Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Co-opting of the Churches and dissident clergymen during the Third Reich

The selection  below is how Hitler both co-opted the Churches and persecuted them and dissident who priests who questioned the racist ideology of the Nazis. For reasons of space, it could not be included in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013).

Not all dissidents that came under the surveillance of the Gestapo were associated with political parties or journalists. Catholic priests were also targeted, but because the regime was concerned about the achieving public support, the Gestapo had to move cautiously. The visceral loathing, with which several Nazi paladins held toward the Catholic Church notwithstanding, a substantial part of the Church’s appeal to the National Socialists was the Church’s portrayal of itself as a bastion of support against the predatory encroachment of atheistic communism. The Catholic Center party, which in 1919 had been the second largest party after the Social Democrats and who during the Weimar years provided ten chancellors, frequently allied themselves with the socialists in opposition to the rising Nazi party. As a minority who had suffered persecution because German Protestants suspected that their first loyalty belonged to Rome, the Church was relatively sensitive to the plight of Jews whose patriotism was equally suspect. 

Hitler was determined to co-opt and restrain the Catholic Church with an adroit combination of conciliation and intimidation. After he was given the reins of power, Hitler cleverly finessed the Catholic Center Party by brokering a deal whereby if they supported his Enabling Bill that assured him dictatorial power, he would guarantee them religious freedom and control over their schools. With Communist deputies absent and the Catholic party capitulating, only the Social Democrats voted against it despite the extreme duress from storm troopers shouting, “Shut up!, Traitors!, You’ll be strung up today” outside and inside the Opera House, where the vote was taken owing to the fire damage to the Reichstag. The bill easily passed, and its effect was to destroy parliamentary government. With the support from the Catholic Party, Hitler in his radio broadcast confidently assured his listeners that Christianity would be the basis of the reconstruction of the country. 

Eugenio Pacelli: Pope Pius XII
Hitler achieved an even greater coup de grace when he negotiated a Concordat with Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State, (later to become Pope Pius ХΙΙ in 1939). In a controversial study partly inspired by its provocative title, Hitler’s Pope: Secret History of Pius X11, that suggests that Pacelli was a collaborator of the Führer, John Cornwell argues that he was eager to flatter and appease Hitler, an accommodation that grew out of bitter personal experiences. As Papal Nuncio in Germany during the 1920s, he witnessed and even encountered the nasty side of Bavarian Communism in 1919. As a result of a traumatic event when Red Brigades violating diplomatic immunity broke into the Munich nunciature, threatened him with guns and absconded with the limousine, he was left with a searing memory that remained with him for the rest of his life. Nursing an abiding hatred of Bolshevism, he associated it, according to Cornwell, with Jews because they were prominent in that movement. Scholars have criticized Cornwell for mistranslating the letter that Pacelli wrote to Rome after the contretemps at the nunciature giving it an anti-Semitic tone and a subsequent exchange with officials from this rogue government about assurances regarding diplomatic immunity. Coupled with a Catholic anti-Judaic environment that he grew up in Italy (and not repudiated until Vatican II in the middle 1960s), Cornwell maintains that the postwar experience stiffened his hostility toward Jews that undoubtedly affected his later attitude during the 1940s when he remained relatively silent about their extermination. Moreover, as a believer in rigid hierarchies, he loathed the liberalism and parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic. By contrast, Nazi Germany was the best bulwark against Soviet expansionism. According to Cornwell, Pacelli exercised pressure on the Catholic bishops to urge Catholic deputies to vote for the Enabling Bill and to disband the Catholic Center party, and most problematically, he suggests that had it not been for the Concordat, there would have been more resistance to Hitler. Apart from its pure speculation, he underplays the Catholic Party’s movement to the right before 1933. For example in May 1932, in violation of the constitutional guarantee on gender equality, it sponsored a bill to dismiss women if their husbands were already working. Exhausted by the political and economic chaos, and angry by the ‘decadence’ that descended upon Germany, it responded to Hitler’s promises of order, cultural purification and denunciations of Communism and welcomed an authoritarian alternative. Cornwell also ignores the loathing that Pacelli felt toward Hitler when the dictator violated the terms of the Concordat. True, Pacelli demonstrated moral myopia in his attitudes toward the Jews and refused to express objections to their treatment during the 1930s, but then neither did the majority of Catholics in Germany. Unlike his predecessor Pius XI, who wanted to abrogate the Concordat but was persuaded to refrain by his successor, Pacelli, as pontiff, made no attempt to cancel the treaty during the darkest period of Nazi persecution, a gesture which would have been a compelling statement about the Papacy’s attitude toward National Socialism. Captive to his anti-Communist sentiments, he could not even share with leading German clerics the Papacy’s knowledge of the extermination camps in Poland.

