Throughout the Middle-Ages, European Christianity had a deep-seated antipathy for Heathenism. This is clearly evidenced by the heresy laws, the “witch” burnings and even the wars fought against it by the imperial standard bearers such as Charlemagne. This was often taken to the extreme, with Oliver Cromwell’s puritans even going so far as to outlaw Christmas because of its Pagan connotations. Yet as the religious zeal expired in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans and, specifically the Germanic world, began to embrace cultural and ethical outlooks that were increasingly Pagan. That’s not to say that they discarded Christianity; rather, they remained nominally Christian whilst behaving in a more Pagan manner. They grew conscious of the divinity of the natural world, began to celebrate more of the Old Festivals with traditionally non-Christian symbolism, and perused science and the arts in ways that were restrained under Christian absolutism. Much of the great philosophical schools of continental Europe derive their core principles from a Pagan understanding of the world, whilst the Pagan spirit was beautifully expressed by the great Germanic composers of the 18th century. Christianity lapsed in its efforts to enforce a more ecclesiastical approach to life, instead ceding territory to the rebirth of the Pagan spirit.
Given the increasingly liberal zeitgeist in which we find our world today, one would be forgiven for assuming that this trend would have continued. However, a great pushback occurred against this resurgence in Heathen spirit immediately after the Second World War, with secularised Christianity being increasingly disseminated as the standard foundations for Western civilisation. This pushback came not from the upper echelons of the Christian Church, not the Vatican nor the broader Christian populous of any given nation; instead, we’ve seen this pushback come in its strongest form from specifically Jewish elements of academic and spiritual life, both in Europe and the United States of America. After noticing this trend, further research clearly demonstrates an unnatural aversion to Heathenism amongst Jewish community leaders, and the suggestion that Christianity – or its secularised form – should be the antidote to Europe’s Pagan spirit.
If one mistakes this debate for being solely a matter of which God(s) we pray to, then this attitude appears rather confusing. Surely our preference for Woden over Jesus, or Dharma over repentance is of no consequence to the Jewish community? This becomes all the more bemusing when we consider that most Jews in positions of cultural, spiritual or political authority in the West have a predilection for liberal tendencies. Liberalism, as we understand it in the West, appears antithetical to the perception we have of traditional Christian outlooks, as the latter has often displayed itself to be ambivalent to progressiveness. Furthermore, the sub-division of groups into multiple sub-groups of varying religious beliefs is an inherently liberal view, something that we tend to assume is favoured by the liberal Jewish internationalists. Taking all this into account, it becomes difficult to reconcile this with the assertion that Western Jews are strongly opposed to Paganism and anti-Christian cultural suppositions.
The debate between Christianity and Paganism, from a Jewish perspective, is more complex than the names we have for our deities. It’s not a matter of religious variants, but of two competing Weltanschauung with all the accompanying perspectives on morality and ethics, that even have varying economic and geopolitical implications. Christianity, whether spiritual or secularised, is the ideology of compassion for ‘the other’, moral universalism, internationalism, capitalism and cosmopolitanism. Paganism, taken in its 19th and early 20th century romantic revivalist format, is the ideology of ruralism, nationalism, in-group preference, moral relativism, socialism and the Wille zur Macht. Of course, Jews are not a monolith, and much of this won’t apply to Israeli Jews who value much of the aforementioned Pagan characteristics, but it’s fairly straightforward to discern the elements of the Pagan worldview that are a threat to liberal Western Jews. For the latter, often being ‘the other’ in European nations, is extremely wary of nationalism, in-group preference and ruralism, as these ideologies exclude them. Instead they feel more comfortable in an internationalist environment, a cosmopolitan setting fuelled by global capitalism that is home to everyone and no-one simultaneously.
This has been identified as a troublesome trait of Germanic Europeans from the early 20th century. In his 1925 book Practisher Idealismus (Practical Idealism), Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi defined German Christians as ‘more Pagan’ than Chinese Pagans, decrying their ‘inbred tendencies’ (by this he means the emphasis placed on preserving a unique ethnic group) and pushing Christianity as the ideology of internationalism and cosmopolitan ‘socialism’. He goes a step further and credits Judaism for bringing Christian spirituality and morality to Europe: ‘as far as Europe is Christian, it is Jewish. As far as Europe is morally, it is Jewish’. He then refers to Nietzschean philosophy as being representative of Pagan morality – negatively, of course. Kalergi supposes that, in order for ‘the man of the future’ to fully realise his potential, he must become properly Christian and, therefore, Jewish. This is an early example of opposition to the Pagan worldview emanating from a Jewish perspective.
