Described as the 'Richard Dawkins of Literary Criticism' by Christopher Douglas (Associate Professor of English, University of Victoria), Michael Lackey is the author of our fascinating new book The Modernist God State in which he looks at the religious basis of modernist political movements. In this interview he reveals his experience of studying Nazi texts and his discoveries surrounding Nazi Christianity. His findings may well surprise you.
What was the most exhilarating aspect of your research for The Modernist God State?
As a college and graduate student, I was repeatedly taught that western culture was either totally secular or in the grip of a rapid secularization process. But this interpretation of intellectual, political, and literary history never struck me as accurate. Indeed, a casual glance at twentieth-century literature and politics led me to draw a very different conclusion, specifically that the West had become by the twentieth century religious in new and frightening ways. The most exhilarating part of this project was finding a way to clearly articulate the degree to which religion and the God concept continued to inform and determine the nature of the modernist body politic.
Few people read thousands of pages of the actual texts of Hitler and the Nazis, why did you and what did you learn?
When I was an undergraduate taking theology courses in preparation for the seminary (my goal was to become a Catholic Priest), I heard vague rumours suggesting that the Catholic Church was anti-Semitic and, therefore, complicit in the Holocaust. To understand the nature of the critique and to defend my faith, I started reading Nazi texts, primarily to demonstrate, as I had heard, that their secular and humanist views were the basis for the Holocaust. But, to my horror, I made some unsettling discoveries: The Nazis declared themselves to be a Christian Party in Point 24 of their official Party program. In his first wireless speech to the German people after he came to power in 1933, Hitler announced that his political party regards “Christianity as the foundation of our national morality.” Just two weeks later, he boldly declared in another speech his theological allegiance to Christianity: “it is Christians and not international atheists who now stand at the head of Germany.” In a 1934 speech, Hitler specified the nature of the Nazi Party’s Christian orientation by claiming that the “National Socialist State professes its allegiance to positive Christianity.” Put simply, Hitler believed that, given its commitment to positive Christianity, the Nazi Party “stands on the ground of a real Christianity,” because it is based on “Christian principles.” These are not anomalous claims. As I demonstrate throughout my book, Hitler and many prominent Nazis consistently defined themselves and their Party as Christian.
What I learned from all this is that there is an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to demonstrate that Hitler and the Nazis called themselves Christian and that there is virtually no evidence that they ever called or considered themselves secular, humanist, anti-Christian, or atheist.
Hitler & the Nazis understood themselves to be unambiguously Christian, yet they're frequently portrayed as atheists, humanists or secularists. What evidence did your reading of the source documents uncover?
As I immersed myself in the scholarship about the Holocaust, I was able to figure out why so many capable scholars drew a faulty conclusion about the religious orientation of Hitler and the Nazis. Erich Voegelin articulated in 1938 what would become the dominant approach when he made the following claim: “the secularisation of life, which the concept of humanism brought with it, is precisely the soil in which anti-Christian religious movements such as National Socialism could grow.” Well-regarded scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Berel Lang, Doris Bergen, Charles Taylor, and Theodore Ziolkowski, to name only a few, have uncritically accepted this view. But it is important to note that there is considerable confusion about the claim. When scholars say that Hitler and the Nazis are anti-Christian secularists, it would seem that they mean that Hitler and the Nazis called themselves secular and/or anti-Christian. But since there are literally thousands of passages in which Hitler and the Nazis declare themselves Christian, it is impossible for them to justify such an assertion. So how can we explain their insistent claim that Hitler and the Nazis were atheists, humanists, or secularists? When scholars make such a claim, here’s what they mean: ‘Granted, Hitler and the Nazis consistently called themselves Christian. But they adopted a faulty version of Christianity. Therefore, they were not really Christian. To the contrary, they were anti-Christian. Indeed, they were unwitting humanists and atheists.’
