Sunday, February 27, 2005


2/21 -- Further Thoughts on Christianity and the Holocaust

2/12 -- The Holocaust and the Religious Connection

2/4 -- The failure to look for the Jewish Jesus and the Holocaust

The first post in March, hopefully in a few days, will be on the efforts to rescue Jews during World War II.

Monday, February 21, 2005


For the past two posts, I've been discussing some of the failures of Christianity towards Jews. The successes of Christians, particularly during the Holocaust, need to be discussed too. I'll save that for the next post. Here, I want to add a few remarks to what I've said before.

Two posts back (Feb. 4), I stated my belief that if Christian scholars had developed a positive atttitude towards Jesus' Jewishness and taught Christians to rejoice in it, the Holocaust would never have happened or been significantly reduced. Just as German Christians protested the Nazi program of euthanasia for "disabled" people (which led to protests by Christian leaders in the pulpits) and were effective in curtailing, though not completely stopping, it, and saving lives, so too Christians would not have stood for the destruction of Jews if they had experienced this as an assault on Jesus himself.

In other words, the emotional relationship between Christian and Jew would have been very different, and, on that basis, the Nazis would have faced stiff, consistent opposition. But, of course, the whole problem is that the emotional relationship with Judaism was off kilter to begin with and that's why scholars did such lousy work on the historical, Jewish Jesus.

It raises the old chicken and egg question. Which comes first? Good, accurate historical study or the right emotions? I think truthful historical investigation can help create a better emotional atmosphere. When Christians realize that the Jewish Jesus does not threaten their faith, that will make for a better attitude towards Jews. But it works both ways. It is only when scholars begin to resolve their negative reactions to anything Jewish, that they will start to see 1st century Jewish history and Jesus' place within it in a different way.

I honestly don't know which comes first. The truth is probably that it will be worked at from both ends until a harmony is achieved.

In the last post, I referred to Cardinal Adolf Bertram's protest, on behalf of German bishops, of a proposed Nazi policy to dissolve all Christian-Jewish marriages, but reaffirming the Nazi position that Jewish influence was a threat to German culture. Christian leaders did this far too often: Telling the Nazis that Jews were indeed a danger to society, but advocating a civilized approach to "the Jewish problem". It never occurred to any of these leaders that "the Jewish threat" was itself an uncivilized idea.

Many examples of this could be given. It was not only in Germany that this took place. In Slovakia, in April 1942, as Jews were being deported, Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter disparaging Jews for rejecting and killing Christ, while stating that they should be treated in a way that does not violate civil or natural law.

In Hungary, Cardinal Justinian Seredi called deportations of Jews unlawful but said that he would be glad to see Jewish influence in Hungary eliminated. His Archbishop, Gyula Czapik, had advised him that what was happening to the Jews was an appropriate punishment for their misdeeds. (For these two examples, see Michael Phayer, "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965" [2000], pp. 89, 106.)

It seems that each person had their own level at which they were shocked by the Nazis. For some, it was Kristallnacht in November 1938. Dietrich Bonhoeffer marked the date of Kristallnacht, followed by an exclamation mark, next to Psalm 74:8 in his Bible, "They burn all the houses of God in the land." On that night, 191 synagogues were set on fire and 76 others were completely destroyed. (For more on Bonhoeffer, see Kenneth Barnes' wonderful essay in "Betrayal: German Chruches and the Holocaust" [1999], edited by Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel; see p. 123 for the effect of Kristallnacht on Bonhoeffer.)

For others, like Sebastian Haffner (whom I'll get to further on), the awareness of what the Nazis had in mind happened even sooner. But for many, it was the deportations of Jews. Earlier anti-Jewish measures aroused little opposition. But those deportations, which often meant the break-up of families, touched a nerve in many Christians.

Francois Mauriac said it was the Nazi roundup of the 4,051 Jewish children of Drancy in the summer of 1942 that finally revealed to him the horror of the Nazi regime. He did not see the roundup himself. His wife did and described it to him. He knew nothing yet of extermination camps. "Yet the way these lambs had been torn from their mothers in itself exceeded anything we had so far thought possible." The dream of western enlightenment "vanished finally for me before those trainloads of little children." (Quoted in Hubert Butler, "Independent Spirit" [1996; a collection of his essays], p. 517.)

Hubert Butler calls the killing and burning of 4,051 children an act of composite villainy: "It was composite villainy, and when you try to break it down there are no villains, just functionaries as neutral and characterless as the clusters of ink blobs of which a press photograph is composed" (516). Later he speaks of "those long chains of atomized guilt with which the Children of Drancy were strangled" (524).

