Chapter Note: Karl Schwarz on Gerhard Kittel

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 4 (December 2021)

Chapter Note: Karl Schwarz on Gerhard Kittel

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)

“Sie haben [. . .] geholfen, den nationalistischen Einbruch in unsere Kirche abzuwehren.” Anmerkungen zu Gerhard Kittel und dessen Lehrtätigkeit in Wien

This chapter by Karl Schwarz appeared under the above title in Uta Heil and Annette Schellenberg, eds., Theologie als Streitkultur, Vienna University Press (as published by Vandenhoek & Ruprecht), 2021, 319-339. This volume also serves as the entirety of the Wiener Jahrbuch für Theologie, vol. 13, 2021, “Herausgegeben im Auftrag der Evangelisch-Theologischen Fakultät der Universität Wien.”

Karl Schwarz, author of this chapter, has spent his career as a member of the Protestant Theological Faculty at the University of Vienna, while also filling important administrative positions at the university in several stages of his career. In addition, he has been a long-time member of the multi-national editorial board at Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, which is how I met him decades ago. In the early 1990s, Schwarz contributed a chapter on the Protestant Theological Faculty at Vienna in the important volume edited by Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz and Carsten Nicolaisen, Theologische Fakultäten im Nationalsozialismus, (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1993).[1] In the chapter reviewed here, Schwarz revisits a portion of that topic, focusing on Gerhard Kittel and the years from 1939 to 1943. This was a time when Kittel, famous as the founding editor of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, took leave from his position at Tübingen, moved with his family to Vienna, and lectured as a visiting member of the Protestant Theological Faculty at the University of Vienna.

Schwarz touches upon several aspects of this Viennese moment in Kittel’s career. For example, the Protestant Theological Faculty at the University of Vienna, since 1938 within German borders, imagined that it might become an enlarged, more important institution as a “Borderland Faculty” (“Grenzlandfakultät”), reaching out to the “volksdeutsche Diaspora” in southeastern Europe.[2] Adding someone with the stature of Gerhard Kittel might have been useful, and both the Theological Faculty and Kittel seemed to have had this in mind. However, Schwarz then highlights another issue in this piece. That is the contrast found between one major portion of Kittel’s oeuvre, his very harsh work regarding Jews and Judaism, ongoing during those years in Vienna, and the glowing letters of support and admiration he received from Bishop Gerhard May and others during his postwar confrontation with denazification.

Schwarz’s chapter appears under a title that begins with this direct quote, taken from a letter Bishop Gerhard May of Vienna sent to Gerhard Kittel on 29.11.1946: “You have … helped protect us against a nationalistic attempt to take over our church.” Kittel then used this letter along with several others (e.g., from the theologian Hans von Campenhausen, postwar Rector at the University of Heidelberg) as character references appended to Kittel’s own Meine Verteidigung.[3] That latter document, sent to numerous friends and colleagues to convince them (and denazification authorities) of his innocence, followed eighteen months of postwar experience that suggested his guilt: his arrest by French occupation troops at the end of World War II, his removal from his professorship at Tübingen, his six months in prison, his eleven months of internment, and then his “sort of ‘Klosterhaft’” at Beuron, a form of ongoing confinement at a monastery near Tübingen.[4]

For purposes of Kittel’s denazification defense, Gerhard May’s letter could be understood as a “Persilschein,” the sort of postwar attestation named for a famous brand of German soap. These testimonies were given the nickname to identify their main goal: to wash clean a person’s Nazi past and get him or her past the denazification process. Despite the “Persilschein” term, with its satirical implications that we might be tempted to apply to Gerhard May’s letter, it is possible, of course that Bishop May had something important and appropriate to say in Kittel’s defense. He was Kittel’s bishop during those years from 1939-1943 when Kittel lectured at the University of Vienna and he and his family lived in Vienna. May in this letter made the claim for Kittel that he, as a professor of New Testament in the Theological Faculty at Vienna, worked hard to protect the Theological Faculty and the Protestant Church from the worst excesses of Nazi ideology and practice.

