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Hitler’s Theologians: The Genesis of Genocide

The question of the complicity of the church in the murder of the Jews is a living one.”

(Abraham Foxman, Anti-Defamation League) 

Was Hitler a Christian?

Most Christians agree: Adolf Hitler was not a follower of Jesus. Afterall, did not Jesus say: “All who take up the sword will perish by the sword” Matthew 26:52). Many Jews concur, Hitler could not have been a religious Christian. Yet, Hitler said he was on a divine crusade to free Europe of the Jews: “I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator: By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.” Furthermore, many historians claim that two-thousand years of Christian antisemitism provided the fuel and the popular support Hitler needed to carry out his sinister program: 

Two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism…helps to explain why so many people were receptive to anti-Jewish propaganda.”

From the standpoint of theology, Hitler was not a Christian. But when one looks down from the heights of history, did Christian belief supply the fuel for the crematoria? Who were the theologians under Hitler, and what kind of Christianity did they teach?

Birth of Liberal Protestantism

To understand German Christianity in the early 20th century, one must begin with the birth of Liberal Protestantism in the 18th century. Immanuel Kant introduced rationalism into theological inquiry. Kantian theologians relied heavily on the tools of reason for theological inquiry, and the scientific method for Biblical study. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the father of Liberal Protestantism, argued that God is unknowable. It is not possible to verify historical events described in the Scriptures, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the Exodus from Egypt, or the giving of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, faith may be reduced to a “religious feeling” for which belief in a personal god is not necessary.” 

Liberal Protestant Criticism of the Jewish Scriptures

At the end of the 19th century, Liberal Protestant scholars rejected the Bible’s historicity and miraculous claims. Rudolph Bultmann (1884 – 1976) attempted to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Julius Wellhausen developed a documentary hypothesis to explain the origins of the Pentateuch (Torah). He claimed that since Judaism was a primitive version of Liberal Protestantism, it needed to fade away.

Jewish scholars were offended by Liberal Protestant’s assault on the sacred texts. Solomon Schechter (1847-1915), in a 1903 address titled “Higher Criticism— Higher Anti-Semitism” said,

“Wellhausen’s Prolegomena and History are full of venom against Judaism.” Schechter described Liberal Protestant criticism of the Jewish Bible as “an intellectual persecution of Judaism.”

Liberal Protestant’s Attack on Judaism and the Jews

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) rejected the Christian doctrine of atonement for sin. He claimed the doctrine including the deity of Jesus was rooted in the primitive Judaism. 

Harnack rejected much of the New Testament as having little historical value and denied orthodox Christian doctrines.  By the 1930s, Liberal Protestants, steeped in the doctrines of Wellhausen, Bultmann, and Harnack saw Judaism as a primitive ancestor of Christianity, and the Jews a primitive race. Both needed to be eradicated. The German Christian Movement (1932-1945) sought to remove everything Jewish from the Church. 

Conservative Protestants Fight Back

Conservative Protestants maintained that Christianity was rooted in Judaism. The Old and New Testaments were divinely inspired and provided moral instruction. Furthermore, there was nothing “Christian” about the German Christian Movement. In 1934, they established the Confessing Church, a resistance movement. It included Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer led opposition against Hitler, conspiring in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested and executed.

Making Sense of it all

Over 18,000 individuals known as the “Righteous Gentiles” risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Some 7,000 of them were Polish men and women.  Many acted on their Christian faith. The legacy of Liberal Protestantism proves it was a perversion of Christianity and a betrayal of its founding beliefs. Liberal Protestantism rejected the Jewishness of Jesus, His moral instructions, and His claims to be the Jewish Messiah of the Jews Scriptures. Its followers attacked the Jewish Bible, Judaism, and ultimately the Jewish people. German Liberal Protestantism laid the foundation for history’s greatest tragedy. They rejected God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants:

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.

(Genesis 12:3)

And the words of the Apostle Paul:

Theirs [the Jewish people] is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!

(Romans 9:4, 5)

The Liberal Protestant movement from the age of Rationalism to the Reich rejected the Jewish Scriptures, the Jewish people, and the Jewish savior who sought to bring peace to the world and reconciliation between humans and the God of Israel.

Sincere Christians, however, recognize that both the Old and New Testaments are made up of Jewish books, written by Jewish people (with the possible exception of the Book of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles). These sincere Christians love the Jewish people, because they love the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [the Messiah Jesus], so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).


[1] Abraham Foxman, Never Again: The Threat of Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper-Rowe, 2004) 74-75.
[2] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Alvin Johnson (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1939), 126.
[3] Marvin Perry and Frederick Schweitzer, Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 3.
[4] Bernard M. G. Reardon, “Introduction: The Young Kant — Pietism and Rationalism,” in Kant as Philosophical Theologian, ed. Bernard M. G. Reardon, Library of Philosophy and Religion (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988), 28, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-08395-4_1.
[5] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 28.
[6] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament & Mythology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1941).
[7] Solomon Schechter, “Higher Criticism–Higher Anti-Semitism,” The American Hebrew 72, no. 20 (April 3, 1903): 655.
[8] Marc Z. Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 4.
[9] George Newlands, “Adolf Von Harnack,” in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought, ed. Chad Meister and James Beilby (Routledge, 2013), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203387856.ch11.[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2020).
[10] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2020).

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