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Desecration for Cover Image

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Americans and the Holocaust


American Christians, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust

This collection explores the connections between Christianity and Americans' attitudes toward Nazism and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, American Christians tried to make sense of events in Europe and determine how to respond at home and abroad. The sources included here illustrate reactions to Nazi persecution, America's entry into the war in 1941, and the postwar realities of 1945.

Christian teachings have long shaped many Americans' sense of identity. Church leaders have often sought to be a moral voice of the nation, and many Americans viewed the crises of the early 20th century—World War I, the Great Depression, and new forms of political extremism—through the lense of their faith. With the onset of World War II, some Christians became strongly motivated to help European Jews persecuted under the Nazi regime. For others, Nazism and the Holocaust did not evoke a strong response. 

Worries over the Nazi regime's treatment of European Christians and the dangers to freedom and democracy posed by fascism played central roles in determining American Christians' reactions to Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s. American Christians formed opinions and took action based both on their knowledge of events in Europe and their own views on the Nazi threat. Many saw Nazism as a danger to American freedoms and a danger to Christians and Christianity—but did not recognize that the regime was a more immediate threat to Jews and Judaism. 

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According to a 1944 survey, nearly every American who was polled answered that they personally "believe in a God."1 The majority of Americans considered themselves Christian, and nearly one-half attended church regularly.2 Roman Catholics formed the largest single bloc, followed by a variety of Protestant groups, including Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, among others.3 Many Americans' perceptions of and responses to the rise of Nazism, the onset of World War II, and news of the Holocaust were informed by their Christian faith. 

Although this collection of primary sources does not offer a comprehensive view of Christians' activities in this period, it presents a cross section of American Christian life. These sources touch on the experiences of Catholics, mainline Protestants,4 Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Quakers.5 Understanding the diversity and tensions within and among Christian communities is key to analyzing these sources. Authored by clergy and laypeople, both men and women, several of these items reflect the perspectives of those at the margins of their faith communities. They speak to the range of viewpoints existing even within one religious group.6

In addition to individual churches and members of the clergy, this collection also highlights the activities of religious organizations. These include ecumenical7 groups like the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), made up of representatives from different Protestant denominations. Also featured are interfaith organizations, bringing together representatives from different religions, such as the National Council of Christians and Jews (NCCJ).8 Finally, the collection touches on faith-based relief organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). All three types of organizations emerged before the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, but they faced new challenges after Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor.  

While often critical of antisemitism in Nazi Germany, American Christians also faced their own legacy of anti-Jewish sentiment at home. The so-called "tolerance movement"9 of the 1920s built stronger ties between Christians and Jews, but it did not address Christianity's deeper prejudices.10 A long history of Christian antisemitism contributed to a distorted understanding of Christians' responsibility to the suffering of Jews. Many American Christian communities viewed antisemitism as a European problem, strengthening their desire to keep the United States out of World War II. Nevertheless, because many people believed that their American identity was rooted in Christianity, Nazi Germany's hostile stance toward Christianity was seen as a danger to American values and security. Spotlighted here in the item "Desecration of Religion," American Protestant imagery could be used to symbolize the threat posed by the Axis powers

The issues that captured the attention of Christian leaders and organizations transformed over the course of the 1930s and 1940s. An early focus was the tensions between churches and the Nazi Party in Germany.11 American Christians—much like Christians in Germany—were anxious to learn what role Christianity would play in the newly founded Third Reich. Many Christian communities in the United States also felt connected to German churches, and some bore a sense of solidarity with their fellow believers. This trend can be seen in a 1933 pamphlet by Minister Henry Smith Leiper. Although many Christians expressed shock at the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, they remained more concerned with the challenges facing members of their own faith. 

The coordinated anti-Jewish violence of November 1938—often referred to as Kristallnacht—provoked widespread outrage among American Christian leaders, as well as the US public more broadly.12 As reflected in the featured Broadcast from Catholic University of America after Kristallnacht, many voiced sympathy for German Jews and condemned Nazi violence. However, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many American Christians remained strongly committed to staying out of the war and were reluctant to aid European Jews. One notable exception was the AFSC (the Quakers), a group that led efforts to resettle European Jewish refugees.13 In contrast, as the war drew to a close, many American Christian institutions became engaged in helping to rebuild Europe, reaching out to German church leaders. The FCC's visit to Germany in late 1945 reflects one such point of contact between American and German church leaders.

