Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Nazi Persecution of the Church

by Karol Jozef Gajewski


Information about Hitler's persecution of the Church and of Catholics during the reign of Nazism.

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Urbi et Orbi Communications, November 1999

As the debate continues over the alleged "silence" of Pius XII during the Nazi persecution of the Jews, some scholars are drawing attention to the terrible fate of the Catholic Church at the hands of Hitler’s regime

On the night of January 30, 1933, rank after rank of SA storm troopers and black-uniformed SS detachments swung through the Brandenburg Gate onto the Unter den Linden in the center of Berlin. They carried flaming torches and were cheered by huge crowds lining the sidewalks, thousands hysterically giving the Nazi salute as a token of victory. Hitler had achieved his first goal that very day: to be appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg to lead the government.

As Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Cabinet minister Hermann Goering acknowledged the cheers of the massed citizenry. Hitler was well aware that the victory was only a partial one. The Nazis were still a minority in a fragile coalition. Hitler had, in fact, warned earlier that day in a statement released to the world's press: "The Nazi Party has at last broken through to the government. I am determined to continue the struggle as fiercely within government as we fought outside it."

A major part of what Hitler saw as his forthcoming struggle was targeting, isolating and destroying millions of enemies in the way of his total mastery of Germany. There were the Jews, the Communists, the Social Democrats with their entrenched electoral support, the Catholic Center Party, and the Roman Catholic Church. All were enemies, each to be dealt with as quickly as circumstances would allow.

Though Hitler felt a particular urgency about dealing with the Jews and Communists, and the neutralizing of other political parties, he saw the Church as a pernicious opponent, a deeply-entrenched threat that must be immediately controlled and eventually uprooted in order to establish his Thousand-Year Reich.

To help eliminate Catholic influence, he turned to Alfred Rosenberg, arch-ideologue and convinced Nazi, who despised Christianity. In his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century, Rosenberg formulated a "scientific" theory of racism. For him, the supreme human value was that of race: individual races possessed their own collective soul, a mystical "power of the blood and soil." Each race also possessed a religious impulse (in the case of the Aryan Germans, this was the pagan cult of Wotan, King of the Gods). Christianity, for Rosenberg, was the distorted product of Semitic tribes who had tricked the Aryans into jettisoning their pagan truth. The Catholic Church, the prime mover in this spiritual "swindle," was singled out for sustained attack as the promoter of "prodigious, conscious and unconscious falsifications."

All during the 1930s, Rosenberg poured scorn on the Church. The clergy, hierarchy and Vatican were vilified as poisoners of German blood, race-death merchants, race-swamp promoters, race contaminators, race-chaos merchants, obscurantists or "men of shadows," sorcerers of Rome, and, referring to the Jewish roots of Christianity, as advocates of perverted "Orientalism."

Jesus Christ was singled out not only by Rosenberg, but by numerous lesser Nazis hired to slant the Savior's message toward Rosenberg's race theories. Christ, they claimed, was an unwitting tool of Jewish world conspirators, active as early as the first century AD. Or, alternatively, Christ was not a Jew at all, but a prototype Aryan, son of a Roman soldier stationed in Palestine. Throughout Rosenberg's career, up to the gallows at Nuremberg, he promoted these twisted theories in pamphlets, speeches, and training courses for Nazi leaders on the perfect "Nordic race."

Typical of the initial troubles between Nazism and the Church was a February 1933 confrontation following the death of a Catholic policeman, Sergeant Zauritz, killed in a riot between Communists and Nazis in Berlin. At his funeral in his Silesian hometown, the priest deplored the many violent deaths being suffered, saying how terrible was the maxim: "If they disobey us, their heads will roll." This was a clear reference to a speech by Hitler. The many storm troopers in the congregation began coughing to drown out the words of the priest. Undeterred, he shouted: "Cough all you like, but you will not cough me from telling the truth!"

That same month, Goering banned all Catholic newspapers in Cologne. Responding to protests, he denied that this was part of a deliberate campaign against Catholics: the government, he said, would "seal its own doom" with "such a policy." Though the ban was later lifted, it had sent a warning tremor through the largely Catholic Rhineland, and it would be only a short time before the Catholic press throughout Germany would be taken over by the Nazis.

Later that month, Hitler gave another signal when brown shirt SA gangs broke up meetings of Christian trade unions and the Catholic Center Party. The Manchester Guardian reported one such incident on February 22, 1933. A prominent Catholic politician, Adam Stegerwald, was attacked on the platform in Krefeld and a number of priests were hurt.

