Why Did So Many Christians Not Fight to Stop the Nazis?

I remember when I was a child that there was one chore that I loathed, despised, hated above all others … dusting the furniture. It is still the same housekeeping task that I deplore doing and put off as long as possible – which is not a good thing if one lives in Texas – but that is another story for another day.

Anyway as a “tweener,” I would do whatever I could to put off dusting the furniture for as long as I could hoping that somehow and perhaps the “dust fairy” (i.e., mom would cave) would magically come and get the job done. Mom never caved and as I half-heartedly apologized while she supervised the dreaded chore, she would utter a very wise statement, “Don’t say you are sorry, show me you are sorry.” In other words, do your dusting when you are supposed to get it done!

We as Christians and churches could learn the same lesson as what my mom tried (and hopefully succeeded) in teaching me, “Don’t say it, show it.” For those Christians, churches and denominations who still hesitate in saying the words, I will try and do it for all of us … but in nice Christian language:

WE BLEW IT BIG TIME!

WE ROYALLY MESSED UP!

WE WERE AT BEST APATHETIC AND AT WORST ANTAGONISTIC WHEN THE JEWISH PEOPLE NEED US MOST!

MARTIN NIEMÖLLER – THE MAN WHO TRIED TO GET IT RIGHT … AND ALMOST ON TIME

Many people know Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) for his prayer of lament (poem) that first came to international attention in the 1950s that reflect a man considering in hindsight what the Nazi years were truly like.

FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE COMMUNISTS, AND I DID NOT SPEAK OUT—
BECAUSE I WAS NOT A COMMUNIST.
THEN THEY CAME FOR THE TRADE UNIONISTS, AND I DID NOT SPEAK OUT—
BECAUSE I WAS NOT A TRADE UNIONIST.
THEN THEY CAME FOR THE JEWS, AND I DID NOT SPEAK OUT—
BECAUSE I WAS NOT A JEW.
THEN THEY CAME FOR ME—AND THERE WAS NO ONE LEFT TO SPEAK FOR ME.

However, many do not know the story of religious, intellectual and personal progression that Martin Niemöller made during the years of Third Reich. Many do not know that he went from comfortable country squire/pastor to religious objector to political prisoner. Many do not know that the words of prayer of lament were not merely observational but indeed very, very personal.

A pastor’s son and a World War I soldier for Germany were crucible forces in Niemöller’s early life as both taught him the ideal of loyalty and allegiance; however, the days of the worldwide Great Depression which hit the Weimer Republic of Germany especially hard due to the slavish and unrelenting demands of the Treaty of Versailles tested not only Niemöller but all German people. Therefore, when an Austrian upstart named Adolf promised to return Germany to former glory it was a tempting narrative that initially swayed the new pastor in Westphalia. In fact, the German-loving Niemöller who voted for the Nazi Party definitely in 1924 and perhaps as late as 1933, was among a group of clergy that met with Hitler in the early 1930s to see the failed artist could restore morality to the nation.

However, and unlike Gerhard Kittel, Bishop Muller and countless others, Pastor Niemöller soon saw through the gilded veneer and joined with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in opposition to the Aryan Paragraph was a central figure in the creation of the German Confessing Church until his arrest by the Gestapo in 1937.

The war hero, short-term Nazi, but most known as the pastor who once stated in a sermon,

“Obedience to this church government [the Third Reich] is disobedience to God.”

would spent the next eight years of his life in a series of prisons and concentration camps until his release from Dachau in 1945.

Now Explore Messiah…? and Tzedakah Ministries’ could have used any number of individuals other than Pastor Martin Niemöller to tell the story of someone who did the right thing and fought the Nazis. Individuals who don’t have the checkered past of the Lutheran/Confessing Church pastor; however, Niemöller was chosen specifically because of his spotty record because he represents the vast number of Germans who lived in Germany in the pre-World War II days.

