The Holocaust and the Christian World: Reflections on the Past, Challenges for the Future

Article excerpt

edited by Carol Rittner, Stephen D. Smith, and Irena Stein; consulting editor: Yehuda Bauer. New York: Continuum, 2000. 278 pp. $49.95.

Although historians agree that the Endlösung, proclaimed at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, was the goal of the mass extermination of European Jewry and was linked to the attempts by the Nazi German state to destroy Europeans during World War II, they differ in how to interpret the event. "Functionalists" credit major responsibility in the murder of Jews and other innocents to the structure of the Nazi Party and the regime's search for policy in meeting events as they unfolded. "Intentionalists" argue that Hitler's personal contribution to suffering, tragedy, and genocide was not conditioned by factors beyond his control; the near-successful extermination of European Jewry was set within the chain of command that began and ended in he phrase, Es ist des Führers Wunsch -- "It is the Fuhrer's wish." A serious lacuna in both schools of thought, however, is a meaningful discussion of the role played by certain core New Testament beliefs and Church teachings in contributing to Nazi ideology and tolerating state-sponsored, technologically administrated mass death.(1)

For example, "Third Reich" is used to denote the Nazi regime in Germany. It comes from the idea that the medieval German Empire was the First Empire and the united German Empire of 1871-1918 was the Second. The Third Reich was established by the Nazis and lasted from 1933 to 1945. Religiously, however, Drittes Reich means "Third Kingdom" and is rooted in German Trinitarian pietism: "Kingdoms of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit." Shortly after his election as Reichkanzler in 1933, Hitler with a worn-copy of the New Testament of Martin Luther in hand proclaimed before a group of Methodist deaconesses that he received his power "from God's word."(2) Arguably, the twin meanings of Third Reich (Empire and Kingdom) became one: Hitler regarded himself as sent by Providence to establish the German Reich for "a thousand years," and his divine mandate was to disenfranchise, ghettoize, expel, and ultimately murder the Jews. How to explain and learn the lessons from this banality of evil in the heartland of Christianity is the focus of this book.

In the spirit of Pastor Martin Niemöller's God-straggle,(3) German Protestant theologian Dorothee Sölle painfully bares her Christian soul and asks where was I when Jewish children were humiliated in school classes, deported, and finally gassed, and observes that God had no friends in Germany. Her words in the Foreword are meant to grapple with the horns of a Christian dilemma and set the mood for the chapters that follow: Hitler's war against the Jews was made possible in part by nearly two millennia of mean-spirited theology against the Jews and Judaism, and though the contemporary Christian is frightened by the results of that hatred, s/he is spiritually bankrupt because of it.

Structurally, The Holocaust and the Christian World is divided into nine parts: confronting the Holocaust; chronology, 1932-1998; antisemitism; the churches and Nazi persecution; the reaction of the churches in Nazi-occupied Europe; the Vatican, the Pope, and the persecution of the Jews; the challenge of the exception; after the Holocaust: how have Christians responded; and afterword. …