Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher

It sometimes seems that the controversy over Pope Pius XII and his role during the Holocaust has lasted several lifetimes. In fact the accusation that the pope stood by without acting during the destruction of Europe’s Jews did not emerge until 1963, when the German author Rolf Hochhuth released a play, The Deputy, depicting Pius as a bureaucrat unconcerned with the mass murder of the Jews. The charge quickly polarized observers of the late pope into detractors and defenders. Among the most eloquent of the latter in this country was Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher, director of the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. Oesterreicher went on TV’s Huntley-Brinkley Report to criticize Hochhuth’s portrayal; he wrote a long article for America in which he called on “Jewish human-relations speak out against The Deputy in unmistakable terms.”

At first glance, Oesterreicher—a youthful convert from Judaism whose parents were later murdered in Nazi death camps—would seem an unlikely champion for a pope accused of anti-Semitism. His personal, professional, and spiritual odyssey is a fascinating and exemplary one. Born in Moravia in 1904, Oesterreicher converted in 1924 after becoming attracted to Christianity through the writings Kierkegaard and Newman—and through a thin volume of New Testament excerpts, titled Words of Christ, which caught his eye in a used bookstore one day in the city of Olmütz, where he attended high school. Its editor was the British-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a botanist and naturalized German whose political writings, steeped in German romanticism, helped shape the concept of “Aryan” identity and lent a sheen of intellectual justification to Nazi anti-Semitism. Thus did a book edited by a notorious apostle of race help launch the career of a man who would devote his life to making Christian arguments against racism and anti-Semitism.

Oesterreicher’s lifelong effort to promote Christian-Jewish relations would eventually lead him to serve as adviser on Cardinal Augustin Bea’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, out of which the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra aetate emerged. But it began decades earlier, with his editorship of the anti-Nazi journal Die Erfüllung (“Fulfillment”) in 1930s Vienna. Of special concern at the time was the attraction that many Catholics, including a number of influential German and Austrian theologians, felt for Nazi racism; indeed, a number of influential German and Austrian theologians believed Nazism and Christianity could be reconciled. In Vienna Oesterreicher contended with such figures as the Austrian titular bishop Alois Hudal (director for the Anima college in Rome), the missionary priest and race scientist Wilhelm Schmidt, and the academic chaplain Georg Bichlmair, SJ, who following the war became Jesuit provincial in Austria, and who in 1936 caused a sensation by preaching that Jews, carrying with them the stain of their people’s rejection of Christ, could not become full-fledged Christians. These remarks moved the German emissary in Vienna, the infamous former chancellor Franz von Papen—also a Catholic—to write an enthusiastic dispatch to Hitler, citing the sermon as evidence that Austrians were ripe for Nazi ideology.

Constrained both by Bichlmair’s political and social influence and by personal intimacy—Bichlmair was one of the few clerics with whom he shared the intimate “Du” form of address—Oesterreicher refrained from confronting the Jesuit directly over his sermon, and instead enlisted the German theologian Karl Thieme to write a polemical response. Thieme, a Socialist and son of a Lutheran theologian in Leipzig, was also a convert to Catholicism, having entered the church out of disgust over German Protestants’ discrimination against “non-Aryans.” Identified only as an “important Catholic writer in Germany,” he authored a piece that appeared in Die Erfüllung in June 1936. In it he made two points. First, he argued, the question of whether to support the “anti-Semitic spirit of the time” was in reality a decision for or against Christ; one could not reject Jews and accept Christ. “Tell me what your attitude is toward the Jews,” Thieme wrote, “and I will tell you what kind of Christian you are!” Second, he insisted, the primary task for Christians was not to proclaim Jesus to the Jews, but rather to tell other Christians that “the Jew in their midst expects the fulfillment of the main command of Jesus, the ‘new commandment’ (John 13:34), the command of love, with an urgency that has never before existed.”

