- Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany by Robert P. Ericksen
Over the course of the past three decades, Robert Ericksen has come to be recognized as one of the leading scholars of the relationship between the German churches and the Nazi state. In Complicity in the Holocaust, he strives to situate the attitudes of theological and religious leaders within the broader context of academic discourse and university politics during the Third Reich. The result is a thoughtful and nuanced reflection on the moral culpability of both churchmen and university professors in helping legitimize the murderous policies of a criminal regime.
Noting the significant degree of influence exercised by pastors, priests, and academic elites within German society, Ericksen sets out to explore the provocative question of whether “ordinary Germans who became killers for the Nazi state felt they had received permission from their churches or from their universities” (p. 23). The answer, which unfolds progressively through a series of well-defined chapters, is largely affirmative. In examining Protestant responses to the rise of Nazism, Ericksen focuses extensively on the so-called Kirchenkampf (church struggle) and the tensions that emerged in the course of 1933 over the extent to which Protestant theology should be adapted to fit the new imperatives of Nazi ideology. Catholic bishops, for their part, had issued multiple condemnations of Nazism before 1933, but undertook a sudden “about-face” (p. 55) following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, ushering in a period of widespread, albeit not entirely seamless, Catholic accommodation. Ericksen goes on to explore the responses of university figures to the rise of Hitler, particularly at the University of Göttingen, focusing on the dynamism of right-wing nationalist activism among both students and faculty during the Weimar era, which in turn helped pave the way for a broad embrace of the Nazi policies that progressively permeated university culture after 1933.
In a particularly insightful chapter on the churches between 1933 and 1945, Ericksen examines a series of oft-cited oppositional stances taken by Protestants and Catholics—ranging from the 1934 Barmen Declaration to the 1937 papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern)—and labels them collectively [End Page 949] as “small victories” (p. 95). This is not done with the goal of disparagement, but rather in the interest of contrasting them with the “large defeats” (p. 114) that Ericksen sees as characteristic of a much broader moral collapse on the part of churchmen and believers of both confessions. In the subsequent chapter on university culture during the Third Reich, Ericksen continues his emphasis on the University of Göttingen, exploring the transformation of its hiring and personnel policies, the politicization of its academic curriculum, and the role played by its medical faculty in the Nazi sterilization and euthanasia programs. The book’s final chapters bring the story skillfully through the postwar denazification process, arguing that repression and falsification were central to the exculpatory narratives constructed by church and university leaders after 1945. Protestants in particular exaggerated the importance of the Kirchenkampf, portraying radically atypical figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller as if they had been representative of German Protestantism as a whole. Both Protestant and Catholic clergy were clearly complicit in helping to “whitewash” (p. 171) the pasts of Nazi perpetrators, and at the University of Göttingen former Nazis were let off the hook so routinely that “by 1950, denazification courts seemed ready to credit almost any claim of innocence” (p. 219). Ericksen’s use of individual case studies in these chapters allows him to explore the complexities of the postwar years with a laudable degree of specificity and texture. The book concludes with an eloquent plea for readers to view the moral collapse of religious and academic leaders during the Nazi era as a cautionary tale for our own age: “It should warn us against compromising our own values—human rights, civil rights, and...