Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Catholic Martyrs of the Holocaust

by Matthew Bunson


In this article Matthew E. Bunson calls attention to the martyrdom of millions of Catholics during the twelve-year reign of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Larger Work

This Rock


18 – 23

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, November 2008

By 1939, more than 10,000 Catholic schools had been closed and the Catholic boys and girls sent to Nazi public schools for indoctrination.

Catholics are constantly confronted with the claims that Pope Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust, that vast numbers of Catholics collaborated with Hitler's diabolical regime, and that Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops were ardent members of the Nazi Party and supporters of its policies. It is true that many Catholics turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, and others remained silent out of fear for their lives and the safety of their families. There were certainly many ex-Catholic members of the ruling Nazi circles, just as there were Catholics in some numbers who supported the Nazis out of a twisted sense of nationalism, anti-Semitic beliefs, or for pure personal advancement in a corrupt and evil state.

But what many people don't know is that the Church itself was a target of the Nazis. On June 6, 1941, Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery, private secretary to Adolf Hitler, and one of the most powerful figures in the Third Reich, issued a secret decree for all Gauleiters (or regional party leaders) of the Reich regarding the true intentions of the Nazi regime toward the Christian churches.

More and more the people must be separated from the churches and their organs the pastors . . . Just as the deleterious influences of astrologers, seers and other fakers are eliminated and suppressed by the State, so must the possibility of church influence also be totally removed . . . Not until this has happened, does the state leadership have influence on the individual citizens. Not until then are the people and Reich secure in their existence for all time. ("Relationship of National Socialism and Christianity")

The truth is many thousands of Catholic men, women, and children died in concentration camps, SS and Gestapo torture chambers, or in fields and villages across Europe for the "crime" of proclaiming the truth to one of the most evil regimes in human history. The historical reality of this oppression does not in any way reduce the culpability of some Catholics in the Holocaust, nor does it suggest that the unprecedented genocide of the Jewish people should be forgotten or considered reduced in significance.

Robust Catholicism

The Church in Germany had survived many hardships in the late 19th century, including the policy of Kulturkampf implemented by the powerful German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that sought to reduce Catholic influence in German life. Catholics stood firm against Bismarck, and Catholic political interests were protected by the Zentrum, the German Catholic Center Party, launched in 1870. The party came to the height of its prosperity in the Weimar Republic, between 1919 and 1933, when it held the chancellorship eight times.

By the late 1920s, the Catholic Church in Germany claimed some 20 million members. They were outnumbered by the 40 million Lutherans, but the vitality of the Catholic community was manifested in the 20,000 priests (compared to the 16,000 Lutheran ministers), the million and a half members of the Catholic Youth Organization, an active Catholic press, Catholic labor unions, and the widely respected Catholic Center Party.

At first, many average Catholics, like other Germans, were not fully aware of the dangers of National Socialism. Some saw the Nazis as a potential ally against the spread of Communism. Bishop Christian Schreiber of Berlin, for example, granted permission for Catholics to join the party. Most German bishops and priests, however, were alarmed by the Nazis and their anti-Semitic speeches, radical nationalistic tone, and clear willingness to use violence and intimidation. In early 1931, the bishops' conference of the Cologne region condemned National Socialism, followed by the bishops of the region of Paderborn and Freiburg. The Catholic press and the Catholic German Center Party were also distinctly hostile to the Nazis.

For their part, Hitler and the Nazis tried to present a moderate and reassuring face to Catholics. But the instinctive reaction of most Catholics to the Nazis was a negative one, and only small numbers of Catholics voted for the National Socialists in the elections prior to 1933.

Hitler's Ascent

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was officially appointed chancellor by the aged President Paul von Hindenburg. A mere month later, on February 27, the infamous Reichstag Fire (a plot concocted by the Nazis) gave Hitler the pretext to establish a dictatorship through the so-called Enabling Act that was passed in March 1933. The act bestowed sweeping powers on the government, including setting aside key elements of basic rights, for four years.

He then proceeded apace with the destruction of all opposition — political, social, and religious. The instruments at his disposal were the laws of the Reich (such as the Enabling Laws) and Reich security, including the regular police, the Gestapo, the SS, and the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst or Secret Service of the Nazis). The other source of terror was the existence of the concentration camps, the most feared at first being Dachau, which was opened in March 1933 outside of Munich and which soon was filled with the enemies of the regime, including thousands of Catholics.

Persecution Begins

In February 1933, Hermann Goring banned all Catholic newspapers in Cologne on the claim that Catholics were illegally engaging in politics. The ban was lifted soon after, but Catholics had been sent a message. A short time later, thugs from the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Brownshirts, stormed a gathering of the Christian trade unions and the Catholic Center Party and brutalized many of those in attendance.

