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Nazi Policy and the Catholic Church

  • KAROL JOZEF GAJEWSKI

Though Hitler felt a particular urgency and hatred when dealing with Jews and Communists, he viewed the Catholic Church as a pernicious opponent, a deeply-entrenched threat that must be controlled and eventually uprooted from German life in order to establish his promised Thousand-Year-Reich.

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On the night of January 30, 1933, rank after rank of SA stormtroopers and black-uniformed SS detachments swung through the Brandenburg Gate onto the Unter den Linden in the centre of Berlin. They carried flaming torches and were cheered by huge crowds lining the sidewalks, thousands hysterically giving the Nazi salute as a token of victory. Hitler had achieved his first goal that very day: appointed Chancellor by the aging President Hindenburg.

As Hitler and his Cabinet minister Hermann Goering acknowledged the cheers of the massed citizenry, Hitler was well aware that the victory was only a partial one. The Nazis were still a minority in a fragile coalition. Hitler had, in fact, warned earlier that day in a statement released to the world's press: "The Nazi Party has at last broken through to the government. I am determined to continue the struggle as fiercely within government as we fought outside it."

A major part of what Hitler saw as his forthcoming struggle was targeting, isolating and destroying a number of enemies who were perceived as inherently hostile to his dream of the 'Volksgemeinschaft' or 'Racial Community'. Chief among these were Jews, Communists, the Social Democrats with their loyal electoral support, the Catholic Centre Party and the Christian Churches. All were threats, each to be dealt with as quickly as circumstances would allow.

Though Hitler felt a particular urgency — and hatred — when dealing with Jews and Communists, he viewed the Catholic Church as a pernicious opponent, a deeply-entrenched threat that must be controlled and eventually uprooted from German life in order to establish his promised Thousand-Year-Reich. To help eliminate Catholic influence, he turned to Alfred Rosenberg, arch-ideologue, anti-Semite, and despiser of Christianity. In his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century, Rosenberg had formulated a "scientific" theory of racism. For him, the supreme human value was that of race: individual races possessed their own collective soul, a mystical "power of the blood and soil." Each race also possessed a religious impulse (in the case of the Aryan Germans, this was the pagan cult of Wotan, king of the gods). Christianity, for Rosenberg, was the distorted product of Semitic tribes who had tricked the Aryans into jettisoning their pagan truth. The Catholic Church, prime mover in this spiritual swindle, was singled out for sustained attack as the promoter of "prodigious, conscious and unconscious falsifications." Rosenberg claimed that Jesus Christ had been an unwitting tool of Jewish world conspirators, active as early as the first century AD. In some writings, he would go further and argue that Christ was possibly not a Jew at all, but a prototype Aryan, son of a Roman soldier stationed in Palestine.

In February 1933 Hermann Goering banned all Catholic newspapers in Cologne, citing that 'political' Catholicism — ie commenting on government policy — would not be tolerated. Responding to protests, he denied this was part of a deliberate campaign against Catholics; the government, he claimed, would "seal its own doom with such a policy." Though the ban was lifted, it sent a warning tremor through the largely Catholic Rhineland, and gave an accurate indication of possible future government moves. A further straw in the wind was apparent when Storm troopers (SA) broke up meetings of Christian trade unions and the Catholic Centre Party. The Manchester Guardian reported one such incident on February 23, 1933 — a prominent politician, Adam Stegerwald, was attacked while speaking at a meeting in Krefeld, and a number of priests were hurt in the fracas.

There was a brief — and carefully engineered — lull in anti-Catholic provocation when Hitler turned his attention to strengthening national unity in the face of potential enemies at home and abroad. He made a public appeal for the Church to negotiate the terms of a new Concordat (Church-State agreement); an offer he knew the Vatican would find hard to refuse. Almost from the outset, however, discussions took place against a drumbeat of threats that the SA would be unleashed on defenceless Catholics unless agreement were quickly reached. Pope Pius XI and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) were faced with a dilemma. If they refused to negotiate with the legally appointed government, Hitler would undoubtedly publicise his terms and claim that the Vatican was anti-Nazi and obstructionist. Any written agreement, Pacelli maintained, would offer a better basis for the protection of civil and religious rights than no legally constituted agreement at all. After all, Lutherans had similar safeguards.

