Founded in 1939 against the background of Nazi dominance by a group of German Protestant theologians, pastors and churchgoers, the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life sought to redefine Christianity as a Germanic religion whose founder, Jesus, was not a Jew but rather an opponent of Judaism who fought valiantly to destroy Judaism but fell victim in that struggle.
This volume presents the history of that institute: how it came into being and won approval and financing from church leaders, the nature of the “dejudaized” New Testament and hymnal that it published, the many conferences and lectures that it organized, and those who joined and became active members especially from the academic world and in particular its academic director, Walter Grundmann (1906-74).
Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, is the daughter of the famous Jewish scholar and religious activist, Abraham Heschel. She grew up hearing from her father and his friends about the German academic scene in the 1920s and 1930s. Her interest in Grundmann’s institute was piqued in the late 1980s, and she has worked on this project for many years, especially since the pertinent archives became accessible. She has an interesting and important story to tell about the political corruption of academic Christian theological scholarship, and she tells it very well. She offers abundant quotations from the publications and correspondence of the major figures. Just when the reader feels the need for more background information about a particular person or topic, Heschel supplies it. She retains the objectivity appropriate to a historian without glossing over the horror of her topic and the scoundrels who perpetrated it.
One of the institute’s preoccupations was to dejudaize Jesus. Along with some other distinguished German biblical scholars of the time, Grundmann and his colleagues contended that Jesus descended from the non-Jewish population of Galilee, that he struggled heroically against Judaism, and finally fell into the hands of the Judean officials who had him put to death. For Germans in the 1930s and early 1940s who were struggling against what they were told was an international Jewish conspiracy, the “Aryan Jesus” was proposed as a symbol of their own struggle. Their task was to complete successfully the struggle that the Aryan Jesus had begun. As a means toward that end, some “German Christians” saw the need to divest Christianity of its Jewish elements and to produce a purified Christianity fit for the future thousand-year Reich.
The impetus for this project came first of all from the long German tradition of theological anti-Judaism. Added to that tradition were the “race” theories that had emerged more recently and the rise to political power of Hitler and the Nazi party. Moreover, there had developed within German Protestantism a split between the “German Christians” and the “Confessing Church.” The “German Christians” took more eagerly to the task of ridding Christianity of its Jewish elements and developing a new kind of Christianity supposedly more consistent with the Nazi ideology that they saw coming to power before their eyes. One of the strongholds of the German Christian movement was the region of Thuringia, and the institute dedicated to eradication of Jewish influence on the German church had its home in Jena. While not officially sponsored by the University of Jena, Grundmann and several of his co-workers were faculty members there.
Grundmann became the institute’s academic director and driving force. In his mid-30s he had been lecturing and writing about “Jesus the Galilean” and drawing parallels between Jesus’ alleged struggle against Judaism and the contemporary German situation. He was a popular teacher and lecturer, and had many contacts in the German academic world. His own teachers included Adolf Schlatter and Gerhard Kittel, very distinguished scholars whose writings were often tinged with anti-Judaism. In his work for the institute Grundmann organized conferences that attracted other scholars, and so widened the institute’s influence. Even when paper was scarce, Grundmann managed to get published his own writings and those of scholars sympathetic to the institute’s goals.
One of the institute’s first projects was the production of a dejudaized translation of the New Testament. This involved purging the Synoptic Gospels of positive references to Judaism, eliminating the biographical and autobiographical notices about Paul’s Jewishness and highlighting the negative comments about “the Jews” in John’s Gospel. Another project was a dejudaized hymnbook, in which Jewish language and concepts were eliminated and replaced by songs about war and the “fatherland.” A dejudaized catechism presented Jesus as a Galilean whose message and conduct stood in opposition to Judaism. These publications were widely circulated and had great influence.
Two issues central to the Christian Bible presented problems for Grundmann and his colleagues: the Old Testament and Paul. While many in the German Christian movement wanted to jettison the Old Testament, some (mainly professors of Old Testament) wanted to retain it as evidence of Jewish perfidy and degeneracy, often using the ancient Israelite prophets’ denunciations against the Jewish people of the present. Since Paul had been the theological hero in Luther’s Protestant Reformation, he could not be so easily purged. The solution was to use Paul’s general ideas and play down or omit what seemed too “Jewish” about his person and theology.
The Nazis’ reception of Grundmann’s institute was mixed. Some officials welcomed the support of the German Christians and of the institute in particular. However, other highly placed Nazis did not want to encourage a renewed German Christianity that might rival their own plans for a Nordic paganism entirely without Christian elements. For members of the Confessing Church and the Catholic Church (despite their own forms of anti-Judaism), the goals and projects of the institute and the German Christians seemed too radical. While this mixed reception was a great disappointment to Grundmann and his colleagues, it became their salvation after the defeat of the Nazis.
In the superficial “denazification” process after the war, Grundmann and his colleagues portrayed themselves as scholars of Judaism, victims of Nazi persecution and heroes responsible for the church’s survival. They wrote recommendations for one another, attested to one another’s integrity and took up former or new positions in the church and the university. Grundmann continued to publish books and articles without apology, and even turned up as an informant for the East German secret police, the Stasi.
Heschel has a remarkable story to tell. Her reliance on primary sources and her objectivity are impressive. One comes away from her account wondering how such apparently intelligent and learned Christian scholars could have been so foolish and craven. While there were several causes, Heschel’s narrative demonstrates once more the noxious power of Christian theological anti-Judaism, especially among those who should have known better.