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The Failure of Christian Love in the Holocaust

Andrew Tix

What were the psychological factors that went into Christian violence, absence, silence and overall abject failure of love during the Holocaust?

Instructor of Psychology, Normandale Community College / Blog:
May 4, 2016

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?,” Jesus once was asked. A discussion followed, in which the two “great commandments” were affirmed: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”


“Put simply, the history of Holocaust testifies to a glaring failure of Christian love.”

“And who is my neighbor?,” asked the questioner. Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, Jesus demonstrates that being well-educated in religion or having a reputation for being religious do not necessarily translate into love of neighbor. Rather, love is expressed when we have mercy on someone in need, even if that person differs in belief, race, or social class (Luke 10:25-37).

The Christian Response to the Holocaust

Reflecting on the behavior of Christians during the Holocaust, Stephen Smith, co-founder and Director of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre in the United Kingdom, offered an alternative parable.

“There was once a man going about his business, trying to live out his life peacefully and without offence to those around him. One day as he went about his life, a group of men set upon him. They robbed him and they stripped him and they left him on the side of the road for dead. Presently, along came an educated, God-fearing and good man; a man known for his generosity and charity. He saw the man who had been beaten and robbed, but he crossed over the road and carried on his way. Shortly, along came a priest, a well-respected man of wisdom and of learning. Seeing his neighbor in distress, he too crossed over to the other side; after all, he would not be seen helping a Jew. And so the Jew lay in the gutter waiting for the Good Samaritan.

But there was no Good Samaritan.

Not this time.”1

Never Forget or Never Remember?

Although most have heard the maxim to “never forget,” remembering the Holocaust is difficult. Most have learned some of the agonizing history, that approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others—including Roma and Sinti gypsies, political opponents, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled, and mentally ill persons—were systematically murdered. Most do not connect with the reality that victims were people just like us—moms, dads, sisters, brothers, and grandparents. Most do not realize that 1 in 4 of those killed in the Holocaust were infants and children. These numbers easily evade us; we simply do not remember the horrific stories associated with each individual victim.

The remains of Holocaust victims found in extermination camp ovens.

Christian Culpability for the Holocaust

The seeds for the Holocaust lay in the history of anti-Semitism, a strand of which has long been perpetuated in the Christian Church. Beginning soon after Christ died, some inaccurately blamed Jews for the crucifixion. For centuries, many also have struggled with the fact that Jews do not convert to faith in Christ. Partly because of these reasons, Martin Luther wrote his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he describes Jews as “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” He goes on to give “sincere advice” to Christians that includes calls to set the Jews’ synagogues and schools on fire, raze and destroy their houses, and take their prayer books and Talmudic writings. Luther’s stated motivation may be even more striking: “This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians.”2

Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies

Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust. In fact, according to Victoria Barnett, Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, there is considerable evidence of anti-Semitism in sermons and church publications during the 1930s. Some Christian leaders further warned against any public demonstration of support for Jews during this time.3 In addition, churches willingly provided documentation (for example, baptismal and marriage records) to those who wished to establish “Aryan” bloodlines in order to avoid being identified as Jewish.

“…it is critical to understand that many of the same forces that allowed the Holocaust continue to exert themselves today.”

It is crucial to remember that the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. In fact, Holocaust historian Doris Bergen notes that approximately 95 percent of Germans at that time were baptized into the Christian faith. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the atrocities.4

The conclusion that religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Haynes draws is that,

“[A]lthough Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible… [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”5

Put simply, the history of Holocaust testifies to a glaring failure of Christian love.

The Psychology of Holocaust Perpetrators

When trying to understand why other people engage in heinous acts of various kinds, it is common to focus on explanations that distinguish “us” vs. “them.” For instance, when trying to explain how individuals could have engaged in Holocaust atrocities, a common reaction is to distance ourselves, reassured by the simplistic idea that “they” must have been “evil” beings ravaged by hatred. This becomes more difficult for contemporary Christians to do when they realize that many Holocaust perpetrators were Christian in at least some significant sense.

To gain real insight, it is critical to understand that many of the same forces that allowed the Holocaust continue to exert themselves today—in the world, in the Christian Church, and in our selves.

Scratch marks line the interior of gas chambers found at the death camps.

