Susannah Heschel on the Reformation’s Troubling Legacy
“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.” This powerful statement was written in 1941 by the German Protestant theologian and professor of New Testament, Walter Grundmann, a leading figure in the pro-Nazi faction within the Protestant church, the Deutsche Christen.
The question underlying the statement is clear: How can a Nazi be a Christian? During the Third Reich, that question implied that a real Nazi could not be a Christian, given the Jewishness of Christianity. Once the war ended, the question took on a different meaning for the Allies, who assumed that no Christian could possibly have been a Nazi – and offered denazification certification to theologians and pastors, even those with deep Nazi entanglements.
During the Third Reich, a group within the Protestant church, hoping to preserve Protestantism for Nazis, sought to dejudaize Christianity and transform it from a religion focused on a Jewish savior, Jesus, into a religion whose goal was the eradication of everything Jewish. Grundmann warned that no Nazi could worship a Jewish God, but his answer was not to give up on Christianity, but rather to argue that Jesus was not a Jew, but an anti-Jewish Aryan whose true identity had been concealed by Jews who entered the early church and falsified the Gospels. Recovering the genuine teachings and identity of Jesus became Grundmann’s goal, and he was joined by a host of theologians and pastors in an institute he directed from 1939 to 1945, the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life.
The Institute was launched with a declaration: “Is Christianity derived from Judaism and is it its continuation and completion, or does Christianity stand in opposition to Judaism? We answer this question: Christianity is the unbridgeable religious opposition to Judaism.” Members of the Institute were active, publishing Die Botschaft Gottes, a revised, dejudaized version of the New Testament in 1940 (the Old Testament was eliminated), and a hymnal, purged of Hebrew words such as “Hallelujah,” in 1941. A catechism followed, as well as books for instructing Christians about the redeemer of Aryans, and a collection of prayers that drew on völkisch as well as biblical expressions. Professors of theology were members, along with pastors, bishops, religion teachers, and laity, and they gave speeches and held conferences around the Nazi Reich, publishing the lectures in pseudo-academic volumes or as pamphlets for popular consumption.
While the political context is obvious, the theological problem has deeper roots. Struggles between Christianity and Judaism over claims to be the rightful heir to the Old Testament and its teachings about messianism and eschatology waxed and waned over two thousand years, but the Protestant Reformation intensified the problem in a particular way, and the Third Reich made it possible to transform theological fantasies into reality.
Protestantism placed a strong emphasis on the text of the Bible, demanding philological accuracy when reading Scripture. The quest for the historical Jesus was a Protestant effort that began in the eighteenth century and sought to recover the context in which Jesus lived and preached. Dogma and miraculous events were increasingly viewed as marginal or even unnecessary, as the teachings of Jesus were brought to the surface, especially by liberal Protestants. Historicism was now the main tool of theology, and by the mid-nineteenth century, the task of theology was defined as reconstructing the historical origins of Christianity.
The era also saw the rise of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, and Jewish scholars also concerned themselves with first-century Palestine, which saw not only the emergence of early Christianity, but also of early rabbinic Judaism. In explaining the rise of Christianity, Jewish scholars placed Jesus squarely within the framework of first-century Judaism, arguing that he was a Jew who simply sought to liberalize Jewish practice or intensify Jewish religiosity, whereas Paul and subsequent adherents created Christianity. Demonstrating the parallels between Jesus’s teachings and those of the other rabbis of his day, Jewish scholars sought to undermine Christian claims that Jesus was original or different from Judaism; to them, he was simply another rabbi.
In purging Christianity of Catholicism and creating a religion suitable for the German nation, the Protestant Reformation tended to blame Judaism for the alleged flaws of the Catholic church – its legalism, its focus on ritual, etc. Indeed, Martin Luther was confident that Jews would quickly join his new church; after all, who could blame the Jews for their disinterest in Catholicism? The failure of the Jews to join the new, Protestant church is often invoked by historians to explain Luther’s later outbursts of rage against them. Yet although he purged Christianity of Catholicism, and spoke in harsh terms against the Jews and Judaism, developing a dangerous stereotype of “law” that he applied to both Judaism and Catholicism, Luther did not purge the Protestant Bible of the Old Testament, or declare Jesus to have been a non-Jew, or try to demean Paul for being a Jew.
