The Church of England and the Holocaust: Christianity, Memory and Nazism
Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2006, ISBN: 978184383219; 220pp.; Price: £45.00
University of British Columbia
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
For the first fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews of Europe was rarely the subject of public debate or historical analysis. Only after the Eichmann trial did the term ‘Holocaust’ gain widespread acceptance. Even then, this tragedy was largely considered as a matter for the Jewish people alone. Not until after an increasing volume of criticism arose in the 1960s and 1970s did the Christian churches begin to acknowledge that their role as bystanders needed to be reexamined. In more recent years, a large number of books, usually written with a moralistic tone, have focused attention on the specific role of individual churches and church authorities. Tom Lawson’s examination of the Church of England’s attitudes is an expansion of an earlier article in Twentieth Century British History, 14.2 (2003), and an addition both to the history and the historiography of Holocaust studies.
Lawson rightly challenges the view that the avoidance of any discussion in the immediate postwar years of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews was the result of the preoccupation with Cold War crises and polemics. Instead he suggests that we need to understand the responses of the Church of England, throughout the whole period from 1933 onwards, from within its own earlier mentalities and preconceptions. He shows clearly that, in the 1930s, the Anglican perception of Nazism as an evil ideology, and the support given to the persecuted German churches, were primary factors in interpreting the fate of the Jews. It was perhaps understandable that churchmen should come to regard Nazi totalitarianism as an anti-Christian relic of Teutonic barbarism. Such views were useful after 1939 to strengthen the moral justification for war. Secular British propaganda did the same. But leading members of the Church of England, especially Bishop George Bell of Chichester, made a distinction. They did not condemn all Germans as warmongers or racial murderers, but sought to preserve the image of the German churches, especially the Protestants, as being the victims of Nazi anti-Christian violence and oppression. Bishop Bell led the way in claiming that there were other Germans who were resisting Nazi totalitarian ambitions, and on whom the task of rebuilding Germany would fall once Nazism was overthrown. The persecution of the Jews was thus first seen as part of the Nazis’ demonic destructiveness. There was every sympathy for these victims of the Nazi system, especially after Kristallnacht. And whereas the British government played down the Jewish persecution out of fear that they would be obliged to do something to assist them, such as opening Palestine as a haven of refuge, the Church of England led a vigorous and continuous campaign, especially in 1942 and 1943, against its own government’s narrow-mindedness.
But Lawson’s point is well taken. The Church of England was persuaded of Nazism’s evil character because Hitler had first persecuted the churches. When the most prominent Protestant pastor, Martin Niemöller, was imprisoned in 1937, he was seen by all the British churches as the symbol of Nazi oppression, and was prayed for and remembered in Anglican and other parishes across the land. The Church of England’s leaders, especially Archbishop William Temple, backed by Bell, were convinced that their vocal and repeated protests against the Nazi excesses, and their support for the Confessing Church’s stand against totalitarian control, were their contribution to rescuing Christian civilization from disaster. They were encouraged when they found at least one German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, agreeing with them. From their perspective, the fate of the Jews was not sui generic, but only a culmination of Nazi iniquity. The Church of England had a moral duty to support all these victims and did so to the best of its ability.
Before 1939 the Church had led the way in seeking support for refugees from Nazi tyranny. After the outbreak of war, the focus became more on the need to provide asylum in Britain or its empire for those few who could escape, despite the severe restrictions placed on all aliens. But by 1942 the Church’s remarkable flood of indictments and protests got nowhere, and only revealed its impotence in the face of the British government’s obduracy. Even in 1945, the revelations of the horrors of the concentration camps only reinforced this interpretation of Nazi barbarity, but did not lead to a realization that the genocide of the Jews had been something special. Instead the church leaders were determined to lead a crusade to re-Christianize Europe and thus purge their civilization of Nazism’s demonic forces. This campaign, however, had no place for Jews, except as potential converts.
The overthrow of Nazi totalitarianism aroused optimistic hopes, not only in the Church of England, but also in other churches, for a renewal of Christian civilization. The longed-for peace, disarmament, and prosperity would surely follow. But very soon the dark clouds of a new totalitarian and anti-Christian threat from the Soviet Union became apparent. The Churches were once again called to mobilize themselves for an armed defence of their heritage. And in such circumstances, the need was obvious to enlist in this new cause those Germans, especially in the Wehrmacht, who were presumed to have been anti-Nazi all along. Thus a continuity between the interpretations of the 1930s and those of the 1950s could easily be established and maintained. Nazi tyranny was seen as a temporary sickness that had afflicted only a section of the German population. But this understanding of Nazism gave no priority to its antisemitic imperative, and certainly would not have agreed that all Germans were “antisemitic eliminationists”. The end of the war in 1945 and the onset of the Cold War’s antagonisms only confirmed this view, and led to the downplaying of Jewish suffering and its full implications.
