King's Evangelical Divinity School

13 June 2013

Protestant and Evangelical Involvement in the Holocaust

We sometimes hear about the pre-war Roman Catholic Church's attitudes towards the Jews which not only reflected European deep-rooted anti-Semitism at the time but also contributed to a milieu which allowed the Holocaust to happen. Yet we read far less about Protestant attitudes (Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, even Pentecostal) towards the Jews in Germany and across pre-war Europe, which likewise permitted the architects of the Holocaust to go about their genocidal task. Here's an excerpt taken from a disturbing essay on the subject (itself part of a much larger piece of research). Evangelicals take note.

In 1933, Bishop Rendtorff (who would later become a leader in the Confessing Church) had questioned the whole assumption that the state’s behaviour towards the Jews was “unevangelical”. For 1700 years, he noted, the church had fully approved of restrictive laws against Jews. Emancipation was an idea of the enlightenment, and should not be identified as an evangelical norm (26).  Wilhelm Halfmann, the spiritual director of the Confessing Church in Schleswig-Holstein, and Bishop of Holstein after 1946, wrote in 1936 that, because of “legitimate” Christian anti-Semitism, it was not the church’s duty “to interfere in the state’s Jewish legislation: 
Far more, we of the church must say, based upon two thousand years’ experience with the Jews: the state is right. It is attempting to protect the German people ... with the approval of the Christian church”.  (27)
Likewise, the Brethren Die Tenne spoke of the “accursed” nature of the Jews, and of “the cleansing of Germany from ... Jewish immigrants”. On June 18, 1933, Licht und Leben carried an article by the Chairman of the Gnadau Association to Promote Fellowship and Evangelisation, Walter Michaelis, stating that he and his organisation “had nothing against stemming Jewish influence, and treating Jews as non Germans.” From a Biblical point of view, “nothing could be said against this,” and it was indeed, “part of the divine plan for them.” (28) Concerning the Nuremberg Laws, the Baptist Wahrheitszeuge “told its readers not to forget that the hearts of Jews had been hardened by God following their rejection of the Messiah. Under God’s judgment, they had become a curse for the world.” (29) Likewise, the founder of the Elim Pentecostal church in Germany stated that he had “warmly welcomed” the Nuremberg Laws and knew that they did not violate God’s Word “in any way”. (30)
In Poland, during 1936, Monsignor Trzeciak addressed a large audience on the topic “The Jewish problem in the light of Christian ethics”. He stated: 
Saint Jerome hated the Jews and Pope Pius V expelled all Jews from the Papal domain. Poland should follow this example: Jews should be destroyed, exterminated and expelled from Poland ... Noble are those Christians who refuse to sit with Jews on the same bench at university ... every Polish woman who buys from a Jew is a traitor. The Christian religion imposes a penalty for dealing with Jews. (31)
The fruits of supersessionism in the above material are clear. Anti-Jewish legislation is approved of by these churches, based on “2,000 years” of Church history, the “accursed” nature of the Jews, the “divine plan” for them and “God’s word.” Jewish suffering was officially promoted by these churches based on their own doctrines. The churches could have behaved like the Israelites in 2 Chronicles 28:13-15, or like David in 1 Samuel 26:11. Instead, they behaved like Babylon in Isaiah 47:6, not understanding Isaiah 54:7-8. This official support for the boycott and exclusion of Jews dispersed across Europe finds its ugly parallel in  today’s supersessionist Christian support for the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions aimed at the ingathered Jews in the state of Israel.

Excerpt from Colin Barnes, "Denouement of Supersessionist Triumphalism: European Churches and the Holocaust" in Calvin L. Smith, ed. The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism. New revised and expanded edition (King's Divinity Press 2013), 74-77.


Rebecca said...

Susannah Heschel and others have written about the involvement of the Protestant Church in Germany in promoting antisemitism and the Shoah during the Nazi years. Even the Confessing Church did little to help Jews. See her book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press).

Calvin L. Smith said...