Yet the problem of Judaism remained like an itch on the body of Protestant thought. Conservative theologians were satisfied with a supersessionist approach that viewed Christianity as overcoming the detritus of the Old Testament, but liberal Protestants were caught in a historicist bind. Claiming that they sought the faith of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus, and taking seriously the Lutheran effort to capture the historical setting and philological meaning of the biblical text, they had to come to grips with Jesus’s imbrication in first-century Palestinian Jewish society.
Various theological strategies were employed during the nineteenth century to distance Jesus from Judaism, but with the rise of racial theory suggestions began to circulate that Jesus was not a Jew, but rather an Aryan, born in the Galilee, where an ethnically mixed population lived. Pastors and theologians called for a Germanic Christianity, with some arguing that each race and nationality should have its own, separate church. A large and powerful pro-Nazi faction within the Protestant church of Germany, called the “Deutsche Christen,” arose in 1932 and developed a Christianity that was manly, antisemitic, and anti-doctrinal, as the historian Doris Bergen has shown. In Germany some of the most prestigious professors of theology joined the effort during the Third Reich, including Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel.
Despite protests from other theologians, these efforts did not disappear during the first years of the Third Reich, but reached a climax in 1939 with the establishment of an “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life.” At the forefront of the Institute was the eradication of Judaism: the Old Testament was eliminated from the Christian Bible, Jesus was declared to have been Aryan not a Jew, and the Epistles of Paul (himself a Jew) were reduced to a few hortatory lessons.
The effort to dejudaize Christianity was not simply a response to a theological problem, but to Nazi antisemitism, using its language and images. Grundmann, who joined the Nazi party in 1930, warned in 1933 of “the syphilization of our Volk though sexual relations, miscegenation, and the hybridization of races” that was destroying its cultural-building capacities. He lauded Hitler’s recognition that racial mixing was a “sin against nature and an injustice against the Creator.” The aim, in other words, was not only to shape a pure, un-Jewish Christianity, but to create a Germany free of Jews. Ridding Germany of Jews was not only a goal serving the German people, but also Germany’s world-historical mission.
At a rally in 1936, Grundmann declared, “there is an assault against the West, unleashed by the Bolsheviks of the world, behind whom stands the Jew, and the Germans are once again the Reich Volk. . . . Our Volk has been chosen to halt the avalanche of the Bolsheviks and the Jews on behalf of the entire West – and therefore in its deepest sense the word receives its meaning: the German Volk are the Anti-Jews [Gegenvolk der Juden]!” With the outbreak of the war, the Institute viewed itself as essential to victory: “the struggle against the Jews has been irrevocably turned over to the German Volk.” 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.”
The Institute’s goals were stated forthrightly at its opening by Grundmann, who delivered the keynote lecture on “The Dejudaization of the Religious Life as the Task of German Theology and Church.” The present era, he declared, was similar to the Reformation: Protestants had to overcome Judaism just as Luther had overcome Catholicism. “The elimination of Jewish influence on German life is the urgent and fundamental question of the present German religious situation.” Yes, Grundmann noted, people in Luther’s day could not imagine Christianity without the Pope, just as today they could not imagine salvation without the Old Testament, but the goal could be realized. Modern New Testament scholarship had made apparent the “deformation of New Testament ideas into Old Testament preconceptions, so that now angry recognition of the Jewishness in the Old Testament and in parts of the New Testament has arisen, obstructing access to the Bible for innumerable German people.”
