Crucifix/ Michael Pujals

Recently, a friend sent a color postcard from Poland, showing Pope Benedict XVI waving to a crowd and proclaiming: “The church looks upon the past with serenity, and does not fear for the future.” There was something wrong with the picture. The audience of well-wishers stood beneath a cloudy sky in Rome, but the quotation was in fact taken from a message the pope offered Polish bishops on a visit to Czestochowa in 2006. And perhaps there’s something wrong with the message itself.

“The church looks on the past with serenity”: are these not strange words to be spoken by a German to Poles? How can the history of the Catholic Church in the past century—a history Benedict knows intimately—inspire serenity among anyone, especially Poles?

Such questions take us back to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, when Germany’s bishops prayed that “God’s providence may lead the war that has broken out to a successful conclusion...bounteous in blessings for our fatherland and our people.” Two years later, when Germany launched a war of racial annihilation on Eastern Poland and the Soviet Union, the bishops exhorted the soldiers of the Wehrmacht to “loyally perform their duty, to be bravely tenacious, and self-sacrificing in their toil and struggle for the sake of our people.” This is not to say that the bishops became Nazis, or even that they sympathized with what they referred to obliquely as the “false teaching” of Nazi doctrines. But clearly, they placed German nationalism above Christian teaching. For these bishops, “our people” were not Catholics but Germans. One prelate even regretted that he could not march off with the troops.

The failure to condemn Nazi evil provoked eloquent criticism of the Catholic Church in Germany. “The silence of the bishops is perhaps more horrible than anything else,” wrote the exiled political scientist (and later Notre Dame professor) Waldemar Gurian in 1934, “because the silence destroys the final moral authority in Germany.” Near the end of the war, shortly before being executed for spreading leaflets condemning Hitler, the Catholic student Willi Graf lamented in a letter to his sister that “we were never given the strength of judgment or the vital conviction that would permit us to defend our beliefs. What the church showed us all these years was not real Christianity.” And looking back directly after the war, Konrad Adenauer wondered what the bishops might have been able to prevent had they openly taken a stand from the pulpit against the Nazis. “But none of this happened,” Adenauer lamented, “and therefore one should be quiet about it.” Historians don’t have the option of being quiet about the past; but why should American Catholics of today care about German bishops of two generations ago? Many of them are perhaps justly forgotten. But when we think of how our church came to be what it is, we cannot ignore theologians—and it happens that some of the most influential came from Germany: Romano Guardini (despite the name), Karl Rahner, Bernard Häring, Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Adam. How did these famous thinkers behave during the Third Reich? Ratzinger and Häring were too young to play much of a role; Guardini and Rahner seem to have kept quiet and done what the Germans call überwintern—hibernating, surviving the Nazi storm like bears in winter. The exception is Karl Adam, who did speak out, repeatedly and forcefully—for the wrong side.

Adam was no stranger to readers of Commonweal from the 1930s through the 1950s. His books were favorably reviewed in these pages, praised for their revolutionary vision of Christ and of the church. In 1957 H. A. Reinhold discussed Adam’s Christ of Faith, writing that Adam “presents a biblical, warm, and living Christ without neglecting that amount of speculation which is needed to grasp the Mediator and Savior as fully as man can.” In 1959 came the knock at Adam’s door and the invitation to join the liberalizing deliberations of Vatican II. Long before that, however, Adam was already emphasizing the neglected teaching of the church as Christ’s mystical body, and extending warm entreaties to Christians beyond the Catholic communion. In 1924 he asserted that “non-Catholic sacraments have the power to sanctify and save,” embracing the possibility of “a true, devout, and Christian life in those non-Catholic communions which believe in Jesus and baptize in his name.” Decades later, Catholics would still be taught that non-Catholics were excluded from grace, yet here was Karl Adam, maintaining that “the grace of Christ operates, not only in the Christian communions, but also in the non-Christian world, in Jews and in Turks and in Japanese.”

Such words astound us with their tolerance, and establish Adam as the prototype of what we today might call, to use Georgetown University theologian Peter C. Phan’s phrase, an “inclusive pluralist.” This pioneer in ecumenism has been celebrated by figures as diverse as Dorothy Day, George Orwell, Flannery O’Connor, Karl Barth, Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Häring, Karl Rahner, and Yves Congar. James Carroll was assigned Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism in seminary and recalls it as a “prophetic statement of the church as a community.” Such a man, we imagine, must have risen to hurl Catholic truth against Nazism, which—in its godlessness, lust for destruction, and unending contempt for the human person—seems the antithesis of our faith.