A decent sort of individual who was put out by the onerous burdens of the Treaty of Versailles who was seeking for answers to the burden of their lives. Someone who wanted a leader who would direct the governmental ship back to shore and restore German pride. A person who did not have the prestigious lineage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer but who had served his country and “longed for the good old days” when Germany still had some pride and standing in the world. A man who loved his wife, his God and his children. This was every German who kept silent and this was Martin Niemöller who spoke out. I don’t know why more did not follow the example of the simple parson – the world would look much better today if they did and I am again sorry for the lack of courage that were displayed by “good folks who did nothing.”

“… I am physically and spiritually well; what is to become of me is in God’s hand and does not cause me concern any longer, and I do not worry about it anymore either. For us the path is clear: ‘Preach the word, hold fast, be it the right time or the wrong time.’” (Moabit Prison—10 February 1938)

Sources:

Lawson, Tom. “Constructing a Christian History of Nazism.” History and Memory vol. 16, issue 1 (Spring 2004): 146-76.

Locke, Hubert G., ed. Exile in the Fatherland: Martin Niemöller’s Letters from Moabit Prison. Translated by Ernst Kaernke et al. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986.

Miller, Basil. Martin Niemöller: Hero of the Concentration Camp. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1952.

Mottu, Henry. “In Memoriam: Martin Niemoller (1892-1984).” Mid-Stream (1984): 417-20.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Martin Niemöller.” https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391.

WHY WEREN’T THERE MORE RIGHTEOUS GENTILES WHEN THEY WERE NEEDED MOST?

“Whoever saves a life, saves a world entire.” Talmud

The scene that grips my soul from Schindler’s List is towards the end of the movie when Oskar Schindler is given the ring with this inscription engraved inside from the people on “His List.” He chokes up and begins to repeat a simple phrase, “I could have done more. I could have done more.” Honestly, I don’t make it through that scene without crying and I have seen the movie several times.

Why? Because there should have been more European Christians and European churches who considered the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and lived them out instead of hiding behind the relative safety of their closed doors and locked windows.

“Only he who cries out for the Jews, may sing Gregorian chants.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Christian theologian David Gushee writes in his seminal work, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, that the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” would not have been possible without both the passive acceptance and active participation of the local populace. In other words, it wasn’t that the “good church people” of the towns were bystanders to what was happening … they were as often or not activists in the activity of killing or turning in their Jewish neighbors.

Yes, the Nazis/Gestapo were very adept at utilizing fear tactics to turn “good” people into bystanders and statues. However, this does not explain why Gushee goes on to give the number of only 100,000 Righteous Gentiles during the war years. If Schindler could have done more, then surely there were more than 100,000 Gregorian chant singers in Europe from 1939 to 1945.

Here are three that are worth mentioning and perhaps you have never heard of them.

COUNT ANDREY SZEPTYCKI

Unlike Pope Pius XII whose relative silence during the Shoah still creates controversy that the Vatican still cannot overcome, the actions of the Metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church during World War II faces only one debate for his actions – does he or does he not belong in Yad Vashem despite that the fact that he personally saved more than one hundred Jewish lives, including 21 in the Lvov Cathedral, and openly ordered Greek Catholic priests to preach against the murder of Ukrainian Jews.

Why? Because he like Martin Niemöller was a nationalist who at first saw the Communists as a greater evil than the Nazi invaders. This is the struggle that Yad Vashem faces yearly as the Ukrainian survivors who owe their lives to Archbishop continue to plead their case for his inclusion into the forest of heroes.

Did this church leader do enough? Perhaps not. Did he do more than Pius XII? Definitely. Does he belong within the confines of Yad Vashem? Who knows but there are generations of Jewish people alive because of what he did and his view that no one is lesser in the sight of God.

PASTOR ANDRE TROCME AND THE CITIZENS OF LE CHAMBON

As the leader of a small French group of Reformed Hugenots in a small village and himself a pacifist, Pastor Trocme perhaps could not have imagined that his family and church would become of the leading underground centers for Jews in France. However, by the end of the war more between 2,500 to 3,500 French Jews were rescued through the network of LeChambon and other neighboring villages. For their actions, the citizens of the city of LeChambon and the family Trocme were recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem.

