Source: The Shoah Memorial in France
How was the Nazi regime able to carry out the murder of the Jews in the heart of Christian Europe, under the eyes of the ecclesiastics and the faithful? Between prejudice, diplomacy, mutual aid and resistance, why did some men and women of the Church protested and took action, while others remained silent? For eighty years, these questions have continued to question the European conscience.
Beyond the controversies, the recent discoveries linked to the opening of the Vatican archives and to a renewed historiography, offer the opportunity to establish what the positions of the Christian Churches – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – were in the face of the Shoah, by resituating them in a longer context, from the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism to recent memory.
PREJUDICE, SILENCE AND PROTESTS
The Churches’ responses to interwar antisemitism and the Holocaust cannot be understood without taking the long history of relations between Judaism and Christianity into account.
Centuries of Christian teaching stigmatized the Jews while arguing for their survival as “‘witness people”. The Churches long history of hostility towards Jews explains why Christian condemnations of antisemitism were rare and the Nazi, Fascist and ultra-nationalist regimes’ anti-Jewish laws accepted.
Most Christian leaders did not realize that discrimination meant “social death” for the Jews, an exclusion from society that was the first step towards annihilation.
THE “HISTORICAL MEMORY OF THE CHURCH”
From the end of the 18th century (USA and French revolution), to the beginning of the 20th century (Russian revolutions), the long process of Jewish emancipation transformed the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism.
The end of the old regimes and the granting of civil and political rights to the Jews caused the resentment of most of the Christian Churches, which, at the same time, associated Jews with modernity. “CORDIAL SEGREGATION”: ANTISEMITIC LAWS The fascist, Nazi and authoritarian regimes of the interwar period did not hesitate to recycle Christian anti-Judaism to fuel their antisemitic propaganda.
“CORDIAL SEGREGATION”: ANTISEMITIC LAWS
Some Christian Churches backed the Italian and German regimes’ reactionary ideology, perceiving it as a bulwark against Communism and a tool to re-Christianize modern society. Globaly, the Churches approved the first discriminatory measures against the Jews.
However, as the threat of war again loomed over Europe in the late 19300s, some Christians, from ecumenical Protestant movements to Pope PIus X1, grew aware of the dangers of antisemitism and sometimes denounced racism as being incompatible with Christianity. But they were mainly concerned with protecting the rights of the Churches, the Christians of Jewish origin and mixed couples.
The plight of persecuted Jews was only a secondary issue for Christian leaders, who tended to adopt a diplomatic attitude and a cautious reserve. When the war broke out, the Churches feared that head-on protest would trigger reprisals against their own faithful.
VICHY’S RELATIONS WITH THE CHURCHES OF FRANCE
The Churches’ support for Vichy’s National Revolution was in step with the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the French population in 1940, which seemed to have accepted the new regime. The Catholic hierarchy, which was surveyed in this subject, did not opposed its antisemitic policy.
However, this silence concealed a wide range of attitudes, which were not yet made public. Church leaders did not openly express their opposition to the French State’s anti-Jewish policy until the mass roundups in the summer of 1942
THE SUMMER 1942 ROUNDUPS
In June 1942, Adolf Eichmann planned the deportations that marked the start of the “Final Solution” ” in Western Europe, He set a target of deporting 40,000 people from France by the end of the year.
However, the Germans ran into hurdles. They lacked the manpower to carry out the arrests and had to rely on the French State’s collaboration in order to conduct the deportations. The Germans agreed to soften some of the armistice agreement’s terms if the French police and gendarmerie made the arrests and carried out roundups across the country.
Vichy committed to deliver 10,000 people from the Unoccupied Zone, while organizing roundups in the occupied zone, the largest of which took place in Paris.
CHURCH PROTESTS AGAINST THE DEPORTATIONS
It was above all the arrests and deportations in the Unoccupied Zone that prompted the churches to react. In the Catholic Church, only a minority protested: five pastoral letters were read out between August 23 and September 20, 1942. But having been written by senior Church officials, especially Archbishops Gerlier of Lyon and Saliège in Toulouse, they had a significant impact.
Similarly, the Council of the Protestant Federation drafted a text that was read out from the pulpit on October 4. Without attacking the fundamental injustice of antisemitic legislation, the Catholic and Protestant letters denounced the deportations and deemed them contrary to Christian “conscience”, a term found in all the statements.
Because they struck a chord in public opinion, the letters worried the Vichy regime, which did everything it could to curtail their circulation. These protestas also encouraged the faithful and religious institutions to help the persecuted.
“Silence too often seems to make men accomplices of the evil that is accomplished before them. Through your pen the Church has broken the silence and taken the defense of the innocent who are being persecuted in an unworthy manner; she has recalled, in a very timely manner, the precept of charity carried by Christ”.
Father Thomas, Religious Superior of the Marist Scholastica of Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, to Cardinal Gerlier, 10 September 1942.
The Shoah Memorial in France
The Shoah Memorial is a recognized Foundation of public utility. The Shoah Memorial works for the dissemination and teaching of the history of the Shoah to large and diverse audiences, including school children. He designs exhibitions within his institutions and abroad, in France and abroad, and circulates travelling exhibitions.
The Memorial is Europe’s largest research, information and awareness centre on the history of the Jewish genocide during the Second World War. It is a place of memory, pedagogy and transmission.
The arrival of new establishments now strengthens the national base of the Memorial and makes it possible to amplify the actions already carried out in the regions via our local branch in Toulouse, our correspondents in Grenoble, Lyon, Lille and Strasbourg, and our activities outside the walls.
Acting everywhere in France also means reaching out to students and teachers in their schools throughout the country through pedagogical activities that can be done on site – travelling exhibitions, workshops, screenings, meetings, etc. – to show all the consequences of racism and anti-Semitism from the history of the Shoah and other genocides of the 20th century.