Within the copious literature on the Nazis' brutal, systematic campaign to destroy European Judaism, many writers have sought to assess the responsibility of individual Christians, or of Christianity as a whole. But newly published material from the Nuremberg trials shows that the Nazis engaged in a less brutal, but no less systematic, campaign to destroy European Christianity. Whether this development will significantly affect work in the older line of thinking remains to be seen.

As part of the Nuremberg Project, a collaboration between Rutgers and Cornell, the Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion this month posted online a 108-page report (PDF File) originally prepared by Gen. William J. Donovan, a leading American investigator at the trials.

One of the first pages describes the document's contents: "This study describes, with illustrative factual evidence, Nazi purposes, policies and methods of persecuting the Christian Churches in Germany and occupied Europe. Draft for the War Crimes Staff. 6 July 1945." Donovan notes that investigators could use this information to prove that "measures taken against the Christian Churches were an integral part of the National Socialist scheme of world conquest."

The report begins with a summary: "Throughout the period of National Socialist rule, religious liberties in Germany and in the occupied areas were seriously impaired. The various Christian Churches were systematically cut off from effective communication with the people. They were confined as far as possible to the performance of narrowly religious functions, and even within this narrow sphere were subjected to as many hindrances as the Nazis dared to impose. These results were accomplished partly by legal and partly by illegal and terroristic means."

Several elements of the above passage have serious implications for arguments regarding the behavior of church leaders and of Christian laypeople in Nazi-controlled lands. For example, in The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (Indiana, 2000), Michael Phayer writes, "No one would accuse the bishops or the pope of murdering Jews, but did they not have the duty or mission to urge Catholics to protect, not harm, Jews? Rather than individual 'straying' Catholics, was it not the church itself, including especially its leaders, who bear the burden of guilt?" If, however, church leaders could not communicate with their people—"Interference with the Central Institutions of Church Government," "Interference with Freedom of Speech and Writings," and "Interruption of Official Communications within the Church Government" are all elements of the Nazi strategy discussed in Donovan's report—perhaps the leaders' share of guilt must be revised downward.

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The phrase "dared to impose" is also suggestive. The Nazis knew that overt attacks on Christians would raise far more protest than did attacks on Jews, Slavs, the disabled, and other groups singled out for elimination. So, while Hitler and others could speak openly about their racial cleansing plans, they had to create distance between their public pronouncements and their actual policies on religious cleansing. Hitler's public statements about fighting for God or supporting Christian values must then be viewed with suspicion.

Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord." Nonetheless, Donovan reported, "National Socialism by its very nature was hostile to Christianity and the Christian churches. The purpose of the National Socialist movement was to convert the German people into a homogeneous racial group united in all its energies for prosecution of aggressive warfare."

Of course, while the Nuremberg Project is opening up new sources, information on Hitler's hostility toward Christianity has long been available. A 1953 book called Hitler's Table Talk, made up of comments recorded by his secretary, contains statements like "Christianity is an invention of sick brains" and "Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure." Still, authors such as Egal Feldman (Catholics and Jews in Twentieth-Century America, Illinois, 2001) ominously note that the holocaust "was planned and executed by individuals with a Christian education, many of whom were baptized Catholics. These included the leading architects of the Final Solution, Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, neither of whom was subsequently excommunicated by the Catholic Church."

Donovan's Nuremberg report undermines the assertion, made by Feldman and so many others, that because several key Nazis had ties (however tenuous) to a church, and because the Nazis advanced insidious policies, then those insidious policies must be inherently Christian. To what extent elements of popular Christian ideology fed Hitler's anti-Semitism is a separate and valid question, but the "if A then B" connection fails because insidious anti-Christian policies do not fit the syllogism above. A plan to eradicate Christianity can hardly be construed as Christian, and persons supporting such a plan can hardly be considered believers of any standing.

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Unfortunately, though, for people who give no weight to the Table Talk revelations, Donovan's text will likely prove similarly unpersuasive. Hitler will continue to be equated with the Antichrist on one side of the debate and the pope on the other, to the advancement of absolutely nothing.

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

The text of Donovan's report appears at the Web site for the Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion. A PDF format of the report, "The Nazi Master Plan: The Persecution of the Christian Churches" is available.

Other articles of interest include:

"You mean Hitler wasn't a priest?" — National Review Online (Jan. 21, 2002)
"Goldhagen to Christianity: Whatever you're doing, stop it!" — Jewish World Review (Jan. 22, 2002)
Papers reveal Nazi aim: End ChristianityThe Philadelphia Inquirer (Jan. 9, 2002)

An online essay titled "Adolf Hitler — Christian, Atheist, or Neither?" looks at evidence from Hitler's speeches and private writings to conclude that "although he was brought up and confirmed as a Catholic, Hitler had abandoned Christianity by the time he was in control of Germany. Importantly though, he was not an atheist either."

Christian History addressed German Christianity during WWII in issue 32: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which you can purchase at the CT store.

Last spring, Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture analyzed two new books on Hitler to discover "The Roots of Hitler's Evil." Reviewer Richard Weikart writes, "Hitler's world-view was diametrically opposed to Christianity, for which Hitler had nothing but contempt."

After prominent Jews accused the United States Holocaust Museum in 1998 of falsely blaming the genocide on historic Christian beliefs, a Christianity Today editorial wrote that "Hitler was lying in an attempt to mislead his public by concealing his own racial animosity behind a mask of Christian language."

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Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:

Tell Me a Story | The most helpful church history scholarship is both broad and narrative.
State of the Fragmentation | If "society" denotes a group with mutual interests and common culture, the American Society of Church History almost doesn't qualify. (Jan. 11, 2001)
Spurgeon's Epiphany | The event he recounted more than 280 times in his sermons first occurred on January 6, 1850. (Jan. 4, 2001)
Christmas Kettles | The history behind a Yuletide institution. (Dec. 21, 2001)
O Christmas Tree | A truly "traditional" tree would be unrecognizable—and flammable. (Dec. 14, 2001)
Christmas Countdown | When does the holiday season really start? (Dec. 7, 2001)
Serving God with Mammon | John Wesley's wisdom for hard economic times: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. (Nov. 30, 2001)
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 21, 2001)
Where Are the Women? | The Christian tradition includes few female history-writers but plenty of female history-makers. (Nov. 20, 2001)
God Bless, More or Less | Irving Berlin's anthem captures America. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Festival of Fears | What's scarier than Halloween? The anxieties that drive it. (Oct. 26, 2001)