In fact, large-scale arrests were already taking place. Thousands of Catholic Center Party (Zentrum) activists were in concentration camps by the end of June 1933. Although well aware of the ominous situation, government negotiator and Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen (himself a Catholic), told journalists that relations between the Reich and the Vatican were "so friendly" that it had taken only eight days to sketch the main outline of the proposed Concordat. This was duly signed in July 1933 and specified that certain activities — education, youth associations, Church rallies — were legally guaranteed by the Reich. In return, the Church's support for the Centre Party and its ally the Bavarian People's Party would be withdrawn. Actually, the Centre Party, under relentless pressure from the Nazis, had already voted itself out of existence even before the final signing of the Concordat, a fact that Pacelli lamented as it handicapped his negotiating stance.

In view of the controversy that later surrounded the Concordat, Pacelli always argued that the Church had to accept the lesser of the two evils presented to it. Without the agreement, Catholics would have been left to the mercy of SA, SS and Gestapo hit squads. With the agreement, they at least had legal grounds on which to protest injustices. The Secretary of State was realistic enough to remark to a British Embassy official he understood perfectly that attacks on Catholics would not cease, but "they will hardly break all the articles at the same time."

The Nazis may have heard Pacelli's opinions, but if so, paid little attention. An "Editors' Law" promulgated in December 1933 struck directly at free speech. All editors were required to become members of the Literary Chamber of the Third Reich and follow whatever directives might follow. In tandem with this gagging act, government censorship began to tighten relentlessly. Even individual typewriters could be impounded on the whim of local Nazi functionaries and as a result, a partial blackout fell on what was happening inside Germany.

The Vatican, seeking accurate information, found helpers in unusual quarters. A large and unrecognised army of witnesses passed along secret reports and documents. This ad hoc Catholic intelligence grapevine had, as one of its leaders, Dr. Joseph Mueller, an anti-Nazi Munich lawyer known for his coolness and dependability. As an officer in the Abwehr (Military Counter-Intelligence), he was able to move freely between Munich, Berlin and Rome. In his Abwehr bag he carried sheaves of documents giving a detailed account of the campaign being waged against Catholics inside Germany, and, after the Anschluss of 1938, in Austria.

It was clear from Mueller's documentation that clergy were being singled out for ridicule, humiliation and punishment. The famous 'Currency' and 'Immorality' trials which peaked in 1935 and 1936, resulted in the imprisonment and fining of hundreds of clergy.

The 'Immorality' trials sought to destroy the reputation of Catholic religious, aimed in particular at those working in primary and secondary schools. Priests, monks, lay-brothers and nuns were accused of "perverted and immoral" lifestyles — euphemisms for homosexuality and paedophilia. The Gestapo set numerous traps in order to furnish bogus evidence. The New York Times carried a report in May 1936 describing priests who had been summoned to hotel rooms after desperate messages to administer the last sacraments were received. When the priest entered, the 'caller' would turn out to be a prostitute, planted by government agents. Photos would be later produced in court as irrefutable evidence of corruption.

One notorious trial in 1936 concerned the Franciscans of the Rhineland town of Waldbreitbach. This was widely publicised and parents were warned in sanctimoniously penned editorials not to allow their children to enter Catholic schools if they wished to avoid corruption of the innocent. Even children themselves were encouraged to read the lurid accounts. In several cities, newspaper stands were purposely lowered so youngsters could read salacious and pornographic stories accompanied by cartoons in the pages of Der Stuermer (the newspaper controlled by Julius Streicher, notorious anti-Semite and anti-Catholic). Witness statements from children were produced in court by secret police whose testimony was not challengeable. Threats, bribes, brutal night-time interrogations and nervous breakdowns of the accused were reported in various newspapers outside Germany.

In the USA, protest meetings and marches were organised as news of the trials spread. In June 1936, a petition was signed by 48 clergymen. "We lodge a solemn protest against the almost unique brutality of the attacks launched by the German government charging Catholic clergy with gross immorality," they wrote. "The good name of the Catholic priesthood is to be defamed, in the hope that the ultimate suppression of all Jewish and Christian beliefs by the totalitarian state can be effected." This protest was signed by Rabbis Samuel Abrams of Boston, Philip Bernstein of Rochester and Philip Bookstaber of Harrisburg, along with 18 other Rabbis and 27 Protestant clergymen. The New York Times reported that Christmas 1937 would see "more than a hundred Protestant pastors and several thousand Catholic clergymen in prison."

Although roving SA and Hitler Youth gangs were warned in general against turning prominent clergy into martyrs, threats and violence against priests became common. Sometimes, in the wake of local instructions, senior clergy would be intimidated. Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich was shot at and Cardinal Innitzer's residence in Vienna was ransacked in October 1938. There was a notorious incident in the same month when Bishop Sproll of Rottenburg was manhandled and his residence vandalised. He later received an anonymous letter of apology from an SA man, forced to take part in the outrage: "I have always been proud of my country", he wrote, "But last Saturday, I was, for the first time, ashamed to call myself a German."

