Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Religion and the War

Title: World War II soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1944
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With World War II's casualty toll measured in scores of millions, one might initially imagine that the war brought a total eclipse of religious sentiment. Certainly, partial eclipses occurred in both Europe and Asia, as war's barbarity ran to extremes in such atrocities as the systematic destruction of Jews in the Holocaust or the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre. Yet at both institutional and personal levels, religion continued to shine forth—sometimes erratically or unpredictably or fleetingly and not always for good but also not always for evil.

Both good and evil characterized the record of the Roman Catholic Church. Priests in Poland heroically resisted Nazi oppression and served with distinction as chaplains at the front, often ministering to both Protestants and Catholics, and churches, monasteries, and individual Catholics helped to shelter Jews from the Holocaust. Yet nationalistic Catholic priests in Slovakia and Croatia sanctioned or participated in ruthless persecutions of non-Catholics, especially Jews and Orthodox Serbians. Meanwhile, Pope Pius XII, elected to the papacy in March 1939, refused to condemn publicly Nazi atrocities against Poles, Jews, and other peoples. One might say charitably that Pius XII took the long view of the war, putting the survival of the apostolic episcopate and the Vatican ahead of the uncertain efficacy of protesting war crimes.

Certainly, the Catholic Church in Germany expressed nearly unqualified support for Adolf Hitler and the war, although these expressions mainly called for German men to serve the Fatherland at the front. Most Catholics agreed with the rhetoric of "crusade" that the Nazis employed against Bolshevism. Open opposition to Nazi policy, such as that in sermons delivered by Archbishop Galen of Münster in 1941 condemning Germany's euthanasia program, was decidedly uncommon. Those few Catholics who dared speak out sometimes paid with their lives, among them the Jesuit Alfred Delp, who, as a member of the Kreisau Circle, sought to define a new Germany after the Third Reich's anticipated demise.

Protestant opposition to the Nazi war effort was equally rare and could prove just as deadly. Ludwig Müller, a devotee of Adolf Hitler, became Reich bishop of the German Lutheran Church. His plan to meld the church and National Socialism was supported by the Deutsche Christen (German Christians) but rejected by Hitler, who instead sought to curtail Christianity's influence throughout the Reich.

The less numerous "Confessionals" within the church were more critical of Nazi policy. Among their members were Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who founded the Pastors' Emergency League to resist Nazi interference in church activities, the subjugation of faith to Fatherland, and the unbending and unreflective obedience to duty. Arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer penned his famous Letters and Papers from Prison, calling for a "religionless" Christianity in which believers could profess the faith as a matter of individual conscience. They could thereby avoid religious institutions that had been irredeemably compromised by Nazism. Bonhoeffer paid for his elevation of individual conscience and his involvement in the plot against Hitler with his life in April 1945.

The de facto policy of Nazi Germany was essentially noninterference with organized Christianity as long as religionists supported or acquiesced in the activities of the regime. Those who refused to take oaths of loyalty, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, were sent to concentration camps, and many perished. (The U.S. also imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses for refusing to register for the draft.) The Nazis themselves attempted to undermine Christianity with neopagan rituals and hypernationalism. Among more fanatical Nazis, the Führer became a new messiah, Mein Kampf a new bible, and iron crosses and swastikas the new crucifixes. Yet most Christians in Germany experienced little distress in preserving traditional Christian symbols and beliefs while professing allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi Party. Opposition to the war became a force in Germany only after major military setbacks, notably the defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943.

In countries occupied by Germany, religion sometimes served to unify resisters to Nazi rule, as it did in Poland, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, and other nations. Yet the opposite could be true as well, at least initially. In France, the Catholic Church supported head of state Henri Philippe Pétain and the Vichy government, since the latter drew its strength from conservatives sympathetic to Catholicism, a contrast to their Republican or Socialist counterparts in the interwar period. As Nazi occupation policy grew more oppressive, French Catholics such as Jacques Maritain began calling for heartfelt examinations of individual conscience and resistance to totalitarian forms of government. Maritain's Christianity and Democracy (1943) pointed the way toward the Christian Democratic parties of the postwar period.

Where religious identity mattered in deadly earnest, of course, was among Jewish communities scattered throughout Europe. Widespread European anti-Semitism, internecine struggles over the desirability and practicality of Zionism, and debates over orthodoxy and proper observance of Jewish law further fractured an already fragmented Jewish community, which was then systematically annihilated by the Nazis. Yet Judaism persisted. The Nazis could destroy the Jews' synagogues, cut off their beards, and even murder them, but they could not annihilate their faith. Despite Nazi prohibitions, many Jews practiced their faith surreptitiously in the ghettos, demonstrating fortitude and fidelity to their forefathers and precipitating acts of moral and violent resistance against their nominally Christian German persecutors. The Holocaust led some Jews to reject God, whereas others embraced him more closely. Few Jews were left unchanged.

Jewish emigration to Palestine in the 1930s and Zionist ambitions had provoked Arab revolts against British rule from 1936 to 1939. In 1939, attempting to appease Arab demands, the British limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 for the next five years. By quelling Arab dissent, the British were able to redeploy two divisions from Palestine to the home islands to resist the anticipated Nazi assault on Europe. Dissatisfied with the British response, the grand mufti of Jerusalem approached the Nazis, a move that compromised his moral authority and the political credibility of the Palestinian Arab cause.

