Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nazis, Nietzsche, and Narrative

I was inspired to write this post by our book club discussion of Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot. My review and those from other book club members are linked here.

One of the two major plots of that book relates to the questions of anti-Semitism and the Zionist push to re-establish the nation of Israel as a political entity. I had originally intended to write this as a note to that review, but it was really too long of a discussion to have in a footnote.

The Twentieth Century, viewed in retrospect, is notable for two worldwide wars. Three, really, if the Cold War is counted. While there were battlefield casualties enough, the non-combat deaths loom larger both in number and in significance.

The purges of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other Communist dictators led to the greatest slaughter; but it is the Holocaust that remains seared into our memories like no other. Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” is so unthinkable to us now. I myself will never forget standing in the crematoriums in the concentration camp at Dachau, where the stench of burned human flesh remained 60 years later. How did Germany get there, and what does it mean for us? These are questions that still provoke ardent discussion today.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home, and learned most of what I knew about history from the conservative Christian curriculum our homeschool used. Fortunately, it was academically rigorous, and much of what was contained in it was in line with mainstream consensus. I am happy to say that it even avoided the temptation to whitewash slavery in favor of a pro-Confederacy stance. (The State of Virginia was in the news recently for history books that still included Lost Cause myths.)

Still, there were a few interesting claims that didn’t stand up well upon further investigation after my high school days.

One of the dubious assertions was this: The Holocaust was caused by the rejection of Christianity by German intellectuals and philosophers of the Nineteenth Century. Held up for particular culpability was Friedrich Nietzsche.

Now, I want to state at the outset that I am not a fan of Nietzsche. Not that I have read that much of his stuff, but from what I have read, he comes off as far too full of himself. I find the very concept of the ubermensch loathsome. While I find the description of master-morality versus slave-morality to be accurate to a degree in describing actual beliefs and behaviors, I disagree that it is a desirable state of affairs. I might even put it as a key point of my legal philosophy that no one is above the law or should ever be above the law. I wince when I hear people who would claim to reject Nietzschean  philosophy repeating his anti-egalitarian views without realising it. (I’ll include my libertarian friends who gush about Ayn Rand in this category.)

I also freely acknowledge that some of Nietzche’s ideas were used by the Nazis. I do want to point out that the Nazi’s favorite idea, that of the ubermensch, wasn’t exactly original. In the previous centuries, it was often called “The Divine Right of Kings.” For reasons obvious to most, the idea that one can be exempt from restraints while everyone else - those lesser beings - have to follow the rules, is a really popular one. Human nature hasn’t changed.

Where I feel the need to give some clarification is this: The anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust existed long before the Nineteenth Century. That fact tends to be ignored because it contradicts the preferred (meta)narrative that apostasy caused the Holocaust. Likewise, Nietzsche's  contributions to Nazi thought are stretched and overstated because they confirm the preferred narrative.

(I am going to use “narrative” rather than “metanarrative” here because I see these narratives as more specific to the subculture than overarching.)

The concept of narrative in history is an important one to understand. I believe that one of the reasons that men like Hitler have succeeded is their ability to impose an attractive narrative on the facts of history. We tend to forget that, and blindly assume that history is the story of the success of our own nation, or of our own religion.

Let me give a few obvious examples of narrative. When we talk of the “discovery” of the New World, we impose a narrative centering on the colonizing Europeans and their point of view. From the point of view of those people already living here, it did not need “discovering.”

So, we say things like, “God gave us America to conquer and colonize” because of our narrative that we were advancing the cause of civilization or Christianity, or whatever. From the point of view of the Native Americans, the narrative would be more one of tragedy, in which vast numbers were slaughtered by war, starvation, and disease.

As in most cases, the victors get to set the dominant narrative.

Or take this one: China was, at several times during its history, arguably the most powerful empire on the face of the earth. In terms of wealth, technology, population, or any number of measures. From the point of view of its narrative, it was the center of the civilized world. From the Roman point of view, of course, China didn’t even exist. Later, the West would steal a bunch of technological ideas from China, and gain the upper hand for a while. In our current narrative, China is either returning to its natural status as the dominant power, or is posing an evil threat to the glories of Western Civilization. It depends on the narrative.

