Benedict, German Catholics & the Holocaust

Justus George Lawler

 

John Connelly’s previous contributions to Commonweal—particularly his balanced assessment of Fear, Jan T. Gross’s book on the Kielce pogrom in postwar Poland (“Ordinary Poles,” February 23, 2007)—did not prepare me for the cliché history in his article on the paradoxical legacy of Karl Adam, “Reformer and Racialist” (January 18, 2008). That article began with a quote intended to confirm a stereotype: readers learned that in Czestochowa in 2006, Benedict XVI told Polish bishops that the church “looks upon the past with serenity, and does not fear for the future.” Connelly then asked: “Are these not strange words to be spoken by a German to Poles?” The implied answer is: “Of course they are.” And so they would have been, but these words were never uttered in Czestochowa during that supposedly fateful visit in 2006. What the pope did talk about that day at Mary’s shrine was Mary. Nor were those “strange words” uttered two days later when the pope visited Auschwitz. There he spoke at length, and with visible emotion, about how his presence at “that place” was “particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany.” What is even more to be regretted about Connelly’s introductory question is its air of complicity with the reader, who is assumed to agree that the writer is saying a “right” thing about a “wrong” pope.

Connelly treats two other popes in a similar way. In the context of the Nazis’ exaltation of race and the presumed failures of the papacy to oppose it, Connelly writes that Pius XI “came out in 1938 against racial intermarriage.” Since there is no reference for this assertion, one need merely cite the canon law of the time—as the pope did in a personal intervention with Mussolini in 1938—that “the church approves interracial marriages as long as both parties are Catholics.” Connelly quotes Pius XII (again with no reference) as declaring in 1939 that “the church extended ‘blessings’ to the ‘care which aims at a wise and orderly evolution of particular forces and tendencies having their origin in the individual character of each race.’” That does sound damaging—but only because the text has been doctored. Following the words “each race” and without any break, the sentence continues with an important qualifier: “provided that they are not opposed to the duties incumbent on men from their unity of origin and common destiny.”

In September 1939, German bishops prayed that “God’s providence may lead the war that has broken out to a successful conclusion.” Two years later, Connelly writes, “when Germany launched a war of racial annihilation,” the bishops made a similar exhortation. “Clearly,” Connelly concludes, “they placed German nationalism above Christian teaching.” But not every war that evil leaders launch is evil—otherwise it would have been evil for Stalin to fight the Nazis. Nor could the bishops have anticipated that the invasion of the Soviet Union would result in the mass murder of Jews. Trapped in their own clichés, the bishops regarded it as a crusade against godless Communism.

The stereotype of a feckless episcopate leads Connelly to a blanket condemnation of the bishops’ silence regarding Nazism. As the publisher of such books as The Capitulation of German Catholicism by Carl Amery and The Respectable Murderers by Paul Hanley Furfey, I am not about to defend either those bishops or their lay subjects. But it is incumbent on anyone treating such life-and-death issues to exercise discrimination. One should, for example, discriminate between the case of Willi Graf and that of Konrad Adenauer. Connelly does not; he simply mentions them together as two critics of the bishops. As a member of the White Rose, Graf validated his criticism of the regime by putting his life on the line. By contrast, the same Adenauer who believed mute bishops should be “put in prison or concentration camps” also harshly rebuffed Carl Goerderler, the head of the civilian Resistance. Emmi Bonhoeffer—whose husband, Klaus, and brother-in-law, Dietrich, would both be executed by the Nazi government—compared Adenauer to Talleyrand, whose motto was, “I survived.”

Bishop Clemens von Galen of Münster was also headed toward execution for his open defiance of the Third Reich. His sermons attacking the Gestapo and the Nazi murder of “incurables” were read throughout Western Europe. When the Führer’s underlings wanted him killed immediately, Hitler, fearful of a popular uprising, promised to have the bishop executed “after victory.” Von Galen, who was a supporter of the war against Communist Russia—though not of “racial annihilation”—welcomed Goerderler’s overtures and backed the Resistance. Also breaking the stereotype of silent complicity were Konrad von Preysing, the bishop of Berlin and a distant cousin of von Galen, and Bishop Johannes Dietz of Fulda, both of whom favored tyrannicide. Claus von Stauffenberg was a patriotic Catholic whose failed assassination plans were motivated by the slaughter of Jews, which he had witnessed in the East.