But Sebastian Haffner (pen-name of Raimund Pretzel) felt the terror as the very first ink blobs dripped into place. He knew what was coming. He left Germany for England in 1938 and began a memoir in 1939. It was never completed and remained unpublished until 2000 in Germany and 2002 in English. The events recounted in "Defying Hitler" end around 1933 or 34. Here he describes his understanding at that time of what was in store for Jews (pp 171-72):

"No one would be really surprised if tommorrow all the Jews were to be arrested or ordered to commit suicide as a punishment for some trumped-up charge. SA men would say, 'Well, that's all right then,' genially gratified when they were told that the Jews had all properly killed themselves. The streets would look the same as always. 'Well, that's all right then.' The villas would be unchanged in their friendly gardens, blustery spring weather, and drizzle ... " (his ellipsis).

Haffner speaks often of the bad smell he got from the Nazis (pp. 102-04, 107, 136) and criticizes himself for not having had the courage to follow up on his instincts (137-39, 151, 267, 282). I think he was too hard on himself. It is difficult to act alone. He tells of others who refused to see that anything really bad was in progress (212-13). So much ambiguity swirled in Christian feelings concerning Jews.

In France, six bishops bravely and vigorously opposed the Nazis' deportations of Jews, but half the priests would not read the bishops' pastoral letter of protest to their congregations. (This last fact is reported by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, "A Moral Reckoning" [2002], p. 116. He cites Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, "Vichy France and the Jews" [1983], p. 273.)

Nechama Tec wrote a wonderful book, "When Light Pierced the Darkness", in which she examined many of the rescue efforts during the war (she herself was saved as a child by a Christian family, I believe, who hid her). I will give one of her examples in the next post. But she too notes how ambiguous, for example, were Church teachings on the Jews. Violence towards Jews is wrong, especially murder, the Church taught -- right alongside the teaching that Jews must be held in contempt and were a harmful influence.

Guenter Lewy, whom I quoted in the post below this, captured it best when he said of German bishops that they had become prisoners of their own antisemitic teachings. No one has summed it up better.

I am afraid that this ambiguity has never been resolved. It has only been toned down. The pressure of the Holocaust has caused some improvement in Jewish-Christian relations, but how deep does it go and will it last when the pressure of the Holocaust slowly dissipates over time?

When you look at Christian scholarship on the historical Jesus, it does not seem that much has changed at all. All the myths of antagonism between Jesus and other Jews hold steadily in place. The overwhelming majority of Christian scholars still incorrectly believes that Jesus was religiously offensive to his fellow Jews and that this is what got him killed.

It's nonsense, of course, but it is a powerful and harmful myth. It is the prison of this mindset that has caused scholars to do such bad historical analysis. They are still prisoners of their own anti-Jewish outlook in studying this history. It is one of those ink blobs, which Butler referred to, that could again create a horrible photograph one day.

Enough of that for now. Next post: Some of the bright spots during the nightmare of World War II.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


This is a follow-up to the previous post where I indicated that some people are so uncomfortable with the idea that religion had anything to do with the Holocaust that they proclaim the Holocaust was strictly a secular event. Their strongest case for this is that the extreme violence was not caused by religion. The Nazis felt that they had broken free of religious constraints and could do whatever they wanted. They must have sensed that they went beyond all decency because they tried to operate in secret as much as possible.

There is some truth to this argument. But if this is the best argument that can be mustered in defense of religion, it's not quite good enough. It tries to get us to imagine that the ferocious bloodthirstiness and sadism of the Nazis sprang up from out of nowhere. But that is not true, is it? Violence happens because a ground has been prepared for it.

Some people would like us to believe that the Nazis did the unthinkable. The truth is that the Nazis did what had become very thinkable, though avoided until they came along. Not only had some Christians (certainly not all Christians) made violence towards Jews a possibility, they had even made extermination something to contemplate.

For at least a hundred years before the Nazis came to power, and often since 1890, there were some Christians who suggested that eliminating all Jews would be a solution to "the Jewish problem", though they usually added that, as Christians, they could do no such thing. But they kept bringing it up. David Kertzer gives two examples in his "The Popes Against the Jews" (2001), pp. 144, 257 (the first is from 1890 and the second, 1923). More examples of this could be adduced.