One might also go with the narrative of the decline of the Roman Empire. What really caused it? Certain of the Romans themselves attributed it to the decline in worship of the traditional Roman gods. The military attributed it to a lack of funding to fend off the barbarians. Later historians might cite economic issues (skyrocketing corruption and cost of government, increasing inequality of wealth), or social issues of one sort or another. In all likelihood, there were many “causes” that all worked together.

The Christian narrative has long been that Rome collapsed because of its lack of sexual morality. That’s the one I heard most, at least. Again, this is a narrative. What is your view of the sweep of history?
We all select the facts we present to further our own preferred narrative, whether we admit it or not. Thus, I believe it is important to acknowledge this, and to be careful not to ignore key history simply because it contradicts our preferred narrative.

Okay, with that out of the way, let me give a quick and dirty history of anti-Semitism.

Sadly, if anything can be said to be universal about the human condition, it is the desire to divide humanity into “us” and “not us.” Pretty much every culture at every time in history, as considered itself superior to every other culture. Every race has considered itself to superior to other races. Everyone is susceptible to the temptation to de-humanize the “not us” and treat them with contempt. This tendency expresses itself in racism, nationalism, sexism, and classism.

The very first “anti-Semitism” was thus no more than a racial, national, or ethnic dislike of the “other.” Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, and then Rome all conquered ancient Israel for the same reason they conquered whomever else they could. There was nothing truly special about this. The contempt for Jews was the same, for the most part, as contempt for all “barbarians.” The “not us.”

It is generally agreed by historians that the first true anti-Semitic writings were by Manetho, an Egyptian priest and historian who wrote in the 3rd Century BCE. These writings took the usual distaste for “barbarians” further by comparing Jews to lepers. At this point, the dehumanization begins. The loathed group is thought of with disgust. (This becomes important because few will be willing to exterminate people considered to be fully human. One must first mentally categorize them as somehow “sub-human.)

This early anti-Semitism focused on two distinctions which still characterize it: race and religion. Jews were considered loathsome ethnically, but also religiously. They wouldn’t bow down to anyone, man or god.

A number of Roman writers give evidence of anti-Semitism in the Empire. Tacitus was flagrantly anti-Semitic, while Josephus mostly noted the prejudice of others. There is some dispute (naturally) about the extent to which the Jews were singled out for harsh treatment. The Roman Empire wasn’t exactly known for its kindness to conquered peoples. However, many historians consider the later history of European anti-Semitism linked to Roman policy.

Things start to get really inconvenient for the preferred Christian narrative in the 4th Century CE. When Constantine I established Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, he instituted a series of laws restricting the Jewish religion, prohibiting intermarriage and proselytizing, and so forth.

It got even worse in the next century, when Jews were barred from civil service, military service, and, interestingly, the legal profession. Synagogues were confiscated or destroyed.

What was the philosophical reason giving justification for this persecution?

Let me introduce you to the key concept: deicide. The killing of God. It is impossible to understand the history of anti-Semitism - including the Holocaust - without understanding this idea.

Beginning probably around 160 CE, in a sermon attributed to Melito of Sardis, a number of Christian theologians ascribed the blame for the death of Christ to the Jewish race. (Pilate was largely excused from blame because, you know, the Jews made him do it. Don’t even get me started on the theological errors in this philosophy.) The idea caught on in popular imagination, even if it didn’t become an official doctrine of the church.

The history of the treatment of Jews during the Middle Ages is rather sordid. They were accused of witchcraft, and of kidnapping Christian infants to use their blood in their rituals (look up “blood libelfor more on this), and slaughtered and banished during the Crusades. (We conveniently forget that the Crusades sought to free the Holy Land from Jews as well as Muslims.)

Medieval woodcut depicting the draining of a Christian infant’s blood in a supposed Jewish rite.

At this time as well, Jews were excluded from most professions (including law). A few “necessary evils” were left to them. The could collect taxes and rents. And, most importantly, they could engage in money lending.

Why was this?

