October 03, 2011

The Church and Nazi Germany: Opposition, Acquiescence and Collaboration II

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

So far in these articles on Germany we have encountered outright support and collaboration, quiet resistance, and attempts to preserve the essence of Faith and Church life without breaking with the regime altogether. The next step from this was outright opposition, based on Faith. One such Catholic example is furnished by the redoubtable Bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing. Von Preysing came from a staunchly Catholic Bavarian background, and had been appointed Bishop of Berlin in 1935. This was a position of importance; he may have been a suffragan to the Archbishop of Breslau – modern Wroclaw in Poland – but he was also the bishop of the Capital of Germany. The appointment of Von Preysing was a clear message from the Vatican to Hitler. Von Preysing had been an outspoken opponent of the Nazis from very early on. When they came to power in 1933, he had said during a sermon, “we have fallen into the hands of criminals and fools”.

Pius XI knew what he was doing when he appointed Von Preysing. His bishopric became a hotbed of anti-Nazi activity on all fronts. Like many of his fellow bishops, Von Preysing was outspoken when it came to the eugenics’ policies of the Nazis. Here they spoke with one voice. The president of the German Bishops Conference, Adolf Cardinal Bertram, Archbishop of Breslau and a virulent German nationalist, was as open in his opposition as Von Preysing, Bl. Clement von Galen or Von Faulhaber in Munich.

His cathedral administrator, Bl. Bernard Lichtenberg, became pivotal in offering assistance to those threatened by ‘euthanasia’, or, to give it its proper name, murder. Indeed, Lichtenberg often became the front for Von Preysing, actually preaching against the Nazis in his church, yards from the Reichskanzlei, the center of Nazi power in Germany. The two men founded the Hilfswerke beim Bischöflichen Ordinariat Berlin, under the auspices of Caritas, the Catholic aid organization. This became a life-line for Jews, both those converted to Catholicism and others.

His work would cost Lichtenberg his life, for he died during transport to Dachau. Somehow, the Nazis did not dare to touch Von Preysing, who ran the organization for the duration of the war. They knew he was involved in the drafting of the Encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, the fierce denunciation of Nazism by Pope Pius XI, knew of his involvement in the work of Bl. Bernard Lichtenberg, knew, too, of his attempts to have the German Bishops Conference speak out against the death camps. (Fearful of what would happen, the senior bishops had overruled both Von Preysing and Cologne’s Archbishop, Josef Frings). They were aware, too, of his enormous popularity.

This seems to have protected him even in July 1944. That month, the German resistance, whose existence Winston Churchill denied in Parliament, carried out one last desperate attempt to remove Hitler, the last of a whole series of attempts. Its leadership came from the Kreisau circle, in which Catholics played a major role. Its leader, Graf von Moltke, noted in his diaries that Von Preysing attended their meetings infrequently. The other element of the opposition came from the army, and here the leadership was in the hands of a small group of men, including the officer who would plant the bomb that was intended to kill Hitler, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Von Stauffenberg was a staunch Catholic, whose moral compass had not been twisted by the Nazis. The same is true of many of the other conspirators, who included the pious Protestant second in command of the secret service, the Abwehr, Hans Oster, and his friend, the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

Of course, the attempt failed and Von Stauffenberg, Oster, Bonhoeffer and almost 5,000 others were tortured, humiliated and killed, some only weeks before the end of the war. Von Preysing, however, was left untouched. This is rather odd, for the Gestapo knew that the clergy were involved, indeed, that they were sorry the attempt had failed. In Cologne, for example, they reported that the people were amazed that their archbishop did not speak out against the attack. What they did not know was that the Vatican knew of the action. Although Josef Müller, the confidant of Von Faulhaber, had been arrested in 1943, there were still enough contacts with the Papacy through the Abwehr in Rome.

Soon after July, the Gestapo had a list of bishops who at least knew of the resistance, including Bl. Clemens von Galen – who had said that he could not share nationhood with the Nazis – Von Faulhaber, Frings, and Johannes Dietz of Fulda. None of these men came to harm. Perhaps the Nazis were mindful of the reaction of lay Catholics in previous years. For the most, the Catholic population in Germany had remained passive after the Nazi take-over. Every now and then, however, they had shown that their Church was beyond the pale as far as the regime was concerned. In June 1941, for example, Adolf Wagner, the militantly atheist Gauleiter of Upper Bavaria, and de facto ruler of the German state, ordered the removal of all Crucifixes from classrooms. Of course, this broke the Concordat, but it was the perceived attack from the Party on the Church that brought out the opposition.

All over Bavaria there were demonstrations, which, seeing the omnipresent Gestapo, was a risky and overt expression of Faith. Berlin was swamped by petitions organized by the episcopate, and, ominously for the Nazis, these included large numbers from the army fighting in Russia. As the talk of open revolt increased, Hitler lost his nerve and rescinded the order. This was followed by the concerted action against Plan T4, the Nazi euthanasia program. The role of Bl. Clemens von Galen and other bishops is well-known, but they received their influence from their flock, ordinary German Catholics who were shocked to their core by this Social Darwinist experiment.

Soon, demonstrations were occurring all over Catholic Germany. In Bavaria, Hitler was confronted with angry demonstrators when he visited Nuremberg, the only time during his rule that he met with open opposition from ordinary Germans. With almost half the German population belonging to the Church, these open rebellions frightened Hitler, who was aware that if they spread to the army, his regime would be in trouble. Gone were the days when a small group of Nazis could attack an Archbishop with impunity, as in 1938, when Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna had suffered the indignity.

However, the chance to remove the regime altogether, if it ever existed, soon evaporated. The example of the Dutch Church, which suffered heavily for its criticism of the deportation of the Jews, and the relentless small-scale attacks upon individual priests, monasteries and Catholic lay men and women, served to remind the leaders of Germany’s Church what might happen. For most German Catholics, the period between 1933 and 1945 was one of relentless darkness, in which they merely tried to survive. The Holy Father has spoken of the experience of his own family during the war, an experience that is perhaps more typical than any of the examples seen so far. His father suffered loss of jobs for his rather outspoken dislike for the Nazis, but never went as far as to resist them openly. He may have had the fate of his wife and children in mind, a consideration easily forgotten by those in less perilous circumstances.

One of Joseph Ratzinger’s cousins, who had Down Syndrome, was murdered under the Nazi euthanasia program, and, aged 14, Joseph walked the path made compulsory for all German boys of his age, and joined the Hitler Jugend. There, he displayed one of the small acts of resistance that marked large swathes of Catholic Germany: he frequently refused to attend meetings. Later still, when already in seminary, he was drafted into the air defenses, from where he was to desert as soon as he could. Dislike of the regime, tempered by fear of life: this was the hallmark of most Catholic Germans between 1933 and 1945. I shall let the Holy Father have the last word, and join his analysis of the Nazis:

“Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people [the Jews], wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke in Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind.”    

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.