Christian Doctrine and the ‘Final Solution’

The State of the Question
  • Marc Saperstein


Among the unresolved issues and unanswered questions pertaining to Holocaust, this fundamental problem of its relationship to the past remains one of the most tantalizing. Unlike the issue of intentionalism versus functionalism, it is not a matter merely of the interpretation of past events, but one that has significant implications for the religious self-conception of millions of believers. It is not my intention to try to resolve this issue in the present paper. I do hope, from my perspective as a historian of the Jewish experience in the Middle Ages, to review and assess the state of the question, on which little progress appears to have been made. Indeed, there seems to be no consensus even on the kind of research or argumentation that might lead to a clarification.


Jewish People Christian Tradition Mass Murder Nazi Regime Discontinuity Model 
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  1. 1.
    Nora Levin, The Holocaust (New York: Schocken, 1973; original edition New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1968), p.10.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Jules Isaac, Jésus et Israël (Paris, Editions Albin Michel, 1948), p. 351–52.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of anti-Semitism (London: Soncino Press, 1934), p.374.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    James Parkes, Judaism and Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p.167.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    James Parkes, Antisemitism (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964), p.60. Here, however, Parkes goes on to modify his claim in a manner that might appear to undermine the assertion of continuity: ‘Other causes indeed came in during the passage through the centuries; the motives and climate of the Nazi period owed nothing to Christian teaching; individual Christians risked and forfeited their lives in rescuing [Hitler’s] victims’ (italics added). These clauses might be used by other writers to build a case for a different model, emphasizing discontinuity. He then continues, ‘But so far as the Churches are concerned the line is still unbroken by any adequate recognition of the sin, by any corporate act of amendment or repentance.’ This seems to shift the ‘unbroken line’ from the plane of historical causality to one of moral or theological responsibility.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1961), pp.3–4, repeated in the revised and definitive edition (New York: Holmes & Meier), 1985. On the level of ideology and discourse rather than action, a similar continuity is suggested: ‘When Hitler spoke about the Jew, he could speak to the Germans in familiar language. When he reviled his victim, he resurrected a medieval conception… The picture of the Jew we encounter in Nazi propaganda and Nazi correspondence had been drawn several hundred years before. Martin Luther had already sketched the main outlines of that portrait, and the Nazis, in their time, had little to add’ (p.8)Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Hyam Maccoby, ‘The Origins of Anti-Semitism’, in The Origins of the Holocaust: Christian Anti-Semitism, ed. Randolph L. Braham (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.3; the title of this volume expresses the continuity model succinctly.Google Scholar
  8. Note the response of Eugene Fisher in this volume, p.24, that “Deicide,” while popularly held — even among bishops and theologians [he may be thinking here of Chrysostom: see Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), p.130] — has never been an official Catholic teaching, since it represents a denial of the Incarnation, a form of Docetism early condemned as heresy and bitterly fought by the Church.’Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Maccoby, ‘Origins’, p.13. In The Sacred Executioner (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982), p.163, Maccoby also concedes that Nazi antisemitism was ‘in some important respects different from the theologically derived medieval theory. This is shown by the very fact that the Nazis embarked on a plan of complete extermination, for, as we have seen, Christendom did not want the Jews to disappear from the world.’ Nevertheless, he insists on ‘the continuity between Nazi anti-Semitism and its Christian background, without which the former would never have come into existence’ (p.163), that ‘the choice of the Jews as the target arose directly out of centuries of Christian teaching, which had singled out the Jews as a demonic people dedicated to evil’ (p.175), and that ‘even the Final Solution of the extermination of the Jews had strong Christian antecedents’ (p. 175). Despite some apparent ambivalence and qualification, therefore, these and the following quotation justify placing Maccoby in the ‘continuity’ paradigm. His assertions cited by Ron Rosenbaum in Explaining Hitler (New York: Random House, 1999) seem less equivocal: The Holocaust is ‘the evil of Christendom’ (p.320). Cf. also his ‘Theologian of the Holocaust’ in Commentary 74 (December 1982), and below, n.38.Google Scholar
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    Dagobert D. Runes, The War Against the Jew (New York, Philosophical Library, 1968), pp.xi–xii.Google Scholar
