Article: “Simultaneously Devout Christian and Antisemite: The Tübingen Theologian and ‘Jewish Researcher’ Gerhard Kittel”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 1 (March 2021)

Article: “Simultaneously Devout Christian and Antisemite: The Tübingen Theologian and ‘Jewish Researcher’ Gerhard Kittel”

By Manfred Gailus, Technical University of Berlin; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

This article was originally published in zeitzeichen, November 2020, p. 50-52. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher. You can view the original German article with images here.

The renowned Tübingen New Testament scholar Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948) was an ardent enemy of Jews. His life’s work was the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) — Generations of theology students have engaged with this standard work. The historian Manfred Gailus writes about a theologian who never showed remorse, even after the war.

Christians, it is often heard and read today, could not also be antisemites at the same time. This idea is false. Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948), the renowned New Testament scholar from Tübingen, was certainly a devout Christian. As a New Testament theologian, he confessed to being passionately anti-Jewish and repeatedly called the New Testament the “most anti-Jewish book in all the world.” As a völkisch-thinking contemporary of the Hitler era, he was also explicitly antisemitic. There is no denying his pious Christianity, which emerged biographically out of Swabian Pietism. But his genuine antisemitism is also without doubt.

In his 1942 memorandum on “The Position of Jewish Studies within the Framework of General Scholarship,” (“Die Stellung der Judaistik im Rahmen der Gesamtwissenschaft”), Kittel judged: Judaism is a disease affecting the German national body, the severity of which does not allow for “Romantic harmonization and idealization.” As soon as Jewish research ceases “to see its subject matter as a non-type, as the absence of type, as a sickness and perversion,” it offends against its purpose to be a servant of the knowledge of nature, of what is genuine, of what is healthy. Precisely because of its singularity and “essential perversion of the genuine national existence,” an independent academic Jewish Studies is necessary. Only on the basis of an accurate Jewish Studies will it be possible to determine the essential appearance of Judaism and to banish the “Jewish danger.”

Kittel wrote these lines in the fourth year of the war, 1942, when the Holocaust was well underway and the annual number of Jewish victims was reaching its zenith. One hesitates to attribute Kittel’s just-cited positions simply to Christian anti-Judaism.

Professor at Age 33

Born in 1888 in Breslau as the son of the renowned Old Testament writer Rudolf Kittel from Württemberg, Gerhard Kittel followed early in his father’s footsteps: theological studies, doctorate, habilitation. It all happened very quickly—at 33 he was professor of New Testament in Greifswald, a little later (1926) holder of the Schlatter chair in Tübingen. Like so many Protestants, Kittel had his genuine Protestant experience in 1933, the year Hitler came to power: joining the NSDAP, participating in the antisemitic German Christians, and writing lively journalism in the völkisch zeitgeist.

Kittel’s booklet “The Jewish Question” (June 1933) can be considered one of the most influential Protestant statements of the epoch. The Christian, too, he said, must have his place in the current front of the antisemitic struggle. Even though he used the term “race” sparingly and rather implicitly, in this book, as in many future publications, he lamented a disastrous “mixture of blood and race” in Germany and saw in it a “poison” that had brought about the “degradation” of the German Volk since the emancipation of the Jews in the eighteenth century and which could only be corrected again through a tough, völkisch policy. Through baptism, the theologian emphasized, a Jew willing to convert does not become a German, but remains a “Jewish Christian.”

Already in 1933 Kittel voted for a ban on Christian-Jewish mixed marriages, mentally anticipating the Nuremberg Race Laws of September 1935. He cautiously distinguished himself from the explicit racial antisemitism of leading Nazi ideologues and advocated what he believed to be ‘better,’ a more academically-based and more strongly Christian-inspired antisemitism.

Kittel’s work was complex. There was the genuine theological researcher with academic contributions to early Christianity and ancient Judaism, which found international recognition. There was the ordained theologian who proclaimed his Christian faith from the pulpit. There was the ethno-political “Jew researcher” who collaborated with the Hitler party and the Nazi state.