There was a brief lull in Hitler's persecution of the Church when the Fuehrer turned to achieving some kind of national unity in order to face potential enemies at home and abroad. He cleverly made a public appeal for the Church "to negotiate." Almost from the outset, however, discussions took place against a drumbeat of threats that the Church would be destroyed if agreement was not quickly reached. In spite of many misgivings, Pope Pius XI and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli — the future Pius XII — realized they could not refuse to talk with a legitimately established government. Also, if they refused, Hitler would publicize his apparently peaceful terms and claim that Catholics were obstructionists. Any written agreement, Pacelli reasoned, would offer a better basis for temporary coexistence than no legal arrangement at all. Lutherans already had similar safeguards.

In fact, mass arrests were already taking place — thousands of Catholic Center Party supporters were in concentration camps by the end of June. Although well aware of the real situation, government negotiator Franz von Papen, himself a Catholic, told journalists that relations between the Vatican and Reich were "so friendly" that it took only eight days to agree on the main details of the proposed Concordat.

In July 1933, a Concordat was signed which specified that certain activities — education, youth associations, meetings organized by the Church — were legally guaranteed by the Reich. In return, the Church's support for the Catholic Center and the Bavarian People's Parties would be withdrawn. Actually the Center Party, under relentless Nazi pressure, had already voted itself out of existence even before the Concordat was signed, a fact which Pacelli lamented because it handicapped him during the negotiations.

Pacelli would always argue that the Church had to accept the lesser of two evils. Without the agreement, Catholics would have been left at the mercy of SA, SS and Gestapo hit squads. With the agreement, they at least had legal grounds on which they could protest injustices. In July 1933, he remarked to a British Embassy official, that while the attacks on Catholics would not cease, "they will hardly break all the articles at the same time."

Nevertheless, the Nazis very soon began breaking them, and continued to break every article when they wanted to.

An "Editors Law" was passed in December 1933, forcing all editors to become members of the "Literary Chamber of the Reich" and to obey whatever directives might follow. This law made it an offense to give detailed accounts of pilgrimages, print liturgical calendars or even announce meetings of local Catholic clubs. In its definition of what constituted anti-State propaganda, the "Editors Law" was a death sentence for the large and thriving Catholic press.

Censorship tightened. Even individual typewriters were impounded on the whim of the authorities, and a partial blackout fell on what was going on inside Germany.

The Vatican, anxious for as accurate a picture as possible, found helpers in unusual quarters. A large and unrecognized army of witnesses, watching for the State agent who might be lurking nearby, passed along secret reports and documents. This ad hoc Catholic intelligence grapevine had a genuine hero as one of its leaders: Dr. Joseph Mueller, the chief "runner." Mueller was an anti-Nazi lawyer from Munich, known for his coolness and dependability. As an officer in the Abwehr (Military Counterintelligence), he was able to move freely between Munich, Berlin and Rome. In his Abwehr bag, immune to the random searches and prying eyes of Gestapo, he carried sheaves of documents giving a detailed account of the campaign waged against the Roman Catholics of Germany and Austria. When Vatican Radio broadcast extracts from Mueller's bulging files, the Gestapo reacted with wrath and began searching vigorously for the "mole."

Mueller's documentation established a clear progression of anti-Catholic measures between 1933 and 1939, ordered by a State determined to force young Catholics into the ranks of the Hitler Youth. Catholic schools and trade unions were dismantled and clergy targeted for prosecution and imprisonment. Clergy were humiliated and punished in "Currency" and "Immorality" show trials throughout 1935 and 1936. (Laws had been passed from 1933 onwards to regulate the import and export of currency. Exporting currency was made "high treason" and "economic sabotage." These were familiar principles to those used to a totalitarian economic system, but the Catholic clergy were not.)

Hundreds of prosecutions were carried out in an 18-month period, almost all resulting in lengthy terms of imprisonment and hefty fines. In one example, that of a Redemptorist, Father Aigner, the defense counsel complained that he was given only three hours to talk with his client and that all the documentation relating to the alleged crime had been seized by the police. Father Aigner, whose memory alone could not supply the lawyer with information, was so confused and frightened by his arrest and his four months already in prison, that he could not defend himself. The solicitor argued that Father Aigner could no more offer accurate testimony without records than the chief cashier of a bank would be able to testify about accounts without access to bank files.

