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Old Testament, New Hatreds: The Hebrew Bible and Antisemitism in Nazi Germany

Article reproduced from: Sacred Text, Secular Times: The Hebrew Bible in the Modern World, Leonard J. Greenspoon, and Bryan F. LeBeau, eds. Creighton University Press: Omaha, Nebraska, 2000. Permission granted by Creighton University Press.

By Doris L. Bergen
Department of History, Notre Dame

    The role of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust is more contested than ever these days. On the one hand, Daniel Goldhagen insists on a specifically German, “eliminationist” variety of anti-Semitism that motivated the perpetrators and caused the Holocaust. At the same time, Henry Friedlander's work on the origins of Nazi genocide and the murder of those deemed handicapped pushes anti-Semitism to the margins. When viewed in the context of what Sybil Milton has called "the Nazi quest for a biologically homogeneous society," “Jewish suffering appears as just one part of an assault that targeted people considered handicapped, Gypsies, and Jews for sterilization, deportation, and annihilation.” Is there a way to reconcile key aspects of these positions? Is it possible to acknowledge, as Goldhagen does, the particular zeal with which the Nazis and their accomplices pursued Jews and at the same time to recognize, as Friedlander and Milton do, that murdering Jews was part of a larger program in which the Nazis' victims were connected in significant ways?

    The answer, I believe, is yes. But to find the common ground, it is necessary to pay more attention to religion than is often the case in studies of the Holocaust. It is not religion in the narrow, doctrinal sense that is crucial here, but religion in its varied cultural manifestations. Some recent works emphasize the importance of Christian prejudices against Jews in laying the foundations for the Shoah [Holocaust]. Donald Niewyk and others have shown how, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, "new" racial forms of hatred built on top of and drew from “old” religious hostilities. But exactly how did Christian anti-Jewishness and secular, genocidal hatreds connect? After all, many top Nazis like Hitler and Martin Bormann, ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg, and “ordinary” German perpetrators among the SS, Einsatzgruppen, and camp guards were not practicing Christians; indeed, some were openly hostile and perceived Christianity as a devious extension of Judaism.

    Paradoxically, one link between the old religious anti-Judaism and the new "racial" anti-Semitism was the Bible. Even secular, anti-Christian ideologues in Germany belonged to a culture steeped in the stories, language, and images of the Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments. Biblical allusions, sometimes distorted and watered down but nevertheless identifiable, formed part of the shared legacy to which Nazi propaganda appealed and part of the culture with which its specific stereotypes resonated. Attention to biblical influences points to something unique about the Nazi murder of the Jews. Of the groups targeted by the Nazis for persecution and destruction, only Jews could be linked so closely to the force of religious tradition. Only in the case of Jews could religious distinctions masquerade as racial ones, which they did in the Nuremberg Laws. In Nazi Germany, it was the religion of one's grandparents, not some putatively racial distinctions of blood or physical appearance, that determined who counted as a Jew.

    But if attention to biblical echoes lends credence to claims of uniqueness, it also suggests ways that the murder of Jews was linked to the Nazis’ broader genocidal project. Popular sources for stereotypes of Jews, Gypsies, and people considered handicapped differed, but in each case attacks drew on established hatreds and used familiar cultural codes. And those prejudices connected and reinforced each other in vicious ways. European folklore did not accuse Gypsies of killing Jesus, but it charged them with forging the nails that pierced his flesh. Images of deformity and parasitism served propagandistic purposes against the handicapped, but they could also be transferred to purported racial enemies: Gypsies and Jews. And the centuries-old paranoia about homeless, predatory outsiders could be mobilized against both those groups as well.

    So a look at biblical allusions in Nazi anti-Semitism can help us identify what was unique to the Shoah while recognizing its place in the wider Nazi program of race, space, and murder. It can also alert us to both the cultural rootedness and the arbitrariness of the process by which ideologues and practitioners of genocide selected and defined their victims. Nazi Germans may have "constructed" their targets as outsiders, but they did so with the tools that their culture--their religion, education, literature, folklore, and history--placed at their disposal.

