Who’s to Blame for Aryan Jesus? Some Thoughts on Religion, Atrocities, and the Fallacy of Collective Guilt.

Deutsche Christen Flag
Flag of the Deutsche Christen

How does one go about judging a religion when a radical faction uses an extreme interpretation of doctrine to commit atrocities? I speak of course about the Deutsche Christen – the fanatical Nazis who saw the Christian faith, antisemitism and the cause of the Third Reich as one and the same.

The theologians of the Deutsche Christen movement linked together the Protestant tradition (including Martin Luther’s many anti-Semitic remarks) with Nazi theories of Volk and race. They sought the “de-Judaization of the church” and the elevation of their version of an “Aryan Jesus.” Rather than some fringe movement during the Third Reich, the Deutsche Christen numbered 600,000 at its peak including senior members of the Church hierarchy, religious scholars and the laity.

The movement’s Institute for the Study and Eradication of the Jewish Influence on the German Church “redefined Christianity as a Germanic religion whose founder, Jesus, was no Jew but rather had fought valiantly to destroy Judaism, falling victim to that struggle. Germans were now called upon to be the victors in Jesus’s own struggle against the Jews, who were said to be seeking Germany’s destruction.”

For the Deutsche Christen, the cause of Nazism was the logical end point of protestant theology. As Erich Koch, Reichsminister for Ukraine would tell his post-war prosecutors:

“I held the view that the Nazi idea had to develop from a basic Prussian-Protestant attitude and from Luther’s unfinished Reformation.”

Berlin, Luthertag
Luther Day celebrations in Berlin. November 19, 1933

When Hitler rose to power Koch had been both Gauleiter of East Prussia and president of his provincial Church Synod. He was a respected leading figure both for the Nazi cause and within the Protestant Church.

Committed Christians could also be found at the front line in the worst atrocities of the war and the implementation of the Final Solution. Ernst Biberstein, a student of theology who worked as a pastor through the years of the Weimar Republic, went on to serve as an Obersturmbannführer in the SS. As the leader of Einsatzkommando 6, he was later charged with responsibility for the execution of more than 2,000 people. He personally oversaw the execution of more than fifty victims who were shot to death in a mass grave.

Rather than the race hatred of the Deutsche Christen, it is their opponents who are today best remembered as representative of Christianity during the Third Reich. The opposition of figures from the Confessing Church such as Dietrich Bonhöffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth is held up as evidence of Christianity’s inherent revulsion towards National Socialism.

While these individuals did oppose Nazi policies, in some cases with fatal consequences, the Confessing Church was primarily concerned with the Nazification of German Protestantism and the Deutsche Christen’s efforts to elevate race to central organizing principles of the church.

Martin Niemöller is today remembered for his denunciation of German cowardice in the face of state oppression:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

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.

The irony of this paean to solidarity is that Niemöller was himself an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis when they rose to power in 1933.

So what relevance does this group of Nazis hold for the larger meaning of Christianity. The Deutsche Christen are usually described not just as aberrant to the Christian religion, but definitionally outside of its boundaries. As Doris Bergen has argued:

“Issues of race and church doctrine reveal the nihilism at the core of the German Christian vision of the people’s church. The anti-Jewish church was ultimately non-Christian.”

In the case of Christianity, the radical reimagining of the Christian faith for the purposes of supporting mass atrocities and genocide is not today held against all co-religionists. While some extremists looked to the Christian scriptures and saw a legitimization of racial hierarchy, expansionist warfare and genocide, others used the same holy texts to resist Nazism and the Holocaust. We privilege the latter as the norm, and dismiss the former as an exception.

When one is tempted to define a religion by the worst actions of those who claim to follow its tenets, it is worth remembering the case of Pastor Biberstein, saying his morning prayers on the Eastern Front before he set out on another day of bloodshed and murder. Who is to blame for him and his Aryan Jesus? If we can deem him a radical outlier of Christianity, why is it not same when applied to other religions, to other atrocities?

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3 thoughts on “Who’s to Blame for Aryan Jesus? Some Thoughts on Religion, Atrocities, and the Fallacy of Collective Guilt.

  1. Here lies the rub:

    While some extremists looked to the Christian scriptures and saw a legitimization of racial hierarchy, expansionist warfare and genocide, others used the same holy texts to resist Nazism and the Holocaust.