Well, official Church doctrine at the time forbade Christians from charging interest when they lent money. But, for some crazy reason, people were unwilling to lend out their money if there was no financial reward for doing so. So who would lend the money? Well, perhaps the Jews can.

Ever wonder where the stereotypes of Jews as insolent, greedy usurers came from? From this era. Nobody who owes money loves their creditors. (Capital One’s amusing commercials notwithstanding, banks and credit card companies are hardly looked on with affection…) The contrast was enhanced by the fact that the lenders were Jews. The “not us.” And the debtors were often - usually - Christians. The “us.” Add in the fact that they were used to collect taxes. They were the face of the IRS in those days, so to speak. The fact that they collected for rich noblemen and the richer Catholic Church was insufficient to save the reputation of the Jewish tax collector.

(Side note: this is one of the cases where a literalist theonomy can produce immoral and catastrophic results. The interpretation of the Bible to forbid the charging of interest - despite the Parable of the Talents - was a major contribution to anti-Semitism.)

The Jews were in many cases force to live in ghettos. In fact, the very word “ghetto” comes from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice - the word means “slag” - the original ghetto housed a foundry and the Jews of the city.

Beginning in the 13th Century CE, Jews were forced to wear identifying badges or clothing in many places.

Wait. What was that?

You mean that the little gold stars of David weren’t an invention of Hitler, but actually originated 700 years before the Nazis? Yes indeed! Hitler wasn’t even particularly original. He was just more “successful.”

Painting by Diebold Schilling, 1515, depicting Jews being burned at the stake during the height of the Black Death.
Note the identifying emblems: “Jewish” hats and gold circles.

I could cite dozens of sordid incidents from this period. Those unfamiliar with this period of history would be wise to familiarize themselves with the persecutions of the Jews during the Crusades.

When the Black Death swept Europe, guess who was blamed? I guess when one-third of the population of Europe dies, it is tempting to look for a scapegoat. The Jews were accused of deliberately poisoning wells, and, naturally, tortured and slaughtered as a result.

Some of the literature of this period - and literature about this period - show the prevailing attitudes.

I still remember the harrowing scene in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe when the Jewess Rebecca is kidnapped by the evil knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who attempts to seduce her. At the same time, Rebecca’s father Isaac is tortured by one of the other villains, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, in an attempt to exact a ransom. This wasn’t exactly uncommon. When noblemen grew tired of paying interest on their debts, they confiscated the property of their Jewish creditors, or tortured them to get ransom from other Jewish creditors.

I noted in my post on the early pre-Shakespearean dramas that anti-Semitism makes its appearance in the church plays about the Resurrection.

(From a 13th Century version of Sepulchrum. This would have been part of the easter church service.)

To make the representation of the Lord’s sepulchre, first let three brothers, prepared beforehand and clothed in the likeness of the three Marys advance slowly and as if sad, alternately singing these verses. The first of them shall say:

First Mary: Alas! the good shepherd is killed,
Whom no guilt stained.
O lamentable occurrence!

Second Mary: Alas! the true shepherd is dead
Who gave life to the upright!
O lamentable death!

Third Mary: Alas! vile race of Jews,
Whom a dire madness makes frenzied!
Detestable people!

First Mary: Why condemned ye to an impious death
The Holy One with savage hate?
O direful rage!

Second Mary: How has this righteous man deserved
To be crucified?
O race accursed!

(Leave aside for a minute the fact that Christ said he came to give life to sinners, not the “upright.” Medieval theology was focused on good works as the means of salvation.)

This would be spoken or sung in church. Let’s all sing together, “vile race of Jews…” Okay, so we don’t do that anymore.

Anti-Semitism wasn’t just something a few people clung to. It was an essential part of the fabric of the European world.

One could also list Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice here as a disturbingly anti-Semitic work. Or Fagan in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. How many books mention the stereotype of the Jewish moneylender or pawnbroker?

One might even list Mel Gibson here, with his drunken anti-Semitic rant, which regurgitated the propaganda of the radical Catholic splinter group his father is heavily involved in. (Yes, these people still exist. This is why Jewish groups were worried about The Passion of the Christ. Gibson Sr. was known to be part of organized anti-Semitism.)

