For Germany’s Catholic Church, the accession to absolute power of the Nazis ushered in a period of acute suffering and persecution. Here was a regime that was totally and utterly opposed to the Church, and was prevented from acting against her without restraint only by the fear that it would cause an uprising amongst Germany’s Catholic population. The story is a familiar one, and it is a story of choices: choices to defend the Church and her interests first. This choice has led to the occasional claim of indifference to the plight of the German Jews, but that is to obscure what the Church’s priorities were, and to ignore the very real threat, including that of martyrdom, that faced the Church. To put it bluntly, and without trying to diminish their suffering in the least, the Jews were not the only victims of the regime.
I have no intention of repeating a story that is very well known. Rather, in this and the following article I wish to explore the complexities and occasional ambiguities of the Church’s position in the Third Reich through the experience of several prominent Catholic Germans. All of these faced a similar conundrum. On the one hand, they were faced by a new ideology, one that was intrinsically hostile to their Faith, even though it occasionally compromised its stance somewhat. Indicative of the tone of much of the critique of the Church is the fact that Hitler is still frequently labeled a Catholic. Let us remind ourselves of Hitler’s view of Christianity. To him, it defended the weak and low, was Jewish in origin and invented to enslave free men; mercy as advocated by Jesus was a dangerous idea, and the love that is central to the Gospels leads to paralysis. Finally, he described forgiveness of sins and salvation of mankind as ‘nonsense’. The list leaves little doubt as to the real threat that the Nazis formed to the Church.
One would expect opposition to the ideological tenets of the regime from Christians to have been immediate and absolute. In some cases that is exactly what happened. One could think of the principled opposition to Hitler by the Bavarian Jesuit priest, Bl. Rupert Meyer, which began when Hitler made his very first public appearances in the Bavarian capital in the 1920s.
Not all were as astute in their assessment of the new ideology, their views clouded by other issues. To begin with, there was the threat of Communism. In Germany, this was very real, with its large Communist party and a history, albeit brief, of the Soviet Republic in Bavaria.
Secondly, there was the peculiarly German phenomenon of the Oath of Loyalty and the concept of the Rechtsstaat. The latter was rather odd, for it argued that one cannot overthrow a government or defy it as that would destroy the basis of society, the rule of law. Not only did that argument ran counter to the Biblical injunction to separate the domains that pertain to God and King, but it also ignored the fact that the Nazis had come to power through rather dubious legitimate methods. The Oath was even more peculiar: it was enforced on all members of Germany’s military and bound them to Hitler. The idea of an oath of loyalty had long fascinated German intellectuals from Jacob Grimm onwards, who had clothed it with the veneer of historical respectability. However odd it may sound to our ears, both oath and Rechtsstaat were to stop many Catholics from acting against the blatantly pagan and immoral regime at all or until it was too late.
Some went beyond tolerating or failing to act against the neo-pagan regime: they collaborated. Since the publication in 2007 of Kevin Spicer’s superbly-researched book, Hitler’s Priests, we have a relatively complete picture of this group. It comes as a relief after the total ambiguity of the Church’s relationship with Mussolini to state that the number of Catholic priests working with the Nazis was tiny. Spicer lists 138 so-called ‘Brown Priests’ out of a total number of German priests of 42,000, less than 0.5 %.
Let us examine one of these men, Fr. Karl Eschweiler. Ironically, Eschweiler came from an environment that produced many of Hitler’s leading Catholic critics, the Catholic University of Bonn. He became thoroughly disenchanted with the Weimar Republic, however. Eschweiler disliked its freedom of religion, its emphasis on individual rights and its support of secular modernism. He longed for an authoritarian state, supported by an institutionally strong Church, along the lines of what was happening in Austria. His stance was not uncommon, but the lengths he was prepared to go to achieve his goal were. When Hitler came to power, Eschweiler joined the NSDAP. Soon, he was writing pamphlets supporting the eugenics policies of the Nazis, which caused the Nuncio, the future Pope Pius XII, to suspend his priestly faculties. There the story ended, for Eschweiler died young, and was buried in the brown uniform of the S.A.
Very few Catholics went as far as Eschweiler, but his fears of the secularized and morally ambivalent Weimer Republic were widely shared.
Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich and one of the leaders of Germany’s Catholics, equally disliked the Weimer state. Yet he did not allow this dislike to cloud his judgment of the Nazis. This was made very clear during the ad limina visit of the Bavarian bishops to Pope Pius XI in March 1933. The Italian Pope believed Hitler to be another Mussolini, a possible support for the Church. Faulhaber quickly ensured that the true nature of the regime was made clear, thus paving the way for the Encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, in which the Holy Father was to denounce the Nazis, and to which Faulhaber made a significant contribution.
As a member of the International Catholic League against Anti-Semitism, Faulhaber was particularly appalled by the Nazis’ attacks on the Jews.
The Papacy actually provided Cardinal von Faulhaber with a diplomatic passport, afraid that the outspoken prelate would come to harm. He spoke out openly against the Nazis’ eugenics, and offered public support for the Jews of Munich during the Kristallnacht, the attacks on the Jews, of 1938.
The Cardinal also totally rejected any attempts to discredit the Old Testament and dismissed as ludicrous the proposition that Jesus was a Nordic God and Hitler the new Messiah.
Yet even this outspoken critic held back from attacking the regime. He prayed for Hitler, gave tacit support to the Anschluss of Austria, and was silent on, or supportive of, the regime’s militarism. He was, however, in contact with Catholics whose Faith overrode any such scruples, and was subject to what has been described as an ‘aggressive’ examination by the Gestapo in the wake of the July 1944 attempted coup d’état, one of several episodes of open Nazi violence against the Cardinal.
Of course, Faulhaber had to take into account the results of his actions on his flock and his priests. Thousands of priests were already interred in Dachau, not far from his see in Munich, and scores of monasteries had been closed. This did not stop others from engaging the regime in open rebellion.
Some bishops were not hindered by the potential consequences of their actions. In East Prussia, the formidable Maximilian Kaller, Bishop of Ermland, proved a persistent thorn in the Nazis’ side. Presiding over a bishopric of German, Polish and Lithuanian Catholics, Kaller had pursued a policy of ethnic equality that appalled the Nazis, who, under Governor General Hans Frank, had made German the only language of occupied Poland.
Kaller would have none of it, and he vigorously protected his Polish priests and parishioners. Closely involved in the articulate denunciation of the Nazis’ Social-Darwinist racism and eugenics, Kaller was frequently threatened by the Nazis. His reply was a request to be transferred to Theresienstadt, to serve as chaplain to those in that concentration camp.
The Nuncio, Cesare Orsenigo, who had more than a dose of sympathy for the Nazis, and who had repeatedly clashed with bishops such as Bl. Clemens Cardinal Graf von Galen and Cardinal Faulhaber, and who deeply disliked Bishop Kaller, refused permission. After the war, Kaller had to leave his diocese, his German identity too much for the Polish episcopate. Yet he had shown that resistance was possible. Others would go one step further still.
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.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.