Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany

Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany

by Christopher J. Probst


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253001009
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/08/2012
Pages: 270
Sales rank: 253,846
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Christopher J. Probst is a visiting assistant professor of modern European history at Saint Louis University. He was a Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Demonizing the Jews

Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany

By Christopher J. Probst

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Christopher J. Probst
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00102-3



At the 1927 Königsberg Protestant Church Congress, Paul Althaus gave a rousing and groundbreaking keynote address on Kirche und Volkstum (Church and Nationality). In it, he offered a carefully constructed new political theology that railed against a "foreign invasion" (Überfremdung) in the areas of the arts, fashion, and finance, which he believed had led to a disintegration of the national community (Volksgemeinschaft). The present distress of the German Volk, he charged, was due to the "Jewish threat." The church's attempts to penetrate the Volk with the Gospel were opposed by "Jewish influence" in economics, the press, the arts, and literature. Althaus had captured perceptively the mood of Weimar Protestants and provided theological legitimacy for völkisch (nationalistic) thinking in their ranks.

Althaus was one of the most prominent and prolific theologians of the late Weimar and Nazi eras. His carefully constructed doctrine of the "orders of creation" influenced large numbers of German Protestants during late Weimar and the Third Reich. The importance of this innovative theological construct during the Nazi era, its consequences for German Protestant ideology, as well as the influence of its progenitor, require careful examination, which I will undertake shortly. First, however, a few words are in order about some key interpretive issues, the evolution of antisemitism in modern Germany, and some important developments in German Protestantism during the 1920s and 1930s.

Issues of Interpretation

Antisemitism, Anti-Judaism, and Modernity

As I noted in the introduction, scholars who study the history of anti-Jewish hatred often disagree about just what constitutes "antisemitism." Reformation historian Heiko Oberman, for example, distinguished between antisemitism as racially motivated hatred and "anti-Judaism" as hatred motivated by theological conviction. Even so, he recognized the "crossovers and points of transgression" between the two. Many others have made similar distinctions.

Nineteenth-century French Jewish intellectual and early Zionist Bernard Lazare maintained that the term antisemitism may only be applied to pre-nineteenth-century events and attitudes anachronistically, given that the term originated with Wilhelm Marr in the last third of the nineteenth century in Germany. Lazare generally used the term anti-Judaism to describe theologically based hatred for Jews as it existed in the late medieval and Reformation periods. He usually employed the terms modern anti-Semitism and ethnological anti-Semitism to denote the form that primarily encompasses racial and/or nationalistic overtones.

Hannah Arendt forcefully argued that antisemitism and "Jew-hatred" are two different yet related ideologies. She regarded as "fallacious" the idea of an "unbroken continuity of persecutions, expulsions and massacres" that is "frequently embellished by the idea that modern antisemitism is no more than a secularised version of popular medieval superstitions." She also linked the decline of "traditional nationalism" and the "precarious balance of power" of European nation-states to the proportional rise in "modern" antisemitism. Arendt's approach thus reflects a very common distinction between a traditional Christian anti-Judaism and a modern, more secular version of anti-Jewish hatred called antisemitism.

I argued in the introduction that the strict distinction between pre-modern and modern kinds of anti-Jewish hatred should give way to a more nuanced approach. Langmuir's typology, which stresses the fluidity of modes of thought within and across historical eras rather than supposedly static ways of thinking over centuries-long historical periods, can provide this nuance. Some caveats and clarifications about my application of Langmuir's theory are necessary.

First, I do not seek to apply slavishly his theory of history, religion, and antisemitism in its totality here, but rather to appropriate dynamically its most salient argument in the arena of German Protestant theology in the 1930s and 1940s. He has a great deal to say about history and religion that I will not address here. He distinguishes, for example, between religion as "the most enduring and general social expression of nonrational thought" and religiosity as "the most enduring form of individual nonrational thinking." Religion and religiosity are thus both products of nonrational thinking. I find this distinction both helpful and well reasoned. Yet, it will not find its way into this work in any significant way.

Second, with Langmuir, I do not think it correct to limit the presence of antisemitism to the last third of the nineteenth century and forward, as do those who accept Marr's coinage of the term as their absolute point of departure for the historical phenomenon of antisemitism. This is not to deny that such modern phenomena as "political antisemitism" and "antisemitism as a cultural code" are valid historical frameworks. Though I will not attempt to do so here, Langmuir's approach can be integrated with these constructions.

Third, Langmuir also defined xenophobic assertions as "propositions that grammatically attribute a socially menacing conduct to an outgroup and all its members but are empirically based only on the conduct of a historical minority of the members...." One example of this phenomenon is the association of Jews with usury. While a small number of sixteenth-century Jews were in fact guilty of usury, the use of the terms Jew and usurer as synonymous, which was prevalent at the time, qualifies as xenophobia. Many twentieth-century German Protestants utilized such xenophobic assertions as well, but often these only served to augment nonrational and irrational thinking about Jews.