The Second World War, as we know, was an event of seismic proportions for European Jewry, as well as a turning point in the ideological machinations of their cultural spokespeople. As Europe lay in ruins, and as European Jewry mourned their persecuted brethren, an ideological post-mortem was conducted by certain members of their academia. A notion that had already caught on in America’s Christian community and, thanks to Mr Churchill, amongst much of the British bourgeoisie, was that the Second World War represented a battle between Christian civilisation (The Allies) and the Pagan spirit of Europe (Germany). The Pagan nature of the Third Reich, it was alleged, was responsible for the barbaric nature of the Second World War, and Germany’s departure from Christianity was to blame for its alleged crimes against minority groups. One Jewish writer wrote in the aftermath of this war that ‘neopaganism nearly conquered Europe’, and decries the communitarianism and ethnocentrism of Pagan societies, for ‘the individual exists only as an organ of the collective state or race’. The essay draws heavily on the religious philosophy of Jewish writer Franz Rosenzweig, who described Pagan ethnocentrism as the ‘fragile and futile attempt to preserve their physical continuity through blood and soil’.
That Christianity was a useful weapon against antisemitism is not a particularly original viewpoint. Sigmund Freud identified this issue, writing:
‘We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of antisemitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they are all ‘badly christened’; under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them, and they have projected it on to the source from which Christianity came to them.’
This theme, whereby Jewish intellectuals conflate Paganism and Nazism, is recurring. David P. Goldman wrote that ‘horror is the norm in the God-haunted Pagan world’, suggesting that the ‘horrors of the Third Reich’ were simply a manifestation of the NSDAP’s spiritual beliefs. The implication is, of course, that the Nazis were Pagans who unleashed the innate barbarity of the European soul that had been so neatly ‘suppressed by Christianity’. In his book Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, Jewish-American writer Eric Kurlander attempts to demonstrate that the terror of Hitler’s Germany was as a result of its divergence from Christianity and embracement of ‘occultism’. He refers extensively to the Schutzstaffel’s interest in the historical persecution of Pagan “witches”, implying that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler persecuted Jews and Catholics out of revenge for this persecution of the ‘guarantors of German faith’.
In the United States in particular, with an evangelical Christian and philosemitic audience, this academic theory holds great sway. In the documentary series Nazis: A Warning From History, a sixth of the programming is dedicated to Hitler’s alleged occult beliefs – this is strangely omitted from the series adapted for a European audience. But the broad implication is that ‘occult’ (Pagan) beliefs and practises fuelled the un-Christian “horrors” of the Third Reich. This is a theory used to more broadly admonish the völkische Bewegung (folkish movement) of the late 19th century, with its focus on ethnocentrism, Nietzschean ethics and Wagnerian artistic folklore. Given this movement’s propensity for antisemitism and ethnic nationalism, it’s hardly surprising that it’s met with hostility from the Jewish communities of the Occident. Their animosity is even more greatly understood when one considers that the National Socialist movement grew out of the Folkish movement, and leading proponents of the latter, such as Alfred Rosenberg and Richard Walther Darré, were amongst the senior officials of the NSDAP in the 1930s.
This evaluation of Paganism from a Jewish perspective was not restricted to post-war analysis. In a 1999 essay for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, Manfred Gerstenfeld wrote extensively Paganism and its implications for modern Jewry. Despite this not having a particular aversion to nationalism – he devoted just one bland sentence to the Völkische Bewegung – Gerstenfeld felt compelled to equate Paganism with Hitler and Nazis multiple times. Most notably, he sought to remind readers that returning to nature was dangerous because ‘the first environmental protection laws anywhere in the world were made by the Nazis’. He also decried the Pagan desire to ‘live in harmony with nature’, stating that ‘no nation in the twentieth century has lived as much in harmony with nature as Hitler’s Germany’. Special care was made to remind the reader that, under the doctrine of Natural Law, ‘the Jews, the people who introduced moral laws into society, were to be wiped off the earth’. Presumably these moral laws referred to here are Christian laws.
An interesting point about these examples is that, not only do Jewish intellectuals propose Christianity (or its secularised ethics) as the remedy for this Pagan barbarism, they also credit themselves with bringing Christianity to Europe in the first place. This is a problematic claim when one considers that many Christian European states expelled the Jews for un-Christian practises during the Middle-Ages, although that’s not to say that Christian ethics aren’t a primordially Jewish conception. However, notwithstanding ancient history, there is a clear Jewish antipathy towards Paganism in the context of modern History. Jewish intellectuals in the Occident greatly fear a return to ethnocentrism and Pagan ethics in Europe, and they more often than not propose Christianity as its antidote. That more Europeans have not returned to their spiritual roots is perhaps a symptom of the influence Western liberal Jews have over academic theory in the West, for it is certainly not as a result of enthusiastic piety and the inspiration teachings of Jesus Christ.
Pagan Horrors, David P. Goldman: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/02/pagan-horror
Neo-paganism in the Public Square and its Relevence to Judaism, Manfred Gerstenfeld: http://www.jcpa.org/jpsr/gersten-s99.htm
Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, Eric Kurlander (2017)