- Christianity played an important role in forming the attitudes of generations of Europeans toward Jews. Indeed, the roots of Christianity are found within Judaism; Jesus and his disciples were Jews who belonged to a sect that preached salvation in the context of Jewish tradition. The break between Christianity and Judaism was fostered by Paul (Saul of Tarsus), a Jew, who preached Jesus’ messiahship to the Gentiles. When most of Roman-occupied Europe converted to Christianity in the fourth century, it led to the imposition of a Semitic religion on the peoples of Europe, who previously had worshiped pagan gods. Some 1,600 years later, the Nazis would remind their followers of Christianity’s Semitic roots and argue that it was responsible for the destruction of the indigenous beliefs of the German people.Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it commenced to persecute Jews. Primarily this was a reaction to the refusal of Jews to accept Jesus as the Christ or Messiah. What was fundamental to Christians, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, was for Jews an erroneous understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. The adamant refusal of the Jews to accept what, for Christians, was so obviously foretold in the Hebrew Bible led to a bitter estrangement between the two religions. From the fourth century on, Jews were often segregated from Christian communities and demonized by Church theologians. From Saint John of Chrysostem in the fifth century, to Saint Augustine in the seventh century, to Martin Luther in the 16th century, a trail of invectives against Jews and Judaism can be documented; Jews were accused of killing Christ, of awaiting the anti-Christ as their Messiah, of serving the devil, of ritual murder, and of poisoning the well water during the Great Plague of 1350, which caused the death of almost half the population of Europe, including many Jews.The early church fathers argued that the suffering of the Jews and the exile from their homeland was divine punishment for their failure to accept Christ. God had chosen for Jews to suffer but not to be killed because eventually they would see the errors of their ways and convert to Christianity. This argument resulted in not only a tradition of persecution, aided and abetted by the church, but also one of protecting Jews from the violence of the mobs. The average illiterate Christian, however, often did not comprehend the nuance of church policy toward the Jews. During the First Crusade in 1096, unsanctioned violence toward the Jews was initiated by agitators such as Peter the Hermit, who urged mobs to murder Jews. In Germany, tens of thousands of Jews were killed by crusaders who thought it foolish to wait until they arrived in the Holy Land to spill the blood of the “infidel” when there were so many close at home.During the Middle Ages, the papacy restricted the number of occupations permitted to Jews. Jews were prohibited from owning property, joining guilds, and serving in the army. They were also generally prevented from engaging in agricultural occupations. Jews were allowed to enter those endeavors that Christians avoided or held in low esteem. Thus Jews gravitated to commerce, and in particular, lending capital (often without receiving any collateral), and engaging in usury, at a time when the church prohibited interest on loans. In Eastern Europe, Jews served as rent collectors and as intermediaries between the Polish nobility and the peasantry. They were also allowed to own taverns and inns. Jews were also prohibited from employing Christian servants and engaging in sexual unions with Christian women. There was little in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that did not have a precedent in the church prohibitions against Jews during the Middle Ages. The final indignity, however, was their expulsion from England in 1290, France in 1306, Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1496.The Protestant Reformation, despite a seemingly benign attitude toward Jews on the part of some Calvinist denominations, changed little in regard to the perception of Jews among the European Christian population. In Germany, dehumanizing stereotypes of Jews were exacerbated by Martin Luther, who in a series of essays vilified them and called for the burning of their synagogues. The Catholic CounterReformation of the 16th century created the first ghetto in Venice, Italy, in 1516, and the institution quickly spread to Germany, where Jews were confined to ghettos in such cities as Frankfurt. From the 19th century on, negative Christian attitudes toward Jews remained part of the culture of Germany. At the end of the 19th century, however, traditional anti-Judentum was joined by the new racial anti-Semitism of the Volkisch nationalist movement. The difference between the two anti-Jewish groups, however, was greater than what they shared in common. Christian clergymen believed in the salvational effects of baptism over the primacy of racial characteristics. Therefore, Jews who converted to Christianity were welcomed as full members of the church, whereas for the anti-Semite baptism did not change the status of the Jew. This difference would continue on into the Nazi era and split the Lutheran Church in Germany during the years of the Third Reich.Once the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933, they immediately attempted to transform the German churches by eliminating their Jewish roots and influences. In particular, the Nazi version of the Bible held that Jesus was an Aryan who