Connelly writes, “Catholic moral theology gave no clear warrant for the assassination of a tyrant like Hitler, who had come to power legally.” That truism is followed by these non sequiturs: “And what of killing innocent civilians? Like the American bombers high above Germany, conspirators like Helmuth von Möltke or Johann Georg Elser were willing to (and did) kill innocent people when setting bombs to eliminate Hitler.” In fact, the noble-spirited Möltke set no bombs and killed no one. He opposed assassination primarily because of its political repercussions in a post-Nazi society. Von Möltke’s close friend Adam von Trott zu Solz insisted that killing Hitler was a moral obligation—an opinion shared by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Elser’s effort to kill Hitler resulted in a dozen casualties in November 1939—a date so early in the war that, had he succeeded, the history of Europe would have been utterly different. As for bombers targeting civilians, they were condemned by Pius XII in the first month of the war and repeatedly during the next several years. Neither the Allies nor the Axis paid attention to him.

It is simplistic to be “tempted to locate anti-Nazi thought among the progressives,” just as it would be simplistic to locate it among Catholics (or Protestants) in general. Religion was only one of several factors that motivated people to face death by opposing the regime. Apart from heroic courage, always rare, the overriding factor, according to researchers as different as Nechama Tec and Gordon Zahn, was a willingness to violate conventional societal patterns—in short, to go beyond the stereotypes. Zahn’s German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars is subtitled A Study in Social Control. His model for overcoming such controls was neither a bishop nor a “progressive” but a peasant: Franz Jägerstätter.



John Connelly

 

The words I attribute to Benedict (“The church looks upon the past with serenity”) are in fact Benedict’s words. But Justus George Lawler is right: Benedict did not speak them in Poland. Rather, they were read during the papal visit to the huge crowd in Czestochowa by Bishop Andrzej Suski before Benedict’s own address (on May 26, 2006). Suski was citing words originally spoken by Benedict to the College of Cardinals on April 20, 2005.

As for racial intermarriage, on November 15, 1938, the New York Times relayed a Vatican communication according to which “the church dissuades its children from entering such marriages, holding out the danger of physically deficient offspring and in this sense the church is disposed within the limits of divine law to support the efforts of civil authorities in reaching this most laudable purpose.” It is worth noting in light of Lawler’s caveat that the Vatican made it clear that “the church tries to achieve this object by persuasion, not by prohibition.” Still, why the pronouncement on deficient offspring? Biology never gave reason to believe such a thing—a fact acknowledged at the time by John LaFarge, SJ.

The words on “race” I attribute to Pius XII were spoken by him and are not doctored, as anyone who consults the text of Summi pontificatus can discern. The sentence’s second part does nothing to weaken the surprising call for the church to concern itself with the “orderly evolution of particular forces and tendencies having their origin in the individual character of each race.” What in the world did that mean? Unfortunately, to some East European Catholics it meant boycotting Jewish businesses: an activity that seemed to promote the forces of race while not endangering the unity of mankind—something understood to be spiritual.

I agree with Lawler on the need for distinctions, for example between just and unjust wars. Nazi Germany (not Stalin!) launched hostilities; the Soviet Union defended itself. The former’s war was unjust, the latter’s just. Bishops praying for German armies acted more as Germans than as Catholics. My point in citing Willi Graf and Konrad Adenauer was to show how two very different observers could feel no “serenity” when looking at the record of their church. I did not imply that the latter should have taken the path of the former. It is probably fortunate for German democracy that he did not.

Note that Adenauer the politician tried to lie low during Nazism and was twice arrested nonetheless, whereas Bishop von Galen publicly challenged the regime and was left in peace. From this we learn that other German bishops could have risked more. No one forced them to pray publicly for German victory, or to send birthday greetings to Hitler. Those wanting to find out more about the complex Bishop von Galen should consult Beth A. Griech-Polelle’s recent biography (Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism, Yale University Press). She also describes the obstacles the theology of this period placed in front of Catholics wanting to kill the tyrant Hitler. 

 


Read more: Letters, July 18, 2008

Published in the 2008-06-20 issue: 

Justus George Lawler is author of Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust (Continuum).

Also by this author
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