Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus
Thomas Albert Howard

After World War II, the German Protestant pastor Wolfgang Gerlach placed an iron sculpture depicting a broken cross in his church in Essen, a symbol of Christians’ sins of commission and omission during the Third Reich. It was an apt gesture, for despite a handful of notable exceptions Christians failed miserably in meeting the ethical and theological challenges presented to them by the Nazi seizure of power and the discrimination, persecution, and atrocities that followed.


Sadly, leaders often failed the laity, as numerous pastors and theologians, embittered by the aftermath of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, were caught up in the extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism (both religious and racial) that gave credence to Nazi politics, and provided a theological penumbra of legitimacy to the racialist worldview that made the Holocaust possible.

In a book that deserves more attention than it has received, Susannah Heschel provides a case study in failed leadership by documenting the activities and influence of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. Founded in 1939 in the city of Eisenach, directed by the Protestant theologian Walter Grundmann (1906–76), this institute exerted significant influence, both in the world of academic scholarship (it came to enjoy affiliation with the prestigious University of Jena) and in Protestant ecclesiastical life more generally.

Reflecting the views of its leader, Grundmann, the Institute had one overriding goal: to demonstrate that Jesus was not Jewish and that his teachings in fact contravened everything that Judaism stood for. A catechism (Germans with God: A German Catechism) prepared by the Institute in 1941 summed up the central message. “Jesus of Nazareth in the Galilee proves in his message and behavior a spirit that is in opposition to Judaism in every way. The struggle between him and the Jew became so bitter that it led to his deadly crucifixion. Thus Jesus cannot have been a Jew. Until this very day the Jews persecute Jesus and all who follow him with irreconcilable hatred. By contrast, Aryans in particular found in Jesus Christ the answer to their ultimate and deepest questions. So he became a savior of the Germans” (126).

Besides preparing catechisms, the Institute engaged in translation projects, prepared hymn books, held numerous conferences, and sponsored the scholarship and speaking obligations of its members. While the Nazis shut down many theological faculties and institutions, this one got a pass—even if Nazi officials were perhaps more often bemused than appreciative of the rarified scholarly support it offered.

Ideas have consequences. Institute members were not mere stooges of the Nazis, but honestly believed in the cutting-edge nature of their scholarship as a sign of the vitality of progressive Protestantism. In doing so, they drew heavily from several nineteenth-century assumptions. First, that serious theological engagement with the Old Testament, as practiced by the Church Fathers, medievals, and Reformers alike, had a negligible role for Scriptural exegesis; indeed, the Old Testament was practically worthless for ­cutting-edge Christian theology. Second, that critical methods pioneered by the History of Religions School (religionsgeschichtliche Schule) were sacrosanct, and that the Biblical critic in good faith could happily excise a virtually endless amount of putatively Jewish encrustations from the New Testament in search of some, elusive ­“non-Jewish” bedrock of Christian truth. Finally, that race ­mattered, and that Jesus was likely not a Jew since he hailed from the Galilee, which, according to some nineteenth-century scholars, was believed to be peopled by non-Jewish, “Aryan” peoples during the time of events of the New Testament. Only if Jesus came from another race, Institute members earnestly believed and sought to persuade, could one explain such cherry-picked passages as Jesus’ chasing money lenders from the temple or his many confrontations with the Pharisees (the Jewish “establishment”). To Institute members, Heschel concludes, “racial theory did not appear insidious, but rather a new and sophisticated social scientific method of analysis.... [R]acial difference constituted a realm of order comparable to laws of nature, expressed in human groups, culture, religion, and topography” (64).

The activities of the Institute more or less corresponded to the years of World War II—with some of its busiest phases, in ghoulish irony, corresponding to the more intense phases of the Holocaust. “As Europe was being rid of Jews, the Institute was creating a Christianity rid of its Jewishness” (141).

