The Christian Soil of the Holocaust: William Sierichs Jr.

by William Sierichs Jr.

The millions of Europeans who committed, supported or were indifferent to the Holocaust overwhelmingly were Christians, and their actions were guided by centuries of Christian beliefs and theology. The leaders and followers who slaughtered not only millions of Jews, but also Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and, in Yugoslavia, Orthodox Serbs or Roman Catholic Croats, generally were linked to movements that insisted nations had to be guided by Christian beliefs, which only Christian citizens could carry out.

If you reduce their motives to the most basic, Christians widely believed Jews were atheists (for denying Jesus’ divinity), and as such their natural immorality made them a corrupting threat to Christians. Up until the 19th century, Christian rulers had segregated Jews to prevent them from acting out their supposedly Satanic nature (John 8:44). Many Christian leaders and writers argued that church-state separation freed Jews, who then cunningly, secretly, took control of economies, societies and governments to rob and corrupt their Gentile neighbors.

A second strand of Christian beliefs was added later in the century. For most of two millennia, Christians assumed that conversion “purified” Jews, nullifying their Satanic immorality. In the 1800s, however, many Christians began to argue that the only reason Jews still even existed was because they were members of an inferior race inherently blind to the true religion. Even if a Jew converted, it was only on the outside; inside, his immorality still reigned, the anti-Semite racists insisted.

One more Christian belief contributed to the horrors to come: the “blood libel.” For centuries, Christians were taught that Jews needed the blood of Christians for religious rituals. On many occasions, when people went missing–sometimes only on a baseless accusation of kidnapping– Jews were blamed and, usually “confessing” under torture, were executed. Nazism’s use of the blood libel was drawn from Christianity.

These beliefs were confined mainly to political minorities before World War I. After the massive trauma of the war, Christian racial anti-Semitism became far more popular as a way of “explaining” the many social and economic problems of the era. Adolf Hitler frequently inveighed against the alleged immorality destroying society, which he promised to stop by destroying atheism in the form of church-state separation, liberalism, communism and, above all, Jews.

Why did European Christians explode in a paroxysm of violence?

From its early days, Christianity had insisted that all nonChristians were a moral threat to believers, willing or unwitting servants of Satan who constantly tried to lure the purified into damnation. Paul insisted Christians should separate themselves from nonbelievers (Titus 3:10, for example). Theologians argued against and Christian kings banned “mixed marriages.” In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council was so frightened by reports of Christians having anonymous sex with Jews that it ordered the latter to wear distinctive clothing–the ultimate origin of the yellow Stars of David forced on Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Protestants were no better. Germany’s Martin Luther wrote a lengthy, bitter tirade against the “Jews and their Lies” in 1543, which included demands that rulers effectively enslave and segregate Jews from Christians. One result of this fear, was that until the late 18th century, Jews were never legal citizens of any Christian-controlled state. They were always resident aliens, segregated, although usually granted a degree of legal toleration and protection, but never citizenship or legal rights.

As church-state separation slowly spread across Europe, Jews were free (in theory) to leave their Christian-imposed ghettoes, buy property, start businesses and hold public office– rights not always popularly respected.

In reaction, conservative Christianity took new forms, particularly as political movements. These generally attacked the liberal ideals sweeping Europe, especially church-state separation. They often were hostile to democracy, as well as Freemasonry, socialism, communism, press freedom, intellectual freedom and even capitalism–in effect, anything that disturbed the old order of societies. By the end of the century, many Christians had decided that the underlying source of all the real or imagined evils of the Industrial Age was Jews, the group believed to have benefited most from church-state separation.

The quotes that follow are a representative cross-section of conservative Christian thinking in the 19th century. While most of these writers are unknown today outside of scholarly circles, they were mainstream conservative thinkers in their day. They show how anti-Semitism evolved and prospered, setting the stage for its 20th-century horrors.

One key belief was that one had to be a Christian to be a good Englishman, German, Hungarian, Pole, etc.

In 1806, English journalist and political populist William Cobbett declared: “If a German, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, or a man of any other country settle amongst us, he soon coalesces and becomes amalgamated with the rest of us, and at any rate his progeny is sure to be English. But a Jew is of no nation, and his children are Jews, never uniting and coalescing with any other race, but making it their religion and their study to remain distinct and separate from all.”

