The Christian Soil of the Holocaust — Part II: William Sierichs Jr.

Part II

by William Sierichs Jr.

Ben Stein was absolutely wrong about the Holocaust. The last thing most Jews saw was not an atheist scientist but the face of a God-fearing, atheist-hating Christian. During World War II, all across Europe, Christians conducted the deportations or killings. The leaders, the followers and the intellectual supporters of these deeds overwhelmingly were Christians, acting in ways based on hostility toward church-state separation, liberalism and atheism. Little in the Holocaust was new, save for its scale.

Other massacres also had historical Christian bases, such as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic massacres of each other in Yugoslavia, or the murder of three million nonJewish Poles as “racially inferior,” a belief ultimately rooted in the centuries when pagan Poles battled Christian German crusaders.

Some of the most violently fascist and antisemitic movements of the 1930s and ‘40s emphasized their Christian character in their very names: the Cross Scythe and Arrow-Cross parties of Hungary; the Blue Cross in Hungary; the Cross of Fire in France; the Iron Cross in Romania, the Thunder Cross in Latvia. The infamous Iron Guard of Romania also was called the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Created in 1923, it used the swastika as its symbol before the Nazi Party adopted it. According to scholar and Holocaust survivor Moshe Herczl, Hungarian media often viewed the swastika as a symbol of Christianity’s defenders.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, several European governments enacted laws systematically stripping Jews of legal rights, property and access to many jobs in the private and government sectors. Although these laws treated Jews as a race, they also focused on the religion of the ancestors. Church leaders—some of them legislators—usually were silent about or even supported the assaults on Jews, mostly focusing on protecting Jewish converts to Christianity.

Outside of Germany, Austria and Poland, most antiJewish actions were carried out by local Christians, not Nazis, under leaders who were Christian, in nations that by law or general consensus were Christian and endorsed or incited by Christian media and clergy.

For instance, in Hungary, where only a few dozen German administrators under Adolf Eichmann were available to orchestrate the Holocaust, local Christians rounded up much of the Jewish population in towns and cities, driving their neighbors like cattle with beatings and other extreme cruelties, to be packed into railroad box cars, often standing room only. The sick and the dying were jammed in. These “death trains” might take up to a week to reach German concentration camps, their occupants given no food or water, even in the high summer heat, killing all but the hardiest. Some 75% of Hungary’s Jews died while Christian clergy generally either supported the killings or were indifferent.

Likewise in Romania, Jews were brutalized and killed by their Christian neighbors as early as 1940. “Death trains” later were used. The Romanian army joined in atrocities against Jews in Russia in 1941, torturing to death, shooting, hanging, starving or burning alive tens of thousands. After the war, four Romanian government leaders, including ex-Prime Minister Ion Antonescu, were executed for these crimes.

The German occupation of Yugoslavia triggered a religious war between the Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats, who slaughtered each other by the tens of thousands in sectarian cleansings designed to create religiously purified nations. An estimated 800,000 Yugoslavs died. Most of the Jewish population was butchered —including nearly 90% of those in Serbia.

However, the Holocaust could be said to have started first in Croatia, even before the Germans adopted a genocidal policy toward Jews. Under the fascist Roman Catholic Ustasha government, Croatia began the organized destruction of its Jewish population, as well as all Serbs, after the Nazi takeover in April 1941. Croatia began killing or deporting (to Lithuania) its Jewish population in July 1941. Germany did not officially start the Holocaust until Jan. 20, 1942.

Although it’s popular to emphasize Nazism’s racist aspect, the Nazi Party was officially Christian, with a policy of making Christianity the state religion. The membership was overwhelmingly Christian, predominantly Protestant (Lutheran) but with a sizable Catholic minority. Leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were Catholics. Beyond the party, millions of Christian Germans supported, fought for, killed for and died for Hitler.

