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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2005
Number 63
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Anti-Semitism, The Holocaust and Christianity

Robert Michael

The Holocaust seems inexplicable. Scholars, especially, understand the inadequacy of historical explanation. And yet, just as historians try to explain the decline and fall of Rome and the causes of the First World War, they struggle to understand why the Holocaust happened. Christianity’s precise influence on the Holocaust is impossible to determine and the Christian churches did not themselves perpetrate the Final Solution. But as a historian, I believe that Christian anti-Semitism is not only the source but also the major ideological basis of Nazi anti-Semitism.

This conclusion appears impossible. The churches’ moral principles, so antithetical to the genocidal morality of Nazi Germany, should preclude any connection between Christian precepts and the Final Solution. Some Nazis explicitly ridiculed Christian ideals, though many more attacked the Christian churches but not Christianity itself.

Moreover, a small minority of Christians helped the Jews during the Holocaust and a few thousand of them risked their lives to help Jews just as, for two millennia, some Christians had always treated Jews decently. This latter group consisted mostly of authentic Christians acting on Jesus’ moral teachings, although some may have had more pragmatic, and less ethical, reasons.

My book, Holy Hatred (Mellen 2005), argues that during the Holocaust, people — almost all of them born as Christians, baptized and married in a church, coming from a Christian environment, and absorbing a form of Christian culture that condemned Jews — attempted to murder all the Jews of Europe. Most other Christians either actively collaborated in this murderous endeavor or tacitly permitted it to happen. Most Christians — not just in Germany — seemed to agree to various extents with what Hitler called for, not so much because of the pressures of fear and anxiety, although these were often present, but because an anti-Jewish Christian ideology had been conditioning them for millennia. Nearly every Nazi administrative order — from yellow stars to ghettos, from defamations to deportations, from round-ups to slaughters — had a precedent in the Christian West. Millions of Jews were murdered before Adolf Hitler was a twinkle in his mother’s eye. Jews were condemned as devils from the time of the Church Fathers and massacred from the Middle Ages onward. To traditional anti-Semitism the Nazis added a comprehensive organization and the fanatic willingness and technology to follow through to their horrific end the murderous impulses inherent in anti-Semitism.

In The Holy Reich, Richard Steigmann-Gall points out that Nazism was not an anti-Christian pagan movement, that Christianity played a crucial role in most Nazis’ lives and in their Nazism, that Christians believed in the Jewishness of Germany’s woes and pointed to a final solution of these Jewish-generated problems, that the so-called Nazi pagans — whom many Christian Nazis opposed — were anti-ecclesiastical but not anti-Christian, that Nazi anti-Semitism fit in neatly with Christian anti-Semitism, that leading Nazis strengthened Protestant Christianity, that in their social policies the Nazis were guided by a Christian ethic, and finally that Nazism may have been hostile to the churches but never “uniformly anti-Christian.” Many Nazis, both Catholic and Protestant in background, adhered to a “positive Christianity” in which they appropriated a divine Jesus Christ as the leading anti-Semite; they claimed to be authentic Christians above and beyond the artificial division of Catholic and Protestant confessions; “they held that Christianity was a central aspect of their movement [and] shaped its direction, … a lynchpin of their world view.”

Ideology was not the only cause of the Nazi Holocaust. A whole raft of political, economic and psychosocial factors also contributed. But the anti-Jewish aspects of Christian thought and theology, the anti-Jewish Christian mindset and attitudes, and the anti-Jewish precedents provided by the churches’ historical relationship to Jews significantly conditioned, and may have determined, the plan, establishment and prosecution of the Holocaust. The churches and their theologians had formulated compelling religious, social and moral ideas that provided a conceptual framework for the perception of the Jew as less than human or inhuman, devilish, satanic, long before the National-Socialists called Jews traitors, murderers, plague, pollution, filth, devils and insects.

My Concise History of American Anti-Semitism (Rowman & Littlefield 2005) discusses Glock and Stark’s study that discovered that even at a time of growing ecumenical harmony led by the Catholic Vatican II Council, about half of the Americans interviewed — both Catholic and Protestant, both lay and clergy — believed that all Jews were responsible for crucifying Christ, and they could not be forgiven for this act until they converted; God punishes Jews because they reject Christ; the Jews are responsible for their own suffering; and the interview respondents were the same people who, associating the Jews with materialism, faulted them for being greedy. The researchers concluded that far from being exclusively secular, “the heart and soul of anti-Semitism rested on Christianity.” Fully 95 percent of Americans got their secular stereotypes of Jews from the Christian religion. Christianity, as other religions, stands as the focus of prejudice because “it is the pivot of the cultural tradition of a group.” This group, Christians, is unlike any other group in Western history; it has been the controlling in-group over the last 1,700 years. 