That claim provides the essence of the question that Karl Schwarz pursues. Were Bishop May and other important figures in the Protestant Church in Austria (an integral part of Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945) accurate in their defense of Gerhard Kittel? Were they correct postwar in separating professors of theology from Nazis? Were real Christians not Nazis? Did May’s description of Kittel as a fellow Christian really establish him as one who stood up for his faith and for his co-believers against Nazi encroachment? (Among other things, Bishop May in his postwar remarks repeatedly referred to the Confessing Church, almost certainly exaggerating its level of support in Austria as well as its actual level of opposition to Hitler and National Socialism.) Kittel did in fact grow up in a pietist family and continued that tradition within his own family. He also taught the normal things for a Protestant professor of theology. In his four years at Vienna, he lectured on the synoptic Gospels, as well as on various books of the New Testament: Romans, Ephesians, Philemon, etc.[5]

However, Kittel also held a second position at Vienna, giving lectures in the Faculty of Philosophy. That is where he dealt most directly with his theories about Jews, Jewishness, and the role of Jews in history and in Germany. In particular, Kittel presented his own theory, identifying a dramatic change from traditional Jews in the Old Testament to the diaspora Jews of the modern world. This distinction about Jews allowed Kittel to accept the Old Testament and its place in the Christian Bible, when many “Deutsche Christen” wanted to exclude it. He thus stayed within the boundaries of normal Christian beliefs. It also allowed him to accept the career of his father, Rudolf Kittel, a famous professor of Old Testament and the translator of a modern version that became well known. Kittel justified his respect for Jews of the Old Testament by developing a theory that modern Jews had changed entirely during the diaspora. From about 500 BCE to 500 CE, he argued (in line with modern antisemitic prejudice), Jews lost their healthy roots in the soil of their homeland and their occupation as farmers. They then spread out in all directions, becoming the uprooted, money-oriented, disreputable, and noxious Jews of medieval and modern Europe.[6]

Kittel presented this idea in his keynote talk at the opening conference in November 1936 of the Nazi-oriented Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands. It was here that Kittel described the alleged transformation from biblical Jews to modern Jews, how “the admirable Jews of the Old Testament degenerated into the loathsome Jews of the modern world.” This lecture, “Die Entstehung des Judentums und die Entstehung der Judenfrage” [“The Origin of Judaism and the Origin of the Jewish Question”], soon appeared in the first issue of Forschungen zur Judenfrage, the new journal of research on “the Jewish question” supported by the Reichsinstitut.[7] This journal published a total of seven annual volumes, with Kittel becoming the single most active contributor. It was the sort of work and alleged expertise that helped make him seem a suitable scholar also to work on the propaganda exhibition, “The Eternal Jew” in 1938 in Vienna, and “The Physical and Mental Appearance of the Jews” in 1939.[8]

Karl Schwarz considers two seemingly contradictory explanations for Kittel’s attitude toward Jews, either a Christian antijudaism with its 2000 years of history and its basis in religious belief, or a modern antisemitism with its more recent history, its racist underpinnings, and its significance within the now discredited Nazi Germany. The former could be the sort of distinction that might allow Bishop May—whether honestly or surreptitiously—to ignore the antisemitic side of Kittel’s academic work. Was Kittel simply a pious Christian, researching and writing a spiritual critique against Jews? That could be explained as part of a long Christian tradition, not least including a quite vicious version contributed by Martin Luther. From this point of view, Kittel was simply a professor of theology. Bishop May’s claim that Kittel had always tried to protect Christianity and the church, implied that he actually held an “anti-Nazi” stance. By this argument, it was only in his role in the Faculty of Philosophy–a role ignored by Bishop May–that he indulged in antisemitism, the sort of thing for which Nazis postwar were being condemned.

Throughout the balance of Schwarz’s chapter, he pursues the abundant evidence that Kittel both participated in and contributed to the racial antisemitism of the Nazi regime. I recently noted in a publication about Kittel, edited by Manfred Gailus and Clemens Vollnhals in 2020, that Gerhard Kittel returned to Vienna in the summer of 1944 for a guest lecture on “The Race Problem in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity” [“Das Rassenproblem der Spätantike und das Frühchristentum”] In that lecture he described “Christianity as a bulwark against the Jewish threat” [“das Christentum als Bollwerk gegen die jüdische Bedrohung;” which I then described as proof of his “complicity in the Nazi persecution of Jews” [“Mittäterschaft an der Judenverfolgung der Nazis”]. I was pleased to see that Karl Schwarz quoted those two passages and affirmed my conclusion.[9]