While the Institute ceased to exist after 1945, many of its members enjoyed notable careers in the postwar period. The director Grundmann, for example, went on to become a leading pastor, seminary director, and author in the GDR, opportunistically shifting his political loyalties to the new Communist regime. He even became a Stasi informant! One might reasonably detect and rue the problematically close relationship that German Protestantism has had with political authority since the Reformation. “[Grundmann] abandoned his passion for Nazism quite easily, but his abiding belief that theology should suit the interest of the state would place him during the 1950s and ‘60s in the same position he had held in the 1930s and ‘40s” (257).

Such postwar “rehabilitations” of Institute members owes much to the success of a particular argument. Many Nazis, in particular the so-called “Nazi intellectual” Alfred Rosenberg, viewed Christianity as a “Jewish” religion, which ultimately should be eradicated. The task of the Institute, many of its members claimed after the war, was simply to try to carve out a small place for Christianity—albeit a dejudaized Christianity—against unfavorable political winds from key Nazi higher-ups. In addition, members wrote exculpatory letters of support for one another, vouched for one another’s scholarly credentials, and attempted to disassociate their work from the murderous events of the period. Indeed, the very political, ecclesiastical, and scholarly networking opportunities that the Institute facilitated during the war years, Heschel concludes, made it possible for many to enjoy “unhampered” postwar careers. Well-placed friends have consequences, too.

Even if the subtitle suggests more than is delivered, The Aryan Jesus is an exceptionally well-researched book, drawing from a broad range of unpublished and archival materials, many of which have only become available since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Personal interviews, correspondence with the still-living, and Heschel’s mastery of the extant secondary literature on various related topics, moreover, suggest that scholars will have to reckon with this book for some time to come. It will take its place alongside Doris Bergen’s Twisted Cross (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) and Robert Erikson’s Theologians under Hitler (Yale University Press, 1986) as a classic for this period and topic.

But it is more than a scholarly achievement. This is an impassioned book written by the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the twentieth-century’s leading Jewish voices, who fled the Nazi menace when confronted with the very political and intellectual pressures analyzed in this study. At some level then, the book might be regarded as act of filial piety—an attempt, if not to right, then to expose the wrongs of a period which witnessed “the utter collapse of moral compass” (267). Although the book bristles with a spirit of j’accuse, this spirit is never indulged wantonly, but channeled into compelling scholarship that serves high-mindedly moral, not bombastically moralizing, purposes.

Finally, the book should make a welcomed contribution to Jewish-Christian dialogue, albeit one that will prompt some uncomfortable soul-searching among Christians, as the book is unsparing in its contention that an embedded anti-Semitism has long been part and parcel of Christian theology. And even if this did not cause the Holocaust in any simple, connect-the-dots sense, as Heschel recognizes, its nurture of widespread moral torpor toward the Jewish plight cannot be discounted. In particular, the book should prompt Christians to reflect candidly on what a fully ­post-anti-Semitic Christian theology should look like? Or, from another angle: Can the universalizing claims of Christianity be affirmed while fully acknowledging the haughty supercessionist and often violent, attitudes that Christians have often displayed toward Jews? (see: Robert Spaemann, “Sollten universalistische Religionen auf Mission verzichten?” in Otto Kallscheuer, ed., Das Europa der Religionen. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1996: 277–89.)

If anything, perhaps the Institute’s utter disparagement of the Old Testament will prompt Jews and Christians alike to seek succor together in the wisdom of its pages. Given the ineradicable shadow of the Holocaust, which today falls on the children of victim, perpetrator, and bystander alike, perhaps as good a place as any comes from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O LORD. Lord hear my voice!” (NRSV). From here, Christian and Jew together might go on to heed the lines of the author’s father: “The world cannot remain in a vacuum. Unless we make it an altar to God, it is invaded by demons” (In: Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Time for Neutrality,” in Susannah Heschel, ed., Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).

The Aryan Jesus has rendered the world a little less hospitable to the latter.

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