Other studies of prejudice and stereotyping indicate that although the human mind has an inherent tendency to classify, it is not inevitable that people will categorize others by race or ethnicity. Seventy percent of Americans in the late 1990s demonstrated unconscious stereotyping because they were emotionally induced to have false memories. It was learned behavior. Irish Catholics and Protestants, Hutu and Tutsi, Serbs and Albanians hate and fear each other not because of any inherent predisposition to perceive racial differences, but because of learned religious and political motives.

It is almost impossible to find examples of anti-Semitism that are exclusively racial, economic or political, and free of religious configuration. The infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935, for example, employed the religious affiliation of Jews in order to identify them for discrimination. What else could they do? There was no authentic scientific way to detect the racial nature of a Jew. So the Nazis had to resort to using birth and baptismal records to establish who was a Jew, who was not. Even the most notorious racist of the twentieth century, if not in history, Adolf Hitler, concluded near the end of his life that biological racism was a sham. It was the Jewish mind and values, the “Jewish spirit,” that he hated. The only way to rid the world of this viral spirit, Hitler concluded, was to destroy the Jewish bodies that housed it.

My Dictionary of Anti-Semitism — Greenwood 2005 —  (with Philip Rosen) shows that Christian anti-Semitism in the broad sense prepared Christians not only to perceive Jews in a certain way, but also to accept the anti-Jewish aspects of secular ideas — and to take action on them. The historical continuity of anti-Jewish ideas and imagery is clear testimony that no essential difference exists between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. David Kertzer has outlined a dozen beliefs of modern anti-Semites about Jews: (1) conspiracy, (2) intent to conquer the world, (3) desire to harm Christians, (4) immorality, (5) money-grubbing, (6) control of the press, (7) ruination of Christians economically, (8) creation of godless Communism, (9) murder of Christian children and drinking their blood, (10) destruction of the Christian religion, (11) traitors to their nation, and; (12) Jews must be segregated and their rights curtailed. All these traits — control of the press and creation of Communism can be subsumed under “conspiracy” — are not modern but stem from the writings of the Church Fathers and/or the Christian Middle Ages.

Anti-Semitism refers to the irrational dislike or hatred of Jews, the attempt to demoralize or satanize them, the rejection of the validity of the Jewish religion, the Jewish way of life, the Jewish spirit, the Jewish character, and, ultimately, the Jewish right to live.

Of the approximately twenty-five percent of pagan writers who disliked the Jews, almost all of them felt Jews were an annoying people who ate differently, wasted time on the Sabbath, believed in a ridiculous invisible God and so forth. But the Christian charge against the Jews leaped quantitatively and qualitatively into “Christ-killer.”

Christians cited holy writ: “Let his blood be on our heads and the heads of our children.” Saint Augustine called all Jews “Cains,” Saint Jerome saw all Jews as “Judases,” Saint John Chrysostom regarded all Jews as useless animals fit for slaughter. Christian ideas such as these are not the kind that exist in a detached Platonic realm, but idées forces, ideas with emotional punch affecting minds and attitudes, and as a result the bodies and behaviors of Christians and Jews over the last two millennia. Eugen Weber has commented that “ideas, endlessly repeated, furnished justification for the vilest acts.”

Christian anti-Semitism was not inevitable. Christians need not have been hostile and contemptuous toward Jews. Some Christians have appreciated Jewish contributions to civilization and have welcomed, befriended and supported Jews over the last two millennia. The historical record does not demonstrate an unremitting Christian attack against the Jews. If the Church had attempted to eradicate all the Jews, as it did the heretics, Jews would have disappeared by the fourth or fifth century, when Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire, or certainly by the High Middle Ages, when the Church’s influence was almost totalitarian. Some Christians in every generation have genuinely respected Jews. The Roman Catholic Church’s historical prohibitions against Christian-Jewish fraternization presumed the existence of social relationships between Christians and Jews. Christian theologians continually complained about the faithful who grew too close to Jews or treated them as human beings rather than as theological types. In every era, some Christians steadfastly taught their children to respect other human beings, Jews included. In The Altruistic Personality, the Oliners concluded: “For most rescuers [of Jews during the Holocaust,] helping Jews was an expression of ethical principles that extended to all of humanity ...”

This kind of ethical Christian treatment of human beings has been termed the theology of the cross (theologia crucis); it justifies humane behavior toward Jews. This belief required the Christian faithful to follow the moral teachings of Jesus concerning all human beings even at the risk of their own lives. Emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, his fears and anxieties as well as his courage and faith, the theology of the cross underscores the solidarity of suffering among all human beings, Gentile and Jew. Analysis of Christians who helped Jews during the Holocaust reveals many different motivations for their behavior, but most of these motives derive from the model of human behavior found in the Judeo-Christian morality of Jesus of Nazareth.

