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October 17, 2011
Poland: the Persecuted Church
By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

In his biography of Bl. Pope John Paul II, George Weigel noted that there was wide-spread collaboration between the Communist regime and members of the clergy in Poland. During the Second World War, the Polish Church was not given that particular ‘luxury’. Nazi racial ideology branded Poles an inferior race, sub-humans who had to make way for German expansion. We know all this is based on two lies: one, the lie of races within one human race, and another, that Germany lacked space for its people.

Indeed, during the Nazi era, the German countryside lost people to the German cities at the same rate as before they came to power. The Lebensraum or living space sought by Germans was in cities and not in a field in what had been Poland.

The German plans for the occupied regions were implemented in full only after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which brought all of Poland under their control. Worse off were those Poles of all denominations and ethnicities who found themselves in the annexed part of their former country. This included the important city of Poznan or Posen, with a mixed population, which was the seat of an archbishopric and of the Polish primate, August, Cardinal Hlond. As it happened, Hlond was to play a less important role during the war. He was in Rome for the conclave that elected Pope Pius XII when war broke out, and was to remain away from Poland until the end of the conflict. He did intervene on behalf of his people on a number of occasions, most notably in the Vatican Radio broadcast of January 1940, during which he exposed the persecution inflicted upon his flock.

This region, the so-called Warthegau, was especially badly affected by Germanisation attempts. Here, massive expulsion of Poles took place, as well as the targeted extermination of any Polish leadership. This included many priests and religious, to whom the Poles had looked for leadership during the long years of the partitions.

Further to the east, and containing the culturally and historically significant cities of Warsaw, Cracow and L’viv, was the so-called General Government. This was not a part of the Großdeutsches Reich but a remainder, to be used as the local Nazi ruler saw fit. This became a reservoir of slave labor and a dumping ground for Poles removed from lands further west. The border with the Reich was almost totally sealed, ensuring that the Germanisation of the western lands could go ahead unhindered.

Inside the zone, some twelve million Poles and Jews were cramped, destined for extermination over a twelve-year period. It was here that the Final Solution was implemented, the extermination of the Jews, here that Auschwitz was to be found.   

Conditions in the region were horrible. Aside from the permanent threat of German violence, there was the deportation of Polish slaves to Germany, the extermination of the Jews, Gypsies and others, and the continuous attempts by the Polish resistance to fight the Germans, culminating in the 1944 Warsaw Rising. Systematically abused and deprived of opportunities, the calorific intake of Poles in the General Government was as little as 600.

Several million Poles lost their lives during the five years of occupation. It was here that the beating heart of the Polish Catholic Church remained, in the figure of the redoubtable Archbishop of Cracow, Adam Stephan Sapieha, whose successor would in turn prove to be the nemesis of the Communist regime in Poland, John Paul II. Sapieha showed great courage, and was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Indeed, it was probably the growing attraction of Catholicism for the governor, Hans Frank, that saved Sapieha from the fate of some of the other Polish bishops.

Not that the Archbishop tried to placate Frank. He refused to come to parties in the governor’s house, refused to be seen in public with any official from the Nazi regime. He had to accept Frank coming to his palace, but there served him with the meager rations reserved for all Poles: “the Archbishop of Cracow eats what his flock eats”, was the reply when questioned. He presided over the National Council for Welfare, under the aegis of Caritas, and through this did much to alleviate suffering in the General Government. Sapieha was, in many ways, the ideal figure for this role. He was always open to the Jews, and had been a firm opponent of the Pilsudski government before the war. Indeed, he had opposed the Concordat, arguing that the Church should be free from any state involvement. It was a fine preparation for the trials of 1939-1944.

What did not help was the fact that Sapieha had been in a serious conflict with Pope Pius XI when he was the Nuncio to Poland over who should be the country’s primate. This had a marked influence on the Vatican’s stance towards the Cracow Archbishop, and reduced his chances of seriously influencing Vatican policy towards Poland during the war. For outside the General Government, the Nazis sought to exclude Polish bishops from all sees. This was to become a major issue for the Vatican, as borders in Europe changed with the greatest frequency between 1939 and 1945.

In most cases requests for an alteration of diocesan boundaries was simply refused. Both Hungary and Lithuania found their requests simply turned down, which, of course, meant that the Vatican did not recognize the occupation on the ground. Not so in Poland. In those areas annexed to the Reich, such as the Warthegau, Germans were used as apostolic administrators. Of course, technically this meant that the situation was deemed to be temporary. Domenico Tardini, head of the foreign section of the Secretariat of State in the Vatican, would write to Pius XII in 1940:

“The present historical moment is very serious from this point of view: Hitler, the persecutor of the Church and the master of much of Europe, wishes in one way or another to impose the appointment of German bishops within non-German territories, and he wants to exercise and influence on the appointments, more so than previously agreed to... What can the Holy See do? It can do what it has always done: reaffirm and defend its liberty, firmly maintain its rights against government coercion when such pressure is detrimental to the good of souls. The people will joyfully greet such apostolic firmness on the part of the Holy See and will stand close around it as the sole herald of divine truth and the sole protector of human dignity.”

Pius should have heeded this call, but instead appointed Germans as administrators. Some of these, such as Adolf Cardinal Bertram of Wroclaw, were opponents of the Nazis within Germany, but were also German nationalists. Others, such as Gdansk/Danzig’s Carl Maria Splett were rather more than this. He removed all Polish priests from the Chelmno diocese of which he became the administrator, and replaced them with Germans. Although he occasionally helped individual Poles, Splett’s anti-Polishness was total. Cardinal Hlond removed him from office in 1945.

As we saw, the Holy Father was far from blind to the suffering of Poland, and one has to say that the Nuncio to Germany, Orsenigo, whose fondness of the Nazis was no secret, and whose power was extended to Poland, did much of the damage. Nevertheless, Pope Pius XII’s Polish policy must be counted as his worst decision of the war. That the Poles suffered tremendously is beyond doubt, and that the Polish Church was martyred with its people is obvious. Bl. Pope John Paul II declared 108 of these martyrs saints in Warsaw in 1999. They include three bishops, 7 religious brothers, 9 sisters, 11 lay people and 78 priests. They include people like Franciszek Rogaczewski from Gdansk, killed for being a priest, Franciscan Józef Achilles Puchała, who chose to die with his parishioners, Alicja Jadwiga Kotowska, a nun who was raped and killed by the Nazis in 1939 and Bishop Antoni Julian Nowowiejski of Płock, who was murdered in a concentration camp. John Paul II elevated 108 Poles, but the list stretches to well over a million. It was in Poland that the Nazi ideology showed the full extent of its horrors, and the Church paid a heavy price.

Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.

Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.

Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.

In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.

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