The article inaugurated an intellectual collaboration between Thieme and Oesterreicher, based on a shared commitment to promoting Catholic-Jewish dialogue, that would last until the Second Vatican Council in 1962. But first the two would have to navigate a time fraught with danger. Thieme spent the Nazi years in exile in Switzerland, while Oesterreicher, fleeing Austria after the Nazi annexation of March 1938, settled in Paris, where he wrote a book critiquing racism and anti-Semitism while broadcasting anti-Nazi sermons from an Austrian émigré radio station. In 1940 he fled in advance of German troops, and, aided by French converts, made his way to Portugal and the United States. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about these early chapters of his life, since he destroyed his papers before leaving Austria. A footnote in Michael Phayer’s The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, however, makes reference to correspondence between Oesterreicher and Thieme held at Munich’s Institute for Contemporary History. Visiting Munich in 2005, I was able to locate this correspondence—thick folders of letters from Oesterreicher on his Pauluswerk stationery, and carbon copies of Thieme’s responses, dating to the years between 1934 and 1940.

A reader of these letters encounters a very different Oesterreicher from the man who appeared on U.S. nightly news in 1963. Instead of defending the Vatican, the Oesterreicher of the prewar years is freely critical, calling Pius XII “timid” and accusing him of currying favor with fascism. The letters reveal Thieme and Oesterreicher attempting repeatedly to get the bishops of Europe—above all, the bishop of Rome—to come out unmistakably against Nazism and anti-Semitism. What they encountered was a Vatican in many ways similar to Hochhuth’s later portrayal of it. In 1937 Oesterreicher decided to publish Catholic arguments against anti-Semitism in a brochure bearing the signatures of as many prominent Catholics as he could find. The resulting “Memorandum on the Jewish People,” written anonymously by Thieme and the exiled political writer Waldemar Gurian (another Jewish-born convert to Catholicism), appeared simultaneously in Vienna, Paris, and New York, and used a range of arguments from Scripture and church history to oppose all discrimination against Jews. Despite intense canvassing, Oesterreicher found not a single bishop willing to support the effort.

The memorandum asserted that anti-Jewish measures “are neither protective nor justifiable defensive measures,” but “are aimed only at defamation and destruction,” and instructed Catholics to use their influence to combat them. Following their own advice, Oesterreicher and Thieme decided to bypass the church hierarchy and try convincing the pope himself to speak out in favor of the German Jews. They did not delude themselves into thinking that this would be easy. In his letters to Thieme, Oesterreicher routinely complained of the preponderance of “Nazi Catholics” in Europe, at one point approvingly citing a vision experienced by the German mystic Therese von Konnersreuth, in which she “look[ed] in the great crowd that walked sneering and mocking past the cross at Golgotha [and] saw many dressed in red capes: prelates of the church.”

Thieme, for his part, registered even greater skepticism about the likelihood of getting top church officials to speak out. Still, both men remained faithful to the church, and together with a motley group of exiles and other anti-Nazis—including Gurian, former Danzig mayor Hermann Rauschning, former German Chancellor Joseph Wirth, philosopher Jacques Maritain and Protestant theologian Karl Barth—they tried to make the men in red capes act on behalf of Germany’s Jews. In December 1938, Thieme laid out a “utopian” plan in which Oesterreicher would ask Paris Cardinal Verdier to assemble Catholics for a meeting with the pope, proposing a collection in the churches to alleviate the plight of German Jews and to show that “we as Christians can no longer stand aside and look at what is happening to them.” In his draft letter for the pope, Thieme requested that Pius XI “call upon Catholic Christians, above everything else, to do all they can for the Jews, with the last measure of their energy.” Arguing that Christians needed “to prove ourselves as neighbors to our stepbrothers in Christ—just as the merciful Samaritan did for his stepbrother in Moses who had fallen among thieves,” the letter asked that the “Christmas address of Your Holiness contain a word for the persecuted Jews.” Such a word, it concluded, “would be epoch-making,” not only “in the history of the holy church, [but] in the history of humanity.”

Despite these efforts to get past the “venal Vatican bureaucracy,” Thieme failed to move the pope to action. As Oesterreicher explained decades later, Pius XI was in poor health, having suffered two heart attacks in November 1938 (he would die in February); and Vatican officials were “full of worry because of the threatened confiscation of all church properties in Germany and Austria.” A sign of solidarity with Jews might provide the Nazi state with a pretext for attack. Yet Oesterreicher was hopeful when rumors began circulating in early 1939 that an encyclical on the subject was soon to be released—one “underscoring the church’s opposition to the new Nazi paganism and denouncing the persecutions against the Jews and the laws on racism that have been passed by totalitarian countries,” as Oesterreicher put it.