Regardless, the Concordat conferred in Hitler’s mind Vatican recognition of his regime and support for his policies. According to its terms, the Catholic party would disband and Catholics would cease independent political action and the clergy would express their loyalty to the Führer in return for the state’s assurance that Catholics would have control over their education, church appointments and social activity. Hitler, not surprisingly, had any intention of respecting the conditions of this treaty. Unfortunately, Pacelli made a fatal error in failing to define political activity since the Nazis defined virtually everything as political. They proceeded to abrogate charity drives, religious holidays and Catholic instruction in confessional schools and then the schools themselves, everything that potentially could compete with their own agendas. Secondly, he failed to address the security of baptized Jews or “non-Aryan Catholics” who had been targeted by Nazi thugs, a concern that Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich, the leading Catholic spiritual leader in Germany, raised with the papacy. 
Cardinal Micheal von Faulhaber

Along with other prominent Catholic clergymen, Faulhaber objected to the biological racism of Nazism because the Church had long defined Judaism as a religion not a race, and the latter threatened its prerogatives of determining who was and who was not a Catholic. Nonetheless, apart from a few notable exceptions, the clergy, largely because of the Concordat, silently accommodated themselves to the regime, even though the Nuremberg laws, and especially, the pogrom in November 1938, privately upset many of them. Historians disagree as to the degree that leading German Catholic officials regarded the plight of professing Jews. Were they on their own or did they receive support from a clergy who generally accepted "moderate" anti-Semitism in the sense that Jews should not exercise influence disproportionate to their numbers, but were appalled by the increasing violence meted out to them? Complicating the dilemma was Faulhaber’s knowledge that National Socialism harboured within its midst elements that despised Catholicism and would take advantage of any excuse to combine “Jew baiting” with “Jesuit baiting” in order to erode and possibly destroy the institutional authority of the Church in Germany. In an attempt to straddle cautiously his Christian compassion with the recognition that National Socialism had acquired its “power in a legal fashion,” Faulhaber acknowledged that there could be a “community of blood,” but it should not lead to "hatred of other peoples.” Throughout the 1930s, the regime considered him to be an adversary, in part because of his and Bishop Galen's vehement opposition to the euthanasia program. The police confiscated and destroyed some of his sermons and subjected him to physical harassment and verbal abuse. In the meantime, Hitler was confident (with good reason because Catholics welcomed the signing of the Concordat and many actually believed that Hitler was a devout Christian) and that he had the Catholic Church and the vast majority of German Catholics on side for his “urgent struggle against international Jewry.” As he privately said to one bishop in April 1933 before the Concordat was signed in the summer: “The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettoes, etc.…. I am thereby doing a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.” Of course, Hitler made no distinction between their traditionalist anti-Judaism with its civic inequality, deplorable as it was, and his brand of murderous racial anti-Semitism.

 Apart from individual clergymen, who were mostly incensed by ham-handed efforts by the Nazis to interfere in their religious affairs, the Protestant churches never presented the same kind of challenge because they found it easier to accommodate to the new Nazi rule. A substantial basis of their support emanated from rural northern Protestants who not only welcomed a “community based on blood,” but, unlike most Catholics, endorsed the eugenics program of the Nazis. The Evangelical Church proclaimed its followers as “the storm troopers of Jesus Christ” and predictably it preached a militant brand of anti-Semitism, male chauvinism, and extreme nationalism. 

Priests give the Nazi salute
Even more fanatical was the small German Christian Church that repudiated the Judaic origins of Christianity and excluded non-Aryan Christians (converted Jews) from being clergymen and joining their congregations. They revised the image of Christ from being “a cowardly sufferer” to a heroic warrior and “the greatest hater of Jews.” They vilified other branches of Protestantism as “effeminate” and “soft,” while they extolled motherhood, particularly those mothers that sacrificed everything for their children. Meetings were held in pubs to accommodate the beer-guzzling propensities of its macho parishioners. With unabashed anti-intellectualism, the German Christian Church dismissed theology in part because of its misplaced emphasis on sin, believing it a Jewish element that needed purging; trumping it with an elevated rapture to a manhood that esteemed heroic soldiers would erase the humiliating memory of wartime defeat. By politicizing the Protestant faith out of recognition with its symbols and ritualsbaptism became an anti-Semitic celebrationit created an “anti-Jewish religion that echoed and promoted Nazi genocide.” 

