Edwin Woodruff Tait responds to Danusha Goska's essay "Against Identifying Nazism with Christianity." To read her essay, please click HERE.
NAZISM AND CHRISTIANITY: A Response to Danusha Goska's Essay
I'm honored to have been asked to reply to Danusha Goska's essay on Nazism and Christianity. I approach this question as a historian of Christianity, specifically the late Middle Ages and early modern periods. I'm more familiar, in other words, with traditional Christian anti-Judaism than I am with Nazi anti-Semitism, and that may be one reason why Danusha and I reach very different conclusions on the relationship between the two.
First of all, I want to highlight my agreement with Danusha's basic thesis: of course Nazism was not itself a Christian ideology. It was a modern secular ideology, many of whose adherents were Christians of one sort or another (frequently unorthodox ones) but whose inner circle, as Danusha documents, was consistently contemptuous toward Christianity and nostalgic for ancient Germanic paganism. Many people in our culture seem to believe that Nazism was basically Christian--in one recent Facebook discussion I got into, someone said that Nazis "persecuted non-Christians," and I was excoriated as a dishonest Christian apologist for pointing out (fortified by having read Danusha's essay) that Nazis were certainly not persecuting Jews for "not being Christians," since key Nazi leaders hated and despised Christianity themselves. I think Danusha's discussion of the role of the Grimm fairy tales in Nazism is fascinating and thought-provoking.
Here's the thesis I still maintain, with which Danusha disagrees: the acceptance by Germans of Nazi anti-Semitism, specifically, was in significant ways facilitated by the longstanding presence in European society of religiously inspired Christian anti-Judaism. That is to say, Germans who were culturally Christian (which meant pretty much all Germans who were not Jews or Roma) most likely found it easier to accept Nazi anti-Jewish policies because of the centuries of anti-Judaism. Catholics in particular had been very concerned in the early 20th century with a secularizing bent in European society, and had frequently blamed Jews for this. See this article by Martin Rhonheimer published in First Things in 2003, which has heavily influenced my thinking about these issues. Danusha and I first became acquainted, in fact, due to an online discussion about some of the things Civilta Cattolica printed about the Jews. I single out Catholics not because I think they were more to blame, but because on the whole they represented a more traditional Christian approach which led them to reject some aspects of Nazism, such as racial theory. Protestants were less likely, perhaps, to rant about the dangers of too much Jewish influence in society, but (setting the Confessing Church aside, of course) they were far more likely to identify their religion with German culture and "progress" and had far weaker resources for resisting racial theory, which presented itself as new scientific truth to which traditional ideas must be made to conform. They also tended to have a more spiritualized idea of the role of faith, whereas Catholics had a vigorous tradition of defending the "social reign of Christ the King."
Before I address Danusha's specific arguments, I want to tackle what I think is the fundamental methodological difference between us. Danusha seems interested in isolating necessary and sufficient causes for Nazism, and she appears (she can correct me if I'm wrong) to hold that historical events, at least events such as the Holocaust, are primarily caused by socio-economic factors. I agree with her entirely, for instance, that the "middleman" status of Jews played a huge role in causing people to resent them. But I don't think this excludes consideration of beliefs which focused resentment of Jews' "middleman" status and provided justification for them. My advisor, David Steinmetz, taught me that human behavior is "overdetermined." You can always find multiple causes for everything people do. While it's certainly nice when we can isolate necessary or sufficient causes for human behavior (and these are generally more likely to be socio-economic, because these kinds of causes are easier to measure), I don't think that's a reason to dismiss what appear to be likely contributing causes. So many of Danusha's arguments don't move me, because they amount to "there are other reasons for the Holocaust and it might have happened anyway." That may be true--counterfactuals are hard to prove or disprove. Certainly Danusha is right that the Nazis massacred many other groups. Whether she's as correct about Christian anti-Judaism being no more intense than that of other cultures I'm less convinced (more on that later). But the basic methodological issue is that I'm not convinced we can isolate necessary and sufficient causes for human behavior with any precision. Hence, we should speak responsibly and cautiously about all the possible contributing factors, not ruling some out just because we can't set up some kind of laboratory test to see what would have been the case if they hadn't been present.
