• Email
  • Print

Hitler and the Catholics

The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany

by Guenter Lewy
McGraw Hill, 416 pp., $7.50

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is traced for the first time in shattering detail in this disturbing book, based on painstaking research into hitherto unpublished sources.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 was the liberator of the German genius, a true people’s chancellor. The church supported Hitler’s foreign political moves from the Saar plebiscite to 1939. When Germany unleashed the World War, Catholics were called to pray “for the just cause of our people and for the victorious termination of the war.” According to a typical pastoral letter of a German bishop published in 1941, Catholics were wholeheartedly participating in a staunchly Christian spirit, in the great struggle of the German people for the protection of its vital interests in the world—“Especially as believing Christians, inspired by God’s love, we faithfully stand behind our Fuehrer, who with firm hands guides the fortunes of our people.”

This profession of wholehearted support for the “moral regeneration of the German people” became more and more difficult, because the position of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich was by no means enviable. Its political and social institutions had been dissolved in 1933, its publications were censored and ultimately suppressed, its youth organization disbanded, its monasteries searched and calumniated in the press; quite a few priests and laymen were arrested and some were killed in the concentration camps. The Church was systematically harassed by a totalitarian regime which could not tolerate any rival force, however willing to collaborate. During the war persecutions were discontinued so as not to weaken the home front, but the Nazi leaders firmly intended to settle accounts with the Catholics after the final victory. The Church protested whenever its own interests were affected, and it did on one or two occasions take an open stand against the regime (on sterilization and euthanasia). But at no time, as Professor Lewy stresses, did the Church challenge the legitimacy of the Nazi regime or give her approval to the attempts to bring about its downfall; on the contrary, the episcopate systematically discouraged any spirit of opposition and warned the flock against any seditious activity. The same spirit prevailed as far as the “final solution” was concerned: the Church pretended neither to see nor to hear evil, and, with one or two notable exceptions, did not even register a mild protest. Someone once said “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” But this had been a long time ago; anyway, the Cardinals and Bishops were men of the world, not martyrs. Since the end of the war the history of the Catholic Church in Germany during the Nazi era has been rewritten with the emphasis on persecution and heroic resistance but this operation has not been altogether successful; like Pilate, the Church has been too ostentatiously washing its hands before the multitude, as if such rituals were not an infallible indication of deep-seated guilt feelings. In recent decades the Catholic Church has had to face a flood of polemical literature from outside, of little scholarly or any other value. It may want to dismiss Professor Lewy’s book as belonging to this category or more likely ignore it altogether. But the present book was written without any polemical intent. Professor Lewy’s field of study in the past has been church history rather than contemporary history; he is the author of a book on Mariana, the seventeenth-century theologian. It is based on very wide research in ecclesiastic archives in Germany and the perusal of Nazi documents; it tries to be scrupulously fair to the Church, and does not omit mention of those Catholics who fought Nazism. It will be difficult for the church to ignore this book, especially in Germany, where it will no doubt spark off a new public discussion. It would be more logical and easier from the official Catholic point of view to criticize Professor Lewy’s book on different grounds, namely, that while all he says is correct, it is neither the whole picture nor does it give the true historical perspective. It is easy to find very damaging statements made by German Cardinals and Bishops in 1933. But did not everyone else speak and write more or less in the same vein at that time? Did not even the German Jewish orthodox paper (the Israelit) mention the “sincere enthusiasm” of the orthodox Jews for some measures taken by the Hitler government; did not a German Rabbi publish a book in which he stated, expressis verbis, that were it not for its anti-Semitism, National Socialism would find in orthodox Jewry its most faithful adherents? If some Jews, the victims of Nazism par excellence, demonstrated such incredible shortsightedness, how can one fairly accuse the Catholic clergy for its political naiveté?

Five years later the real character of Nazism had become more obvious, but what would have been gained if the Church had openly come out against the all-powerful State? The churches would have been closed, the bishops imprisoned or executed, and the overwhelming majority of German Catholics would have obeyed the state, not the Church, in this conflict. Was not the Church obliged to play a far more subtle game in these extremely difficult conditions? Professor Lewy quotes many highly damaging statements made by Church dignitaries throughout the Nazi era; his account of these is undoubtedly correct, but the Church had other ways and means of making its views known to at least part of the public, and some of these he does not discuss. To give but one illustration—Archbishop Groeber of Freiburg is one of the main villains in Professor Lewy’s book. After Germany’s defeat he admitted that the Concordat of 1933 had deceived German Catholics and the whole world, but while the Third Reich lasted Groeber had proclaimed that the Concordat was proof that two totalitarian powers can make common cause. But Professor Lewy’s account is not the whole story; according to a report which I found in the internal Gestapo bulletin published in January 1940, Groeber in a public sermon (in which he also protested against the treatment of Poles and Ukranians) stated that he himself had seen the Holy Father shedding tears when he realized that he had been deceived by the German government, and that the expectations underlying his readiness to sign the Concordat had not been fulfilled. One could quote similar examples. I think it is an exaggeration to say that the Catholic Church was an unwanted ally of Nazism after 1938; most church leaders were thoroughly disillusioned by then, and they continued to support Hitler’s regime not out of approval but out of weakness, and for other reasons that are fully described and analyzed in Lewy’s excellent study. Lastly, it could be argued that the Catholic Church had as many victims in the struggle against Nazism as any other group; when Dachau concentration camp was reached by American troops in April 1945, it held no fewer than 326 Catholic priests. The Nazi rulers regarded the Catholic clergy with the deepest distrust: the Gestapo newspaper I have mentioned always reported about them under the general heading of “enemy activities,” and did not even differentiate between such outspoken critics as Bishop Galen on one hand and others who were in fact fellow travelers of Nazism.

These and other extenuating circumstances would undoubtedly constitute an impressive defense had German Catholicism been a political party or a social organization of limited scope and responsibility. Were it an international corporation with assets and interests in many parts of the globe, its directors ought to be commended by the shareholders for their praiseworthy caution and their success in steering the organization without major losses through a troubled period. But since the Catholic Church is Una Sancta, “the greatest moral power on earth,” the readiness to compromise with evil which we expect of political leaders was bound to have a disastrous effect on the authority and the moral standing of the Church. The question of whether an open protest would have done any good is one that should have been irrelevant in this context. (Incidentally, there is no reason to assume that such protests would have been wholly ineffectual; the euthanasia program was discontinued after Bishop Galen made the facts known.) The Jehovah’s Witnesses who went to death in their hundreds did not ask whether their death would benefit anyone; they had in their own primitive way a far surer grasp that it was a question of good and evil, not of raison d’église. But then they were true believers, not officials of a world-wide organization. An English-language broadcast from Radio Vatican in 1940 defending the Pope’s silence announced that “the less he committed himself, the greater will be the respect and the adoration tended to him.” Such abdication of responsibility raised the question to what extent the Church’s teachings were at all relevant in the modern world. I am not willing to go as far as Professor Lewy, who considers the possibility that without the backing of the Catholic Church for Nazism, history might well have taken a different course—that Hitler might not have dared go to war. It is very likely that if the Catholic Church in Germany had fought Nazism it would have emerged organizationally much weaker than it did in 1945. But it would have preserved its moral integrity.

  • Email
  • Print