“We must sometimes meditate on the events of the history of our time and try to penetrate their terrible significance. . . [Someone] who has meditated on the Passion of Christ but who has not meditated on the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz has not yet fully entered into the experience of Christianity in our time.” (Thomas Merton)
Although we often have heard the maxim to “never forget,” remembering the Holocaust often is difficult, maybe especially for Christians. Most have learned some of the agonizing history of the Holocaust, that approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others (including Roma / Sinti, political opponents, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and disabled persons) were systematically murdered. Most probably have not meditated on this in the way that Merton suggests, however. The numbers are so staggering that we often forget that those killed were people like us – moms, dads, sisters, brothers, and grandparents. Furthermore, approximately 1 in 4 of those killed in the Holocaust were infants and children. Perhaps more difficult for some Christians is to reconcile the connection between the Holocaust and the church. In fact, as religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Hayes puts it, “although Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible. . . [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”
The seeds for the Holocaust lay in a long history of anti-Semitism, some of which had clear origins in the Christian church. Soon after Christ was crucified, some inaccurately blamed Jews. Perhaps the most blatant and hurtful comments were made by Martin Luther in his book “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” in which he gives “sincere advice” to Christians including calls to “set their synagogues and schools on fire.” Luther’s motivation may be even more striking: “This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians.” Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust.
Indeed, it is important to remember that the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. Perpetrators typically were members of the Christian church, then dominant in Europe. In fact, Holocaust historian Doris Bergen notes that approximately 95% of Germans at that time were baptized and contributing church members. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the killings. For example, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s appointed successor and the person who initiated meetings to reach a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem,” was raised in a church and continued to be involved in religious activities throughout his life. In addition, churches willingly provided documentation (for example, baptismal and marriage records) to those who wished to establish Aryan bloodlines.
This raises many disturbing and challenging questions. For example, how could the Christian church contribute attitudes and actions that led to mass murder, particularly toward those with whom so much spiritual history is shared? How does the church fail to inoculate people against prejudice, indeed perhaps sometimes even promoting it? What responsibility do Christians have to stand up for people who have beliefs and backgrounds that are not shared? Finally, what should it mean to be a post-Holocaust Christian today?
Shortly after the Holocaust, psychologist Gordon Allport tried to make sense of his observation that religious people sometimes seem to be among those most prejudiced and hateful. Allport speculated that these individuals often may take an “extrinsic” approach to faith, often seeking some secondary gain from religious activities (for example, social approval, self-justification). In contrast, however, Allport observed that others may reveal an “intrinsic” faith, sincerely believing and practicing what they have been taught. In short, whereas extrinsically religious people use their faith, Allport said, intrinsically religious people live it. Considerable social science now supports this basic idea: The more extrinsically a person approaches their religion, the more prejudice they show; the more intrinsically they do, the less prejudice. Perhaps, then, many of the “Christians” involved in the Holocaust displayed less sincere commitment, involving themselves in church activities but never internalizing the teachings. Of course, we all are a product of mixed motives and desires. Perhaps the lesson that comes from this is to take the process of conversion more seriously.
Another significant problem that may contribute to prejudice and hatred is the all-too-human tendency to distinguish members of our community as being better than those on the “outside,” sometimes to the point of dehumanizing the “others.” Given the passion Christians can have for their convictions and mission, it surely is tempting to elevate the church and its members, debasing those who are different. For example, in his book, “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther struggles with how some Jews resisted converting to Christianity, ultimately referring to Jews as “venomous”, “great vermin,” and “a den of devils.” When large numbers of people are separated into categories of “us” and “them” in such ways, mass prejudice and hatred become a real possibility. In this regard, the church would do well to heed the words of Stephen Smith, co-founder and Director of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre in the United Kingdom: “When I talk of ‘them,’ ‘the Jews,’ ‘their’ suffering, ‘their’ burden, ‘their’ experience, I reinforce the divide and recommit all Jews everywhere to the status of the ‘other…’ They are a part of us; not as Christians, but… as a part of a shared humanity.” Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan suggests the same (Luke 10:25-37).
A final problem is the very common tendency to passively “stand by” in the presence of evil. For example, leaders in both the Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches generally did very little to resist the Nazi regime. Many other Christian bystanders did not protest when Jews were mistreated. If the Christian church had uniformly stood up for justice, particularly during the early years of the Holocaust, the plight of Europe’s Jews likely would be significantly different.
There are social forces that help to explain this bystander response. Individuals tend to diffuse responsibility to others in such situations, for instance. Yet, it is possible to resist such pressures and to be actively defiant during such times. Dietrich Bonhoeffer inspires many Christians because of his example in doing exactly this during the Holocaust, eventually costing him his life. Many lesser known Christians also rescued Jews. Some reasons are instructive, and include having a close relationship with someone in need of help, seeking to obey Biblical teachings about compassion and, in a dramatic reversal of traditional anti-Semitism, feeling a spiritual kinship with those of Jewish faith. A different kind of example comes from the response of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust, who consistently spoke against the evils of the Nazi regime, resisted enlisting in Hitler’s army, and defied giving the Hitler salute. When instructed to stop their missionary work, they continued. Significant Nazi resources had to be directed to address this movement, and many were killed as a result. However, the group’s response points to the significant difference a small and otherwise powerless group of people can make in the face of evil.
In conclusion, the history of the relationship between the church and the Holocaust teaches Christians many lessons about having a faith that is deeply internalized and vibrantly lived. It cautions against self-absorption, pride, prejudice, and hatred. It inspires awareness of apathy, and encourages involvement in matters of justice and compassion, particularly toward those most vulnerable. Overall, the Holocaust should provoke deep reflection among Christians about what it really means to be a follower of the Prince of Peace today. As noted by Stephen Smith: “After the Shoah, it is no longer acceptable to call yourself a Christian. Now you must prove it.”
For more information:
Rittner, C., Smith, S. D., & Steinfeldt, I. (Eds.) (2000). The Holocaust and the Christian World. New York, NY: Continuum.