had attempted to confront Judaism, not reform it, and that it was Paul who eliminated from the liturgy the authentic teachings of Jesus. The Nazis insisted on the removal of all Jewish elements from the liturgy and Christian practice. Once in power, they sought to control what was taught in the churches and eschewed the significance of the Hebrew Testament for the advent of Christianity. Lutheran clergy, supportive of the Nazi objective to cleanse the church of “Rabbi” Paul’s Jewish influence on Christianity, supported the abandonment of the Hebrew scriptures as a source of revelation. In the church elections of July 1933, the radical wing of German Lutheranism, which enthusiastically supported Hitler and the Nazi attempt to create a “Positive Christianity,” emerged victorious and promptly began to synthesize Christian doctrine with Nazi racial anti-Semitism. Consequently, the so-called German Christian movement supported the expulsion of converted Jews from church offices as well as the church itself. These excesses were condemned by the rival conservative Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), which fought all efforts of the Nazis to control the German churches. In particular, pastors such as Martin Niemoller and Otto Dibelius challenged the expulsion of converts from the churches. But these same clergy still maintained the traditional Lutheran antipathy toward the Jews and were therefore silent as the persecution of the Jews intensified in the 1930s. The persecution of the Jews was ignored by many in the Confessing Church because they shared the anti-Semitic outlook of most Protestant ministers in Germany.During the Weimar Republic, between 70 and 80 percent ofProtestant pastors had allied themselves with anti-Semitic political parties. An almost minuscule number of Protestant pastors protested the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, and they were mostly silent following the excesses of Kristallnacht. One can conclude, therefore, that the opposition of the Confessing Church to the Nazi effort to control the churches was motivated by parochial concerns, as they defended church autonomy and resisted efforts to expel Jewish converts. The persecution of the Jews was not part of their agenda until they understood the true nature of the Nazi regime, but, by that point, it was too late. On the eve of World War II in September 1939, many of the pastors who opposed Adolf Hitler, such as Martin Niemoller, were already in concentration camps or too intimidated by the regime to protest its policies.In 1933, the Roman Catholic Church signed a concordat with Nazi Germany in the hope that the government would not interfere in the internal affairs of the church. This understanding did not last, as the German government began to subvert the influence of the Catholic Church in Germany from the moment the concordat was signed. When Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical, “With Burning Concern” (Mit Brennender Sorge) in 1937, he invited retaliation from the government inasmuch as the encyclical condemned the Nazi treatment of the church.Subsequently, the Nazis arrested monks and nuns who were falsely accused of charges ranging from financial malfeasance to sexual aberrations. Once convicted, hundreds of Catholic priests and nuns were sent to concentration camps. The attempt of the government to intimidate the Catholic Church in Germany, however, did not prevent its hierarchy from joining Protestant clergy in the successful protest against the Euthanasia Program.The Nazi effort to coerce the Catholic Church coincided with the government’s attempt to drive Jews from all aspects of German life. Thus, any bid on the part of the Catholic Church to protest the treatment of the Jews was certain to bring about a further deterioration in its relationship with the government. But it is also true that traditional negative beliefs about Jews were deeply ingrained among many Catholics in Germany, which mirrored the religious convictions of the Roman Catholic Church in general. For example, the Oberammergau passion play, which depicted Jews as Christ killers, was one of the official church-sanctioned events that reflected the pervasive anti-Semitism found among many German Christians. Before his death in 1939, Pope Pius XI authorized the preparation of a draft that would have condemned anti-Semitism. The draft of the encyclical, “Humani Generis Unitas,” included a condemnation of the Nuremberg Laws and rebuked the Nazis for excluding Jews from the nation because of race. But the priests assigned by the pope to work on the draft of the encyclical were themselves still captives of traditional Church anti-Jewish attitudes. The document called for the quarantine of Jews from Christians, “lest their profaneness infect good Christians. . . . The church has always recognized the historic mission of the Jewish people, and its ardent prayers for their conversion, do not make it lose sight of the spiritual dangers to which contact with Jews can expose souls.” It is conceivable that had his health not failed him, Pius XI might have moderated the language of the draft in regard to the Jews. Yet the unpublished encyclical, which was not discovered until 1972, indicates that even among Catholic clergy willing to condemn anti-Semitism, traditional forms of anti-Judentum continued to exist in the Vatican.Upon his death in 1939, Pius XI was succeeded by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (1876–1958), who became Pope Pius XII. His papacy encompassed the period of the