Christian Beliefs and the Infrastructure of the Holocaust
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day quickly approaching, it is time to reassess the ancient accusations against the Jews that formed the basis for the Shoah’s infrastructure. Christianity introduced two extreme criminal concepts into the history of ideas: that the Jews were the embodiment of absolute evil, and that descendants — even an entire people — can be held eternally responsible for alleged acts attributed to some of their ancestors.
Many Christians over the centuries claimed that Jews were the embodiment of absolute evil, as nothing could be worse than being held responsible for the death of the alleged Son of God. Christian antisemitic hate mongers based their hate on a text in the Gospel of Matthew, which states that the Jews who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus said that his blood would be upon them and their descendants.
This text from the New Testament is highly problematic.
Under Roman rule, the Jews had no power to sentence anyone to death, let alone execute him or her. Only the Romans could do so. And even if some Jews were present when Jesus was nailed to the cross, how many could have been there? At most a small percentage of Jerusalem’s population — which was itself limited, as many Jews lived outside Jerusalem at that time.
Over the centuries, such long-term repeated demonization of the Jews has infused European history and culture with antisemitism. This does not mean that most contemporary Europeans are antisemites. Yet many Europeans hold extreme antisemitic views of Israel — believing, for example, that it is a Nazi state or that it is pursuing a war of extermination against the Palestinians.
Nazi demonization of the Jews was built on the infrastructure of ideas laid down by large parts of Christianity. Nazism considered Jews subhuman, a newer version of the belief that Jews were absolute evil. Even Martin Niemöller, one of the more famous German Christian anti-Nazis, delivered sermons in pre-war years teaching that the Jew was cursed because his ancestors killed Christ.
No democratic regime can survive in a reality where everybody is held responsible for crimes their parents may have committed. The persecution Jews experienced over the centuries — up to and including the Holocaust — has been infinitely worse. They were held responsible for events that some of their ancestors allegedly were involved in two thousand years ago.
Post-war West Germany is the best illustration of an opposite orientation. It did not even hold most people responsible for their own acts, let alone those of their parents; instead, the German state rehabilitated Nazis on a massive scale.
Perhaps 20% of the German population had been members of the Nazi party (NSDAP), leaving a large post-war reservoir of others. Yet many prominent positions in the newly established democracy were held by former NSDAP members. One of them was the Christian Democrat Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who was chancellor of West Germany from 1966 to 1969. Three post-war presidents of West Germany — Christian Democrats Karl Heinrich Lübke (1959-1969) and Karl Carstens (1979-1984), as well as Liberal Walter Scheel (1974-1979) — had been members of the NSDAP. Twelve ministers in Willy Brandt’s government were reported to have been NSDAP members.
Due to the Holocaust, the Catholic Church revised its stance that Jews alive today are responsible for the death of Jesus. Pope Paul VI’s Nostra Aetate of 1965 declared that only those Jews who were present at the time of the crucifixion can be held responsible.
However, polls show that the perception of Jews as “Christ-killers” is still alive and well, and reflects a belief held by perhaps 100 million Western Europeans. A 2005 ADL poll in Europe asked whether the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Of those polled, 19% of Belgians, 21% of Danes, and 19% of the Swiss answered in the affirmative.
A 2012 ADL poll in Europe found that among those polled, 18% of Austrians, 14% of Germans, 38% of Hungarians, 15% of Italians, 16% of Dutch, 19% of Norwegians, 46% of Poles, 21% of Spaniards, and 18% in the United Kingdom believed this fallacy.
In a 2011 ADL poll in Argentina, 22% also expressed belief that the Jews killed Jesus.
These two ancient Christian concepts have been overshadowed by Nazism’s genocidal policies against the Jews. Yet they are still entrenched in Christian societies, and must continue to be exposed as part of today’s fight against antisemitism.