On New Years’ Day, I ran across a post from a friend in my Facebook newsfeed. It detailed the “true account” of a woman named Kitty Werthmann about her childhood growing up in Nazi Austria.
I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to read the entire article. Normally when confronted with such blatant propaganda – especially on Facebook – the first thing I tend to do is search snopes or independent fact checking for the veracity of the story.
Among the first things discovered, Kitty Werthmann’s story has been circulating since 2009 when she produced a DVD entitled “Freedom to Dictatorship in 5 Years.” Since then, Ms. Werthmann has been making the rounds on the conservative circuit promoting her video at right-wing conferences such as the “How To Take Back America Conference”
Ms. Werthmann’s message, “How to Recognize Living Under Nazis and Communists” – a “first hand account” is red meat for religious-based conservatives convinced that President Obama, if not the anti-Christ, is out to destroy America by pushing a Nazi-Socialist-Fascist-Communist agenda.
Her story begins in 1938 – when she was 10 years old – and the Austrian people elected for German annexation. Austria, as well as most of the world, was mired in the Great Depression and looked to Adolph Hitler for deliverance from their tough economic conditions. Everything was wonderful in Austria immediately after German annexation, then things dramatically began changing!
“What I am about to tell you is something you’ve probably never heard or read in history books,” she likes to tell audiences. “I am a witness to history.”
The day after Austria elected Hitler “we lost religious education for kids.”
“Our education was nationalized. I attended a very good public school.. The population was predominantly Catholic, so we had religion in our schools. The day we elected Hitler (March 13, 1938), I walked into my schoolroom to find the crucifix replaced by Hitler’s picture hanging next to a Nazi flag. Our teacher, a very devout woman, stood up and told the class we wouldn’t pray or have religion anymore. Instead, we sang ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles,’ and had physical education.
“I hated it at first but felt I could tolerate it. Every once in a while, on holidays, I went home. I would go back to my old friends and ask what was going on and what they were doing.
“Their loose lifestyle was very alarming to me. They lived without religion. By that time, unwed mothers were glorified for having a baby for Hitler.
“It seemed strange to me that our society changed so suddenly. As time went along, I realized what a great deed my mother did so that I wasn’t exposed to that kind of humanistic philosophy.”
Ms. Werthmann goes on to tell her tale of Nazi oppression, explaining how nationalized health care ruined Austria and in summation recounts how gun control laws imposed by the Nazis kept the good Austrians from the ability to rebel against the Germanic invaders.
So there are a couple issues I have with Ms. Werthmann’s account of Anschluss (the unification of Germany and Austria). The Austrian legislature did indeed vote for annexation on 13 March; however, the unification was subject to a plebiscite on 10 April – which passed by an affirmation vote of over 99%!
So obviously, I’m keying in on the anti-religion aspect of her tale. According to Ms. Werthmann, at the time not quite 11 years old, the day after Anschluss, when she returned to school, the crucifixes in her public school classroom were removed and her devout teacher told the children they would no longer say prayers. Hitler’s affirmation for equality of the sexes led to women, living “without religion” to have children out of wedlock, and this “humanistic philosophy” should be equated to Nazism.
Here’s my problem with this accounting of events.
“The positive vote was so high due to the encouragement of the Catholic and the Lutheran church leadership. Cardinal Theodor Innitzer stated that the Viennese Catholics should thank the Lord the invasion of Austria was bloodless. The president of the Lutheran Church in Austria, Robert Kauer, claimed Hitler was the savior of the 350,000 German Protestants in Austria.”
Additionally, the position of the German Reich on secularism and anti-religion was without sympathy:
“The regime strongly opposed “godless communism” and most of Germany’s freethinking (freigeist), atheist, and largely left-wing organizations were banned the same year. In a speech made 24 October 1933, Hitler claimed to have “undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” And in a speech made during the negotiations for the Nazi-Vatican Concordant of 1933, Hitler argued against secular schools, stating: “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have 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.” One of the groups closed down by the Nazi regime was the German Freethinkers League. One of its chairmen, Max Sievers, was beheaded by the Nazis on January 17, 1944 for treason. According to a 1945 U.S. Office of Strategic Services report, the Nazis “abolished the right to pursue anti-religious and anti-Church propaganda. The Prussian government closed the so-called secular (weltliche) schools in which no religious instruction was given and reestablished religious instruction in professional and vocation schools. All organizations of free-thinkers were forbidden.”
The debate over Hitler’s religious orientation has raged for over half a century. The Christian Right has long espoused that Hitler was an atheist, which of course explains his evil nature: while atheists (and humanists) like to point out that Hitler was raised Catholic and that the Jewish pogroms and ensuing holocaust were justification for the killing of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of his personal views on religion, we only need to examine the facts.
Despite Cardinal Innitzer’s involvement in paving the way for Hitler in Austria, or Pope Pius XII’s refusal to denounce Hitler, it was clear that Nazi Germany was not overly fond of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics, as well as priests, were arrested, held in and died in concentration camps. It is also clear that religious institutions throughout the Reich were required to subjugate before the government. However, In April 1938, in honor of Hitler’s birthday, Cardinal Innitzer had ordered that all Austrian churches fly the swastika flag, ring bells, and pray for Hitler.