It didn’t end with the dawn of the Modern Era.

As European nations gradually moved toward democratic governments, they had to deal with what was termed “The Jewish Question.

How would one treat the communities of Jews? Should they be allowed to vote? Should they be forced to assimmilate? Should they be deported? Resettled? (I find it interesting that a number of anti-Semitic writers supported the creation of a Jewish state, whether in Palestine or elsewhere.)

A Nazi era coloring book. For kids. Caption:
"Do you know him? Without a solution to the Jewish question there will be no salvation for mankind."

In light of this, the term “Final Solution” makes sense. There was a question. A problem. And genocide was certainly “final.”

So what about modern times?

We Protestants tend to remember the Spanish Inquisition as a means of the persecution of Protestants and an attempt to repair the damage to the fortunes of the Catholic Church caused by the Protestant Reformation. This is a true, but incompletely true version of the facts.

The Inquisition wasn’t just used on Protestants. It was an instrument of persecution of the Jews as well. About 30,000 were burned at the stake, and many times that fled Spain and Portugal.

So much for the Catholics. But were the Protestants any better?

I have to admit the next point even though it makes me feel like vomiting.

Actually, the treatise that the Nazis distributed at their rallies, the one that historians consider the single document that most laid the foundation for the holocaust, was written by a Protestant.

And not just any old Protestant either. His name?

Martin Luther.

Yes. That Martin Luther.

This sickens me because there are lots of things I admire about Luther. His insistence on salvation by grace alone through faith. His radical idea of the individual priesthood of believers, without the intervening mediator of the Church, set the stage for the eventual freedom of conscience and religion that would eventually follow. That part of his legacy is good. (At least from the narrative point of view of a Protestant. Catholics may disagree.)

But one cannot simply ignore the fact that it wasn’t Nietzsche’s Man and Superman that the Nazis handed out at that Nurnberg rally. It was Martin Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies.

Reading through that pamphlet is painful, to say the least. It is available online in translation here.

Actually, it IS possible to ignore this pamphlet and its role in the Final Solution. The Protestant narrative has generally chosen to ignore it and the role of the institutionalized anti-Semitism in the policies of Church and State.

So what is in The Jews and Their Lies, described by the Nazi magazine, Die Stűrmer, as the most radically anti-Semitic tract ever published?

Well, a LOT of ad hominem attacks. “Full of the devil’s feces.” “Thieves and robbers.” “Liars.” “Vermin.” See the dehumanization occurring?

This line is so bad it is humorous: “Did I not tell you earlier that a Jew is such a noble, precious jewel that God and all the angels dance when he farts?” (Luther was notorious for his flatulence jokes.)

And what does Luther propose we do with the Jews? An extended quote is in order:

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly ­ and I myself was unaware of it ­ will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. (remainder omitted)
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses (Deuteronomy 17 [:10 ff.]) in which he commands them to obey their teachers on penalty of death, although Moses clearly adds: "what they teach you in accord with the law of the Lord." Those villains ignore that. They wantonly employ the poor people's obedience contrary to the law of the Lord and infuse them with this poison, cursing, and blasphemy. In the same way the pope also held us captive with the declaration in Matthew 16 {:18], "You are Peter," etc, inducing us to believe all the lies and deceptions that issued from his devilish mind. He did not teach in accord with the word of God, and therefore he forfeited the right to teach.
Fifth, I advise that safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let they stay at home. (...remainder omitted).
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. The reason for such a measure is that, as said above, they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess. Such money should now be used in no other way than the following: Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest. With this he could set himself up in some occupation for the support of his poor wife and children, and the maintenance of the old or feeble. For such evil gains are cursed if they are not put to use with God's blessing in a good and worthy cause.
Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3:19). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.

I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful). They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish. They surely do not know what they are doing; moreover, as people possessed, they do not wish to know it, hear it, or learn it. There it would be wrong to be merciful and confirm them in their conduct. If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their other vices and thus merit God's wrath and be damned with them. I have done my duty. Now let everyone see to his. I am exonerated.

At one point, he even goes so far as to say, “we are at fault in not slaying them.”

