Theology for the Long Haul

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Review of - The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the BIble in Nazi Germany

Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, is both a fascinating and difficult read. While Heschel’s writing captivates the reader, the subject of her thesis concerns one of the greatest human failures to ever plague reality. For most contemporary persons the Holocaust is pushed to the past and any theology or hermeneutics that might have justified it ridden from remembrance. On a quest to bring to light ignored historical realities, Heschel delves deep into the forgotten halls and damp closets of Christian academic yesteryear. Her aim is to compel Christian scholars, leaders, and historians to deal with the under assessed implications of Nazi era scholastic dereliction.

Heschel makes clear from the beginning of the book that as the daughter of renowned Nazi-era Jewish Bible Scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, she has some personal vestment in her research. In her acknowledgments Heschel recalls: “My childhood was filled with German-Jewish refugee scholars who vividly illuminated for me the intellectual world that was destroyed. I was to thank my father for conveying to me a taste of the Germany he experienced in the 1920s and ‘30s, and for constantly reminding me, ‘Never despair’!” (xvi)

Although Heschel references ancient history to support her thesis that Christian supersessionism contributed to historical ant-Semitism, she largely limits her research to the discussion just before, during, and shortly following Nazi rule in Germany. Her research is comprehensive in that it investigates most of the relevant individuals (religious, scholarly and political), institutions, guilds, and publications (academic and liturgical). In her introduction, Heschel highlights her ability to access materials which have never (at least in printed form) been considered. She states: “I was the first American, the first Jew, and the first person with a laptop, I was told, to appear at the Eisenach archive” (xi). Along these same lines, Heschel claims to have had access to eyewitnesses who were still alive while she was conducting her research (xi). These two acknowledgments place Heschel’s research at a heightened level of historical probability, unmatched by her contemporaries. Heschel divides her book into five chapters with a conclusion. This review will summarize each chapter independently, and follow with an evaluation at the conclusion.

Draining Jesus of Jewishness

For Heschel, dejudaization was a “secret hope” of Christianity from the second century. What started as a supersession of Christian theology over and against Judaism in the early church, culminated in the theology of Walter Grundmann and his Nazi-era contemporaries. Christianity had, in a sense, stolen what was most valuable from Judaism (its central theological teachings, Scriptures, election, etc.) and rejected the rest, to the point of rejecting even their hope of salvation. Heschel describes this supersession as a type of theological colonization. She asserts: “As a colonization, it did not seek the destruction of Judaism, but its arrogation and exploitation for Christian purposes” (27). This underlying desire for dejudaization played a functional role (at times more obvious than others) throughout the history of the church, and leading up to pre-Nazi German scholarship.

Heschel identifies four academic concepts that laid the groundwork on which Grundmann and others built their case: 1) The Racial theory of the nineteenth century; 2) Historists’ distinctions between Judaism and the teachings of Jesus; 3) Claims that Jesus’ teachings originated with Hellenism; and, 4) Assyriologists claims of a Gentile Galilee. Heschel is not shy to point out that all of these (but primarily the later three) were attached in some way to the old History of Religions school. Whereas the Bible may have been used to test such wild assertions, liberal theology and the decline in perceived Biblical authority since the seventeenth-century allowed slanted ideologies to enter uncontested the theological discussion of the time. This opportunity was taken by theologian Ernst Renan, historian Houston Stewart Chamberlain, assyriologist Paul Haupt, and Bible Scholar Emmanuel Hirsch (among others) to create and propagate a Jesus who was not Jewish.

The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life
As the desire for dejudaizing German Christianity reached the popular level, the church was divided into two primary groups: 1)The German Christians, who supported the efforts of the Nazi party and desired a faith free from Jewish influence; and 2) The Confessing Church, who resisted the Nazi regime and stood for the inclusion of Jews in the church. Though the devotion of the former was never returned by the Nazi leadership, the German Christians only increased the intensity of their desire, calling Hitler the “Fuhrer Jesus” and “God’s agent in our day” (67). The German Christians were bent on gaining power, whether through the church, or through the academy.

