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Lessons and Legacies VIII: From Generation to Generation

Lessons and Legacies VIII: From Generation to Generation

by Doris L. Bergen (Editor), Theodore Zev Weiss (Foreword by)

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Primo Levi opened his memoir Survival in Auschwitz with a call to remember, reflect upon, and teach about the Holocaust—or to face the rejection of subsequent generations. The transmittal of this urgent knowledge between generations was the theme of the eighth Lessons and Legacies Conference on the Holocaust, and it is the focus of this volume. The


Primo Levi opened his memoir Survival in Auschwitz with a call to remember, reflect upon, and teach about the Holocaust—or to face the rejection of subsequent generations. The transmittal of this urgent knowledge between generations was the theme of the eighth Lessons and Legacies Conference on the Holocaust, and it is the focus of this volume. The circular formulation—from generation to generation—points backward and forward: where do we locate the roots of the Holocaust, and how do its repercussions manifest themselves? The contributors address these questions from various perspectives—history, cultural studies, psychiatry, literature, and sociology. They also bring to bear the personal aspect of associated issues such as continuity and rupture. What has the generation of the Shoah passed on to its descendants? What have subsequent generations taken from these legacies? Contributions by scholars, some of whom are survivors and children of survivors, remind us that the Holocaust does—and must—remain present from generation to generation.

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Northwestern University Press
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Lesson & Legacies
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From Generation to Generation


Copyright © 2008 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2539-1

Chapter One

Christina von Braun

The Symbol of the Cross: Secularization of a Metaphor from the Early Church to National Socialism

THE CROSS IS THE CENTRAL SYMBOL OF THE CHRISTIAN STORY OF the life and sufferings of Christ, and it also appears as a symbol—albeit in an altered form—in National Socialism. This recurrence is not surprising. The cross is marked by paradoxes: it signifies both death and resurrection, the body and renunciation of the flesh, agony and victory. To Christians, the cross is a promise of salvation that links earthly existence with eternal life. For Jews its associations are very different: it speaks of Christian triumphalism and the accompanying violence and threat of erasure. These paradoxes and conflicting meanings emerged and developed over centuries, but they achieved a specific expression in National Socialism and its annihilatory assault on Judaism and Jews. For this reason, study of the cross exposes some deep roots of the Holocaust in the rituals, beliefs, and practices of Christian Europe, including especially Christian antisemitism. At the same time, investigation of the historical evolution of the symbol of the cross suggests ways in which Nazi iconography continued a process that appropriated and secularized Christianity and its powerful, central metaphor. This essay explores these two interrelated strands of analysis.

The cross had particular uses in National Socialism and constitutes one of the many elements of a "political religion," a term that Eric Voegelin coined in the 1930s. But Nazism's usurpation of Christianity, which Voegelin depicted as a fatal step in a process of secularization rooted in the Enlightenment, coexisted with and depended upon the continued vitality of traditional Christianity within Germany. Indeed, elements within Nazism that sought to replace Christianity and proponents of the Christian churches in familiar forms found common ground in claims of German spiritual superiority, in hostility toward Jews, and in the conviction that redemption and atonement came through suffering and the shedding of blood. It is only when one looks back at the long history of the symbol of the cross that one can fully comprehend the basis of the swastika, its attraction, and the historical traditions on which it could build. (See figure 1.)

I begin this discussion with a citation from the conversations with Hitler that were recorded by Hermann Rauschning. There are many such quotations in the archives of National Socialism. Then I move far back in time in order to give a detailed account of the history of the symbolism of the cross and the paradoxes it embodies. Rauschning remembers Hitler saying:

Easter is no longer the resurrection, but rather the eternal renewal of our People. Christmas is the birth of our Savior: the spirit of heroism and freedom of our People. They will replace the cross with our swastika. Instead of the blood of their former Redeemer, they will celebrate the pure blood of our People. They will receive the German fruit of the field as a holy offering and eat it as the symbol of the eternal community of the Nation as they have until now savored the Body of their God. And then, when this has come to pass, the churches will become full again. If we so desire, so it shall be; if it is our faith that is observed there.

In all the ceremonies of the Nazi faith, one can sense Christianity's legacy, for instance, in the cult of the martyr. In front of the Feldherrnhalle in Munich, those who died in the Hitler Putsch (or Beer Hall Putsch) of 1923 were honored every year on November 9. The funeral cult stands at the center of this religion, just as the cross stands at the center of the Christian faith. The rituals allowed the dead who have sacrificed their lives for this "religion" to rise again. Equally, the blood that was shed is holy. Hitler kissed the Blutfahne (blood banner) just as the devout Christian kisses the bleeding wounds of the Savior. Not only implicitly but explicitly, the reliance on Christian images excluded Jews from the community of the "Aryan" faithful. The Jew, said Hitler, differentiated himself from the Christian in that the Jew was not capable of self-sacrifice. Reference to the cross and its connotations of sacrifice lent legitimacy to attacks on Jews who, accused in Christian tradition of deicide, were cast as enemies of the cross and the crucified one.