The real center of his life’s work, however, was the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), the first four volumes of which were published under his editorship from 1933 to 1942. Generations of theology students have worked with this standard work. For obvious reasons, the question arises to what extent Kittel’s decided anti-Judaism and his ethnic antisemitism were reflected in the contributions of the TDNT. The latest analysis by the Paderborn theologian Martin Leutzsch shows that dedicated antisemitism only occurs marginally in the scientific articles. However, the dictionary is permeated throughout with a structural modern Christian anti-Judaism, in order to develop a Christian “narrative of superiority” vis-à-vis Judaism.

Collaboration with the Nazi Regime

Kittel’s political and ideological collaboration with the Nazi regime was expressed primarily through his participation in the “Research Department of the Jewish Question” of the leading Nazi historian Walter Frank. As a renowned theologian and expert on ancient Judaism, he took part in all four annual conferences of this institute (1936-1939) and published consistently in its antisemitic series of publications. At an event accompanying the Munich exhibition “The Eternal Jew,” Kittel gave a lecture in December 1937 on “The Racial Development of Judaism.” He took part in the Nuremberg Rally in 1938 as “the Führer’s guest of honour.”

In December 1941, Kittel wrote a report on the Paris assassin Herschel Grynszpan, who was imprisoned in Berlin, and presented his Parisian act of violence in November 1938 as the act of a “Talmudic Jew” controlled by international world Jewry. In an article on “Talmudic Thinking and Judaism” (published October 1941), Kittel wrote: “In Talmudic terms, only the Jew actually deserves to be called a person. The gentile is to the Jew as the chaff is to the wheat, like the dust to the pearl, like the miscarriage to the living child, like the animal to the human being. Even the dog still deserves preference over the non-Jew.”

Preparing the Way for the Holocaust

According to Kittel’s postwar account, it was not until the beginning of 1943 that he found out about the systematic killing of Jews in the East through his son Eberhard, who was on military leave in Tübingen. Kittel certainly did not take an active part in the Holocaust. And he must have reacted in horror to the terrible news from the East. The Tübingen theologian will, however, have to be counted among the ones who spiritually paved the way for the Holocaust.

On May 3, 1945, the French occupation forces, which had moved into Tübingen, arrested eight professors from the Eberhard Karl University, including Gerhard Kittel. Six months in prison, imprisonment in a camp for suspected Nazi perpetrators in Balingen, and forced residency in Beuron with a work permit for the monastery library—Kittel was only able to return to Tübingen in February 1948. He renounced his Tübingen professorship, but demanded an appropriate pension and wished to be able to continue the publication of the TDNT. On July 11, 1948, the theologian died at the age of 59, following a serious illness. Kittel did not die of inner brokenness or spiritual contrition.

The denazification arbitration chamber proceedings initiated against him did not reach a conclusion during his lifetime. Based on the state of affairs then and in comparison with other “cases,” he would have been acquitted. In his justification, “My Defense” (1946), there are only minor traces of a subjective self-awareness of guilt. He admitted complicity in the general catastrophe of the Germans. Individually, however, as a devout Christian, he felt at peace with himself. He wrote in 1946 that he had not touched a hair on a single Jew. Rather, as a courageous Christian confessor he had contradicted the Nazi worldview and its “vulgar antisemitism” and had worked in the party in this critical sense. With this resistance, he had risked a lot and had repeatedly been threatened with concentration camps.

Not Touched a Hair

Much about the “Kittel case” was kept silent in the post-war period. The Württemberg regional bishop Theophil Wurm, who was also the first chair of the postwar Protestant Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, or EKD), defended the theologian against accusations in a 1947 “expert opinion” and ruled that it was part of Professor Kittel’s ecclesiastical theological teaching assignment to show the “divine causes of the rejection of the people of Israel.”

Even in the 1970s, the Tübingen church historian Klaus Scholder had difficulty dealing with the suppressed topic. In his substantial 900-page work on The Churches and the Third Reich (1977) he mentions Kittel only marginally once in the notes. It was Scholder’s assistant at the time, Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, and the American historian Robert P. Ericksen, who simultaneously addressed the taboo topic, starting in the late 1970s. Siegele-Wenschkewitz apparently ventured too far too early with her courageous reappraisal, thereby losing the prospect of a university career as a church historian within the German theological faculties.

Further Reading: Gailus, Manfred, and Clemens Vollnhals, eds. Christlicher Antisemitismus im 20. Jahrhundert. Der Tübinger Theologe und „Judenforscher“ Gerhard Kittel. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020.