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The German Churches and the Holocaust

Posted Sunday, May 04, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Culture and Theology  

One of my side interests is the relationship of the German church to the Holocaust, a fairly depressing part of church history. The first book I read on the topic was very interesting: Theologians Under Hitler, by Robert Ericksen. He looks at the life of two somewhat more radical theologians (Emanuel Hirsch and Gerhard Kittel, of TDNT fame) and one more neutral theologian (Paul Althaus). The book is certainly worth reading for an understanding of how people could follow Hitler and be so excited at his election: he would bring order and Christianity back to Germany after the liberal and sinful Weimer Republic. Or at least, so they thought. While the radical Christians clearly caused damage by their beliefs, Erickson argues that the moderate Althaus caused the most damage by being a moderate and endorsing Nazism: if a moderate was for it, then it must be all right. A chilling statement in the book comes from Althaus (I think): if the church did not embrace national socialism, then the church would become irrelevant and would lose any influence it has. What a challenge for us today! It is clear that Nazism is evil and the church should not have accepted it. But at the time it was not clear. What things that we accept today will be seen clearly as unhelpful in the future? We must be every careful about conforming to the context around us.

I am currently reading another book on the topic, a collection of essays on a variety of subjects: Betrayal , edited by Erickson and Heschel. This is a good place to start to read on the topic. The authors spend a few pages introducing the topic, from which I learned that the Jehovah's Witnesses were among the few who protested what was going on in Germany. Erickson presents a short overview of his book. One of the more interesting chapters is an overview of another book, this one on the German Christian movement (Deutsche Christen), the radical Nazi Christian movement. They put into place a variety of theological moves related to anti-Semitism, removing any hint of Judaism from Christianity. Hymns had their Hebrew words removed (Hallelujah, etc.). Jesus was declared to be an Aryan and not Jewish (although this was already happening in the final decade of the nineteenth century). The Old Testament was rejected, and large parts of the NT were removed (including all of Paul by some Deutsche Christen). New versions of the Bible and hymnals were produced with the necessary excisions. Luther's law/grace distinction was expanded so that the OT (law) was only helpful as a negative way to show the glory of grace. Luther himself was quoted in his desire to burn synagogues. The movement was very masculine focused, using fighting imagery and decrying compassion and femininity.  Foreign missionaries argued that since the gospel was contextualized for other peoples, then it should also be contextualized for the Germans, including their anti-antisemitism. Just like the difference between men and women did not end with the cross, so the difference between Jew and Aryan did not end either. Ironically, all the effort to impress Hitler did not work: he ended up ignoring them. In the post-war atmosphere, Christians claimed the church was persecuted. But upon further study, that persecution was not great. For example, the government told the churches they could not use the swastika on their church newspapers. After the war, almost all of the Deutsche Christen returned to the church and normal life without consequences. Most were silent about the Nazi years, although some continued to defend their beliefs and actions.

The book ends on a somewhat disturbing tone, as it strongly implies that anyone who says that the Jewish religion is not a valid faith or way to reach God is anti-Semitic and has not fully taken to heart the Holocaust. I will fully agree that I have not truly understood the Holocaust, nor will I ever do so. But I refuse to change my beliefs from Jesus being the only means of salvation to believing that people can be saved from their sins to true freedom by some other means. I abhor anti-Semitism, but I think that to define it that broadly is stretching the term too far. Overall, this is a helpful book if you would like to learn more about this depressing topic.  They seem to be a little too devoted to finding "bad" examples and ignoring the Christians who actually helped the Jew (although they do have a chapter on Bonhoffer), but much excellent information is included. 

Tuesday, May 06, 2008 8:30 AM

Eric wrote: 

Thanks for this post Charlie.  This is something that I had never really considered before.  One simply doesn't think of Germany as a bastion of Christian faith during the time of WWII.  How remarkable, ironic and challenging to consider that the church became irrellevant in German culture through their efforts to mainstream themselves.  Their fear of being sidelined blinded them to the evil they embrazed.  Their efforts to be middle of the road or moderate made them useless in a time of great need. 

This should lead us to consider ways in which the modern church in America is also struggling.  We must embrace the deep moral roots of our faith. 

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