The government next banned the other political parties. The Social Democrats (SPD) were prohibited in June. On July 5, 1933, the Catholic Centre Party, and its ally the Bavarian People's Party, disbanded itself under relentless Nazi intimidation and after empty promises were made promising Catholic freedom in education and for youth groups. On July 14, 1933, Germany became officially a one-party state.

As the parties were disbanded, the Gestapo began rounding up all who might oppose the social revolution. Hundreds of priests were arrested for speaking out against the anti-democratic changes and the persecution of Jews. Thousands of members of the Catholic Center Party were in jails or concentration camps even before the party voted itself out of existence. The Christian Trade Unions were dissolved in late June, and, under mounting pressure, the bishops of Germany agreed to permit members to join the Nazi Party. Needing a permanent statement to clarify legally the Catholic Church's status in Nazi Germany, Pius XI signed a concordat with Hitler on July 20, 1933.

While attacked today as a Catholic capitulation to the Nazis, the concordat was viewed in its time in terms similar to those of the Concordat of 1800 between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon Bonaparte. In facing a dictator who would surely violate all promises, Pope Pius XI sought a formal document that could be used to defend the rights of Catholics and Catholic institutions in a future that the pontiff knew was going to be dark and dangerous for all who professed faith in Christ.

The Nazi Party's overarching policy was described by the term Gleichschaltung, denoting the effort to bring all German culture, religious practice, politics, and even daily life into strict conformity with Nazi ideology. It was a policy of total control of thought, belief, and practice and entailed the systematic eradication of all anti-Nazi elements in the country. The effort to control the churches was termed the Kirchenkampf (the war against the church), although Catholics were not attacked on the legal basis of their Catholicism. Rather, Catholics who opposed the Nazis were arrested and murdered for "crimes" against the state.

Terrors of the Night

One such prominent Catholic victim was the president of Catholic Action in Germany, Erich Klausener. The devout Catholic German delivered a speech in June 1934 against the regime at the Catholic Congress in Berlin. He was shot to death in his office on June 30, during the so-called Night of the Long Knives when Hitler annihilated more of his political opposition, including the leadership of the SA (that had outlived its usefulness), and many conservative politicians. Klausener's entire staff was sent to concentration camps.

For average Catholic laity, clergy, and nuns in Germany, the rise of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933 and 1934 brought sweeping changes to their daily lives. While permitted to go to Mass, Catholics lived increasingly in an oppressive atmosphere of propaganda, fear of arrest at any moment, and the gnawing worry that everything being said to friends or family might be reported to the Gestapo. Friends, pastors, teachers, and relatives were taken in the night, and only vague and gruesome reports of their deaths or imprisonment followed.

Catholics next witnessed the attacks on the Catholic press and Catholic education. A special "Editors' Law" was decreed in December 1933 with the intention of curbing all speech by requiring that all editors join the Literary Chamber of the Third Reich. The Chamber, part of Josef Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, decided what could be published. The law essentially ended the Catholic press in Germany. Catholic newspapers and publications closed their doors as they were unable to comply with government limitations on freedom and unwilling to print Nazi propaganda on such horrendous issues as enforced sterilization and euthanasia. At the start of 1933, there were over 400 daily Catholic newspapers in Germany By 1935, there were none. Over the succeeding years, the surviving Catholic periodicals and the diocesan papers slowly ended publication. In 1941, the Nazis shut down the remaining diocesan weekly papers and Catholic journals.

In 1935, all youth groups were prohibited from participating in public events, from wearing uniforms, and above all, from playing in any organized sports. The one exception to the rule, of course, was the Hitler Youth, with its female counterpart, the League of German Girls, the Nazi Party's official paramilitary organization for young people. The Hitler Youth became mandatory for all German boys and girls in 1936. At the same time as membership was made a rule of law, all other youth organizations were abolished.

German Catholics were next discouraged from sending their children to Catholic schools. Nazi propaganda called the schools disloyal and havens of corruption, and families were eventually required to appear before authorities to declare officially why they had decided to betray the regime. During the ordeal of the interview, parents — especially any working for the government or in the German armed forces — were reminded of the possibly dire consequences should they proceed, including loss of promotion, dismissal, and even prison. Not surprisingly, Catholic schools suffered from massive drops in enrollment. After a few years of Nazi coercion, enrollment in the Munich archdiocesan schools plummeted to below five percent. The end result was that by 1939, more than 10,000 Catholic schools had been closed and the Catholic boys and girls sent to Nazi public schools for indoctrination.

