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International Socialist Review, Spring 1964


Constance Weisman

Adolph Hitler and the German Catholics


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.2, Spring 1964, pp.60-61.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars
by Gordon C. Zahn
New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962, 229 pp. $4.75.

A furor has arisen in Europe and the US over The Deputy, a play by Rolf Hochhuth, a German. The play has just opened in New York, and already radio, TV, the press and the Catholic Church are debating its theme – could Pius XII, the war time Pope, have helped the Jews against their horrible fate in Germany by speaking out in moral censure against the Nazis instead of remaining silent.

German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, written by a Catholic professor at Loyola University in Chicago, and published by a Catholic publisher, is concerned with another problem than the fate of the Jews. Gordon C. Zahn went to Germany in 1956-57 to find out what happened to the German Catholic peace movement which had been quite strong before the rise of Hitler, and which completely collapsed at the first threat to it.

Zahn is concerned as a Catholic sociologist with the failure of the Church to denounce Hitler’s “unjust war.” He shows that the Catholic hierarchy in Germany not only did not oppose the war but tried to demonstrate that they were its most enthusiastic supporters. By 1957, virtually all German Catholics interviewed by Zahn agreed that Hitler’s war had been an unjust war and that German Catholics and especially their spiritual leaders were aware of its injustice. Yet one of the very few Catholics who expressed opposition to the war, Father Max Joseph Metzger, founder of a religious community, was defended very lamely by Archbishop Grober after his capture by the Gestapo. Grober wrote to the Freiburg officials in a tone of prudent disapproval of Metzger’s “idealism,” like “an embarrassed parent’s apology for damage done by a child.” Metzger was executed.

Not only did the Catholic hierarchy profoundly disapprove of conscientious objectors (who faced capital punishment) but even used the pressure of denying them the sacraments until just before death to make them change their minds. Josef Fleischer, the only German Catholic conscientious objector to live to tell the tale because of confinement in a mental institution, says that while awaiting trial, he was visited by a clergyman who identified himself as the military bishop’s chief assistant.

“This visitor reportedly advanced every possible argument to induce Fleischer to abandon his refusal to serve in the armed forces. These efforts failing, he burst into a furious display of temper and declared that people like Fleischer must be exterminated, that they should be ‘shortened by a head.’“

The Church authorities were actually the greatest recruiters to the army: they exhorted the soldiers to give their lives in battle, promising them eternal salvation if they died in Hitler’s war.

The German invasion of Poland thrilled Cardinal Rarkowski so much that he issued an exultant pastoral letter to the soldiers commemorating the Nazi victory over the first victims of the blitzkrieg.

“He described the joyous scenes at home with the church bells ringing out a special noonday Te Deum and flags waving and fluttering over all the houses.”

As to the dead soldiers,

“this dying was not only beautiful and sublime in a human sense but towers beyond into a higher world. It is a holy death ... for those who have fallen had consecrated and sanctified all their war services through their oath of allegiance [to Hitler] and have thus entered their sacrifices in the ledgers of God which are preserved in the archives of Eternity.”

The author points out that there is a widely accepted assumption that the pattern of Catholic behavior was one of inflexible opposition to the ideology of the Hitler regime. The Church might have supported the German government, goes the argument, but this was differentiated from support of Nazism per se. But, Zahn shows, the Church never showed any opposition to Nazism and in many cases enthusiastically supported it.

On the occasion of Hitler’s 50th birthday, Cardinal Rarkowski, who was the spiritual head of the armed forces, wrote:

“So let our gift to our Führer be the inner readiness for sacrifice and devotion to the Volk [the mystique of nationalism] ... May our thanksgiving and our readiness to repay loyalty with loyalty find expression in the prayer ... ‘Bless, O God, our Führer and Supreme Commander in all the tasks placed upon him.’”

The Bavarian Catholic newspapers were also very enthusiastic about Hitler’s birthday. One adorned a full-page spread of birthday greetings with a photograph of the Führer in uniform.

“Thus we have truly sufficient cause to thank Divine Providence that ... the nation’s leadership [was] entrusted to a statesman who understood how to unite a power without historical parallel in his hands.”

There is no question that Hitler, in violation of the Concordat signed with the Pope, harassed the Catholic Church, seizing the property of religious orders and schools, dispersing monastaries. The bishops protested vociferously against these violations of Church institutions. They also protested the “mercy killing” of the feeble-minded and physically unfit. But they never protested in any way the slaughter of millions of Jews.

There is certainly a contradiction in the fact that the Church supported Hitler in spite of his aggressive acts against it. Even the Stalin-Hitler pact did not seem to deter the slavish obeisance paid by the hierarchy to the Nazi authorities. During the period when Hitler and Stalin, acting as partners, carved up Poland, there was complete silence about the dangers of “atheistic” bolshevism.

It would seem that class alignment had more power than Catholic considerations. The author attributes the moral weakness of the Church in knuckling under to Hitler to extreme German nationalism. The Church leaders had aristocratic and militaristic forebears, steeped in the dreams of German conquest. Bishop von Galen of Munster, highly praised as the most outspoken critic of Hitler, was so aristocratic that he looked down on Hitler during his first rabble-rousing days when his principal support came from the Lumpenproletariat. Once Hitler came to power, he became the legitimate authority in Galen’s eyes. The extent of his protests were against specific Nazi aggressions against the Church. He firmly put the damper on any Catholic underground resistance to Hitler.

Zahn believes that the Church could have had a great deal of influence in Germany, whose population is 40.3 per cent Catholic. For instance, Michael Cardinal Faulhaber, leader of the Bavarian heirarchy, had a great following because of his leadership in the Catholic peace movement. As the leading Church spokesman in Bavaria, the most heavily Catholic state of Germany, his opposition would have been decisive. In addition, such opposition in Munich, the very city where the Nazi movement had its birth, would have been a heavy blow to Hitler. However, Faulhaber joined his fellow bishops in enthusiastic support of the war and limited his protests to specific Nazi acts against the Church.

To the argument that opposition to the Nazis would have brought reprisals on the Church and its members, Zahn replies that there is another serious consideration to be taken into account – the scriptural injunction to preach the Word “in season and out of season.” Prudence in choosing the proper means of attaining an end is not to be confused with abandoning the end because it would entail risks and hardships. He feels that the Church failed completely in its duty to oppose injustice. Its enthusiasm for Hitler’s war was indistinguishable from identifying the interests of the Church with the Nazi regime.

He concludes by pointing out that the Church would have acted the same under any totalitarian regime, and doubts that Catholics in any other country would have protested obedience to the secular authority. For example, he says, how many US Catholics protested the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

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