And yet, the truth is the opposite, and shocking: Karl Adam repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for the revolution unleashed by Adolf Hitler. In mid-1933, as Hitler was consolidating power by crushing trade unions, killing Communists, and shutting down Catholic newspapers, Adam was celebrating the Führer as the man who would redeem the “diseased [German] national body,” and restore Germany’s “blood unity” (bluthafte Einheit). And soon after that, he was celebrating the boycotts of Jewish businesses, referring to those as acts of “Christian-German self-assertion.”

Making too much of support for Hitler during the 1930s is perhaps uncharitable. After all, many outside Germany praised the early accomplishments of Hitler, and Columbia University historian Fritz Stern has written that if Hitler had died in 1936, he would be celebrated today as the greatest figure in German history. But Karl Adam’s enthusiasm for Nazism continued deep into the war. Just months after the last Jews had disappeared from his tidy university town of Tübingen, in August of 1942, he was at work on a scholarly article titled “Jesus, the Christ, and We Germans” that set out to prove that Jesus was not Jewish. As a Galilean, Adam mused, Jesus could not be described as “racially” Semitic. His mother, Mary, “had no physical or moral relation to those hateful energies and tendencies that we condemn in the full-blooded Jew,” Adam wrote. “Through a miracle of God’s grace Mary is beyond those characteristics that are passed by blood from Jew to Jew; she is a figure transcending Jewishness.”

Again and again the terms of Adam’s theology proved a neat fit with the racist spirit of Nazi Germany. “We must emphasize that our goal of finding the essence of Christianity overlaps with certain endeavors of the Nazis,” he wrote the priest Josef Thomé in 1943. “I have always judged Nazism as a necessary, indeed a healthy reaction to certain excesses inside the church and inside Christianity. I am thinking here of the Nazis’ deep respect for the ‘blood,’ and in general for the realm of the body and of the senses against the Gnostic-Platonic overemphasis of the purely spiritual.” Nazism and Catholicism, Adam averred further, intersected in their “absolute will for truth.”

Scholars have had difficulty accounting for Karl Adam and his enthusiasm for Nazism. In Commonweal, Ulrich Lehner described him as a “monarchist” with conservative leanings (“Improper Wisdom,” January 26, 2007). But can a man who began criticizing the “dry rustle” of scholastic theology in the 1920s, defying the antimodernist movement in the church—a man who even today is considered theologically ahead of his times-be described adequately as conservative?

Attempting to unravel this mystery in Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll emphasizes Adam’s historical context, and particularly the allure of Reichstheologie, a movement that captivated German Catholics after World War I. That war had been a catastrophe for Germany, ending with humiliating defeat, loss of territory, and millions killed for no apparent purpose. In its aftermath, economic suffering struck massively, and the new Weimar Republic was far from what Catholic intellectuals imagined a German Reich should be—and might become again. In imagining such a restoration, they drew inspiration from the bygone “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” This supposed bulwark of Christianity, through which wise German rulers answerable only to God had guaranteed the security of Europe, seemed to them God’s will enacted in history, a tangible instantiation of saving grace. The German language colluded in helping Catholics reach this conclusion: “Reich” was both empire and kingdom, and thus “Kingdom of God” was called the Reich Gottes.

Disgusted with the compromises of Weimar democracy, German Catholics searched the political horizon for a man of charisma who might bring Germany a new Reich and reestablish God’s healing presence on earth. In an odd way, such Catholics, attentive to the “signs of the times,” were anticipating the spirit of Vatican II. And for Adam and many others, their time spoke a clear language: Providence had chosen Adolf Hitler to help Germans realize the God-given promise of their race.

To us, it seems strange that a theologian might imagine race as divinely willed, but for Adam and many others, it made sense. Grace presupposed nature. What was the natural unit through which God acted in history? It was the nation. God had no other means than the nation to become active in history. And what gave the nation its unity? The answer was blood: the blood of common ancestry. Nations were united by common racial features. Again we see a collusion of language: the German for nation is Volk, a word that also connotes people, an ethnic community.

