Commentary Magazine

God's First Love, by Friedrich Heer

Christian Anti-Semitism

God’s first love: Christians and Jews over two thousand years.
by Friedrich Heer.
Translated by Geoffrey Skelton. Weybright and Talley. 530 pp. $15.00.

Obscurity of aim and a somewhat vexing discursiveness combine with other literary lapses—surplus detail, a tendency to proof-by-quotation, excessive citation—to render difficult an objective assessment of this work by Friedrich Heer, a. Catholic who teaches the history of ideas at the University of Vienna. The title (in German as in English) helps little; a student of mine calls it condescending. Young men know that first loves are usually outgrown. Although Professor Heer attests that the divine covenant with Israel is everlasting, he offers anything but a systematic or concerted study of Election, and he wanders far from the promise of his subtitle. Yet after these things are said, this remains a powerful work of the first importance.

God’s First Love—the German edition was awarded a Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig Medal—is at once a record of personal anguish and an indictment of all Christendom, including much in the original Christian kerygma, for its centuries-old and continuing responsibility for anti-Semitism. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the ‘Good News’ of the Redeemer,” Heer declares at the outset, “became for millions of Jews the messenger of death. Millions of Christians have based their hatred of the Jews on it, have taken it as a call to destroy or at least enslave the Jews, ‘the people who killed Christ.’” Heer proceeds with the indictment: Christians increasingly identified the Jews as “a devilish, accursed race” whose destiny was either death or banishment or compulsory baptism. The story reached one fateful climax in Martin Luther’s portentous charge that the Jews had changed God into the devil. In the 1940’s Rome was to prove incapable, intellectually and spiritually, of keeping even the Jews of Rome from the murderers’ hands. Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy accurately points to the churches’ culpability “for everything which had happened between 1918 and 1945, in and around Germany, and in Europe as a whole.” The Christian world’s callous indifference and tacit approval enabled Hitler to turn Europe into a Jewish graveyard. Both actively and passively, Christendom helped to murder Jews. A number of attempts “have been made since 1945 to depict a resistance movement of the church against Hitler; in fact, the only resistance lay in the defense of the clergy’s rights in their narrowest sense.” Nor did the Holocaust do anything to end anti-Semitism. Since 1945, new acts against Jews have been perpetrated in many countries that were formed by Christian principles. It was “historically consistent that at the Second Vatican Council no fundamental declaration on the Jews was produced which might have led to real amends for Christian guilt towards that people.” And, Heer concludes his grim catalogue, the world now looks on while another genocide of the Jews is planned in the Middle East.

While Heer’s historical findings are hardly original, and some of his allegations are debatable, his work is notable, not only for its information, but for its prophetic strictures and passion. He is honest, loving, and, above all, angry. He joins a gathering international partnership of Christian thinkers possessed: men and women who simply will not tolerate Christian theology and behavior that mean harm to the Jewish people. Heer’s standing ground is the truth that “the greatest temptation to which Christianity can succumb” is “to love God at the expense of human beings.”



The salience of Heer’s contribution is his application of social-theological psychoanalysis to the history of anti-Semitism, and his search, within the same scientific domain, for ways of salvation from this dreadful malady.

What is the relation between the attack upon Man and Christendom’s attack upon the Jew? The most momentous question provoked by Heer’s work (though not by explicit design) is whether anti-Semitism is merely one more of the devil’s unnumbered stratagems, just another species within the monster genus of prejudice-persecution-annihilation, or whether it is the devil himself, the moral cancer that suffuses the whole and destroys the entire human creation of God. The assertion is sometimes dared that the very imperium of the societal libido is, at least in the West, somehow relatable to anti-Semitism. For David Polish, for example, “the truth of every cause is validated or found fraudulent in the way in which it confronts the Jewish people.”1

A “both-and” judgment upon this question is not impossible. However, by his inconclusiveness, Heer falls somewhat short of even this option. Often he construes anti-Semitic outbreaks as essentially dependent variables born of externally sovereign forces. Thus, “the collapse of the European ‘balance of power’ for which England had struggled for centuries . . . was basically responsible for the Jewish tragedy culminating in 1945. . . . The masses did not ask for anti-Semitism; they merely wanted to hate.” On the other hand, Heer sometimes appears to opt for the all-decisive power and peculiarity of anti-Semitism. It has its own offspring: racialism, anti-Communism, clericalism, and anti-clericalism. The author also supports a finding in psychopathology that the anti-Semite is simply describing and living out his own disturbed condition. Essentially, according to this argument, anti-Semitism lives within the collective psyche of Jew-haters. The presence/absence and behavior/ non-behavior of Jews are, in a large sense, irrelevant. The disease requires only imagined Jews, in contrast to ordinary prejudice, for which real blacks, Slavs, et al. are needed. Adolf Hitler was entirely right: were there no Jews, we should have to invent them.