One might conclude that Langmuir simply replaced the idea of religious anti-Judaism with nonrational anti-Judaism, or that racial antisemitism correlates neatly with irrational thought about Jews. This would be a misunderstanding of Langmuir's schema. The notion of "racial" antisemitism should be viewed as a modern subset of irrational antisemitism. Other forms of irrational antisemitism include the predominant anti-Jewish accusations of the medieval period, including ritual murder and host desecration. "Religious" hatred of Jews correlates even less directly to nonrational anti-Judaism than does "racial" antisemitism to irrational antisemitism. "Religious" or "theological" writings about Jews have often intermingled both nonrational and irrational forms of thought. We will observe many examples of this in chapters three through six.

It is Langmuir's emphasis on typology (the various employments of rationality, nonrationality, and irrationality) that distinguishes it from the essentially chronological usage (modern "racial" antisemitism vs. pre-modern "religious" anti-Judaism). The typological approach works better because of its appropriate muddying of the chronological waters and its emphasis upon the presence (or absence) of human reason. Despite varying historical situations, mixed motives for anti-Jewish hatred have long existed in Christian theological writings. As we will see, anti-Judaic and antisemitic ideas about Jews existed side-by-side in both Luther's writings and in those of many German Protestants living during the late Weimar and Nazi eras.

"Minor" Texts and Conventional Wisdom

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, arguing for the "social construction of reality," declare, "Only a very limited group of people in any society engages in theorizing, in the business of 'ideas,' and the construction of Weltanschauungen [worldviews]. But everyone in society participates in its 'knowledge' in one way or another." We will later examine separate subgroups of Nazi-era German Protestants—academic theologians, pastors, and bishops from the Confessing Church, the German Christians, and the Protestant middle—each of whom read and interpreted Luther's anti-Jewish texts in a shared social context.

Since ideas tend to be passed on through socially constructed institutions, my analysis will proceed with an eye to the social context. I will concentrate on clergy and theologians who shaped ideas within German Protestantism, but—in keeping with Skinner's stress on minor as opposed to classic texts—include mainly "lesser" figures from a variety of regions and church-political factions.

I will present a number of socially situated case studies to advance the history of the ideas about Jews and Judaism present in Luther's writings as they were interpreted and passed on by German Protestant clergy and theologians in Nazi Germany. This emphasis on texts is intentional, as I am convinced that the transmission of ideas—especially as it occurs among "minor" rather than "classic" figures—has not been applied rigorously enough to Protestant pastors and theologians in Nazi Germany in the English language literature on the subject.

Despite their general categorization as "minor" figures, the clergy and periodicals consulted are not confined to one region, but represent a fairly significant portion of the Protestant population across Germany in the 1930s. The total circulation of German Christian periodicals overseen by German Christian press superintendent Heinz Dungs (see chapter five) was over 100,000 by 1941. In part because of the bans imposed by the Reich Press Chamber (see chapter four), figures for Confessing Church publications are much harder to ascertain.

Langmuir's stress upon the importance of nonrational expression to anti-Judaic thinking and irrational expression to antisemitic thought, Skinner's emphasis on minor texts, and Berger and Luckmann's concern for the sociological nature of knowledge will form important aspects of the interpretative framework of this book. The socially contextualized case study will be the primary method utilized throughout.

Antisemitism in Germany between 1871 and 1945

Historian Shulamit Volkov writes

The history of antisemitism in Nazi Germany tends to be written from the perspective of antisemitism in the nineteenth century and vice versa; the history of nineteenth-century antisemitism has been normally written, and perhaps can only be written, from the perspective of the Nazi era.

With piercing clarity, she continues that historians

are always concerned with the tension between continuity and break.... In the last resort, the two are always intertwined, only mixed in varying degrees. Clearly, from a historical point of view, every event is rooted in the past, but at the same time, every phenomenon is at least in some way new and unique. The ongoing debate on break and continuity is thus only about the correct proportions. One cannot hope to decide between the two; one can only judge their relative importance.

I am attempting here, as I have already mentioned, to contribute to the long-term and ongoing discussion about continuity and discontinuity in the history of antisemitism and anti-Judaism, particularly of the varieties found in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century.

Yet, for obvious reasons—not the least of which being that I will examine works written mainly by individuals who experienced their formative years during the Wilhelmine era—the best place to begin situating both their personal history and thought is in the Kaiserreich. Their experiences and modes of thinking during the Nazi era were both rooted in the past and unique to the mores and vagaries of the uneasy waning years of the Weimar Republic and the ascent, rule, and demise of the Nazi regime. We will discover here, in some measure, a perspective on the right balance between continuity and break in German Protestant writings about Luther, Jews, and Judaism.

Antisemitism as a Cultural Code

One of the most influential contributions to the historiography of antisemitism in Imperial Germany is Shulamit Volkov's offering in the 1978 Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, titled "Antisemitism as a Cultural Code." Volkov makes several acute observations there that will be invaluable for situating the social and intellectual context for those years that were formative for most of the individuals discussed in this book.

