Reformer & Racialist

Karl Adam's Paradoxical Legacy

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...

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About the Author

John Connelly, author of From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard), teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.