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Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany

Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany

20170410_222800-croppedOn Monday, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association cosponsored with Walla Walla Adventist Forum, Walla Walla University, and the University Church, an evening lecture by Dr. Robert P. Ericksen on how an advanced, highly-educated, Christian nation grew to enthusiastically accept and support Nazi ideology.

Robert P. Ericksen is Kurt Mayer Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University. In Walla Walla University’s Village Hall, a theater-like setting that was packed with students, professors and the public, Ericksen eloquently and painstakingly explained how churches and universities found in Adolf Hitler a national savior in restoring the honor of Germany post World War I.

More important was his explanation of how the unbridled enthusiasm of the Christian Right—Protestants (especially Lutherans) and Catholics, and their lack of criticism for his persecution of the Jews—made them thoroughly complicit in the ultimate crimes of the Holocaust. How so? They supported Hitler more on the basis of his nationalism and his focus on family values than on his pathological anti-Semitism, even though history has since revealed that they were anti-Semitic too. In other words, they looked the other way. Some historians believe that if Hitler had campaigned on that basis, he likely would not have been elected.

20170410_212442In the immediate aftermath of the Reichstag Fire, theological moderates were especially central in persuading political moderates in the Reichstag to give Hitler a two-thirds majority to pass his request for an “Enabling Act”—where he promised to “Make Germany Great Again.” This gave him absolute dictatorial authority.

Germany’s intellectual and spiritual leaders effectively gave the German populace permission to participate in the Nazi regime and thus in crimes against humanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller were representative of a small minority of dissidents among the clergy. But it was the majority of churchmen and academics—especially the vast majority of theological moderates—that “provided the rationalizations and adjustment of moral norms that permitted ordinary Germans to accept and even implement the regime’s brutal and murderous policies.”

During the panel session following the lecture, Ericksen pointed out how Hitler’s propaganda slogan “Make Germany Great Again” is eerily similar to what we hear today. The difference is that Germany truly was under international economic duress and humiliation in the aftermath of World War I—a catastrophic national meltdown.

He said that it is possible that unfounded fear and paranoia could have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which America begins to head down the same road of dictatorship even during relatively good and stable economic times.

He said the difference is that America would be committing a self-inflicted wound that would have catastrophic consequences for the world community. He said all that would have to happen is for some rapid series of events to occur that would create internal instability like in pre-World War II Germany.

He said there would be no excuse for this because the United States has a long history of Democracy. Germany did not. The Weimar Republic—Germany’s short-lived experiment in Liberal Democracy—did not satiate German citizens’ impatient need to return to better times sooner.

But the same forces are clearly alive today in the United States. In Germany, the Moderate Center, Center-Right and Extreme Right, among religious and political leaders, were in the driver’s seat. Germany’s Protestant and Catholic alliance hoisted up Adolf Hitler as their nation’s savior. The clear difference is that America’s academic community is fastidiously liberal; Germany’s was not. But that could change, too.

Perhaps it is good to remember Martin Niemoller’s prophetic warning—a warning to all of us:

“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.

Here is the link to Professor Ericksen’s book so that you can order and read it: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1107663334/ref=mp_s_a_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491978595&sr=1-1-fkmr0&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_FMwebp_QL65&keywords=robert+erickson+complicity




About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.