Know of it (and about the Confessing Church). I'm especially interested in other Protestant groups' involvement (inc. Evangelicals). Do you know if she mentions Pentecostals, Baptists etc? Or know of any other researches/authors who do?

David said...

Calvin, one thing I am aware of is that Martin Sasse, a German Lutheran bishop, wrote approvingly of Kristallnacht, saying "on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany". He went on to encourage people to adopt Luther's anti-semitism.

More generally, I think there is an obvious tendency for protestants and evangelicals to whitewash their past. It's easy to blame the "others", especially catholics, whom protestants tend to regard as a false church, but a lot harder to look inwards at your own group's failings.

I see this in the contemporary issue of child abuse. I've read a few rants by evangelicals against catholics because of paedophile priests, but they conveniently ignore the large number of protestant child molesters, many of whom have also been protected by church institutions.

Jack Morrow said...

See also The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 by Richard Steigmann-Gall, published by Cambridge University Press in 2003.

Anonymous said...

This is on a similar vein

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - is a little known German Lutheran cleric, under the influence of the odeous Nazi state, really representative of 2,000 years of Christian thought? Of course the influence of Luther on Nazism is well documented in Peter Weiner's Win the Peace pamphlet no.3. Perhaps the longer article is more balanced and discusses this context in greater depth.

You could also for instance research other European Protestants. George Muller was a German minister, and came to the UK to work for the London Jews Sociey, later helping to found the brethren movement. The Bristol group though disagreed with JN Derby's dual covenant theology and were ostracised - the Bristol grouping formed the open brethren movement. Derby gave the world the exclusive brethren, falling into the error of the Galatian Christians who wanted to separate themselves from other believers.

Now, I recognise you wish to challenge the boycott, divestment movement, against Israel, but you could just point out that it is in danger of being a 'form of godliness, but denying the power of God'. The danger is that it is a humanistic and socialist approach to righteousness. i.e. a form of pelagianism. There are others of us who simply wish to develop an accurate understanding of theology and Christian ministry, and engage in dialogue, without getting involved in politics on either side.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Andrew, one cleric? Read it again. The chapter in my book and the research it draws upon detail many Protestants whose attitudes to the Jewish people made the Holocaust possible. Others in this thread detail similar academic research. And yes, tragically such anti-Semitism is representative of many centuries of Church thought, arising out of punitive supersessionism (all well-documented). Surprised, really, that you seem to be downplaying this.

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - I am not seeking to downplay anything, but calling for balance. You could find many Christians who have shown great love to the Jewish people through the years, even amongst those who believe the church is the continuity of Israel, both ethnically and spiritually. Secondly, even if one were to hold to punitive supercessionism, it doesn't follow that Christians must become divine instruments of that punishment. Christians have a calling to make disciples of all nations showing the love of Christ to all. The error comes because some Christians mistake what God is doing with what we are called to do as God's servants - even some CZs make that mistake by trying to speed up the return of Christ be sending Jews to Israel for the next holocaust in the Valley of Megiddo.

I don't understand the amount of effort given to attacking the church in defence of the modern State of Israel - perhaps you can explain it? I can understand a challenge to what you see as inappropriate political activism in the pro-Palestinian camp, but there are other theologians you could engage with such as NT Wright, or John Piper. The church already suffers many attacks from Darwinists, atheists, secularists, Islamists etc. perhaps it needs some more friends?

My passion is to build the church having been brought up in the shadow of the depressing ecclesiological theology of JN Darby which turned the church inwards towards a holy huddle mentality. And I wish to call for peace, justice and reconcilliation in the Middle East.

Consider 1 Peter 2: 4-6...9-10 (Peter was writing to the Israelite diasporas in Turkey who received Jesus, and alludes to Hosea 2:23). 'As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”[b]

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

James said...

How fortunate we are that whenever any Christian commentator draws attention to the reality of Christian anti-Semitism, whether historically or in the present, Andrew is there to decry such efforts in the name of "balance"!