Although Heer fails to establish a final position on the question I raise, the data he amasses surely point to the Einzigartigkeit of anti-Semitism, whether we concentrate upon the anti-Semite as such or upon the Christian anti-Semite. The true anti-Semite does not comprehend Jewishness as a mere instance of human evil; he comprehends all human evil as the incarnation of Jewishness. As one Hungarian anti-Semite deduced, since the Jews refuse to face “the truth” about themselves revealed by the continuing persecutions of them, they are even the cause of anti-Semitism. There is nothing for which they are not to blame. They are, in a word, the devil.



All the above has been made possible by historic Christianity, which does not teach that there are bad Jews along with bad Huns, Vandals, or Muslims, but teaches that the Jews killed God. To be a Jew is to deserve to die. It is an ineluctable truth that historic Christian thought has preponderantly agreed that the devil and the Jew are one. “The theologians had proved [Jewish guilt] a thousand times”; the Jew was no longer a human being. Adolf Hitler could quite correctly see himself as simply carrying out what the Church had for centuries preached and practiced against the Jews. And Hitler, as Heer reminds us, “was able right up to his death to enjoy the support of responsible leaders of both major Christian churches.” He was never excommunicated and his writings were never placed on the Index.

These things, says Heer, are explicable, not by delineating purely historical pressures and counter-pressures, but rather by grasping the primordial conspiracy of Christendom with the demonic powers. The helpers and sympathizers of Hitler were everywhere, and especially in the churches. The roots of the Church’s failure to oppose the Nazi policy of liquidation lay in its ambivalence toward Jews.

At this point, however, a difficulty presents itself. Whenever Heer appears to support a declaration that anti-Semitism is at once sui generis and the key to the decline and fall of Western man, he draws back. In the very moment that he numbers among the causes “of a specifically Christian sense of outrage” the Jew Jesus as a stumbling block in the presence of much older faiths, and the fifteen centuries in which “Christendom has shown itself to be the people guilty of God’s murder,” he retreats, curiously, into the indiscriminate truism that “every murder of a man is deicide”—“for ‘Jewish’ any other hate object can be substituted at will.”

Again, Heer writes: “Christendom today stands close to the abyss of self-destruction through nuclear weapons. This suicide follows in historical terms logically from the practice, stretching over fifteen hundred years, of killing the blood relations of the Jew Jesus, the son of the Jewess Miriam, Mary. It is being prepared at deeply concealed levels of the subconscious. This subconscious is aware that Christendom has failed in its attempts to liquidate the Jews and to conquer the world.” But once more Heer draws back. He goes on to intimate that anti-Semitism is simply a species of the wish to destroy and die. It is almost as though in the death camps we merely gave ourselves practice in the latest techniques of self-destruction. Here is a failure to point out that in the gas ovens and crematoria we disposed of them. Rather than reducing our destruction of Jews to an undertaking that provides inspirational help and incentive toward our future self-annihilation, Heer could have moved, on the basis of his own reasoning, to the conclusion that nuclear suicide will comprise Christendom’s specific revenge upon itself, as upon a bungling world, for the one unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost: the failure to kill every last Jew.

A most severe lapse is the categorical attestation that “the disregard of the fate of the Jews between 1918 and 1945 can only be understood as part of a general disregard for Man and the world.” Heer’s own chronicle of the unending, universal horror of Christian anti-Semitism ought to have produced the very opposite judgment: that the disregard of the fate of Man between 1918 and 1945 (as in other periods) can only be understood by means of the disregard of Jews. “The Jew Jesus was to blame. The Jew Jesus has to be repressed.” The blame and the repression were visited upon the Jews, and then only derivatively upon other men. Self-destructiveness is not what accounts for anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism accounts for our self-destructiveness. Anti-Semitism is the special way we murder God; thus, in a sense, we have already destroyed the world.