Oesterreicher refused to let matters rest when the rumored letter—known to posterity as the “hidden encyclical”—was buried early that year after the death of Pius XI. (Unbeknownst to him, it was anything but a condemnation of anti-Semitism, and featured a host of anti-Judaic stereotypes.) By now he and Thieme expected a European war, and the two plotted to use Vatican connections to elicit resistance in the German military. Though Oesterreicher described the new pope, Pius XII—elected in March 1939—as “timid” and “fearful,” he and Thieme schemed to have Vatican radio release Catholic German soldiers from their oath to Hitler just before a German attack. “According to tradition,” Oesterreicher wrote, “the Catholic is not bound in obedience to his ruler if the ruler launches war in criminal fashion.” Hoping to make the new pope “cooperate,” Thieme contacted Swiss Catholic politicians with direct lines to Pius’s German secretary, Robert Leiber, SJ. In the meantime, Oesterreicher composed a radio message. But he remained gloomy. “I think it unlikely,” he concluded, “that the somewhat apprehensive Pius XII will make his mind up to do the only right thing, namely to release German soldiers from their oath, maybe even to pronounce a ‘general’ condemnation of the person who is inciting war.”

News from the Vatican continued to disappoint. Was it true that the new pope gave the order to ring church bells on Hitler’s birthday (April 20)? Did he really want to “negotiate” with Hitler about infractions against the concordat that supposedly protected the church in Germany? “It is enough to make one cry and laugh at the same time!” Oesterreicher wrote Thieme. Even after the Führer sent his troops into Czechoslovakia in violation of the Munich agreement, Pius continued to appease. Oesterreicher expressed relief mixed with disgust. “The political situation is not the way we would like,” he wrote his friend. “The pope’s offers to mediate have been rebuffed, thank God. Hopefully Pius XII has learned from this.” Supposedly, he continued, an encyclical was being prepared in which the pope would address the international situation. Oesterreicher was wary, even disdainful. “He who does not have the courage to accuse,” he wrote, “should spare us and himself any appeal to morality.”

By June, he had given up on the pope, who had just welcomed over three thousand soldiers of the Italian-Spanish Arrow Division to the vestibule of the Hall of Benediction and blessed their rosaries. “It is beyond understanding,” he wrote Thieme, “that Pius XII, after all his diplomatic experiments as cardinal state secretary have failed, is still attempting diplomacy, and not preaching the truth.” And after war finally broke out, Pius issued the encyclical Summi pontificatus, which contained not even a mild rebuke of the Germans while offering vague consolation to the Poles.

For Oesterreicher, one task remained before his hair-raising escape from France in June 1940, and that was to present a Catholic refutation of racism to an international audience, confronting Hitler’s spirit with Christian truth. “I am of the firm conviction,” he wrote to Thieme, “that Hitler stays in power because nowhere on earth is anyone resisting him from their innermost being.” Working in Parisian libraries, he compiled as many Christian arguments against racism as he could find, hoping to publish them in a book. At the same time, he used an Austrian émigré radio station in Paris to broadcast regular sermons into the Reich. In these sermons, in contrast to Pius, he left no doubt as to the identities of the war’s victims: Poles, Czechs, and Jews, with the highest death totals among the last group. He told listeners of mass executions of men, women, and children; the unleashing of typhoid among Warsaw Jews; arrests of Catholic priests; long-term plans to sterilize Polish boys and girls and starve the Polish population. He branded leading Nazis “enemies of the Cross” and instructed listeners to “stand up” and oppose the “heathens” and “enemies of their Lord,” who had “plunged Europe into war” and made love a crime against the state. He called Hitler the antichrist.

The opportunity to speak directly to Germans living under totalitarian rule brought forth the “personalist” sensitivity that Oesterreicher took from the company of philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, a close friend in Vienna. In mid-February 1940, he told his listeners: 

every person is and remains unique. Every one is of unending worth, every one is called to his own task, every one a thought of God. None is the copy of another, none will ever come back again… [and] the more a human being lives in spirit and in love, the more evident it becomes that he is not simply a species exemplar [Gattungsexemplar] but a personal being. God’s word pertains to everyone: “I have ransomed you and called you by name and you are my own.” [Isaiah 43:1]

