Review of Robert Braun, Protectors of Pluralism: Religious Minorities and the Rescue of Jews in the Low Countries during the Holocaust

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 2 (September 2021)

Review of Robert Braun, Protectors of Pluralism: Religious Minorities and the Rescue of Jews in the Low Countries during the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

By Rebecca Carter-Chand, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum*

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Social scientist Robert Braun has made an important contribution to the study of rescue during the Holocaust, up-ending much of the conventional wisdom and modes of analysis about rescue and rescuers. Braun argues that most studies of rescue are insufficient because they focus too much on motivation, overlook the rescuers’ capacity to effectively carry out the rescue, and do not account for regional variation. This book addresses all three of these factors. Braun is especially skeptical of religious teachings as primary motivating factors, illustrated by a compelling opening anecdote about two Dutch towns in the region of Twente with similar sociocultural profiles but very different responses to the deportation of Jews in 1941. In Almelo many Jews were able to evade deportation with the help of the local Catholic church and 42% of the town’s Jews survived the war. In the nearby town of Borne, the local Catholic churches did not engage in rescue efforts and only 22% of the town’s Jews escaped deportation. Catholic theology and social teaching cannot account for this variation, nor can political or wartime circumstances. Herein lies the guiding question of this study: why are some religious communities willing and able to protect victims of mass persecution and others are not?

Because this is a work of social science, it employs a methodology very different from how historians approach research and thus warrants some explanation. Braun begins with a hypothesis that religious minorities are more likely to assist or rescue persecuted groups from mass violence or genocide. In this framing, religious minorities could hold minority status on a national level because of their small size (e.g., Quakers) or they could be a minority in a given region—Catholics in a majority Protestant region and vice versa. This minority theory is based on the idea that religious minorities recognize a shared vulnerability with other minorities, which triggers empathy. Braun posits that all religious communities seek security and self-preservation. When they cannot achieve this through religious dominance, then pluralism is the next safest option to ensure survival. So, a commitment to pluralism accounts for the willingness factor but minority status also enables capacity. Minority communities are able to engage in clandestine collective action while reducing exposure because of their members’ commitment and their relative isolation (more on isolation below). (40)

Braun proceeds to test this hypothesis through detailed geocoding of Jewish evasion in the Netherlands and Belgium, combining spatial statistics, archival sources, contemporary newspapers and other published materials, and postwar testimony, including materials from Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations program. Numerous graphs, charts, and maps are included throughout these chapters, as well as an insert of ten colour figures. The maps help to explain the story yet the technical presentation of the data makes these chapters largely inaccessible to those not familiar with social scientific methodologies.

Compelling as it is, the limitations of Braun’s thesis are just as important to understand as the argument itself and the data that supports it. There are a number of significant qualifications, the most important being that it is not just minority status that motivates and enables rescue but a certain level of isolation. (112) To illustrate this point, Braun offers the case of a Catholic chaplain in a majority Catholic area of Belgium who carried out a successful rescue operation because he used farmers in remote locations to hide Jews. The farmers were not socially isolated but rather geographically isolated. (170-171) Another crucial factor to consider is that Jews were more likely to survive when their individual networks overlapped with those of isolated minority groups—when doctors and patients and business owners and business patrons interacted on regular basis.

The book’s concluding chapter considers the applicability of the minority theory in other countries during the Holocaust. Here we see that the seemingly straightforward thesis posited in the book comes with some significant exceptions and qualifications. In order for Braun’s theory to work, the rescue must be collective and clandestine. He outlines three exceptions that suggest why we do not necessarily find religious minorities rescuing Jews to the same extent in other settings during the Holocaust and other modern genocides. Religious minorities may not engage in higher levels of successful rescue where: 1) majority elites, both secular and religious, openly object to persecution and cooperate to stymie the persecution; 2) the rescue is highly individualized and does not require coordination, as in Poland; and 3) the minority groups are closely aligned with the repressive apparatus undertaking the violence. (236) This third point is paramount to understanding the actions of religious minorities in Nazi Germany, where most Christian minorities responded to their perceived vulnerable status by aligning themselves with the Nazi state rather than responding with empathy for other persecuted minorities. Yet the book’s thesis may shed light on German religious minorities if we consider how the Volksgemeinschaft offered belonging and affirmation for previously marginalized groups in German society, thus eclipsing the recognition of shared vulnerability and the promotion of pluralism.

As the author points out, studying clandestine behaviour is hard. (116) Due to the extensive documentation available for the Netherlands, this book is able to compare situations on a granular level and isolate individual factors. Although its applicability may not be as broad as the author explores, he has offered a sophisticated methodology and way of thinking about rescue that moves far beyond religious motivation.