Indeed, most analyses of Holocaust behavior conclude that it wasn’t pure “evil” or hatred that can explain what actually happened. If there is any one attitude that characterized perpetrators’ attitudes toward victims, it was indifference.6

This raises many disturbing and challenging questions. For example, how could the Christian Church fail so dramatically in love, often contributing attitudes and actions that contributed to indifference, prejudice, and murder? How should Christians respond to the Holocaust? Finally, how can the Christian Church deepen its faith and love, to be able to treat diverse neighbors in need as Jesus role modelled and taught?

To honor those who suffered, we must wrestle with, pray about, and discuss these kinds of difficult questions.

Miroslav Volf on “Thick vs. Thin” Christianity

Miroslav Volf, Theology Professor and Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, was raised amidst ethnic and religious conflict in Communist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. He witnessed mass prejudice and violence perpetrated by fellow Christians in ways reminiscent of the Holocaust. Volf has spent much of his life trying to understand how religion—Christianity, in particular—can promote mass prejudice and violence.

To make sense of this, Volf distinguishes between “thin” religion and “thick” religion. “Thin” religion, according to Volf, involves a misconstrued, superficial, vague, and formulaic kind of faith that selfishly serves “primarily to energize and heal”; it often is influenced by factors outside of the faith itself, including national or economic interests. In contrast, “thick” religion “maps a way of life” and connects with an “ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and history. . . with clear cognitive and moral content.” Ultimately, “thick” religion connects deeply with a sacred text which, properly understood, encourages love of one’s neighbor, no matter what that neighbor’s background may be.

"We German Christians are the first trenchline of National Socialism… To live, fight, and die for Adolf Hitler means to say yes to the path of Christ." (Ludwig Müller, German theologian and imposed "Reich Bishop")

Volf concludes that: “‘Thin’ but zealous practice of the Christian faith is likely to foster violence; ‘thick’ and committed practice will help generate and sustain a culture of peace.”7

Psychological research supports Volf’s conclusion. Based on a distinction originally made by Gordon Allport between “extrinsic” religiousness and “intrinsic” religiousness, decades of studies reveal that faith motivated by secondary gain is associated with greater prejudice, while faith motivated by sincere belief is associated with less prejudice.8

Based on this, it seems that much of the “Christianity” practiced during the Holocaust likely was quite “thin,” motivated mostly by national, economic, and self-interests. Indeed, Nazism and Christianity sometimes were merged during the Holocaust in dramatically twisted ways. Ludwig Müller is an example of one prominent clergy member who advocated for such integration, including the removal of all Jewish connections with Christianity, ultimately leading Hitler to appoint him as bishop of the official Reich church. As Müller stated, “We German Christians are the first trenchline of National Socialism… To live, fight, and die for Adolf Hitler means to say yes to the path of Christ.”9

A “thicker” Christianity would have drawn more deeply from Scripture and tradition to bear witness to a countercultural love of neighbor, despite differences in background and in spite of possible threat of harm. This kind of behavior is, after all, what Jesus exemplified and taught.

Indifference and Dehumanization

One particular factor that contributed to the indifference individuals had toward the victims of the Holocaust was a powerful “ingroup bias.” It actually is quite common for we humans to regard members of our group and those who belong to it as better than others outside our group. During the Holocaust, this bias went to an extreme, ultimately resulting in the perception of Jews and others as less than human—falling outside the realm of humanity, and thus losing the dignity afforded by membership in the human family.

“They Were Cargo”: The Moral Erosion of Franz Stangl

Gitta Sereny interviews Franz Stangl in 1970, shortly after his arrest in Brazil.

The case of Franz Stangl is illustrative. Stangl worked at the T4 euthanasia program in Berlin before becoming Commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, overseeing the deaths of approximately 1,000,000 people. Raised Catholic, a key moment in Stangl’s moral erosion came when he signed a card signifying that he relinquished allegiance to the Catholic Church (but not to God). He was the only Commandant of a camp brought to trial, and ultimately was sentenced to a life sentence in prison.

While in prison, Stangl agreed to a series of interviews with journalist Gitta Sereny. In a key exchange during one of these interviews, Sereny asked Stangl about whether he felt the Jews weren’t really human.

Stangl replied:

“When I was on a trip once, years later in Brazil… my train stopped next to a slaughterhouse. The cattle in the pens, hearing the noise of the train, trotted up to the fence and stared at the train. They were very close to my window, one crowded the other, looking at me through that fence. I thought then, ‘Look at this; this reminds me of Poland; that’s just how the people looked…”

Sereny followed up by asking:

“So you didn’t feel they were human beings?”