    The ‘holy textsdo condone both. And for a few thousand years those holy texts have been used for more harm than good. The Bible is a tale of men doing all kinds of horrid things by the very order of the ‘God’ in that horror story, The Jews themselves use their ‘holy texts’ as justification for the takeover of Palestinian lands and the continued oppression of the Palestinian people. Their logic isn’t much different than The Deutsche Christen’s come to think of it.

    The problem lies with religion itself. Humanity invented ‘God’ as the answer to the deepest questions of life on Earth. It won’t be until humanity frees itself from this imaginary friend that Earth will be able to put aside the old hatreds brought on by the monster it created.

    And I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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    1. Your answer is understandable but also, in my opinion, wrong and on several counts. Firstly, texts do not “condone” anything. Texts, like the gods they are often claimed to be related to, are mere real time justifications used by people with nefarious purposes. No text has ever said “You must do this!” or “You must do that!” and neither could they. No text has ever said “You must exterminate the Jews!” just as none has ever said “You must blow people up in the Brussels airport!” People make these choices and then they retrospectively use texts, which are powerless to resist, and recruit them to their cause.

      Secondly, I think your quest to eradicate all belief systems is pointless. People believe things and they must to survive. As can easily be shown, they do not need to see the object of their worship to believe it. They just need to believe it and convincing a human being of something, or anything, isn’t really that hard. Tell a person with nothing and little hope of anything in life that an almighty super being exists and that, in the end, you will receive the things they will never have in life and I imagine that, for some, this is a prospect that attracts them. But this is not to make all poor people saps. People make their own choices and the world they see may be very different to the one that you or I do. Its not enough to say “Gods don’t exist. Stop being silly.” For very many people in this world from the highly educated to the granny who faithfully goes to church each Sunday believing in a god is not at all silly.

      You and I may think that humanity invented god but we also believe lots of other things that others don’t as well. You don’t change people’s beliefs simply by telling them its not true though. Because how do you decide which are the true beliefs to tell everyone? Everyone has their own beliefs and their own justifications. So in the end all you can really do is make people responsible for the things they believe and the actions they take based on those beliefs. There is no accurate, universally agreed, commensurable set of views that all reasonable people should be believing. If there was then the problems of atrocities would have long since been solved.

      It is easy for the non-religionist to say “Believing in gods is the problem”. But I, as an atheist myself, don’t see it that way. The gods, like the texts, are merely justifications. And besides, if you don’t actually think the gods exist then you can hardly blame the religion for any atrocity. Every religion going is overwhelmingly populated by peaceful, every day, nothing special about them, people anyway. Believing in deities is “largely” a benign phenomenon for most adherents. So I say you should look elsewhere. Look at the radicals, the men and women of violence. It is these people who, as individuals, are to blame. They are the ones who pull triggers and detonate bombs. They bear personality responsibility for their actions. It should not be laid off on some creed which is the same reason why Mrs Miggins from No. 42 High Street gives money to help the homeless. That is a cop out in my view.

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      1. Hmm…circular reasoning and missing the simple reply to the post.

        Re: condone. The ‘religious’ often believe that their ‘holy books’ are the exact written words of god(s). If ‘it is written’ that god ‘said’ it becomes a command, and it is condoned. I myself, and many reasonable others, know that these books aren’t the literal ‘word of god’ but millions of others do believe this. You actually make my point – they are people who use these mythologies to ‘justify’ their actions. No god(s) – just man.

        Re: my …quest to eradicate all belief systems. I never said or implied that. I have more important things to do than set a quest of such absurd proportions. I merely made the observation that humanity must free itself of the hatreds which religion has spawned…and stated that I don’t see that happening any time soon.

        This: …if you don’t actually think the gods exist then you can hardly blame the religion for any atrocity. The sentence that glaringly demonstrates that you missed my point. Structured religious beliefs are man-made – the blame is not on religion, the problem is. Religions based on the word of nefarious god(s) who make crushing and hateful demands upon human beings who are believers is a very BIG PROBLEM.

        Finally: You assume that Mrs Miggins from No. 42 High Street gives money to help the homeless because of some creed. I would venture to guess that even without that creed Mrs Miggins would still feel enough love/compassion in her being to help the homeless. That is the assumption that has put humanity into this quagmire. People think that without a religious creed human beings wouldn’t do the right things. When a stranger comes upon a burning car in a ditch which has two folks inside who are in trouble, that person doesn’t say, ‘God will bless me for this.’ If that person is humane that person will try to do what can be done to rescue those people. This scenario has happened many times – because there are many people whose natures are basically ‘good.’ That is human nobility in spite of religion, not because of it.

        Humanity doesn’t need religion – religion needs humanity.

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