While some Nazis were sadistic thugs, many clearly saw themselves as the good guys battling the forces of godless evil. The party won power as much by emphasizing its positive platform, including charitable work, as by its bigotry. Of course, its good deeds were directed only at “Aryans,” whom most Germans also identified with true Christianity, seen as the victims of morally decadent, inferior, godless peoples. In a speech on Aug. 13, 1920, Hitler had declared, “Aryanism means a moral conception of work and therefore that about which we so often talk today: socialism, civic spirit, public advantage before private advantage. Judaism means an egotistical conception of work and therefore mammonism and materialism—the complete opposite of socialism.”

After Hitler’s popular election in 1933, Protestants held their annual national elections for church offices that July, and German Christians—the Nazi wing of that sect—won two thirds. The same month, Pope Pius XI signed a concordat with Hitler (negotiated by future Pope Pius XII) that basically gave his church financial support from the state, legal protections and other privileges, in return for church silence on political matters. Historians say the pact required Roman Catholics to support Hitler’s government, including military service. Both Pius XI and XII kept silent about the many acts of violence, discrimination and expressions of racism and antisemitism from right-wing movements. The concordat paralleled a 1929 version Pius XI signed with Italy’s Benito Mussolini, leader of another violent, bigoted, fascist government.

Most of the Nazis’ wrath initially was directed at the “godless” movement—the communist party, whose members were sent to concentration camps, beaten and sometimes murdered. Of course, many Christians believed Jews had created and controlled communism. Freethought groups also were early targets; in May 1933, the Nazis gave Berlin’s Freethinkers Hall, headquarters of the 500,000-member German Freethinkers League, to a Protestant group to use as a church-related center.

American clergyman Stewart W. Herman Jr., lived in Nazi Germany for six years and wrote an account of events from a religious perspective in 1943. He considered Nazism to be basically a new religion, but acknowledged that 95% of Germans were Christians and “most of [Hitler’s] Nazis are still nominally Christian.” Additionally, Herman noted that a 1939 census put avowed atheists at 1.5% of a German population of 79.4 million people. “The atheists may immediately be discounted as exercising any perceptible influence on German religious thought today . . . [Freethinkers had increased previously, but] their influence declined gradually in the days of the Republic and has been suppressed completely by the new regime which places ‘godlessness’ in the same category with anarchistic Bolshevism.” Herman added that even Germans who cared little about religion “disliked and distrusted people who renounce all faith in God.”

Massive documenttion links Christianity to antiSemitism and the Holocaust. As early as 1917, writer Dietrich Eckart, later an editor of the Nazi Party paper, praised Christianity as “the source of the highest culture,” and argued, “To be an Aryan and to sense transcendence is one and the same thing,” therefore Germans were the true Christians.

Hitler was always considered a Christian leader. Officially a Roman Catholic to the end (German Archbishop Bertram ordered a requiem for Hitler in all churches when his death was announced), he arguably may have evolved into a generic Protestant in private by the late 1930s. In Mein Kampf, Hitler repeatedly invoked the idea of a savior leader arising from obscurity (as was said of Jesus, Phil. 2:6-8, 1 Cor. 2:711, 2 Cor. 13:4) to lead Germany to victory despite a deeply corrupting enemy conspiracy. Indeed, in a speech on April 12, 1922, to the nascent Nazi Party, Hitler rejected arguments that Christians could not be antiSemites, declaring:

“I say: my Christian feeling points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter [tumultuous, prolonged applause]. It points me towards the man who, once lonely and surrounded by only a few followers, recognized these Jews and called for battle against them, and who, as true God, was not only the greatest as a sufferer but also the greatest as a warrior. In boundless love, as a Christian and a human being, I read the passage which declares to us how the Lord finally rose up and seized the whip to drive the usurers, the brood of serpents and vipers [Mt. 23:33], from the Temple.”

Hitler later declared, “I am deeply moved to perceive that his tremendous struggle for this world against the Jewish poison was most profoundly marked by the fact that he had to bleed on the cross for it . . .”

In 1936, after a talk with Hitler, Cardinal von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, recorded that Hitler stressed the threat from communism and concluded:

“Without doubt the chancellor lives in faith in God. He recognizes Christianity as the foundation of Western culture . . . Not as clear is his conception of the Catholic Church as a God-established institution.” Hitler noted that Jesus, like himself, was also accused of being a rabblerouser for opposing the god of the Jews, “for this ‘God’ is only gold.”