Volkov recognizes first of all the centrality of continuity to the discussion of antisemitism in Germany during the modern period but rejects the outdated notion of conceiving of modern antisemitism as "yet another manifestation of 'eternal hatred....'" Paul Massing and Peter G. J. Pulzer both emphasized a "new departure" in the history of antisemitism in Germany with the emergence of political antisemitism in the 1870s. This period of political antisemitism stretched all the way from (nineteenth-century Berlin court preacher) Adolf Stöcker to Adolf Hitler. Despite this, scholarly consensus was reached on the issue of political antisemitism; the antisemitic political parties had already by the 1890s lost the backing of the populace and suffered "total annihilation at the polls."

Due at least in part to the decline of its political form, antisemitism was no longer taken seriously by its opponents. This underestimation allowed its spread into various cultural groupings and associations, including clergy (especially within Protestantism), students' organizations, and teachers. It had not weakened—it had simply changed forms. Antisemitism was now rife in German society.

Though no "direct link" can be established between the antisemitic political parties of Imperial Germany and Nazism, a "continuous line" can be traced, a line that would trace their disintegration and reappearance in new organizations. There was no "appreciable slackening of antisemitism in Germany during the prewar years, nor even during the war itself," argues Volkov. "Nazi antisemitism took new forms and showed unparalleled intensity, but it grew upon the institutional structure provided by Wilhelminian society." Modern antisemitism had taken both political and social forms in Germany, but the political version, while perhaps very weak during the 1890s, did not meet with its ultimate demise. It in fact experienced an unseemly resuscitation in Nazism.

Wilhelminian society went through a process of "cultural polarization." At these two poles, two "cultures" were formed that were signified and defined by two ideas: antisemitism and emancipation. By the end of the nineteenth century, antisemitism had become a cultural code. "It became a part of their language, a familiar and convenient symbol." Nevertheless, at this point at least, it was "mainly verbal and of little practical importance in deciding the more crucial issues of the day...."

How, then, Volkov inquires, did antisemitism "come to play so central a role in the culture of Imperial Germany?" What were its causes? Despite granting that "pre-capitalist classes of society" experienced distress during the industrial age, Volkov cavils at attempts to center the cause for antisemitism in this setting in the "economic experience" of artisans and other affected groups.

Volkov rightly insists that antisemitism "was not a direct reaction to actual circumstances." To establish an important congruence between Volkov and Langmuir, I will quote her at some length.

In fact, men do not react directly to events. Through a process of conceptualisation and verbalisation men construct an interpretation of their experience, and it is only to their man-made conception of reality that they are then capable of responding. Any interpretation of reality is an independent, creative product of the human mind, and it is often all the more powerful for being partially or entirely false. In order to provide the link between conditions of stress and the particular response of Germans in the late nineteenth century, we must probe not only into the actual circumstances of the time but also into the process of cognition which interpreted, and in its own way created, these circumstances; into the process of symbolic formulation that produced the unique antisemitic ideology and gave it its central cultural role.

Langmuir and Volkov portray "reality" in very similar terms: Volkov calling it an "independent, creative product of the human mind" and Langmuir regarding it as what human beings think about "everything known or unknown that exists."

In the context of the onset of economic depression in 1873 in post-emancipation Germany, a group of successful publicists, including notably Wilhelm Marr, were able to link antisemitism cognitively with an anti-modern worldview. Marr's new terminology, Antisemitismus, brilliantly and nefariously made hatred of Jews both symbolic and "scientific": "A new term was needed to express the symbolic process through which anti-Jewish attitudes were made analogous for a whole series of other views." The new term had at least the appearance of resulting from scientific rigor, but also had the ambiguity to allow it to serve as an umbrella for a whole complex of connections, making it a "short-hand substitute for an entire culture." Berlin historian Heinrich von Treitschke helped to make antisemitism culturally acceptable in bourgeois society and introduced it into the universities. He coined—or perhaps more accurately, recaptured—a phrase that would reverberate right into the Nazi era: "Die Juden sind unser Unglück [The Jews are our misfortune]."


Excerpted from Demonizing the Jews by Christopher J. Probst. Copyright © 2012 Christopher J. Probst. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Protestantism in Nazi Germany
2. "Luther and the Jews"
3. Confessing Church and German Christian Academic Theologians
4. Confessing Church Pastors
5. German Christian Pastors and Bishops
6. Pastors and Theologians from the Unaffiliated Protestant "Middle"

What People are Saying About This

Kurt Mayer Professor of Holocaust Studies, Pacific Lutheran University - Robert P. Ericksen

A close look at specific ways in which Protestant theologians and pastors used and reacted to Luther in their teaching and preaching under Nazism. . . . In his treatment of the supposed disconnect between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, Probst shows how German Protestants during this period [following Luther] combined theological opposition to Jews with irrational, anti-Semitic stereotypes. . . . An important and useful book.

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