Confiscation of accounts was a standard procedure used by police searchers who were often brutal in their methods. In May 1935 at the Convent of St. Charles Borromeo in Trebnitz, Saxony, two nuns died of shock when the Mother Superior and others were arrested on the charge of exporting money to a sister convent in Czechoslovakia. The Sisters argued that it was an absurdity to expect monks and nuns to possess advanced degrees in accounting when they spent their lives in charitable work. "It was common knowledge that even judges and State attorneys had fallen into error in matters of Currency Law," said a lawyer in Munster on July 22, 1935.

The immorality trials sought to destroy the reputations of Catholic religious. Priests, monks and nuns were accused of "perverted and immoral" lifestyles. The secret police set innumerable traps. The New York Times carried a report in May 1936 describing priests who had been summoned on sick calls to hotel rooms. Waiting in the rooms would be photographers. When the priest entered, the "caller" would turn out to be a prostitute, planted by the Gestapo. Photographs would later be produced in court as irrefutable evidence of corruption.

One notorious trial in 1936 concerned the Franciscans of the Rhineland town of Waldbreitbach. This trial was widely publicized and parents were warned in sanctimoniously penned editorials not to allow their children to enter Catholic schools. Even children themselves were encouraged to read the lurid trial accounts. In several cities, newspaper stands were purposely lowered so youngsters could read salacious and pornographic stories accompanied by cartoons in the pages of Der Sturmer (the newspaper controlled by Julius Streicher, notorious anti-Semite and anti-Catholic).

Witness statements from children were produced in court by secret police, whose testimony was not allowed to be challenged. Threats, bribes, brutal nighttime interrogations, and nervous breakdowns were reported.

In the US, protest meetings and marches began as news of the trials spread. In June 1936, a petition was signed by 48 U.S. clergymen, "We lodge a solemn protest against the almost unique brutality of the attacks launched by the German government charging Catholic clergy with gross immorality," they wrote. "The good name of the Catholic priesthood is to be defamed, in the hope that the ultimate suppression of all Jewish and Christian beliefs by the totalitarian state can be effected." Rabbis Samuel Abrams of Boston, Philip Bernstein of Rochester and Philip Bookstaber of Harrisburg, and 18 other Rabbis and 27 Protestant clergymen signed the protest. The New York Times reported that Christmas 1937 would see "more than a hundred Protestant pastors and several thousand Catholic clergymen in prison."

Legal moves against the clergy were accompanied by violent attacks in the streets, presbyteries and at frontier posts. Church services were disrupted, processions broken up and even individual Catholics assaulted. In the middle of one particularly vicious outbreak of violence by young Nazis in 1935, a large notice appeared on the police headquarters in Essen which read: "The Police Stand By The Hitler Youth!" When a police inspector was asked to investigate near-fatal assaults by Hitler Youth on Catholic teenagers in Limburg in February 1935, he dismissed the complaint by saying: "We used to have fights now and again when we were boys."

That Easter, pilgrims returning to Germany from Pius XII's blessing in Rome were punished at border checkpoints by Gestapo and SS units. They were put out of their trains and kept waiting for seven hours in pouring rain, while suitcases were ripped open and the contents scattered. Anything belonging to a "denominational organization" — flags, banners, books, tents, even knives and forks — was confiscated. Insults were hurled at the pilgrims: "So these are the Papists, the people who stabbed Germany in the back in 1918! They ought to be beaten and sent to a concentration camp... cutting their throats would be the best thing." In the teeth of outraged protests, the local police merely said they had been searching for illegal uniforms.

At the time of the Reichstag election of 1938, priests and laity were attacked after polling had finished. In Fellbach, near Stuttgart, Father Sturm, the parish priest, was surrounded by a group of some 25 SA and SS men demanding to know whom he had voted for. After ransacking his presbytery, the gang forced him to run the gauntlet of kicks, spitting and jeers: "There's the traitor. Father Sturm." After some two hours of abuse, he was taken to the mayor who lectured him about the Fuehrer's beliefs and his personal views on the duties of a parish priest in the new Germany. At midnight Fr. Sturm was released.

Although roving SA and Hitler Youth gangs had been warned against turning any senior clergy into martyrs, terrorizing priests was a common occurrence. Many priests were roughed up — one thrown out of a window had both legs broken. Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich was shot at, and Cardinal Innitzer's residence in Vienna ransacked in October 1938. There was a notorious incident that month when Bishop Sproll of Rottenburg was manhandled. He later received this anonymous letter of apology from an SA man, forced to take part in the riot: "I have always been proud of my country, but last Saturday I was, for the first time, ashamed to call myself a German."

