- The Church of England and the Holocaust: Christianity, Memory and Nazism
This book is a valuable addition to the historiography of the Christian churches as bystanders. Tom Lawson explores the failure of most Anglican leaders to understand the realities of Nazism, especially Nazi crimes against the Jews, and places this failure in its context. [End Page 171]
In interpreting Nazism, Anglican churchmen relied on their pre-existing, narrow, and Christian-centred worldview. It was this, Lawson argues, that led them to construct a skewed understanding of the Nazi menace—as directed primarily against Christian culture. They saw Nazism as the inversion of Christian values, the Christian churches in Germany as Nazism's primary victim, and Christianity as its primary opponent.
These preoccupations were inconsistent with recognizing the Jews as the Nazis' primary victims. Anglicans were reluctant to dwell on the specifics of Nazi crimes against the Jews or to understand them as the consequence of anti-Semitic policies. Instead, these crimes were reconceived as attacks on Christian or universal values.
Led by Bishop Bell of Chichester, Anglicans turned the embattled German Protestant pastor, Martin Niemöller, into their pre-eminent symbol of all resistance to the evils of Nazism, despite the ambiguity of Niemöller's protests and his acknowledged anti-Semitism. Anglicans repeatedly equated the totalitarianism and godlessness of Nazism with that of the Soviet Union, blurring the distinctions between each regime's characteristics.
These attitudes continued essentially unchanged from the first years of the Nazi regime until well into the postwar era. Yet church leaders could bend with the changing winds of British foreign policy. From celebrating Munich to going to war, from denouncing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to accepting alliance with the Soviet Union, Anglicans displayed what Lawson calls the "propensity for the tendentious translation of political reality into moral certainty." But how much of this process of adaptation was distinctively Anglican, as opposed to broadly British?
As regards the Holocaust, Lawson relies heavily on the work of other authors to summarize Anglican involvement in British debates on rescue policy, highlighting the activism of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. Well-briefed by rescue campaigners with details of the fate of the Jews and advice about its presentation, Temple made eloquent appeals that demonstrated his humanitarian concern, but were ultimately impotent. The point of the chapter on the murder of the Jews is to demonstrate that it did not change Anglicans' views of Nazism. Nor did it trigger a re-examination of their views of themselves or their own faith.
Anglicans persisted in regarding Germans, including even the German army, as the Nazis' victims. Looking to the postwar era, they aspired to reach out to these needy fellow Christians and to strive for the re-Christianization of Europe. Fear of compromising the reconciliation process contributed to Anglicans leaders' hostility to de-nazification and to their participation in the calls for cessation of the program of war crimes trials.
These indulgent views of the perpetrators were accompanied by Anglicans' failure to reappraise their attitudes toward the Nazis' Jewish victims. The [End Page 172] Reverend James Parkes, whose insight into Christian-Jewish relations was decades ahead of his contemporaries, was met with derision by his fellow churchmen when he circulated suggestions that Christian attitudes toward the Jews were the cause of Nazi anti-Semitism and that Christian missions to the Jews should cease.
Lawson's study is well researched and his argument forceful, if repetitious. He has deepened our understanding of Anglican thinking about the perpetrators. He makes a good case for his contention that the dominance of an outdated worldview should be preferred to more commonly accepted explanations for the blinkered attitudes of the Church of England—attitudes whose influence in shaping perceptions of Nazism has, he shows, been far-reaching and long-lasting.