The Aryan Jesus: Chris­t­ian The­olo­gians and the Bible in Nazi Germany

Susan­nah Heschel
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By – January 6, 2012

Luther­an lead­ers in Nazi Ger­many tried to rein­vent Jesus as a pro­to-Aryan ene­my of Jews and Judaism, with Hitler as his suc­ces­sor. Dart­mouth pro­fes­sor Susan­nah Hes­chel has been research­ing that move­ment for twen­ty years, focus­ing on the Insti­tute for the Study and Erad­i­ca­tion of Jew­ish Influ­ence on Ger­man Church Life that epit­o­mized it. 

Heschel’s fas­ci­nat­ing account begins not with the Third Reich but in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tu­ry, when the intel­lec­tu­al foun­da­tion was laid for a Ger­man Chris­tian­i­ty with­out roots in Judaism. At its peak, the Institute’s pseu­do-schol­ar­ly work result­ed in a hym­nal with­out Jew­ish words like hal­lelu­jah” and an osten­si­bly more authen­tic New Tes­ta­ment whose Ser­mon on the Mount extolled strength rather than humil­i­ty, all to cre­ate a mil­i­tant, Jew-free” church. Per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, vir­tu­al­ly all the per­pe­tra­tors thrived after the war, hav­ing been denaz­i­fied” because their reli­gious voca­tion seemed to pre­clude hav­ing col­lab­o­rat­ed with the regime. 

The insti­ga­tors, swept along by the ide­o­log­i­cal cur­rents of the day, court­ed polit­i­cal and pop­u­lar favor by con­tort­ing church doc­trine to fit the tenets of the times. That impulse is not unique to Nazis. This instance is an object les­son in how the forces of con­for­mi­ty, oppor­tunism, mis­placed ide­al­ism, and pow­er can lead to reshap­ing reli­gion to suit tran­si­to­ry notions of virtue. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index.

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