Holocaust, and his silence in response to the murder of European Jewry has become a subject of controversy among historians. Much of the criticism of Pius XII emanates from his failure to publicly condemn the murderous campaign against the Jews and his failure to voice moral outrage against the Nazi genocide. Rather, Pius XII attempted to protect Catholic interests in Germany, and in other countries where the church was under attack. Where the matter of the Jews did not conflict with church interests, the papacy was active on behalf of the Jews. Sometimes this policy worked and at other times it failed. In Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, for example, where the church had some leverage, the Vatican opposed anti-Semitic legislation and strongly objected to the deportation of the Jews, which resulted in small numbers of Jews being saved from the death camps.In the Netherlands, the Germans retaliated against the church when it interfered in the matter of the Jews. When the Catholic archbishop, Johannes de Jong, condemned the deportation of the Jews from his pulpit, it resulted in the arrest of 201 Jewish converts to Catholicism, including priests and nuns, who were deported to Auschwitz. In other parts of Europe, the Vatican gave its silent support to individual priests who aided Jews.Any assessment of the role of Pius XII during the Holocaust must account for the pope’s style of diplomacy. He believed in the efficacy of diplomacy and sought to retain the church’s traditional role as Europe’s mediator. To be effective, however, the papacy refused to publicly condemn the Nazis, lest it risk forfeiting its neutral position. It is difficult, however, to believe that the Vatican was unaware of the unfolding genocide being perpetrated against the Jews, inasmuch as its clergy, especially in Poland, must have made the papacy among the first to receive information about the Final Solution. It is also possible that the papacy learned about the ongoing genocide from Catholic priests in Germany who listened to the confession of Wehrmacht soldiers returning from Poland and other areas where the Germans engaged in atrocities.The Vatican also refused to publicly denounce the Nazis because it feared placing German Catholics in danger, as well as providing the government with a provocation that would result in the confiscation of its property in Germany. How else are we to explain the refusal of the Vatican to intervene in Spain to protect refugees in jeopardy of being returned to Germany or its refusal, ostensibly because of the pope’s reservations about Zionism, to endorse a plan that would have transferred approximately 6,000 Jewish children from Bulgaria to Palestine? Neither did the Vatican object to Vichy France’s anti-Jewish laws. Instead, it made the distinction that although the church repudiated racism, it did not object to every measure against the Jews.The overall record of the Vatican is a mixed one. Although Pius XII was publicly silent in regard to the fate of the Jews, where it was possible and did not place the church in danger, the Catholic Church did act on behalf of the Jews. For example, in Italy Jews were hidden in monasteries and churches and, therefore, saved from deportation. In Hungary, there is evidence that the pope intervened with the regent, Miklos Horthy, to halt the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. In Romania, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Andrea Cassulo, was instrumental in moving Ion Antonescu, the head of government, to cancel his agreement with the Germans to deport Romania’s remaining 292,000 Jews to Belzec. In Poland, where the Germans repressed the church, the Catholic Church engaged in rescue attempts to save Jews. Historian Pinchas Lapide credits the Catholic Church with saving approximately 800,000 Jews who were hidden by Catholic clergy who opened their monasteries and convent doors for this purpose. We are less certain, however, as to whether the Jews being sheltered was a product of individual acts of conscience on behalf of Catholic clergy or of “signals” that emanated from the pope that such risks would not be opposed by the Vatican.The Catholic Church’s acts on behalf of Jews, however, were mitigated by Pius XII’s failure to exert moral leadership in a time of acute crisis for the Jewish people and others who were victims of Nazi Germany. The papacy’s record is also tarnished by its involvement in helping leading Nazis, such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, to escape to South America at the end of the war. It remains to be answered whether the same “signals” that gave permission for Catholic priests and nuns to hide Jews during the war were similarly given on behalf of fleeing Nazi war criminals.The Catholic Church in March 1998 attempted to clarify its role during the Holocaust when it issued the document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Although the Vatican admitted that centuries of teaching contempt for Jews had contributed to the indifference displayed by most Christians to the persecution of the Jews, it nevertheless insisted that the Nazis represented a pagan movement, thereby denying a link between Christian anti-Judentum and the Holocaust. The document also defended the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, citing the number of Jews saved by the Catholic Church but refrained from commenting on his refusal to condemn the Nazi genocide against the Jews.See also “On the jews and their lies.”
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.