Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust
Armstrong, a former nun, thus portrays the Holocaust, or Shoah, as the result of “modern scientific racism” and the erosion of the traditional religious notion of “the sacredness of every single human life.” This argument is reminiscent of that made by the Roman Catholic Church in its 1998 statement “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” (Kertzer 2001, pp. 3–4).2 Aside from the obvious fact that the racism of the Nazis and their fascist allies was pseudoscientific rather than scientific, Armstrong ignores the fact that religions, including Christianity, traditionally tended to view only the lives of the members of their own group as sacred, while the members of other religious groups were typically seen as subhuman or demonic and, thus, eminently killable (Munson 2005). Armstrong also ignores the extensive scholarly literature demonstrating that many churches either enthusiastically supported the regimes that carried out the mass murder of the Jews, or at the very least, did not publicly condemn them (Ericksen and Heschel 1999a; Paldiel 2006). She ignores the fact that many of the regimes that helped Nazi Germany carry out the mass murder of the Jews had an explicitly Christian orientation (Feldman et al. 2008; Paldiel 2006). She ignores the extensive scholarly literature demonstrating that the line between racial and religious antisemitism was often a porous and malleable one (Heschel 2011; Kertzer 2001). Additionally, she ignores the fact that close to two millennia of Christian demonization of the Jew encouraged Europe’s Christians to accept Nazi demonization of the Jew (Bergen 1996, p. 191). This is not to say that traditional Christian hostility toward the Jew entailed the Holocaust. It did not, but it certainly helped make it possible (Katz 1994, pp. 227, 235, 315–17, 399–400).Born of modern scientific racism, the Holocaust was the ultimate step in social engineering and the most extreme demonstration of the inability of the nation to tolerate minorities. It showed what can happen once the sense of the sacredness of every single human being—a conviction at the heart of traditional religions that quasi-religious systems seem unable or disinclined to re-create—is lost.1
Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, stresses that “Nazism had nothing to do with religion” (p. 65) and “the Holocaust was not the result of Christianity; it is important to state this categorically at the outset” (p. 90). Like Armstrong, Sacks sees the Holocaust as the demise of religious values that resulted from the Enlightenment:The Nazi ideology was not religious. If anything, it was pagan. It was also based on ideas that were thought at the time to be scientific: the so-called ‘scientific study of race’ (a mixture of biology and anthropology) and ‘social Darwinism’, the theory that the same processes operating in nature operate in society also. The strong survive by eliminating the weak (p. 54).
As European culture became secularised and religious anti-Judaism mutated into racial antisemitism, the consequences were lethal. Christians could work for the conversion of the Jews, because you can change your religion. However, you cannot change your blood or your genes. Antisemites could therefore only work for the elimination of the Jews. The result was the Holocaust (pp. 79–80).
Referring specifically to the Enlightenment, Sacks writes:Every attempt to find a substitute for religion has resulted in even more violence. Nationalism led to two world wars. Political ideology led to Lenin and Stalin. Race led to Hitler and the Holocaust. The result was the bloodiest century in human history (p. 101).
The arguments made by Armstrong and Sacks are not uncommon. They can be found in most defenses of religion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Brog 2010, p. 169; Hedges 2008, p. 19; Limbaugh 1992, p. 281). It is certainly true that the Shoah was not exclusively, or even primarily, caused by traditional Christian hostility toward the Jew. However, the notion that the Holocaust occurred because Germany, and Europe in general, sought to find a secular substitute for religion does not provide an accurate picture of the role played by Christianity and Christian churches during the mass murder of the Jews in Christian Europe.Science and philosophy would, people thought, succeed where religion and revelation had failed. They would unite humankind in what Kant called ‘perpetual peace’. The reaction to this, a century later, was the emergence of nationalism, racism and communism, two world wars, the Holocaust and the Gulag (pp. 190–91).
2. The Demonization of the Jew in the New Testament
21:12–13 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
23:29–33 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
27:24–25 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.