Political commentators in Germany criticized the granting of legal rights for Jews. In 1818, writer Ludolf Holst declared that Jews were taking over and planning on “getting rid of all the Christians at one fell swoop . . . and turning Germany into a second Canaan.” The same year, another writer and activist, Garlieb Helwig Merkel, declared, “The European countries are Christian,” and that Christianity was “the basis of social righteousness and political loyalty.” He warned that Jews risked a violent reaction: “There are very few countries in Europe where the Jews have not attained excessive power which they used for ill purposes and thus brought persecution upon themselves.” In the 1830s and 1840s, pamphlets (the blogs of their day) criticized giving legal rights to Jews in a “Christian State,” such as “On the Relation of the Jew to the Christian States,” by Prussian privy councilor Karl Streckfuss; “The Impossibility of the Emancipation of Jews in the Christian State,” by Wolfgang Bernhard Frankel, and “On the Possibility of Jewish Emancipation in the Christian-Germanic State” by H.E. Marcard.

When Prussian liberals called for civil rights regardless of one’s religion, they were criticized by Prussian legislator Friedrich Julius Stahl. He argued, “The state is the molding of the human condition according to moral ideas, and since Christianity is the Divine manifestation of the moral ideas of these conditions of life, it stands to reason that Christianity must determine the nature of the state.” In the early 19th century, French intellectual Louis Gabriel M. de Bonald had urged Napoleon not to grant Jews citizenship. Among his arguments: “I think that a government that has the honor of ruling Christians and the good fortune to be Christian itself, should not deliver its subjects to the domination of a religion which is hostile to Christianity and is indeed subservient to it. Christians may be cheated by Jews but they ought not be governed by them. Such subordination offends their dignity even more than the cupidity of the Jews harms their interests.” De Bonald cited the traditional Christian belief that Jews were being punished for rejecting Jesus: “To put the matter clearly: The meaning is that the Jews cannot be citizens under Christianity. Even if they should be made citizens, they will not really become such unless they first become Christians.”

Later in the century, anti-Semites turned from simply opposing basic rights for Jews to seeing them as the source of many, if not all, evils.

In 1874, journalist Otto Glagau wrote a critique of financial failures that featured Jewish “villains” prominently. Glagau argued, “it is not my fault that among the promoters and stockjobbers as I shall indeed establish it with numbers 90% are certainly Jews and 10% at most are Christians.” The figures distorted the situation, exaggerating the number of Jews involved in the actual swindles, according to Katz. Yet it became an anti-Semite battle cry. The Catholic publication, “Germania,” used the 90% figure in a series of anti-Jewish articles.

In defending his articles, Glagau argued: “No longer should we tolerate Jews pushing themselves everywhere to the foreground, to the head, seizing everywhere the leadership, the command. They push us Christians continuously aside, they press us to the wall, they take away the air we breathe. In fact, they exercise domination over us, they possess a dangerous supremacy and they exert an extremely unwholesome influence . . .”

In the 1880s, the Jesuit publication Civiltà cattolica, published under Vatican supervision, ran anti-Semitic articles by Giuseppe Oreglia di Santo Stefano, S.J. One significant element was Oreglia’s claim that Jews were a race. “While it is certain that others can be, for example, both Catholic and either Italian, French or English . . . or Protestant and a member of whatever country or nation . . . it is a great error to believe that the same is true of the Jews. For the Jews are not only Jews because of their religion . . . they are Jews also and especially because of their race,” which is why they exploited any country where they lived, he claimed.

In 1893, Jesuit Father Saverio Rondina repeated standard anti-Semitic charges in another Civiltà cattolica article, attacked Freemasonry and alleged a “ceaseless war that Judaism wages against other nations, especially those that are Christian” because of “their hatred of Christianity . . .”

In 1886, the two-volume La France juive: Essai d’histoire contemporaine, by Edouard Drumont, became a bestseller after being lauded in Catholic media as a Catholic response to the secularization of France’s government, according to Katz and scholar David I. Kertzer. It claimed Jews conspired to take over France, denounced alleged Jewish crimes–Drumont included the blood libel, and praised prominent foreign anti-Semites. La France juive was praised in a number of Catholic newspapers, including Civiltà cattolica, La Croix, Revue du Monde Catholique–which called Jews “insatiable vampires.” L’Univers claimed: “We French Christians are all, in effect, vanquished, conquered, expropriated from our own country and our own faith, by a race of cosmopolites, of cunning intelligence, of greedy soul . . . The Jew is master of all.”