Songs, films, speeches by party members, poster campaigns, and theater productions cruelly satirized clergy in the late 1930s. Anderl Kern's anti-clerical play, pointedly titled The Last Peasant, was performed all over Germany to almost universal critical acclaim. Characters included a parish priest with an illegitimate child, an eye for the opposite sex and easy money; a young seminarian who arrives home, announcing he has lost his vocation: and a mother who attempts to murder a maidservant with rosary beads in one hand and a dagger in the other. At the end of the play, the ex-seminarian emerges as "the true German hero," having renounced the priesthood and promised to father a large family for the security and future of the Aryan race.

The Nazi strategy was, essentially, to destroy Catholicism by eliminating all organizations supported by the Church, from schools and children's groups to Catholic trade unions. By 1939, Catholic schools and trade unions were virtually destroyed. Replacing them were National Socialist Schools, the Nazi Labor Front and the Hitler Youth with its female counterpart, The German Girls League.

The initial attack on Catholic schools in Munich reduced the percentage of students from 84% in 1934 to 65% percent in 1935. In 1937, parents were forced to choose their child's school in front of two witnesses, usually storm troopers in full uniform. These witnesses warned of future trouble and loss of employment. The children themselves would also suffer. There would be no primary school prizes for them; prizes were funded only in State schools. Parents still in favor of Catholic schools might be told that, "your little ones will have to go to a school on the outskirts, miles away."

Meetings were regularly held to vote on the issue of Catholic or "Community" schools. In Speyer, a town of some 40,000 inhabitants situated on the Rhine, one working man gave his bishop details of how his "vote" had been obtained in 1937: "I was told to go to the Parish Council offices. On arriving there I declared, I want the Roman Catholic school' and prepared to leave. The local Nazi cell-leader held me back and wrote a note to my firm stating that because of my declaration I would be dismissed from my job. A police constable then told me if I didn't change my mind I would never obtain public work again."

The government in Germany funded all schools, Catholic and State. A councilor of the Bavarian Ministry of Education announced that in 1936 alone, of 1,600 teaching posts formerly awarded to nuns, 600 would be taken away from them and transferred to secular staff. The councilor did not bother to explain what would happen to the unfortunate 600. The economic effects of such enforced layoffs forced many religious houses to close. Nuns were driven into subsistence jobs. Some had to return to their parents or move in with sympathetic relatives. Yet others applied for jobs in industry. In Baden, in the summer of 1938, there were 41 nuns working in one textile factory, all former teachers. The government then announced that all nuns renouncing vows would be automatically entitled to State employment!

Thus, on October 27, 1938, Adolf Wagner, Bavarian Minister of the Interior stated with pride: "The denominational schools throughout the whole of Bavaria have now been transformed into Community schools." By January 1939, more than 10,000 Catholic schools had been suppressed in Germany, and by the end of April that year, the Catholic Herald (London) reported that a further 3,300 schools had been abolished by decree in what was described as "A Black Day for the Catholic Rhineland."

Catholic youth associations, with a collective membership in the hundreds of thousands, were attacked for being "un-German." Teachers were reminded that as employees of the State, they had a duty to encourage their pupils to join the Hitler Youth or German Girls League (GGL). One teacher told her girls: "Join the German Girls League. When you leave school you'll be wanting a boy friend and if you've not been in the GGL you won't get one. And then, when you get married, your husband will lose his job the second they find out you haven't been a member of the GGL." Thousands of Catholic employees were threatened with disciplinary measures or dismissal unless they ensured their children were enrolled in the Hitler Youth or German Girls League. Training guilds, such as the Prussian Master-Craftsman Association, began announcing from 1935 onwards that only those enrolled in Nazi Party organizations would be accepted as apprentices. German Railways, employing hundreds of thousands, passed a similar ordinance the same year. Even farmers began issuing notices to the same effect, with shops advertising part-time jobs following suit. The New York Times on June 1, 1937 reported a Hitler speech stating: "We will take away their children. They shall not escape us."

With censorship silencing radio and press, the local Church was often the only place where the Catholic population would hear a protesting voice. It was exceedingly dangerous for priests to speak out, though some, such as Father Rupert Mayer of Munich, were prepared to risk imprisonment. Priests were all too aware that Nazi stooges were likely to be in the congregation listening to their sermons.