5:18 Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.
8:44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.
3. Nazi Exploitation of Traditional Christian Demonization of the Jew
The notion of “positive Christianity” was intended to transcend Protestant-Catholic tensions as well as to demonstrate that the National Socialist movement should not be seen as hostile to Christianity—even though some of its most prominent leaders were.We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without tying itself to a particular confession. It fights the spirit of Jewish materialism within us and without us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our Volk can only take place from within, on the basis of the principle: public need comes before private greed.
Those who want to keep our Christianity, which, alas, today is merely a Christianity of appearances rather than one of deeds, have to confront those who rob us of our Christianity…. We may be small, but a man once stood up in Galilee and today his teachings dominate the whole world. I cannot imagine Christ but blond and blue-eyed. The devil I can only imagine with the Jewish grimace.
I SAY: MY FEELING AS A CHRISTIAN POINTS ME TO MY LORD AND SAVIOUR AS A FIGHTER. IT POINTS ME TO THE MAN WHO ONCE IN LONELINESS, SURROUNDED ONLY BY A FEW FOLLOWERS, RECOGNIZED THESE JEWS FOR WHAT THEY WERE AND SUMMONED MEN TO THE FIGHTAGAINST THEM AND WHO, GOD’S TRUTH! WAS GREATEST NOT AS SUFFERER BUT AS FIGHTER. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and of adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before - the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. And as a man I have the duty to see to it that human society does not suffer the same catastrophic collapse as did the civilization of the ancient world some two thousand years ago—a civilization which was driven to its ruin through this same Jewish people.4
… the Founder of Christianity made no secret indeed of His estimation of the Jewish people. When He found it necessary He drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God; because then, as always, they used religion as a means of advancing their commercial interests. However, at that time Christ was nailed to the Cross for his attitude towards the Jews; whereas our modern Christians enter into party politics and when elections are being held they debase themselves to beg for Jewish votes.6
A peasant mother returning from field work, with her three children, pauses before a wayside Christ. The mother talks to them about the wickedness of the Jews.
Children, look there! The man who hangs on the cross was one of the greatest enemies of the Jews of all time. He knew the Jews in all their corruption and meanness. Once he drove the Jews out with a whip, because they were carrying on their money dealings in the church. He called the Jews: Killers of men from the beginning. By that he meant that the Jews in all times have been murderers. He said further to the Jews: Your father is the Devil! Do you know, children, what that means? It means that the Jews descend from the Devil. And because they descend from the Devil they can but live like devils. So they commit one crime after another.
Because this man knew the Jews, because he proclaimed the truth to the world, he had to die. Hence the Jews murdered him. They drove nails through his hands and feet and let him slowly bleed. In such a horrible way the Jews took their revenge. And in a similar way they have killed many others who had the courage to tell the truth about the Jews. Always remember these things, children. When you see the cross, think of the terrible murder by the Jews on Golgotha. Remember that the Jews are children of the Devil and human murderers.8
4. Germany’s Protestants and the Holocaust
…the German Christians maintained a significant presence throughout the years of National Socialist rule. For more than a decade they sustained a mass movement of over half a million members with branches in all parts of Germany. Adherents held important positions within Protestant church governments at every level and occupied influential posts and theological faculties and religious training institutes. From those offices, they controlled many of the decisions and much of the revenue of the Protestant church. The movement’s quest to fuse Christianity and National Socialism reflected the desire of many Germans to retain their religious traditions while supporting the Nazi fatherland. Throughout the 1930s and during the war years, German Christian women and men held rallies, attended church services, and published newspapers, books and tracts. They sang hymns to Jesus but also to Hitler. Through sermons, speeches, and songs they propagated anti-Jewish Christianity and boosted Nazi racial policy. After the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, instead of being ostracized in their congregations and shut out of ecclesiastical posts, German Christians, lay and clergy, found it relatively easy to integrate into Protestant church life.
