The horrors of Kristallnacht were a moment of rejoicing for Bishop Martin Sasse, head of the Protestant church of Thuringia. A night that brought riots, looting, beatings and widespread destruction of synagogues and Jewish property seemed to fulfill Sasse’s hopes: the Nazi regime was finally ridding the Reich of Jews.
The strong action of the Reich against the Jews made Sasse feel he could take strong action to carry out his own project: ridding the church of Jewishness. Not only were baptized Jewish pastors, religion teachers and organists to be fired and baptized Jews excluded from church congregations; not only were pastors forbidden to minister to baptized Jews; not only was the Old Testament no longer to be presented in church to couples celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary; not only was knowledge of biblical Hebrew henceforth eliminated as a requirement for ordination; now, any traces of Jewishness in the New Testament, liturgy, music and theology of the church were to be hunted down, exposed and eradicated.
Bishop Sasse was a leading figure in the German Christian movement, an alliance of pastors, bishops, theologians and lay people, formed in 1932, who supported Hitler and sought to create a nazified, unified German Protestant church, one that was manly, free of doctrinal control and anti-Semitic. As a faction within the Protestant church of Germany, not a separate sect, the German Christian movement eventually attracted between a quarter and a third of Protestant church members. Enthusiastically pro-Nazi, the movement sought to demonstrate its support for Hitler by organizing itself after the model of the Nazi Party, placing a swastika on the altar next to the cross, giving the Nazi salute at its rallies and celebrating Hitler as sent by God.
By 1938 the German Christian movement dominated most theological faculties in the Reich, controlled most of the regional Protestant churches and had sympathizers at the national level, including in the Reich Ministry of Church Affairs and in Reich Bishop Ludwig Mueller.
Still, their anti-Semitic passions were not requited. During 1938 Germans saw increasing militarization at all levels of society and a rise of anti-Semitic propaganda. The German Christian leadership held a series of meetings to plan a Christian response to Nazi anti-Semitism.
On November 15, just days after the pogrom, Bishop Sasse distributed a pamphlet entitled Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them! (Martin Luther über die Juden: Weg mit Ihnen!), in which he reprinted excerpts from Luther’s notorious 1543 pamphlet, Against the Jews and Their Lies, urging the destruction of Jewish property. Kristallnacht, he claimed, was fulfilling the goals of Luther; the Nazis were acting as Christians.
Realizing that the time was ripe to take further action Sasse’s office also distributed a proposal by a Thuringian pastor Hugo Pich, to establish an institute of professors, pastors, and bishops who would undertake a thorough dejudaization of Christianity, linking the theological goals with the Nazi programme.
In a cover letter Gerhard Hahn, a German Christian leader in Berlin, made Pich’s proposal a response to the pogrom: ‘I continue to be of the opinion that, in conjunction with the general cleansing of German racial life of everything Jewish, the time has arrived for action to be taken … by the German Christian church leaders through similarly appropriate measures in this direction.’ Theoretical discussions of dejudaizing the church had already taken place, he wrote, but no practical solutions had yet been achieved. The German Christian movement must ‘free the field for the positive work of shaping a true German Christianity’.
The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life was formally opened with celebrations on the Wartburg on 6 May, 1939, and its members immediately went to work. Within a year, they produced a dejudaized version of the New Testament (having already eliminated the Old Testament from the canon), then a dejudaized hymnal, and a catechism proclaiming Jesus the saviour of Aryans. Well-financed by contributions from the Protestant church, the Institute flourished throughout the war years, holding numerous conferences of theology professors, sending its members on lecture tours, and publishing both academic and popular books. Its members were avid Nazis and anti-Semites; some were known to have praised the Kristallnacht pogroms.
The academic director, Walter Grundmann, professor of New Testament at the University of Jena, used the Institute to publish the dissertations of his students while also using it as a forum for his own pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic theology. In his lecture at the Institute’s inauguration, he claimed that the Jews had destroyed Germans’ völkisch thinking, and, with help from Bolshevism, they were now striving for world conquest, the Weltherrschaft des Judentums (world domination of Jewry). The Jewish threat to Germany was grave; the war against the Jews was not simply a military battle, but a spiritual battle: ‘Jewish influence on all areas of German life, including on religious-church life, must be exposed and broken.’
Grundmann’s particular message was that the New Testament had been falsified by Jews who had infiltrated the early church to falsify the message of Jesus. Scholars of the New Testament, such as himself, would have to establish the true, original text of the gospels, with all Jewishness expurgated. Jesus, he claimed, was not a Jew but an Aryan, a fact that urgently needed to be taught to Germans. ‘Our Volk, which stands above all else in a struggle against the satanic powers of world Jewry for the order and life of this world, dismisses Jesus, because it cannot struggle against the Jews and open its heart to the king of the Jews.’ In proving that Jesus was not a Jew but an opponent of the Jews, Grundmann allied the Institute’s work with the Nazi war effort.
Members of the Institute ranged from young, newly-minted PhDs in theology to older, established, tenured professors. The Institute was a vehicle for them to express their support for Nazi anti-Semitism on theological grounds. No one was pressured into joining, and no one was penalized for failing to become involved in Nazi theology. One example is Martin Redeker (1900–1970), professor of systematic theology at the University of Kiel and a distinguished scholar of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who delivered anti-Semitic sermons from the chapel of the university that were broadcast on radio; two months after Kristallnacht he preached, ‘We can see all too clearly how the satanical power of rot is consolidated in world-Judaism and materialism.’ Nazism he viewed as the essence of Germanness and Christianity: ‘The contemporary fulfillment of German politics and political leadership that we are enabled to experience in National Socialist Germany is the fulfillment of Ur-German themes that broke forth with Luther and through Luther experienced a religious and moral substantiation.’
