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Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust

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Betrayal: German Churches

Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, by Robert P. Ericksen

The Nazis would not have been able to achieve what they did in Germany and Europe without the active assistance of millions of Christians. This, in turn, was achieved in large part by the assistance of German churches: whether through silent acquiescence or active participation, German churches helped make the Nazi control of Germany possible. Traditionally, German churches have been hailed for their resistance to Hitler, but the truth is ultimately quite different.

Summary

Title: Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust
Author: edited by Robert P. Ericksen, Susannah Heschel.
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress
ISBN: 0800629310

Pro:
• Nice introduction to a subject unfamiliar to many
• Several essays from scholars who provide different perspectives

Con:
• Most information available in other, more detailed works

Description:
• Examination of the relationship between Christian churches, the Nazis, and the Holocaust
• Argues that Christians were often enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis
• Explains how Christians sought to integrate Christian doctrine with Nazi ideology

Book Review

Understanding how the assistance of German churches helped the Nazis and what German Christians did to facilitate the Nazi conquest of Germany is key to understanding how Christian churches might be able to avoid something similar in the future. One contribution to this is Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, edited by Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel. These essays cover the infamous German Christian movement, efforts to portray Jesus as Aryan rather than Jewish, the culpability even of major opponents of the Nazis, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and of course the actions of the Catholic Church.

There are two major thrusts in the various essays. The first deals with the ways German Christianity, Christian institutions, and academic theology helped pave the way for collaboration between Christianity and the Nazis. The key factor seems to be the development of a radical nationalistic Christianity in Germany which saw the radical nationalism of the Nazis as a natural ally.

Many German Christians had all but abandoned the idea of the Christian church as a supra-national community which transcended ethnicity, nationality, or geography. Instead, they regarded German Christianity as a divinely sanctioned religious movement which combined Christian doctrine and German character in a unique and desirable manner.

Thus when Nazis defended violent policies on the basis of nationalism, it was easy for church leaders to tell congregations that the tenets of the Christian faith were not being violated. Jews who had converted to Christianity, for example, were inferior and not “real” Christians as far as many were concerned.

The other major thrust is that the Nazis were far more Christian than most people realize. There was an undeniable presence of neo-pagan and anti-Christian beliefs among some prominent Nazis, but their beliefs were never officially endorsed and the Nazis always showed official support for Christian churches and Christian beliefs. The Christianity of Nazi leaders may have been unorthodox by most contemporary standards, but they were not out of place in Germany at the time.

There was resistance and dissent among some Christians in Germany, but this was the exception rather than the rule — and too often, “resistance” was to efforts by the Nazis to exert greater control over church activities, not to the mass murder of non-Aryans. An important question asked in the book is, what religious beliefs caused a few to resist but the vast majority to simply go along with the Nazis' agenda? There is no simple answer to the question, but a consistent theme throughout all the factors appears to be the degree to which people accepted the blending of nationalism and Christianity, state and church.

Betrayal: German Churches

Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, by Robert P. Ericksen

People supported whatever the Nazis did because they believed that Adolf Hitler was a gift to the German people from God. They believed that True Christianity must include basic Aryan values, while true German-ness must exhibit Christian (as opposed to Jewish) values. They believed that support for the nation and Volk required supporting Christianity, while supporting Christianity meant supporting the nation and Volk. German theology was to be as fully Nazified as the Nazi party was Christianized.

Sadly, matters haven’t improved as much as they should have. There are still theologians and pastors in Germany who treat Judaism as an inferior religion, and it was a long time before institutional churches even began to admit their responsibility for what happened under the Nazis.

This book doesn’t actually break new ground and the information here can be found elsewhere. It is, however, a solid introduction to the topic for anyone who wants to learn more and isn’t prepared to purchase several more expensive and more academic volumes.

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