Senior clerics who challenged the Third Reich in its racist and anti-Christian policies included Bishop Clemens Count von Galen of Munster, Archbishop von Preysing of Berlin, Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, Cardinal Schulte of Cologne and possibly the most famous of all, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich. His series of Advent sermons, preached from the pulpit of St. Michael's Church aroused national and international interest. They became so popular that thousands listened, some even in the streets outside. In the first of the sermons, preached on December 3, 1933, Faulhaber defended Christianity by defending the people from whom it had sprung: the Jews. He reminded them that Christianity made no racial distinction between Jew and Gentile, but asked only that its adherents should possess faith. The next month shots shattered the windows of his first floor study. In March 1934, the published edition of his sermons, "Judaism, Christianity and Germanism" was banned for its "slanderous views on the State."

Faulhaber continued his denunciations of Nazi policy on Catholic schools, youth organizations, rigged elections, sterilization laws, attacks on the Pope, and attempts to replace Christianity with what he called "fake" religion. The Nazis maintained their propaganda campaign against Faulhaber relentlessly.

Faulhaber played a considerable role in the writing of the great anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge ("With Burning Anxiety") issued in March 1937. It denounced repeated attacks on the faith, the breaking of almost every article of the Concordat, and Nazi ideological and political theories. The encyclical was smuggled into Germany under the eyes of Gestapo agents who had been warned beforehand to expect some kind of protest from Rome. Copies were printed secretly in various parts of the country and the underground Catholic network was engaged to distribute it to parishes throughout Germany. Hundreds of helpers, in cars, on motorbikes and bicycles, handed copies secretly to clergy. According to the Daily Telegraph (London) of March 22, 1937: "the encyclical stated the Nazis had made it plain, that they were waging a 'war of extermination' against the Church, and after countless rebuffs the Pope had decided to make a final stand."

The reaction to the encyclical's publication was immediate. The German regime sent a formal protest to Rome; it was swiftly rejected by Cardinal Pacelli. An enraged Hitler and Goebbels gave orders to bring to trial dozens of clerics on charges of immorality and "slanders against the State." Gestapo and SS squads were dispatched to find which presses had produced the encyclical: 12 were confiscated and editors rounded up. In one parish, Essen in the diocese of Oldenburg, seven girls were arrested inside a church as they handed out copies after the Palm Sunday service.

The death of Pope Pius XI in February 1939 and the election of his successor, Cardinal Pacelli, drew sneers from Das Schwarze Korps ("The Black Corps"), house magazine of the SS and mouthpiece of Heinrich Himmler. It referred to Pius XI as the "Chief Rabbi of the Christians, boss of the firm of Judah-Rome." Cardinal Pacelli had already been labeled in the paper as an ally of Jews and Communists in a series of cartoons and articles published at the time of his official visit to France in 1937.

Sometimes new Nazi policies would be imposed from above, sometimes they would be rescinded as the dictates of political events changed or new strategies were adopted by Berlin. Harassment could be disguised or even halted. In August 1936, for example, when the Olympic Games were taking place in Berlin, orders were given to stop persecution against Jews, Catholics and Protestants and to hide show trials from the eyes of foreign journalists. The machinery of persecution roared into action again as soon as the correspondents left.

With the coming of war in 1939, Hitler favored postponing the total destruction of Christianity to more effectively prosecute the war. Others in the party, however, thought it a mistake to slow the Kirchenkampf, the battle against the Church. Martin Bormann reminded SS leader Himmler in 1941 that, "the influence of the Church must be entirely eliminated." There was little division of opinion among top Nazis regarding the persecution of the Jews. The war gave Hitler new opportunities to purify Europe of non-Aryans. Slavs were to be enslaved or killed, the Jewish people exterminated throughout Europe. With the closing of Germany's borders and the extension of its power deep into Russia, Nazi capacities to kill reached unimaginable levels.

Though the scale of Christian persecution cannot be compared to the Jewish Holocaust, except perhaps in Poland, the two persecutions are part of that single horror that was Nazism.

What Hitler did and intended for Christians is an essential part of the cataclysm that was the immense tragedy of World War II and the unprecedented slaughter of the Jewish people.

Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Hitler Youth, was fond of addressing mass meetings of his followers with a motto: "We are a Youth that believes in God, because we serve the Divine Law that is called Germany."

We must not forget that blasphemous conception of the Divine Law led, by ten thousand crooked paths, to catastrophic suffering, war, pillage, and to the ovens of death.

Karol Jozef Gajewski, of Sandbach, Cheshire, England, is a teacher and scholar of European History.

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