A Religious Experience at Nuremburg: The Inspiration and Institutions of National Socialism

Dan D. Cruickshank is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching perceptions of the Third Reich in the Church of England.

In the 1930s a slow but steady trickle of visitors made their way from Britain to witness the great spectacle of National Socialism which took place each year in early September in Nuremburg, the Reichsparteitag or Nuremburg Rally. What drew these men, and they were predominantly men, to the rally grounds of Nuremburg, and how did they interpret what they saw there? This is what my paper at the EHS Summer Conference 2019 explored. Following four visitors to Nuremburg and back, the paper examined their accounts of what they saw and attempted to examine the actions it inspired in them. This research forms part of my larger PhD project which considers perceptions of the Third Reich in the Church of England from 1933-1945, and so the four considered all had links to the Church of England and provide insight into a select group within the Church who had first-hand experience of the Third Reich.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1982-1130-502/ CC-BY-SA 3.0

Examining visitors to the Reichsparteitag may seem unusual for an ecclesiastical history conference, but there was method behind the madness. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Institution and Inspiration’ and the call for papers asked for “explorations of the interplay between inspirational movements and institutional structures”. My paper argued that those who attended the Reichsparteitag found there an inspirational movement. Through the marches, the speeches, and the imagery of the rallies, they became involved in a religious experience. Take for example the words of John Baker White, who said that what he had witnessed was “omnipotent politics in excelsis.”[1] Baker White wasn’t alone in falling back on his pre-established religious understanding to try and explain what he had witnessed. Micky Burn’s first action after the Reichsparteitag had finished was to write to his mother to ask that she send him a bible.[2] This falling back on pre-existing understandings of religion to understand the Reichsparteitag shows a reliance on more traditional institutional religion to make sense of this new inspirational movement.

But as well as using institutional religion to explain this inspirational event, foreign participants in the Reichsparteitag had to attempt to marry the events of inspiration with the institutional structures of the Third Reich. Micky Burn, during his time in Bavaria, was invited on a tour of the model camp of the National Socialist Concentration Camp system, Dachau. Burn was guided round the camp by its Commandant, Heinrich Deubel, who explained in detail the organised torture which took place in the camp; the minimum punishments ordered for those who disobeyed the rules.[3] Burn wrote down in detail an account of his visit to the camp, but he did not share it with anyone, nor did he reread it himself until the end of the century. But Burn did share his experience of the Reichsparteitag through his frequent letters with his parents, and was sympathetic to far-right politics in Britain until the late 1930s. The inspirational event overshadowed the true horrors of the institution.

Baker White’s visit to the Reichsparteitag was overseen by the SS, and for his entire visit his group had SS minders follow them around. For many, being followed around by the para-military of the National Socialist state would cause them to take a negative view of that organisation. Not so for Baker White. When Baker White published his account of his visit to the Reichsparteitag, he included a spirited defence of the SS. In Dover – Nürnberg Return Baker White claimed that the SS were “basically special constables”, comparable to “the gendarmerie in France of the Guardia Civile in Spain”.[4] This was a gross distortion of the role the SS occupied; instead of being a vital part of the terror regime of the Third Reich, Baker White painted the SS as a normal part of European policing structures. This is fascist apologia. And the basis for this apologia lay in the Reichsparteitag. The inspirational event laid the foundation for the defence of the institution.

Reichsparteitag 1938 Der grosse Appell der SS, NSKK, NSFK und SS im Luitpoldhain. Uebersicht während des Fahnenaufmarsches. Aufnahme: 10.9.38. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H12148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

When we study anything that can be classified as having ‘inspiration’, we have a tendency to view it as positive. And vice-versa with anything viewed as institution, we view that word as connoting a limiting structure and order. But what do we do when the inspirational event is something that is viewed by many, to use a word not often found in the historian’s vocabulary, as evil. By examining accounts of British visitors to the Reichsparteitag we are forced to confront the fact that many found National Socialism, outside of Germany as well as within, an inspirational movement. Because of this belief they could consciously ignore, or even normalise, those elements of the Third Reich that were most horrifying. Such a view also demonstrates how inspirational events often take place outside anything we would traditionally class as religious, and that politics can be just as much an ideology defined by inspiration and institution as religion is. Examining inspirational movements leads us outside the traditional confines of ecclesiastical history and into places that may be far darker than we imagined.

[1] John Baker White, Dover – Nürnberg Return (London: Burrup, Mathieson & Company, 1937), 62.

[2] Michael Burn, Turned Towards the Sun: An Autobiography (Wilby: Michael Russell, 2003), 72.

[3] Ibid., 76.

[4] White, Dover – Nürnberg Return, 74.

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