OCTOBER 27, 2010 10:48AM

The Hitler icon: How Mount Athos honored the Führer

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Hitler icon  
An image of Adolf Hitler greeted visitors to
Mount Athos in 1941
(Source: Mönchsland Athos)

THERE IS A PIOUS notion out there that organized religion, if practiced devoutly enough, can preserve human beings from immoral thoughts and actions, particularly those stemming from the seductions of supposedly secular political ideologies. The Protestants have their “mighty fortress” of Lutheran song and liturgy, the Catholics have their eternal Vatican, and the Greek Orthodox Church preserves its theological purity in the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos, “the Garden of the Virgins,” on a peninsula in northern Greece, where all females – including dogs and cats – are banished from the premises so as to protect the monks from any impure sensations.* However, even the most cursory glance at the historical record reveals that the devout are not only as likely as anyone else to fall for a totalitarian bill of goods, they may even be more susceptible than the average citizen.

Mount Athos can serve as a case in point. In the summer of 1941, just months after the German invasion and occupation of Greece, Professor Franz Dölger led an official Nazi expedition to the holy mountain. The journey, which focused on historical and theological issues, was officially sponsored by Alfred Rosenberg, Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and was generously supported by the Wehrmacht. Dölger himself was a distinguished professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Munich from 1931 until his retirement in 1958.

 

Moenchsland Athos 
The expedition report Mönchsland Athos (Athos,
Land of Monks), published in 1942

 

Dölger and his companions, both academic and military, encountered a religious community that was more than willing to embrace Nazism. In fairness to the residents of Mount Athos, we should note that they had good reason to despise Hitler’s nemesis, communism: Stalin was busy confiscating the Russian Orthodox Church’s property and deporting its priests to the gulag, and he had also halted the previously reliable flow of Russian contributions to the monasteries’ upkeep. According to a Time Magazine report from 1941, the remarkably naïve monks only knew of Hitler as “a great German king who slays the Bolsheviks and the Jews – a fulfillment of prophecy.” In this, they differed little from the bulk of Catholics and Protestants in Germany and many of the occupied countries. After the Nazi takeover of Greece, the Epistassia, Athos’s four-member executive committee, formally asked Hitler to place the Autonomous Monastic State under his personal protection, a request with which the Führer gladly complied. Mount Athos survived the war nearly untouched, which is more than can be said for the rest of Greece, which lost 11 percent of its population, including virtually all of its Jews.

 

Karyes - Easter 1941 
Wehrmacht soldiers posing with Greek Orthodox
monks in Karyes, Athos Peninsula, Easter 1941

 

In gratitude for his protection, the monks displayed and revered Hitler images, including not only the one described further down but also a portrait hung directly in the center of a wall of paintings in the great reception room of St Panteleimon monastery, directly beneath a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II (see video clip below).

 

Hitler on Mount Athos 
Hitler in a place of honor at St Panteleimon Monastery. The
picture was later replaced with a portrait of Queen Frederica of Greece

 

  

The following is my translation of an excerpt from Prof. Dölger’s account of his visit to Mount Athos as printed in the book Mönchsland Athos (Munich: 1942), the official report of his 1941 visit to the holy mountain:

  

At the monastery of Konstamonitou, at the place of honor in the reception room, we encountered the image of our Führer.  A monk had discovered a picture in an illustrated magazine and created a pencil drawing based on this model. Elsewhere too we could observe how strongly the personality of the Führer and the Greater German Reich impressed itself upon the imagination of the residents of Mount Athos, at least among those who had not entirely turned away from the world. Upon our arrival at several monasteries and, upon our departure from one (Dionisíu), when we sailed out onto the sea in our little ship, we were greeted by the swastika flag. The Führer is regarded by a great many monks as the “High Protector of the Holy Mountain” who will also hold his protecting hand over the Holy Mountain in the reordering of the world.