Still, with each new step in the Kirchenkampf the Nazis discovered more Catholics willing to speak out against them. As some of the most powerful symbols of the Church, priests became primary targets for Nazi propaganda, legal traps, arrest, and murder.

Show Trials

One of the most effective Nazi legal maneuvers against Catholic priests (and some Protestant clergy) was the use of show trials that highlighted supposed criminal immorality. Throughout 1935 and 1936, hundreds of priests, monks, lay-brothers and women religious were arrested, accused of sexual perversions, pedophilia, and homosexuality, and then put on public trial. Typical of Gestapo techniques was to lure a priest to a hotel room or apartment on the pretense of someone needing the last rites. Once there, the priest was set upon by a prostitute while Gestapo officials took photos of the bewildered victim. The photos were then used at the trial as supposedly damning evidence. Other priests were accused falsely of molesting children, and German newspapers were filled with lurid and pornographic accounts and cartoons of priests and other clergy. Many priests "confessed" after torture or threats against their parents and relatives. These events were protested in the United States and by local bishops, but the protests did nothing to halt the cruel mockery of priests in films, plays, speeches, and songs.

Pope Pius XI's strongly anti-Nazi papal encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge of March 1937 gave encouragement to Catholics to continue speaking out, and the tone of the Church's opposition to the Nazis was set in the country by the courageous Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich, Cardinal Conrad Count von Preysing of Berlin, Bishop Clemens August Count von Galen of Munster, Archbishop von Preysing of Berlin, Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, and Cardinal Schulte of Cologne. Cardinal Faulhaber delivered a magnificent trio of Advent sermons in 1933 that condemned Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and caused such anger among the Nazis that the sale of the published edition of his sermons was banned by the government.

Bishop von Galen, called the "Lion of Munster," spent the war fearlessly speaking out against the Nazis, and only his popularity kept him from sharing the fate of so many other bishops and priests in Germany and elsewhere (see "The Bishop's Cry of Protest," page 20). He was beatified by the Church for his holiness and heroic virtue.

Underground Network

Catholic priests, nuns, and laypeople made it possible for Mit Brennender Sorge to be read everywhere in Germany. Despite the concerted efforts of the Gestapo, thousands upon thousands of copies were printed through a vast underground network and then distributed through the parishes across Nazi Germany. Formal Nazi protests were lodged with the Vatican; Goebbels launched a renewed anti-Catholic propaganda campaign, and the Gestapo arrested hundreds of Catholics, including children who were caught handing out copies of the encyclical. New trials were orchestrated against priests and nuns, including the mockery of a trial held for 170 Franciscans in Koblenz on charges of immorality.

With the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of World War II, the Catholics of Germany were faced with even greater oppression in the name of Reich security. The same policies that had transformed Germany into a prison were now enacted ruthlessly across occupied Europe as the SD, SS, Gestapo, and other Nazi organs of terror were given an utterly free hand.

Catholics in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, and Germany, were arrested for speaking any form of criticism of the regime, aiding Jews in any way, or simply refusing to remove religious symbols from schools. The thousands of spies and informers (many fearing for their own lives) provided a steady stream of reports to the Gestapo and SD. Conscientious objectors were executed for treason. One such man was Franz Jagerstatter. Put on trial in Berlin, he was condemned to death for sedition and executed on August 9, 1943, by beheading. He wrote before his death, "Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering . . ." He was beatified on October 26, 2007 in Linz.

The arrests, torture, repression, and mass executions continued unabated right up to the end of the war and the final collapse of the Third Reich, but so too did Catholic resistance. Catholics across occupied Europe gave their lives to protect Jews from the concentration camps.

Strikes and Protests

In 1941 in the Netherlands, Catholics took part in the strikes and protests against the Nazi treatment of the Jews. In July 1942, the Nazis declared that all Jewish converts and Jews married to Gentiles would be exempted from deportation if the opposition ceased. While the Protestants in the Netherlands agreed, the Archbishop of Utrecht would not be deterred. In response, the authorities deported all Catholics of Jewish blood, including the future saint Edith Stein, while exempting the 9,000 Protestant Jews. Mass deportations soon followed, but Catholics helped thousands to escape and hid another 40,000. Forty-nine priests gave their lives for providing help to Jews. The same story was played out in France and Italy where cardinals, bishops, and priests exhorted the faithful to assist Jews and give them shelter.

