Atheist Nazis? The Pope’s Cheap Atonement

Adam Clayton Powell called it “cheap grace,” but we might call it “cheap atonement”: the effort by sinners to select which sins to acknowledge and repent.

Pope Benedict XVI ended his heavily protested visit to England with a heartfelt apology for German bombings of England during the Battle of Britain; though he refused to accept Christian responsibility for the Holocaust, blaming it instead on pagans and atheists. Given that Cardinal Walter Kasper, on the eve of the Pope’s visit, called Britain a third-world country full of atheists, one wonders if the Vatican is displacing Nazism or anticipating a new outbreak in the country that gave the world political liberalism.

Each pope since Nostra Aetate, passed by the Second Vatican Council, has piously reiterated that condemnation of anti-Semitism, but they have never clarified just what constitutes contempt for Jews and Judaism. Instead, they like to draw a thick, heavy line between “anti-Judaism,” Christian criticisms of Judaism that they defend as perfectly legitimate, and “anti-Semitism,” a hatred of Jews that they call racial and blame on anti-Christian atheists.

Historians have made it clear that the distinction is not legitimate, and logic compels recognition that from a Jewish perspective it doesn’t matter if the SS officer who killed my grandmother attended Catholic mass the next Sunday or mocked Jesus as a wimpy, pathetic Jew. What does matter is that the Church (Protestant as well as Catholic) never excommunicated that SS officer nor forbade chaplains from celebrating mass at concentration camps.

Pope Benedict, the first pope with membership in a Nazi organization (the Hitler Youth), desperately wants us to believe that no Christian could have been a Nazi murderer. On one level, he’s right: Christian faith should prevent anyone from committing confiscation of property, deportation of neighbors, destruction of houses of worship, rape, torture, and murder. Indeed, there were Germans who could not reconcile their Christian faith with National Socialism’s anti-Semitism. The Protestant theologian and Nazi, Walter Grundmann, recognized the problem:

Our Volk, which stands in a struggle above all else 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.

What to do? Christian theologians, Catholic and Protestant, reassured Germans that Nazism was in full accord with Christian principles. This was not a marginal effort; at the 1934 Oberammergau passion play, watching Jesus being hoisted on the cross, the audience saw a parable of the Third Reich, calling out: “There he is. That is our Führer, our Hitler!”

Hitler became Christ, the redeemer of Germany, thanks to a reinterpretation of the Gospels: Jesus was not a Jew, but an Aryan who came to redeem them from the Jews who sought their destruction. Karl Adam, the prominent German Catholic theologian, affirmed in 1933 that Hitler was the one “prophesied by our poets and our wise men” who suffered in his fight for Germany’s salvation. Adam continued in 1941: “Christ’s teaching was entirely anti-Jewish in its tenor (that is why he was crucified).”

Redefining Jesus as an Aryan began during the nineteenth century and intensified in the decades before and during the Third Reich. Jesus, theologians argued, was born in Galilee, an area populated, they claimed, by racial non-Jews, including Aryans from Iran; his message was welcomed by Galileans, in contrast to the Judean Jews who put him to death. Grundmann, together with theologians, pastors, bishops, students—both Protestant and Catholic—established the “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life,” financed by the Protestant church. They published a new version of the New Testament, purged of positive references to Jews and Judaism, redefined Jesus as an Aryan Galilean, and downplayed the role of the Jewish apostle Paul. In addition to their New Testament they distributed a dejudaized hymnal and catechism to churches throughout the Nazi Reich. Grundmann argued that Jesus’ intimacy with God established a morality that was utterly opposed to the law-based morality of Judaism—laws that forbid murder, for example—presumably in case Christians had qualms about Nazi orders to do just that.

No religion advocates murder, though plenty of religious leaders across the centuries have justified horrendous acts through their manipulative readings of scriptures and history. One of the most egregious and best-documented examples is, of course, the behavior of German Christians during the Third Reich. Pope Benedict could gain the respect of world opinion by acknowledging what historians have amply demonstrated: that well-intentioned, pious Christians—and not just atheists—committed heinous acts. Christian teachings are no guarantee against atrocity and, in the context of the Third Reich, actually came to justify the Holocaust.