One does not fully realize the meaning of modern Germany until he leaves the train after re-crossing its border; the feeling is indescribable: an overwhelming urge, like that of a man at the brink of an abyss, to leap, shout, to draw huge draughts of free fresh air, to revel in the sunshine, which itself seems to have taken on a new quality. It is literally the sensation of escape from prison shackles, or of release from a gloomy dungeon. For Germany today presents a most ominous and depressing sight—ominous as an expression of the totalitarian tendency universal in the post-war world, which threatens every nation with something analogous to Nazism; and depressing in its uniquely vicious and cunning attack on the Church.
Brown shirt orators are shouting openly that within two years the Catholic Church will be wiped out of Germany. These are no idle boasts: never in history has there been such a brutally complete political and especially economic absolutism, controlling such weapons of persecution as the various modern means of propaganda, with such diabolical cleverness and finesse. For the essence of persecution is the attempt to root out beliefs; and, humanly speaking, the Goebbels method would seem infallible. German Catholics remind one of defenseless sheep huddled in silent helplessness, all sides by a perfect storm of propaganda. The Nazi ideology meets them in everything they see, hear, read, do; it pursues them into their homes, splits their families: it worms into minds with half-truths, making even the staunchest have moments of wavering confusion. Their children taught to disobey and disown them, to march before their parental homes singing "Wir hrauchen keinen Gott!" Their priests are snatched away by night, and are heard of no more. Atrocities even of the most sacrilegious nature are common, especially in rural districts: the writer saw the wrecked altar in a small village church from which the tabernacle with the Sacred Hosts had been stolen. Naturally, defections are many: a de-group of priests gathered from various parts of the Catholic Rhineland agreed that already over half of the Catholics of the section had been lost.
But the danger and meaning of the Nazi persecution is perhaps more clearly apparent in the reaction of those millions who remain faithful than in either the mechanism itself or its partial success. This reaction has two phases. First, the seemingly universal judgment that Nazism is an integral part of a world-wide war on God. The phrase Diabolizierte Welbewegung (Satanical World movement) is as common among German Catholics as the words Deutsch and Stolz in the newspapers. The writer has heard it repeatedly from university professors, priests, schoolmasters, peasants, and above all from the young. This general and clear penetration of Goebbel's chief weapon—that the "ungrateful" Church has been saved only by Hitler's crushing blow to Communism—is most remarkable. For the paradox of two powers hating and smashing the Church, yet hating each other with the same deadliness, is not easy to solve, especially for a people who are as nationalistic as the Germans. This nationalism, however, has been tempered by the providential spread of a "Mystical Body" mentality, which has been above all the priceless work of the Youth organizations. This consciousness of membership in the Mystical Christ which anchors their thoughts in the supranational reality of the Church seems to be a condition of fidelity before the machinery of the totalitarian State.
Thus, the lie of the Nazi claim to have nothing in common with Bolshevism has been evident to all who remain faithful. Nazism is substantially identical with Communism; both deify matter; and they differ only accidentally in worshipping two different aspects of matter. The one sees God incarnate in a Race, the other in a Class: both hate Him incarnate in His Son. And so, the implacable hatred of Nazism and Communism is based on a chimera, giving our West in social reality the aspect of a "darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night."
The second phrase of the reaction follows naturally as the concrete application of the first: it is the flaming spirit of the martyrs—the most thrilling sight that the world can offer. The expectation of and preparation for martyrdom, especially among the clergy and the youth, is the characteristic note of Catholicism under the Nazis. Perhaps nothing could better indicate the utter seriousness of the Catholic position. It is evident everywhere—in the fearless fire of the preaching, in the passionate praying, and above all, in confidential conversation. A few behind-scene glances at typical examples will perhaps alter a notion of it than an attempt at description.
A group of tall blonde peasants are sitting over their evening beers in a little village Wirtschaft of central Germany. Rough, hardworking, unsophisticated but carrying on the century-old peasant tradition, which is Germany's glory: they are the "Nordics" if any such thing exists. Far from prating of Thor or "Nordic" blood, they are discussing Theresa Neumann warily, for one of their number is a stranger. His simple testimony could send all to the dreaded concentration camps, from which one sometimes does and sometimes does not return. Suddenly, they stop in frozen silence: one of them has "said too much." The seconds tick by while the culprit gazes at the wall. Then he crashes his fist on the table and with eyes alight cries, "I mean that too! Our Lord God gave us Theresa to show us the right road, and the Nazis will ruin Germany because they don't want to see!" A movement of silence, then a spontaneous roar of approval from the group. I turned around to the wall. On it hung an ancient carved crucifix ... There are thousands of such taverns in Germany.