Lawson corrects those interpretations which minimize the importance of church opinion, or suggest that a pessimistic and self-doubting community existed in those years. To the contrary, he praises the confidence of the Church of England leaders, but does suggest that their concern for German Protestantism as a bastion of anti-Nazi resistance left no room for a closer regard for Jewish concerns. And Bishop Bell, like his colleagues throughout the Anglican hierarchy, was far removed from even considering the consequences of Christian antisemitism itself, or the extent to which the majority of German churchmen had (willingly enough) supported it. Such a self-critical examination, though promoted at the time by a maverick Church of England clergyman, James Parkes, got nowhere. Parkes’s pleas for a recasting of Christian-Jewish relations had to wait for another forty years.
Lawson’s point of view is, of course, drawn from the perspective of the twenty-first century. Like others, he engages in wishful thinking in writing history as it should have happened. Hence his verdict that Bishop Bell was myopic about the Jewish fate is itself a distortion. He appears to be promoting a more pluralistic viewpoint than was prevailing in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps he would have been wiser to have avoided such post-hoc moralisms. Instead he might well have shown how similar the Anglican attitudes on the Jewish question were to those of the British Catholics, or indeed to the very similar views held by Pope Pius XII. He nowhere discusses the attitudes of the British Jewish community. Nor does he make any mention of the extent to which Anglican attitudes towards the Holocaust were affected by what was happening in Palestine/Israel. This could perhaps be the subject of a sequel, and thus make use of his commendable skills at research and analysis.
First I would like to thank Professor Conway for his review of my book and his judicious summary of its argument. Unsurprisingly, however, it is the final and most critical section of the review that I would most like to engage with, and specifically the suggestion that my research (and indeed that of unnamed others) is ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘writing history as it should have happened’.
In essence this is the charge of anachronism. To use Conway’s words, he believes I have engaged in ‘post-hoc moralism’. Yet as I set out in the introduction to The Church of England and the Holocaust I am acutely conscious of the imperative to avoid such pitfalls. Of course it may be that I fail, but I think that the methodological starting point for the study bears repeating. My research is a contribution to the project of understanding and getting to grips with the ‘bystanders’ to the Holocaust. There is no doubt that this is an area of historical enquiry that is problematic. But there are ways that we can insure against it becoming hopelessly so. One of those is to make sure that the individuals or institutions whose response to what, and this is an important caveat, we now call the Holocaust set the agenda for our research. This means that we cannot simply return to the past and ask how did an institution respond to this or that event because we now see its significance. In this context, for example, I argue that it is not really relevant that the Church of England made relatively little noise about the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, because it is only after the event that such legislation appears peculiarly significant. As I write on page 5: ‘to read too much into this silence, based on our own understanding of the laws, would be anachronistic’. I go on, ‘the lack of response to the Nuremberg Laws does not tell us much more than that the past was different to the present’. Yet the Church did see and were concerned with other aspects of Nazi anti-Jewishness, for example Kristallnacht, and it is the meanings attached to those events that I am concerned with.
Ironically, perhaps the best way of explaining this further is to use what Conway believes is an omission from my study. That of the way in which ‘Anglican attitudes to the Holocaust were affected by what was happening in Palestine and Israel’. The simple fact seems to be that they weren’t, that Anglicans did not make the connection between Jews suffering at Nazi hands and the formation of the state of Israel. Even James Parkes, both the Church of England’s most acute observer of Nazi anti-Jewish action and violence, and its most vociferous supporter of a Jewish national home in Palestine, did not seek to link the two. Parkes’s consistent argument in favour of what became the state of Israel, both before and after the Holocaust, was theological—based on his sense of the religious importance of the Holy Land to Jews and Judaism. As such, to insist on investigating attitudes to Israel within a book on responses to the Holocaust, it might be argued, would be to employ the very twenty-first century perspective that Conway wishes to avoid.
Indeed the figure of James Parkes, the campaigner against antisemitism and in favour of a more equal relationship between Christianity and Judaism, seems key here. Conway believes that I am promoting a ‘more pluralistic viewpoint than was prevailing in the 1930s and 1940s’. This is, I presume, a reference to my argument that the leaders of the Church of England did not attempt (and indeed explicitly refused) to re-cast their understanding of the Christian-Jewish encounter in the light of Nazi anti-Judaism. Yet this pluralism is not mine at all, but that of Parkes—an Anglican clergyman dismissed as a maverick by Conway. While there is no doubt that Parkes set himself against the prevailing winds of the Church, his was a voice heard in the mainstream. He was a close friend of William Temple, wartime archbishop of Canterbury and towering figure of the mid-century Church, and was in correspondence with all major personalities within the Church hierarchy. In that correspondence he challenged the Church to give up, for example, attempts to convert Jews and demanded that it accept Judaism as part of God’s revelation. That Anglicans knowingly dismissed such notions was then a rejection of a very mid-century pluralism.
