Churches acknowledge contribution to ‘a climate of anti-Semitism’ during the war

The house of a deported Jewish family is cleared out. Bönnekamp was arrested for taking this photo. He was released because he carried an application form to be allowed to photograph. Image Karel Bönnekamp / Resistance Museum

In the upcoming commemoration of the so-called Kristalnacht – the pogrom in Nazi Germany to which the Jewish community fell victim on November 9, 1938 – the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) will recognize that it contributed to ‘a climate of anti-Semitism ‘. The church will not apologize for this, said René de Reuver, scribe (secretary) of the PKN on Thursday. Faithful. Because the word ‘excuses’ is missing from the ecclesiastical vocabulary. But ‘guilt is the deepest word you can use for failure’.

‘We fell short in speaking and in silence, in acting and in leaving, in attitude and in thoughts’, writes De Reuver in a confession that he will pronounce on November 8 during a commemoration ceremony in the Rav Aron Schuster synagogue in Amsterdam. Until then, he will not elaborate on his speech.

Historian Jan Bank, author of the standard work published in 2015 God in War (on the role of the churches in Europe during the Second World War), he said he was surprised by the announced penance. “While the Protestant churches were by no means merciful to the Jewish refugees in the 1930s, they did not even do so badly during the German occupation.”

Prime Minister Rutte

Bank suspects that the PKN – created in 2004 from a merger of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and the Evangelical Lutheran Church – did not want to lag behind the excuses that Prime Minister Mark Rutte and King Willem-Alexander made earlier this year spoken out for the failure of the Netherlands during the war, especially towards the Jewish citizens.

In his book, Bank notes “that the majority of the Christian population has allowed war and the occupation to get over them.” At the same time, Sunday worship services provided an opportunity for free encounters and for explicit or less explicit attacks on Nazi rule from the pulpit. As early as 1936, the synod (church assembly) of the Reformed Churches ruled that membership of the NSB was ‘disciplinary’.

Four years later, the protest against the first anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands was mainly performed by preachers. The best known, in this regard, is the brochure Almost too late of the reformed theologian Jan Koopmans (1905-1945). ‘The point,’ he wrote, ‘is that the Dutch people are doing well in these times. That it shows to have a conscience. ‘ It was better for the Netherlands to disappear from the ‘new Europe’ of the Nazis ‘than for us to sell our conscience.’


The Calvinists led this pulpit resistance, says Bank – although there were also among them people who advocated an ‘accommodation’ with the German occupier. One of them was Herman Kuyper, a son of former prime minister (and leader of the ARP) Abraham Kuyper. The Lutherans, who believed they owed obedience to secular government, hesitated for a moment. But in 1942, representatives of all Christian churches protested during an audience with Reich Commissioner Seyss-Inquart against the imminent deportation of Jews. The following year, the Reformed Synod, in a pastoral letter, stated that the “unrivaled hatred of Jews” had damaged the very foundations of the Christian faith.

On the other hand, orthodoxy and theological hair-splitting often stood in the way of resistance against the Nazis. The experimental Calvinists, who adhered to the doctrine that people could not “come to grace” on their own, saw the German occupation as a justified punishment for the sinful Netherlands, from which the sinners better not escape. Within the Reformed Churches there was a doctrinal dispute about ‘the meaning of baptism in the light of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination’ that resulted in a divorce in the church in the autumn of 1944 (the so-called Liberation).

Breeding ground

‘The Protestant Church in the Netherlands wants to recognize without reservation that the church has helped prepare the breeding ground in which the seeds of anti-Semitism could grow,’ said De Reuver Faithful. Possibly he was referring to the fact that the ‘deicide’ (the crucifixion of Jesus) was charged to the Jews for centuries. In addition, in the years between the two World Wars, Christians showed themselves to be sensitive to a regular feature in anti-Semitic propaganda: that Jews were said to be responsible for ‘godless Bolshevism’.

De Reuver recognizes the courage that individual ministers and believers displayed during the German occupation. But 75 years after the war, he also has to acknowledge ‘with shame’ that the church as an institution has failed. ‘The fact that we are late makes it harder rather than lighter.’ According to Faithful Orthodox Reformed denominations that stayed outside the PKN in 2004 are preparing a similar confession of guilt.