The Nazis definitely stepped over a line, but some Christians had drawn that line repeatedly and made it a distinct possibility in the minds of Christians. If that line had not become a thinkable idea, it would not have been there for the Nazis to step over. I don't think it would have occurred to them that this is something they could get away with.

Even on the question of lesser violence towards Jews, the Catholic Church, for example, had a very mixed attitude. Officially, it condemned such violence as inhuman and unChristian, but it also had moments when it turned its back and blamed the Jews themselves for the violence perpetrated against them. For examples of the former, see Kertzer, pp. 206, 271, 273, 275, and for the latter, see 147-48, 157, 158, 175, 184, 212, 250, and 324, n. 23.

There are even deeper reasons for seeing a connection between the Nazis and religion. Most Nazis were not born Nazis. Many were raised Catholic or Protestant. Some would see no incompatibility between Nazism and religion, and some would, abandoning their religion and embracing their new secular ideology. In general, the Nazis hated religion. But they did not grow up loving Jews and hating them only when they took up Nazism. They learned their hatred of Jews in their religious traditions. They wanted to get rid of the theological ground for antisemitism and replace it with the so-called purely scientific grounds of their racial theories. They indeed wanted to make antisemitism secular, but they learned it from religion.

It would be silly to suggest that Nazis garnered their hatred of Jews from pagan sources or from studying their perverted brand of science. Their "science" was invented after the fact of their hatred. When the Nazis made Jews wear a yellow star, they did not get that from paganism. It was not ancient Rome that put a yellow badge on Jews. It was the medieval Catholic Church.

Nazis quite consciously imitated certain Christian practices towards Jews. Their racial laws were another imitation of former Christian practice, especially the Catholic Church's promulgation of laws, since the 4th century, separating Jews from Christians. The whole instinct of treating Jews as aliens was essentially a Christian one (or, one version of Christianity), as I explained in the post below this one, and had its origins, I believe, in regarding Jesus as an alien among his own people.

And it was not just past Christian practice that Nazis were following, it was something contemporary as well. One of the most shameful parts of the history immediately preceding and accompanying the Holocaust is that many among the Christian leadership, not the people, condoned Nazi antisemitism, counseling only that Nazis should pursue it in a civilized way.

Examples abound of Catholic leaders approaching the Nazis like this. See Guenter Lewy, "The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany" (1964), pp. 274-76, 282, 289, 296, 298. And Protestants in Germany had their own movement, the German Christian movement, which tried to butter up to the Nazis. See Doris Bergen, "Twisted Cross" (1996), Chapter 4 ("The Manly Church"; a flyer for the movement declared its desire for a Christianity "[t]hat is not 'only' for old women, but for the life-affirming men of the Third Reich"; I offer some quotes from leaders of this movement in "The Offensive Jesus" on my site.)

So there were indeed some Christian leaders who agreed with Nazi policies towards Jews and only advocated that they be carried out in a civilized way. But what is civilized? Are ghettos civilized, while concentration camps are not? I will grant that the latter are far more brutal, but ghettos are not exactly humane.

Since 1890, the Jesuit magazine "Civilta Cattolica" had argued for bringing back the ghetto and returning Jews thereto. In 1936, one of its articles emphasized its opposition to Nazism (in 1934, the magazine had said the Nazis upset the order of religion and society), but also stressed that this does not mean rejecting antisemitism. It argued that Jews were a threat to society and approved of suspending civil rights for Jews and returning them to ghettos (see Lewy, 296).

Even as late as November 1942, Cardinal Adolf Bertram, on behalf of German bishops. could protest a Nazi proposal to dissolve all Christian-Jewish marriages and, at the same time, agree with the Nazis that Jewish influences were harmful to German culture and national interests (Lewy, 289).

Such Christian leaders did not resist the Nazis more because, as Guenter Lewy put it concerning German bishops, "... they found themselves prisoners of their own anti-Semitic teachings" (294). They thought they could create or encourage antisemitism and then control it. They were wrong.

Once you accept the inhumane premise of treating Jews, or any people, as alien, as a threat, certain steps follow from that. Too many Christian leaders accepted that premise and some, though not all, of the steps that followed. They thought that they could draw a line so that it would not go too far, but they never saw that it is almost impossible to control the consequences of an inhumane idea. If you allow the strange idea that a group is sub-human and threatening, you are setting in motion emotional forces no one can control.