Wow. Just wow.

That’s pretty hard to defend. Luther, for all his virtues, had a HUGE blind spot.

Again, Hitler wasn’t really all that original. He was just more successful.

So let’s go back to Nietzsche. I already indicated that I am not a fan. Many were, however. Some very interesting people.

First, there were Nazis that were enamoured of his philosophy. Also, Richard Wagner, the composer and notorious anti-Semite. (The villain in The Ring of the Nibelungs is a poorly disguised Jew.)

This might seem amazing, but some of the early Zionists, such as Martin Buber, extolled his philosophy as well. (Buber called him a “creator” and “emissary of life.”)

Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of the American right and left alike, was noted by H. L. Menken as having been influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophy.

In many ways, many people can find themselves reflected in Nietzsche’s writings. The Anarchists were eager to embrace him and call him their own, but he loathed the Anarchists. Just about anyone with a self-aggrandizing lust for power has found “support” for his cruelties in Nietzsche’s words.

Actually, I have come to believe that Nietzsche’s writings are the philosophical equivalent of a Rorschach Test.

What you see in Nietzsche reveals more about you than it does about him. Those with a will to violent power will see an excuse for brutality. Those who exemplify both rugged self-determination and a desire to make the world a better place (such as T. R.) will find inspiration as well.

And, of course, some of the Nazis loved Nietzsche.

In defense of Nietzsche himself, he vowed ”to have nothing to do with anyone involved in the perfidious race-fraud.”

It should not surprise anyone that the Nazis made highly selective use of Nietzsche’s writings. They are nothing if not fertile ground for the gathering of “proof texts” in favor of violent action. One could probably find a quote out of context to support any action from the most noble to the most perfidious.

Again, I am not here as one who particularly likes Nietzsche.

I do think he got a bad rap as the cause of the Holocaust.

Again, all this comes down to narrative. What is your view of the overall sweep of history?

Here is where I think that modern Protestants have gone wrong on this issue. Why they have whitewashed their textbooks.

(And, let me note, even those that do admit the bad stuff done in the name of Christ utilize the “No True Scotsman” fallacy to preserve the narrative. No “true Christian” would do the bad stuff.)

First, human nature is reluctant to admit the mistakes of our forebearers. That’s just basic human nature. It’s why we glorify Christopher Columbus even though most of his actions were despicable. It’s why we like to conveniently ignore Thomas Jefferson’s writings on how much money he made when his slaves had babies.  None of this is fun. It makes me sick, actually. We humans have a lot to be ashamed of in our history.

Second, I want to call attention (as I have before) to what I believe is a fundamental error regarding truth.

I think I may have mentioned Cornelius van Til in passing. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, he had a fundamental disagreement with Karl Barth. (Both were Calvinist theologians. Barth was accused of being a heretic in the circles in which I was raised.) Van Til’s big claim to fame was his idea that Christian and non-Christian thought are fundamentally incompatible and separate. That, in essence, one who is not a believer cannot possibly know or understand the truth about anything at all, because the depravity of Original Sin colors everything.

The conclusion drawn by Conservative Christianity from this idea is that by definition, a Christian will have a more complete view of the truth than a non-believer. As I said, by definition.

As Van Til put it, “The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove if one is not a Christian-theist [he means a regenerate believer] he knows nothing whatsoever as he ought to know about anything … On the contrary, the Christian-theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God.” (From Metaphysics of Apologetics.)

Thus, Luther’s views, even on the Jews, will be, by definition, closer to the truth than, say, Nietzsche. Thus, when it comes time to place blame for an event that was truly and unmistakably evil, one cannot believe that it might be the Christian that is to blame. One must find a non-Christian scapegoat.

So, hey! Some Nazis liked Nietzsche! The Holocaust must have been HIS fault! If everyone would have just been Christian, it could all have been avoided! Don’t look at the 2000 year history of anti-Semitism in Europe! Don’t look at the Crusades! Don’t look at the years of murder, relocation, pogroms, restrictions, gold emblems, and stuff! That isn’t relevant! Look over here! Infidel blaspheming Nietzsche! It’s HIS fault!