 These broadcasts were intercepted at listening stations in Stuttgart and Berlin, both under the direction of Joseph Goebbels. The Gestapo discovered Oesterreicher’s identity when it was mistakenly divulged in the October 27, 1939, broadcast, and instructed Munich’s Cardinal Faulhaber as well as the Catholic authorities in Vienna to muzzle the priest—or else. News of the ultimatum reached Oesterreicher in Paris, and he “compromised” by continuing to write the sermons while asking someone else to read them. His broadcasts reveal that it was possible for Catholics to make devastating critiques of the warmongering Nazi elite, even when the Gestapo threatened consequences; they make one wonder what the effect would have been if a single bishop had called Hitler an “unclean spirit,” as Oesterreicher did. In November 1939, Oesterreicher informed his listeners that the German Dominican Franziskus Stratmann had prayed for Hitler’s exorcism while the Führer sojourned in Rome. Hitler was “not simply a loud speaker, or an irresponsible statesman,” Oesterreicher asserted, but rather “archenemy and antipode in human form.” As for the behavior of the German army in Poland, Oesterreicher told Germans that it was “devilish.”

Soon that army was overrunning France, forcing Oesterreicher to flee. Before leaving Paris, he managed to publish his refutation of racism in the book Racisme, antisémitisme, antichristianisme: Documents et critique, which detailed the church’s opposition to racism and anti-Semitism. This work took guidance from Scripture and science, but not from the church hierarchy; no words defending the Jews issued from the papacy. Oesterreicher did include the little-known remarks of Pius XI to Belgian pilgrims in 1938. “It is not possible for Christians to participate in anti-Semitism,” the pope had said. “Anti-Semitism is inadmissible. We are spiritually Semites.” Oesterreicher portrayed these words as exemplifying the pope’s solidarity, and argued that Pius had gone beyond biblical language to turn explicitly against the racist formulation. But he also noted less-known segments of the pope’s statement that cast doubt on this interpretation. “The promise was made to Abraham and his progeny,” Pius had continued, noting that “Paul’s text… does not use the plural, but rather the singular. This promise is recognized in Christ, and by Christ in us we are members of his mystical body. By Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham.”

Pius XI’s references were to the letter to the Galatians, in part Paul’s polemic with other Christians of Jewish origin. A question Oesterreicher did not pose was this: If Christians are spiritually Semites, who then are the Jews? By implication, it would seem they are “ethnic” Semites, outside the body, disinherited; and if they evoked solidarity in Pius, it was the solidarity of a lost kinship. Jews as a living people were absent from the words the pope uttered to the Belgians. Some historians now project the words of Pius XI as an important statement in defense of the Jews, but at the time they were not published in the Vatican press, nor read on Vatican Radio. Karl Thieme accused Oesterreicher of wishful thinking. “Impromptu statements made to pilgrims, regardless how heartfelt,” he wrote, “are no substitute for a statement by the [church’s] teaching authority!”

Lacking such a statement, Oesterreicher fell back on papal citations, hundreds of years old, lamenting the effects of medieval pogroms, and on scattered contemporary Catholic statements of solidarity and sympathy for Jews—like that made by a bishop in Geneva, Marius Besson, who in November 1938, as synagogues smoldered across Germany and Austria, asked that his flock pray for those persecuted either for “profession or race.” Oesterreicher also reprinted words spoken by Archbishop Jules Saliège of Toulouse five years earlier, asserting that Christians “feel connected with the branch does with the trunk out of which it grew”—and added that a “true Christian” felt the kind of “solidarity” Saliège was referring to. From American newspapers, he culled and reprinted statements of solidarity with Jews by Fulton Sheen, Fordham University President Robert J. Gannon, and the bishops of Baltimore (Curley), Boston (O’Connell), Milwaukee (Stritch), and San Francisco (Mitty)—noting, in the process, that “the protests against racist barbarism in the United States were stronger than anywhere else.”

Against these early chapters of his life’s work, Oesterreicher’s defense of Pius XII in the early 1960s appears curious. From his own bitter experience, Oesterreicher knew very well that the pope had not stood up to Hitler. So why did he not applaud Hochhuth? Perhaps as a prelate himself, director of an institute on Judeo-Christian studies, and adviser to the Vatican Council, he feared that support of the playwright would cause him to lose all authority he possessed within the church. Or perhaps his own experience of that morally fraught and perilous time had taught him to regard it, and people’s conduct during it, with humility. In contrast to defenders of Pius today, Oesterreicher did not deny the pope’s silence, but freely admitted that Pius had not spoken clearly against Nazism. Yet unlike Hochhuth, he urged listeners to take seriously the Vatican’s dilemma in the 1940s, and to acknowledge that Pius had agonized over the proper course. “We would all be glad if the pope had spoken,” Oesterreicher said on television in 1964, “but he in his conscience felt that if he spoke he would have made things worse.” No one could say for certain what the outcome of a condemnation of Hitler by the Vatican would have been. We “must have respect” for the pope’s “conscientious decision,” Oesterreicher concluded.

