Research Report: Summer Research Workshop “Religion, Fascism, Antisemitism, and Ethno-Nationalism in Europe, 1918-1945”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 3 (September 2015)

Research Report: Summer Research Workshop “Religion, Fascism, Antisemitism, and Ethno-Nationalism in Europe, 1918-1945”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, August 3-14, 2015.

By Victoria Barnett, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The rise of fascism, ethno-nationalism, and antisemitism after 1918 was a transnational phenomenon. Across Europe, fascist and nationalist groups, many of them religiously aligned, began to appear, laying the foundation for the subsequent involvement of these groups and their sympathizers in the Holocaust. This research workshop conducted a broader comparative examination of this phenomenon among Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches from different regions in Europe, with the goal of better understanding the broader dynamics at work as well as the specific factors that motivated each group.  What political, cultural, and theological factors in the different religious traditions and regions facilitated the appearance of such groups? Were they aware of and in touch with each other, and what theological or ideological features did they share?  How did religious leaders, theologians, and institutions in the respective countries and churches respond to these developments?  While much research has been done on groups like the German Deutsche Christen and the Romanian Iron Guard, relatively little has been done on the other smaller groups and individuals who played a role—although such movements can be found in all three of the major Christian churches, despite significant theological and ecclesiastical differences between and within Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity.

Three central themes emerged from the workshop discussions: 1) the challenges of understanding the role of “religion” in these developments; 2) the diverse forms of ethno-nationalism and fascism that appear in this period; and 3) the significance of antisemitism as a bridge between these radical groups. Discussions about religion addressed the complexity of the theological understandings and institutional realities of the three traditions, as well as the often-overlooked role of transnational movements and ecumenical organizations. Even within a single tradition like Catholicism, for example, there were very different levels of action, ranging from the role of Vatican officials, to regional bishops’ conferences responding to events in places like Poland, Slovakia, and Germany, to radical individuals like the pro-fascist Monsignor Umberto Benigni in Rome and Charles Maurras, who become a leading voice in the right-wing French Aktion Française. Daniela Kalkandjieva’s presentation on the Russian Orthodox churches identified the very distinct traditions and groups that fell under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, with one group in particular, the Karlovci Synod, emerging as an antisemitic movement that had a transnational following. Other points of discussion included Samuel Koehne’s analysis of Nazi racialized ideology as a kind of “ethnotheism” that resonated among pro-fascist groups but alarmed other bodies, such as the Protestant ecumenical movement and interfaith movements which were driven by an explicit anti-nationalism and anti-racism, particularly in the United States.

The acknowledgment of the complexity of these religious dynamics shaped the workshop approach to the history of fascism and ethno-nationalism, particularly in terms of the different religious “players” that surfaced in these radical movements: religious institutions and organizations, religiously aligned political parties, individual clergy, theologians, and public intellectuals.  The differences and similarities between such figures as the Slovakian priest and political leader Josef Tiso, German Reich Bishop Ludwig Mueller, the Romanian theologian Fr. Liviu Stan, and French Mgr. Ernest Jouin, co-publisher of the radically antisemitic  Revue Internationale des Sociétés Secrètes, were explored.

While none of these figures can be understood independently of the political circumstances that brought them to prominence, it became clear that the primary “bridge” issue among them was the hatred of Jews.  While the roots of such antisemitic discourse rested deep in early Christian theology, more modern forms of racialized, socio-economic, and nationalist antisemitism gained steam in many parts of Europe between the late nineteenth century and the 1930s. In some of the groups studied antisemitism was the dominant theme; in others it converged with ethnic divisions, anti-Communism, and localized political factors.

In many ways this workshop served as a preliminary exploration of a number of important issues for further study. Even these preliminary research findings, however, illustrate that an understanding of the role of “religion” or the churches during the Holocaust cannot be gained purely from the study of specific cases such as the German churches, and that there is much to learn from a comparative look at the entire religious landscape of that era.

The participants in this workshop and their topics are listed here:

  • Pantelis Anastasakis (independent scholar, New York): “The Church of Greece and the Holocaust: The Limits of the Ethnarchic Tradition”
  • Victoria Barnett (USHMM): “International Protestant Ecumenical Interpretations of the Rise of Nazism, Fascism, and Antisemitism during the 1920s and 1930s”
  • Ionut Biliuta (currently at the Simon Wiesenthal Institute for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Vienna, Austria): “When ‘God Was a Fascist’: The Antisemitic Radicalization of the Orthodox Theology under the Impact of Fascism in Interwar Romania”
  • Giuliana Chamedes (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “The Vatican, Catholic Internationalism, and Nation-Building”
  • James Felak (University of Washington): “Catholicism, Anti-Semitism, and the Radical Right in Interwar Slovakia and Beyond”
  • Daniela Kalkandjieva (Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, Bulgaria): “Russian Orthodoxy, Fascism and Nationalism”
  • Samuel Koehne (Deakin University, Victoria, Australia): “Racist, Brutal, Revolutionary: A Conservative Christian View of Nazism by 1933”
  • Kevin Spicer (Stonehill College): “Antisemitism, Catholicism, and Judaism in Germany 1918-1945”
  • Nina Valbousquet (D. Candidate at the Sciences Po Paris, France): “An Anti-Semitic International? Catholic and Far-Right Connections in Monsignor Benigni’s Roman Network (1918-1930s)”