Stangl answered:

“Cargo. . . they were cargo.”10

Obviously, to the extent that Stangl retained any kind of belief in God and Christ, this demonstrates a very “thin” kind of Christian religiousness. “Thick” Christian faith includes a recognition of shared humanity and a sense that each person, irrespective of belief, race, or social class, has a Divine “spark,” stemming from the reality that they also were made in God’s image.

"My conscience was clear. I was simply doing my duty..." (Franz Stangl, SS Commandant over Sobibór and Treblinka)

The Bystander Effect

Whereas some Christians actively perpetrated the atrocities of the Holocaust, others merely stood by. When the Nazi regime started gaining power, most Catholic and Protestant church leaders did little to resist. This is an instance of what social psychologists call “the bystander effect.” Research on the bystander effect suggests that such behavior, at least in part, is explained by the human tendency to diffuse responsibility to others during difficult circumstances. Along with this, psychological research suggests that the bystander effect is more likely to occur when individuals engage in “pluralistic ignorance,” where a majority of people might privately reject some idea (in this case, the idea that Jews aren’t human) but incorrectly assume everyone else accepts that idea, so they go along with the crowd. Some explain this as a state in which,

“No one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.”

It’s the belief that since others around me do not seem to be concerned, there is no reason for me to actively resist.11

Franz Stangl again provides an illustration. When he was appointed to a post in the T4 euthanasia program, Stangl wasn’t sure about participating. However, when he heard that a prominent Catholic scholar said that the Church didn’t necessarily disagree with the program, that there always had been a debate about euthanasia, Stangl consented to his involvement.1

Standing Up with Thick Faith

If the leaders of the Christian Church had “stood up” to Nazism—if large numbers of the Christian faithful in general would have “stood up”—history likely would be significantly different today. Indeed, “standing up” to oppression of various kinds is a key aspect of “thick” faith.

There were Christian individuals and groups that did “stand up” in heroic fashion. These are often considered “righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust.” Researchers have tried to understand what factors predicted who rescued those in harm’s way during the Holocaust. Some reasons are instructive, and include having a close relationship with someone in need of help, seeking to obey Biblical teachings about love and, in a dramatic reversal of historical anti-Semitic views, feeling a spiritual kinship with those of Jewish faith.13

Unfortunately, these individuals and groups represented a minority of the Christian Church. [You can read some of the encouraging stories of these few righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust in David Gushee’s Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust; also see Weapons of the Spirit. –Ed.]

Post-Holocaust Christianity

Ever since the fact of the Holocaust came to light, the Christian Church has wrestled with how to come to terms with what occurred and how to respond accordingly. It seems wise to begin by acknowledging the transgressions that took place, to confess them as sins, and to try to address the problems in Christianity that they revealed.

Nostra Aetate

Some progress has been made in the post-Holocaust Church, at least in formal declarations that have been released. The best example occurred fifty years ago when, as a part of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church released Nostra Aetate. Although the Council did not directly mention the Holocaust, it did explicitly acknowledge that Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, and that Jews alive today shouldn’t bear any guilt for the crucifixion, thereby correcting one of the key historical underpinnings of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, it presented a vision of the historical and spiritual connection between Jews and Christians, with Jesus, his mother, and the apostles all being prime examples of individuals who expressed their Jewishness at various points in life.

“The cure against Christian violence is not less of the Christian faith, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more of the Christian faith.” (Miroslav Volf)

More broadly, it condemned, “as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against [people] or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.” Noting that “whoever does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8), the declaration concludes by imploring the Christian faithful to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) so that they truly may be “children of their Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45).14

Whether or not the Christian Church truly has learned these lessons to the point of widespread application is an open question. The challenge to love individuals across different beliefs, races, and social classes still is overwhelmingly evident in many Christian circles.

Less Christianity or Better Christianity?

It is common for critics of religion—for example, so-called “New Atheists”—to point out how religion is one of the great causes of mass prejudice and violence. If only we could eliminate religion, they often say, the world would be better off.

Rather than being defensive, the Church would do well to humbly remember the prejudice and violence that it has perpetuated and prayerfully seek to apply lessons learned today. We don’t need to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Instead, we can learn to draw more deeply from Scripture and tradition in ways that nurture seeds of Christlike love, justice, and peace.

As Miroslav Volf concludes:

“The cure against Christian violence is not less of the Christian faith, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more of the Christian faith. I don’t mean, of course, that the cure against violence lies in increased religious zeal; blind religious zeal is part of the problem. Instead, it lies in stronger and more intelligent commitment to the Christian faith as faith.”15