In the 2008 study The Aryan Jesus, Susannah Heschel does a first-rate analysis of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, the Nazi-era think tank of the German Christian movement, which had a cozy relationship with the theology faculty at the University of Jena. Striking is the degree to which the institute’s Christian theology aligned with the Nazis’ political objectives, as Heschel so skillfully demonstrates. Through brief biographical sketches of institute leaders and members, careful analyses of the institute’s official program and conference proceedings, and insightful discussions of key publications and doctoral dissertations, Heschel gives readers a comprehensive and nuanced sense of the institute and its mission. And her conclusions are staggering. Put succinctly, the institute members were doing in the realm of the religious what the Nazis were doing in the realm of the political, which took the form of linking “the theological anti-Judaism that had long pervaded German Protestantism with the racist antisemitism promoted by the Nazis” (166).
Despite the superior quality of Heschel’s research, striking is her failure to cite point 24 of the Nazi Party Program, which reads: “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” (qtd. in Steigmann-Gall, 14).1 Notice how the Nazis define their Christian agenda in opposition to Jewish materialism. The implication is this: the Nazis’ version of Christianity can only be realized insofar as it purges itself internally and externally of all that is Jewish (“Sie [the Party] bekämpft den jüdisch-materialistischen Geist in und außer uns”), a formulation that is similar to the institute’s official mission statement, which is contained in the Godesberg Declaration. As Heschel claims, the centerpiece of the declaration is articulated through a question and answer: “‘Is Christianity derived from Judaism and is it its continuation and completion, or does Christianity stand in opposition to Judaism? We answer this question: Christianity is the unbridgeable religious opposition to Judaism’” (81). So that the institute’s theology reinforces the Nazis’ political agenda, the framers of the document define their objectives in a way that unmistakably echoes point 24: “‘The National Socialist worldview fights with all relentlessness against the political and spiritual influence of the Jewish race on our völkisch life’” (86).
That these objectives in official programs are stunningly similar poses a significant challenge to one of the central claims of The Aryan Jesus, for according to Heschel, “Institute-sponsored research, by describing Jesus’s goal as the eradication of Judaism, effectively reframed Nazism as the very fulfillment of Christianity” (17). The implication is that the Nazis’ anti-Jewish agenda was not Christian in nature, which is why the institute’s Christian anti-Semitism is a reframing of Nazism. But given that the Nazi Party Program was penned in 1920 and that the Godesberg Declaration was written in 1939, it would make more sense to say that the institute was merely adopting the Nazis’ official version of Christianity rather than reframing Nazism as the fulfillment of Christianity. Indeed, many prominent Nazis argued that National Socialism was a decidedly Christian party well before the founding of the institute, as Richard Steigmann-Gall, Robert Michael, and I have demonstrated. How, then, are we to explain Heschel’s misstep? The answer, I contend, is certainly not shoddy scholarship. Her study of the institute is a model of intellectual precision and scholarly rigor. Rather, it has something to do with a conceptual framework regarding Christianity and the Nazis that has dominated since the Nuremberg Trials, specifically the trial of Julius Streicher, who likened himself at the trial to Martin Luther.
In the following pages, I examine the conceptual framework that has led lawyers, judges, theologians, and scholars to dismiss the Nazis’ claims to be Christian as irrelevant or to overlook them altogether. To illustrate my point, I draw a clear line of connection between the approaches used at the Streicher Nuremberg Trial and in Heschel’s book. My focus on Heschel, however, should not be seen as an attack on her work...