Most Christian writers, thinkers, theologians, politicians and prelates, however, have felt a profound ambivalence toward Jews, and their attitudes have incontestably influenced average Christians. In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, pre-existing pagan antagonism toward Jews was replaced by historical and theological beliefs that the Jewish people were abhorrent and that any injustice done to them, short of murder, was justified. Jews became the archetypal evildoers in Christian societies. This anti-Jewish attitude is a permanent element in the fundamental identity of Western Christian civilization. Christians who took this antagonistic position toward Jews — and most did — adhered to Christian triumphalism, what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory” (theologia gloriae). The theology of glory “recognized God only in his glory and majesty” and attributed these characteristics to the Church. This glorious and majestic Church gave birth to writers who in turn transformed Jewish virtues into vices, and transvalued Jewish values into sins. Whereas the theology of the cross emphasized human beings over doctrine, the theology of glory focused on Christian faith and practice at the expense of human beings. The triumphalistic theologians, wrote Martin Luther, called “evil good and good evil … everything has been completely turned upside-down.” This theology assumed that the Christian Church, the “new Israel” — ordained and sanctioned by God — succeeded the cursed and rejected old Israel morally, historically and metaphysically. This ideology considered Jews an inherently evil people who, long before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, slaughtered their prophets, then betrayed and murdered their true messiah. These Jews merited God’s punishment; they deserved all the suffering they got. Although Christians should not massacre Jews, Jews must be punished for their sins. These ideas dominated Christianity’s theological position on Judaism and Jews for 2,000 years.

These religious antagonisms, elaborated by the theological and popular writings and preachings of the Church’s great theologians and popes, exploited by Christian authorities, enhanced by the liturgy, art and literature of the Church, created in most of the faithful an automatic hostility toward Jewishness. This diabolizing of the Jews has continued into the modern period with only minor deviations. Put another way, Christianity has maintained the same anti-Jewish themes over most of its history and introduced new variations. Traditional Christian anti-Semitism has persisted over the centuries, and served as the ideological and emotional etiology and partner of modern anti-Semitism.

Just as Christian theology denied Jews salvation in the next life, so it disqualified Jews from legitimate citizenship in Christendom. In a sense, Jews were ostracized from full human status. Some protective Roman legal traditions, some Christian feelings of charity and the Jews’ ambivalent role as suffering examples of the consequences of offending God provided Jews with a precarious place within Christian society. But until their emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries — and to this day, for some — Jews had only very tenuous legal and moral rights to exist. The Jews had to plead with Christian authorities — kings, princes, bishops and popes — to protect them.

Sometimes this worked. Other times the authorities turned their backs on the Jews or collaborated with those Christians who were intent on cursing, expropriating, expelling or murdering them.

Despite the close theological relationship between Judaism and Christianity, despite Jesus’ commandment about love of neighbor, despite the modern Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on “justice and charity” in the treatment of Jews, despite the Church’s emphasis on agape and caritas, most Christians found it impossible to respect Jews. Racism holds that (1) different groups of human beings (races) are permanently, genetically different; (2) each individual within a group always manifest the same traits as all other members of their group; and (3) inevitable consequences (intellectual, moral, social and physical) follow from the differences between groups. From the first centuries of the Christian era onward, many Christian writers found an inherent theological repulsiveness as well as “a horrible and fascinating physical otherness” in Jews. In 1941 K. E. Robinson, an official of the British Colonial Office, considered the Jews “entirely alien in every sense of the word.” The Church Fathers claimed, despite the obvious and intimate connections between Judaism and Christianity, that each and every single Jew was fundamentally and repugnantly un-Christian and that Jews transmitted indelibly and permanently evil characteristics to their offspring. These beliefs followed the definition of racism described above to a “T.” Because Jews were permanently evil, or so these Christians believed, the sacrament of Christian baptism would not work to wash away the stink of Jewish unbelief. Associating the Jews with heresy, the second-century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr (d. 165), for instance, argued that God had given Moses’ Law to the Jews because God wanted to keep the inherently sinful Jews’ evil in check. St. Augustine (d. 430) observed that no Jew could ever lose the stigma of his forebears’ denial and murder of Christ. He wrote that the evil of the Jews, “in their parents, led to death.” His contemporary, St. Jerome (d. 420) claimed that all Jews were Judas and were innately evil creatures who betrayed the Lord for money. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) also approached racist thinking in regard to the Jews when he called them deicides with no chance for “atonement, excuse, or defense.” Citing Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) declared that the Jews’ evil character never changes.

These early forms of Christian racism persisted for two millennia. Through sermons, theological writings, laws, art and literature, Christian anti-Semitism has concentrated on the Jews’ enduring “sins” and “crimes” — their stiff-necked persistence in their perfidia, their greed, their treason, their servitude, their murderous rage at Christ and Christians. On some occasions, Christian racism resulted in mass murder of Jews. The Crusaders and other medieval Christians often massacred Jews, whom they felt were hopelessly unconvertible, without offering them the choice of baptism. These murderers, like St. John Chrysostom and Martin Luther, perceived the Jews as irreparably Jewish and worthy of slaughter. The National-Socialists felt the same way and, mutatis mutandis, chose the same solution to the “Jewish Problem.”

Robert Michael is Professor Emeritus of European History, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and Visiting Professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and Ringling School of Art & Design.

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