Seminar Report: Annual Seminar for Seminary and Religious Faculty, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., June 18-22, 2012

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2012

Seminar Report: Annual Seminar for Seminary and Religious Faculty, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., June 18-22, 2012

By Lauren N. Faulkner, University of Notre Dame

Recently sixteen scholars met in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for a five-day seminar led by two expert historians of modern Germany, Victoria Barnett and Robert Ericksen. Every year, the museum hosts a seminar for seminary and religious faculty via its Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. It is aimed primarily at academics and teachers whose interests are focused on religion, but participants’ backgrounds are diverse. This year, the topic was the role of the churches during the Third Reich, and it attracted an impressive array of scholars. In addition to instructors of religion, which include the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths, there were also several historians of modern Germany in attendance, as well as biblical studies experts, a professor of ethics, and a professor of philosophy and religion who also teaches environmental science. This diversity of interests contributed to a lively and enriching discussion.

The seminar was held entirely in the museum, which showcased its multiple uses: in addition to being an active museum and memorial, it is also a research center and a teaching resource, with an impressive library and an enormous archive. Seminar participants took advantage of the location and were given time to tour the museum and familiarize themselves to library and archival holdings. They were also introduced to Paul Shapiro, the director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Suzanne Brown-Fleming, director of the Visiting Scholars Program, and fellows working at the museum’s archives.

There were five distinct units through which the seminar participants explored the topic of church complicity in Nazi Germany: Church Reactions to National Socialism; Anti-Judaism/Antisemitism: Continuities and Distinctions; Rescue, Resistance, and Opposition; Debates About Denazification and Postwar Justice; and Church Statements that Address the Holocaust. Ericksen’s chapters about the churches in his new Complicity in the Holocaust (2010) were required reading; Barnett’s text, Bystanders (2000), was recommended, as was Peter Fritzsche’s Germans Into Nazis (1998). In addition to several articles, the group also read primary documents from the period, including the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Barmen Declaration, Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas Message, the postwar Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, and “We Remember,” from 1998, among others. Reading was completed before the commencement of the seminar, so that each day the bulk of seminar time was devoted to intensive discussion.

If the focus of the seminar was the Christian churches during the Third Reich, the theme was complicity, and one of the primary goals of Barnett and Ericksen was to invite participants to complicate their understanding of the term, and how it might be applied to the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany. “Complicity”, a shared responsibility for an ultimate outcome, inculpates those who were not perpetrators of murder, but who nonetheless contributed to the construction of an environment in which the Nazi genocide became possible. Evidence gathered over the last seven decades has clarified some elements of the complicity puzzle: the postwar efforts by both churches to misrepresent what had been reality under Nazism, combined with deliberate dishonesty during the denazification process, are now widely recognized and condemned; there is abundant evidence of broad, enthusiastic support for Hitler in both churches, among clergy as well as laity; and there is a painful lack of evidence for consistent, open opposition from the churches to Hitler’s regime. Scholars identify various factors undergirding church behavior: the nationalism of German church leaders, their tendency to view democracy with hostility during the Weimar era, their reluctance to embrace modernist trends (particularly among the Catholics), and the attraction of certain of Hitler’s values, not the least of which was a relentless opposition to communism.

The organization of the seminar, the deliberate and thoughtful direction of the two instructors, and the interdisciplinary nature of the discussion that took place resulted in an exciting and original investigation of a topic that has been exhaustively scrutinized. Barnett and Ericksen came determined to immerse the participants in the historical and theological dynamics of church complicity. The unit readings and the seminar discussion, therefore, exposed participants to both the history of the topic and the theological “ecosystem” of the men (and a few women) whose actions and behavior were the focus of the seminar.

Over the course of the five days, the backgrounds of individual participants created an informed, vibrant discussion that often complicated the conventional understanding of the subject. The concept of complicity was one, as were the concepts of forgiveness, mercy, and resistance. Jewish-Christian dialogue and post-Holocaust Christian political theology surfaced frequently, and the group benefited immeasurably from the willingness of certain participants, Christian and Jewish, to debate these issues with intellectual curiosity and respect. The discussion of Christian antisemitism, especially in the New Testament, was riveting.

It may be easy for specialists of the Third Reich and the Holocaust to assume that knowledge of church complicity with Nazism is widespread and uncontroversial. But this seminar demonstrated the inaccuracy of such an assumption. Every participant came away with a firmer grasp on the nuances and complexities of the situation, and a resolution to ask the difficult ethical questions about responsibility and guilt, both in their own work and with their students. Barnett and Ericksen were the perfect discussion guides throughout the seminar, offering their considerable expertise as well as personal anecdotes and experiences. The Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies should be commended for organizing and funding the seminar, which was a resounding success in the eyes of the participants.