In defending Christianity against the charge of contributing to the Holocaust, Danusha seems almost to have reduced it (and religion in general) to irrelevance. She's certainly right that Christianity has been distressingly unable, in many cases, to affect human behavior on a large scale. And from my perspective as a Christian, one important reason for raising this issue of Christian influence on anti-Semitism is to try to understand just what that is the case. Yes, it's possible to say simply, as a rather disillusioned Romanian evangelical told me sadly years ago, "Faith is faith but people remain people" (Credinta-i credinta, iar om ramane om). But when there are, in fact, specific elements in Christian tradition and historic Christian practice on which human sinfulness can seize in order to inoculate itself against the transforming power of the Gospel, I think it's important not to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in analyzing the possible effect of those elements.
Now to Danusha's specific points:
1. Yes, Nazism was anti-Christian, at least based on the statements of its inner circle. However, it arose in a historically Christian culture where Christianity still had huge influence, and many Christians either embraced it explicitly or passively accepted it, often expressing sympathy with some of its measures, including some of the measures against Jews. Danusha outlines the ways in which Nazis drew from German Romanticism--but German Romanticism, like Christianity, can't simply be identified with Nazism. I take Danusha's point that Luther, for instance, didn't directly influence Nazi anti-Semitism (though they used his pamphlet when talking to Lutherans, just as they drew on Catholic anti-Jewish polemic when talking to Catholics). But the Reformation shaped German Protestant culture in ways that at times facilitated Nazism. The failure of Luther and other early Protestants to reject the medieval anti-Jewish tradition (indeed, Luther's "On Jews and Their Lies" is a particularly savage expression of that tradition) while they were about rejecting medieval "corruptions" ensured that the seeds of anti-Judaism remained within German Protestant culture (as within German Catholic culture), ready for the Nazis to use. Danusha defines Christian ethics as "universalist"--but Christianity had frequently made its peace with various forms of nationalism. (Here Protestantism was far more guilty than Catholicism--this is in fact perhaps the single major way in which the Protestants helped pave the way for the Nazis.) 19th-century liberal Protestant theologians in Germany frequently write as if Christianity is simply identical with bourgeois Protestant culture. This, as Barth saw, was a huge factor in preparing German Protestants to accept Nazism. If you think your culture (as in a Hegelian paradigm, for instance) is the highest point that Spirit has so far reached in human evolution, then the dichotomy between universalism and nationalism disappears. The interests of your race are the interests of the human race. Catholicism wasn't free from blame either. As this article points out, Karl Adam, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the time, was deeply influenced by German Romanticism (this was positive in many ways, because it enabled him to articulate an ecclesiology that was mystical and imaginative rather than the "perfect society" ecclesiology that had reigned for centuries), and this led him to accept many aspects of Nazism, even as he also pointed out its "pagan elements" and actually got in trouble with the Nazis. Joseph Lortz, the first major Catholic scholar to see value in Luther, was initially enthusiastic about Nazism, though he had a change of heart later. In short, even though Christianity was not the primary direct influence on Nazism, it contributed to the cultural milieu from which Nazism arose, and was in turn shaped by that milieu in ways that hindered its ability to resist Nazism. The fact that Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda resonated with and drew on traditional Christian anti-Judaism is the single most striking and disturbing example of this.
II. Yes, the inner circle of Nazis despised Christianity, and yes, they persecuted those Christians who stood up to them (orthodox Catholics and Confessing Church Protestants). But that does not change the fact that many Christians worked with the Nazis or even joined them, and (especially in the case of Protestantism) modified their own traditions to fit Nazism. So it's not relevant to the dispute between myself and Danusha. There were specific elements of Nazism that many Christians found appealing even when they recognized that Nazism as a whole was incompatible with Christianity (see my remarks about Karl Adam above), and Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda was often one of those elements.
Points III-VII do not, I think, contradict anything I'm arguing for. I don't think that the Holocaust was the "inevitable" result of 2000 years of Christian anti-Judaism. I agree that the Nazis needed huge social trauma, propaganda, and considerable deception as to the actual nature of the "solution to the Jewish problem" in order to put their genocidal plans into operation. But this does not mean that Christian anti-Judaism didn't play a role in disposing Germans to go along with Nazi plans given these factors.