Hitler reiterated his belief that God had chosen him for a mission in a 1938 speech in his takeover of Austria:

“I believe that it was also God’s will that from here a boy was to be sent into the Reich, allowed to mature, and elevated to become the nation’s Fhrer, thus enabling him to reintegrate his homeland into the Reich. There is a divine will, and all we are is its instruments. When [Austrian Chancellor] Schuschnigg broke his word on March 9, at that very instant I felt that Providence had called upon me. And all that happened in the next three days could only have come about because Providence willed and desired it. In three days the Lord struck them down!”

The Nazi Party apparently received as much as 80% of the Protestant vote in the March 1933 election that gave the party control of the Reichstag. Many Christians viewed Hitler in messianic terms. Future-Bishop Franz Tgel of Hamburg said of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933:

“An indescribable elation, combined with the deepest thanks to the almighty Lord of history, filled my heart—as was surely the case with every other patriotic German.” Prussian church leaders declared on April 16, 1933, that they were “in joy over the awakening of the deepest forces of our nation to awareness of the Fatherland, a genuine sense of the Vlk and religious renewal.” Theologian Paul Althaus declared: “Our Protestant churches have greeted the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God” and “So we take the turning point of this year as grace from God’s hand. He has saved us from the abyss and out of hopelessness. He has given us—or so we hope—a new day of life.”

Not surprisingly then, in February 1934, three clergymen—one a Nazi Party member—addressed a German Christian meeting of about 900 people in a swastika-bedecked chamber in Kreuzberg. One speaker said: “The Pastors’ Emergency League wants to reinstate the democratic system. They say that everyone is equal before God. But baptism never made a Jew into a German, nor did it ever straighten a crooked, hook-nose . . . The Jew has no scruples. Even now he would manage to let himself be baptized outwardly in order to get into the top positions. We want a Christianity that is true to our race.”

In 1938, Protestant Bishop Heinz Weidemann of Bremen ordered inscriptions for two new churches: “Church of Thanks, out of gratitude to God for the wonderful salvation of our Vlk from the abyss of Jewish-materialistic Bolshevism through the deed of the Fhrer, built in the year of our Lord 1938, in the sixth year of the National Socialistic Revolution.”

In a 1932 book, Roman Catholic priest, Reichstheologian, publisher and Nazi Party member Joseph Lortz of Braunsberg defended fascism generally and the rejection of Enlightenment liberalism as well as atheism, Bolshevism, “relativism” and what he considered immorality. In a prominent 1933 lecture, Lortz argued: “Bolshevism is the radicalization of the Marxist program through the revision of social democratic liberalism into a despotic dogmatism under the leadership of dictatorial power . . . The secret of [National Socialist] success is in the nature of its attack against [communism] and in a more constructive way than simply providing a better substitute for fallen idols . . . So, for the present, [Hitler’s] emergence has meant the salvation of Germany, and Europe with it, from the chaos of Bolshevism, i.e., from the destruction of Christian Europe.”

In more practical terms, churches provided the German government with membership records that could help identify Christians and uncover Jews. In early 1930s Austria, Bishop Johannes Maria Gfollner of Linz sent a typically mixed message in a widely-reprinted letter that warned against hatred of Jews and condemned pogroms, but then followed with a tirade about Jews’ allegedly negative influence on society, “polluted by materialistic and liberal principles that derive primarily from Judaism. Newspapers and leaflets, the theater and cinema, are full of frivolous and immoral elements that deeply poison the people’s Christian soul, and it is in fact Judaism that, for the most part, inspires them and spreads them . . . Not only is it legitimate to combat and to end Judaism’s pernicious influence, it is indeed the strict duty of conscience of every informed Christian. One can only hope that Aryans and Christians will increasingly come to recognize the dangers and troubles created by the Jewish spirit and to fight them more tenaciously.”

