Christianity’s Role in the Holocaust


by Shoshana Koff


The purpose of this guide is to explore the relations between Nazis, Jews, and Christians in the Holocaust. I want to examine different perspectives of how these groups interacted and influenced each other. It is a widely held belief that the Church did not aid Hitler’s regime and were innocent bystanders. Others say that the Church indirectly contributed to Hitler’s agenda with their anti-Jewish doctrines. The Jews, however, were victimized by both groups, and I will compare the methods used. I will start by giving a broad history of how anti-Semitism began and grew until the Holocaust. This will establish the setting and give necessary background information for the reasons behind anti-Judaism and eventually anti-Semitism. I will also discuss Christian authorities’ reactions to the Holocaust and how they reacted to accusations of blame. This topic is important because it explores how the people of a major religion abandoned the most basic teachings and morals of that religion. My sources speculate why this occurred, but they are ultimately just speculation. Through my research I will compile both modern and primary sources that illustrate the views of these different groups.

*Sources used in multiple sections, but different chapters used

History of Anti-Semitism


Anti-Semitism as a term to describe hatred of Jews was not used until the second half of the nineteenth century, but a bias against Jews had existed for thousands of years. This resentment of the Jews as a people can be traced back to theological roots as well as practical concerns in early Europe. The most significant and accepted origin of anti-Judaism is the death of Jesus. Jews were branded as the murderers of Christ and Jesus’ followers developed a deep hatred of them. This undertone to Christianity endured over time and became an inherent facet of the religion. Later, when Jews attempted to assimilate into European societies, they faced strong discrimination and resistance. Other citizens viewed them as economic competition. In addition, negative stereotypes evolved about the Jews in relation to their association with moneylending. Christian anti-Jewish ideals influenced Hitler during the Holocaust and helped him rally the citizenry against the Jews.

  • Charlesworth, James H. Jews and Christians : exploring the past, present, and future. New York: Crossroad, 1990.
    • I will use primarily the first two chapters of this book to introduce the beginnings of Jewish-Christian relations. It draws from biblical examples and life in early European countries. The book gives a broad overview of the topics, but this will be sufficient for my purpose because I am not heavily focusing on these time periods. I primarily need the information to establish the setting for the Holocaust.
  • Cohen, Shayne J.D. “The ways that parted: Jews, Christians, and Jewish-Christians ca. 100-150 CE.” Harvard University DASH (2013). Accessed November 11, 2013.
    • Cohen’s article compares and contrasts the Jewish and Christian traditions, and it explains how they eventually diverged into two entirely separate communities. He emphasizes the irony of how similar they were initially, but the Christians created ways to differentiate themselves as a separate religion. I will use the material as more historical framework for the anti-Judaism that would develop.
  • *Davies, Alan T. Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind.  New York: Herder and Herder, 1969
    • This book provides a more modern description of anti-Semitism that deals with issues in everyday life in Europe. Jews were scapegoats for anything that went wrong in society, which prevented them from advancing in social class and narrowed their options for employment. As Jews integrated more into European society, hatred became more widespread and accepted. I will use this information to show how these forms of anti-Semitism deepened the divide and allowed for the acceptance of the Holocaust.
  • Oberman, Heiko A. The Roots of Anti-Semitism. Translated by James I. Porter. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
    • Oberman’s book addresses the spread of anti-Semitism among scholars in the Reformation, like Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Reuchlin. They were seen as credible sources to the public for their scholastic achievements, so even non-religious people could support their views. During this time, printing was invented and allowed information to be disseminated across larger regions. This was instrumental in spreading anti-Semitic propaganda. I will use this book to examine a sphere of life separate from religion but how it also contributes to the spread of anti-Semitism.

During the Holocaust


Over the course of the Holocaust, very few people, let alone groups, came to the aid of the Jews. Christians have received harsh criticism for their apathy, considering how their religion advocates a strong sense of morality and compassion for all. Although the churches did not directly support Hitler, their decision to do nothing does not free them of guilt. If a formidable group had actively opposed Hitler, they may have had a chance to defeat his regime. However, it was easier to act among the masses and not cause controversy. Essentially, the church was scared into passivity. While the church did nothing, Hitler manipulated Christian doctrines to serve his anti-Jewish policies. The sources in this section provide general information about the Holocaust and debate whether Christians were to blame for the Jews’ plight.