- And now it is our responsibility, with the strength and enthusiasm
- this great experience gives us, to build up our spiritual world, with
- all our hearts to be both German and Christian, to be German
- This is what the Führer wants. He, the most German man, is also
- the most faithful, a believing Christian. We know that he begins
- and ends the course of his day with prayer, that he has found in the
- Gospel the deepest source of his strength.
- In the person of the Führer we see the one God has sent, who sets
- Germany before the Lord of history, who calls us from the worship
- of words, from the cult of the Pharisees and the Levites, to the holy
- service of the Samaritan …
- … in the pitch-black night of Christian church history, Hitler became
- like a wonderful transparency for our time, a window through which
- light fell upon the history of Christianity. Through him we were
- able to see the Savior in the history of the Germans. Hitler stood
- there like a rock in a broad wilderness, like an island in an endless
- sea. …
- As a people it became a Satanic curse for the world when it decided
- against the God of heaven and earth and crucified him in Christ his Son. …
- Wherever they live—whether in Japan, in Germany, or in
- America—whether they were the most liberal Jews in Western
- Europe or the most orthodox Zionists in Tel Aviv or Bethany, they
- remained one people with one pulse, one will, one world-goal. They
- forced virtually the whole world to obey the laws of their way of
- thinking and acting; their spirit infected the thinking of all other
- peoples and in this way destroyed their cohesion.
- In Martin Luther we received the spiritual foundations of German Christianity. We should have eyes to see this and—in the hour of grace that the eternal
- Lord has granted us through Adolf Hitler—to meet the challenge
- Luther’s redemptive act presents, but that could not be met during
his own time: to become a community of German Christians. … Just as with Hitler today, so also it was clear with Martin Luther in the sixteenth century that a man sent by God has an impact on all areas and all people. … we cannot imagine Adolf Hitler without Martin Luther. And vice versa: without the appearance of Adolf Hitler four hundred years later, Martin Luther’s act would not have fulfilled its total significance for Germany.
We recognize in race, ethnicity [Volkstum], and nation orders of life given and entrusted to us by God, who has commanded us to preserve them. For this reason race-mixing must be opposed. Based on its experience, the German foreign mission has long admonished the German people: “Keep your race pure!” and tells us that faith in Christ does not destroy race, but rather deepens and sanctifies it. … In the mission to the Jews we see great danger to our people. It is the point at which foreign blood enters the body of our people. … We reject the mission to the Jews as long as Jews have citizenship, which brings with it the danger of race-blurring and race-bastardizing … It is especially important to prohibit marriages between Germans and Jews.
Those of non-Aryan descent or married to someone of non-Aryan descent may not be called as clergy or officials in the general church administration. Clergy or officials who marry a person of non-Aryan descent are to be dismissed. Who counts as a person of non-Aryan descent is to be determined by the regulations accompanying the laws of the Reich.
The adjective völkisch, from the noun Volk, can be translated as “ethno-national,” or “racial-national.” Like Volk, it was a basic term in both the Nazi and German Christian lexicon. Völkisch movements stressed the racial identity of the German people, from which Jews were excluded.My dear brothers!All of us will not only understand but have complete sympathy for the final motivations behind the völkisch movement. Despite the evil ring that the word has acquired in many cases, I have always considered myself an anti-Semite. It cannot be denied that Judaism plays a leading role in all the corruptive phenomena of modern civilization.God bless us Christians and our Easter proclamation!
Can anyone in Germany speak about the Jewish question without mentioning how Jewish literature sinned against the German people through its mockery of all that is holy, since the days of Heinrich Heine? Or of the suffering endured in numerous regions by German farmers at the hands of Jewish money-lenders? And if one wants today to speak out against antisemitism, can one remain silent on the misfortune caused by the Occupying Forces, who have given power to emigré Jews, so that they might give expression to their understandable feelings of rage?.
