Tom Lawson. The Church of England and the Holocaust: Christianity, Memory and Nazism. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2006. ix + 207 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-219-5.
Reviewed by D. L. LeMahieu (Department of History, Lake Forest College)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2007)
Anglicans and the Shoah
Based upon a doctoral dissertation, this monograph fills an important niche in the complex history of the Holocaust. Alert to the recent discourse about history and memory, Tom Lawson proves especially adept at contextualizing his topic. The historical realities that he uncovers do not always match what contemporary readers might expect. The Church of England responded to the Holocaust through a prism of unchallenged assumptions about the relationship between Christian faith and political ideology.
During the 1930s the Church developed its views of National Socialism in response to events such as the arrest of Martin Niemoller, a priest from the suburbs of Berlin who criticized the Nazi's collectivist view of religion. Tried but acquitted of treason in 1938, he was nevertheless sent to a concentration camp by the Gestapo. Niemoller became a seminal figure for Anglicans who considered him an heroic upholder of Christian civilization and a defender of democratic principles against an oppressive dictatorship. A leader of the "Confessing Church" which resisted the National Socialists on many fronts, Niemoller at the same time applauded the resurgence of German nationalism during the 1930s and also harbored resentments against Jews. For Niemoller and his British admirers in the Church, Nazi racial policy was not the centerpiece of their opposition to Hitler.
Most Anglicans greeted the Munich agreement enthusiastically though once war was declared in 1939, the Church embraced the struggle against an ideology perceived as deeply antithetical to the values of the New Testament. As news of the systematic killing of Jews by Nazis began to reach Britain in 1942, leaders of the Church of England reacted forcefully. In particular the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, engaged actively in a public campaign condemning the slaughter and advocating that the British government do more to help Jews, including the speedy acceptance of struggling refugees. Temple's eloquence did little to sway British official policy and when he died suddenly late in 1944, his efforts were not sustained by his successor who concentrated on the Church's role in post-war planning. Lawson makes the case that Temple's public campaign was never widely supported within the Church and that throughout the war Anglicans failed to grasp or absorb the lethal centrality of anti-Semitism for Hitler and the Nazis. The Church of England interpreted the Holocaust as only one part of a larger barbarism that endangered all of Western civilization. Moreover, Anglicans refused to consider that Christianity bore any responsibility for the catastrophe. Lawson argues that for both religious commentators and ordinary parishioners the answer to secular ideologies such as Nazism lay in reinvigorating the Christian evangelical mission, including the conversion of Jews. The mass killing of Jews by Germans, inhabitants of a country with a rich cultural heritage, failed to provoke a crisis of conscience among most Anglicans. If anything the Holocaust reaffirmed their Christian faith.
After the war the Church of England strongly supported reconciliation with Germany. Anglicans made a clear distinction between the Nazis, who they believed hijacked the German state because of the injustices of the Versailles Treaty, and ordinary Germans, who it was claimed bore little responsibility for the Third Reich and themselves became victims of Hitler's madness. The Anglican press opposed denazification after the war because they regarded such programs as the actions of a conqueror not a liberator. Church officials criticized trials for war crimes and warned against the flawed justice of a victor imposing its will. They repudiated the public humiliation of a country that needed to rebuild itself for a positive future rather than dwell on the horrors of its aberrational Nazi past. Revenge was not Christian and it was not British. Lawson writes in detail about leading Anglicans such as George Bell who campaigned on behalf of a number of prominent Nazis, including Erich Koch who was heavily responsible for genocide within the Soviet Union. Then too, the Cold War presented a more immediate totalitarian challenge to Christian values. Once an ally, the Soviets now became an enemy that Germans, including Nazis, only recently opposed. Pragmatism and Christian principles became intertwined as Anglicans vigorously supported actions against the secular threat of an expanding Communism.
Lawson's monograph draws upon an impressive range of archival sources and secondary materials to make its case. Sensitive to nuance, he manages to describe controversial opinions that he neither exculpates nor patronizes. He develops his arguments clearly, though not without a good deal of repetition. Confronted with a difficult subject, he exhibits solid historical judgment about the ambiguities of collective memory and the unintended consequences of religious conviction unencumbered by doubt.
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D. L. LeMahieu. Review of Lawson, Tom, The Church of England and the Holocaust: Christianity, Memory and Nazism.
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