September 19, 2011

Catholic Germany and the Background to the Nazi Era

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

Next to Italy, no other country shaped the experience of the Catholic Church during the Second World War as much as Germany. That this is so is hardly surprising: for most of the half of the twentieth century German politics determined the politics of Europe, and, by extension, of the Church. It was German intervention in the Austro-Serb conflict that sparked the Continent-wide war of 1914-1918, and it was Germany that re-armed and gradually pushed the Continent into its second great war from 1933 onwards.

From a Catholic perspective, Germany had been a problem region ever since the Reformation. In the sixteenth century, large swathes of the country, mainly in the north and east, had been lost to the Faith. Only in the south, in Bavaria and Württemberg, and in the Rhineland around Cologne and Bonn, did the Church retain a secure holding. There, the impact of the Council of Trent was deeply felt, and the Church was deeply embedded. Indeed, some of the dioceses, such as Cologne or Trier, had roots almost back to Apostolic times.

Of course, another large swathe of German-speaking lands had also remained Catholic: those in the Alpine lands of Austria, and those German-speaking regions in the Czech lands, known as the Sudeten Land. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in 1648, the balance between Protestant and Catholic Germans was almost perfect, and would remain so until deep into the nineteenth century. However, the drive for a national home for the Germans under Otto von Bismarck was to lead to the exclusion of the Germans under Habsburg rule, those of Austria and the Czech lands.

To some Germans, who would deeply influence Hitler, himself Austrian, this was always unsatisfactory. To others, it was perfect. Bismarck welded a German nation state from the various kingdoms and principalities, a union which was achieved after the defeat of France in 1871. Almost directly Bismarck was to target the Catholic Church in what became known as the Kulturkampf or Culture War. This began in Prussia, the largest constituent country of the new Germany, which was predominantly Protestant, but which, in the west, contained large numbers of Catholics, too. To the conservative elite in Prussia, these Catholics constituted a threat to Prussia’s, and, therefore, to Germany’s, identity. Having excluded vast numbers of Catholic German-speakers from their new construct, they now wished to exclude the Catholic Church, too.

The union between the predominantly Protestant north and the Catholic kingdoms and countries of southern Germany gave this movement real impetus. Paradoxically, the Liberals in those southern states were delighted with the new Germany. For some decades now, they had been engaged in piecemeal attempts to curb any influence of the Church. They had deprived it from the right to teach in schools, and had instituted close government supervision of the clergy. In Prussia, the Liberals had been rather weak, but, in 1871, Liberals from across Germany found each-other in the new Empire, and began to work to shape it in accordance with their vision. Essentially, that meant a country in which positive Faith played little or no role: it was un-German.

They found an unexpected ally in the arch-conservative Bismarck, who had been rather contemptuous of Prussia’s Liberals prior to 1871. From about 1866, when Prussia had defeated the Habsburgs and excluded them from his plans to unify Germany, Bismarck had begun to move closer to traditional Prussian dislike of Catholicism, of which the Habsburgs were the main German protectors. He, too, believed that Catholicism was inimical to the modern Germany, but, wily politician that he was, also saw the Kulturkampf as a means to strengthen a German sense of national unity. To understand the full-scale attack on the Church, its traditions, its institutions and its teachings during this period is essential in order to appreciate the importance that the Papacy attached to reaching a legally-binding concordat with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. It was an attack that lasted for decades, only petering out towards the end of the century, and left an indelible mark on Germany’s Catholics and their Church.

In the wake of the Kulturkampf, they became politically powerful and became a force to reckon with. The main vehicle for Catholic political power was the Zentrumpartei or Centre Party. It was founded in 1870 to defend the autonomy of the Church, its right to teach, denominational schools and the sanctity of marriage. Interestingly, from the outset it defended the rights of non-German minorities like the Poles in the north-east and the French-speakers from the Alsace, who, as Catholics, found a natural political home in the Centre Party. The Kulturkampf made the Centre Party. Catholics flocked under its protection and it became the natural vehicle for all Catholics, regardless of what part of Germany they came from.

During the years prior to the First World War, the Centre was frequently involved in the government of Germany, and supported its colonial and foreign policy. Indeed, it was enthusiastic when war did break out in 1914. However, as the conflict dragged on and the economic situation became perilous, the left-wing of the party became more critical. It was this wing that supported Vatican attempts to establish peace. In the Reichstag, the parliament, they were the main proponents of a vote to end the war in 1917, a vote ignored by the German army command.

The Centre was to become a mainstay of the Weimar Republic, established after the collapse of the German monarchy at the end of the war. However, she had lost a significant element of support when the Bavarian wing of the party broke away to establish a Bavarian-Catholic movement. Nonetheless, throughout the 1920s, the Centre formed part of the various governments that tried to negotiate the fraught political landscape of post-war Germany, wracked by strife between armed faction, plagued by foreign occupation of important industrial zones and loss of territories, and fatefully crippled by vindictive indemnities.

The commitment of many in the party to democracy was startling, particularly as their relations with the other pillar of the Weimar state, the Social Democrats, were often difficult. The Socialists had inherited many Liberal ideas, including a dislike of Catholic autonomy. However, from 1920 the Church had official relations with the Republic, something it had not managed with the old Reich, and the Nuncio, Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, managed to exert some influence on the debate, over which the shadow of the Kulturkampf still loomed large. Indeed, Pacelli was convinced that only a concordat with Germany would safeguard the German Church. He managed to establish concordats with several of the constituent countries of the Weimar Republic, which assisted the local Church greatly.

   The tensions that were tearing Germany apart in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash were also causing friction in the Centre Party. It became divided into three factions, a left-leaning group connected with the Christian trade unions, a conservative group leaning towards dictatorship under Franz von Papen, and a center group, highly loyal to the Pope under the leadership of Heinrich Brüning. Some Catholics had, initially, also been strong supporters of the new Nazi movement. This had not lasted too long, however. Catholic intellectuals, such as the Munich Jesuit, Bl. Rupert Mayer, soon pointed out that the neo-pagan and Social Darwinist Nazis believed in an ideology entirely incompatible with the teachings of the Church.

However, it would be Brüning, by paving the way for dictatorship by his own rule by dictat, ignoring parliament, and von Papen, who was to invite Hitler into government, who were to cause the end of the Weimar Republic. The role of the priest-chairman of the Centre Party, Ludwig Kaas, was also rather dubious, as explored in a previously. That it was a group of Catholic politicians who signed the death warrant of the Weimar Republic which their party had done so much to create and maintain, must rank as one of the great and bitter ironies of the Church’s history of this period. It is placed in stark relief when one considers that the vast majority of Catholics voted Centre to the last free election, and utterly rejected the Nazis.

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.


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