Was the Holocaust A Predictable Outcome of The Long History of Antisemitism?

The Antisemitism of the Church

a) A Holocaust survivor wrote an open letter in which he painfully recalls: "Before World War Two as a boy, I was often subjected to abuse and beating by Christian boys who would call me a 'Christ Killer' and the son of the devil.  Invariably it would take place after a lesson given in the teachings of the New Testament and the Gospels.  Some of the friendlier boys would tell me that they hate the Jews because of what they learned from these lessons and, of course, from their parents and grandparents.

"After surviving the Holocaust I...traveled around the world...seeking an answer to the burning question: 'Why?'  Why did they do it to us?  Why do they hate us so much?  On my travels I spoke to simple folk...I was appalled by the virulent hate they felt for us, and in many countries where they have never even seen a Jew!  Invariably, they would admit that their antisemitism stems from the teaching of the Church..." (Solly Ganor, Herzelia, Israel, 10 January 1997).

b) St. John Chrysostom, a 4th century Church father preached: "The Jews...are worse than wild beasts...lower than the vilest animals. Debauchery and drunkenness had brought them to the level of the lusty goat and the pig.  They know only...to satisfy their stomachs, to get drunk, to kill and beat each other up...I hate the Jews...I hate the Synagogue...it is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews" (quoted in Yehuda Bauer, pp. 8-9).  Similar hate-filled rantings could also be quoted from Martin Luther or Louis Farhakan.

The Christian Churches lodged two big accusations against the Jews.  The first was deicide, that the Jews killed the son of God and that the Jews are  ritual murderers.  The subtext of this charge was that the Jews were capable of any and every evil.  A despicable lot, they were wholly untrustworthy and totally unsuited to be granted any more rights than was absolutely necessary in order to support the interests of Christians.  More than that.  If they killed the son of God then they were capable of killing other innocent young Christian children and that they may even be performing such ritual killings in secret worship (i.e. the infamous "Blood Libels" that persisted even after the Holocaust ended, such as in Kielce Poland on 4 July 1946).

The second charge was supersession, that because the Jews had rejected Jesus Christ the Son then their special bond with the Father, God, was no longer valid and the Christians were now "the New Israel".  The triumph of the elect (Christians) over the rejected (Jews) justified the inferior status of the latter and showed them up as the "living witness" to the One and True Faith (Christianity).

In the 11th and 12th centuries the theological tenets supported the mass murder of Jews by Crusaders who launched what our generation has come to know in Bosnia as "ethnic cleansing operations".

The  Continuity School Of Antisemitism

Some Jews believe that antisemitism is a structural feature in the world. It exists, it always existed and, until the Messiah comes to mark the dawning of a new Era, it will always exist.  We say as much each year in the Pesach Haggadah:  "It is this promise which has sustained our fathers and us.  For not just one man has risen up against us to destroy us; in every generation there are those who rise against us to destroy us.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands" (in the "vehi she'amda" that appears shortly before the start of the meal.

Prof. Raul Hilberg has asserted what I would call a "progressive continuity model".  He argues that antisemitism proceeds through 3 stages: 
1) You Can't Live Among Us As Jews, i.e. conversion,
2) You Can't Live Among Us, i.e. expulsion, and the final stage 
3) You Can't Live, i.e. extermination..  Implied within this word-play is a chrono-logical development from early Christianity through the Middle Ages, to the Nazis.

Yet the continuity argument has some serious problems.  If it were really true that each of the stages are linked together, then wouldn't we expect the Holocaust to have been "deadlier" in a more antisemitic country such as Romania than it was in a relatively more liberal and tolerant country such as the Netherlands?  Yet that is not the case.  Over 70% of Dutch Jews were murdered while in Romania the figure is much lower, 45%.

And how does the continuity school explain antisemites who save Jews?  We know of priests and nuns who accepted the theologically-based  antisemitism of the Church yet rejected the racial antisemitism of the Nazis.  These people believed that the Jews had indeed killed Christ and that they deserved to be punished for it but they also believed that the Jews had souls that could and should be saved.  Christianity was permeated with antisemitic elements but it also taught the 10 Commandments.  Anyone who believed that you should "love thy neighbour as thyself" could not have been "Hitler's willing executioner" to borrow Goldhagen's phrase.

Cardinal Szeptyckij from Lvov protected the family of the city's Chief Rabbi in his own home and he urged the Church people under his authority to save Jewish lives.  Yet in the 1930s the Cardinal had actively preached, wrote and rallied against the Jews as a full-fledged antisemite.  Dietrich Bonhoffer and Martin Niemoller both held Church- inspired antisemitic positions in the 1930's but instead of progressing to the next stage along the antisemitic continuum they risked their lives during the Holocaust to defend Jews and they courageously and actively opposed Nazism.  Some rural French people, steeped in antisemitic traditions, organized underground networks to save Jews and we don't know of a single instance of any of them informing to the Germans, whereas Anne Frank's family was turned in by her Dutch neighbours and there were no organized attempts to rescue Jews in the democratic, enlightened and largely secular Czech Lands.

And what about the presence of antisemitism in societies that fervently rejected Christianity, such as in Bolshevik Russia or in countries in the Third World were Christianity has little or no presence?  There are no irresistible forces at work here nor is there an inevitable link between the charges of Christ-Killer to the crematorium of Auschwitz.