Walter Grundmann, professor of theology at the University of Jena, sought approval for the founding of an academic institute to work toward the dejudaization of the Bible and ecclesial life in 1938. His desire was for the institute to be attached to the University at Jena, and received funding for an academic journal which he thought should be edited by Emmanuel Hirsch (University of Gottingen) and Wilhelm Schmidt (University of Hale). Though not to Grundmann’s aspirations, the Institute was founded in Wartburg Castle on May 6, 1939, under the official title of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Christian Life. One newspaper hailed the founding as effort to continue Luther’s reforms (90). The institute later moved to a church owned Villa in Eisenach, and by 1939 it boasted 80 members, and by 1942 the number had grown to 180 professional scholars, historians, and theologians.

Projects of the Institute
While an anti-Jewish revision of the Gospel of John was undertaken in 1936 in Bremen (edited by Emmanuel Hirsch), the Institute’s Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God), a dejudaized version of the New Testament (1940) was far more popular. This new revision combined the four Gospels into a singular narrative and only retained portions of Paul’s teachings since it could not be argued (as it could with Jesus) that Paul was not Jewish. Since Grundmann and the Institute did not believe Jesus was Jewish, they removed any pericopae that might have alluded to His Jewishness. The Institutes new version of the Bible was hugely successful; its revised hymnal was also widely utilized.

Eisenach’s new hymnal included a number of revisions, all centered on removing Semitisms, and contributions from non-Aryan Christians. Heschel observes:

"In the Institutes hymnal, the second stanza of Luther’s famed reformation song, ‘Ein fests Burg’ (‘A Mighty Fortress’), was purged of the words ‘Herr Zebaoth’ (‘Lord of Hosts’) and ‘der Retter in Not’ (‘Knight in shining armor’) was substituted. The Hymn itself was entitled ‘Heilig Vaterland’ (‘Holy father land’), and the accompanying drawing of a castle bore the inscription… ‘A Mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon’ (124)."

“Silent Night” was allowed to retain its reference to Bethlehem since it had been shown to have existed in Gentile Galilee. New Hymns were included, one entitled “Tender Child of German Blood.” Hundreds of Thousands of the new Hymnal were purchased, copies were sent to troops on the battle field, and even the Red Cross purchased 100 copies. The institute also made contributions to a revised catechism and baptism. Growing hatred for Jews, fueled by fresh insights and new revisions of liturgical resources by the Institute, led to the rejection of all non-Aryan Christians from German Christian churches on December 17, 1941.

Heschel describes the Institutes contributions to have refocused Christian attention from “the humanity of God”(Old History of Religions School and liberal theology) to the “divinity of man” (164). As one scholar expressed it: “The Reich of ye Germans is for us similar to the eternal kingdom of God. For us, belief in Germany is a touchstone of our Faith in God. Our love of Germany is a measure of our love for the eternal… It was for us as if Christ had traveled through Germany and Adolf Hitler was his mouth” (165).

The Making of Nazi Theologians

The Institute at Eisenach drew a variety of scholars. Some were successful professors at reputable institutions, while others were working on their doctorates. Some scholars were full members of the Nazi party, while others were not. According to Heschel, what drew academics was: “support for publications, conferences to present ideas, gatherings top meet colleagues, and a sense of self-importance” (166). Her investigation focuses on three important scholars: Adolf Schlatter, Gerhard Kittel, and Walter Grundmann.

Grundmann attributed renowned Bible scholar Adolf Schlatter with building a bridge between theology and National Socialism. According to Heschel, the message that linked Schlatter’s theology to National Socialism was his accusation that:

"Jews, both in antiquity and the present day, were a force of decadence, the ‘gegen-Volk,’ both the opposite and opponents of Christians as well as Germans, and that Jesus had been the Jews’ greatest opponent. The Jews rejection of Jesus as their Messiah and their guilt for his death was an indication not simply of their religious conviction, but their inherent degenerate character (181-182). Though Schlatter’s conclusions were dangerous, not to the degree of Gerhard Kittel."

