It seems hard to understand today what went in people's heads back in the 1930s when so many of them actually supported the Nazis and thought that fascism was the wave of the future. Karla Poewe, an emerita professor and a University of Calgary anthropologist who experienced as a little girl the horrors of wartime Germany, attempted to get into the minds of pre-war Germans by studying a huge variety of archival material. She looked at letters, diaries, lecture notes, popular literature, newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the correspondence between leading intellectuals and religious leaders of the day.
Her study, which is by far the largest and best documented, was published in her book New Religions and the Nazis. "The question I want answered is, 'Why did Germans support National Socialism in the first place? You can't ask a thinking person born during the war not to go over that history themselves, but personal experience is not enough," Poewe says. "You have to do the research."
Poewe spent nearly 10 years on the project, translating thousands of documents and taking into consideration numerous archival documents that have largely been ignored by English speaking historians, as well as correspondence which have only recently become accessible to scholars without restrictions.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the defeated Germans increasingly saw capitalism, internationalism and "Jewish imperialism" as the principal hallmarks of their enemies, Poewe says. "You have large populations of disillusioned young men, sensitized to violence, who deliberately fuse radical religious and political ideologies. This is a frightening combination and potentially a force to be reckoned with."
One major factor that helped Nazis' rise to power was its religious component, called the German Faith Movement. This was an amalgamation of new ideas and Christian concepts, and played a pivotal role in paving the way for the rise of National Socialism, in Weimar Germany. Revisionist anti-Semitic theologians rewrote the Christian tradition: Christ was Aryan, not Jewish, they said, He was heroic, but not divine, and most of the Gospels were unreliable except for Mark, the oldest.
"One of the dangers of liberal Christianity, where all sorts of interpretations are permitted, is that it can easily slip into becoming a new religion," Poewe says. "This is what happened. In a bid to rid Germany of what it saw as Jewish Christianity, several home-grown practices sprang up, including some that incorporated Icelandic and pre-Christian sagas, as well as ideas from German Idealism."
These initially separated and disorganized new religions eventually came under the umbrella of a single entity, the German Faith Movement, which was used as a tool for advancing the Nazi political agenda. Hitler saw in the German Faith Movement a mechanism for transmitting and reinforcing the National Socialist worldview: "He shaped its followers into a disciplined political force but dismissed its leaders later when they were no longer needed," Poewe said. Thus the German Faith Movement eventually became completely subordinated to politics.
Gregory Harris from the University of Calgary remarked the similarities with today's Islamic fundamentalist movement, "many of the factors that contributed to Germany's drift toward Nazism are apparent today in countries under the sway of Islamic fundamentalists".
One of the avenues used for spreading these "viruses of the mind" were the reading circles, small groups devoted to the study of books and ideas, which were extremely popular at the time. "Adolf Hitler set the political tone of Nazism with his book Mein Kampf. But, it was artists and academics who sought to provide the movement with an intellectual foundation."
This is how Germans gradually began to pick up many of the philosophies of the new religions. "Many Germans were highly sophisticated," Poewe says. "But in the end they were just human beings muddling about who made some really bad choices - choices that led to disaster."
Poewe situates her work among a growing body of scholarship by Germans who grew up during the war and have long been asking the question, Why? "It has been difficult for us to speak about our own suffering in the face of the enormity of the Holocaust," she says. "We want to remain respectful of that, but German scholars are now writing childhood memories, they're writing books about the perpetrators of these crimes, and they're writing biographies."