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~ Nazism ~

     There was no explicit order from Adolf Hitler that provided for the persecution of the church. No persons ‒ ecclesiastic, religious, or lay ‒ were killed simply because they openly confessed or practiced Catholicism (unlike in the cases of the French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War). A concordat between the Third Reich and the Vatican in 1933 even assured “the uninhibited freedom of action for all Catholic religious, cultural and educational organizations, associations and federations.”[1] Hitler himself declared at a party congress in Nuremberg in 1935 the resolution of the National Socialist Party (Nazis) to maintain a healthy relationship with the Christian churches of Germany: “The party never had the intention, either formerly or today, to wage any kind of a struggle with Christianity in Germany. . . We will never fight this battle (against the politicization of churches) as a battle against Christianity or even just against one of the confessions.”[2]

     Notwithstanding this modus vivendi, the peaceful relationship between the German church and the regime was seemingly valid only on paper. In practice, all Christian churches under Hitler’s grasp were consistently harassed by the Gestapo and other fanatical henchmen of Nazism. In 1935, the German episcopate deplored the defamations hurled against Christianity and the church which was tolerated and even supported by the regime. The bishops also spoke out against the Nazi restrictions on Catholic youth organizations to pave the way for the consolidation of all young Germans into the Hitler Youth, and the confiscation of several monasteries. There was also no doubt that the state warranted propagandas to defame the church like the morality trials which sought to divulge the sexual delinquencies of members of the clergy, and the publicized trials against Catholic clergymen accused of violating the currency regulations that made the sending of funds to foreign missions extremely bureaucratized.[3] The removal of crucifixes from schools, the desecration of roadside crosses and statues, and the laicization of schools were other antichurch tactics employed by the Nazis.

     Was this development a prelude to a more systematic suppression of the church in Nazi Germany? The Nazis had complained about the inability of the Catholic Church to understand the requirements of national socialism. Many of them, including Hitler, had been especially irritated by the pronouncements of [Bd.] Clemens August von Galen, bishop of Münster, against practices tolerated by the state that went against Catholic principles (like euthanasia and confiscation of church properties). As early as 1936, Hitler had already made a threat on the church: «So long as they concern themselves about religious problems, the state will not concern itself about them. When they attempt by any other means ‒ writing, encyclicals, etc. ‒ to assure themselves rights which belong only to the state, we will push them bak (italics mine) into their proper spiritual activity and the care of the souls.»[4]

     During the Second World War, the German hierarchy and laity supported the war efforts of their country, and yet were very circumspect when it came to supporting Nazi ideology. Catholics in all occupied territories, meanwhile, were not harmed because of their faith. But those with Jewish roots, whether they were religious or lay, were treated in the same way as full Jews, most being exterminated in concentration camps. The Catholics of Poland were also treated savagely because, for the Nazis, all Poles were “vermins” who “have no historical mission whatever in . . . the world.”[5] Immediately after the occupation of Poland in October 1939, Hitler ordered the elimination of the country’s intelligentsia, which numbered priests and well-educated lay Catholics.[6] The suffering of the church in Poland made the Vatican and all episcopates under Nazi domain extremely cautious. If they had been outspoken before, most chose to just cooperate with the evil regime with a heavy heart and to mute their protests in the face of a million unjust deaths. . . the price of self-preservation. Yet there was no doubt that the Nazis would have undertaken a Kulturkampf against all Christian churches had they been victorious in the Second World War.[7]

     Still, there were many heroic Catholics who refused to be cowed by the Nazis. For their defiance, the Nazis found various accusations to level against them: of involvement in treasonable activities (according to the Reich’s definition of treason), of engaging in enterprises harmful to the security of the regime, of speaking ill of the Führer, etc. All of them were imprisoned, some enduring the harsh inhumanity of concentration camps for years. The great majority were executed or wasted away due to sickness or malnutrition; a few saw the liberation of their camps, but died as a consequence of the maltreatment they endured for months or years. If the institutional church, for the sake of “prudence,”[8] could not be a prophet for that time, these Catholics made a conscious and individual or communal choice to risk and forfeit their lives rather than keep silent or betray the dictates of their conscience.

     Among these nonconformist martyrs against the tyranny of Nazism were priests, religious men and women, and lay people. Most were not German and counted just a few ranking prelates. The priests included [Ven] Titus Brandsma, [Bd]  Bernhard Lichtenberg, [Bd] Engelmar Unzeitig, [Bd] Giuseppe Girotti, and [SoG] Lucien Bunel who spoke up against and defied anti-Semitism.[9] The super erudite Carmelite nun [St] Edith Stein suffered intensely because of the persecution of her people, the Jews; she died with them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz as a result of a Nazi reprisal against the Dutch hierarchy which rebuked their anti-Semitic policies.[10] There were also the Pallotine priest [SoG] Franz Reinisch and the celebrated layman [Bd] Franz Jägerstätter, both Austrians and conscientious objectors who chose imprisonment and execution rather than be conscripted into the army of the Third Reich.[11] Eleven Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth were mowed down by the Nazis for their ministry which had become the source of religious and national renewal for the Polish and Catholic population of the town of Navahrudak (then part of Poland, but now in Belarus).[12] And then there was the youthful [Bd] Marcel Callo, a member of the Young Catholic Workers (Jocists), deported to the labor camp of Mauthausen for “being too Catholic” and conducting religious activities that were “harmful to the Nazi regime and to the well-being of the German people.”[13]


[1] Quoted in Anthony Rhodes, The Vatican in the Age of Dictators (1922-1945) (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), p. 176.

[2] Quoted in Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. 276.

[3] The Dominican priest Titus Horten (1882-1936), whose beatification is being considered in Rome, died in prison after being incriminated under this law for sending money to his order’s mission in China [Paul-Gundolf Gieraths, Zeuge dez verborgenen Lebens (Vechta: Vechtaer Druckerei und Verlag Gmbh & Co., 1986), pp. 52-75].

[4] Quoted in Helmreich, p. 282.

[5] Stephen Lee, The European Dictatorships: 1918-1945 (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 265.

[6] Adalbert L. Balling and Reinhad Abeln, Martyr of Brotherly Love: Father Englamar Unzeitig and the Priests’ Barracks at Dachau (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), p. 14.

[7] Stephen J. Whitfield, Into the Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), p. 35.

[8] The possibility of severe retaliations for denouncing Nazi racial policies and aggressions was constantly taken into consideration by the Vatican and bishops’ conferences. But “that a ringing denunciation of Hitler’s policies would have made the situation of the Catholics in general, and of the Catholic Church in particular, more difficult. . is doubtful, considering the plans Hitler had in mind for the future of the churches anyway. . . What would have happened had (Pius XII) spoken out more openly than he did, is speculative” (Helmreich, p. 365).

[9] Albert Groeneveld, A Heart on Fire (Kent: Carmelite Press, 1954); Helmreich, p. 364; Balling and Abeln, ibid.; Michael Carrouges, Père Jacques, transl. Salvator Attanasio (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961).

[10] Hilda C. Graef, The Scholar and the Cross: The Life and Works of Edith Stein (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1955).

[11] Heinrich Kreuzberg, Franz Reinisch: Ein Martyrer unserer Zeit (Limberg/Lahn, 1953); Gordon C. Zahn, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd., 1966).

[12] Aleksander Zienkiewicz, No Greater Love (Rome: Generalate of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, 1968); Maria Staryńska, Eleven Prie-Dieux (Rome: Generalate of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, 1992).

[13] Jean-Baptiste Jégo, Marcel Callo: Témoin du Christ (Rennes: Jeunesse Ouvriere Chrétienne, 1966).


 


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