In his Nazi Germany and the Jews Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, Saul Friedlander gives an exhaustive account of relations between the Nazis and the Jews of Germany in the years prior to the Second World War.

Friedlander draws an important distinction between doctrinaire Nazi party members and the average German citizen. Overall, Friedlander concludes the average German was indifferent to the increasing persecution perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews between 1933 and 1939. The majority of Germans did not participate in violence against Jews, but few spoke out in any way against their mistreatment and most passively acquiesced.

One of the disturbing things for a Christian reading Friedlander’s story of mounting systemic oppression of Jews by the Nazis is that the attitude of the church seems to have been almost perfectly in step with society at large. While there were in the church small pockets of opposition to Nazi policies against the Jews, for the most part Christians were silent on the plight of the Jewish members of German society. In many cases the church actively cooperated with the growing marginalization of Jewish people.

On 1 April 1933, four months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Nazis decreed a boycott of Jewish owned businesses. Friedlander observes that this edict

was the first major test on a national scale of the attitude of the Christian churches toward the situation of the Jews under the new government. 

No church official spoke out against the boycott. Friedlander goes on,

In a radio address broadcast to the United States on April 4, 1933, the most prominent German Protestant clergyman, Bishop Otto Dibelius, justified the new regime’s actions, denying that there was any brutality even in the concentration camps and asserting that the boycott – which he called a reasonable defensive measure – took its course amid “calm and order.” His broadcast was no momentary aberration. A few days later Dibelius sent a confidential Easter message to all the pastors of his province: “My dear Brethren! WE all not only understand but are fully sympathetic to the recent motivations out of which the volkisch movement has emerged. Notwithstanding the evil sound that the term has frequently acquired, I have always considered myself an anti-Semite. One cannot ignore that Jewry has played a leading role in all the destructive manifestations of modern civilization. (p.42)

While it may be true that many Christians in Germany in the 1930’s might not have identified themselves as always having been antisemites, it remains equally true that few spoke out against the increasing horror being inflicted on their fellow Germans who happened to be Jews.

Sadly, the Christian response did not improve as it became increasingly impossible to ignore the horrors faced by German Jews.

Near the end of Volume I of his work, Friedlander tells the story of Christian run homes for persons diagnosed as “mentally ill”.

In the fall of 1938, when Tannenhof, an institution for mentally ill patients (belonging to the Evangelical Kaiserwerth Association) was formulating its new statutes, the board decided that they “must take into account the changed attitude of the German Volk to the race question by excluding admission of patients of Jewish origins“…. Other Evangelical institutions had already started practicing such selection several months earlier. (p. 329)

No doubt German Christians in the 1930’s read the same Bible Christians read today. They sang many of the same hymns we sin, celebrated the same rituals, and almost certainly spoke in high-minded tones about self-sacrificial love just as much as Christians do today. And yet, at a time when  self-sacrificial love was called for, the church in particular, and Christians in general were unable to embody the faith they professed.

What went wrong in the church? Is there anything to indicate today that in similar circumstances we who consider ourselves followers of the embodiment of love in Jesus might respond any better than our brother and sister German Christians in the 1930’s?

The relationship of Christians to German Jews in the years leading up to and during the Second World War  is a sobering challenge to Christians today to examine seriously the degree to which we live the faith we profess.