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    Simon Wiesenthal, Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom (New York: Henry Holt, 1986). On this theme of ‘nothing [much] new’, compare the formulation by Leo Kuper in his comparative study of genocide: ‘It is startling to find within Christian practice in the period of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the religious wars, all the elements in the major genocide of our day, that of the Nazis against the Jews. There were the laws corresponding to the Nuremberg laws, there were the distinguishing badges, the theory of a Jewish conspiracy, appointed centres of annihilation corresponding to Auschwitz, and some systematic organization, with the Dominican friars for example providing the professional expertise and the bureaucratic cadres in the Inquisition.’Google Scholar
  12. Leo Kuper, Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp.13–14.Google Scholar
  13. Another book by a Jewish author bearing a message similar to that of Runes and Wiesenthal, though written in a more conventional format is Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1992). The sub-title indicates clearly the author’s stance on the matter of continuity with the Holocaust, which is clearly affirmed in the introduction: ‘for twenty centuries Christian anti-Semitism has generated hostility toward the Jewish faith and the people of Israel’ (p.xiv). As in the two other books, only the negatives are collected, without any attempt to balance or distinction. When he comes to Hitler, we are informed (without evidence) that his ‘vitriolic denunciation of Jewry echoed the sentiments of Christian writers down the centuries’ (p.xix). As for the Holocaust period, most Christians, including their leaders, ‘refused to help’ the Jews (pp.xix, 208), or ‘remained aloof from the horrors of the Holocaust’ (p.239), thereby indicating that they remain very much a part of the ‘twenty centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.’ Precision, nuance, even elemental fairness, are difficult to discover in such a presentation.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Hal Lindsey, The Road to Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), pp.6–7.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    Cf. Franklin Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p.2: ‘The cornestone of Christian Antisemitism is the superseding or displacement myth, which already rings with the genocidal note…. To teach that a people’s mission in God’s providence is finished, that they have been related to the limbo of history, has murderous implications which murderers will in time spell out’;Google Scholar
  16. cited also by A. Roy and Alice L. Eckardt, Long Night’s Journey Into Day (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982), p.61.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    Daniel Goldhagen: Hitler’s Willing Executioners (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p.49.Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    Marcel Simon, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (AD 135–425) (London: Littman Library, 1986), p.397, my italics.Google Scholar
  19. This passage was cited with approval by Edward Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews (New York: Macmillan, 1964), p.274.Google Scholar
  20. 22.
    Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust, ed. Eva Fleischner (New York: KTAV, 1977), p.90. In her book, she also noted the new elements in racial antisemitism, and the novelty of massacres coming from the state, which previously had been ‘the protector of Jewish continued existence’ (Faith and Fratricide), p.224.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    Rubenstein , The Cunning of History: Mass Death and the American Future (New York Harper & Row, 1975), p.6.Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    Encountering the Holocaust: An Interdisciplinary Survey, ed. Sherwin and Ament (Chicago: Impact Press, 1979), p.34; my italics.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp.263 and note 109 (italics in original), 264. Elsewhere, Katz argues that the major impact of the Christian legacy on the Nazi worldview was in the choice of the Jew to play a major role in the cosmic Manichean antithesis: pp.170, 234, 257, an argument used often in connection with the continuity model.Google Scholar
  24. 37.
    Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, 2 vols. (KTAV, 1999), 2:162–63, my italics. Note the repeated assertion without any pretence of argumentation or appeal to evidence. Was it indeed a ‘Catholic idea’ in any significant sense that ‘the Jew is subhuman’? Were Jews indeed blamed for the delay in the Second Coming? What is the connection between the ‘eternal wandering Jew’ and policy of annihilation of Jewish people? The general question of what the Polish bystanders might have been expected to do to prevent the deportations of Jews to death camps had they not been infused with Christian anti-Jewish teaching is, of course, not even considered.Google Scholar
  25. 38.
    Though there are some writers who maintain this. For example, ‘Hitler’s fixation on the Jews could hardly have developed without his Catholic upbringing; his obsession manifestly stems from an otherwise forgotten Catholicism. He was an extreme case of a renegade who has retained the negative elements of what he has abandoned … ’, Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism (New York: Fromm, 1992), p. 152. The continuation of this passage contains no reference to anything in Catholic doctrine that alone could explain this ‘obsession’. A similar assertion, also without a shred of evidence, is made by Hyam Maccoby, quoted by Ron Rosenbaum in Explaining Hitler, p.326: ‘“Hitler was brought up to hate the Jews, particularly to hate the Jews as the people of the Devil,” he [Maccoby] insists. “He lost his Christian faith, but he retained the hatred of the Jews as the people of the Devil.”’Google Scholar
  26. 39.