Here is the fundamental error. We are unable to admit that we have been wrong in the past (or may be wrong now) because that would cast into doubt the narrative. By definition, we should have been the people with the truth, fighting against those unenlightened unbelievers who by definition could not know the truth.

We really don’t believe that we are as capable of saying and believing wrong, evil stuff. We are immune because of our theological beliefs. When highly inconvenient facts like these pop up, we have to ignore them, because to acknowledge them would in fact threaten the narrative of Christians as the good people versus everyone else as the bad people. (Hmm. Another “us” versus “not us” thing again.)

I am not a historian, and do not claim to have some special understanding of historical thought.

Still, I can see something here that looks to be the common thread in all of this that led to the Holocaust.

Occam’s Razor dates back at least to Aristotle and Ptolemy, who articulated it as, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” It isn’t an irrefutable logical device, and it isn’t true in every situation. It is, however, a useful tool in cutting through unnecessary complications when a simple explanation will do.

In this case, the simplest explanation for the Holocaust is anti-Semitism.

That is the thread that runs through history from three centuries before Christ to the Final Solution. A view of Jews as vermin. Subhuman. Inherently evil. A blight on the earth.

I mentioned dehumanization several times, and I believe it really is the key factor in the switch from “mere” racism to attempted extermination. When we react with contempt rather than compassion, with disgust rather than love, we are one step closer to turning our backs while the gas chambers work overtime.

I think this is another reason we wish to make events like the Holocaust into something someone else would do. We don’t really want to look at how we dehumanize others in our own lives. (This might be an interesting future post.)

A great book about the Nazi era is They Thought They Were Free, by Milton Meyer, which I read last year. It is a sobering look at how easily a small group was able to control a nation of ordinary people.

It also brings out how anti-Semitism was so ingrained in the national consciousness that, even though most would have objected to the concentration camps had they known at the outset, the average person was content to just have the Jews disappear from Germany. Really sobering. We don’t really miss the “not us” when they disappear.

And in this, Hitler was truly brilliant - in an evil way. Germany had been brutally beaten in the last war. The economy was shattered, and crushing reparations loomed. Germany needed a way forward, and a way to find blame for the disaster.

Hitler had the answers. Lots of new programs and optimism. (Many of them objectively good.) And a nice little scapegoat. The target was SO easy to find. Europeans had hated them for 2000 years. Who got blamed for the Black Death? Who sucked the economic lifeblood of good Christians through high interest? Who stood to profit from Germany’s downfall?

Guess who?

Nazi Propaganda poster:
"The Jewish spirit undermines the healthy powers of the German people."

Because the root of anti-Semitism ran so deep, it was never even questioned. And so, the Jews were led away to slaughter.

I don’t want to give the impression that I consider Christianity to have been the cause of the Holocaust. Religion and politics and philosophy and economics were so closely tied together in the Middle Ages as to be difficult to impossible to separate. Each fed on the others.

Likewise, I do want to note that many Christians stood against the Nazis, even at the cost of their lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind as a true hero. Also, Corrie Ten Boom and the rest of her family who helped hide Jews from the Nazis. (There were many, many more, Christian and not, whose stories remain unknown.)

In the same way, while there were those who justified American slavery using the Bible, there were many, many others who helped slaves to freedom and fought to end the “peculiar institution.” Wilberforce put his reputation on the line to end the trade. And so on.

The point isn’t that Christianity can be a force for evil. (Which is true.) Or that it can be a force for good. (Also true.) The point is that religion does not guarantee a full grasp of truth. One can have enormous blind spots that become obvious only in historical retrospect. Sometimes, as in the case of slavery and the Holocaust, the issue was not resolved by a theological or philosophical consensus, but by military force and the cost of millions of lives.

One should not hide the unflattering stuff under the rug and hope that nobody notices. One should not make a claim of universal goodness defeating universal evil by telling a story of history as the triumph of Christianity. One should not let our preferred metanarrative cause us to ignore or spin our errors. History is too messy for that one simple narrative. People are too messy. We cannot afford to be arrogant about ourselves and our role in history.

