Franklin H. Littell, "Ethics After Auschwitz," in Henry James Cargas, When God and Man Failed: Non-Jewish Views of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan, 1981, pp. 38-50

Abstract by Jerry Darring


After discussing the relationship of the Church Struggle to the Holocaust, Littell addresses the uniqueness of the Holocaust. "The Holocaust may be a 'plumb line' held for comparative purposes against other cases of mass murder. It may not be bracketed finally with them" (43). Its significance for Christians was underscored by Martin Buber, who said in the early years of Nazism that "the significant fact that this hour is a test of Christianity is not our concern; what concerns us is that this hour is an ordeal by fire for Jewry" (44). Littell writes that his problem consists in the fact that most Christians apostatized during this time of testing and went over to the Adversary. While it is true that Christians were persecuted under the Nazis, the fact is that most of the baptized enthusiastically supported Hitler, and this included most of the top leadership of the churches: there was little or no protest against terrorism, sadism, and mass murder. Littell quotes Bishop Otto Melle of the German Methodist Episcopal Church announcing to American Methodists a half year after Kristallnacht: "Hitler is God's man for Germany." He writes: "In a sound Christian profession after Auschwitz it will be acknowledged that the vast majority of the martyrs for the true Lord of History in the twentieth century were Jews" (46).

Christians today need continuing interaction with the Jewish people for the sake of authenticity: "Whenever a Christian self-definition has been attempted without that reference, as in some other ethnic and cultural setting apart from the Jewish, Christians have slipped into heresy and from heresy into great wickedness" (46-47). Jews can treat the Holocaust dispassionately, if they wish, but for Christians it is different: we are compelled "either to keep silent or to begin anew with totally fresh categories of thought and ways of acting" (48). The study of the Church Struggle and Holocaust must be built around two foci: a commitment to the most strict canons of scholarship, and a commitment to let the stories work in our minds and consciences so as to improve our moral earnestness and action.