Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A few years ago, my wife and I went to Germany to visit our son--who was living in Munich at the time. Munich is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. It is filled with amazing architecture and ancient, ornate Catholic and Protestant churches. And every now and then one comes upon a plaque or a monument indicating where a synagogue or Jewish business once stood, or commemorating a shameful event such as Kristallnacht. These serve as reminders that the city's tranquil beauty and deep Christian history did not prevent it from becoming the epicenter of perhaps the greatest evil ever perpetrated in the history of humankind.
Outside of Munich is the Dachau concentration camp--still intact and open as a museum and memorial site. It is difficult to reconcile the horrors that happened at Dachau with the idyllic countryside in which the camp sits. During our visit we learned that Dachau was the Nazi's prototype concentration camp and that the first prisoners there were political opponents and people who spoke out against the Nazis: journalists, editors, activists, artists, some religious leaders, Quakers, etc. Also sent to Dachau initially were gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses and immigrants, who had been rounded up. The camp was conceived and developed by Munich's Chief of Police, Heinrich Himmler. Later the camp swelled with Jews and had to be expanded. It was a place of brutal torture, summary executions, and hideous medical experiments. By the end of WWII, tens of thousands had died there.
What was seared into my soul upon that visit was the juxtaposition between the civility and culture of Munich and the depraved barbarity of Dachau. The people of a deeply religious city--festooned with places of worship--unleashed the most Satanic of events: the Holocaust.
According to History Today, "Hitler’s regime was legitimised by various Christian churches from the start. The Vatican state was the very first to recognise Nazi Germany diplomatically. In 1933 the Deutsche Christen (the German Church) declared its support for the unity of cross and swastika. More ominously, 1941’s joint declaration of German Protestant Evangelical leaders urged that the ‘severest measures against the Jews be adopted and that they be banished from German lands.'" After all, Hitler played to deeply ingrained prejudices and promised to make Germany great again.
Those Christian leaders who did speak out in the early days against the obviously anti-Christian agenda of the Nazi government were far too few. They were criticized as alarmist, and then as extremist, and then as unpatriotic, and ultimately as traitors. By and large, the Church failed to be salt and light and a city on a hill. The rest is history.
(This is an edited re-post of a blog entry from November, 2015)