In Christianity, devotion to the cross contributes to the realization of the Passion. The Passion story must be repeated within every single believer so that he or she may share in Christ's life and suffering. Paul stated quite clearly that the believer is "put to death with Christ on his cross.... Since he has died with Christ, he believes that he will also live with him. For he knows that Christ has been raised from death and will never die again." But the cross signifies not only the death of the crucified but also resurrection and victory over death. This double meaning, which has sometimes been paraphrased as the "paradox of the cross," has a long history. On the one hand, it refers to the pre-Christian meaning of the cross that was assimilated by Christianity; on the other hand, it also implies a codification of the body. Its influence extends far beyond the main periods of Christianity and emerges again in National Socialism. At the same time, a dimension of gender is inherent in this history that is expressed in the martyr and resurrection rituals of National Socialism to which Rauschning referred and that were solely a matter for men.


The cross can be found in almost all cultures, regardless if they are formed by oral traditions or written culture. In societies with an oral tradition, the cross mainly symbolizes the encounter between heaven and earth. This mediatory function of the cross is also preserved in many written cultures; however, it additionally took on the meaning of a mediation between the sign and the material world, between symbol and symptom. In ancient Egypt, the crux ansata (ankh) was the hieroglyph for life. The Copts adopted the sign and gave it a new meaning of eternal life, as in the Christian sense. In the swastika, which, with the exception of Australia, was common worldwide, a gendered symbolism is additionally manifested. In Hinduism, whereas the clockwise swastika stood as the principle of masculinity of the god Ganesh, the counterclockwise swastika symbolized the principle of femininity of the goddess Kali. The counterclockwise swastika in Buddhism often appears on the breast, the palms of the hands, or the soles of the feet of Buddha figures—all points on the body that, as stigmata, also hold great meaning for the Christian system of metaphors of the crucifixion. The two forms of the swastika make it clear that the gender ascription deals less with the derivation of biological fact than with the attempt to confer the appearance of physiological "reality" via the gendered codification to an abstract classification. This means that the category gender, or rather the gender system, contributes to the "charging" of abstract elements or symbols with seemingly physiological efficacy. In the Christian story of the cross—and this is what I attempt to illustrate—the function of the gendered images becomes especially apparent.

A major exception to the gendered-physiological charge of the cross is represented by the symbolism of the cross in the Hebrew sign system. Whether as a vertical or horizontal cross, it simply means—in accordance with the Hebrew phonetic symbol taw—"sign" or letter. Contrary to the Christian cross, it does not signify anything but itself. All the same, the fact that a sign merely symbolizes "the sign" in a religion in which God reveals himself solely via the letters of the written language also has a thoroughly transcendental meaning. This reference to the transcendental meaning is again expressed in the symbolic gender system. The symbolic gender system of the Jewish religion— something I cannot address in detail here—allows itself to be read as a ritual ascription of difference into the male and the female body. On the one hand, this difference reflects the insurmountable difference between God's eternity and human mortality; on the other hand, it reflects the strict differentiation between sign and the material world. It is precisely the continued cultural practice of this difference that is the basis for the Jewish ban on images (iconoclasm). Contrary to this difference in the Jewish religion, sema and soma merge in Christianity. Just as Christ is the "word become flesh," the cross simultaneously means sign and corporeality: it is symbol as well as symptom. This union is already expressed in the paradox that the cross symbolizes death as well as resurrection; that it tells of both an execution and of a victory over death. This paradox of the cross, which also allows itself to be rewritten as the incarnation of the decarnification, remains in that the cross has both historical and symbolic meaning in Christianity.


In contrast to the Persians and the Romans, the Jewish penal code of ancient Palestine was not familiar with execution by crucifixion. However, judging by the reports of Herodotus, the practice was already widespread elsewhere in the fifth century BCE. It must have been the most painful and demeaning form of execution, designed to inflict a long, slow, and extremely painful death. It was primarily reserved for rebellious slaves, and it is precisely for this reason that it was often carried out in Palestine. From the beginning of Roman rule in Palestine (63 BCE) until shortly before the outbreak of the Jewish War (66 CE), all known reports of crucifixions in Palestine refer to rebels and their sympathizers crucified by Romans. The Latin word for cross (crux) actually means wood of the martyr or stake.

Because it was considered especially disgraceful to die on the cross, it took a long time before Christians were willing to accept the cross as the symbol of their faith. The concept first began to be observed in the fourth century, after Constantine the Great repealed the sentence of crucifixion and then, around 320 CE, had Christianity installed as an official religion. The supposed discovery of the true cross by his mother Helena, which was later dated to the year 328, contributed to the symbolism's new transvaluation. That Constantine also provided for repeal of the Christian ban on images is one indication among others that Christianity developed itself away from a God who only revealed himself in signs and was turning toward a God who was to be understood as a symptom that had become a sign.