The Discontinuity School Of Antisemitism

This school emphasizes the breaks in the past.  The assembly of deputies in the French Revolution promised all rights to Jews as individuals and no rights to them as a group.  Modern, secular, liberal European antisemitism opposed all religious beliefs, Christian as well as Jewish.  They accepted Judaism as a religion alone and were unwilling to accept any "special-ness", for example, the peoplehood aspect of Judaism.  Modern, Western liberals suspected the Jews of trying to gain full rights as citizens while at the same time maintaining "extra rights" in their special relationship with other Jews.  This is the basis for the accusations of treason (Captain Alfred Dreyfus) or having a second set of loyalties (Jonathan Pollard).

Of course it is even harder to see Communist Russia, which for decades was the virulent center of antisemitism around the world, as the continuation of the Church fathers.

Nor is it possible to see National Socialism as a direct outgrowth of Christianity.  Nazism clearly rejected the 10 Commandments just as it rejected most other key theological concepts, such as the notion of salvation.  It was as anti-Christian as it was anti-Jewish..  If the Jews were erring humans, then they could be reformed.  But if they were dangerous genetic beings, then they had to be eliminated. 

The clear separation between Hitler's antisemitism and Luther's was the element of race.  "Despise the Jews," a prominent racist wrote 50 years before Auschwitz while using words that echoed the 4th century Church fathers, but he added a totally new, modern and scientific element: "With bacteria one does not negotiate, nor can parasites be educated; they are to be exterminated as quickly and thoroughly as possible".
Nazis believed that race determined one's exterior features (such as hair colour, bone structure and the shape of one's nose) but that race also determined one's internal attributes (honesty, loyalty, intelligence, greed and corruption).

Or, in the widely quoted words of Hermann Alwardt, an elected member of the German Parliament who said in a debate in 1895: "A horse born in a cow barn does not turn into a cow and a Jew born in Germany is no German; he remains a Jew".

The discontinuity argument is strengthened by the fact that the term "antisemitism" was first coined by a journalist, Wilhelm Marr, in 1889.  The word did not exist previously.   Marr wanted to distinguish his theory regarding the Jews with traditional "Judenhasse" or hatred of Jews.  In his view, traditional antipathies against Jews were emotionally and\or theologically based while his anitsemitism was detached and objective.  It was rooted in the cutting edges of the sciences of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, history and biology.

Was The Holocaust Predictable?

In a classic article by the historian Jacob Katz each of the possible theories regarding predictability are carefully investigated and rejected. If Stalin, with all of his advisers and all of his intelligence-gathering abilities could not predict the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941 and if the Americans could have been taken totally by surprise at Pearl Harbour then it is clear that predictability is best left to the clairvoyants, whose success rate is far from impressive.

Still, To What Extent Is Hitler's Antisemitism A Continuation Of Past Antisemitism?

Prof. Shmuel Ettinger used to answer this question with a story.  He would tell of the rich Texan who was enchanted by the gorgeous lawns of Oxford. The visitor asked the chief gardener to advise him as to how to duplicate those lush lawns back on his ranch.  He bought the seed and the fertilizer, he watered and weeded exactly according to instructions but the results were far from satisfactory.  So he phoned the Brit for further advise.  "Do everything just as you are doing it," replied the gardener.  "And keep it up for another 500 years!"

Part of the explanation for antisemitism is that it has been kept up for so many years.  It has been called "the longest hatred" and it has been described as the greatest scavenger ideology of all time.  It possesses an enduring core and the ability to constantly incorporate new elements into it.

Is that strict continuity?  No.  But it's not exactly discontinuity either. For example, look at the Blood Libel accusations.  Christians charge Jews with using blood in their religious rituals.  Yet who really uses blood in their services?  All Christians before the Reformation and all Catholics until today believe that during the communion ceremony the wine and the wafer turn, through the miracle of transubstantiation, into the blood and body of Jesus Christ.  And what about Jews and blood?  Judaism proscribes that animals must be slaughtered by slitting their throats so as to remove the maximum amount of blood.  After that the meat is salted and washed to remove more blood and those parts of  the animal where not enough blood can be extricated cannot be eaten.

So in every service millions of believing Christians are eating human flesh and drinking human blood while Jews are doing everything that they can to avoid ingesting any blood.  And they accuse us of using human blood in religious ritual practice?  It is more than absurd; it is a classic example of projection.  Projection is a human defense mechanism that usually acts unconsciously, whereby the individual, uncomfortable with something disturbing or evil within him\herself,  projects that thing on to an external object and then hates or attacks that object because it possesses that evil.

On 30 January 1939, Adolf Hitler spoke in the German Reichstag (Parliament) on the 6th anniversary of his rise to power.  He said: "One thing I should like to say on this day which may be memorable for others as well as for us Germans: In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it.  During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then, among many other things, settle the Jewish problem.  Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face.  Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" (DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, pp.134-5).

In January 1939 who wanted "to plunge the nations once more into a world war"?  Who was planning the invasion of his neighbours?  The Germans or the Jews?  Yet in an absurd projection that strikes me as being very similar to the Blood Libels, Hitler accuses the Jews of plotting a war of annihilation and warns that the Third Reich will have to react to defend itself from that danger...by murdering Jews.  That is where important elements of the continuity lies.

But on the point of predictability, I concede that Hitler was essentially correct.  As a prophet he was often ridiculed and in January 1939 he once again was not believed.  For who could have thought then that he was predicting the future?


Bauer, Yehuda, HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST, New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, Israel Gutman and Yitzhak Arad, pp. 134-5.

Hilberg, Raul, THE DESTRUCTION OF EUROPEAN JEWRY, Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1961.

Katz, Jacob, "Was the Holocaust Predictable," in JERUSALEM QUARTERLY, 1982.







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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0