In Catholic-dominated Poland, as noted, antiSemitism was virulent. For example, in the later 1930s, the weekly Przeglad katolicki (Catholic Review) printed statements on how to “rid” Poland of Jews titled: “Struggle to Rid the Bar of Jews,” “Let Us Call for a Boycott of Jews,” “Jewish Blindness,” “Doctors Against the Jews,” “The Need to Introduce Anti-Jewish Legislation” and “Trial of Judaeo-Communists.” Other articles claimed Jews controlled the media; Jews controlled the theater, which was full of immorality and promoted “new, liberated ethics” and the Polish majority was being assimilated by the Jewish minority, according to scholar Franciszek Adamski.

Even though Germany butchered three million nonJewish Poles to create “living space” for German colonists, Poles often helped the Germans identify or round up native Jews, three million of whom were slaughtered.

After the German conquest, Poles themselves massacred 1,200 Jews on July 5, 1941, in the village of Wasosz; at least 800 on July 7 in the village of Radzilow; and up to 1,600 were forced into a barn that was then burned on July 10 in the town of Jedwabne, with atrocities in another 20 sites. When Jewish survivors returned after the war, Poles in Kielce murdered 42 Jews on July 4, 1946.

Hungarian Prime Minister Count Pl Teleki, who took office in 1939, was a devout Catholic who invoked a revealing apocalyptic image in a speech to the Urban Christian Party: “Our present Christian reaction is not a reaction to [World War I], but rather our reaction to the liberalism and materialism of the nineteenth century and of the early twentieth century. This approach of ours is connected with the fact that we are at present engaged in our final struggle against Judaism.” He predicted Christianity would win after a long fight.

And in March 1935, Zoltn Bszrmnyi, head of the Nazi-like Cross Scythe movement, published “Ten Commandments” for storm troopers, calling them gardeners to help the Hungarian race blossom while scything out “the criminal Jews and their adjuncts . . . the Jewish-Red-Bolshevik propagandists.” The similar Arrow-Cross Party claimed: “Hungarianism believes in God and believes in Jesus . . . Jewry is not a nation, but rather a race . . . it is destructive.” The Arrow-Cross Party played a major role in Hungary’s Holocaust under its leader, Ferenc Szlasi, who was executed postwar as a war criminal. Scholar Randolph L. Braham said that Szlasi held a messianic view of himself as divinely ordained to save his country. When U.S. officials interrogated him, Szlasi declared: “I am a Catholic . . . Only the full confluence of Socialism, Nationalism, and the doctrines of Jesus Christ can guarantee a happy Hungarian future. Hungarianism is a combination of the doctrines of Jesus the Nazarene, Socialism, and Nationalism.” Szlasi also said he accepted the Ten Commandments “in full” as a basis for his moral outlook and declared his actions consistent with Christian beliefs.

In Yugoslavia, a prominent Serbian Orthodox theologian, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, compared Hitler favorably to a Christian saint. He wrote: “In the course of centuries those who crucified the Messiah, Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have turned Europe into the main battlefield against God, for the devil. Europe is presently the main battlefield of the Jew and his father, the devil [Jn. 8:44] . . . All modern European slogans have been made up by Jews, the crucifiers of Christ: democracy, strikes, socialism, atheism, tolerance of all religions, pacifism, universal revolution, capitalism, and communism. These are all inventions made by Jews, namely, by their father, the devil. All this has been done with the intention to humiliate Christ, to obliterate Him . . .”

AntiSemitism in Croatia was mixed with bitter grievance against the Orthodox Serb “schismatics.” A Roman Catholic priest, university lecturer and Ustasha supporter, Dr. Ivo Guberina, wrote in “The Catholic Formation of Croatia” about the historical links between Croatia and the Vatican, then listed ways the Serb-dominated government allegedly had tried to destroy Roman Catholicism. In 1943, as Croats butchered Serbs and had exterminated most Jews, Guberina wrote a defense of “Ustashadom and Catholicism,” concluding:

“All reasons therefore require the separation of Croatia from Serbia and the division of Yugoslavia, this miscreation of a state. Primarily the historical significance of Croatia demands this, then the role that Pope Leo XIII had so ceremoniously expressed when he called us the ‘Bulwark of Christianity.’ In order to achieve this goal, we had to enter the open, bloody war with that people and that system that has enslaved Croatia in the last 22 years, namely the Serbian people and its state. One has to be aware that this war is not in contradiction to Christian principles.” He said Croats and Serbs represented separate worlds: “The schism is the greatest curse of Europe, almost greater than Protestantism. There is no morality there, no principles, no truth, no justice, no honor.”