In 1890, a Conservative Party leader opposed allowing Jews into higher education in Germany because schools had to educate children as Christians: “What happens to this free development when such irreconcilable conflicting elements as Christians and Jews are huddled together in schools . . . It is Christianity which is the world’s moving force, and in the Christian spirit we are all united . . .”

In 1897, the Deutsch-Konservative Partei supported the Kaiser, and Lutheranism as the dominant German religion; opposed liberal democratic ideals, and, in defending German religion, attacked liberalism and socialism as the products of “Jewish separatism . . . arrogant Jewish anthropocentrism . . . the typical Jewish illusion that man can and should live without an organic-historic framework . . . true freedom, however, permits man to become integrated into a structured organism of family life, religion, culture, and spirit in which man has been placed by a supreme Providence and by divine grace.”

In 1892, a conservative official, General Superintendent L.K. Moeller, court preacher of Magdeburg, attacked socialists, atheists and other religious dissenters as “heretics.” He said a Christian state had a duty: “Also as a military power the state is in accordance with the will of God authorized to restrain the forces of evil . . .”

In the 1890s Dreyfus Affair, mobs and Christian publications across France alike proclaimed that Jews were inherent traitors. Typical was the conservative-Catholic newspaper La Croix’s declaration in its Jan. 28, 1898, edition: “We know well that the Jew was the inventor of our anti-Christian laws [i.e., church-state separation] . . . The subtle alliance of all the makers of the anti-Christian laws, with the powerful Dreyfus syndicate, leaves no room for doubt. They are all of a piece. Destroy the army, destroy the religious orders and let the Jew reign!”

In Germany, religion and racism merged in the vlkisch movement, a belief that Germans were a distinctive people/race. This was a major feature of the thinking of Hitler and his racist supporters. While its roots were in Christianity, it sometimes had a hostile edge, seeing traditional Christianity as “too Jewish.”

A leading vlkisch theologian, Paul de Lagarde, explained his view of its relation to Christianity in an 1873 essay, “On the Relationship of the German State to Theology, Church and Religion.” Lagarde said: “Christianity, namely Catholicism and Protestantism, is a distortion of the gospel . . . Paul has brought the Old Testament to us in the church, and through its influence the gospel has been ruined&ndahs;as far as this is possible. Paul has blessed us with Pharisaic exegesis, which proves anything from anything. . . . [The] Jewish view of history has been foisted on us by him. He did this against the vigorous opposition of the early church which, Jewish though it was, thought less Jewishly than did Paul . . .” Other 19th century–and earlier–German thinkers agreed with Lagarde that Paul and Jews in general had corrupted the original message of Jesus, which could be–even had to be–recovered, according to scholar Klaus Scholder. Scholder said this synthesis of racial and religious thought gave birth to the concept of a “German church,” seen as a purified form of Christianity.

On Sept. 11-12, 1882, anti-Semites from Germany and Austria-Hungary gathered in the Dresden “anti-Jewish Congress” and issued a “Manifesto to the Governments and Peoples of the Christian Countries Endangered by Judaism.” The manifesto talked of the “Jewish question” as “one having a universal, political, sociopolitical and moral-religious character” because Jews were a unique group in religion, culture and ethnicity, and “the Jews are incapable of being an organic part of a Christian people.” The manifesto claimed Jews threatened “to dominate the Christian cultural world and corrupt it.” It cited the “Christian-Aryan progeny.” Scholar Uriel Tal saw the Christian anti-Semitic movement as strengthening racial and political anti-Semitism in Germany.

A critic of society, August Julius Langbehn, a Lutheran later turned Catholic, wrote an 1890 tract, “Rembrandt als Erzieher,” that attacked liberal democracy, among its targets. It argued: “The modern, plebeian Jews are a poison for us and will have to be treated as such . . . They are democratically inclined, they have an affinity with the mob; everywhere they sympathise with decay.”