The co-opting of the Churches and gradual assault on Catholic associations coincided with the Gestapo’s harassment of individual priests and ministers who presented a political challenge to the regime. Unlike the Soviet Union where priests were routinely executed and churches destroyed, the Gestapo attempted to use the law to drive a wedge between outspoken clergy and the more compliant laity. It is true that thousands of clergy, mostly Catholic but some Protestant, were subjected to the harassment of house searches, surveillance and interrogation. But only the most obstreperous of them served stints in prison and concentration camps.  The first Roman Catholic priest to be sent to a concentration camp was Josef Spieker who naively delivered a sermon in October 1934 declaring that “Germany has only one Führer. That is Jesus Christ.” The Gestapo arrested him, but, because he was a popular priest in largely Catholic Cologne, sent him to trial, whereby he was acquitted, ostensibly for insufficient evidence, but more likely because the three judges were sympathetic to his being a priest. He was immediately rearrested, placed in solitary confinement where he spent a grueling few months in a concentration camp. Because he was a priest, he was subjected to special abuse that included slithering on his belly to the filthy latrines. Retried in 1936, the same judges who earlier had acquitted him convicted him for abuse of religious office and sentenced him to fifteen months in prison, likely saving him from a much worse fate. Upon his release, he was forced to leave Germany, and after a stint in Holland, he fled to Chile, all the while feeling with some justification that his Church had abandoned him. Spieker never fully grasped what the scholar, Victor Klemperer, intuitively recognized; in a diary entry for April 10, 1938, the latter astutely noted that “the main thing for tyrannies of any kind is the suppression of the urge to ask questions.”

By 1937, as a result of violations of the Concordat by the Nazis, relations between the Catholic Church and the state became acrimonious, particularly after Pius XΙ issued the critical encyclical “With profound anxiety.” Without naming Hitler and National Socialism, the pope condemned racism, neo-pagan doctrines and those who worshiped the idols of the nation and state. Enraged by what he judged to be interference in the affairs of state, Hitler ordered Goebbels to discredit the Catholic Church. He did this by accelerating the campaign alleging that the Church protected pedophiles and homosexuals in its midst. In a nationwide radio broadcast, Goebbels lambasted the Church for being the “‘ulcer on the healthy body of Germany” for corrupting German youth, a sufficient reason for eliminating the confessional schools. The Gestapo used bribes and intimidation to secure charges of sexual molestation and homosexuality, ensuring that newspaper coverage of these trials was inundated with salacious details. Some convicted priests, who in some instances were investigated by the Church itself and turned over to the Gestapo, were guilty of the offences with which they had been charged. Their abuse of the trust conferred on them served as a powerful Nazi propaganda weapon to smear the Catholic Church. Few of the hapless priests who spent time in protective custody, prison and concentration camps ever re-emerged.

Nazi representation of a Catholic priest as a pedophile 
Faulhaber privately was more outspoken in his criticism of Nazi intolerance toward Jews condemning it as “unchristian to every Christian and ‘unjust and painful.” At the same time, like the vast majority of Catholic and Protestant religious leaders, Faulhaber welcomed the regime’s “purification” of public morals that had fallen into “hedonism” and toleration of “smut” during the years of the Weimar Republic when sexually active women on occasion resorted to abortion. He fully endorsed the Nazi efforts to provide more "wholesome" entertainment to the public than nudity in cabarets, the homosexual hangouts and visible commercialized sex. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
There were clergymen who were more hostile to the regime. Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are among the best known. Both of them were products of the anti-Jewish religious milieu although Bonhoeffer, because of both personal relationships and theological principles, increasingly distanced himself from it. Niemöller initially supported the Third Reich as an alternative to the democratic and secular Republic. But the increasing infringement of the Nazis on religious affairs turned him into an outspoken opponent whereby he spent seven years in concentration camps. At his trial, he revealed his equivocal attitudes toward the Jews: although he found them personally “unpleasant and alien,” he believed that they should be accepted into the Church if they converted. The Bible did not permit the Church “to replace baptism with a family tree.” The defiance of Bonhoeffer toward the regime was even more unequivocal. Unlike Catholic leaders, whose contempt for the modernism and individualism of the Republican era blinkered them to the dangers posed by National Socialism, Bonhoeffer recognized before 1933 that “extreme elements” were exploiting popular resentments, and that their goal was the “establishment of a dictatorship.” With ideals incompatible with Christian beliefs, they would repudiate what conservatives loathed, but with bigotry and violence, they would also destroy every vestige of human dignity. That he made clear in a powerful sermon in 1937 wherein he lamented that injustice was being inflicted on human beings by the authorities that offered them only “pitiless and biased” words, judging them “not according to justice but according to the status of the person.” He was arrested in 1943 because of his links to the German resistance and executed in April 1945 a month before the war ended. 
Most dissident clergymen were sent to Dachau
Those that died in the camps did so mainly during the war years. Although a number of clergymen from Bishop Galen’s diocese were arrested and taken to Dachau where some died as a response to his outspoken opposition to the euthanasia program, most of the victims were among the seventeen hundred Polish clergy. Their brutal confinement was not for any resistance, but they constituted part of the intelligentsia that the Nazis sought to eliminate. It would be unfair to use the advantages of hindsight to single out the church leaders for not seeing the future of genocide, but there were plenty of warning signs that contemporaries like the perceptive Bonhoeffer did recognize.

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