Recent scholars have posed a serious challenge to this traditional approach to Hitler and the Nazis. Indeed, Richard Steigmann-Gall and Robert Michael have written first-rate studies that have demonstrated that Hitler and the Nazis called and considered themselves Christian, and my book contributes to this conversation by using many of their findings to illuminate literary texts. But what has made the work of all of us possible are developments within postmodernism. Postmodernists reject the idea that there is something such as a true Christianity. Postmodernists realize that there are many versions of Christianity, some tolerant and humane, some not. So instead of claiming that Hitler and the Nazis adopted a faulty version of Christianity and are, therefore, anti-Christian atheists, postmodernists seek to understand the version of Christianity that Hitler and the Nazis adopted. From a postmodernist perspective, the real questions that need to be answered are these: Did Hitler and the Nazis consider themselves Christian? If so, what was the version of Christianity that they adopted? These are the questions that I answer in my book.
What originally inspired you to study in this area? What does it mean to you professionally? And personally?
It is difficult for me to make a clear distinction between the professional and the personal. As a scholar, what I value most are intellectual honesty and scholarly precision. But these are the very things that I want my students to learn in my classes and to use in their personal lives. As I was writing The Modernist God State, I found myself thinking about two separate audiences. The first consists of traditional Christian writers, who have worked vigorously and passionately to demonstrate that Hitler and the Nazis were not Christian because—to their minds—they were most certainly atheists. The second audience consists of anti-religious atheists, who frequently demonize all versions of Christianity because they note that Hitler and many Nazis referred to themselves as Christians. As a scholar, I consider the work of both traditional Christians and anti-religious atheists dishonest and sloppy. The traditional Christians are dishonest because they refuse to acknowledge that Hitler and the Nazis consistently referred to themselves as Christian. This explains why I cite so many passages from Hitler and the Nazis calling themselves and the Party Christian. The anti-religious atheists are sloppy because they draw a faulty conclusion from the evidence about Hitler and the Nazis calling themselves Christian. Hitler and the Nazis adopted a very specific version of Christianity, which I define in the book. Therefore, it is illogical to claim that, because Hitler and the Nazis considered themselves Christian, Christianity entails National Socialism. What inspired me to do this project was a desire to bring rigor, discipline, and nuance to a highly charged and controversial topic.
How would you describe your contribution to the scholarship in this area?
There are three separate contributions I make to the scholarship. First, I offer a nuanced approach to the secularization hypothesis. By demonstrating that intellectuals were becoming secular while the majority of the population in the West was becoming more intensely religious, I have been able to clarify why it would be more accurate to refer to the twentieth-century polity as a God state rather than a secular nation. Second, I clarify why the novelist can illuminate intellectual and political history with an unparalleled precision and accuracy. Finally, my work adds some clarity and depth to our understanding of the specific version of Christianity that Hitler and the Nazis adopted.
Modernism is often seen as secularist and inimical to Christianity, why do you believe otherwise?
While it is certainly true that many modernist intellectuals were indifferent or opposed to religious belief and/or the God concept, thus confirming the secularization hypothesis, it is also true that many prominent political leaders and most average citizens in the West remained deeply committed to Christianity, especially in relation to the body politic. By doing close analyses of the writings of political leaders from King Leopold II to Hitler and the Nazis (1890s through the 1940s), I have been able to demonstrate that their political agendas are simply incomprehensible without taking into account their specific understanding of and approach to Christianity. So in my book, instead of rejecting the secularization hypothesis altogether, I develop a nuanced approach to it. Most modernist intellectuals embraced and even endorsed a secular approach to life, the political, and the world, but most political leaders and ordinary citizens embraced and even endorsed a religious approach to life, the political, and the world. Therefore, when many prominent twentieth-century writers portray the modernist body politic, they frequently underscore the degree to which it is religious and the role religion plays in the shaping of the polity.
You argue that novelists can represent intellectual and political history in a way that no other intellectual can. Why do you think this is so?
There are two separate reasons why the novelists in my study claim that they can portray intellectual and political history in a superior way to other professional intellectuals. The first is based on the multi-disciplinary nature of the novel. Prominent twentieth-century novelists were well-versed in philosophy and sociology, history and psychology, economics and politics. What set them apart from other professional intellectuals was their capacity to represent one form of disciplinary knowledge in relation to or in conflict with other forms of disciplinary knowledge. From this vantage point, novelists are superior not because they are masters of any single body of knowledge but because they are masters of polarizing, juxtaposing, negotiating, and integrating multiple bodies of knowledge. Furthermore, they insist that the novel, more than any other intellectual medium, can insightfully and accurately portray the complex dynamics of the modern polity.