Kittel, the editor of the ten volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in a speech given at Tubingen on June 1, 1933, suggested that:

"Jews should be given ‘guest status’ in Germany…he wrote, because the alternatives – extermination, Zionism, and assimilation – were not “expedient.” His speech, published as a pamphlet, repeated standard anti-Semitic charges against Jewish intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, and called for the end of marriages between Jews and Germans to prevent further corruption of the German race" (185).
Heschel asserts that both Kittel and Schlatter believed that: “Jews possessed an immutable moral and spiritual degeneracy reflected in their religion” (185).

No scholars exhibited hatred for Jews and love of Nazism more than the Institutes founder, Grundmann. The following quote captures his confusion. Speaking of Hitler, Grundmann stated:

"Everyone on first meeting [our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler] shockingly recognizes that he is a completely pure man! All of us sees it thus. IN this man there is nothing disunited. He is in himself completely one, completely simple, clear and true. We also know that the power of such a clear and truthful man does not derive from earth, but rather out of a higher world that the Master Christ, called the kingdom of heaven. We also know from men who are close to the Fuhrer that he knows of his inner connection with God. He knows himself to be the instrument of God and has the clear, simple trust in God of a man who – as the Bible puts it – is reconciled with God. Some people have said that Adolf Hitler that a magic power radiates from Him. I do not know whether one ought to put it that way. When one experiences this man for the first time, he certainly feels one thing: the deep humility of the man which is at one time completely consistent with his higher commission. This oneness of man with his God is a symbol of what the old church teachers intended to say with the Trinity" (190).

While many German scholars contributed to the Nazi machine (180 alone were members of the Institute), none so much as these three.

The Faculty of Theology at the University of Jena

The University of Jena (home to Grundmann) had come to be known as the center for Nazi-minded theology and scholarship. The Faculty at Jena used the Old History of Religions methods to re-interpret Jesus message to be a fulfillment, not of Old Testament prophecy, but of Ancient Near-Eastern and Asian ideals (believed to be Aryan in origin). Hebrew was no longer required of students, and racial theory was seen as crucial to proper hermeneutics of the Biblical text.

In the present chapter Heschel focused largely on two men Wolf Meyer-Erlach (a Bavarian pastor), and Gerhard Von Rad (-a scholar affiliated with the Confessing Church). Meyer-Erlach , a man with little-to-no academic qualifications was appointed as Rector of the University in April of 1935. Meyer-Erlach, a recognized Nazi party member and propagandist, is noted for preaching: “I would rather go with my Volk to hell than without my Volk to your heaven” (212). It seems all was lost at Jena had it not been for professor of Old Testament Gerhard von Rad.

Heschel observes that Von Rad was likely appointed by mistake- the leadership assuming from his early SA membership and contributions to the TDNT that he had Nazi sympathies, which he did not. He worked to keep Old Testament studies relevant for Biblical Studies and to spread Confessing Church values among his students. Unfortunately, of the 45 doctoral dissertations written between 1933-1945, only one was written under von Rad.

The Postwar Years
At the close of the war in 1945 the Third Reich was dissolving, and its scholars were working to cover-up their pre-war and wartime activities. Director of the Institute, Georg Bertram, who was appointed after Grundmann was drafted into military service, attempted to retain financial support for the Institute after the war. He claimed that the Institute was only sought to defend Christianity from those in the Nazi party who considered it to be a product of Judaism. Bertram proposed changing the Institutes name to the Theological Research Institute of Eisenach, and its work would be training pastors in philology (Greek and Latin only), and German Piety. Later that same year Church leaders (most of whom were members of the Confessing Church) met to consider Bertram’s proposal, but rejected it. While a considerable number of Nazi teachers were dismissed from their positions, many more underwent denazification and were reassigned. Heschal and others assert that “sixty percent of appointments to East German institutions of higher education between 1954-1962 were former Nazi party members” (256).