    Where do we see biblical traces in the Nazi assault on Jews and what functions did such references serve? One key use of the Bible was in defining Jews, giving names and content to what turned out to be a rather abstract category. Nazi propaganda notwithstanding, it was not possible to identify Jews by their physical properties, attitudes, or even necessarily their names. The project of identification and isolation needed new markers. Accordingly, a 1938 German regulation required those defined by the Nuremberg Laws as Jews to take on another name if their given names were not sufficiently "Jewish." Women were to add Sara, men Israel.

    Why those names? Drawn from the Old Testament stories of matriarchs and patriarchs, they were familiar to German gentiles with even the most rudimentary religious education. Presumably, unlike some Old Testament names, they were not common among Christians in Germany. But why choose biblical names at all? The authorities might simply have imposed "names" like "Jew" and "Jewess." Such an approach, however, would have lacked the legitimacy that biblical names implied. Non-Jewish Germans could imagine that they were merely asserting historical and religious truths rather than creating arbitrary lines of demarcation between themselves and their neighbors. Moreover, in the context of Nazi measures against Jews, those biblical names took on a brutal irony: Sara, mother of a people? Israel, founder of a nation? Indeed. Hitler's repeated references in Mein Kampf to Jews as the "Chosen People" echo that mockery.

    In a situation where many German gentiles had limited contact with Jews or where those Jews they did know bore little resemblance to the images Nazi propaganda disseminated, biblical characters may have seemed more real than actual Jews. Thus biblical terms could serve as labels for Jews as a whole: "Hebrews" or "Judah" functioned as synonyms for "the Jew"; Frankfurt am Main and Berlin became "little Jerusalems." In turn, enterprising anti-Semites could express their hatred through attacks on Old Testament names and symbols as well as through aggression against living Jews. Jurgen Stroop, the SS commander who crushed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 and oversaw the deportation and murder of those Jews remaining there, began his career as Joseph Stroop, a member of the Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz (the ethnic German militia) in Poland. He changed his name because Joseph sounded "too Jewish." Members of the pro-Nazi German Christian movement within Protestant church equated their attack on the Old Testament with an assault on Jews in their own society. Established in 1939, their Institute for Investigation and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life offered a theological pillar to the genocidal project. Even pastors could be heroes in a battle where the enemy was a passage from the Old Testament.

    Whether the context was secular or religious, biblical allusions in the Third Reich were rarely neutral. They bound Jews to negative stereotypes based on accounts, retold and retooled, from the Bible. In the hands of German gentiles, the stories of the golden calf and the money changers in the temple turned into illustrations of "Jewish materialism." Cain became the accursed, wandering Jew. The gospels, especially John, provided antisemitic vocabulary and images that were by no means reserved for professing Christians. Secular Nazis and neopagans too called Jews "whitewashed sepulchers," "vipers," and "Pharisees."

    Use of such images joined decidedly anti-Christian voices with others from within the churches. Alfred Rosenberg dubbed the Old Testament a collection of "stories of pimps and cattle traders"; but the high school religion teacher and German Christian agitator Reinhold Krause earned "sustained applause" in November, 1933, when he repeated that phrase at a rally of twenty thousand people. Like Rosenberg, Krause viewed "liberation from the Old Testament" as part of the current assault on Jews in Germany: "If we National Socialists are ashamed to buy a tie from a Jew," he told his audience, "how much more should we be ashamed to accept from the Jew anything that speaks to our soul, to our most intimate religious essence?"

