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One book on Nazism offers in-depth history, the other merely polemics
November 3rd, 2010
By Eugene J. Fisher

“CATHOLICISM & THE ROOTS OF NAZISM: RELIGIOUS IDENTITY & NATIONAL SOCIALISM,” by Derek Hastings. Oxford University Press (New York, 2010). 290 pp., $29.95.


(CNS) Derek Hastings’ book, “Catholicism & the Roots of Nazism,” should be read by anyone interested in the history of the Christian churches, Nazism and the Shoah. Hastings studies in depth the events, movements and personalities in Bavaria, and especially Munich, from 1919 to the Beerhall Putsch of 1923, and the radical change in Nazi ideology that followed it.

While most readers will be aware of the antagonistic relationship between the Catholic Church and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, the early Nazi movement was formed in a city and region that was largely Catholic, with both the supporters and opponents of National Socialism identifying themselves as Catholics.

Hastings begins his study by evoking the “peculiarities” of Munich’s Catholic tradition. Unlike in the rest of Germany, the Catholic community in Munich was the large majority, giving it a relative openness to interconfessional cooperation and a certain distance from the way the Catholic Center Party and its local branch, the Bavarian Volks Party, operated.

Also, while Catholics in the rest of Germany, and indeed throughout Europe, had looked since the early 19th century increasingly to the pope, who lived “ultra montes” (over the mountains) in Italy, to resist efforts of secular state regimes to control religious affairs, there was a resistance to ultramontanism in Munich among Catholics who felt they did not need such “foreign” assistance or guidance.

In Munich, the German Volkische chauvinism, with its anti-ultramontanism implications, extended itself to “foreign” Jews, establishing a fertile ground for what would become core to the ideology of the nascent Social Democratic (Nazi) Party. The sense of Nordic-Aryan superiority and imagery was blended with explicitly Catholic images and themes.

The racial theories of Houston Chamberlain and Arthur de Gobineau were popularly accepted, laying the groundwork for the racial anti-Semitism that would ultimately rationalize the Holocaust.

Catholics, including a number of priests, were originally attracted to and involved in these developments. Hitler, in this period, actively cultivated Catholics and made (as it turned out a cynical) show of being one.

This ended at the time of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which ended in violence. Hitler came out of prison feeling he was the apocalyptic leader of a new world order and joined with other movements, many of which were vocally anti-Catholic. The bishops of Bavaria banned participation by Catholics in the movement, with Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich issuing a stern condemnation of anti-Semitism. Ironically, Hastings concludes, the only thing Catholic to remain in Nazism as it took power in Germany was the sense of sacred (in Nazism’s case, of course, pagan) ceremony, illustrated in the famous Leni Riefenstahl film, “Triumph of the Will.”

Though I agree with the subtitle of Gabriel Wilensky’s book, “Six Million Crucifixions: How Christian Teaching about Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust,” and with his major thesis that Christians in general and Catholics in particular need to come fully to grips with the fact that the Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism over the centuries prepared the ground and laid the seeds for Nazi racial genocide, I cannot recommend his well-intentioned but deeply flawed book.

Wilensky presents what has been called by Jewish scholars a lachrymose view of Jewish-Christian history, emphasizing the negatives and ignoring or writing off the positive aspects of our two-millennium-long encounter. Where shades of gray are called for, he sees only black.

He states, for example, that “just the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles combined have approximately 450 explicit anti-Semitic verses” (p. 130). There are, of course, problematic texts in the New Testament that later Christian polemicists used, or rather misused, to indict the Jews collectively of the death of Jesus. But at the time of their writing, few of these can be called anti-Judaic, much less anti-Semitic.

The books of the New Testament were written by Jews to be read by other Jews and were arguing, as Jews to this day do, about what it means to be Jewish. It was only when these passages were misinterpreted by Gentile Christians over the centuries, who had their own agenda in mind, that the basic, anti-Jewish and ultimately anti-Semitic interpretations of them became dominant in the thinking of Christians, so much so that no ecumenical council before the Second Vatican Council took a fresh look at the texts themselves to see what their authors actually intended to communicate.

Wilensky’s book is an indictment of the churches, particularly the Catholic Church and Popes Pius XI and XII, both of whom he calls, without sufficient evidence, anti-Semites. That is not scholarship. It is polemic.

Fisher is retired associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

From November 5, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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