Point VIII observes that the Nazis slaughtered many other people as well, such as Slavs. Yes, and there were historical roots to Nazi violence against Slavs too, going back to the medieval German Christian expansion into Slavic lands. Danusha has written about anti-Polish stereotypes. Surely she would agree that stereotypes and prejudices against Poles and other Slavs helped facilitate these atrocities? If Poles had been seen for centuries as "brutish" and "sub-human," then it makes sense that they were prime targets--as Jews were. Under Point XI, Danusha argues that everyone stereotypes and that this doesn't necessarily lead to genocide. Of course not--but stereotypes pave the way for us to treat others as inhuman when social conditions favor it. They are like germs that remain latent in a healthy organism but become virulent under conditions of stress. In times of chaos and hardship, people tend to look for scapegoats. Of course this is common human behavior across time and space. But when particular groups of people have been consistently treated as scapegoats and subjected to oppression and violence on that account before, it strains credulity to say that the latest (and by far the worst) outbreak of such persecution is totally unrelated to all the previous examples. Again, to use the disease analogy (admittedly an ironic and disturbing one to use in this context, given the way Nazis used it), it's just plain truth-telling to say that the same germs have caused successive outbreaks, even if in modern times they mutated significantly in ways that made them even more deadly.
Point IX argues that the NT's message is "overall one of love," and thus Christianity is nothing like Nazism. But this is painting with too broad and essentializing a brush. As Danusha admits, there are passages in the NT which, taken out of their original context (a small group of apocalyptic Jews criticizing mainstream Jewish leaders for rejecting their Messiah), could be used in anti-Jewish ways. And they were so used, over and over again. Danusha says that Christians "struggled to defuse" these interpretations. Yes, that's one side of the story. But there's another, much darker side, which I don't have the space to tell here but which has been abundantly documented in works of scholarship such as Cohen's The Friars and the Jews, Netanyahu's The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, and Miri Rubin's Gentile Tales. Official Church doctrine and policy simultaneously fanned and sought to quench the flames of anti-Jewish hatred. Jews were referred to routinely in the liturgy and in devotional literature in ways that inevitably inflamed violence, even as the Church sought to restrain that violence. The Nazis liberated the anti-Jewish passions that had smoldered at the heart of Christian Europe from the restraints that the Church had set in place.
Danusha's example of Germanic violence against Prussians and Slavs hardly gets Christians off the hook. That violence was condoned and even, at times, encouraged by the Church as long as the targets were non-Christian. (Or, as in the Teutonic Knights' invasion of Russia in the 13th century, schismatic Christians.) The war against the Prussians was a papally sanctioned crusade spearheaded by a religious order, the Teutonic Knights. Danusha points out that Christians accepted the Old Testament, which forbade murder. But of course that same Old Testament described God commanding genocidal warfare against unbelievers. Even in the New Testament there is plenty of apocalyptic imagery describing the violent destruction of the wicked, and rulers are said to "bear the sword" on God's behalf, which could easily be taken to mean that Christian rulers were agents of this apocalyptic vengeance. Even Paul's language about separating from false brothers within the community and handing an evildoer over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh could be understood, in a post-Constantinian context, as referring to the physical punishment of the wicked by Christian authorities, whether through war or through judicial punishment. Medieval Christians frequently spoke of heresy and unbelief as a "contagion" (the disease metaphor again) and used medical language to describe the "harsh remedies" that divinely appointed civil and religious authorities needed to use in order to cure society of its spiritual diseases. Modern Christians are frequently extremely naive about just how deeply this concept of redemptive, curative violence was rooted in the Christian tradition, including the Scriptures of both Testaments. So no, it is not true to say that because Christianity had an "ethic of love" therefore it was nothing like Nazism. It would be more accurate to say, again, that Nazism liberated the destructive, vicious elements of European Christian culture from the moral and spiritual restraints in which orthodox Christianity had held them.
Rodney Stark's argument in Point X, like many of Stark's historical arguments, appears to be propagandistic rather than a fair reading of history. (I haven't read Bearing False Witness yet, but I have little confidence in Stark as a writer about premodern eras, though he's excellent as a sociologist of modern American religion. See my review of his The Victory of Reason for some of the errors he makes when writing about the Middle Ages.) Yes, it's true that Christians were a minority religion for three centuries, but during that time they built up plenty of animosity toward Jews. In the late fourth century, John Chrysostom condemned Christians who worshiped in Jewish synagogues by describing Judaism as demonic and using imagery about Jews that would recur over and over again in anti-Semitic polemic. (Chrysostom was not advocating violence against Jews, who still had quite a secure position within the newly Christian Empire, though Christians did sometimes destroy synagogues even this early.) Justinian ordered synagogues to be converted to churches, and Heraclius (early 7th century) ordered the forced baptism of all Jews, though apparently neither of these had much effect. (To be fair, Jews massacred Christians during the Persian invasion under Heraclius.) Jews were persecuted in Visigothic Spain in the 7th century as well. However, certainly it's true that things got much worse in the later Middle Ages. Whether that was because of conflict with Islam I'm not sure (Stark is probably thinking of the "people's Crusade" which massacred Jews on the way to the Holy Land). R. I. Moore has argued that in the 12th century Christian Western Europe became a "persecuting society" in a number of different ways, for reasons that are hard to explain.
