The April 27th twin canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II have stimulated considerable activity in church historians and theologians. What unites these popes? What separates them? The responses are varied, consequent on the perspective chosen. This writer is convinced that a unifying factor between these two popes is their positive attitude toward the Jewish people. This must be understood differently from a positive appreciation of Judaism as a religion, which is the spiritual ancestry of Christianity. John XXIII not only outlawed the so-called Good Friday Prayer for the “perfidious” Jews, but created the possibilities that led to the historic Vatican II declaration, Nostra Aetate. This document, though small in volume, marked a decisive turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations. John Paul II was the first Pope, after St. Peter, to enter a Jewish place of worship and prayer. His sincere love for the Jews is traceable to childhood and adolescent friendships with Jews in his native Poland. His pain at Hitler’s deportation remained a life-long ulcer. As the canonization of these two popes approaches, I am convinced that examining the religious foundations of the Holocaust and its lessons for the world is a worthy though modest attempt, at understanding this ecclesial recognition that John XXIII and John Paul II the Great are in fact, in the presence of the Lord, seeing him face to face and interceding for the Church and the world.
The etymology of the word “Holocaust” can be traced to the Greek language, meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHM) website describes the Holocaust as: “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist party (Nazis), who came to power in Germany in January 1933, had this pseudo-scientific belief about the racial superiority of Germans and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community. The Holocaust is history’s most extreme example of hatred of, or prejudice against Jews otherwise known as anti-Semitism.
Opinions differ about the role played by Religion, precisely, the Christian Religion, in fomenting the sentiments that created the spiritual justifications for the Holocaust. From the time of New Testament writings particularly of the Gospel and Letters of St. John (circa 90 CE); through the Church Fathers such as John Chrysostom; the Christian Church and the attitudes and actions of German Catholics and Protestants were shaped not only by their religious beliefs, but also by traditional interpretations of religious scriptures which seemed to support these prejudices against the Jews, passing it on from generation to generation; even in its liturgical Good Friday prayers. Thus the Nazi ideology of racial superiority which converged with anti-Semitism that was historically widespread throughout Europe at the time had deep roots in Christian history.
While it can be argued that non-Church factors, such as Nazism as an ideology; fear of communism, the backlash of the German defeat in World War I; the rise of German nationalism and the socio-economic and political changes that occurred during the 1920s where much more at play than Christianity in creating the Holocaust; it cannot be denied that Christian anti-Semitism provided an ease of conscience in those that saw to the killing of over six million Jews under the Nazi regime of Hitler. While outstanding Church men and women such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein provided a courageous alternative and paid the supreme price under Hitler; many, Church leaders found themselves compromising with the Nazi godless regime. Other historical facts are still controversial and in need of further study, such as the role of Pius XII.
Historically the German Evangelical Church; the largest protestant church in the 1930s viewed itself as one of the pillars of German culture and society, with a theologically grounded tradition of loyalty to the German state. With the rise of Hitler, emerged a movement within the Evangelical Church called the “German Christians.” This group embraced the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazism; and sought the creation of a national “Reich Church” and by default, supported a “Nazified” version of Christianity. In response, another group; the “Confessing Church” emerged, declaring that the church’s allegiance was to God and the scripture, not a worldly Führer. The result was a bitter struggle for control between those who sought a “Nazified” church, and those who opposed it, with a third group emerging whose priority was church unity and the avoidance of any conflict with the Nazis. The most famous members of the Confessing Church were the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his role in the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazis, and Pastor Martin Niemöller, who spent seven years in concentration camps for his criticisms of Hitler.
The Catholic Church was not as sharply divided as the Protestant church, and Catholic leaders were initially more suspicious of Nazism than their Protestant counterparts. Before 1933, in fact, some bishops prohibited Catholics in their dioceses from joining the Nazi Party. This ban was dropped after Hitler’s March 23, 1933, speech to the Reichstag in which he described Christianity as the “foundation” for German values. Rabid anti-Catholic figures such as Alfred Rosenberg, a leading Nazi ideologue, raised early concerns among Catholic leaders in Germany and at the Vatican. In addition, the Catholic Centre Party had been a key coalition governmental partner in the Weimar Republic aligned with both the Social Democrats and leftist German Democratic Party, pitting it politically against right-wing Nazi party. The Catholic Centre Party was dissolved after the signing of a 1933 Concordat between the Vatican and Nazi officials, and several of its leaders were murdered in the Röhm Purge in July 1934.
Yet, in both German churches there were members, including clergy and leading theologians, who openly supported the Nazi regime. Most church leaders were more concerned with blocking the Nazi interference in church affairs. With time, anti-Nazi sentiment grew within Church circles, as the Nazis saw a potential for dissent in church criticism of state activities; and exerted greater pressure on Churches. When a protest statement was read from the pulpits of Confessing churches in March 1935, for example, Nazi authorities reacted forcefully by briefly arresting over 700 pastors. After the 1937 Papal encyclical; “With Burning Concern” was read from Catholic pulpits, the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, confiscated copies from diocesan offices throughout Germany.
The general tactic by the leadership of both Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany was caution with respect to protest and compromise with the Nazis where possible. There was criticism within both churches of Nazi racialized ideology and notions of “Aryanism,” and movements emerged in both churches to defend church members who were considered “non-Aryan” under Nazi racial laws (e.g., Jews who had converted). There were members of the clergy and laity who opposed and resisted the Nazis, including some who aided and hid Jews. Yet throughout the pogrom, there was virtually no public opposition to anti-Semitism or any readiness by church leaders to publicly oppose the Nazis on issues of anti-Semitism and state-sanctioned violence against the Jews.
There were individual Catholics and Protestants who spoke out on behalf of Jews, and Christian groups were in rescue and resistance activities (for example, the White Rose and Herman Maas). After 1945, the silence of the church leadership and the widespread complicity of ordinary Christians compelled Church leaders to address issues of guilt and complicity during the Holocaust – a process that continues to this day.
The driving force behind the Holocaust was Germany, which was looking for an excuse for a war that would allow it to dominate Europe. Yet complacency was also to blame. Too many people, in London, Paris and elsewhere, failed to look beyond the fact that Britain and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners after America and therefore, war would not happen. The parallels are not exact -which, by and large, they are not. But the most troubling similarity between the 1930s and now is complacency. Businessmen today are like businessmen then: too busy making money to notice the gathering clouds. Politicians are playing with nationalism just as the Nazis did and worldwide, anti-Semitism has anything but declined; while religious fundamentalism is on the rise as some find justifications in religion to kill and die in God’s name!
Humanity has learnt little from its mistakes. Today, the Middle East is rife with Islamic fundamentalist indignation against Israel. In Asia, Chinese leaders whip up Japanophobia, using it as cover for economic reforms, while Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism for similar reasons. Nobody is quite clear what will happen when North Korea implodes, and there is no plan by either America or China to safeguard North Korea’s nuclear program. India may next year elect Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who refuses to atone for a pogrom against Muslims in the state he runs and who would have his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with his Muslim neighbors in Pakistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart; in yet another grotesque campaign of human savagery and barbarism that has seen the Assad regime use weapons of mass destruction against his own people. Ukraine is another new crisis. And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed, including the Holocaust of World War II, is more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its creation.
The memory of the horrors unleashed during the Holocaust makes any such recurrence, including the threat of a nuclear holocaust less likely. The chances are that none of the world’s present dangers will lead to anything that compares to the Holocaust. Madness, whether motivated by race, religion or tribe, usually gives ground to rational self-interest. But when it triumphs, it leads to carnage, so to assume that reason will prevail is to be culpably complacent. That is the lesson of the Holocaust.