So a month after Ms. Werthmann notes that religion was removed from the classroom, the head of the Catholic Church in Austria asks for all Catholics to pray for Hitler.
Lastly, an oft forgot aspect of World War II is that Germany was at war with the Soviet Union. One key aspect of Soviet Marxism – an anathema in Germany – was the anti-religious nature of Soviet communism. An important distinction between the Soviet communist state and the Germanic Reich was the “fact” that god was on the side of the Fuhrer and Reich. [For additional reading on the religious views of the 3rd Reich and the Nazi Party click here.]
I do not doubt that Ms. Werthmann has memories of her religious education in her catholic-public school in Austria changing during her adolescent years, but I think her characterization of “godlessness” is decidedly politically crafted for her current audience.
My friend’s post does serve a useful purpose. It reminds me that our news sources clearly dictate how we view the world around us.
I’d never heard of Kitty Werthmann until yesterday – but apparently she’s a rock star on the conservative circuit. Liberal groups have long deconstructed her account of events in Austria during the 30’s and 40’s (Daily Kos; Right Wing Watch), and snopes has been requested to fact check her tale as well. But I don’t tend to read overtly liberally-biased news sources (just as I try to avoid overly conservative news sites).
It truly highlights the fact that most Americans, myself included, all tend to take in “news” differently and from different sources. I can see why conservatives have an aversion to the “lamestream” liberal media – it tends to “report” on news that is generally “safe.” I don’t believe it is overtly biased, but it is certainly crafted and packaged in a way that delivers a prescribed message. Conservative media on the other hand, tends to beat a drum on “underreported/ignored” news, but with an agenda.
Take for example the story of the shooting outside the Mayan theater in San Antonio, Texas days after the Sandy Hook elementary shootings. An off-duty police officer shot and killed a would be assailant. This story made the rounds on Facebook as well, pushing an agenda that the mainstream media ignored an important story because it ran counter to the narrative being spun.
The problem with this story? It’s correct. The mainstream media (Fox excluded), is attempting to craft the narrative in the aftermath of Sandy Hook on the need for gun control laws. News reports that run counter to that narrative don’t quite seem to fit – so rather than give the airtime to a story that might “confuse” the issue, they just ignore it. Conservative news picks up many of these stories and play them to the beat of the counter agenda; however, they are just as guilty of “ignoring” stories that confuse their themes.
Ms. Werthmann’s narrative, in a nutshell, is that the government removes religion from schools, socializes medicine, raises taxes, promotes equality of the sexes, then takes away your guns.
Following her presentation at the How to Take America Back Conference, “Werthmann went through a litany of examples of how President Obama is like Adolf Hitler. She noted that Hitler, who acted “like an American politician,” was “elected in a 100% Christian nation.” Although she failed to once mention Antisemitism or militarism, Werthmann explained how universal healthcare, an Equal Rights Amendment, and increased taxes were telltale signs of Nazism. Werthmann also warned the audience:
‘If we had our guns, we would have fought a bloody battle. So, keep your guns, and buy more guns, and buy ammunition. [...] Take back America. Don’t let them take the country into Socialism. And I refer again, Hitler’s party was National Socialism. [...] And that’s what we are having here right now, which is bordering on Marxism.’ Link
A counterview, in The Economist points out:
“As crummy as popular militias have proven at defending against “sudden foreign invasions”, they’ve been even worse at defending against “domestic usurpations of power by rulers”. There is, I think, not a single case in modern history, certainly not since the invention of the Gatling gun. No popular militia has ever prevented the seizure of power by an authoritarian ruler. In countries with well-established democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers are rare; when they occur, popular militias do not resist, or are ruthlessly crushed by national armed forces. In countries with weak democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers sometimes go smoothly, or in other cases touch off periods of civil war, which are resolved when one faction finally defeats the others and imposes authoritarian rule. Name your authoritarian takeover: Germany, Japan, Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Brazil, Greece, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Syria—popular militias never resist authoritarian takeover and preserve democracy or civil freedoms. That is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.”
All of which makes me appreciate the Facebook post! Without it, I’d never known of Kitty Werthmann and her propaganda (non pejorative). When I read it, I needed to acquaint myself with the agenda and the facts. Rather than immediately respond to my friend’s post, with what would have amounted to at best as an uneducated opinion, I needed to research the facts. It drives home that we are all, in our own way, similar to the mainstream media – we tend to latch on to narratives that reinforce our views while selectively ignoring information that runs counter to our core beliefs.
In my case, I honed in immediately on the idea that removing religion from the classroom is a key component of Nazism. While this serves Ms. Werthmann and her target audience, I wanted to be able to press the Bullshit button – in order to do so, I needed to have my “facts” lined up.
“Change is a dangerous word, and it means socialism.” Kitty Werthmann