    Fackenheim , To Mend the World (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), p.284. His note for this assertion is: ‘see Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, esp. chap 3)’ which indeed discusses the anti-Jewish doctrines of the Church Fathers, but does not attempt to make the case that Nazi antisemitism would have been ‘impossible’ without it. On the issue of continuity /discontinuity, Fackenheim writes, ‘Without doubt an abyss yawns between Christian supersessionism and Auschwitz …. Even so, the terrible fact is that there is a thread that spans the abyss … the idea that, strictly speaking, Jews — and no one but Jews — should not exist at all’ (pp.282–83). An even stronger statement of this position is made by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who maintains that Pope Pius XII ‘could not help but see the finger of the divine agency in the appearance of Hitler, proponent of the “final solution” of the Jewish problem, a solution which concurrently achieves a goal of Christianity since its inception,’ and he therefore ‘could not pay attention to those few among his priests who… wanted to protect the Jews against the will of the Christian god and against the interest of the Church’: Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.254. No evidence is cited for any of these assertions.Google Scholar
  27. 42.
    Leon Stein, ‘Christians as Holocaust Scholars’, in Harry James Cargas (ed.), Problems Unique to the Holocaust (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), p. 137.Google Scholar
  28. 43.
    Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and David Tracy (eds.), The Holocaust as Interruption (Edinburgh: T.T. Clark Ltd., 1984), p.60.Google Scholar
  29. 44.
    Paul van Buren, ‘The Status and Prospects for Theology’, CCI Notebook 24 (November 1975), p.3, quoted in A. Roy Eckardt and Alice Eckardt, Long Night’s Journey Into Day: Life and Faith After the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982), p.62.Google Scholar
  30. 46.
    ‘Ecumenical Considerations on Dialogue’, in Helga Croner (ed.), More Stepping Stones to Jewish-Christian Relations (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), p.173.Google Scholar
  31. 50.
    Arthur Cohen in Otto Dov Kulka and Paul Mendes-Flohr (eds.), Judaism and Christianity Under the Impact of National Socialism (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1987), p.475.Google Scholar
  32. 53.
    This has recently been documented, in exhaustive detail and thoroughness, in Stéphane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). It is striking that the very same language of ‘precondition’ has been used by Nolte and others in the Historikerstreit: ‘Was not “class murder” by the Bolsehviks the logical and real precondition of “race murder” by the Nazis?’ (cited in Richard Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow [New York: Pantheon Books, 1989], p.28.)Google Scholar
  33. 55.
    Despite his rabid antisemitism, Martin Luther identified the Antichrist with the office of the papacy and emphasized the role of Antichrist, especially the Turks, as its most important allies. See Bernard McGinn, Antichrist (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), pp.201–208.Google Scholar
  34. 56.
    The document is published in Robert Chazan, Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (New York: Behrman House, 1980), pp.99–100.Google Scholar
  35. 58.
    Runes, The War Against the Jews, p.19; for Bernard see Chazan, Church, State, and Jew, pp.104–107. Compare the formulation by a Jewish writer some ten years later: ‘When Julius Streicher, in 1941, recommended “the extermination of that people whose father is the Devil,” he was reiterating a tradition long established by the Church’ (Byron Sherwin, ‘Ideological Antecedents of the Holocaust,’ in Encountering the Holocaust: An Interdisciplinary Survey (Chicago: Impact Press, 1979), p.30). Note the rhetorical sleight of hand: the phrase ‘whose father is the devil’ is of course from the Gospel of John; but there was no ‘long established’ Church tradition recommending ‘the extermination of that people.’ For another example of Runes’s selectivity, see the entry on Augustine: ‘In the judgment of this fountain of Christian love, the Jew must forever spend his life as a slave’ (p. 10). This suggests actual slavery, where what Augustine meant was theological servitude, which, as shown by S.W. Baron, was often used by rulers to protect the Jews from harm. But more important is the failure to mention that Augustine was responsible for formulating the doctrine prohibiting murder of Jews, a doctrine invoked by Christian leaders (including Bernard) consistently throughout the Middle Ages. There are no notes in Runes’s book, no identification of the source for any quotation, no way of assessing the broad generalizations that are ubiquitous.Google Scholar
  36. 59.
    Hilberg juxtaposes ‘compulsory ghettos, Synod of Breslau, 1267’ with Heydrich’s order of September 21, 1939. The Breslau provincial Council, by no means the first to call for segregated housing, had no authority to legislate or make anything compulsory, and of course the term ‘ghetto’ was not used until 1516 in Venice. The Breslau canon ends, ‘the Jewish quarter be separated from the common habitation of the Christians by a fence, a wall or a ditch’ (see S.W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol.9 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), pp.32–33. The difference between this and the hermetically sealed Nazi-imposed ghettos is obvious, and was clear to the Nazis themselves. See also the important general critique of Hilberg’s composite list in Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, p.233 n.20, 298 n.195.Google Scholar
  37. 61.
