Willa Sibert Cather said “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” So I’m reading a story in Today’s Deutsche Welle which, after another round of Vatican pronouncements on how defending marriage from same-sex couples is the moral equivalent of protecting the environment, and weeks of reading about American fundamentalism’s disturbing, sickening willingness to incite anti-gay violence in Africa, that reminds me how the more time change the more they stay the same…

Nazi-era churches helped classify Jews, say historians

For years, a tight lid has been kept on the activities of Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches during the Holocaust. But now, historians have shown that many clergy actively contributed to the persecution of Jews.

The article gives me a piece of the puzzle I hadn’t fully understood before: that at the beginning Nazi rule, Churches in Germany performed a service for the fascists that nobody else could: identify who had Jewish blood in them.

In 1933, the Nazis passed a law that restored professional civil service and quickly demanded that officials, but also physicians, lawyers, authors or journalists provide the so-called Aryan certificate. Priests sifted through the records where personal data such as date of birth, date of baptism, and details about parents and grandparents was noted. If three or four of the grandparents were Jewish, the ministers and church archivists were not allowed to issue the certificate.

“This was something that only the church could certify, since the country had no other sources like the old church books. Civil registry records were first introduced in 1874-75 and all information before could only be obtained from the church books,” [archivist Hans] Otte said.

In fact, even though ministers and church archivists could not yet imagine that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis would end in the Holocaust, church representatives were still uncritically and overzealously involved in the exclusion of the Jews, said the Berliner historian Manfred Gailus.

Church archivists in Mecklenburg and Berlin were particularly proactive. There, the community church books were stored centrally and were systematically evaluated for Jewish ancestors. In Berlin, the minister responsible for this was Karl Themel, a proud National-Socialist who collaborated with public and party officials and delivered the names of those Christians that had Jewish roots.

“Here, millions of index cards were written, up to as far back as the 18th century, in order to assess, when and where in Berlin the steps from Judaism to Christianity had taken place,” Gailus said.

One of the myths that has risen since that war is that the Nazis persecuted Christian churches as vigorously as they did the Jews, and never mind Hitler’s famous quote from Mein Kampf that by fighting the Jews he was doing the work of the Lord. In fact, the Nazis quickly co-opted a number of churches and clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, in their rise to power and many of them, on or sympathetic to the political right were willing partners. It’s also true that some Christian clergymen were persecuted. The Deutsch Welle article is careful, justifiably so, to note toward the end that some clergy actively resisted the Nazis, pointing out the story of Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg who prayed publicly for Jews after The Night of Broken Glass and was sent to Dachau for his trouble. He died on the way there. But you have to wonder how unhappy his fellow priests, let alone his superiors, were over that.

I can’t find any authoritative links to what I’m about to say, so take it with a grain of salt, but I recall watching a program about the history of antisemitism in Europe and hearing that Rome kept excellent records of its occupied lands, and that gives us some good figures for the Jewish population of Judea during the Roman occupation. So, I was told, if you apply some fairly well understood population growth calculations to that figure, you got a figure of something like 190 million Jews who should be walking this good earth right now, right this instant. In fact, there are about 13 million.

Hitler didn’t do all that. The killing of Jews began long before the 20th century brought us antisemitism’s ultimate horror. James Carroll in his history, Constantine’s Sword, wrote:

We shall see how defenders of the Church take pains to distinguish between “anti-Judaism” and “antisemitism”; between Christian Jew-hatred as a “necessary but insufficient” cause of the Holocaust; between the “sins of the children” and the sinlessness of the Church as such. These distinctions become meaningless before the core truth of this history: Because the hatred of Jews had been made holy, it became lethal.

Antisemitic fresco in St Paul’s Church in Sandomierz, Poland,
depicting antisemitic blood libel canard.

I want to emphasize that I’m not pointing my finger here at Christianity or even at organized religion as such. The author Mary Renault said,

Politics like sex is only a by-product of what the essential person is. If you are mean and selfish and cruel it will come out in your sex life and it will come out in your politics when what really matters is that you are the sort of person who won’t behave like that.

I think that’s absolutely right and I would only add to it religion. If you are mean and selfish and cruel it will come out in your religious life too. What really matters is the sort of person you are. Mean and selfish and cruel people find their way, sooner or later, to the sanctuaries of mean and selfish and cruel gods, and there they worship. And those sorts of people need their scapegoats, their devils, their embodiments of evil…someone they can point their fingers at, and wage war on, so they don’t have to look at the mean and selfish and cruel person they see in the bathroom mirror every morning.

After the end of the war in Europe, the culpability of various churches and clergymen in the Holocaust got swept under the rug. The Deutsche Welle article ends,

After 1945, the clergy’s actions during the Holocaust were rarely brought up, said Otte.

“The discussion was very quickly silenced, and then it ceased being a subject altogether. Instead, everyone was embarrassed by these Aryan certificates,” he said.

And Karl Themel, the pro-Nazi minister, quickly returned to his parish after the Holocaust, with the cynical reasoning that he had caused the Church no damage.

It would be interesting to read a history of how enthusiastic some of our American clergy were during the period leading up to the war and the Holocaust, for Hitler’s crackdown on the Jews. Even more interesting would be how they excused themselves afterward. I caused the Church no damage…

Thousands of homosexuals also perished in the concentration camps. A small figure compared to the millions of Jewish victims, but there it is. Homophobia has been made holy too, and like antisematism it has become lethal. Would today’s fundamentalist leaders witlessly shovel the hated other into the death camps, like their 1930s counterparts did? Hasn’t the news from Uganda been screaming the answer to that at us all these months? And would they say afterward that they heard the rumors but didn’t believe them? How many righteous American men of god are saying now, only after the mainstream news media got hold of the story, that they are shocked, shocked, at the prospect of African gays being dragged to the gallows, their families and friends sent to prison if they don’t turn them in?

A couple weeks ago in the D.C. Agenda (what was once the Washington Blade), I read an article about two young gay black men who walked out of their church during a sermon that turned into a homophobic rant

The two gay men said they were startled and deeply hurt when Bishop Alfred Owens, the church pastor, appeared to be sending them and other same-sex couples a blunt message Jan. 3.

“Sex is only pleasing to God in the marriage bed, and the marriage bed is a man and…a woman!” Owens shouted from the pulpit, with hundreds in the church pews shouting their approval…

Mack and Garrett, 32, contacted DC Agenda about their decision to walk out on Owens’ sermon and are believed to be the first gays to publicly disclose their departure from a church that activists say has a large number of closeted gay members, mostly black.

“What hurt me more than what he said is how the congregation yelled and agreed with him,” Mack said. “It showed me that people that don’t even know me hate me just because of my sexuality.”

Mack and Garrett said they were aware of reports that Owens had previously made anti-gay remarks during his sermons at Greater Mount Calvary, which boasts a membership of more than 6,000 people. But the two noted they were attracted to the church’ charismatic, highly animated services, which include performances by several different choirs.

You read this and find yourself thinking about the Germans who thought they were Christians in good standing, only to be sold out to the Nazis by their own priests and ministers because they had Jewish grandparents. If the person behind the pulpit preaches hate for your neighbor instead of love, get up and leave. You’re probably next. And even if you’re not, you still don’t want to ride with that congregation to where it’s going. The road to heaven is not paved with the bones of your neighbors. That road leads elsewhere, to a much darker place.