This may be the best point at which to tackle the comparison with Islam, which Danusha addresses in her Point XV (on non-Christian massacres of Jews). Certainly there are anti-Jewish elements in Islamic tradition, though on the whole they play a less prominent role than in Christianity, I think. (They have come to the fore in recent decades, of course, under the same sorts of circumstances of social disruption that led to the Holocaust, though I believe that there has also been a direct influence from European secular anti-Semitism.) And of course Muslims treated non-Muslims as inferiors, with all kinds of discrimination and humiliation that seem highly intolerant to us today. That being said, I think it is fair to say that Jews had a more stable place in Islamic society than in Christian society, and that massacres and expulsions were fewer. (Danusha jumps from Granada in the 11th century to the 20th century, though she could have found quite a few more examples of Islamic persecution of Jews between those widely separated dates--there was massacre of Jews in Morocco in 1465, for instance, and both the Almohads and the Almoravids persecuted them at various points.) That doesn't nullify Danusha's overall point that Jews certainly have been persecuted by people other than Christians. (See this piece by Mark Cohen for a nuanced argument to the effect that Jews had it better under Muslims than under Christians, together with a critique by Norman Stillman offering some very important qualifications.)
Back under Point IX, however, Danusha attempts to show that living under Christian rule has been good for Jews, by citing important Jewish figures who flourished after the Enlightenment weakened traditional Christian restrictions on Jews. Meanwhile, she says that Jews haven't flourished in the same way in Muslim areas such as Morocco and Yemen. That ignores the major role Jews played in the medieval Islamic cultural renaissance. What about Maimonides, Halevi, Ibn Gabirol, etc?
Point XII (supported by Point XIV, which I won't otherwise comment on) makes the important observation that people such as Maximilian Kolbe who clearly shared traditional anti-Jewish sentiments were still capable of standing up to Nazism on behalf of Jews. Again, I don't see that this refutes my position. One can hold to views that have disastrous consequences without following through on those consequences. My argument, once again, is not that Christian anti-Judaism was identical to Nazi anti-Semitism but that it helped facilitate it. Of course a person of great charity such as St. Maximilian would be capable of heroic defense of people against whom he might have some religious prejudices. But other, less saintly people might well be more likely to sit back and let the Nazis do their thing because of their traditional prejudices against Jews.
Similarly, I consider Danusha (much to her annoyance) to be an anti-Islamic polemicist. I think her views of Islam are to some extent unfair and prejudiced, in the sense that she engages in double standards when comparing Islam and Christianity (as seen above in her passing over the achievements of Jews under medieval Islam). These sentiments are widely held among Christians in the United States, and that is one of the reasons why so many of them see nothing wrong with President Trump's unjust actions toward refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries. Danusha, to her great credit, has spoken out against Trump's executive order, distinguishing between what she sees as her reasonable "anti-jihadi" sentiments and the unjust scapegoating of innocent people from Muslim countries. In fact, from the little that I know of Danusha, I suspect that she'd be a lot more likely to act heroically on behalf of Muslims than I would be, in spite of my (as I see it) fairer and less hostile views of Islam. That doesn't change my overall cultural observation that language such as Danusha's about Islam facilitates the very injustices that Danusha opposes. (Of course, if Danusha is right, she should speak as she does. I'm not arguing that she's wrong because her views could be used to support injustice. And this is not the place for us to thrash out our respective views of Islam.)
Finally, points XIII and XVI get us back to the question of how we talk about historical causation. Danusha argues in Point XIII that atrocities are not caused by stereotyping, and in Point XVI that the violence of hte European Wars of Religion was caused primarily by factors other than theology. In both points, she makes comparisons that I think actually rebound against her. Of course (to Point XIII) atrocities aren't always caused by stereotyping. But the more we dehumanize other people, the more likely we are to commit atrocities against them. We don't know how the Toltecs generally viewed outsiders--they may have developed habits of dehumanizing all outsiders, as indeed many cultures have had. Again, my argument is that stereotyping facilitates atrocity. The Rwandan example is, I think, a poor one for Danusha. Hutus and Tutsis did, I believe, have a history of hostility, exacerbated by colonialism as usual, and arguably with some religious overtones. I don't know enough about Cambodia to know whether there was stereotyping or not, but the fact that it was an "internal" genocide doesn't rule out the possibility.