The Bible would have to be purified, Grundmann continued, restored to its pristine condition, to proclaim the truth about Jesus: that he sought the destruction of Judaism. Grundmann outlined the scholarly tasks that the Institute would undertake. These included clarifying the role of Judaism in early Christianity and its influence on modern philosophy. Any opposition to National Socialism from within the church, claimed Grundmann, arose from nefarious Jewish influence, such as the arguments of Jewish scholars that Jesus was a Jew. The Jews had destroyed Germans’ “völkisch” thinking, Grundmann continued, and, with help from Bolshevism, they were now striving for world conquest, the “Weltherrschaft des Judentums” (the world domination of Jewry). The Jewish threat to Germany was grave: “For these reasons,” Grundmann stated, echoing Nazi propaganda, “the struggle against the Jews has been irrevocably turned over to the German Volk.” 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,” a phrase Grundmann frequently repeated in defining the Institute’s purpose.
How was the work of the Institute received? In a small, undated postcard to the Institute, Kriegspfarrer (war-pastor) Lic. Teichmann expressed his gratitude for Die Botschaft Gottes: “Sie würde es mir ermöglichen, ohne Gewissensanstoss Pfarrer zu sein” (It would make it possible for me to be a pastor without offending my conscience). Institute publications were sold to churches throughout the Reich.
The driving effort to declare Jesus an Aryan was a response not only to Nazism, but also to a theological conundrum raised by Protestant biblical scholarship. Historical method placed Jesus within the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism and compared his teachings to those of other rabbis of his day. Jewish scholars immediately found in Jewish sources parallels of Jesus’s teachings. Historicism diminished or even destroyed the distinctiveness of his message. Jesus said nothing new, nothing original, argued Jewish historians from Abraham Geiger to Leo Baeck; he was simply one of the many liberal Pharisees of the first century.
Contextualization led to crisis: what was new and unique about Jesus? Nothing, claimed Jewish scholars, while Protestant scholars struggled to rescue Jesus. In the 1860s and 70s they claimed that his religious consciousness was unique; by the turn of the century, Adolf von Harnack, one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the modern era, insisted that while Jesus repeated the teachings of the Pharisees, those Pharisees “were in possession of much else besides. With them it was weighted, darkened, distorted, rendered ineffective and deprived of its force, by a thousand things which they also held to be religious and every whit as important as mercy and judgment. They reduced everything to one dead level, wove everything into one fabric; the good and holy was only one woof in a broad earthly warp.” With Jesus, Harnack argued, the message was pure, strong, and fresh, and it broke through the “rubbish” of priests and theologians. For Harnack, historicism had indeed demonstrated that there was nothing unique about Jesus’ teachings; they were Jewish teachings. The only theological “rescue” was to denigrate Judaism by arguing that it had “smothered” those teachings with so much else.
While Harnack denigrated Judaism, other Protestant theologians turned to racial theory, proclaiming Jesus an Aryan. They argued that Jesus was born in the Galilee, a region they described as populated by Assyrians, Iranians, or even Indians, some of whom may have been forcibly converted to Judaism, but who, retaining their Aryan sensibility, could appreciate Jesus’ religiosity and his teachings – in contrast to the Jews of Judea, who loathed and ultimately killed Jesus.
What occurred on the theological level mirrored societal efforts. Just as German society struggled during the course of the nineteenth century with the assimilation of Jews, who were first considered too distinct to be absorbed, and later considered too German to be recognizable as Jews, Christian theologians struggled with the presence of Judaism within Jesus as man and as preacher. Strategies on the social level can also be found within theological discourse itself, especially in the struggle of Protestant theology over its roots in Judaism – roots that seemed to render moot the distinctiveness and even the legitimacy of Christian claims.
