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.
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.
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 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."