Christian antisemitism did not lead inevitably to the Holocaust. And I would not blame it for all the Nazi atrocities. But it did lend a significant helping hand. It may partly explain why so many Nazis felt and acted like normal people with no feelings of guilt about what they did. Their basic sentiments about Jews were shared by so many (happily not all) Christians. They quibbled only over the exact methods needed to isolate the so-called Jewish threat. For Nazis, this quibbling meant they were still within the bounds of the normal.

The purpose of studying history is not to find mistakes that were made so that we can all feel guilty. The purpose is not to condemn an entire religion. What a waste of time that would be, and pernicious to boot. The purpose is to locate the particular things that went wrong. It is to pinpoint as accurately as possible the specific way in which Christianity took a wrong turn and rectify it.

We need to understand the connection between treating Jesus as an alien in Jewish culture and Jews as alien in Christian culture. That's where the Holocaust had its roots. This kind of understanding needs to come so that a burden can lift from our shoulders.

The Nazis may have disowned religion but they got their fundamental attitude from religion. We need to understand this too. We need the healing it will give us. To acknowledge a terrible truth is not to condemn people to live guilt-ridden lives. It is to lift a burden, as President Lyndon B. Johnson once said.

After signing the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, Johnson spoke in a radio address to his fellow white Southerners who were disheartened to see old ways crumbling. He told them a new day must come. "And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, too. It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it."

We do not need to be stained any longer by the lies that Jesus was a strange, foreign, offensive presence among Jews and that Jews are foreigners among humankind. Get rid of these lies -- and the lie that this had nothing to do with the Holocaust -- and an enormous burden dragging us all down will lift from our civilization.

Friday, February 04, 2005


It's a tough question, isn't it? It will make many people cringe. I admit it's open to a lot of speculation. There may not be one definitive answer. But it has to be explored.

What makes me ask it are the following what-ifs: What if 19th century scholars had taught people not to be afraid of Jesus' Jewishness? What if they had said that a very Jewish Jesus is someone to be celebrated and not at all a threat to Christianity?

It is hard to believe that if the spirit of these what-ifs had overwhelmed and flooded Christian academic research and teaching, that the Holocaust could possibly have happened. Before we reached the stage of concentration camps, before we reached the stage of deportations, before we reached the stage of racial laws and yellow stars, Christians would have protested en masse as soon as the Nazis tarted proclaiming that Jews were a threat to society. Nazi policies would have been stopped at the very first stage. Christians would have argued that Jews are not a threat to society, they are a benefit, and if you attack Jews, you are attacking Jesus Christ himself.

But that never happened. Nazis were allowed to take the first step, and, as someone once said, you get to concentration camps by going step by step. (Dennis Potter, British TV and film writer, once made this point brilliantly in a teleplay about the devil who appears as a normal young man; he convinces an elderly couple that exterminating immigrants would be a good idea; his first suggestion of this horrifies them, but he then leads them to it by degrees.)

Objecting to the first step never happened in the case of the Holocaust because when the Nazis argued that Jews were a threat, they were just repeating a belief firmly held by many, though not all, Christians. David Kertzer, in his book "The Popes Against the Jews" (2001), gives plenty of examples from late 19th and early 20th century Catholic writers who declared that Jews undermined Christian society and values. Jews were regarded as an alien race. These writers even used the word "race" often enough.

The foundation for this kind of thinking was established not only in religious teachings about Jesus but also in supposedly secular, objective scholarship. These scholars presented Jesus as an alien in Jewish religion and culture. Jesus and Judaism as alien to each other would be a better way to put their ideas, so that it would inevitably follow that Jews are aliens in the Christian society which, it was believed, flowed from Jesus.

I have give enough examples of this from scholarly writings in my two essays "The Offensive Jesus" and "Schweitzer and Renan" on my Web site. I won't repeat them here. The case against the scholarly world has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. This trend continues in the majority of current scholars. They all describe Jesus as offensive to the Jews of this time -- even most of the people, not only the leaders.

Some would say that the Holocaust was a strictly secular event and had no religious connection. I don't think that's true and I'll explain why in the next post.

In the meantime, it is important to defeat the idea that Jesus was an alien to his own culture and people. Unfortunately, this false representation of history does not look like it will end soon. Scholars forbid all criticism on this point. They even forbid raising the questions. My experience is that you will be shut down immediately if you dare suggest that a serious error is being continued.

I hope this era of censorship will not last forever, but it's hard to see where or how inroads will be made into this locked down mentality.

Writing about history is a dangerous thing because the struggle to tell the truth about history is a struggle for power. Just asking certain questions is a threat to power. We will know that a genuine dialogue has finally begun only when the power of academia begins to shake a little.

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