In his 1955 study, Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss described two kinds of strategies used by societies to assimilate strangers or deviants: anthropophagy or anthropoemy, consumption or expulsion. The former strategy is cannibalism, digesting “individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing those powers and even of turning them to advantage.” The latter strategy, anthropoemy (derived from the Greek émein, to vomit), ejects those it views as “dangerous individuals from the social body and keep[s] them temporarily or permanently in isolation, away from all contact with their fellows.” The former strategy, Lévi-Strauss argued, characterizes societies that moderns might call “primitive,” while the anthropoemic societies, which expel or imprison “deviants,” are our modern, walled and bordered societies that incarcerate, isolate, and institutionalize. Lévi-Strauss notes, “Most of the societies which we call primitive would regard this [modern] custom with profound horror; it would make us, in their eyes, guilty of that same barbarity of which we are inclined to accuse them because of their symmetrically opposite behavior.”
Similar strategies of anthropophagy and anthropoemy exist within Christian theology. Historians have demonstrated that the earliest Christians had no compunctions about being Jewish and also followers of Jesus; many observed Jewish law, so that abundant Jewish ideas as well as practices were brought into the heart of Christianity. That Jesus was called “Christ,” meaning anointed one or messiah, was a key idea taken from Judaism; Christians called themselves the “new Israel”; and the Jewish Bible was incorporated with the Gospels and epistles into the Christian Bible.
This act of theological anthropophagy was certainly problematic, and over the centuries Jews contested Christian claims to the Bible. From the Christian side, appropriating Jewish ideas and holy Scriptures was an act of theological colonialism, expressed in the supersessionist claim that Christianity possessed the only true interpretation of the Bible and was the only path to salvation. At the same time, theological anthropophagy was a way for Christians to absorb Judaism and transform it into Christian terms, turning Judaism, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, to Christian advantage.
The shift from absorbing (or colonizing) Judaism to expelling Judaism indicates a crucial shift in Christian theological teaching, from consuming to vomiting, and it reveals an important aspect of the modernization of Christian theology. The expulsion of the Jewish reached a climax with the Institute, though it built on earlier theological strategies.
Yet the categories of Lévi-Strauss do not fully capture the nuances of the hatred expressed by Nazi theologians, as well as the vacillation inherent in their arguments. Theirs is a process of simultaneous ingestion and expulsion. Every meeting held by members of the Institute was spent arguing over how “Jewishness” might best be recognized within Christianity – was it lurking in particular ideas or words or expressed more subtly, as an ethos? – and then they tried to find the best way to expel that Jewishness.
Trying to dejudaize Christianity ultimately became a kind of theological bulimia, a constant, repetitive devouring and regurgitation of the Jewish in the hopeless effort to purge Christianity of all Jewish traces. Theology did not so much abandon anthropophagy for anthropoemy as combine the two. Affirming Christianity, speaking of Jesus as Christ or hoping for an ultimate redemption, reinscribes Jewish ideas even as Institute members sought their eradication.
Theological bulimia enacts a myth with long roots in Western culture. Kronos, fearing the prophecy that his children would overthrow him, swallowed them all except Zeus, and when Zeus grew up he overthrew his father, forcing Kronos to vomit up all the siblings he had swallowed. Kronos, through his regurgitation, restored his children. In the case of Christianity, however, it is the child (Christianity) devouring and vomiting the parent (Judaism), purging itself of the Jewish mother whose presence can never be fully eradicated from Christian theology. The bulimia metaphor captures the deeper conflict within Christian theology, deriving religious identity from the mother religion and yet needing to differentiate from the mother in order to achieve a separate, independent identity. The Christian cannibalization of Judaism safeguards the Jewish through its introjection into Christianity, but the Jewish is later rejected through an attempted theological regurgitation. While the regurgitation can eliminate certain aspects of Jewish presence – such as the Old Testament – it can never erase the memory of the initial birth of Christianity within Judaism, and it is that memory that remains forever haunting.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman analyzes adiaphorization, “the stripping of human relationships of their moral significance, exempting them from moral evaluation, rendering them ‘morally irrelevant.’” In theological terms, something similar took place in Christianity. The Heilsgeschichte, the salvation history that had long stood at the center of Christian theology as a claim that the Old and New covenants were bound together, was now abandoned; the New no longer needed the Old, and Judaism was no longer a foundation of Christianity. However much supersessionist theology robs Judaism of its independence as a religion of salvation, it required a Jewish presence for Christianity to have theological meaning. What Nazi theologians accomplished was a theological adiaphorization of Judaism, a stripping of its moral significance by severing its relationship with Christianity, leaving Judaism and its adherents morally irrelevant and open to destruction.
