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Americans and the Holocaust

American Christians, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust

This collection explores the close connections between Christianity and Americans' attitudes toward Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, American Christians tried to make sense of events in Europe and to determine what responsibilities their congregations bore toward Christians and Jews both at home and abroad. The sources included in this collection address reactions to the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, America's entry into the war in 1941, and the immediate postwar realities of 1945.

Throughout the early twentieth century, Christian teachings shaped many Americans' sense of identity. Church leaders often considered themselves a moral voice of the nation. Although this might suggest that Christians became strongly motivated to help persecuted European Jews during the Holocaust, the reality proved more complex. Many considerations—including worries over the Nazis' treatment of Christians in Europe, and the perception that both American democracy and civilization itself were endangered by fascism—played a more powerful role in determining American Christians' reactions. Prejudice and suspicion toward Jews both at home and abroad also remained a strong element of American Christianity in this era. Ultimately, American Christians formed opinions and took action based both on their knowledge of events in Europe and their own views on the Nazi threat: as a danger to Americans, a danger to Christians and Christianity, and, perhaps less urgently, a danger to Jews. 

According to a 1944 poll, nearly every American reported believing in God.1 The majority of Americans considered themselves Christian, and nearly one-half attended church regularly.2 Roman Catholics formed the largest bloc, followed by a variety of Protestant groups, including Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, among others.3 By any measure—church attendance, baptisms, belief in the main tenets of Christianity—the United States in this era was an overwhelmingly Christian society. Accordingly, Americans' perceptions of and responses to the rise of Nazism, the onset of World War II, and news of the Holocaust took shape through the lens of their Christian faith. 

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Although this collection of primary sources does not offer a comprehensive view of Christian activities during this period, it presents a cross section of American Christian life, touching on the experiences of Catholics, mainline Protestants,4 Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Quakers.5 Understanding the diversity within and among Christian communities, the tensions produced by this diversity, and the attempts to resolve these differences is critical to analyzing the sources in this collection. Authored by clergy and laypeople, both men and women, several of these sources reflect the perspectives of individuals at the margins of their particular faith tradition, highlighting the wide range of viewpoints that could exist even within one religious group.6

In addition to individual churches and members of the clergy, this collection highlights the activities of religious organizations: ecumenical7 organizations like the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which consisted of representatives from different Protestant denominations; interfaith organizations, which brought together representatives from different religions, such as the National Council of Christians and Jews (NCCJ);8 and faith-based relief organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). All three types of organizations emerged before the Nazis came to power in 1933, but faced new challenges after Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor.  

Regardless of citizens' membership in a particular faith tradition or institution, Christianity and Christian symbols remained deeply embedded in American culture, providing an important means for interpreting current events and determining how best to respond to major developments—the rise in antisemitism at home and abroad, the outbreak of war, and news of the persecution and mass murder of Jews in Europe. However, American Christianity also faced its own legacy of anti-Jewish sentiment: the "tolerance movement"9 of the 1920s built stronger ties between Christians and Jews, but it did not address Christianity's deeper historical and theological prejudices.10 Indeed, a history of Christian antisemitism contributed to a distorted understanding of Christians' responsibility to the suffering of Jews. Moreover, many American Christian communities viewed the plight of European Jews as a European problem, strengthening their desire to keep the United States out of  World War II. Nevertheless, because American identity was widely understood as rooted in Christianity, Nazi Germany's hostile stance toward Christianity came to represent a danger to American values and the security of the nation itself. Spotlighted here in the item "Desecration of Religion," American Protestant imagery could be used to symbolize the threat posed by the Axis powers

The particular issues that captured the attention of Christian leaders and organizations transformed over the course of the 1930s and 1940s. Early commentary tended to focus on the church struggle in Germany.11 American Christians, much like Christians in Germany, sought to understand the Nazi government's treatment of the churches and 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, to some extent, bore a sense of responsibility for their fellow believers, a trend evidenced in this 1933 pamphlet by Minister Henry Smith Leiper. Although many Christians expressed shock at the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, they remained primarily concerned with the welfare of members of their own faith. 

The Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 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 proclaimed sympathy for the Jews and condemned Nazi violence. As the war progressed, however, and crimes against European Jews became more widely known in the United States, American churches navigated a difficult political climate in taking any position on the situation facing the Jews. Indeed, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many American Christians remained strongly committed to staying out of the war and reluctant to aid European Jews. One 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 their counterparts in Europe, including 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 in Europe and invites consideration of the aims and motivations behind those responses.

The poll, performed by Gallup, asked, "Do you, personally, believe in a God?" ninety-six 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 twentieth 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 "American Friends Service Commitee: 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 13 Items in the American Christians, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust Collection

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