Thanks to the paradox of the cross, Christianity developed the most multilayered and lasting symbolism of the cross. For the Gnostics (in the first centuries CE, the boundary between gnosis and Christianity was by no means clear), the historical death on the cross was important, and the resurrection was interpreted according to Gnostic thought. According to Marcion, who lived around 139 CE, the mortal body of Jesus was merely an illusionary body, which, after its death, was rejoined with the true body of the self in the realm of light. The Gnostics' promise of salvation was based precisely on overcoming bodily existence. According to Irenaeus, whoever observed the corporeality of the crucified was already subject to the power of the archons. However, with the gradual establishment of the Christian church, the idea increasingly developed that Christ's suffering, the Passion, and the crucifixion were to be understood as a real, bodily, earthly suffering, endured by a God who had become a human being and who was therefore capable of suffering. The martyrs' and the flagellants' movements that originated in the monasteries from around 1000 CE and that spread through all of Christian Europe were kept alive by the concept of the material, real suffering that should be administered— and in this manner, "realized"—on one's own body. Before I return to the flagellants, I will sketch the further development of the symbolism of the cross from the time of the early church.

Early Church

For the early church, the cross became the dominant theological theme. As Gregory of Nyssa maintained, it proclaimed "the truth": the fulfillment of the promise of a God become incarnate. For the early church, Christ and the cross became nearly interchangeable: the crucified Christ was the word of God. But the crucifixion itself was not depicted. This changed with a gradual shift of the cross's significance, from suffered death to sign of victory. With this shift, the motif of the "victorious cross" also developed on a secular level, such as when Constantine the Great ascribed his victory over Maxentius (312 CE) to a vision of the cross. "The invincible sign of the cross" became a well-established expression, and Christians increasingly came to understand the cross as a guarantee for ascent into heaven. This victory symbolism of the cross has been preserved until today. The first construction to be erected on New York's "Ground Zero" after September 11, 2001, was a cross built from the debris of the collapsed buildings.

Sometimes the cross was also associated with the "tree of life" that is cited in Genesis 2, an anticipation of the later topos of the cross's "fertility." Unlike in the Jewish Bible, in the Christian context the "tree of life" was meant to imply "fertility via the spirit." In the early church, the cross in the house of worship was gradually superseded by representations of the crucifixion: above all it was the iconographic intention to portray the death with the resurrection, but then also to stress the theme of suffering itself. The linking of death and resurrection was primarily expressed in depictions in which the cross was embellished with motifs of plants and blossoms—thereby referring to the "tree of life"—or it was adorned with gemstones.

From the fifth century on, depictions of Christ carrying the cross or being nailed to the cross began to appear. The first representations of the crucifixion originated in Syria and in a sense already anticipated the iconoclasm. The issue was whether representations of the Passion of Christ and the martyrs dealt with a symbolic testimonial, or whether they should assist the believer to "share" in the death and suffering; in other words, whether they represented a "true" experience. This was a point of controversy that would later be revived in the debates surrounding the doctrine of transubstantiation in connection with the interpretation of the bread and the wine at communion. By the end of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth centuries, the struggle had been decided in favor of iconophilia. From this point on, representations of the events on the cross—that is, representations of the Passion—predominated.

The early Middle Ages dealt hesitantly with such representations; however, already in the High Middle Ages, images of the Passion moved to the center of iconographic interest. Even in the churches themselves—as cross-shaped constructions—the cross was represented. With this architecture, one has to bear in mind that the church congregation was perceived as the body of Christ. The church's construction gave this idea a visible, petrified form. Christian teaching bound together the beginning of the world (Adam) with the completion of the world (Christ). The crucifixion's intense scenes of suffering became the occasion for a "com-passion" that was reflected both in numerous visions and in the self-flagellation movements. Already in the early church, monastic life was construed as an existence on the cross: hermitage and asceticism counted as preliminary forms of the cross. Caesarius von Heisterbach noted, "Twice is the crucifixion of the monks: one of the inner being through compassion for others, and one of the external being through the mortification of one's own flesh."

Gradually, the flesh was not only "silenced" but also aroused through blood and suffering, first in the cloisters and then on the streets. Believers branded the sign of the cross on their bodies with red-hot brass crosses; they carried a cross set with sharp nails; or they nailed themselves to the cross. It was as if a sign were to be inscribed on the body, comparable to circumcision in the Jewish religion that seals the union between God and Israel. Here, however, it dealt with a union between Christ and his community of believers that was constantly renewed via an active realization of the cross in the suffering body of the believer. Such an equation of Christian self-castigation with Jewish circumcision can be supported by the fact—among others— that numerous church fathers and dogmatists from the second century up to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century attempted to reinterpret the circumcision of Christ in a Christian sense, in that they explained the circumcision as the first station of the cross.


Excerpted from LESSONS AND LEGACIES VIII Copyright © 2008 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Doris L. Bergen is a member of the academic advisory board of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. She is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto.

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