Pastor Trocme and his assistant were arrested and warned to stop their activities but they refused. His nephew was murdered at Majdanek but still they continued because according to Trocme every person was precious in God’s eyes. He additionally wrote after the war in his work, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution: “The church, if unfaithful, is no longer compared to the widow suffering injustice, but to the salt of the earth that has lost its savor and is, therefore, responsible for the corruption of the world.” He also wrote the following in 1940 that should be remembered…

“We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel.” (May 1940 – after the German invasion of France)

ZOFIA KOSSAK-SZCZUCKA AND ZEGOTA

Life would be much easier if Explore Messiah…? could find a perfect example of a “Righteous Gentile.” The perfect example would be one who was “Righteous” for idealistic, altruistic reasons but as Joey and Phoebe on “Friends” acknowledged long ago – “there is no selfless good deed” – except in the one that Jesus did for humanity on the cross. (For a Joey/Phoebe memory — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DowJfUmlzeI).

This is never more true than the “Righteous Gentile” story of the Polish organization Zegota and the powerful woman Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. The organization and the woman were both proud Catholic and Polish in origin which lent itself to more than a trace than anti-Semitic attitudes towards the Jewish people. In fact, in her pamphlet Protest protesting the destruction of Warsaw’s Jewry, Kossak-Szczucka wrote the following: “We Catholic Poles, form our voice. Our feelings toward Jews have not changed. We do not stop thinking about them as political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland. Moreover we do realize, that they still hate us more than Germans, that they make us co-responsible for their misfortune. Why? On which basis? It remains the secret of the Jewish soul. Nevertheless, that is a fact that is continuously confirmed. Awareness of those feelings, doesn’t relieve us from the duty to condemn the crime.”

Ouch. Yes, she was anti-Semitic which was not unusual for many if not most Polish Catholics of her time; however, she pushed aside those feelings for the greater good of humanity because she also wrote in the same pamphlet: “Dying Jews are surrounded only by Pilates washing their hands. Silence shouldn’t be tolerated anymore. If for no other reason — it is mean. Those who are silent in the face of murder – become partners of the killer. Those who do not condemn – approve… We don’t want to be Pilates. We have no power to actively prevent German murders, we cannot help, we cannot save anyone, but we protest from the bottom of our hearts overwhelmed with mercy, fury and horror. We are required by God to protest. God who forbids us to kill. We are required by out Christian consciousness. Every human being has the right to be loved by his fellowmen. Blood of the defenseless cries to heaven for revenge. Those who oppose our protest – are not Catholics.” Talk about a riddle wrapped inside a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma!

Additionally, Kossak-Szczucka and Zegota partnered with the more well-known Irena Sendler (perhaps one who was closest to a true altruistic individual than anyone that could be found) to rescue thousands of Warsaw’s Jewish children. And for this and other actions, Kossak-Szczucka was arrested and herself sent to Auschwitz (September 1943) but was released to participate in the Polish Warsaw uprising in 1944. Additionally, Yad Vashem recognized her actions as well, despite her overt anti-Semitic views, in the Avenue of the Righteous in 1982 because her actions were greater than her words.

I hope you recognize this section was not a defense of what Christians did during the Holocaust period. It wasn’t. We blew it big time. It wasn’t even an explanation because there is none. Hopefully , it will just be the beginning point for a conversation. So … let’s talk about it at the CAFÉ Kehillah Discussion Board. Please also consider what we have to say about the most difficult question of them all — https://www.exploremessiah.com/where-family-died-in-shoah/.

Sources:

Gushee, David. Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation, 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2003.

Lipman,Steven. “Righteous Gentile or Nazi Supporter?” The New York Jewish Week 10 April 2012. http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/righteous-gentile-or-nazi-supporter/.

Pastor Andre Trocme. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. https://jfr.org/rescuer-stories/trocme-pastor-andre/.

Rittner, Carol et al. The Holocaust and the Christian World: Reflections on the Past, Challenges for the Future. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Teo, Rachel. “Resistance Against the Holocaust by Catholic Laypeople: Zegota.” UC Santa Barbara (2005). “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust.” http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/church/ChurchZegotaRachel.htm

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