From Adolph Hitler's point of view, Christendom had it all wrong.
Jesus wasn't a humble savior who suffered and died on a cross to redeem all of humanity. For Hitler, Jesus was an angry, whip-cracking messiah who was tough enough to lead Germany to victory. Hitler's Jesus looked a lot like Hitler. The Christian messiah was too Jewish.
"My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter," said Hitler, in one 1922 speech. "It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by only a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned me to fight against them. In boundless love, as a Christian and as a man, I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord rose at last in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders."
In "Mein Kampf," Hitler went one terrifying step further as he attacked the "Jewish doctrine of Marxism." He wrote: "Eternal Nature inexorably revenges the transgressions against her laws. Therefore, 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."
What do these words mean? While historians have struggled to answer that question, one thing is certain: Anyone who uses the words "Hitler" and "Christian" in the same sentence will cause controversy. The most recent flare-up centers on remarks by President Bill Clinton at the 1999 National Prayer Breakfast.
"The problem is that Hitler was all over the map when he talked about religion, including Christianity," said journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil." "When it was useful for him to appear Christian, in order to manipulate the masses, then he did so. But then in private comments he was much more candid about his hatred of Christianity."
The result is a maze of questions. What did Hitler mean when he said "the Lord" or "Divine Providence" gave him spiritual visions and that an "inner voice" called him to redeem the German people and crush the Jews? And does the fact that Hitler called himself a Christian mean that it's proper for anyone else to call him a Christian?
What people say about Hitler usually reveals more about their biases and beliefs than about those of Hitler, said Rosenbaum.
Take Clinton's speech, for example. The president reminded his interfaith audience that many of the world's woes are "rooted in what we believe are the instructions we get from God to do things to people who are different from us." But just because people believe they're following God doesn't mean they're right, he said.
"I do believe that even though Adolph Hitler preached a perverted form of Christianity, God did not want him to prevail," said Clinton.
Conservative Christians immediately cried "foul."
In reality, Hitler's hate was rooted in a pseudo-scientific racism, not religious faith, said Rosenbaum. Thus, it would have been more accurate to say that Hitler preached a "perverted form of Darwinism, rather than a perverted Christianity." The most logical explanation for Clinton's comments would be that he was striking back at "conservative Christians and his other critics that he considers judgmental and mean-spirited," said Rosenbaum, who stressed that he also is a frequent critic of the Religious Right.
But this is business as usual, when it comes to discussions of Hitler and religion. Christians anxious to attack the occult can cite evidence that Hitler was a neo-pagan terrorist who hated God and saw himself as a god-like messiah. Atheists and agnostics blame Hitler's actions on his Catholic boyhood. Anti-Semites welcome any evidence that Hitler may have been part Jewish. The list goes on and on.
"It's like a Rorschach test. People see what they want to see and then they use Hitler as a way to settle arguments," said Rosenbaum. "Everyone wants to be able to say that their enemies believe what Hitler believed. What we can learn from all of this is that you can't trust anything Hitler said. If you are trying to understand Hitler, the last thing you can believe are his words."