It has become almost a cliché to regard the position of the European Jew at the turn of the century as a figure on the margins, both within and without. Georg Simmel’s depiction of the stranger has long been regarded as a metaphor for European Jewish identity, and Hannah Arendt addresses the question directly in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah.” Once Hitler came to power, German societal hierarchy shifted dramatically. By late 1934, realizing that he had nothing to fear from the church as a locus of opposition to the regime, Hitler no longer accorded church leaders the status and respect they craved. The diminished status did not go unrecognized; Reichbishop Ludwig Müller, delivering the eulogy at the August 1942 funeral of the Thuringian bishop Martin Sasse, bemoaned the absence of SA members in attendance. Müller contrasted their absence at the funeral to Sasse’s consecration in 1934, when the church was filled with Brown Shirts. Sasse himself was an “alter Kämpfer,” having joined the Nazi party in March of 1930.
The Jews were thrown out of German society, while the churches were relegated to the margins, in some ways taking the former position held by Jews. Church leaders felt that marginalization, and pastors complained that they were forced to remove the swastika from the altar and from the masthead of church newsletters. The head of the association of theology professors, Hans Schmidt, professor of Old Testament at the University of Halle, complained to Himmler that pastors and theologians were not allowed to become members of the SS.
Liberal Protestants had long before shifted their attention from Jesus as God incarnate to Jesus as an exemplary human being. Now suggestions were made that the German Volk itself was a collective Christ, and Hitler was the redeemer of the Germans. Pastor Julius Leutheuser, one of the major leaders of the Deutsche Christen and also head of the local Nazi party offices in the Werra valley of Thuringia, wrote in 1935:
The Reich of the Germans is for us similar to the eternal Kingdom of God. For us, belief in Germany is a touchstone of our faith in God. Our love of Germany is a measure of our love for the Eternal. . . . It was for us as if Christ had traveled through Germany and Adolf Hitler was his mouth.
The theological shift from God’s humanity to human divinity was not an abandonment of Christianity. Rather, it mirrored the Nazi supersession of Christianity: the incorporation of Christian motifs, even while the Nazis undermined Christian authority. The classic Christian theological effort at supersession of the Old Testament rehearsed the process of internalizing Jewish theological motifs within Christianity even as Judaism was declared old, rejected by God, and dead. Similarly, Nazism took over central elements of Christianity, incorporating its anti-Judaism and other theological motifs – messiah, redemption, and resurrection – as an act of politico-theological supersessionism. Christianity might continue, but in its nazified form. The Institute’s dejudaized Christianity offered both to the Nazi Reich and to the church a template out of which each could produce an ideology favorable to the other.
Yet the relationship between the two ideologies could never be entirely easy. Hitler could be called a savior or a Christ figure, and the German Volk could be proclaimed the divinely chosen Volk of the Old Testament, but a rivalry remained palpable, at least until the middle of the war, between leaders of the Reich and leaders of the German Christians. In part, it stemmed from a competition between Nazism and Christianity over the antisemitism at the heart of both systems, as Christina von Braun has argued. Who was the more effective propagandist of antisemitism, the German Christians or the Nazis?
The Jew was the central pivot for both. By eradicating from Christianity everything it could identify as “Jewish,” the Institute identified an issue on which its members and the Nazi Reich could agree. Academic members of the Institute considered themselves experts on Judaism, or joined the Institute in order to proclaim that expertise. Remarkably, the Institute granted them a prestige that lasted well into the postwar years, enabling its former members to declare they were scholars of Judaism rather than participants in an antisemitic theological effort. They presented themselves as defenders of the church against its Nazi detractors rather than as what they were: antisemitic Nazi propagandists.
Susannah Heschel is Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.