  • Bergen, Doris L. “Nazism and Christianity: Partners and Rivals? A Response to Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich. Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945.” Journal of Contemporary History 42 (2007): 25-33. Accessed November 16, 2013. doi: 10.I177/0022009407071629
    • Bergen responds to Steigman-Gall’s work that clarifies how Christianity had personal and institutional ties to Nazism. Before his work, the general belief was that there was no connection between the groups. Bergen begins by giving an overview of his argument, and then she critiques his assertions. She presents a more nuanced, complicated interpretation. Her article gives me multiple examples of how Hitler and the Nazis manipulate Christianity to further their movement.
  • *Davies, Alan T. Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.
    • In addition to pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism history, this book details how Christians acted during the Holocaust and their role with Hitler. Davies claims that the Christians as a group did not actively support the Nazis, but their ideals were used in Hitler’s indoctrination. He weighs both sides of the argument to delineate how involved the Christians were in bringing about the Holocaust. As he demonstrates, it is difficult to clearly define their role as a unit, but he claims that they are not completely faultless. This information will be useful to understanding how Christians responded to Nazi aggression and to what extent they are to blame.
  • Efron, John, Joshua Holo, Matthias Lehmann, and Steven Weitzman. The Jews: A History. 374-404. New Jersey: Pearson Education,2009.
    • Chapter 14 of this textbook provides an overview of the Holocaust. Although it does not focus primarily on Nazi-Christian relations, it has significant information about the Holocaust that contributes to a broader understanding of the events during that time. I like the overview in this textbook because it does not go into an extensive, in-depth history and is easy to read.
  • Littell, Franklin H. “Inventing the Holocaust: A Christian’s Retrospective.” HeinOnline
    • This article details the timeline of Christians’ involvement in the Holocaust. It does not generalize them as a group but rather goes more in depth regarding their various responses. Some aided the Nazis, most were passive bystanders, and very few were saviors. Littell makes an important point that it is dangerous to limit the perspective of the Holocaust to solely the Jews. I will use this source to introduce the Christian perspective.
  • *Rittner, Carol, Stephen D. Smith and Irena Steinfeldt. The Holocaust and the Christian World. 1-78. New York: Continuum, 2000.
    • The first half of this book focuses on the Holocaust and I will mostly use sections four and five, titled “The Churches and Nazi Persecution” and “The Reaction of the Churches in Nazi-Occupied Europe.” These sections provide additional information about churches’ response across Europe.
  • Spicer, Kevin A. Anti-Semitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust. Illinois: Indiana University Press, 2007.
    • This source incorporates information about all three parties: Jews, Christians, and Nazis. It also uses compares different European countries and their varying situations. There are sections of the book that address certain significant events, such as the Danish Lutheran Church, the Spanish Civil War, the German Protestant Church, and German Catholic theology. These specific examples will be useful as support.

After the Holocaust


Following the end to Hitler’s reign and the rescue of the Jews, the rest of the world quickly jumped in to assign blame. Christianity as a whole became a major target because of their tense past with the Jews. Rather than accept how everyone who stood idly by was to blame, most groups shifted the attention away from themselves. The overwhelming response was disbelief that such evil could occur. People reacted this way to detach themselves from the situation and any chance of guilt. I have included more of the Jewish perspective because it does not exist substantially during the Holocaust. The sources here focus on multiple groups’ reactions to the Holocaust and some admit guilt in a diplomatic manner.

  • Peck, Abraham J. Jews and Christians after the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
    • This source focuses specifically on Jewish-Christian relations after the Holocaust. The Christians felt guilty for their part in originating anti-Jewish sentiments, but they would never admit their guilt. Instead, they rallied behind the Jews. I will utilize this source to illustrate the contrast between Jewish-Christian relations before and after the Holocaust.
  • *Rittner, Carol, Stephen D. Smith and Irena Steinfeldt. The Holocaust and the Christian World. 79-238 New York: Continuum, 2000.
    • The second half of this book details the various reactions from European Churches, ordinary citizens and the Vatican. While these groups did nothing during the Holocaust, they were quick to jump to the Jews’ defense immediately after. In addition, the authors speculate about the future, how these religious groups will learn from their mistakes, and the possibility of peacefully coexisting. This information will contribute to a discussion about Christianity’s direction after the Holocaust.
  • Yad Vashem. “Text of Pope John Paul II’s Speech at Yad Vashem 23/3/2000.” Accessed November 16, 2013.
    • The speech given by Pope John Paul II at Yad Vashem in 2000 is significant because it is one of the few times that a major religious figure directly addresses the Holocaust and sympathizes with the Jews. Although he does not admit any guilt for the Jews’ plight, he expresses genuine sorrow and pledges his support of the Jews in the future. This speech is more modern than my other examples, but it represents promise for the future and changing attitudes of Christians.