Finally, Heer ignores the obvious. Men unanimously deplore nuclear destruction; this was anything but the case with the destruction of the six million Jews. The Nazis were, in fact, surprised by the world’s silent admiration of them, as they were by the absence of any serious resistance to the “Final Solution.” But the author’s own obsessive fear of the coming nuclear end of mankind acts to obfuscate the truth that in Christian anti-Semitism the works of the devil very “carefully” and “responsibly” usurp the works of God. Because of this, a universal nuclear death is, morally speaking, a comparative triviality which may, in fact, be stumbled into rather than—as was the case with the destruction of European Jewry—reasoned out as the “will” of God executed by avengers for Jesus Christ. Only the devil can manufacture and deliver devilish accusations. Psychologically and morally construed, the charge of Jewish devilishness demonstrates the satanic conquest of the Christian soul. The Christian is the “Jew” he despises. I would even go so far as to say that the Jew is in fact the “Christian”: Jewish ideals and behavior are the polar opposite of the Church’s accusations. The Jewish world-conspiracy is the invention of demon-ridden Christian conspirators.



The way we construe the nature of anti-Semitism will not only influence our reading of the centuries-old record; it will also determine, fatefully, our choice of weapons in waging the warfare to which Friedrich Heer calls us. If anti-Semitism is an incomparable wrong possessed of incomparably demonic power, our strategies against it must be markedly different from those we should use were we to consider anti-Semitism merely one more wrong among many.

Heer believes, or at least he hopes, that Christianity can yet redeem itself. His study culminates in one of the first applications of a “theology of hope” to relations of Christians with Jews. Even if Christianity is the fons et origo of Christian anti-Semitism, Heer maintains doggedly that in Christian faith itself, once its Jewish foundation is restored, lies the only real deliverance from anti-Semitism. The secular basis and counterpart of his reasoning is the social-Freudian claim that the one way to the future is through a “positive dissolution” and rehabilitation of the past. Through a great act of self-analysis Christendom may yet purge itself of its sins.

According to Heer, everything depends upon whether Christendom will surmount its Augustinian (and Pauline) contempt for the world, entailing as this does an exclusivist negation of true messianic hope. We must “return to the Old Testament roots of Christ’s own piety and to even older roots—to the original faith in which man felt himself to be both God’s creature and his responsible partner.” Were Christianity to recognize and condemn its own repetition of the murder of its Christ through the murders of his brothers and sisters, it would be, in that very moment, set free to return to where it belongs: to the Jew Jesus. “By rooting itself in its true soil, Christianity would achieve the great acceptance of the world—the acceptance of ‘earthly’ love. Only Eros can dissolve the neuroses and pathological self-isolation of Christianity in relation to the Jew Jesus, to Man’s history and to itself. . . . A Christendom enriched by Israel and Jewish piety would recognize that the so-called eternal values are only true and genuine when they are made incarnate, when they become flesh in history and when they are realized in the society of Man.”

To some extent, Heer’s demand upon the Church is being taken seriously. Within Christian biblical scholarship and theology there is increasing affirmation of the Jewishness of Jesus and of the Jewish dimensions of Christian faith. Again, the struggle against asceticism that is now sweeping the Christian world must be noted on Heer’s side. For one way to comprehend anti-Semitism is to see in it an inevitable product of celibate, ascetic monks and priests with their natural (or unnatural) fantasies of Jewish “carnality” and “materialism.” This would seem to suggest that, other things being equal—they never are—the abolishment of a celibate clergy would be, ideally, a greater blow against anti-Semitism than a thousand educational programs. However, Heer does not really dispose of the obvious rejoinder that Protestantism, in more than one respect the antithesis of Catholic Augustinian-ism, is no less blameworthy than Catholicism respecting anti-Semitism, and in some instances has a worse record. On the other hand, Heer does attest that the preservation within Calvinism of Christianity’s Jewish roots has kept Calvinist countries from bloody persecutions of Jews.

I believe that the very psychological considerations to which Heer rightly draws our attention compound the problem more than they help to resolve it. The identification of anti-Semitism with the devil does nothing to make the devil go away. He may simply thrive on the publicity.

