The Church and the Nazis

The Church and the Nazis

The year after Queen Elizabeth II’s successful visit to Ireland the Republic is set to pardon 5,000 Irish soldiers who deserted to fight for the British against the Nazis.

As the BBC reported, even Sinn Fein supports the move:

Over Christmas the issue of a pardon was referred by ministers to Maire Whelan, the Attorney-General, whose decision is expected early this year. Alan Shatter, the Irish Defence Minister, who is Jewish, is thought to sympathise with a pardon.

Campaigners for a pardon said that Sinn Fein’s support would help to reduce historic divisions in Ireland.

“These men who went off to fight fascism regraded themselves as patriotic Irishmen,” said Gerald Morgan, a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin. “It seems Sinn Fein have been able to recognise that.”

In July 1940, as the Battle of Britain began, the IRA said in An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper, that if “German forces should land in Ireland, they will land . . . as friends and liberators of the Irish people”.

As recently as 2003 Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s vice-president, spoke at a memorial rally for Sean Russell, the IRA leader who went to Berlin during the war to seek Hitler’s support.

Ireland’s relationship with England has been transformed in the past 20 years, thanks largely to the ending of the troubles as well as Ireland’s economic boom (now very much over).

But the history of World War 2 has also changed, too. Today the conflict is seen almost entirely through the prism of its later 1944-1945 rationale, as a worldwide campaign against fascism (and by extension, racism), rather than what it was in 1940, a great patriotic war for the British against foreign invaders (and from October of that year the immediate threat to Ireland receded with the end of Hitler’s invasion plans, thus making the Irish less sympathetic to anti-Nazi fighters).

That changing narrative, though, is almost nothing compared to the narrative of the Church during the War. Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes, which explores the relationship between religion and politics in the 20th century, demolishes most of the accepted “wisdom” about the Vatican and the Third Reich.

One of the common myths is that the Vatican concordat with Nazi Germany (standard international procedure, and one of over 30 it conducted with states at the time) was directly responsible for the Catholic Centre Party’s support for the 1934 Enabling Act. But, says Burleigh, the scholarship of Rudolf Morsey and Konrad Repgen (Burleigh is a first-class German speaker) shows that the prospect of a concordat played no part in negotiations between Centre Party and Hitler. As Burleigh wrote: “Nor when the Vatican responded in early April 1933 to vice-chancellor [Franz von] Papen’s offer of negotiations for a concordat was the intention either to abandon the Centre Party or to go along with the Nazis’ wish to stop all clerical participation in politics. The Vatican also took the opportunity of condemning the persecution of the Jews.”

Although overshadowed by the vastly more visceral and violent hatred of the Jews, the Nazi state was very hostile to Catholicism, and the feeling was mutual. Catholics voted for the party in far smaller numbers, and there was no Catholic equivalent of the 600,000-strong Nazi-Protestant German Christian movement, for example. While the most eminent Catholic theologians of thee period, Engelbert Krebs, Wilhelm Neuss, Karl Rahner and Romano Guardini, all lost their posts when the Nazis took power. Krebs, a noted philo-Semite, was eventually imprisoned.

Catholic journalist Fritz Gerlich was to suffer a worse fate. Raised in a Calvinist family in Stettin (now the Polish Szczecin) he first published an account of Russian Communism as a form of medieval political messianism in 1920. A religious sceptic, in 1927 he visited the village stigmatic Therese Neumann, who had cured many people of illnesses, and who made cryptic utterances in Latin, Greek and what may have been biblical Aramaic. Gerlich ended up writing a two-volume refutation of her critics, and in 1931 converted to Catholicism.

After losing a job due to alcoholism, Gerlich then went to work for the magazine Catholic Action and made numerous criticisms of the Nazis, including one spoof review in which he had a character writing: “Doesn’t the penetration of homosexuals into leading positions in the [Nazi] movement and in the intimidate circles of the coming Caesar provide a further shocking parallel to the Eulenburg era of Wilhelm II?” (Botho Graf zu Eulenburg was a Prussian statesman and favourite of the last Kaiser, and was rumoured to be homosexual. Criticism of the Nazis often focused on their homosexuality, with William Shirer describing the SA as being “notorious homosexual perverts”, all of which sounds uncomfortable to modern ears.) In March 1933 Gerlich was taken away by SD men and the following year was taken to Dachau and murdered.

Waldemar Gurian, meanwhile, had the sense to flee in July 1933 after a Nazi journal used him as example of how “German Catholicism has allowed itself to be heavily judaised”. In 1935 he wrote, with some prescience, that: “The Nuremberg Laws appear to be only a stage on the way to the full physical destruction of Jewry.”

The Nazi persecution of Catholicism took many forms; in 1936 the leader of the Catholic Young Men’s Association was charged with treasonable involvement with Communists.

Catholic newspapers and journals were closed and diocesan newspapers were curtailed on the pretext of paper shortages, with the number of periodicals falling from 435 in 1934 to 124 at the outbreak of war. In 1935 the SD banned Catholics from sending money to Rome, and invented songs, “currency ditties” to encourage anti-Catholicism.

Most anti-Catholic propaganda focused on sexual innuendo and claims that Catholicism was judaising Germany. The Nazi pervert-pornographer-in -chief Julius Streicher, an especially repulsive figure even for that regime, promoted anticlerical smut, his Der Stürmer calling the Black Madonna of Częstochowa “a middling thing between a negress and a Mongol woman”.