Having said all of this, however, of course Conway is correct. There is no doubt that the attempt to understand the response of the pejoratively conceived bystanders to the Holocaust is to pass the past through the filter of the present. As I state on page 2, when discussing the problems associated with the general historiography of the bystanders:
The condemnation of the perceived failure to respond adequately to the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka articulates a very contemporary revulsion at the crimes of the Nazis. We in the present stand helpless as, with the aid of survivors and surviving testimonies, we look into the nightmarish deathscapes of the Holocaust, unable to intervene. Anger at our own impotence has often been voiced in the condemnation of those in the past that could surely have done what we cannot and at the very least tried to stop the suffering.
Of course, as I go on to point out, the investigation of the contemporaries of the genocide of the Jews should, like any historical project, not be about condemnation but explanation. Yet the ambition of explanation alone cannot remove the influence of the present from this study of the past.
Past and present clash within The Church of England and the Holocaust in a complex variety of ways. In part the explanation presented, for example, is a critique, a corrective, of celebratory accounts of Anglicans’ reactions to the Holocaust that have appeared previously and have been used to lift some contemporary gloom surrounding Christian responses to the Shoah more generally. As such it is a revisionist account of the past driven, like so much historical endeavour, by some assumptions of the more recent past or the present. At the same time it is a corrective to the contention, again often voiced in the present, that Christian attitudes towards Jews, for example, were transformed by the Holocaust—as Professor Conway notes Anglican plans for the post-war world excluded Jews.
More generally than that however, The Church of England and the Holocaust is an engagement with the rhetorical claim, which is again widespread today, that the cataclysmic Holocaust disrupted extant ways of seeing and believing to such an extent that new vocabularies were required to represent and understand it. In fact, I argue, that the continuities between Anglican understandings of the Nazi attacks on Jews both as they were happening and when they had become the recent past demonstrate that such rhetoric is empty—because the genocide of the Jews was interpreted inside extant discourses and was not as is sometimes suggested just ignored. As Conway rightly summarizes, leaders and opinion-formers of the Church of England consistently saw Nazism as a negation of Christian Civilization. This is not because they did not see Nazi anti-Jewishness, but because they interpreted attacks on Jews not as attacks on Jews as Jews, but on wider Christian society. In the postwar world, this meant that the Church contributed to the negation of memories of Jewish suffering and contributed to a narrative of Nazism which prevented nuanced exploration of its relationship with Christian individuals and institutions.
This was an understanding of Nazism that had practical consequences. For example George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, led an English campaign after the end of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to bring an end to such trials. This campaign, as has been documented by others, became most vociferous around the trial of Erich von Manstein. It was presumed that Manstein could not have had any involvement in Nazi criminality because he was a professing Christian. Thus we can start to see the circularity of an interpretation that saw Nazism as meaningful only as a negation of Christianity. That understanding of the recent past inevitably impacted on the memory of Jewish suffering as well as of German criminality, as Jews were excluded from British memories of suffering on continental Europe.
The anti-trials campaign cast a much longer shadow over history and memory than that however. In the later 1980s another campaign against the proposed trial of those accused of crimes committed against Jews during the Nazi period was launched. This campaign drew directly on the memory of Bell’s original lobbying—suggesting that if such an unimpeachable figure as he had opposed the continued judicial investigation of the Nazi past as long ago as the later 1940s, who were we to start raking over old ground now? As such an Anglican understanding of the significance of the murder or Europe’s Jews and of Nazism was being used in the then present to prevent further investigation of the past.
And yet of course the Holocaust is so central to what might be called contemporary collective memory, and in so many places apparently far removed from the sites of the Nazis’ murderous project, that one can hardly argue that the Anglican negation of Jewish suffering has endured. But my study of understandings of the Holocaust can, I hope, help us understand the function of this all-encompassing Holocaust memory in the present a little better too. A point that I make explicitly towards the end of the book, and have made in articles elsewhere, is that the original Anglican interpretation of the meaning and significance of the Nazis attack on the Jews was not dishonest. It was the inevitable consequence of a worldview that bifurcated the world into Christ and anti-Christ, and saw the Nazi murder of the Jews as antithesis. As I point out in the very last paragraph of the book, this casting of the Holocaust as antithesis is familiar to us. The Holocaust that resides in popular and political memory may be more about Jews today, but it is still a Holocaust that is presented as the inversion of all we hold dear. Might it be, then, that the prominence of the Holocaust is not the result of the moral urgency of the Nazi attack on the Jews, but the consequence of a tendency to shape the past in the service of the present? A tendency that I have traced in the Church of England’s understanding of the murder of Europe’s Jews both as it was being enacted and as it passed into history. It is therefore only by understanding the functions that the murder of Jews and its memory have fulfilled in the past that we can see clearly that it has a function today too.
Past, present, present, past; I am not sure that they are as clearly delineated as Professor Conway suggests.