And, finally, we should take warning from this sordid history that we are treading on dangerous ground when we dehumanize anyone.

In fact, a common thread in the embarrassing statements made by Christian “heroes” of the past is that they contain contempt for others. Sometimes for those with theological differences. (Read what the Calvinists and Arminians said about each other - and the wars they fought.) For those of “inferior” races. For women. Expressions of contempt do not generally look good in the light of subsequent history, as Luther aptly demonstrated.

So we ought to be careful when we find ourselves using the language of contempt. “Disgusting.” “Full of the Devil.” “Lazy.” "The cause of the problems in our country." And so forth. We ought to remember that Christ came not to pat the backs of the “righteous,” but to redeem the untouchables of His time.



Here is an interesting article from The Guardian about how Nietzsche had his legacy plundered by his viciously racist sister. And also about his contempt for Nationalism, Antisemitism, and Totalitarianism. It's worth a read. 


  1. Thank you for this post, Tim. It is cogent, very well-written and has enlightened me on a number of points.

    If you will permit I would like to comment on a couple of things. As a minor point, perhaps in the context of your overall argument for antisemitism you might have given a little more mention to Stalin, Marx, and Bruno Bauer, but obviously the title and focus of your post was on "Nazis, Nietzche, and Narrative".

    On the much broader point, I am a Christian and I believe it is important to distinguish four things:

    1. The way God views the Jews;
    2. The way Jews have view themselves;
    3. The way non-Christian Gentiles have viewed the Jews.
    4. The way Christians have viewed the Jews.

    All four are distinct but so interrelated that a fuller treatment of antisemitism would necessitate all of these subjects. To be honest, after reading the statements on Luther and Van Til, I am tempted to believe that in merely mentioning a "fuller treatment of antisemitism" my comments will be seen somehow as following "the narrative":

    "Here is the fundamental error. We are unable to admit that we have been wrong in the past (or may be wrong now) because that would cast into doubt the narrative. By definition, we should have been the people with the truth, fighting against those unenlightened unbelievers who by definition could not know the truth.

    "We really don’t believe that we are as capable of saying and believing wrong, evil stuff. We are immune because of our theological beliefs. When highly inconvenient facts like these pop up, we have to ignore them, because to acknowledge them would in fact threaten the narrative of Christians as the good people versus everyone else as the bad people. (Hmm. Another “us” versus “not us” thing again.)"

    I do not hold to that part of Van Til's theology that you mentioned (or Luther, for that matter):

    "As Van Til put it, “The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove if one is not a Christian-theist [he means a regenerate believer] he knows nothing whatsoever as he ought to know about anything … On the contrary, the Christian-theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God.” (From Metaphysics of Apologetics.)"

    I do hold to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation (the rules of grammar and the facts of history) to discern the meaning of Scripture. “The meaning of the Scripture is the Scripture.” I believe the heart of hermeneutics is this basic assumption—when God revealed truth, He intended to communicate to us. He used the normal conventions of human language common to the people and time when His revelation came.

    This effects narrative. The Bible reveals that God made the "Hebrews" (called "Israelites" after the conquest of Canaan and "Jews" after the return from Babylon) to be a distinct people owned and called by Him. He entered into a divine, legal covenant ONLY with them. At this point I have just stated what the Bible says i.e., that Jews different from everyone else. I intentionally will not state any conclusion from that in this post. I only want to point out that that is a Biblical fact.

    If early Christians, the Roman Catholic Church, Luther and Van Til wish to conclude antisemitic paradigms from that, then they must do so at the cost of militating against many other passages in the Bible. (Btw, I do not know if Van Til was antisemitic in the least).

    Truth is truth; sin is sin and they are never confused in the Bible. They are only confused when people lean on their own presuppositions in opposition to the Bible. To my shame, I fully admit that I am frequently guilty of that.

    1. I should note that I have no evidence that Van Til was anti-Semitic. I cited him specifically for the influence he has had on Evangelical thought. (I may have to write a post at some point on how his ideas have led to an "us" versus "them" view of culture. Not that this is all Van Til's fault.) I will point out that one of the most influential theologians who followed Van Til's views on truth was Rousas Rushdoony, who was a holocaust denier - and a rather vicious white supremacist. Again, not necessarily Van Til's fault. But Van Til's point of view certainly made it easier to assume the narrative of white Christianity saving the world from the pagan people of color.