    In Nazi Germany, the story of Jesus's crucifixion provided a meeting point for all kinds of hatreds, religious and secular. Germans from Martin Niemoller to Hitler and Bormann pointed to the gospel accounts as evidence of Jewish perfidy in their own times. A 1939 flyer of the German Christian movement numbered "destructive Jews" in their own age among “the same Jewish criminal people who nailed Christ to the cross!” As an example they pointed to Herschel Grynszpan, a young Jew who shot a German consular official in Paris to protest the deportation of his parents and other Polish Jews living in Germany in the fall of 193 8. Goebbels seized on Grynszpan's action to launch the November, 1938, "Kristallnacht" pogrom. In the hands of anti-Semites, the Oberammergau Passion Play became a propaganda pageant with no need even to change the text. A noble Jesus, villainous Pharisees, and treacherous Judas fitted perfectly into an allegory of modem-day "Aryans" and Jews.

    Biblical images were powerful weapons because they were so deeply embedded in German culture. But that same familiarity also led German gentiles to appropriate Bible stories in asserting their own claims to superiority. In doing so, they often showed resentment that the Jews had been God's first favorites, that they had occupied the center of a story whose focus Christian Germans longed to be. Thus Hitler's derision of the Jewish "Chosen People" revealed a claim that it was the "Aryan" Germans who really merited that title. And by the end of Mein Kampf, Hitler had seized the role. He and his people, he wrote, "have been chosen by Fate to be the witnesses of a catastrophe which will be the most powerful substantiation of the correctness of the folkish theory of race."

    Biblical appropriations were as likely to cast Christian Germany in Jewish as in gentile roles. In the 1930s, enthusiastic Protestant publicists likened Hitler's "deliverance" of Germany to the exodus from Egypt. A Nazi educational slide set included an image called "David and Goliath." It showed a stereotypically drawn "Jewish" David crouched naked and Neanderthal-like behind a bush. His opponent, the giant Goliath, loomed in Aryan splendor before him. And in one of the most famous speeches of his career, his address of 30 January 1939 to the German Reichstag, Hitler assumed the role of a Hebrew prophet, calling down destruction on a sinful Jewish people. His words echoed a theme common in anti-Jewish Christian literature of the 1930s and 1940s. The Old Testament, some of its defenders argued, was to be salvaged, not because it honored or glorified the Jews, but precisely because its prophets and punishments proved God's displeasure with those "hard-necked" people.

    Of course German culture had no monopoly on the Bible. A study of other European societies would doubtless reveal similar uses and abuses of biblical texts. Nevertheless, attention to biblical references suggests some ways that German anti-Semitism may have been unique. Probably no other culture shared the particular combination of a popular tradition steeped in biblical images and a theological legacy of scriptural liberalism. The Bible was a vital part of popular culture in some other communities as well, for example, among the Calvinists of the Netherlands and the Huguenots of France. But in those cases, fierce loyalty to the text and its authority could serve as a check on anti-Jewish (re)interpretations. In fact, associating the Old Testament with Jews could inspire rescue operations as it did for the Huguenots of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France. Pierre Sauvage's film, Weapons of the Spirit, shows how some of the villagers even referred to the Jews they sheltered as “Old Testaments”. Like Nazi Germans, those French Protestants perceived a link between the Hebrew Bible and living Jews. But in contrast to the Germans, they understood that connection as a call to solidarity. Would they have done the same for Gypsies?

    In Germany one finds little if any evidence of rescue impulses based on attachment to the Old Testament. Indeed many Christians in Germany seemed willing to abandon or at least pick and choose from their scriptures. Those tendencies had roots in German theological traditions. Martin Luther, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Adolf von Harnack, arguably the most influential Protestant theologians in Germany before Karl Barth, had all contributed to that end. German revisionists of the Old Testament often cited Luther as an authority on how to separate its "gold and jewels" from the "litter, stubble, and straw" it contained. Christian defenders of the Old Testament argued its merits as an anti-Jewish text. Leaders of the Confessing Church, the camp within German Protestantism committed to preserving some sphere of ecclesiastical independence from encroachment of Nazi state power, also practiced biblical anti-Judaism and, as Uriel Tal has shown, criticized the pro-Nazi German Christians and racist neopagans by comparing them to Jews. Even Christians engaged in helping Jews and so-called non-Aryans retained anti-Jewish readings of biblical texts. In After Auschwitz, Richard Rubenstein describes his 1961 meeting with Heinrich Gruber, a prominent Protestant churchman whose work on behalf of German Jews and Christians of Jewish background had landed him in Dachau. When Rubenstein asked whether the murder of the Jews had been God's will, Gruber read from Psalm 44:22: “For Thy sake are we slaughtered every day.” Like Nebuchadnezzar and other "rods" of divine anger, he insisted, Hitler had been sent by God to smite His people.