While the Institute flourished, its members could never entirely decided what constituted the ‘Jewish’ within Christianity nor what to do about it. In August of 1944, Pich, one of the original founders of the Institute, circulated a memorandum calling for a more thorough dejudaization of the church by eradicating Paul and his theology. The German Christians, he wrote, were holding on to a ‘Jewish Christianity’ by retaining Paul. What was needed was the ‘faith in God’ of Jesus, ‘for which he, in battle against Judaism, went to his death’. The church should reject the Old Testament in favour of the history of the German Volk and God’s revelation in it, but should also reject the ‘Jew Scha-ul [Saul] with his Jewish-messianic “Christ”-proclamation.’ Until then, he argued, the church remained a ‘breeding ground’ for Jewishness: he blamed Jews for the attempted assassination of Hitler on 20 July, 1944, and for the German war dead, concluding that the war was a battle of the German nation against a world Jewry bent on Germany’s destruction.
This time reactions were negative. Germany was in a calamitous state. Everyone knew the war was lost, and the bombings and destruction of civilian areas were overwhelming. Bishop Walther Schultz of Mecklenburg, one of the early and most enthusiastic supporters of the Institute, replied that Pich was a theological hysteric and urged the Institute to reject his proposal as official policy. Furthermore, Schultz wrote, ‘I consider Pich’s observations completely erroneous and moreover an insult to our nation, which is blamed indirectly for having been duped, in its hopeless stupidity and lack of instinct, by some stinking Jew for 1,500 years [verschwitzem Juden auf dem Leim gekrochen].’
With the end of the war, efforts were made by Institute leaders to maintain it as a research institute. Their appeals to the Thuringian church were denied, on the grounds that funds were not available. Some Institute members lost their professorships at universities because they had joined the Nazi party at an early date, before 1933. Yet after 1945 they nonetheless retained positions of authority and influence within the church and earned extraordinary respect and honour within German society. Grundmann, for example, became rector of a seminary in Thuringia and published commentaries on the synoptic gospels that were widely read by German-speaking pastors well into the 1990s; the Thuringian church considered him its greatest theologian and plied him with honours. Little did the church know that Grundmann worked as an informer for the Stasi, the East German secret police, earning special privileges that allowed him to travel abroad — in exchange for spying on the activities of his fellow churchmen.
Redeker retained his professorship at the University of Kiel, serving as dean of the theological faculty from 1962 until his death in 1970. He became involved in politics, elected four times between 1954 and 1967 to the Schleswig-Holstein parliament as a representative of the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU); in April 1967 he was awarded the Große Verdienstkreuz der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, West Germany’s highest civilian honour. Toward the end of his life, he claimed, falsely, ‘During thse time of National Socialism I already distanced myself from the Nazi regime so clearly through public opposition to the Jewish politics [e.g., Nazi anti-Semitism] and the cult of the Führer that I did not need to repeat it after 1945.’
Why was racial theory so appealing to Protestant theologians? And why was it so easy to create an anti-Semitic Christianity? The dejudaization effort of the Institute must be examined both in terms of Third Reich politics and as a Christian theological dilemma that engaged a vast number of pastors, bishops and academic theologians. That theological dilemma was to explain the origins of Christianity within Judaism — the relationship of Judaism to Christianity, often been described as ‘mother-daughter’ relationship. Nearly every theological concept of Christianity rests on a Jewish foundation, from messiah to divine election, and usually entails affirmation of a Jewish idea or a text from the Old Testament. Attempting to eradicate the Jewish became a kind of ‘theological bulimia’, a hopeless, self-destructive rage against the Judaism within Christianity that could never be eradicated without destroying Christianity itself.
The violence unleashed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht ought to have been a shock and a warning to church leaders: is not religion the antithesis of violence? The physical savagery of the Nazis was matched by a spiritual savagery of their theological supporters who ended up corrupting the message and spirit of Christianity in their effort to create an Aryan Jesus. As the audience of the Oberammergau passion play of 1934 watched Jesus being hoisted on the cross, they saw a parable of the Third Reich: ‘There he is. That is our Führer, our Hitler!’ When the Third Reich came to an end and Nazism was defeated, no one in Germany was entirely certain if they had been crucified or resurrected, least of all the theologians. Once the war had ended and the Jews were murdered, the theologians could retreat to the shelter of the church. Precisely the ‘neutrality’ afforded them by Christian theology’s long-standing defamations of Judaism meant that no prosecution of them would take place.
Asserting that Jesus was an Aryan was a polysemic message, affirming German identity and repudiating the Jews, and thus participating in a long Christian theological tradition of defining Christianity in contrast to Judaism. The Institute picked up that theological tradition, fertilized it with the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and repackaged it as Christian theology for both the Nazi regime and the church. As anti-Semitic theology, it could survive the Third Reich and enter post-war Germany (minus the word ‘Aryan’, which was dropped after 1945) as if it was legitimate Christian thought, but in fact the Institute’s teachings became the vehicle for Nazi anti-Semitic ideas to be preserved and transported into post-war Germany. Worryingly, the fiction that the church had been in opposition to Nazism, and that the Nazis had been anti-Christian, allowed theology to evade the kind of scrutiny that other German cultural traditions and institutions had to undergo after the war.
Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and is currently serving as a visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press).