After the war, Grundmann attempted to justify his war-time scholarship claiming that he was an “objective scholar who had fallen victim to Nazi attacks as a result of his efforts on behalf of Christianity and his scholarship” (253). He claimed that he was never anti-Semitic, but simply wanted to make Jesus relevant for German culture. While some would believe him, many would not and were skeptical of his attempts to justify himself. Eventually, Grundmann was allowed back into ministry, teaching classes for a women’s seminary and lecturing at Leipzig and Naumburg. He published some influential volumes during the 1950’s and 60’s. He was rector of the Thuringian Predigerseminar from 1964-1976. He was appointed church chancellor of Thuringia in 1976, but died later that same year. It later came to be known that Grundmann served as a Stasi spy from 1956 until his death. During this time, he was able to give the Stasi incriminating evidence against his former enemies in the confessing church. While Grundmann could not operate as a Nazi in post-war Germany, he continued (as many former Nazi scholars) in his belief that Jesus was a Gentile and an enemy of Judaism. Heschel asserts that this continued anti-Semitism and underlying belief that the Holocaust was God’s judgment for the crucifixion of Jesus, helped Christians justify their inactivity during the war.

Heschel’s Conclusion

From Heschal’s vantage point, the churches response to the Holocaust was weak, and its “denazification” of former Nazis was hasty and ineffective. The only requirement placed upon Grundmann and others was to acknowledge Christ’s supremacy over political rulers, and not to repent of their ant-Semitism. While the church labored to transform former Nazis into valued members of society, they were never forced to take Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. This, for Heschel, is unforgivable. She concludes: “The Holocaust… was a wound in the heart of Christian theology and a profound challenge to its moral authority.

Critical Review
Heschel’s book is eye-opening, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the theological environment of pre-war and Nazi Germany. There are many observations that could be made, but this review will focus on two: 1) Heschel’s viewpoint concerning the Christian “supersession” of Judaism; and, 2) Her observations concerning the contribution of the Old History of Religions methodology to the Nazi theology of Grundmann and others.

Heschel in her introduction accuses Christianity of having a “secret hope” for the dejudaization of faith since the second century. For her, Christianity hijacked Judaism’s central teachings “while denying the continued validity of those teachings and texts within Judaism as an independent path to salvation” (26). While it is true that most Christians do not believe that Judaism is another “path” to salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ, this could hardly be compared with the dejudaization of Nazi-era Germany. Questions regarding Israel’s salvation are different from questions of Jewish influence in the shared testaments. The majority of evangelical Christians believe that Israel is a chosen people and that sometime in the future they will come to the Messiah. Popular Christian disregard for the plight of Jews during the Nazi era (and at other points in history) is indefensible and should be repented of as a grave sin against God. However, it is reductionistic, misleading, and offensive to say that Christians have had a “secret hope” that culminated in Grundmann’s institute. Rather than placing blame on all of Christendom, Heschel would do better to follow up on observations she has made concerning the outcome of misguided Biblical hermeneutics.

Throughout her book Heschel reminds the reader of the role that liberal German scholarship played in laying groundwork for the German Christian movement. Heschel asserts that Old History of Religions school methods were helpful to Grundmann, who utilized them to create his Aryan Jesus “whose views were distorted by the Jewish authors of the Gospels” (58-59). In another place she states: “History of Religions opened the possibility of a radically revised interpretation of Jesus message that would see it not as fulfilling God’s promises, as contained in the (Jewish) Old Testament, but reflected ancient Near Eastern and Asian ideas…” (202). She agrees with historian Colin Kidd who “argued that the decline in the seventeenth century of the authority of Scripture ‘opened up an ideological space for the uninhibited articulation of racist sentiments’” (28-29).

Heschel makes these useful observations, but also heaps blame on all of Christianity, as though every Christian at the time disregarded the Bible’s authoritative prose concerning violence and oppression. One might assert that the theological compromises of Nazi Germany started in the academies with an a priori adoption of misguided hermeneutical methods, and a rejection of Church doctrinal constraints and accountability. This being the case, Heschel’s book might serve as a healthy corrective for twenty-first century scholars and theologians who are using and affirming the same methodologies.

In conclusion, Heschel’s book, though it seems to have an anti-Christian polemic on certain points, provides important new information and fresh insights for research on Nazi-era theology and hermeneutics.

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