Christians and the Holocaust

Kevin P. Spicer ed. Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007).

USHMMIn the summer of 2004, thirteen scholars gathered at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to discuss the relationship between Christianity and antisemitism in twentieth-century Europe. Three years later, the results of this gathering have recently been published as a collection of essays which “examine how the legacy of anti-Semitism within the Christian churches limited the ability of their clergy and laity to critique National Socialism as evil and unequivocally condemn it.” This challenging and thought-provoking collection encourages both historians and theologians to think more carefully about the complex interaction of Church and race during an extremely violent period of European history. Moreover, it calls the Church to account for its overwhelming failure to obey Christ’s command to “Love thy neighbor;” a call that is simultaneously a demand for repentance and a plea for change.

Kevin SpicerSpicer’s collection is not a systematic treatment of Christian antisemitism; nor does it adequately cover the wide range of Christian responses to the Holocaust. Instead, it retains the dialogical quality of a scholarly gathering. Each specialist brings his or her own research interests to the table, and the conversation jumps from Danish Lutheran pastors to Romanian Orthodox priests and American Rabbis.  As in a collage, the reader is left with an overall impression about Christian responses to the Holocaust, but with no coherent narrative. The lack of a single overriding storyline is a strength rather than a weakness of this book, because it helps do justice to the complexity of the history that it describes.

Several important convictions are shared by all of the authors, the most important being that the Church was not immune to the spirit of the times. Rather than shining as “a light in the darkness,” as Thorsten Wagner puts it, by and large Christians were just like everybody else. Christians shared many of the same belief systems as their contemporaries, and thus they found it difficult, if not impossible, to reject or criticize the racial antisemitism of the Nazis. In fact, many Nazi ideologues made extensive use of Christian doctrines, symbols and rhetoric while elucidating their own system. They could do this because centuries of Christian hostility towards Jews had provided a wealth of anti-Jewish arguments and stories that could be utilized.

Refreshingly, the contributors to this volume spend little time rehashing the anti-Judaism of fifth-century polemicists, or of Martin Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies. Instead they present a nuanced discussion of the anti-Jewish tendencies within twentieth century theology. Robert A. Kreig shows how in focusing on the personhood of Jesus, German Catholic theologians inadvertently repeated negative stereotypes of Jews in their renderings of the Gospels. What was essentially a positive theological development had unfortunate side-effects because of pre-critical uses of the Biblical texts, ignorance of historical-critical reconstructions of Jesus’ life and times, antiquated theologies of Judaism, and the rejection of religious toleration.

SupersessionismSupersessionism, or the doctrine that the Jews as “the Chosen People” were superseded by the Church after Christ’s resurrection, is consistently highlighted by a number of authors as one of the most serious theological errors that fueled antisemitism. Unfortunately, instead of systematically refuting this doctrine, variants of which still have currency within many Christian circles, the authors simply ridicule it. In noting that supersessionism was widely criticized and often rejected after the Second World War, they imply that it was drowned in a sea of embarrassment, or abandoned for the sake of political correctness,  rather than because it was proved to have been wrong.

Apart from the lacunae in the discussions of supersessionism, the treatments of post-Holocaust soul-searching are some of the best passages in the book. Should Christian failures be confronted or covered-up? To what extent should the Church, as Christ’s representative on earth, take upon itself the sin of the world? i.e., should the guilt of the German nation rest upon the shoulders of the German Church? Moreover, how could Christians continue to proselytize Jews after the Holocaust? Could Christians arrive at a place of mutual affirmation in which conversion was no longer considered necessary? Memory is not the sole prerogative of one party, however, and Gershon Greenberg shows how many of the same tensions that afflicted wartime Christianity also shook their Jewish counterparts. Some Orthodox Jews saw a strict separation between Jews and gentiles, and refused any attempt at appropriation or mutual recognition. Others emphasized a common humanity, and the heritage that Jews and Christians shared in the Old Testament, and drew a distinction between “pagan” Nazi antisemitism and true Christianity.

Spanish martyrsChristians, including clergy, were not only often ambivalent to the war against the Jews, but at times they were even willing perpetrators. Sometimes circumstances influenced this decision. Beth Griech-Polelle examines how the Spanish civil war encouraged Roman-Catholic clergy in Germany to seek alliances with Hitler in the fight against Communism. They were confused and disappointed when Hitler did not respond to their offers with open arms. Even if the Catholic hierarchy did not necessarily collaborate with the Nazis, even in America they were reluctant to censure those priests who openly propagated fascist ideas and antisemitic slogans.

The most extreme case of Christian complicity in the Holocaust is that of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Drawing on well-known sources, Paul Shapiro reiterates the history of antisemitism in Romanian Orthodoxy, the frequent use of religious rhetoric by Romanian antisemites, and the involvement of the clergy and leading intellectuals in fascist movements. Shapiro pays careful attention to the power struggles between fascist leaders and Orthodox hierarchs for the allegiance of the faithful, and gives a meticulously documented narrative of the official church’s changing attitude towards fascism and its activities in Transnistria during the Holocaust. Less well known, but sketched in tantalizingly broad strokes, are the post-war careers of former fascists in Romanian Orthodox churches in the West. After the war, a number of leading fascists rose to prominent positions in the émigré churches, using the Church as a “natural vehicle” through which to pursue their “divine mission.”

Jewish-ChristianCovering a number of different European nation-states and a variety of confessions, this collection gives us insights into the complicated nature of Christianity’s encounter with fascism and the Holocaust. None of these authors tells a simple story. Individuals and groups within each situation responded differently, some heroically expressing solidarity with the Jews, others lauding Hitler in the name of Christ, and still others cynically choosing whichever side best suited their purposes for the moment. By combining intellectual, social and political history, this volume shows how ideology fueled political choices, and how political situations influenced the creation of dogma, both before and after the Holocaust. Most importantly though, the facts proffered by these historians demand that both Jews and Christians continue to wrestle with what it means to “Love thy neighbor” in a world in which our neighbor does not believe the same things that we do.

**This review was originally published in Arhaeus, 11-12 (2007-08): 391-394.**

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