The SS produced a poem about the pope called “Chief Rabbi of all Christians”, while the state organised well-publicised denunciations of Catholic clergy for homosexuality and paedophilia. Between May 1936 and July 1937 there were 270 prosecutions of monks and priests, while supposed sex crimes at Catholic boarding schools and religious houses “enabled members of the government to claim that the Catholic Church was awash with sex friends”. The SD and Gestapo interviewed “disgruntled religious drop-outs, ex-pupils and orphans with offers of sweets alternating with a head bashed into a wall or the threat of concentration camp to secure the appropriate testimony”.

Opposition came from the top. Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, written in German rather than Latin and read out in every Catholic Church on Palm Sunday, attacked Nazi ideas of collective racial immorality as well as the Führer cult elevating man into a god. It declared:

“He who sacrilegiously misunderstands the abyss between God and creation, between the God-man and the children of men, and dares to place beside Christ, or worse still, above Him and against Him, any mortal, even the greatest of all times, must endure to be told that he is a false prophet of whom the words of Scripture find a terrible application: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them’.”

The Church also hated the racial doctrines of Nazism. In April 1938 Catholic universities and theological facilities were informed that the Pope condemned the notion that “purity of blood and race had to be maintained with every means; everything that serves that goal is justified and permitted” or the idea that the aim of education was “to develop racial quality and passionate love of one’s own race as the highest good of mankind”.

When, in 1938, Mussolini introduced racial laws (even though a quarter of adult Italian Jews were fascists and 230 had taken part in the March on Rome), the Church made its condemnation clear. In July that year the Pope told chaplains of Catholic youth organisations: “If there is anything worse than the various theories or racialism and nationalism, it is the spirit that dictates them. There is something peculiar loathsome about this spirit of separatism and exaggerated nationalism which, precisely because it is un-Christian and irreligious, ends by being inhuman.”

No wonder, then, that when Pius died, in February 1939, the Chief Rabbi of Britain wrote to Cardinal Hinsley, telling him: “Jews throughout the world will reverse the Pope’s noble memory as a feared champion of righteousness against the powers of irreligion, racialism and inhumanity.” The London Jewish Chronicle mourned “the loss of one of the stoutest defenders of racial tolerance in modern times”.

Before succumbing Pope Pius and Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli had helped Jewish scholars affected by Italy’s new racial laws. Yet Pacelli, who succeeded as Pius XII that year, has since become one of the most controversial Catholic figures in history, most famously described as “Hitler’s Pope” by John Cornwell. Burleigh is one of numerous historians to crush that idea.

Between September 1933 and March 1937 Secretary of State Pacelli wrote 70 notes and memoranda protesting against Nazi violations the concordat. His first encyclical Summi pontificatus, published in October 1939, referred to the fundamental unity of the human race, quoting Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bind nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But he went further than mere condemnations. In January 1940 Pius informed British ambassador D’Arcy Osborne that he had met representatives of various German generals who wished to overthrow Hitler, and who wanted a peace that would include a restoration of Poland and Czechoslovakia.  The British would not do anything without the French and soon lost interest. Despite this the Pope had taken considerable risks in doing so, not least for the Church inside Germany.

Of course the Church could have done and said more about Nazi inhumanity (everyone could have), but where the Church had condemned the Nazi inhumanity in Poland the Germans responded by killing priests, some 3,000 in total. And when the bishops in Holland protested about the deportations of Jews, the Nazis responded by murdering 600 Catholic Jewish converts, including St Edith Stein, within two weeks.

Afterwards Nazi deputy Fritz Schmidt announced that “Owing to these events, the Germans must consider the Roman Catholic Jews their worst enemies and arrange for their quickest possible transport to the East. This has already taken place.”

As Burleigh concludes: “Experiences such as this, and what had occurred when Vatican Radio broadcast reports of atrocities in Poland, were among the considerations that inhibited a fortnight condemnations that inhibited a fortnight condemnation by Pius XII of Nazi persecution, not only of the Jews but also the Catholic Poles.”

And yet in the popular imagination Pius was virtually at the Wannsee conference – so why has Pius XII’s reputation sunk so low? According to the director of the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano (describe by the Italian government of Mussolini as “the faithful interpreter of Masonic Jewish democratic thought”), the “leggenda nera” surrounding Pope Pius XII and Nazism originated largely with Communist propaganda. As Zenit reported a couple of years back:

Soviet propaganda against Pius XII was powerfully re-launched in Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), performed for the first time in Berlin on Feb. 20, 1963, which presented the Pope’s silence as indifference to the extermination of the Jews, Vian said.

Already then, Vian continued, it was noted that the play took up many of the ideas proposed by Mikhail Markovich Scheinmann in his book “Der Vatican im Zweiten Weltkrieg” (The Vatican in the Second World War), first published in Russian by the Historical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a propaganda instrument of Communist ideology.

It is certainly the case that Soviet propaganda has had a far longer lasting influence than the USSR itself, mainly because Western intellectuals were so keen to promote it. So much of what we now accept as truth, post-1968, originated with Soviet ideas from the 1920s and 1930s, including current analysis of imperialism and racism as a continuation of class struggle.

One of the most popular is the rather tasteless comparison people make between Israel with Nazi Germany, which was invented by the Communists in the 1980s. The Soviet Union even had an “Anti-Zionist Committee of Soviet Public Opinion”, which was formed in 1983 to blacken the name of Jewish anti-Soviet dissidents flocking to Israel, and also to curry favour with Arab governments at the time.

It seems that, some 20 years after the USSR collapsed, its propaganda is more successful than ever, aided of course by the decline in critical thinking and historical and theological literacy in the West.

This article was published in The Saint Austin Review, the international journal of Catholic culture, literature, and ideas

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