Ultimately, Church leaders and their congregations primarily understood the rise of Nazism and the onset of the Holocaust like many of their fellow Americans did—as an immediate threat to American values and American Christian ways of life. This collection explores how, when, and why American Christian institutions and individuals chose to respond to events, probing the aims and motivations behind those responses.

The poll, performed by Gallup, asked, "Do you, personally, believe in a God?" 96 percent answered "yes," one percent marked "no," and two percent responded "no opinion." For more details, see Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 475.

 

Benson Y. Landis, ed., Yearbook of American Churches (New York: Federal Council of Churches of Christ, 1945). Total American church membership was 52.5 percent in 1944. About 2–3 percent of the population was Jewish. Detailed statistical data are available in these yearbooks, including, for example, membership numbers of denominations, the number of congregations, and the number of clergymen.  

Important distinctions exist among various strands of Christianity. Protestant Christianity in the United States has always been diverse, and the religious landscape continued to change in the first half of the 20th century, mainly due to immigration and the emergence of newer groups such as the Adventists, Assemblies of God, and the Salvation Army. For more details, see Noll, A History of Christianity, 463. Chapter 17, "Trends," provides a concise overview of American religious life from the 1920s to the 1950s. 

 

"Mainline Protestant" refers to a number of older, established Protestant denominations in the United States, defined by their participation in the Federal Council of Churches (now called the National Council of Churches) and in contrast to evangelical or charismatic churches. This designation includes Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopals, Presbyterians, and others. 

For more scholarly works that address different religious communities in the United States and their relationship to Nazi Germany, see Lee B. Spitzer, Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2017); David Conley Nelson, Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015); Roland Blaich, "Selling Nazi Germany Abroad: The Case of Hulda Jost," Journal of Church and State 35 (1993): 807–30; David B. Woolner and Richard G. Kurial, FDR, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Caitlin Carenen, "The American Christian Palestine Committee, the Holocaust, and Mainstream Protestant Zionism, 1938-1948" Holocaust and Genocide Studies 24, 2 (2010): 273–296; William Nawyn, American Protestantism'a Response to Germany's Jews and Refugees, 1933-1941 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981); and Haim Genizi, American Apathy: The Plight of Christian Refugees from Nazism (Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1983).

One such figure was Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who gained an enthusiastic following through his radio program and newspaper commentary. Coughlin's antisemitic rhetoric and right-wing populism became problematic for the Catholic Church, which tried to distance itself from the priest and his political positions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to ban Coughlin's radio show in 1939, and the postal service was barred from distributing copies of his Social Justice newspaper. For more on Coughlin, see Allan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression (New York: First Vantage Books, 1983).

The term "ecumenical" refers to efforts to promote Christian unity and understanding among different Christian traditions. The largest ecumenical organization today is the World Council of Churches.

Victoria J. Barnett, "Track Two Diplomacy, 1933–1939: International Responses from Catholics, Jews, and Ecumenical Protestants to Events in Nazi Germany," Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 27, 1 (2014): 76–86.

A loose coalition of church, interfaith, and advocacy organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the "tolerance movement" emerged during the 1920s to combat hatred and build cooperation between different religious and ethnic groups.

Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) 26–42. 

For more detail, see Victoria J. Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Doris Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). 

See Maria Mazzenga, ed., American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), and J. Bruce Nichols, The Uneasy Alliance: Religion, Refugee Work, and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford, 1998).

For more details on this effort, see the Experiencing History item, "Report on the Work of the Refugee Commitee." See also Leonard Kenworthy, Another Dimension of the Holocaust: An American Quaker Inside Nazi Germany (Kennett Square, PA: World Affairs Materials, 1982).

All 16 Items in the American Christians, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust Collection

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