collectivization, launched in 1929, was Stalin's Marxist solution to the problems of Soviet agriculture. In an attempt to improve output, Stalin merged all the small farms belonging to the peasants and put them under state control. Peasant land owners (kulaks) who resisted giving up their land were arrested and deported to labor camps. Many were summarily executed. Estimates of kulaks who were killed vary from seven to ten million. There was a large scale famine in these collectivize farmed in the years 1932-1933 resulting in about five million peasant deaths. These were exacerbated by the fact that Stalin diverted the food needed by the starving peasants for export or for use by the military-industrial complex.
Then in 1936-1938, Stalin started the "Great Purge" to get rid of all political opponents and anyone at all that he had reason to suspect were against his rules of policies. About a million people were executed during this purge. Many more were sent to labor camps (Gulags) in Siberia and elsewhere. The number of deaths in this labor camps, due to suicide, execution, starvation, or the harsh conditions, has been estimated to between twelve to fifteen million. 
The atrocities committed by Stalin were the result of a combination the communist dogmas and the paranoia of a wicked man intend on preserving his own rule against any opposition.
As the historian Geoffrey Hosking explained:
The labour camps and the terror were an intrinsic part of Stalinist society. They resulted directly from the methods the party resolved to use and transform industry and agriculture to eliminate 'bourgeois specialists' and to appoint its own promising young men, as well as from the methods Stalin used to defeat his opponents. 
- Let us move on to Mao Zedong. Like the case of Stalin, the total amount of those who died under the rule of Mao as a direct result of his policies cannot be known for certain; estimates again vary from sixteen million to more than sixty million. Like in the case of Stalin, the majority of the atrocities were due to a combination of blind application of Marxist or communist doctrines and the complete intolerance of dissent. Of course the first to go were the people who own any form of capital. In 1952, soon after taking power, about a million rural landlords (called "counter-revolutionaries") were liquidated. This paved the way for the Chinese version of collectivization: the commune. The bulk of the deaths occurred during the "Great Leap Forward" launched in 1958. The "Great Leap" was based on the communist ideal of developing the economy all at once. He organized farms into communes and intellectuals, engineers, technocrats, the educated elite were all forced to work in these communes. This was supposed to help them understand the lives of the proletariat better. The whole system was ill conceived and inefficient. This was exacerbated by poor weather which meant that harvest dropped precipitously from 1958 through to 1961. In those years the estimated number of deaths due to starvation was around 14 to 20 million.
The communist intolerance of dissent were responsible for the rest. Upon taking power in China the communist wasted no time in getting rid of anyone who could prove a danger to the new communist utopia. Many university students ("intellectuals") and dissidents were sent to the country side, bound hand and foot, and summarily executed in the paddy fields. Calling them "bandits", the official state radio proudly announced in 1952, that they have killed almost two million of them. 
In these cases, the reasons for these deaths are obvious. The idea that individual ownership of capital is evil caused many of the landlords to be murdered. Then the belief that collectivization would solve the problems of famine in the country actually exacerbated it. Finally intolerance of opposing views, or of people who were deemed capable of holding opposing views, resulted in the execution of many "intellectuals". These were heinous crimes - but communism and despotism, not atheism, were to blame.
- As for Pol Pot, like Mao, he too wanted a classless society free from any outside or capitalist influence. It has been estimated that in his four years in power (1974-1978) Pol Pot and his regime was responsible for three million deaths, almost half of the Cambodian population of seven million. Pol Pot had a deep seated hatred of "intellectuals" and summarily executed many of these. These "intellectuals" include anyone with a college education, civil servants from the previous regime, Buddhist monks, Muslim leaders, Christian clergy, teachers and practically all members of the middle class. However the bulk of the three millions deaths he was responsible for happened in almost the same circumstance as Mao's "Great Leap Forward" - to try and achieve an ideal classless society where everybody is a plebian farmer! These people died in agricultural collectives due to starvation, disease, exposure to the elements and summary executions for not maintaining "discipline". 
Thus, again, collectivization and a rabid hatred of the bourgeoisie was the main dogmas that drove Pol Pot to commit his atrocities.
The main dogmatic teachings of communism, that we find were responsible for the atrocities committed under the various communist regimes, namely:-
had nothing to do with, and were not in any way derived from, atheism.
- The idea that individual property ownership is inherently evil (i.e. the evil bourgeoisie)
- The belief that collectivization is the key to efficient production
- The complete hatred of people who were opposed to the ideas of communism
Furthermore as the quotation from Marx above shows, atheism was considered ultimately irrelevant to the development of communism.
Given these facts, any critique of atheism that is based on atrocities commited by communist regimes can be summarily dismissed.
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|a.||We have seen elsewhere that anti-semitism is rooted in the New Testament. Indeed one of Germany's greatest theologian, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an ardent anti-semite. Indeed the German protestant clergy generally welcomed Hitler's elevation to the Chancelorship in 1933. |
|b.||This is a crucial point missed by most people when the give Stalin as an example of the immorality of atheism. It is important to show that the atrocities committed where done as a direct result of the belief system or, in this case, a lack of belief system. It is certainly wrong to say that just because so and so was a Christian and that he committed a crime that this somehow proves Christianity is bad. In my section outlining the atrocities committed by Christians I took great pains to explain why those atrocities were committed because of Christianity.|
|c.||We are of course discounting modern day China, which is communist in name and political structure only. It's economic system is capitalistic. |
|d.||In other words it is not enough for the Christian to simply point out that these people were atheists and then attribute their crimes to atheism. That would be like atheist blaming Catholicism for Hitler's crimes because he never repudiated Catholicism and remained a nominal Catholic his whole life. In my critique of the atrocities committed by Christians, given elsewhere, I was careful to show that these crimes were committed because of their Christian beliefs. In other words, the infidel Muslims were slaughtered because they controlled the holy land, (supposed) witches were murdered because the Old Testament commands Christians to not allow a sorcerer to live, and the inquisition killed millions because they do not meet the definition of "Christian". Thus the atrocities were committed as a direct result of Christianity and its dogmas.
|1.||Stern, Hitler: p92|
|2.||Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: p153|
|3.||Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: p324-333|
|4.||Shermer, op cit.: p153|
|5.||Shirer, op. cit.: p327|
|6.||Shermer, op cit.: p153|
|7.||quoted in Harbour, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism: p84|
|8.||Niemeyer (ed), Outline of Communism: p230-236
|9.||McLellan, Karl Marx: p119
|10.||quoted in ibid.: p123
Bailey, Massacres: p108-113|
Hosking, A History of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991: p183-204
Lowe, Mastering Modern World History, p:114-115
|12.||Hosking, op. cit.: p203-204|
Bailey, op. cit.: p155-157|
Schurmann & Schell, Communist China: p402-411
Coye & Livingston, China, Yesterday & Today: p382-383
Bailey, op. cit.: p176-181|
Warshaw, Southeast Asia Emerges: p178-179
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