Looking for background reading for something I'm writing on Bonhoeffer I discovered the recently published Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology, edited by R. Kolb, I. Dingel and L. Batka, (OUP: 2013). Of the 47 essays a number of them are to do with the reception of Luther's theology, and its legacy in different historical periods. Essay 41 is on the reception in the Nineteenth Century; chapter 42 then jumps forward to Marxist reception. There is no chapter on the reception and use of Luther in Germany in the first half of the 20th Century. There is a chapter on 'Luther's Views of Jews and Turks' (chapter 30).
I did a Google search for Holocaust and there is one occurrence of the term in the entire 688 pages - in chapter 30 on the Jews and Turks. I did a further search for Susannah Heschel whose book on The Aryan Jesus. Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany is a watershed in scholarship and research into the role of many Christian theologians and of significant sections of the German Lutheran church in the construction of an anti-Semitic mindset. Her name does not occur once.
It would be very unfair to make a critical judgement of this volume solely on such slight evidence as a Google search. But it's the omission of a chapter that spooked me, that jump of a hundred years missing out mid 20th century central Europe. I came away perturbed at such a lacuna in an authoritative academic Oxford Handbook on the subject of Luther's theology and its reception. There is only an introductory glance in chapter 30 referring to the Holocaust, and that is the one reference found by Google. The catastrophic impact of Luther's anti-Semitic writings and the direct role of a significant number of 1930s German theologians, academic and clerical, in giving such lethal prejudice the oxygen of scholarly credibility, is surely significant enough to have required an essay in its own right?
The same trawl on Amazon led to Before Auschwitz. What Christian Theologians Must Learn from the Rise of Nazism, by Peter Hinlicky. Susannah Heschel's name comes up with 21 hits. The relation between a number of German Christian theologians and the fate of the Jewish people in Europe from 1930 to 1945 is fully explored in this book.
Back to Bonhoeffer. I've been exploring the context of his writing in the 1930's and the increasingly dangerous call to follow Jesus through the minefield of National Socialist anti Semitic policies, and the crossfire between Church politics oscillating between collaboration and compromise, with significant numbers of Christians driven by conscience to stand firm in confession of Christ over and against sworn allegiance to Fuhrer or Fatherland. Bonhoeffer of course was a Lutheran, as was Martin Niemoller and Helmut Thielicke, so while Luther's anti Jewish writings were exploited in the interests of National Socialists by a number of leading academic theologians, there was no inevitable or essential connection between Luther's anti-Jewish writing, Lutheran theology and ideological anti-Semitism as political goal seeking religious justification. Many, many German Christians were not so easily taken in by such religious opportunism collaborating with political cynicism, with vast lethal consequence.
It is this complexity of motive and manoeuvre, the difficulties in establishing blame or innocence, culpability or naivete, and even culpable naivete, that gives rise to the moral perplexity and theological embarrassment evoked for subsequent generations of Christians, by Luther's anti-Jewish writings, and their reception culminating in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. These issues remain far too important, and that period of political and ecclesial history an episode of too recent tragic memory, for it to be subsumed into minor references and a page or two here and there, in what is a recognised academic reference work published by a highly respected University publisher, on the reception, legacy and content of the theology of Martin Luther.
I was so perturbed by this that I wrote a personal email to Professor Robert Kolb, one of the editors, and had a courteous and thoughtful reply, seeking to address my concerns from the standpoint of the editorial team and its decisions. I can see the Editors' point, that the issues of hard editorial choices meant that other important perspectives were also omitted; and that German reception of Luther in 1930's Germany competes with other important areas of interest for inclusion in full essay treatment; but editorial choices are inevitably powerful interpretive tools in the survey of a subject field, defining the relative importance of what is in and what is not.
I am glad too that my concerns are at least alluded to in several other essays in the collection, with pointers to further resources. But I remain perturbed - because the Holocaust is a permanent defining watershed in Jewish-Christian relations, requiring a disposition of Christian openness, repentance, self-critique and continuing reflection. Added to this, the active collaboration of prominent German Christian theologians using Luther's writings, baleful tendentious biblical eisegesis, and a theological overlay of public respectability, to give comfort, distorted credence and ideological validity to the anti-Semitic policies of National Socialism, was of critical importance in creating a zeitgeist in which the Holocaust was thinkable and made possible of implementation.
Such vast tragic evil makes an essay on Luther's theology, early 20th Century Germany, and the road to the Holocaust and beyond, self-choosing in the list of essential contents in a volume on Luther's Theology. The absence of such a treatment remains for me, a matter of deep regret, in an otherwise richly resourced compendium of current scholarly perspective on Luther's theology.