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 régime.
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.