We had a delightful experience as we photographed a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. From the point of view of Athos, it represented an immense concession for us to receive permission to photograph the sacred icon, and monks even helped us in our preparations. One old monk who joined us observed these preparations, shaking his head. Turning to us, he said: “If you want to photograph the Panajía [Virgin Mary], then you will have little luck; for the Panajía has never yet allowed herself to be photographed.” – “But it could be,” he added in a trusting and good-natured manner, “that the Panajía may make an exception for you Germans and allow herself to be photographed, because you Germans, after all, are waging a holy war against Bolshevism, the enemy of God.”



German newsreel of a visit by Wehrmacht officers to Mount Athos in 1944:



*Banishing the opposite sex from the peninsula might sound like a recipe for boredom, but it appears that the monks knew how to keep busy. According to a Time Magazine article in April 1941, "[a]n alarming number of monks have taken to smoking, alcohol, even narcotics. And the immemorial escape from celibacy has threatened to become a fever sickening the whole 'Great Academy of the Greek Clergy.' The Greek press has stormed about the kidnapping of male children for the monks of Athos, and motorboats carrying male prostitutes are constantly reported chugging into the monastery harbors."

 

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Comments

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Completely unbelievable, but sadly believable. I never knew about this and am glad you have brought the information forward. Amazing that quote from Time magazine. Really, truly amazing information. R
@Sheila and David
Thanks. Of course, the standard defense is that if the monks had resisted, the Nazis would simply have destroyed the monasteries. Very true - but what good is all their faith and theology if they end up cowering before superior firepower?
Another interesting and informative piece, Alan. Thank you.
This is a sadly biased slant.

I've seen other coverage of this (e.g., 60 Minutes) that presents things, frames things, differently. In those tellings, the Monks were not naive, but actually manipulated Hilter. They knew all along that the expeditions to Athos were in fact to catalog the treasures as Hitler wanted to take them and add to the Reich's treasures. Re-imagining the visits of the Nazis in the films in light of the fact that the monks were assuming the duplicity of Hilter changes the perspective a good bit on what is going on!

The images you show of "icons" of Hitler (your bias couldn't be more evident here in your choice of words) were from Nazi films. If the Monks were "conning Hitler", when the soldiers and academicians he sent to prepare for the great rape of Athos (assumed by the Monks to be the plan), then the likely reality is that they are feigning support - down to a silly B&W sketch of Hitler they tacked up.

Of course, we'll never know for real the intentions, but that isn't the framing of the events and limited images in this article. The author clearly has the intent to smear. The addition of the sexual scandal footnote is gratuitous and in the fine spirit of slander of our modern political age.

I would have appreciated a REAL analysis of the ethical issues of this difficult interaction (one of very real life and death and preservation of culture). Is it wrong, or right, to con evil? How much did the monks, or some of the monks, sympathize in fact with Hitler and Nazi intentions (and not for a show to preserve Athos)? How many Jews were saved by the fact that the Greek church retained more autonomy than it might have by this approach? It is known that many churches helped hide Jews in Thessaloniki. Is a simple-minded resistance to evil, the kind a 14 year old would approve of, the only ethical route? Etc.

But, alas, we are treated to more tabloid mentality, and by someone clearly with an ax to grind.
@e2pi
That's an intriguing take on the story, but it sounds like so much Monday morning quarterbacking. The fact is that Christians all across Europe tripped over each other making good with the new regime, whether to save their influence, their art treasures, or out of millennial fervor. Obviously they were all against Hitler after they were for him. The fact that some portions of the Greek church sacrificed themselves to save others - all very true, and commendable - does not cancel out others who collaborated wholeheartedly. It was the same in the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Bear in mind also that the tide changed in Greece, with conditions going from bad to utterly wretched, and the Nazis changing from victorious occupiers to fleeing villains, so the church's attitude certainly changed as well. If I were a priest who was interviewed for 60 Minutes, I'd try to put the best possible spin on the story myself.

The newsreel is obvious propaganda and contains little information. You are welcome to present your evidence in a blog of your own and I'd love to read it. Until I see anything solid, though, I'm sticking with Professor Dölger, whose book - available online - is highly revealing.

Re the quote: I like it, it's original, it matches historical experience with the church, and I figure that if it was good enough for Time Magazine in 1941, it's good enough for my blog today.