      Certainly, I could have mentioned Stalin as a notorious anti-Semite. However, he was pretty much anti everyone. Christians, Jews, non-Russians, non-Communists, intellectuals, and so on. The Stalinist purges were - at least by number of deaths - the worst slaughter of all time. (You might read my review of Raymond Aron's excellent book, The Opium of the Intellectuals for my views on Stalin. I also agree with Aron that Communism is a religious movement.)

      Two points on Marx: First, his views on the emancipation of the Jews was more an economic issue, rather than a racial one, if I am reading it right. Marx was hostile to all religion as the "opium of the masses" anyway, and the two that most concerned him were Judaism and Christianity. He felt that both should be eliminated in order to truly free humanity. (Agree or disagree, this is an issue beyond a simple anti-Semitism.) Second, during the Nazi era, Communism and Judaism were conflated. The Nazis opposed both, of course; but they also denigrated Communism as a "Jewish" philosophy.

      Bauer is a different case. I am not as familiar with his writings (in part because they were never as influential outside of Germany as those of Nietzsche - and few were translated into English) so it is a little harder to analyze them. He certainly appears to have been anti-Semitic. I do find it interesting his theory that Christianity owes much to Aristotle. (I would say that Greco-Roman culture was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and that an understanding of his philosophy greatly aids in interpreting the New Testament. A failure to understand this has led in some circles to an attempt to re-create that culture and call it living "Biblically.")

      I certainly didn't wish to give the impression that it was only the Christians that were anti-Semitic. No, it was nearly everyone! That is the point. Bauer certainly fits that description.

      The point was that it is historically ignorant to attribute the holocaust to ONLY those anti-Semites who were also hostile to Christianity.

      I love your point that we get into trouble when we "lean on our own presuppositions." We certainly do tend to latch on to our own interpretations of Scripture and assert them as "God's Truth," when it really isn't. (The opposition to the heliocentric view of the solar system comes to mind. Note that Aristotle and Ptolemy also held the erroneous view, which made it easier to be widely accepted.)

      This is perhaps why Christ himself urged humility and love. We mortals cannot see the entire picture at the same time. Our own narratives, however good they are, are mere attempts at the truth. (Wait, I think I am sounding like Plato here...)

      Someday, perhaps, in eternity, we will see the ultimate metanarrative, but for now, we have to acknowledge our own limitations.

  2. Very good thoughts. I am planning to read "The Merchant of Venice" with the children this week (Lamb's version, we'll start on the full plays next year) and this brings some things fresh in my mind for discussion.

    1. If you haven't read it, I would recommend reading Measure for Measure as well. The younger Shakespeare cannot *quite* bring himself to show mercy to Shylock. The older Shakespeare takes mercy to its extreme, and insists that everyone receive grace in the end.

  3. I appreciate this - Tim - I just got into George Eliot in past few years - though have only read Adam Bede and Middlemarch - Is your book group an online group or a real time group?

  4. I'm coming a little late to the discussion, I know, but ...
    As a musician, you might want to watch Orchestra of Exiles, about Huberman's desperate attempt to save as many people from what he saw coming as he could.
    You might also want to read Kipling's The Treasure and the Law, in Puck of Pook's Hill (also online). Try to read through the apparent anti-Semitism. The end will surprise you.

    1. Orchestra of Exiles does sound interesting.

      I had completely forgotten about that part of Puck of Pook's Hill. I read that book when I was in Law School and loved it. (The scene describing the ceremony of Seisin was a nice touch!)

      I didn't specifically remember that ending, though. It has been a while. I wouldn't characterize it as particularly anti-Semitic, though. It does describe anti-Semitism - and pretty accurately too; but Kipling doesn't endorse the prejudice but rather celebrates the idea of equality under the law.

      I have tried, without success, to convince my reader friends to read Puck of Pook's Hill. It's nice to run across someone else who read and enjoyed it.