As one final example, in 1897, Civiltà cattolica published an article by Father Raffaele Ballerini that gave the Vatican’s view of recent events in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It claimed Jews had taken control of the empire, growing rich off Christians’ work and controlling the government, media and education system. Ballerini complained that: “Out of consideration for the offspring of that race, Christian prayers–not excluding the Pater noster–had to be abolished from the schools of that city.”

Christians’ linking of religion, nationalism and race in the 19th century had murderous results in the 20th.

Sources for this article include “Anti-Semitic Stereotypes–A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830,” Frank Felsenstein, 1995; “From Prejudice to Destruction–Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933,” Jacob Katz, 1980; “The Popes Against the Jews–The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism,” David I. Kertzer, 2001; “Christians and Jews in Germany–Religion, Politics and Ideology in the Second Reich, 1870-1914,” Uriel Tal, 1975 translation; “The Anti-Semitic Moment A Tour of France in 1898,” by Pierre Birnbaum, 2003 translation; and “The Churches and the Third Reich–vol. 1: Preliminary History and the Time of Illusions–1918-1934,” Klaus Scholder, 1977, vol. 1.

Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism

Martin Luther was the dominant figure in German Protestantism, and his anti-Semitism was influential in German culture generally. Although Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and some other Nazi leaders were Roman Catholics, their anti-Semitism reflected elements of Luther’s beliefs. In 1543, Luther wrote On The Jews and Their Lies, his contribution to a debate about the status of Jews that began in 1539. These quotes from Luther’s work are fairly typical of Christian anti-Semitic commentaries over the centuries.

He started:

“since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews and who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them.” Jews’ sufferings were proof that they were wrong.

“For such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they assuredly have erred and gone astray. Even a child can comprehend this. For one dare not regard God as so cruel that he would punish his own people so long, so terribly, so unmercifully . . . Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God.”

“From their youth they have been so nurtured with venom and rancor against our Lord that there is no hope until they reach the point where their misery finally makes them pliable and they are forced to confess that the Messiah has come, and that he is our Jesus.”

In criticizing circumcision:

“We answer roundly that such an addendum is their own invention, yes, it was inspired by the accursed devil.”

“It serves them right that, rejecting the truth of God, they have to believe instead such abominable, stupid, inane lies, and that instead of the beautiful face of the divine word, they have to look into the devil’s black, dark, lying behind, and worship his stench.”

Luther urged German rulers:

“First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians . . .”

Rabbis should be maimed or killed if they teach because, “They wantonly employ the poor people’s obedience contrary to the law of the Lord and infuse them with this poison, cursing, and blasphemy. In the same way the pope also held us captive . . .”

Ominously, he warned that Jews should be banned from traveling because, “If you great lords and princes will not forbid such usurers the highway legally, some day a troop may gather against them, having learned from this booklet the true nature of the Jews and how one should deal with them.”

Finally, “. . . if I have power over them, I would assemble their scholars and their leaders and order them, on pain of losing their tongues down to the root, to convince us Christians within eight days of the truth of their assertions and to prove this blasphemous lie against us, to the effect that we worship more than the one true God. If they succeeded, we would all on the self-same day become Jews and be circumcised. If they failed, they should stand ready to receive the punishment they deserve for such shameful, malicious, pernicious and venomous lies . . .”

“Neither Jew nor devil will in any way be able to prove that our belief that the one eternal Godhead is composed of three persons implies that we believe in more than one God . . . As already said, we must force them to prove their lies about us or suffer the consequences. For he who slanders and maligns us as being idolatrous in this respect, slanders and maligns Christ, that is, God himself, as an idol.”

The quotes are from “On the Jews and Their Lies,” translated in vol. 47 of “Luther’s Works–The Christian in Society, IV,” 1971, Philadelphia: Fortress Press

Foundation Lifetime Member William Sierichs, Jr., is a copy editor on a newspaper in Baton Rouge, La. He previously has worked as an editor, reporter and occasional columnist on newspapers in Jackson, Miss., Monroe, La., Shreveport, La., and Texarkana, Texas. He has won reporting awards in Louisiana and column-writing awards in Texas and Arkansas. He is a native of Hopewell, Va., and attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he received a degree in journalism in 1974. 

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