    Biblical references resonated in Germany because they were familiar. Germans heard them taught at home and preached from the pulpit. As late as 1940, after years of Nazi propaganda deriding Christian institutions, over ninety-five percent of Germans still remained taxpaying members of a church. Proverbs and sayings brought the Bible into everyday language, and children learned Bible stories in school. In fact, one German worker's memoir from 1918 complained that he had been taught little else. His education, he contended, had equipped him only to “join a nomadic tribe of the ancient Hebraic sort.” Biblical notions reconciled easily with popular stereotypes of Jews. The idea of the chosen people connected to paranoia about a Jewish world conspiracy; Jacob's purchase of his brother's birthright for “a mess of pottage” fit in with notions of Jewish trickery; accusations that Jews had crucified Jesus dovetailed with the popular stab-in-the-back myth that blamed treacherous Jews for the loss of the war in 1918. Bible stories helped make the fantastic and often contradictory claims of Nazi propaganda against Jews seem familiar.

    What can we conclude from this look at the uses of the Bible in German anti-Semitism? The legacy of Christian anti-Judaism, as well as its residue in the form of anti-Jewish biblical images, made Jews even more vulnerable than racial ideology alone would have. Within Germany, church leaders spearheaded a protest to the killing of those deemed handicapped. Many of those same men remained silent on the subject of the Jews. Biblical allusions and religious prejudices gave a metaphysical dimension to Jew-hatred. In Nazi eyes, Jews were devils, the embodiment of evil. Already in the 1940s, Joshua Trachtenberg explored the powerful parallels between Nazi stereotypes and medieval religious visions of Jews. Wolfgang Gerlach and others have pointed out the challenge to Christian theology of an analysis of Nazi anti-Semitism that takes seriously its religious components.

    A focus on the Bible reveals some significant meshing of religious anti-Jewishness and secular anti-Semitism in the Third Reich. But attention to biblical references also hints at commonalities between the Nazi attack on Jews and other genocides. All drew on the culture around them, mobilizing and manipulating old and new tools in the service of murder. Anti-Gypsy images in poetry and folklore dated back to the middle ages; superstitious as well as scientific stereotypes haunted those considered deformed; popular literary, religious, and scholarly sources underpinned homophobia, anti-Slavism, and racism against Afro-Europeans. Awareness of the shared and distinct sources of prejudice allows us to see Nazi crimes as an interlocking system of specific assaults. Perhaps it can also alert us to cultural factors in contemporary hatreds. The tradition of warrior ballads in the Balkans is just one example. The ubiquitousness of cultural references suggests that even mass killers need to rationalize their actions, to cast them in familiar terms. Even murderers and brutes want God—or at least tradition—on their side.

Any study of the cultural contexts of genocide reveals how little we understand about the actual causes of intergroup hostility. Too often our explanations extend only as far as identifying some purported racial, ethnic, or religious difference. In doing so, as Gavin Langmuir has pointed out, we risk committing the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the error of mistaking a very abstract construction for a concrete fact or phenomenon of nature.” That is, if we are not careful, we buy into the same arbitrary distinctions that fueled the perpetrators’ own endeavors.

For bibliography and notes for this article see: Leonard J. Greenspoon, and Bryan F. LeBeau, eds. Sacred Text, Secular Times: The Hebrew Bible in the Modern World. Creighton University Press: Omaha. Nebraska, 2000, 35-46. For reproduction rights on this article, please contact Creighton University Press