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The yellow Jewish star that Jews had to wear during the Nazi regime
Church records were used to classify those with Jewish ancestorsImage: ullstein bild - Schöning

Dark history

January 28, 2010

For years, a tight lid has been kept on the activities of Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches during the Holocaust. But now, historians have shown that many clergy actively contributed to the persecution of Jews.


The history behind the brutal murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust is well known. But as the world remembers victims of Nazi tyranny this week, the role of some German churches in the era's racist selection politics has only recently come to light.

Research published late last year shows that some members of the German clergy made church books, indicating which parishioners had Jewish roots, available to the Nazis.

"The so-called non-Aryans were initially restricted in the occupation sphere and then, starting in 1935, were stigmatized as second class citizens: Whoever did not want that needed to have an Aryan certificate and grandparents who'd been baptized in the Christian church," said archivist Hans Otte, who investigated church aid to the persecution of the Jews in the country church of Hannover.

Ancestry carefully examined

In 1933, the Nazis passed a law that restored professional civil service and quickly demanded that officials, but also physicians, lawyers, authors or journalists provide the so-called Aryan certificate. Priests sifted through the records where personal data such as date of birth, date of baptism, and details about parents and grandparents was noted. If three or four of the grandparents were Jewish, the ministers and church archivists were not allowed to issue the certificate.

"This was something that only the church could certify, since the country had no other sources like the old church books. Civil registry records were first introduced in 1874-75 and all information before could only be obtained from the church books," Otte said.

In fact, even though ministers and church archivists could not yet imagine that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis would end in the Holocaust, church representatives were still uncritically and overzealously involved in the exclusion of the Jews, said the Berliner historian Manfred Gailus.

A group of people stand outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town in November 1938, after Kristallnacht, when Nazis thugs burned and plundered hundreds of Jewish homes, shops and synagogues across the country
One minister was deported by the Nazis after praying in public during the Night of Broken GlassImage: AP

"Many churches were entirely delighted about the fact that through this task they again gained meaning and importance," he said. "Certainly the churches did not have an easy position during the Nazi time, but many country churches held the belief that if we offer this important service to National Socialism, then we may also get some credit."

Church archivists in Mecklenburg and Berlin were particularly proactive. There, the community church books were stored centrally and were systematically evaluated for Jewish ancestors. In Berlin, the minister responsible for this was Karl Themel, a proud National-Socialist who collaborated with public and party officials and delivered the names of those Christians that had Jewish roots.

"Here, millions of index cards were written, up to as far back as the 18th century, in order to assess, when and where in Berlin the steps from Judaism to Christianity had taken place," Gailus said.

But not only Nazi faithful German Christians helped the exclusion of the Jews. Within the more Nazi critical - Confessing Church, Gailus found few ministers who would have tried to protect Christians with Jewish roots against the Nazi pursuit.

"But I also indirectly know of confession ministers who were asked by persons in danger to be protected, but did not do this because their official position stood in the foreground. They said, 'I am a faithful church official and I can only write down what I find in the church books,'" he said.

An exceptional protest

According to research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, there were German Catholic and Protestant churches that did protect the lives of Jews who converted to Christianity or were married to Christian church members. In this way, they saved many lives.

Some religious figures even made the ultimate sacrifice to protest Nazi policies. The Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg in Berlin, for example, prayed publically for Jews after the Night of Broken Glass, a mass anti-Jewish pogrom in 1938, and was therefore sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He died on the way.

Still, few Catholic or Protestant leaders officially protested the Jewish persecution or the Nazis' "Final Solution." After 1945, the clergy's actions during the Holocaust were rarely brought up, said Otte.

"The discussion was very quickly silenced, and then it ceased being a subject altogether. Instead, everyone was embarrassed by these Aryan certificates," he said.

And Karl Themel, the pro-Nazi minister, quickly returned to his parish after the Holocaust, with the cynical reasoning that he had caused the Church no damage.

Author: Michael Hollenbach (ad)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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