Point XVI finally gets to territory that I know more about. And here Danusha is, in my opinion, simply wrong. Yes, many historians interpret the Wars of Religion as being "really" about politics. But that generally stems from a prejudice in favor of materialistic explanation and against taking religion seriously as a factor in history. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his acclaimed history of the Reformation, documents how apocalyptic theological beliefs on both sides helped precipitate the Thirty Years' War. I have myself written (in an unpublished conference paper) about how one Protestant Reformer (Martin Bucer) justified armed resistance to the emperor even when the cause was lost by all reasonable measures. While the Strasbourg city government didn't listen to him, his "defensive holy war" argument prefigured the way many later Protestant holy warriors would think, I believe. (I admit that this is still a hypothesis which I haven't had the leisure to work out in solid research.) To be sure, theological differences don't necessitate violence. But in the early modern period, they certainly facilitated it.
I don't think that explaining the Reformation simply in terms of rulers wanting church property is a "sophisticated" interpretation at all. A sophisticated interpretation of history integrates all kinds of causation instead of trying to reduce everything to one cause.
And this brings us back to the fundamental reason I disagree with Danusha. I'm a historian of premodern Christian theology, particularly that of the Reformation era. I have read quite a bit about historic Christian anti-Judaism. From the perspective of the early modern period, the link between Christian anti-Judaism and later anti-Semitism seems obvious. Of course it might be an illusion. It might be that Christians screamed about the horrible Jews for centuries, and the Nazis just happened to scream about the horrible Jews too, with no connection between the two things. But I don't find this to be historically plausible. I find Danusha's arguments to be extremely persuasive against the view (which I do not hold) that Christian anti-Judaism was the same as Nazism or made it inevitable. I don't find them at all persuasive against the view that Christian anti-Judaism contributed to the success of Nazi anti-Semitism in mid-20th-century Germany.
In the end, where we stand shapes how we should speak. We should always tell the truth, but we should tell it with a different emphasis depending on where we stand and to whom we are speaking. As a Christian, I am obligated to take very seriously the horrifying correlation between traditional Christian anti-Judaism and the demonic anti-Semitism of Nazism. It may not have exercised any significant causal role. It may simply have been a psychological justification that people in some cases resorted to. But that, for a Christian, should be enough for us to speak humbly and penitently about our failure in this regard. We should give the benefit of the doubt to the very serious possibility that the Christian legacy of anti-Judaism did in some cases make some people less able to resist Nazism (or even more likely to embrace it) than they would otherwise have been.
I entirely agree with Danusha that many people take this correlation out of context and use it as a stick to bash Christianity. But we defend Christianity best by being scrupulous to note anything that can possibly count against us. When we bend over backward to acknowledge the role that our faith may have played in facilitating Nazism, we are in a much stronger position to make all the excellent points Danusha wants to make: that Christians also were deeply involved in stopping Nazism, that Christians were often victims of Nazism, and that the principal driving forces behind Nazism were certainly not Christian.
I don't actually think that Danusha and I fundamentally disagree about the nature of Nazism. I think we disagree much more about how we should speak, as Christian scholars, about the role of Christianity in history. Danusha ends by saying that the Christians who ended the slave trade, led the movement for women's suffrage, blew the whistle on the sexual abuse crisis, and rescued Jews from Nazis deserve "nothing less than the truth." I agree. But similarly, the many people who have suffered in body, mind, and spirit from Christians' failure to live up to the truths of our holy faith deserve nothing less than a rigorous admission of these failures on our part, without excuses. Christians as a whole have, over a period of centuries, failed miserably in loving our Jewish neighbors. Perhaps exactly the same things would have happened if Europe had been pagan or Islamic or Buddhist for a thousand years. But it wasn't. It was Christian. And we must take responsibility for that.
Edwin Woodruff Tait is a freelance writer, homesteader, organist, and homeschooling parent living in Kentucky. He earned his Ph.D. in religion from Duke University in 2005, specializing in the theology of the Protestant Reformation. He blogs at http://stewedrabbit.