Although the Vatican officially did not recognize Croatia, it had close ties to the Ustasha regime. For example, in April 1941, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac of Zagreb met Ustasha Poglavnik (leader) Ante Pavelic, who presided over genocide against Serbs and Jews (already under way), and wrote: “The Archbishop gave him his blessing for his work . . . When the Archbishop had finished, the Poglavnik answered that he wanted to give all his help to the Catholic Church . . . He went on to say that he would not show tolerance towards the Orthodox Serbian Church because as he saw things, it was not a Church but a political organization. All this left the Archbishop with the impression that the Poglavnik was a sincere Catholic.” Stepinac did protest atrocities at times, particularly against Jews, but was often ambivalent and generally supported the government because of his fear that defeat would bring communist rule and the suppression of Christianity.

After the war, many Ustasha war criminals escaped by way of the Vatican, on “rat lines” organized by Father Krunoslav Stefano Dragonovic, a Ustasha colonel, with Allied aid as part of an anticommunist front. Since 1999, a lawsuit has been working its slow way through federal courts by some survivors of the killings who want the return of stolen property from the Vatican Bank, the Franciscan Order (Franciscans reportedly were heavily involved in killing Jews and Serbs in Croatia) and Croatian groups.

The United States also had a strong antiSemitic element. Infamously, it turned away a shipload of Jewish refugees before the war, which historians say encouraged Hitler to look at annihilation rather than expulsion to deal with the “Jewish question.” AntiSemitism was loudly expressed in the United States by such demagogues as popular radio commentator Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin and the Protestant Rev. Gerald B. Winrod, who said in 1940, “A wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping the world as a reaction against (1) Jewish control of news channels, (2) international Jewish banking, and (3) atheistic Communism, which was originally spawned in Jewish capitalism and Jewish intellectualism.”

One incident shows what might have happened if Europe’s Christians, both lay and clergy, had been united in opposing Nazi bigotry and brutality. Despite the Holocaust, hundreds of German Jews survived the war, even though the Gestapo knew who they were and where they were. These survivors, mostly men, were married to “Aryans.” In early 1943, when the Gestapo rounded up the Berlin Jewish spouses for deportation, after all other known Jews had been deported, thousands of “Aryan” family members and friends marched day after day in front of the Gestapo’s Berlin headquarters. International news reports embarrassed the Nazi government until, on March 6, 1943, the Gestapo released the Jews. This showed clearly that mass protests of violence against communists, homosexuals, Jews, etc., might have stopped the Nazis cold in the early 1930s. It was the passive or active acquiescence of millions of European Christians that freed the Nazis to act as they did.

The Holocaustand otheratrocities in World War II werecommitted by Christian leaders and followers, in nations considered Christian, based upon longstanding Christian beliefs routinely expressed in Christian media.The Holocaustwas the culmination of more than a century of conservative Christian anger at the spread of church-state separation, the consequent granting of citizenship and full civic rights to Jews, and the spread of other liberal, democratic, Western ideals.

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.

He is the author of a collection of essays and satires, Constitution-Loving, Anti-Fascist, Patriotic, Anti-Superstition, Really-Angry, Secular Humanist. Some resources are Christianity and the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry, Moshe Herczl; The Politics of Genocide, Randolph L. Braham; The Holy Reich, Richard Steigmann-Gall; Twisted Cross, Doris L. Bergen; The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koonz; The Popes Against the Jews, David I. Kertzer; It’s Your Souls We Want, Stewart W. Herman Jr.; Jews in Independent Poland 19181939, edited by Antony Polonsky, Ezra Mendelsohn and Jerzy Tomaszewski; The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican, Vladimir Dedijer; The Silence of Pius XII, Carlo Falconi; and From Prejudice to Destruction, Jacob Katz.

Freedom From Religion Foundation