As the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, knows the importance of interfaith dialogue, as well as what happens when it breaks down.
While there have been no shortage of rocky episodes in Jewish-Christian relations, few are as dark as the Nazi era. Heschel’s most recent book, “The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany,” due out in paperback in October from Princeton University Press, tackles this difficult subject head on. As the publisher’s blurb bluntly asks: “Was Jesus a Nazi?”
Heschel relates how in 1939, at Martin Luther’s former stamping grounds of Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany, Protestant theologians founded the so-called Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life. For six years, she writes, “as the Nazi regime carried out its genocide of the Jews, the Institute redefined Christianity as a Germanic religion whose founder, Jesus, was no Jew but rather had fought valiantly to destroy Judaism, falling as victim to that struggle.”
This perverse misreading of history and theology was not limited to the Hitler years. In 1905, “Hilligenlei” a bestselling German novel quickly translated into English for American readers, fantasized that Jesus was really born in Schleswig-Holstein, in northern Germany.
Richard Wagner’s British son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, in his “Foundations of the Nineteenth Century,” first published in Germany in 1899, asserted that Jesus was surely an “Aryan” and the philologist Paul de Lagarde echoed this belief, declaring that “Jesus was no Jew” but that the Apostle Paul, “in his Jewish depravity, had Judaized Christianity.”
These isolated, if influential, viewpoints became institutionalized by 1939 and gained steam throughout the war. Even after the Institute was hastily dissolved in 1945, few of its theologians encountered any problems continuing their academic careers. As Heschel concludes: “Hitler did not achieve most of his political and military goals, but on the Jewish question he succeeded remarkably. If his antisemitic propaganda found resonance, its success can be credited in large measure to the unrelenting anti-Jewish Christian theological discourse that linked Nazi propaganda with the traditions and moral authority of the churches.”