Yet the Muslim-Jewish split in Palestine was arguably less significant during the war than the shared goal of checking Nazi aggression. Thus it was that the British Eighth Army, which included thousands of Indian Muslim troops, thwarted Nazi ambitions to conquer Palestine, thereby saving the tens of thousands of Jews residing there. After the war, Britain relinquished its mandate over Palestine to the United Nations, whose support of a Jewish state led to Israel's creation but also to inflammatory disputes over Jerusalem and other territories—disputes that are unresolved to this day.

In Britain and the United States, organized religion lent its moral authority to the holy crusade against Nazi Germany. The Nazi combination of megalomaniac territorial ambition suffused with genocidal racial ideology was so transparently evil that few people in the West objected to combating Germany after 1941. Such was not the case earlier in the war, when some viewed fascism as a dangerous but nevertheless more congenial alternative than communism. In his Four Freedoms, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that democracy best preserved people's freedom to worship. The four chaplains—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—who together lost their lives when the U.S. Army transport Dorchester sank in 1943 set a powerful example of ecumenism and religious unity that served the Western democracies well in prosecuting the war.

Josef Stalin also recognized the importance of religion to fighting spirit. Soon after the German invasion in June 1941, he suppressed the League of Militant Atheists (an organization founded in 1917). He then permitted the reappointment of a patriarch (Sergius) for the Russian Orthodox Church (Peter the Great had eliminated the post in 1721). Orthodox priests—now freed from prison, with their rights to preach guaranteed and their churches reopened to the faithful—rewarded Stalin with calls for a holy war to defend the homeland against bloodthirsty and barbarous Nazi "jackals," a call that was answered with considerable enthusiasm by many Soviet citizens.

The Pacific Theater witnessed even more intense expressions of religiously inspired nationalism. In Japan, the state Shinto religion merged with militant and nationalistic expressions of the Bushido warrior code to elevate emperor veneration and expansionist rhetoric to unprecedented heights. In such a setting, battle became a Shinto purification rite to cleanse Asia of corrupt, materialistic Westerners. Japan planned to incorporate Asia and the Pacific Basin into a "co-prosperity sphere" ruled by its army and navy, agents of the divine emperor. Militarism extended even to Japanese Buddhist sects, such as the Nichiren, which aggressively sought to provoke incidents in China to justify Japanese expansionism and imperial exploitation.

Meanwhile, Western missionaries in China played pivotal roles as witnesses to Japanese war crimes, most notably the infamous Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre (1937). Faced with the fanaticism of Japanese soldiers, sailors, and aviators, the West responded with its own "war without mercy," in John W. Dower's memorable phrase, that caricatured the Japanese as irredeemable, inhuman vermin. With Shintoism viewed in the West as a debased form of primitive nature and ancestor worship, there was little room for Christian accommodation.

Whether it was Japan's divine sense of mission against Western domination or Nazi crusades against godless Bolshevism or Allied efforts against degenerate and murderous Nazism, World War II often became a moral and religious crusade with little tolerance for pacifists or conscientious objectors. Nevertheless, avoiding military service on religious grounds was possible, if suspect—a fact that cast a shadow over even long-term pacifists such as the Society of Friends (Quakers). Conscientious objectors were tolerated most in countries whose existence was threatened least, such as the United States and Canada.

Here, one must note the success of Mohandas Gandhi in pursuing a nonviolent protest against British rule in India. Its tragic denouement in Hindu-Muslim violence that led to Gandhi's assassination and the India-Pakistan split in 1947 should not obscure the spiritual power of Gandhi's war of ideas.

Religion was perhaps most crucial in the postwar world in helping to restore morality and human decency after the genocidal catastrophes and horrific casualties of the war. Ecumenicism was plainly more evident; the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948, brought together 147 different churches from 44 countries. Evangelism within Christianity also increased as resistance to communism became the new raison d'être of many European and American Christians. Meanwhile, Jews attempted to recover from the enormity of the crimes against them while simultaneously defending the state of Israel.

Many people, Jews and Christians alike, were left to ponder the question raised and the confession made by Christians such as Emmi Bonhoeffer, who asked how a German population consisting of 95 percent baptized Christians could have supported or acquiesced in Nazi war crimes. Many believers confronted (or sometimes actively avoided) this and similar questions of conscience after 1945.

William J. Astore


Further Reading
Anderson, Richard C. Peace Was in Their Hearts: Conscientious Objectors in World War II. Watsonville, CA: Correlan Publications, 1994.; Bartov, Omer, and Phyllis Mack, eds. In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001.; Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Scribner's, 1997.; Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999.; Halls, W. D. Politics, Society and Christianity in Vichy France. New York: Berg, 1995.; Helmreich, Ernst C. The German Churches under Hitler. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1979.; Hoover, Arlie J., and Richard V. Pierard. God, Britain, and Hitler in World War II: The View of the British Clergy, 1939–1945. New York: Praeger, 1999.; Sittser, Gerald L. A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
 

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