Songs, films, speeches by party members, poster campaigns, and theatre productions cruelly satirised clergy in the later 1930s. Anderl Kern's anti-clerical play, pointedly titled The Last Peasant, was performed throughout Germany to wide critical acclaim. Characters included a parish priest with an illegitimate child, an eye for the opposite sex and easy money; a young seminarian who arrives home, announcing he has lost his vocation; and a peasant mother who attempts to murder a servant with rosary beads in one hand and a dagger in the other. At the end of the play, the ex-seminarian emerges as a true German hero, having renounced the priesthood and promising to father a large family for the future security of the Aryan race.

The most important strand of Nazi policy was, essentially, to strangle Catholicism by eliminating all organisations supported by the Church, from schools and children's groups to Catholic Trade Unions. By 1939, this had been largely accomplished. Replacing them were National Socialist or "Community Schools", the workers Labour Front and the Hitler Youth with its female counterpart, The League of German Girls. One initial campaign against Catholic schools in Munich reduced the percentage of students attending from 84% in 1934 to 65% a year later. In 1937, parents were asked to choose their child's school in front of two witnesses, usually SA men in full uniform. Hints would be given of possible future trouble and loss of employment if Catholic schools were chosen.

Meetings were regularly held to vote on the issue of Catholic or Community Schools. In Speyer, a town of some 40,000 situated on the Rhine, one working man wrote to his bishop giving details of how his 'vote' had been obtained in 1937: " I was told to go to the Parish Council Offices. On arriving there I declared that I wanted the Roman Catholic school and prepared to leave. The local Nazi cell-leader held me back and wrote a note to my firm stating that because of my declaration I would be dismissed from my job. A police constable then told me if I didn't change my mind I would never obtain public work again."

The cumulative effect of these measures hit teachers in some Catholic schools very hard. A councillor of the Bavarian Ministry of Education announced that in 1936 alone, of 1,600 teaching posts formerly awarded to nuns, 600 would be transferred to secular staff. The councillor didn't explain what would happen to the employment prospects of the unfortunate 600. The economic effects of such enforced redundancy caused many religious houses to close down and nuns with academic qualifications were driven into low-paid occupations. Some returned to their parents or moved in with sympathetic relatives. Yet others applied for jobs in industry. The town of Baden in 1938 saw 41 nuns working in one textile factory, most former teachers. The government, twisting the knife, then announced that all nuns renouncing their vows would be automatically entitled to State employment, with guaranteed salary and pension rights attached.

Thus, on October 27, 1938, Adolf Wagner, Bavarian Minister of the Interior stated with pride: "The denominational schools throughout the whole of Bavaria have now been transformed into Community schools." By January 1939 it was estimated that more than 10,000 Catholic schools had been suppressed and by the end of April that year the London Catholic Herald reported that a further 3,300 schools had been abolished by decree in what was described as "A black day for the Catholic Rhineland."

Continued pressure was brought to bear on thousands of Catholic civil servants who were threatened with disciplinary measures or dismissal unless their children were enrolled in the Hitler Youth or German Girls League (BDM). Training guilds, such as the Prussian Master Craftsman Association, announced that from 1935 onwards, only those enrolled in Nazi Party organisations would be accepted as apprentices. German Railways, employing hundreds of thousands, passed a similar ordinance the same year. Even farmers began issuing notices to the same effect, with shops advertising part-time jobs following suit. The New York Times, on June 1, 1937, reported a Hitler speech referring specifically to the young: "We will take away their children. They shall not escape us."

In spite of the growing atmosphere of intimidation and fear, protests were made by senior clerics who challenged the Third Reich and its racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian policies. These included Bishop Clemens Count von Galen of Munster, Archbishop von Preysing of Berlin, Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, Cardinal Schulte of Cologne and possibly the most famous of all, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich. His series of Advent sermons, preached from the pulpit of St. Michael's Church, aroused national and international interest. They proved so popular that thousands listened, with overflows into the streets outside. In the first of the sermons, preached on December 3 1933, Faulhaber defended Christianity by defending the people from whom it sprung: the Jews. He reminded the congregation that Christianity made no racial distinctions but asked only that its adherents should possess faith. In March 1934, the published edition of his sermons, Judaism, Christianity and 'Germanism' was banned for its so-called outrageous slanders on the State.

