This is the twelfth part of a 13-part German documentary mini-series covering the history of Christianity from its beginnings to the modern-day. Although the series is a German production, the narration is in English. It was filmed at many different holy and historic sites.
The history of Christianity was also a history of wars… Wars people thought they were fighting for Christs’ sake… But also wars that unleashed terrible brutality because Christ had been forgotten…
Gates of Hell takes a look at the wars of the twentieth century, along with some of the violent revolutions which took place. It shows how both sides claimed, “God was on their side” and how both prayed and had services during the war. How could it be so contradictory?
The Russian Revolution is also depicted. The ties between the Czar and the Russian Orthodox Church are shown as another dividing line as it was considered to be part of what the people were rebelling against. Religion was banned and the treasures contained in the churches were forever lost. Prison camps were set up, and a modern-day witch-hunt went out against all who dared practice religion or were rumored to do so. Stalin rose to power and it became a cult of personality as homage was often paid to Stalin by parades with flowers adorning huge posters of him. The Orthodox Church was forbidden but survived and Stalin used its leaders for his own propaganda.
In Rome, the Vatican sided with the Fascists under Mussolini and negotiated the recognition of the Vatican as a separate state as well as Roman Catholicism is the state religion in Italy. When this same Fascist Government invaded Ethiopia, the Church was silent, and in fact, blessed the returning soldiers. Christians subjugated Christians in the name of Christianity.
In Germany, following the rise of Hitler (who had initially professed friendship toward the Church) the Church became another branch of training for the fight and “strengthen Christian morals”. The Catholics were in the minority, but Catholic “stormtroopers” were also drawn into Hitler’s movement.
Everything for Germany… Germany for Christ… Heil!
In a move to try to bolster the status of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius signed a concordance with Hitler. Many German Catholics were horrified, but it was a diplomatic success for Hitler. Protestant Christians in Germany were also horrified as their leaders sold themselves out to the Fuhrer and Totalitarian State. Hitler was open about the relationship between his government and the Church. Since he saw himself as “coming from God” he felt it his right to destroy anyone who spoke against him, even if they were a priest or minister.
Concentration camps were opened and among their first prisoners were the devout Christians who refused to go along with the leaders of the Church. The deep-rooted hatred of the Jews by the Christians left them ripe to be humiliated and carried off. With the Nationalistic culture, even Christians who were uneasy with what was happening believed that if they spoke up against what they saw happening they were stabbing their country in the back.
An 119-page declaration on the oppression of the Jews was written by an American Jesuit in opposition to Nazism at the request of the Pope, but somehow it allegedly never made its way there. When Pius died he was succeeded by the man who originally negotiated the treaty between the Vatican and Hitler, so the Vatican fell completely silent. Even with the starvation of Polish Franciscan Priest Maxmillian Kolbe at Auschwitz, the Vatican said nothing.
Spain also went up in flames as it fractured in many different directions, rather than just one side against the other. Almost the entire country belonged to just a few wealthy families and the Church which had aligned itself with them. General Franco rose up in power and was seen as a figure going against the Godless Red threat from the East. The Cross of Christ near Madrid was a symbol of an oppressive dictatorship.
At the same time, as the Second World War came to an end, the era of the atom bomb was born.
What has been great about the whole 2000 Years of Christianity Series was how it had to re-enact the early years of Christianity. Although there are some in Gates of Hell, most of what is seen here are actual footage from the era. At times it has more impact, and yet some of it is what I’ve seen before in other historical documentaries. Many places are also filmed, including the concentration camps. The silence works better here than any re-enactment possibly could.
I had never really thought about just how violent the 20th century had been in terms of wars throughout the world. It’s hard to wrap my head around the 20,000,000 death toll in Russia during the Second World War.
The information presented is done so matter-of-factly and sometimes doesn’t seem to flow quite right or get drawn together. What was happening in Russia, Spain, Italy, and Germany never really seems to tie together under the Christian umbrella, although it really should. As much as the Vatican tried to separate itself out of politics, it seemed as if it became more drawn into it as the battle lines were drawn. Nothing is said of how Roman Catholics fighting for the U.S., Canada, and Britain as well as other countries such as France felt about the silence of the church during the dark days of World War II. It almost seemed as if there was an implied alliance between the Vatican and Italy and Germany, thus making them on the opposite side of the Allies.
One thing that really struck me was how the old newsreels of the German Christian Youths being indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda look remarkably like that “Jesus Camp” tape that recently caused so much of a fuss.
All this together seems to tie into Christianity getting more away from the message and getting more into the political arena, as we’ve seen recently in this country as well. The producers of the documentary don’t say this, nor is it directly implied, but it just had the feeling to me of pointing out how nasty things happen when the leaders of nations believe they have God on their side.
All in all, it’s a good entry in the series and one which would be good for discussion in a bible class or confirmation class. I would like to hear a group of teens discussing how the Christian Church – with the exception of those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – stayed silent in the face of the many atrocities committed during the course of the century.
There are no extras here, except for the Book List which does provide an avenue for more research on many of the ideas presented.
Gates of Hell is a strong entry in the 2000 Years of Christianity series if it’s weak in some of the parts that have made the series really interesting and compelling up until this point.
Previous episode of the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode XI – Machines and Men
Next episode of the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode XIII – Opportunities and Perils
Categories: 2000 Years of Christianity, Television Reviews
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