Christianity’s role in the Holocaust should be a cautionary tale for the church today, panelists and audience members said Tuesday at a screening of a new documentary titled “Theologians Under Hitler.”
“Being on the morally right side of history is always so obvious with the passage of time,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. Parham said what is needed is not only a sense of history, but also a sense of discernment about events during one’s own place and time.
The Baptist Center for Ethics co-sponsored the screening, attended by about 100 persons from a variety of religious backgrounds, at Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. It was the first public viewing in middle Tennessee for the movie, which tells the story of how churches not only tolerated but actually enabled Adolf Hitler by distorting the Bible to support a national myth.
“In 1933, when Hitler came to power, things were not black and white,” said film producer Steven Martin, a Methodist minister from Oak Ridge, Tenn. Rather, he said, it was “a time of moral gray,” when many German citizens felt Hitler was the nation’s best hope of restoring glory dashed in the aftermath of World War I.
In the film, Martin says that many Christians viewed Hitler as a “gift from God” and the rise of the Nazi Party as “a new Easter.” Hitler was compared to Martin Luther as Germany’s second great reformer, and even to Jesus. The Third Reich, meanwhile, came to represent “God’s new kingdom.”
While many modern Christians assume that theologians who opposed Hitler, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller, were the norm in German’s Protestant church, the filmmakers claim the opposite was true.
“In general the churches of Germany saluted the Third Reich and were part of the rabid nationalism that took hold there,” said Michael Pinner, who directs research and development for Martin’s film company, Vital Visuals. Dissenting religious leaders like Bonhoeffer, he added, “were very, very rare.”
A panel of Christian leaders from various faith traditions reflected on the film immediately after the screening.
Hans Broekman, principal of Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tenn., said he found it “thought provoking, very accessible and deeply disturbing.”
Lee Camp, assistant religion professor at Church of Christ-related Lipscomb University, said he isn’t sure anyone can answer the question of “could it happen again?” A better question, he suggested, is “What are we doing in American Christianity that would form us into a people that could respond differently than the Germans did.”
“We constantly have to be in a vigilant, critical place as Christian leaders,” said Ken Swanson, dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal). “That is to see our role as both contributors to the society we live in and standing against the society we live in, in terms of prophetic justice.”
Camp said the film has enough information that a fundamentalist might argue that liberals were to blame, while liberals could conclude that conservatives were the problem. “It seems to me the issue runs a lot deeper than either one of those,” he said.
Pinner said his experience researching the film prompted him to become concerned about uncritically passing on the writings of German theologians to new generations of seminary students.
For example, Gerhard Kittel, one of three theologians profiled in the documentary, is described as an “ideologue for the Nazi killing machine.” He was founding editor of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which is still widely used.
Pinner said he would like to see a group of Christian and Jewish scholars sit down and examine Kittel’s work looking for articles containing “blatant anti-Semitism.”
According to the movie, Kittel, one of the theologians asked by the Nazis to answer “the Jewish question,” opposed extermination or deportation of Jews only because they had been tried before and were “impractical.” He rejected a strategy of assimilation, because that was “the source of the Jewish problem itself.” Instead, Kittel supported “guest status” for German Jews, which eventually opened the door to concentration camps and the Holocaust.
“We need to be constantly about re-evaluating our sources” to see if they in fact reflect the teachings of Jesus rather than the prejudices of the authors, Pinner said.
“Theologians Under Hitler” is scheduled to be broadcast on PBS this fall, but Martin said he believes its greatest strength is to show it to groups and use it as a springboard for discussion.
He said he met one of his colleagues, because he wanted a group in his church to study God’s Politics, a book by Jim Wallis. Leaders rejected the idea because they thought it would be too divisive to discuss current political issues in church.
Later, Martin visited the church to direct a four-week class based on his film, which started with a group of 12-15 and grew to more than 100. “We talked about everything that he wanted to talk about in the book study, but it was safe because it was in the past,” Martin said.
A study guide accompanies the film for use in small groups. It attempts to help Christians explore issues of what it means to be both a faithful Christian and good citizen, without being confrontational or trying to persuade everyone to see things in a particular way.
“I think this is one of the best uses of this film,” Martin said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to purchase “Theologians Under Hitler.”
The movie’s official Web site includes a video clip.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.