The scene shifts to a house in a large city; seven youths are intelligently comparing Communism with Nazism. Calmly, they tell the writer that the latter is really a subtle, sinuous and hence more dangerous form of Bolshevism. "But what of the Church?" One of them sprang to his feet, eyes ablaze. "It is coming to blood—we know that. But if they should come in right now, line us up against the wall, and give us the choice, we'd say 'Shoot!' Glaubst Du das?" One cannot help believing it: it is a repeated experience.
Back to a country village: it is the eve of a First Friday. The men are divided into shifts for night-long adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; the dim church echoes to the rosary, the litany, to the quaver of the hymns. Plain, rugged, rough men, singing like children, month after month, year by year—since St. Boniface.
Returning home, one of them whispered to men with fierce conviction, "They can take a lot from us, but not that: we'll die for that." And there are hundreds of such villages scattered over Germany.
Miles away, in the stone tower of a large church, a group of about fifty young men are sitting on benches, quietly talking. It is a meeting of the famous Jungmänner Verein, the object of Nazidom's special hatred. The bitterest fight of our century is for the youth: a fiendish wisdom has been born which realizes at last that men cannot be torn from the Church after they have come to know her. A clean-cut young priest enters; all rise in unison, heels click: "Treu Heil!" The Germans must be militaristic, even in religion. Staccato prayers, a snappy roll-call; all is in deadly earnest. These young men have an astounding realization of the gravity and world-importance of their role. The priest rises and calmly—almost quietly—tells them that the whole Hitlerjugend aided by the full force of the whole Nazi organization, political and economic, is about to launch a new and fiercer crusade to crush them. Briefly, he outlines the steps planned against them—the heckling, the arrests of their leaders, the dismissal of their fathers and themselves from work (the Nazi party controls one third of the nation's jobs), etc. Then he gives the attitude to be taken in resistance. His voice rises: "Be passive, yes: but never compromise! Say 'No' and mean it! Tell them that Der Fuehrer wants loyal men and that therefore you won't be disloyal to Jesus Christ! Stay true to the end, even if the end is your life! If two or three of each unit in Germany stays loyal, then in twenty years our Church will still be alive. Upon you depends the fate of Christ in the Fatherland!" I glanced back over the set, intent faces, into eyes full of the supernatural battle-light of Catholic Germany. They and thousands more of their comrades will remain true to the bitter end. The fact stands starkly before us without the providential Youth organizations; only a miracle of grace could save the Church in Germany.
In the rectory of a fashionable city on the Rhine, a young priest is nervously pacing the floor. The windows are shuttered and the doors barred: it would be suicidal to venture outside, for the streets are re-sounding with the "tramp-tramp" of the giant demonstration against Bolshevism, the priesthood and the Catholic Youth. He is comparing the German priesthood with that of the Reformation times: "There is a real difference—95 percent of us will stick to the end: that is evident from our retreats." A brick crashes with terrific force against the shutter; we rush over and peer through the cracks. A large group of the Hitler Youth has halted before the house, shouting curses at the Dunklemann: a street full of livid faces, distorted with hatred. The priest turns away in horror. "Those in the front row—they used to be in my rerein. This whole Nazi move hates us like that: preternaturally, with the hatred of apostates. We shall all be martyrs."
Such is the general reaction. Out of their experience, the German Catholics have gained an indelible real assent to two truths, which seems to be the lesson of Nazi Germany. Five minutes of conversation with practically any Catholic will bring both to light. The first is the conviction that it is no longer sufficient to be a "good" Catholic; "good" Catholics often years ago, those, that is, who tended to be merely negative—who fulfilled their Sunday obligations, etc., without attempting a positive intellectual penetration of their faith—are today on the other side. In an age when the question of Christ is becoming not only explicit but edged with the sword and deprivation of food, only heroism is enough. Maritain puts the second as follows: "In the order of the common good of the Church, of the extension of the Kingdom of God, it is not political activity but the folly of the Cross which comes first, even in the order of execution."
Germany today is a chilling vision of the mystery of Hate. But we have seen enough of the incomparably greater mystery of Love to revise our first impression: Germany is depressing, certainly; but it is also thrilling, inspiring, elevating, for to those with eyes to see it offers the grandest sight on earth—that of the Church under persecution.
[For more from our 1930s archive, click here]