The denial of Christian Jewishness has all too obviously opened the way to anti-Semitic diabolism. Yet it is most doubtful whether we can any longer expect the contrary result by virtue of the affirmation of Christian Jewishness. Is the Christian acceptance of Jesus (other than by individuals) any longer possible? Has not the entrenched union of Christian sin with the faits accomplis of history cut off any real possibility of this form of social regeneration? Is it not now much more probable that any self-identified Jewishness on the part of the Church will intensify its adherents’ hatred of Jews and, therefore, of Jesus?

There is the agonizing question of whether a full disclosure of historic Christian sins against Jews will have good consequences or bad ones. After all, the truth that the Nazis only brought to fulfillment historic Christian teaching can be readily utilized by enemies of Jews. The very insinuation to Christians that they and their religion have been invaded by demonic forces may—no matter how diplomatically or psychotherapeutically the judgment is tendered—build greater obstacles to redemption. To reidentify Judaism as the religion of the father, with Christianity as the religion of the son, or even to offer the symbology of elder and younger brothers, as I myself have done,2 may be to call up angry and destructive impulses. The most horrifying eventuality of all is that the new Christian testimony that the Jewish people are not cast away by God but remain the people of His covenant will only drive us deeper into the hell of anti-Semitism, by arousing as yet unconquered enmities within the Christian soul. Friedrich Heer’s testimony that in the Jews there lurks “the hidden God, who unmasks the living lie in every human being” grasps us with its truthfulness. Yet it must also make us fearful of the sufferings it promises. Heer himself wonders whether Christendom, which has for ages considered itself mortally wronged, can now bear the insult of being exposed as the real criminal. If Christianity is in fact hell, who has ever found a human path up from hell? It is hard for me to believe that the way out is through some kind of social-psychological, theological, or even moral reform.



That Vienna should be the place from which Professor Heer writes symbolizes at one and the same time much of the appeal and much of the irony of his work. Great societal-religious entities simply do not respond along the personal-redemptive lines he proposes. The presumption that social-psychoanalytic therapy can somehow salvage a centuries-old institutional structure is infinitely more tenuous than the psychoanalytic claim for the salvation of the individual, which itself remains highly controversial; lamentably, compelling diagnosis is not in itself a cure.

But in this connection Professor Heer is honest and perceptive enough to sense a pursuit by failure. The word “only,” which he so repeatedly uses, signifies not alone a uniquely qualified remedy but also, I submit, the probable impossibility of realizing so high an ideal as his: Only the remorseless self-analysis that wholly uncovers our past, that “takes us into and through the hell of Christian hatred of the Jew,” can make a neurotic Christianity whole again; yet any such process remains “as perilous as the psychoanalysis of a single person.” Only a few have thus far attained the requisite mental and spiritual maturity. “Within the deeply sick community of Man dwell deeply sick churches, and they form the centers of pathological processes constantly leading to new explosions.” Revealingly, Heer questions whether it “would be possible to find within a Christianity very largely composed of wounded, outraged, and sick souls and minds, personalities strong enough to take on” the arduous journey through hell which is self-analysis. Heer is himself forced to retreat from the macrocosm of social redemption to the microcosm of a small elite. And, pitiably, for the entire Holocaust period he can find only three theologians prepared for the journey. Even more pitiably, one of these is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who (although the author fails to point it out) held a position vis-à-vis the Jewish people that is hardly to be emulated. Heer calls out for heroes but he must also concede that most of us barbarians are neither ready nor willing nor able to serve.



To adjudge that the author’s “only” solution is sadly utopian need not in itself rule out hope, though it does demand the total transformation of our thinking for the sake of an alternative “only”: the death of Christianity itself. Death, after all, overcomes the past at least as tellingly and valuably as psychoanalysis.

Friedrich Heer implies the following conclusion, though he does not ever express it (perhaps he cannot stand the terrifying outcome of so many of his own words): Because we took the wonderful goodness of Christianity and changed it into God’s misdeed, because we have transubstantiated that faith into a cancer for humanity, we can now only commit ourselves to the demise of whatever remains of Christianity—lest worse crimes be committed. We can now only deny God for His sake, that is, for the sake of other human beings. Perhaps the only chance left is for God to die in this way. Perhaps then He may live once more, not because of us, but because He is “the coming God: a God of the present and of the future, in which He will submerge the brutal past.”



1 “The Tasks of Israel and Galut,” Judaism, Winter 1969.

2 Elder and Younger Brothers (Scribner).

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