Faulhaber, undeterred, pressed on with denunciations of Nazi policy on Catholic schools, youth organisations, rigged elections, sterilisation laws, attacks on the Pope and attempts to replace Christianity with what he called 'ersatz' (fake) religious principles. He played a considerable role in the writing of the great anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ('With Burning Anxiety') issued in March 1937. It denounced repeated attacks on the Catholic faith, the breaking of almost every article of the 1933 Concordat, and assailed Nazi ideology and political practice. The encyclical was smuggled into Germany under the eyes of Gestapo agents who had received warnings from Berlin to expect an important anti-Nazi pamphlet. Copies were secretly printed in various parts of the country and the underground Catholic network was engaged in distributing it to parishes throughout Germany. Hundreds of helpers, in cars, on motorbikes or bicycles, handed copies personally to priests, sometimes in the dead of night. The encyclical made it plain that the Nazis were intent on a "war of extermination" against the Catholic Church, and that after numerous rebuffs to diplomatic approaches from Rome, the Pope had decided to make a final stand.

The government reaction to the encyclical was immediate. A formal protest was sent from Berlin to Rome, and equally swiftly rejected by Cardinal Pacelli. An enraged Hitler and Goebbels cranked up the propaganda machine and once more dozens of clerics found themselves arraigned on the hoary old charges of immorality and 'slandering' the Nazi state. Gestapo units were mobilised to find which presses had produced the encyclical: 12 were confiscated and the editors arrested. In one parish, Essen in the diocese of Oldenburg, seven girls were arrested inside the church as they handed out copies of Mit brennender Sorge after the Palm Sunday service.

The death of Pope Pius XI in February 1939 and the election of his successor, Pacelli, drew sneers from Das Schwarze Korps ('The Black Corps'), house newspaper of the SS and mouthpiece of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer SS. It referred to Pius XI as the "Chief Rabbi of the Christians, boss of the firm of Judah-Rome." Prior to this, Das Schwarze Korps had taken a leading role in propaganda attacks on Cardinal Pacelli during his official visit to France, labelling him a co-conspirator with Jews and Communists against Nazism.

The strategy of the Nazi government towards Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular changed gear a number of times during 1933-9. New policies could be imposed from above or rescinded as the dictates of political events changed. Sometimes central decision-making was emphasised; sometimes party organisations were given freer rein to adapt policy to local circumstances. On occasions harassment could be disguised or even halted if a propaganda coup might thus be gained. In August 1936, for example, during the Olympic Games in Berlin, orders were given to stop measures against Jews, Catholics and Protestants and to hide show trials from the eyes of foreign journalists. The pause soon ended once the correspondents left Germany.

With the coming of war in 1939, Hitler insisted that overt persecution of Christians had to take second place to the effective prosecution of military aims. Others in the party held different views, believing it was a mistake to slow the Kirchenkampf, the battle against the Church. Martin Bormann, 'deputy' Fuhrer, reminded Heinrich Himmler in 1941 that the "influence of the Church must be entirely eliminated." In the event, however, the destruction was to be given a longer time-scale for accomplishment. A clue can be found in the published edition of Hitler's Table Talk, where he stated as part of a lengthy and rambling attack on the Church that: "I have numerous accounts to settle, about which I cannot think today. But that doesn't mean I forget them. I write them down. The time will come to bring out the big book."

As is tragically known today, there was little division of opinion among top Nazis regarding the persecution of the Jews. The war gave Hitler undreamed of possibilities to purify Europe of non-Aryans. Slavs were to be used as labour or killed without compunction when necessary, the Jewish population to be exterminated as vermin. With the invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and the construction of the death camp network, Nazi capacity to kill reached hitherto unimagined levels.

Though the scale of Christian persecution cannot be compared to the Jewish Holocaust of 1941-1945, except perhaps in Poland, the ultimate destruction of Christianity was one of the Nazis long-term aims. From his early years of political dreaming, from within the pages of Mein Kampf to the Table Talk Hitler himself made his contempt for the 'slave' ideology of Christianity and its Jewish roots perfectly clear.

Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Hitler Youth, was fond of addressing mass meetings of his followers with a motto: "We are a Youth that believes in God, because we serve the Divine Law that is called Germany." That desperate conception of the 'Divine Law' was to lead, by ten thousand crooked paths, to catastrophic suffering, total war, and to the ovens of Auschwitz itself.

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Acknowledgement

Gajewski, Karol Jozef. "Nazi Policy and the Catholic Church." Inside the Vatican (November 1999).

Published with permission of Inside the Vatican and Mr. Gajewski.

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The Author

Karol Jozef Gajewski teaches history at a secondary school in Sandbach, Cheshire, England. His particular interests include modern European history, religious philosophy, English literature, and playing the violin.

Copyright © 1999 Inside the Vatican
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