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Did the Holocaust really happen?

Did the Holocaust really happen?


The Holocaust refers to the annihilation of Jews under Nazi German leader A. Hitler (1889–1945) during World War II, as well as the associated mass murder of other groups such as gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and non-Jewish Poles. Some scholars prefer the Hebrew term Shoah (destruction) because the biblical Greek term holocaustos (burnt offering) is theologically offensive in connoting that the deaths of two thirds of European Jewry were a ritual sacrifice to God. Also, the use of the term ‘holocaust’ in its broad meaning – large-scale destruction – is problematic in obscuring the unique features of the Nazi atrocities, including the bureaucracy, technology, ideology, and intention to exterminate all Jews in total genocide.


Holocaust theology emerged in the 1970s among Jewish and Christian thinkers, parallel to the growth of popular interest in the Holocaust generated by the increasing availability of survivors’ memoirs and media depictions. For these writers, the Holocaust is a crisis and turning point. Theodicy looms large. Is the Holocaust part of God’s plan? If not, does it signify God’s absence or rather God’s vulnerability? Theologically more conservative thinkers uphold God’s omnipotence and goodness, and argue either that the Holocaust served a purpose for God’s plan in history, or that we cannot fathom God’s inscrutable designs. Other authors maintain that God’s participation in human suffering is the only theodicy that effectively defends God from accusations of sadism or neglect. For Christians this idea is often developed in terms of Christological and Trinitarian accounts of divine suffering, while Jewish thinkers may deploy Kabbalistic ideas of divine withdrawal and the exile of God’s Shekhinah (presence) to explain earthly evils.

More radically, there are scholars who believe variously that the Holocaust shakes the credibility of revelation, requires protest against God, makes theodicy impossible, or necessitates new religious outlooks, including secularism. Ethical and religious responses by Jewish authors who lived through the Holocaust, such as survivor E. Wiesel (b. 1928) and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), are viewed by many as authoritative for guiding authentic interpretations of the Holocaust.

Certain concerns remain specific to Jews or Christians. Jewish theologians ponder the meaning of the covenant and Jewish identity after the Holocaust, as well as the significance of the State of Israel and genocide prevention. The post-Holocaust commandment that Jews must not grant Hitler posthumous victory, formulated by E. Fackenheim (1916–2003), is widely accepted as religious, cultural, and political in import. The primary preoccupation for Christian theologians is addressing and providing correctives to the legacy of anti-Judaism in the NT and Church history. Doctrinal triumphalism and supersessionism are repudiated, while the Jewish roots of Christianity and the relevance of Jewish thinkers for Christian theology are embraced. There is asymmetrical interest on the part of Christians in learning from Jewish writings and seeking reconciliation for past wrongs, whereas Jewish priorities are establishing survival as a people and rethinking the covenant without necessarily engaging with Christian texts or groups.

Although the Holocaust occurred on European soil, much theological and dialogical activity ...