5. Germany’s Catholics and the Holocaust
The bishops’ handbook does not explain precisely how one preserves “racial stock” without offending “against the moral law and natural justice.”Every people bears itself the responsibility for its successful existence, and the intake of entirely foreign blood will always represent a risk for a nationality that has proven its historical worth. Hence, no people may be denied the right to maintain undisturbed their previous racial stock and to enact safeguards for this purpose. The Christian religion merely demands that the means used do not offend against the moral law and natural justice.
6. The Vatican and the Jews
Father Rondina went to assert that:does not work, but traffics in the property and the work of others; it does not produce, but lives and grows fat with the products of the arts and industry of the nations that give it refuge. It is the giant octopus that with its oversized tentacles envelops everything. It has its stomach in the banks… and its suction cups everywhere: in contracts and monopolies, … in postal services and telegraph companies, in shipping and in the railroads, in the town treasuries and in state finance. It represents the kingdom of capital ... the aristocracy of gold …. It reigns unopposed.
Father Rondina’s explanation for “the ceaseless war that Judaism wages against other nations, especially those that are Christian” is that it is caused by the Jews’ “hatred of Christianity, a hatred that is imposed on the Jews by their laws, and that goes so far as to justify every sort of crime against us” (Kertzer 2001, p. 145).With religious liberty proclaimed, and citizenship conceded even to the Jews, the Jews took advantage of it … to become our masters. Indeed, today it is the stock market that has political control, and this is in the hands of the Jews. What governs is Masonry, and this too is directed by the Jews. What shapes and reshapes public opinion is the press, and this also is in large part inspired and subsidized by the Jews.
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“We Remember” is available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_16031998_shoah_en.html (accessed on 31 December 2017).
The issue of how Hitler and other prominent Nazis really viewed Christianity is discussed in Richard Steigmann-Gall’s (2003) The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945, in the various critiques of this book in the January 2007 issue of the Journal of Contemporary History, and in Steigmann-Gall’s response to his critics in the April 2007 issue of this same journal: (Bergen 2007; Gailus 2007; Hexham 2007; Piper 2007; Steigmann-Gall 2007).
https://archive.org/stream/TheSpeechesOfAdolfHitler19211941/hitler-speeches-collection_djvu.txt. See also (Bucher 2011, p. 77). I have used the upper-case letters in the djvu version. Bucher only has “my feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as fighter” in italics.
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.txt, last sentence of Mein Kampf, vol. 1, chp. II.
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.txt, Mein Kampf, vol. 1, chp. XI.
https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist151/Nazi/poisonousmushroom.pdf, last accessed 29 November 2017. This passage is also quoted by Gregory Paul Wegner in Anti-Semitism and Schooling under the Third Reich (Wegner 2002, p. 365). Wegner discusses The Poisonous Mushroom and other Nazi school books that invoked traditional Christian notions of the Jew, especially in Chapter 5: “Exemplars of Anti-Semitic Literature for Children” (pp. 354–405).
For more on Niemöller and his post-war transformation, see United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. “Martin Niemöller: Biography.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391 (accessed on 5 December 2017).
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d.: Boycott of Jewish Businesses. Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005678# (accessed on 4 December 2017).
Scholars have been debating Bonhoeffer’s attitude toward Jews for decades with Protestant scholars tending to view him as a martyr and a saint. (He was executed in 1945 for being involved in a plan to assassinate Hitler). Jewish scholars have generally tended to be more critical. Thus, Stanley Rosenbaum has referred to Bonhoeffer as “the best of a bad lot,” (Rosenbaum 1981, p. 306). It is difficult to imagine a Protestant scholar saying this (Barnes 1999; Haynes 2006).
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Munson, H. Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust. Religions 2018, 9, 26. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9010026
Munson H. Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust. Religions. 2018; 9(1):26. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9010026Chicago/Turabian Style
Munson, Henry. 2018. "Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust" Religions 9, no. 1: 26. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9010026