Adam argued forcefully that nationalism did not conflict with church teaching, and condemned any Catholic “who denied his German blood and who refused to see the Reich of God that appears before him with his German eyes.” Such an attempt to affirm “some wishy-washy worn-out natura humana” and “cultivate some kind of cosmopolitan Christianity,” he insisted, amounted to “sinning against the essential relationships that, according to Catholicism, obtain between the natural and the supernatural, and thus against an essential part of Catholicism.”

Again it is easy to hear the echo of Nazi race ideology, opposing cosmopolitanism to blood, die Juden to das Volk. For Catholics it was not a stretch to think of blood as a holy substance, and so neither was the notion of protecting German blood against the “Jewish deluge” through acts of “Christian-German self-assertion”—like boycotting Jewish businesses or kicking Jews out of their jobs. Today we wonder how supporting such violent discrimination accords with the Christian duty to love one’s neighbor. To this Karl Adam had a ready response: “This demand for German self-assertion,” he wrote, “springs from our well-ordered love of self: the love of self that for Christian morality is the natural prerequisite for love of neighbor.”

In 1933, when Adam wrote these lines, their logic had become irresistible for many Catholic intellectuals. Was not history the unfolding of a divine plan? And was not Volk the most obvious force of history? To prefer one’s own race was fully orthodox in that time: according to moral theology, one had higher duties to people more closely related by blood. Both Piux XI and Pius XII expressed understanding for efforts directed at protecting the health of race and nation: the former came out in 1938 against racial intermarriage, and the latter wrote 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.”

Karl Adam fit well into the German Catholicism of his time. His were not the fringe ideas of a radical Catholic nationalist, but rather the mainstream thoughts of a fully orthodox professor. In fact, many Catholics felt Hitler was a moderate who would tame the extremes among the Nazis. Fritz Stern has asked how Germans could have accepted Hitler. For Catholic intellectuals in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor and seized power, the question was the opposite: How could they oppose him?

Soon enough, of course, the Nazis themselves began supplying answers. With each passing year, state repression of Catholic institutions increased: first youth organizations, then hospitals and monasteries. Catholic leaders were jailed and occasionally killed. After the war broke out, Catholic priests risked arrest simply for providing the sacraments to “non-Aryans”: in Berlin alone, a half-dozen clergy were sent to concentration camps for failing to eject Poles from church services. Catholics learned that Nazi racism inherently contradicted the deeper tenets of their faith.

No doubt this insight came to be shared by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of German Catholics during the war. But they dared not risk open criticism of the regime. The handful of Catholic activists who had crossed rhetorical swords with the Nazis before 1933—like Dietrich von Hildebrand, Eugen Kogon, Franziskus Stratmann, Georg Moenius, Ingbert Naab, and Friedrich Muckermann—had fled Germany fearing for their safety soon after the Nazis took over.

Yet not all assent was coerced. Hitler’s string of successes in foreign policy struck some Catholics as a sign of divine favor. On February 25, 1940, the writer Theodor Haecker recorded in his diary a prevailing sentiment: “Perhaps he [Hitler] is God’s chosen tool, and we are the disobedient and the rebels against God’s will. Seven years of success are a sign from God!” Haecker himself never followed Hitler, but he confessed that his faith was tested. “I don’t know if ever there was a time when so much power was granted to evil,” he wrote. “God has given it free reign in the most generous fashion possible—up to the point at which even the just begin to despair.”

Haecker’s diary was carefully guarded, and used coded references for Nazi leaders. Those brave few who went beyond this so-called internal emigration and spoke out openly paid a terrible price. There was the papal biographer Joseph Schmidlin, who urged Pius XI to break off all relations with the Nazis and refused to use the standard greeting of “heil Hitler” at his university. And Alfred Delp, who had close contact with the men who tried to kill Hitler in 1944. And the Berlin Cathedral dean Bernhard Lichtenberg, who prayed openly for Jews. All these clerics died in Nazi prisons.

Theodor Haecker was a favorite of the White Rose conspiracy, the Munich students who printed and distributed six series of leaflets in 1942 and 1943, alerting the public to Hitler’s crimes. On July 10, 1942, Hans and Inge Scholl went to an apartment in Munich where a group was waiting for Haecker to give a reading from his book The Christian and History. A year later Hans and his other sister Sophie—along with their teacher Karl Huber and friends Alex Schmorell, Christoph Probst, and Willi Graf—were sent to the guillotine for “high treason.” Some of their leaflets bore writings inspired by Haecker. “We are not in a position,” stated one of them, “to pass a final judgment about the meaning of our history.”

