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  • Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust
  • Donald L. Niewyk
Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, edited by Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. 223 pp. $22.00 (p).

The German churches, once hailed for their “struggle” against control by the Nazi state, today are more commonly vilified for their capitulation to Nazi policies, including the persecution of racial minorities and political dissenters. The eight essays in this anthology document the intrusion of racial antisemitism into key Protestant and [End Page 147] Catholic institutions during the Third Reich, and they make it clear that this dogma was built upon traditional anti-Jewish sentiments that long predated Hitler. For the most part the authors summarize arguments that they have advanced previously at greater length. Hence this volume will prove valuable chiefly to readers approaching the subject for the first time, including undergraduates in religious history courses.

The synthesis of National Socialism and Christianity advanced by the predom inantly Protestant “German Christian Movement” epitomizes church susceptibility to notions of blood racism. Doris L. Bergen shows that the Movement adopted an explicitly völkisch ideology in its efforts to establish a new, racially pure Volkskirche. Its members, styling themselves “the Storm Troopers of Christ” and asserting that Jesus was an Aryan, could neither dominate the entire structure of the Evangelical Church nor even maintain internal unity. And yet, Bergen argues, they were anything but marginal, since the state assured their control of most regional churches and theological faculties. Robert P. Ericksen explores the careers of three influential Protestant theologians who legitimized Nazism to the faithful. Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel may have differed among themselves about the place of the Old Testament in Christian thought, but all worked tirelessly to reconcile the churches with the Nazi state on the basis of an anti-Jewish theology. That was also the goal of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life, founded at Eisenach in 1939 by the Thuringian Church and directed by Jena theologian Walter Grundmann. Susannah Heschel’s analysis of the Institute’s propaganda demonstrates a sustained attack on Jews and Judaism that far exceeded the demands of self defense and political opportunism. In fact, it may have been influenced by the need to establish the uniqueness of Jesus on a racial basis at a time when some theologians were beginning to acknowledge that his teachings were anything but unique. As for the Confessing Church, that segment of German Protestantism that opposed extreme racism, Shelly Baranowski maintains that it was, at best, ambivalent about the Jews. Traditional antisemitism combined with cultural pessimism to soften its responses to state policies and mute any open condemnation of racial persecution. Baranowski implies that Hitler’s desire for a harmonious Germany might have caused him to back off in the face of opposition from the churches, but there are reasons to doubt that this would have been true in the case of the deportations of the German Jews. In what many readers will find the most controversial essay in the anthology, Kenneth C. Barnes extends elements of this condemnation of the Confessing Church to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although Barnes acknowledges Bonhoeffer’s eventual break with the cautious policies of the Church, he judges his words and actions “small, tentative, restrained, and ambivalent” (p. 128).

No examination of the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany can ignore relations with the Vatican, and Günter Lewy reasserts his well-known indictment of Pius XII for indifference and passivity during the Holocaust. Lewy argues that the Pope’s attitude both reflected and reinforced the Church’s traditional hostility toward the Jews, and that [End Page 148] in Germany ordinary Catholics, accustomed to that hostility, would not have understood a defense of the Jews by their spiritual leaders even if one had been forthcoming, partic ularly once the war began. An appreciation of the power of nationalism among German Catholics likewise informs Michael B. Lukens’ exploration of churchmen who sought a positive accommodation with the Nazi regime because they shared elements of its ideology and wanted to avoid internal divisions and apostasy. His exemplar, the Church historian Joseph Lortz, was...

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