    For another example, see Wiesenthal, in Every Day Rembrance Day, Wiesenthal, ‘When the Inquisition was set up in Spain — and it was the Dominican order that ran this instrument of the Church — the institution took on characteristics that are very similar to those of the SS in the Nazi state much later on’ (p.5). While others have made the rhetorical comparison between the Dominicans and the SS (e.g., Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy [New York: Grove Press, 1964], p.248: ‘We are the Dominicans of the technological age’), so dramatic are the differences between the Spanish Inquisition — which for all of its capacity to persecute was a court that operated according to a rule of law and provided an option of confession and penitence to save the life of the accused — and the SS as it operated in Nazi concentration camps and Einsatzgruppen that the claim of ‘similarity’ seems totally misguided. Wiesenthal then continues, ‘The Spanish blood laws served as a model for the Nazis’ “Aryan certificate” centuries later; the Spanish “blood purity certificate” affected seven generations and the first draft of the Nazi law pertaining to the Aryan certificate also demanded proof of seven generations. But that proved impractical in Germany… [so] the Nazis gave in and restricted the ‘blood hunting’ to three generations’ (p.7). While the Spanish limpieza de sangre laws were indeed a revolutionary attempt to discriminate against Jews who had converted to Christianity and their descendants, and thus suggests an ethnic definition of the ‘Jew’ independent of religious identity, I am aware of no evidence that the Nazis ever invoked the Spanish legislation as a ‘model’ for their own (which is not accurately described here). They apparently felt they did not need any precedent. More important, the Spanish legislation was not legislation by the Church, which opposed it as a denial of the efficacy of baptism. So it cannot help in the argument for continuity between ‘Christian doctrine’ and the Holocaust.Google Scholar
  38. The most blatant, sustained attempt to characterize the Spanish legislation in a precursorist manner in light of Nazi racist doctrine is in B.Z. Netanyahu’s The Origins of the Spanish Inquisition (New York: Random House, 1995).Google Scholar
  39. 64.
    Brustein , The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925–1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p.58; see also Sarah Gordon, Hitler Germans, and the ‘Jewish Question’, pp.68–70.Google Scholar
  40. 68.
    Compare Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews (New York: Fromm, 1992), p.152: ‘Hitler’s interest in religion was marginal, indeed minimal. His occasional remarks to Church leaders that in fighting the Jews he was “doing God’s work” [a fusing of the two passages cited above] were merely opportunistic’ Yet he continues, in the passage cited above in n.38, to insist that Hitler’s obsession with the Jews ‘manifestly stems from an otherwise forgotten Catholicism.’Google Scholar
  41. 70.
    For the context of this statement in Himmler’s Address, see Lucy Dawidowicz, A Holocaust Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1976), p.133.Google Scholar
  42. 71.
    Greenberg took the quotation from Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p.294, where evidence of his racist and antisemitic views in abundant (e.g., p.277).Google Scholar
  43. 73.
    Perhaps the best-known example of consistent and courageous opposition to Nazi persecution of Jews by East European prelate is the Ukrainian Metropolitan Andreas Sheptitsky in Lwów, on whom see Philip Friedman, Roads to Extinction (Philadelphia: JPS, 1980), pp.191–92, 247, 416;Google Scholar
  44. his pastroal letter of fall 1942 was entitled ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’; for the text, see David Kahane, Lvov Ghetto Diary (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), pp.158–62.Google Scholar
  45. For statements by the French Archbishop Saliège of Toulouse and Bishop Théas of Montauban, see Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p.271. See also the pastoral letters of German bishops from December 1942 and 1943 cited by Friedman, Roads to Extinction, p.431; and the statement of the Protestant Theofil Wrum, regional bishop of Wuttemberg: ‘From the depths of my religious and moral feelings, and in agreement with the thoughts of all true Christians in Germany, I must declare that we Christians consider the policy of extermination of Jews to be a grave wrong… Our nation widely regards the suffering wrought by enemy fliers as a just retribution for what has been done to the Jews’ (p.437).Google Scholar
  46. 74.
    See the text in Jacob Marcus, The few in the Medieval World (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1990), p. 125, and see also the early-16th-century forgery cited in Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide (Chico, Calif: Scholars Press), pp.45–46.Google Scholar
  47. 75.
    Both passages cited in Ariel Toaff, Love, Death, and Work (London: Littman Library, 1998), p. 119.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Marc Saperstein

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