At another level, Oesterreicher’s story suggests that the attention historians have lavished upon Pius XII has been misdirected. It is important to understand that the pope was not the church. No, we cannot pretend that anti-Nazis like Oesterreicher or Thieme were representative of the Catholic communion of their age; yet if we comprehend Catholicism as living and dynamic—as the pilgrim church on earth—then we must look to what John Courtney Murray called the “growing end” of the church’s tradition. If we want to understand where the church of the 1940s was moving as a community of belief, then we should listen to those who were not silent: to those Catholics, like Oesterreicher, who attempted to arouse consciences and bring the church “up to date” with a troubled time.

Looking back on the twentieth century, we can see that the efforts of Oesterreicher and his friends bore fruit in the aggiornamento achieved by the Vatican council in its statement on the Jews (Decretum de Judaeis), chapter 4 of Nostra aetate. When the bishops raised their hands in assent to this statement in October 1965, they were affirming an intellectual tradition that had gained critical mass in the 1930s in Vienna but went back even further, to the antiracism of the French poet-prophet Leon Bloy, who had begun excavating long-neglected passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans in order to refute the anti-Semitism rampant in France after the Dreyfus affair. St. Paul had made clear that far from being “racially” or spiritually deficient, the Jews were the stock from which sprang the church. Paul also made clear that “God did not repent of his promises,” and that the Jews continued to be “most dear to God” because of their fathers. These were the scriptural passages that guided John Oesterreicher and the other advisers who composed the text of De Judaeis.

When we look at those who carried forth this revolution in Catholic teaching, we see few if any high clerics, few men “in red capes.” But we do see a rather remarkable coincidence: virtually every one of the thinkers and activists involved in bettering Catholic-Jewish relations was a convert, either from Judaism or Protestantism. In the 1930s, Oesterreicher, Thieme, and Dietrich von Hildebrand had taken inspiration for their polemics against Nazi racism from Christian intellectuals Erik Peterson, Annie Kraus, Alfred Fuchs, Rudolf Lämmel, Walter Berger, and Theodor Haecker—all converts. In October 1964, the two priests who joined Oesterreicher to write what would become the final draft of the decree on the Jews—Gregory Baum and Bruno Hussar—were also of Jewish heritage. And several years earlier, just before the council, when an international symposium took place in the Netherlands to draft theses that would guide De Judaeis, most of the participants—Thieme and Oesterreicher, along with Paul Démann, Gertrud Luckner, Jean-Roger Hené, and Irene Marinoff—were converts. Démann, a converted Hungarian Jew, had been publishing the review Cahiers Sioniens from Paris since 1947, and, with the help of fellow converts Geza Vermes and Renée Bloch, he refuted the anti-Judaism in French Catholic school catechisms. In Germany Thieme and Luckner printed the Freiburger Rundbrief, which exposed Central European audiences to the emerging Christian understanding of the Jews based in St. Paul.

That converts to Catholicism would oppose racism and anti-Semitism makes sense. After all, they had personal reasons to hold the church to its claims. Still, the efforts of converts like Oesterreicher and his contemporaries bring into sharp relief the nearly negligible numbers of “cradle Catholics” who gave themselves to this struggle for the church’s soul. Why this was so remains an important question. What seems certain is that without converts to Catholicism, the church in Europe would never have “thought its way” out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism. If Providence remains visibly active for the Catholic Church in history, it can surely be seen in how the church has absorbed light from outsiders—persons originally beyond its visible membership, who devoted their lives to a religion based on love of neighbor, and in doing so reminded us that the church is, as Jacques Maritain’s friend Charles Journet wrote in 1951, at once “purer and vaster than we know.”


This essay has been adapted from the book From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965 by John Connelly, to be published in March by Harvard University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Related: The Diplomat: The Tragic Silence of Pius XII, by Eamon Duffy

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.