I believe that Kittel describing Adolf Hitler as late as 1944 as a “twin bulwark” alongside the Christian church, saving Christian Europe from the Jewish menace–indeed from the Enlightenment as a whole–tells us all we need to know about where Kittel’s allegiance can be found. Karl Schwarz seems to agree. Though the title of his chapter begins with Bishop May defending Gerhard Kittel as a good Christian and an important defender of Christian culture, Schwarz concludes,

The most recent publications, calling back to memory a scholar with a worldwide reputation, show how he allowed himself, pushed by the spirit of the times, to instrumentalize the antisemitic politics of National Socialist rule—and indeed, they show how the proclamation of antijudaism turned into a Christian antisemitism. Added to that, the years of his work in Vienna register clear signals that no character references from the side of the church could hide.[10]

[Die jüngsten Publikationen rufen einen Wissenschaftler von Weltruf in Erinnerung; sie zeigen, wie er sich vom Zeitgeist getrieben für die antisemitische Politik der nationalsozialistischen Machthaber instrumentalisieren liess—und wie in der Tat aus dem proklamierten Antijudaismus ein christlicher Antisemitismus geworden war. Dazu sind auch in den Jahren seines Wirkens in Wien deutliche Signale zu registrieren, über die auch die Leumundszeugnisse der Kirche nicht hinwegtäuschen können.]

This chapter by Schwarz is a very useful treatment of the four years in which Kittel was based at the University of Vienna and also a part of the Protestant church in that region. It is interesting. It is important. And, as Schwarz shows, it confirms that the broad and deep critique of Gerhard Kittel that has developed in the past four plus decades is accurate and justified.


[1] Additional publications by Schwarz on the Protestant Theological Faculty at Vienna include “’Haus der Zeit.’ Die Fakultät in den Wirrnissen dieses Jahrhunderts,” in Karl Schwarz and Falk Wagner, eds, Zeitenwechsel und Beständigkeit: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Evangelisch-Theologischen Fakultät in Wien 1821-1996, Schriftenreihe des Universitätsarchiv 10, Vienna 1997, 125-204; Karl Schwarz, “Zwischen kulturpolitishen Kalkül und theologischem Interesse: Die Ehrenpromotion von Nichifor Crainic an der Universität Wien,” ZBalk 56 (2020), 69-85; and Karl Schwarz, “Bejahung—Ernüchterung—Verweigerung: Die Evangelische Kirche in Österreich und der Nationalsozialismus,” JGPrÖ 124/125 (2008/2009), 18-38.

[2] Schwarz, 324-327.

[3] For a recent treatment of Kittel’s defense statement, see Matthias Morgenstern and Alon Segev, Gerhard Kittels Verteidigung: Die Rechtfertigungsschrift eines Tübinger Theologen und “Judentumsforscher” vom Dezember 1946, Berlin 2019.

[4] Schwarz, 320. Kittel died in the summer of 1948 at the age of 59, without having been given permission to return to his home (much less his position) in Tübingen.

[5] Schwarz, 330.

[6] Loyal to Nazi norms, Kittel also emphasized in his Nazi publications that the “pure” racial identity of Old Testament Jews was destroyed by sexual mixing during the diaspora. Several of his contributions to Forschungen zur Judenfrage tried to identify and prove this proclivity, in line with bizarre Nazi ideas about the imagined racial purity of “Aryans,” and hence, the special danger of racially mixed (and even sexually predatory!) diaspora Jews. See my chapter on Kittel in Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch (Yale University Press, 1985), especially 61-68. See also my first article on Kittel, “Theologian in the Third Reich: The Case of Gerhard Kittel,” Journal of Contemporary History, 12 (1977), 595-622.

[7] See Robert P Ericksen, “Schreiben und Sprechen über den ‘Fall Kittel’ nach 1945,” Manfred Gailus and Clemens Vollnhals, eds., Christlicher Antisemitismus im 20. Jahrhundert: Der Tübinger Theologe und “Judenforscher” Gerhard Kittel (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2020). The actual quotation here comes from this chapter of mine, note 7, p. 33 in the Gailus and Vollnhals volume. This volume by Gailus and Vollnhals, based upon a conference on Kittel they convened in 2017, is a very important recent contribution on the “case” of Gerhard Kittel.

[8] Schwarz, 319.

[9] Schwarz, 333, and Ericksen, “Schreiben und Sprechen,” 27, note 7.

[10] Schwarz, 338.