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
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.
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 rituals—baptism became an anti-Semitic celebration—it created an “anti-Jewish religion that echoed and promoted Nazi genocide.”
|Priests give the Nazi salute
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.
|Most dissident clergymen were sent to Dachau