Franklin H. Littell, a father of Holocaust studies who traced his engagement with the subject to the revulsion he felt as a young Methodist minister while witnessing a big Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1939, died last Saturday at his home in Merion Station, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He was 91.
His wife, Maria Sachs Littell, announced the death.
Dr. Littell (pronounced lih-TELL), the author of more than two dozen scholarly books and a thousand articles, was among the first intellectuals to delve into the question of how baptized Christians in the heart of Christian Europe could have either killed or ignored the killing of six million Jews. A big part of the answer, as he found it, was that Christians from the time of Jesus on had shown systematic contempt for Jews and their beliefs.
Hubert G. Locke, a leading Holocaust scholar and former dean of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, said in an interview on Wednesday that Dr. Littell had had “singular influence” in turning a focus on these ancient prejudices as the basis for the Holocaust.
Another Holocaust scholar, John K. Roth, emeritus professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, said Dr. Littell had “helped to turn the tide on the awareness of Christian complicity, shortcoming, indifference in the face of what was happening to Jews under Hitler.”
For more than a decade after the end of World War II, the Holocaust was studied and publicly discussed sparsely; the common wisdom was that survivors needed time to heal. But by the 1960s, attention to it was starting to grow with the publication of books like Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” the trial of Adolph Eichmann and other efforts to collect testimony of survivors.
It was around then that academic programs on the Holocaust were pioneered by Dr. Littell. At Emory University in 1959, he started the first graduate seminar on the Holocaust, preceding what are believed to have been the first undergraduate courses on it, in 1960 at Brandeis and in 1961 at Brooklyn College. In 1970, with Dr. Locke, he set up one of the first annual scholarly conferences on the Holocaust, a forum that continues today.
In 1976, at Temple University, he began the first doctoral program in Holocaust studies. And in 1998, he and his wife established the first interdisciplinary master’s degree program in Holocaust studies, at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
“When Franklin Littell started his work, it was almost the case that there was no such thing as Holocaust studies as a field,” Dr. Roth said. Now hundreds of colleges offer courses on the Holocaust, and many states require public schools to teach about it.
Dr. Littell also became an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, in part because he believed that its very existence refuted theologies that foresaw or favored the withering away of the Jewish people. He rejected the theology of some Christian backers of Israel that Jews must ultimately become Christian, Maria Littell said.
Soon after the Six-Day War, of June 1967, Dr. Littell started an organization called Christians Concerned for Israel, to promote a pro-Israeli spirit in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. In 1978, he founded the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, which lobbied against arms sales to Arab nations and campaigned against the United Nations resolution, adopted in 1975 and since repealed, that described Zionism as racism.
Franklin Hamlin Littell was born on June 20, 1917, in Syracuse, graduated from Cornell College in Iowa and earned a divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. Afterward he visited Germany on the way to a religion conference for young people in Amsterdam.
It was then that he attended the Nuremberg rally, out of curiosity. Later in life, he recalled having been appalled by its open racism and its religious glorification of Aryans. When Hitler made an almost godlike appearance, bathed in a halo of lights, Mr. Littell was so repelled, he remembered, that he had to leave.
Mr. Littell later earned a doctorate in theology from Yale and, after teaching at the University of Michigan, joined the United States high commissioner in occupied Germany as the Protestant adviser on de-Nazification.
In 1966, he founded the Institute for American Democracy to fight political extremists. It was attacked by far-right groups, and a window of his home was shot out.
In 1969, Dr. Littell published a book on political extremism, “Wild Tongues: A Handbook of Social Pathology,” in which he accused the prominent conservative author and columnist William F. Buckley Jr. of being a “fellow traveler” of fascism. Mr. Buckley sued for libel and won.
Dr. Littell’s first wife, the former Harriet Lewis, died in 1978. In addition to Maria Sachs Littell, he is survived by three daughters from his first marriage, Jeannie Lawrence, Karen Littell and Miriam Littell; a son from that marriage, Stephen; his stepsons, Jonathan Sachs and Robert L. Sachs Jr.; his stepdaughter, Jennifer Sachs Dahnert; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Over his long career, Dr. Littell was also president of Iowa Wesleyan College and a founding board member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington.
His best-known book was “The Crucifixion of the Jews” (1975), in which he pressed his view that Christianity is essentially Jewish. Jesus, Paul and Peter, Dr. Littell said, would have been executed at Auschwitz.