Six Million Crucifixions

Going to Mass on Sunday and Killing on Monday

by Gabriel Wilensky

During the Nazi period it was common for ordinary individuals to go about their normal lives, as their Jewish neighbors were harassed, beaten, or worse, literally in front of everyone in every street corner. As World War II began, the persecution of the Jews became much worse, until the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was put into full effect in 1941 after the German invasion of the
Soviet Union. Beyond that point, harassment and serious civil rights violations turned into deportations, ghettoization and systematic genocide. During this period, up until the conclusion of the war in 1945, both ordinary Germans and their local helpers in France, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere managed to reconcile the persecution and mass murder of Jews with their religion and morality. Over a thousand military chaplains, both Catholic and Protestant, tended the souls of the perpetrators in the field. Franz Stangl, commandant of the Sobibór and Treblinka death camps, found solace for his role in mass murder from the involvement of Christian clergy during the assault on the Jews. In essence, the perpetrators went to Mass on Sunday and they murdered Jews on Monday.

Typically, apologists for the Catholic or Protestant churches argue that these were not true Christians. To them, those perpetrators that went to church or participated in field services for soldiers were not honest, true Christians. Are we to believe these men were coaxed to attend religious services, or do they mean no “good” Catholics received these services? Or do they mean to say they did receive religious services, but not in the form of going to Mass on Sunday?

Maybe the German perpetrators did not have a German Church near the concentration camps, but they managed to receive religious solace nonetheless. They celebrated Christmas and other religious holidays, and they had access to priests. It’s misleading to say that field chaplains were restricted to the German armed forces, because even though the Order Police and the Einsatzgruppen killing squads were SS, they were attached to the army and operated right behind the front lines, so the military chaplains tended the souls of both the foot soldiers (who by the way, also often merrily participated in the exterminatory actions) as well as the SS.

I can agree with the claim that many Christians joined the Nazi party due to opportunistic reasons, but to believe they did not agree with the platform is naïve and does not correlate well with the fanatical fervor displayed by them (as everyone else). Or were the tens of thousands cheering Hitler in the party rallies only the ones that joined for ideological reasons while the opportunists stayed at home? Or maybe the opportunists were forced to cheer by the Gestapo? Sure, young Germans were conscripted into the army, but many joined voluntarily, and many joined other organizations, including the SS, because they believed in the platform. The men in the Order Police and the Einsatzgruppen were not coerced to kill, were not forced to pose for the camera while humiliating old Jews, were not forced to act in front of the cameras as they took pictures and movies of themselves and their comrades killing Jewish men, women and children. They were not forced to share the stories of their actions with their friends and families. No SS man was forced to kill if he didn’t want to, and they were given the option to opt-out with no consequence if they felt they were not up to the task.

Defenders of the Church will tell you that the perpetrators were simple, uneducated men. Not so. Many among the perpetrators had doctorates and other degrees, and many were professionals: doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. Some were simple men too, of course.  I mentioned Franz Stangl earlier. What about Otto Ohlendorf, the commander of one of the Einsatzgruppen? He was responsible for the brutal murder of 90,000 people, and he was an economist and a lawyer. Were these “simple SS men”? Apologists often mention that SS men no longer belonged to the church. Again, this is not true. Almost a fourth of all SS men remained in the Catholic faith despite all efforts to make them leave it. Think of Spain in the 15th century for another example of pressure—and failure—to make people abandon their faith. By 1940 over 95% of the German population were still tax-paying members of their respective Protestant or Catholic churches.

Even if the majority of the perpetrators did leave the church, that did not take away their heritage, their education, or their beliefs. This is not something you just switch off. It did not work on the Jews when they were forced to convert to Catholicism in the Middle Ages, it did not work in the Soviet Union, and it did not work with the Nazis.

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