The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany
Semen est sanguis Christianorum: when St. Ignatius was threatened with martyrdom he implored his captors to be given to the wild beasts “for through them I can attain unto God.” When, some eighteen centuries later, the Catholic clergy in Nazi Germany was called to bear witness, the call went out to keep calm and not to “lose sight of the welfare of the church as a whole.” The tragic failure of the Catholic Church to live up to its moral canons in the confrontation with Nazism is traced for the first time in shattering detail in this disturbing book, based on painstaking research into hitherto unpublished sources.
One specific aspect of this tragedy has recently been widely discussed in connection with Hochhuth’s The Deputy. The present book is far wider in scope, less dramatic in presentation, and more authoritative in the description of the real dilemma that faced the Catholic Church. The problem raised in Hochhuth’s play is interesting but somewhat unreal. Could one really assume that the Pope, who did not dare to make any determined effort on behalf of the Polish clergy (the “best daughter of the Church”) when it was in grave danger, would speak out on behalf of the Jews?
Germany was not (and, contrary to popular belief, is not now) a predominantly Catholic country, but the Catholics were always far better organized than the Protestants. They had, to mention but one figure, 20,000 priests for 20 million co-religionists, whereas the Protestants, roughly 40 million in number, had only 16,000 pastors. The high clergy was concerned about the growing strength of the Nazi party and banned membership in the Hitler movement—up to 1933, at any rate. But once the Third Reich was established it was more than willing to collaborate. Hitler, after all, promised confessional peace and declared that he regarded Christianity as the foundation of national morality. If he was against “liberalism” and “godless Marxism” so was the Church; if he abolished parliamentary democracy, most high ranking Church dignitaries, too, had never been happy in the Weimar Republic. His anti-Semitism was too strident to official Catholic ears and it was based on the wrong doctrinal premises but the idea of “excluding the Jews from the nation” was one that had been previously discussed not without sympathy in the Catholic press. Soon the bishops began actively to cooperate: the concordat concluded between Germany and the Holy See was a major achievement for Hitler. As Cardinal Faulhaber put it, “The Catholic Church, the greatest moral power on earth, had expressed its confidence in the new Germany at a time when the heads of the major nations faced it with cool reserve and considerable suspicion.” The German theologians went further and argued that Catholics were obliged to support the new regime not merely because it was the legal authority, but because it represented Germany itself. Catholic and liberal thinking (it was proclaimed) could never be reconciled, but Catholicism and Nazism could and should march hand in hand. Hitler…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.