The second reason is based on the novelist’s two-tiered conception of the human. Nietzsche articulates this view most clearly in The Case of Wagner when he says: “all of us have, unconsciously, involuntarily in our bodies values, words, formulas, moralities of opposite descent—we are, physiologically considered, false.” There exist in our bodies words, values, formulas, and moralities that frequently conflict with our rational conception of ourselves. For instance, on a conscious level, we might say to ourselves and others: I am not a racist. But at the level of the subconscious, many of us have absorbed and internalized certain racist words and values, which make many of us ‘racist’ despite our intentions to the contrary. Given the way words, values, moralities, and formulas of opposite descent invade our bodies without our consent (“unconsciously, involuntarily”), it is impossible for us to be physiologically true. However, if we can identify some of the subconscious words and values that inhabit our bodies, we can become less false. This is exactly what the novelist does. According to E.M. Forster, the novelist’s biggest contribution to intellectual and political history is the capacity to picture the subconscious short-circuiting into action. Ideas, beliefs, and ideologies—these are the things that inhabit the subconscious and determine human action. The problem is that most people lack the capacity to plumb the depths of their own inner lives, which means that a person’s “secret life” can be secret not only from others but also from one’s self. But for the novelists, if we want an accurate representation of the ideologies that determine the nature of the polity, we need to examine not what people consciously say about themselves but what they subconsciously believe, think, and feel. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the novelist to identify and define the subconscious ideology that determines human action and to devise strategies and techniques for charting the way a subconscious ideology makes its way into specific forms of socio-political action.
What will your next book explore?
In the late 1930s, Georg Lukacs argued that the biographical novel could never rise to the level of a legitimate historical novel, because the focus on “the biography of the hero” leads authors to overlook or misrepresent significant historical events and truths, and thus “reveals the historical weakness of the biographical form of the novel.” With just a few exceptions, American novelists subscribed to Lukacs’ view, that is, until 1987, when Bruce Duffy published The World As I Found It, a novel which features characters such as Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence, and G.E. Moore. After Duffy’s The World As I Found It, there was a veritable explosion of biographical novels, such as Jay Parini’s The Last Station (1990), a multi-perspective narrative account of Leo Tolstoy’s last year; Irvin D. Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept (1992), an imaginative work featuring philosophical and psychological debates between Josef Breuer and Nietzsche; David Mamet’s The Old Religion (1997), a stream-of-consciousness narrative of Leo Frank coming to terms with his wrongful imprisonment for the rape and murder of a young white Southern factory girl; Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998), a work that alternately dramatizes Virginia Woolf’s life and references her novel Mrs. Dalloway in order to illuminate the stories of women in the 1950s and the 1990s; M. Allen Cunningham’s Lost Son (2008), a novelization of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic development through his relationship with Auguste Rodin and Lou Andreas-Salomé; Parini’s The Passages of H.M. (2010), an expansive narrative of Herman Melville’s struggles as an unacknowledged writer and a closeted homosexual; and Duffy’s Disaster Was My God (2011), a comprehensive picture of Arthur Rimbaud’s tumultuous and contradictory life as first a poet and then a gun-runner. How are we to account for this wave of biographical novels? What intellectual forces gave birth to this aesthetic form? What role does this novel play in illuminating history? And how does it differ from the traditional historical novel? These are questions that I intend to answer over the next few years as I work on a three-book project about the American biographical novel.
The first project is a Conversations with Jay Parini book, a collection of Parini’s interviews that will be coming out next year. The second project will be a collection of interviews with prominent novelists about the aesthetic form of and the usages of history in the biographical novel. The final project will be a monograph about the American biographical novel.
The Modernist God State by Michael Lackey is now available to buy. You can read an exclusive digital preview of the book by clicking on the preview button to the left.