The model for all Catholics was Pope Pius XII and his heroic and much-documented actions on behalf of Jews in Italy. As the pontiff declared in the 1942 Christmas Message, Catholics should not forget "those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked for death or progressive extinction." The Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide's 1967 book, The Last Three Popes and the Jews, documented that between 700,000 and 860,000 Jews were saved from death by the Church. More might have been done, but Lapide recorded that even as the Polish Catholics were being crushed (see "The Persecution of Poland," page 21), Catholic clergy and religious saved at least 15,000 (possibly as many as 50,000) Jews.

By the end of the 12-year reign of Adolf Hitler in 1945, tens of millions of Catholics had died as soldiers, in forced labor, as civilian casualties in the fighting, or as victims in the gas chambers. Catholic churches, cathedrals, monasteries, convents, schools, universities, and monuments lay in ruins. The task then fell to the surviving Catholics in Europe to rebuild those institutions and to begin the equally difficult task of repairing the spiritual damage done by the 12-year Reich.

The Bishop's Cry of Protest

We must be prepared that in the near future such terrifying news will accumulate — that even here one religious house after another will be confiscated by the Gestapo and that its occupants, our brothers and sisters, children of our families, loyal German citizens, will be thrown on to the street like outlawed helots and hunted out of the country, like vermin. — Bishop August von Galen, homily, 1941

Many times, and again quite recently, we have seen the Gestapo arresting blameless and highly respected German men and women without the judgment of any court or any opportunity for defense, depriving them of their freedom, taking them away from their homes interning them somewhere. In recent weeks even two members of my closest council, the chapter of our cathedral, have been suddenly seized from their homes by the Gestapo, removed from Munster and banished to distant places. — Bishop August von Galen, homily, 1941

The Persecution of Poland

Poland was especially singled out for brutality. Jewish Poles were targeted for extermination through work and the gas chambers, while the rest of Poland witnessed the elimination of the country's political, intellectual, and military classes and the reduction of the surviving population to a vast labor pool. Between 1939 and 1945 at least 1.5 million Poles were transported to the Reich for labor. To decimate Polish culture, the Germans closed or obliterated universities, schools, museums, libraries, and scientific centers.

The most feared Polish institution, of course, was the Church, as it had given hope to the Polish people and had encouraged aspirations of Polish culture, learning, and independence. In the annexed regions of Poland, Nazi officials closed churches, seminaries, convents, and seminaries, and the majority of priests were arrested or executed. Between 1939 and 1945 over 3,000 members of the Polish clergy were killed; 1,992 of them died in concentration camps, 787 of them at Dachau (see "The Priests of Dachau," page 22). Altogether, estimates place the number of Polish civilians killed in the war at between 5 and 5.5 million, including 3 million Polish Jews, not even counting over a half million Polish civilians and military personnel killed in the fighting.

The Priests of Dachau

The Dachau concentration camp was used by the Nazis for many of its most hated enemies. Among them were Catholic priests. Indeed, of the 2,720 clergy sent to Dachau, 2,579 were Catholic priests, along with uncertain numbers of seminarians and lay brothers. Most were Polish priests, 1,748 in all; there were also 411 German priests. Of the 1,034 priests who died in the camp, 868 were Polish. The priests were housed in a special "priest block" and were targeted for especially brutal treatment by the SS guards.

It is estimated that at least 3,000 other Polish priests were sent to other concentration camps, including Auschwitz, while priests from across Europe were condemned to death and labor camps: 300 priests died at Sachsenhausen, 780 at Mauthausen, and 5,000 at Buchenwald. These numbers do not include the priests who were murdered en route to the camps or who died from diseases and exhaustion in the inhuman cattle cars used to transport victims. Several thousand nuns were also sent to camps or killed on the way.

The list of victims is a very long one, and the suffering on a daily basis by the priests is unimaginable. For many, the ordeal lasted for years. Adam Kozlowiecki, a Polish priest, was arrested by the Gestapo in November 1939 and was sent to Auschwitz in 1940; transferred to Dachau in December 1940, he spent the next five years there until he was freed by the U.S. army on April 29, 1945. Kozlowiecki was made a cardinal in 1998. A few of the other notable priests at Dachau were Bl. Michal Kozal, Bl. Stefan Grelewski, Bl. Stefan Frelichowski, Bl. Karl Leisner, and Bl. Titus Brandsma.

Priests at Dachau Tell Their Stories

  • Christ in Dachau by Fr. John Lenz (Our Sunday Visitor, 2008)
  • Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau by Fr. Jean Bernard (Zaccheus Press, 2007)
  • The Ninth Day (2004), a film about Fr. Jean Bernard's experience in Dachau

Matthew E. Bunsen is a contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters and a moderator of EWTN's online Church history forum.

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