What, finally, do we learn from the history of the church in the Third Reich? The story of those who dared to speak out against the regime seems paradoxical today. Looking back, we’re tempted to locate anti-Nazi thought among the progressives of the era—and yet we see the “progressive” Karl Adam, who would go on to contribute to Vatican II, succumbing to the spell of Nazism. The most serious and unbending opponent of Nazism among leading Catholic intellectuals, meanwhile, was not a progressive forerunner of Vatican II, but a profound skeptic, the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. Hildebrand later harbored doubts about elements of liturgical reform, like the vernacular Mass or taking Communion in the hand; and yet as early as 1920 he knew that Nazi racism constituted an evil profoundly opposed to Christianity.

If our postmodern sensibility makes history seem paradoxical, church history is paradox of a higher degree. What Karl Adam teaches us, perhaps, are the dangers of speculation, of making judgments about the fulfillment of God’s will in history. Extraordinary in retrospect is that Adam believed that science provided the keys to ultimate historical understanding. Perhaps he had not read Kierkegaard’s dictum that “Christianity is the antithesis of speculation.” More likely he did not view his own speculation as speculation.

Registering paradoxes does not keep us from registering coincidences. It happens that good editions of Kierkegaard existed in Adam’s day, and some were produced by Theodor Haecker, who was evidently moved by the Danish writing he was translating into German. On April 30, 1940, he confided to his diary: “What has grown fully within me, to complete maturity, is the understanding that I do not understand God: what has grown, in other words, is a sense of mystery. This protects me from misunderstanding the things of this world.”

If history does not teach lessons in a straightforward way, it does continue to suggest questions. For example: If we speak of the church in this period, what exactly do we mean? If the church means people giving witness to Christ, then Lichtenberg or Delp, or the aristocrat Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler, seem at least as much “the church” as the bishops and theologians of the period. Perhaps even more.

But we have to be careful providing stage directions in retrospect to actors who had Scripture but no script, and struggled for orientation. Catholic moral theology gave no clear warrant for the assassination of a tyrant like Hitler, who had come to power legally. And what of killing innocent civilians? Like the American bombers high above Germany, conspirators like Helmuth von Moltke or Johann Georg Elser were willing to (and did) kill innocent people when setting bombs to eliminate Hitler. In these pages James Sheehan and Bernard G. Prusak recently debated the moral justness of such acts (Letters, July 13, 2007). What was clear to Christians of the time was that Hitler miraculously survived each assassination attempt as if the hand of God had intervened. Karl Adam must have felt validated in his original reading of Hitler as an instrument of Providence.

It would be convenient if we could ignore Karl Adam—or better yet, if some church authority could airbrush him out of the past. But his teaching is too much a part of us. He was the rare theologian who made the presence of God seem tangible; Pope Benedict does not get two sentences into his lastest book before noting the inspiration he received from Adam. We should not be surprised if historians discover that Sophie and Hans Scholl drew inspiration from him as well—another paradox. We know that Sophie took a thick tome of the German Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara with her to a summer labor camp in 1941. How much more accessible and seductively elegant was Karl Adam—a man who wrote that the St. Matthew Passion of Sebastian Bach and the oratories of a Handel affect us as “sweet melodies from our old family home,” and who reflected lyrically on the teaching of the baptism of desire that “as God sends his rain and his sunshine upon all, so does he send his conquering grace into the hearts of all those who hold themselves ready for it.”

All institutions have troubling figures in their past. The United States of America had slave owners among its founders. The point is not to judge Karl Adam. Time itself has spoken, and his theological justification of popular contempt for Jews and “racial others” has become repugnant. But if we do not judge him, we also must not ignore the bad when speaking of the good-and vice versa. Currently his biographers split this man into two irreconcilable entities. Ironically, Adam himself would have been the first to insist that human beings are indivisible. Like anyone, he inseparably combined good and bad. What is unusual and confounding—from the standpoint of contemporary Catholicism—is that he combined both in such abundance.


Read more: Letters, February 15, 2008
Continuing the Conversation: an exchange between Justus George Lawler and John Connelly

Related: John Connelly's review of The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany

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).

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Published in the 2008-01-18 issue: View Contents
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