To What Extent was Self-Preservation the Prime Motive of the Catholic Church's subservience to the Nazi Regime?
To What Extent was Self-Preservation the Prime Motive of the Catholic Church’s subservience to the Nazi Regime?
By David Jeannot Weinberg
Candidate Number: 4116
Centre Number: 12260
The Catholic Church (referenced as simply ‘The Church’ from here on) was a fairly unique resistance group during the Nazi period 1933 – 1945. It was unique for two main reasons; firstly it was the only counter-authority to the Nazi Regime permitted under Nazi Law, and secondly, it was the only institution that radically changed the interpretations of its core principles through the introduction of new personalities.
The question above deals with three major areas of debate. The first, and most crucial, is whether the Church used resistance to ensure its own survival and whether it was central to their controversial role during the above period. The second area of debate is contrary to the first; it deals with the other motives that the Church may have had for collaborating or assisting the regime, specifically whether or not Anti-Semitism, played a significant part of the Churches actions during the Nazi Period. However, the third area of debate, the extent to which the Catholic Church was strictly subservient to the Nazi Regime is so substantial, there is just not enough space in this project to cover it adequately. Therefore, my investigation will not concern itself it detail with the actions of the Catholic Church, but rather its motives for undertaking those actions.
In writing this, I will reference many sources from a number of political and religious backgrounds. There are a number of sources of varying utility, which help to develop an argument. For example, Primary sources such, as the Encyclical ‘Humani Generis Unitas’ are invaluable when discussing the dissimilarities between Pope Pious XI, and Pope Pious XII. As a direct Issue of the Church it can be seen as a genuine attempt by the Church to clarify its position on the persecution of the Jews, rather than a piece of apologetic historical commentary after the event and is therefore able to described as politically untainted. On the other hand however, a quote from Daniel Goldhagens book ‘A Moral Reckoning’ has a clear motive behind it. As a radical Jewish historian he has tried to throw open the debate on the Nazi period by referencing heavily the Anti-Semitism of the Church and the German People thus creating a Judo-centric view of Nazi activities. He may therefore exaggerate the truth slightly to make his points seem more convincing. Consequently, when evaluating his work we must keep this motive in mind. Generally however all historians’ work have some value, due, in part, to the extensive research involved in forming their compositions. Thus we can never therefore simply discard a source because it is biased or extreme since sometimes it is these extreme opinions, which can create the most useful suppositions.
The Church has, throughout modern history, been arguably the biggest obstacle to dictatorship. Whether it was Kulturkampf in Bismarck’s Germany, War Communism in Lenin’s Russia, or The Papal Land Seizures in Mussolini’s Italy, the Catholic Church has proved to be an institution that has needed to be dealt with specifically, in order to successfully create a truly Totalitarianist state. The Catholic Church before the Nazi period represented around 32% of the population in Germany (22 Million members) with a wide range of powerful institutions such as Youth Organisations, Political Parties and Schools. Hence when Hitler rose to power in 1933 the Church plausibly saw another threat to their position emerging and thus there was an urgent need to re-affirm their status and position within this new Germany.
The consequence of this anxiety was the agreement of the Church to enter into a Concordat agreement with the new Nazi leader. The Concordat, which was signed on 20th July 1933, by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later to become Pope Pious XII), which ensured the basic freedom and co-existence of the Church within the Nazi regime. It offered the Church partial anonymity from the state, by allowing them to retain their own schools, and their religious social clubs. However, it did recognise that the Church would be subservient in Law to the state, disband its political wing, “The Catholic Centre Party”, and, made the Nazi Curriculum mandatory in Catholic Schools.
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The signing of this Concordat I believe shows the willingness of the Catholic Church to agree to restrict their political progression in favour of a guaranteed existence.
“… The purpose … was self-defence, not a wider political opposition…”
As Jonathan Wright comments, the Church was far more interested in preserving its status as a religious institution, rather than trying to promote a political agenda, thus they were prepared to concede political activism, if they could carry on practising their religion freely. J R C Wright himself is a Political Historian and a practising Anglican and therefore the quote above can be coloured by his religious background. As such there is a possibility that he could be anti-Catholic, but because the source doesn’t seem to be unfairly critical of the Church, it is likely this is not the case. This article was however written in the 1970’s, when the Vatican had not opened any of their archives from after 1922, and as such J R C Wright would not have had access to the detailed information they have revealed when writing his article. Thus there is a possibility that his article is not as qualified as that of a later historian who would have had access to the Vatican Archives. Later historian Beth Greich-Polelle puts forward another argument; she believes it was previous experiences with a nationalist Germany that rationalises the actions the Church undertook.
“…The fear of another state-sponsored attack on Catholicism (much like the one waged under Bismarck in the 1870's) was a serious factor in the minds of many German clergymen”
The state-sponsored attack that Greich-Polelle refers to is the Kulturkampf. Roughly translated, the ‘Culture Wars’ were a direct attack by Bismarck on the Catholic Church in Prussia, during the 1870’s. Even though the suppression was eventually overturned, the violence that ensued against the Catholics coupled with the vulnerability the Catholic Church’s authority represented outside the Papal States became clear, the Clergy could not allow the Nazi’s to create another Kulturkampf.
Beth Greich-Polelle believes Kulturkampf is key to understanding why the Church allowed itself to have its power removed, and in her book Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism she tries to relay the importance of the psychological impact that this piece of recent history would have on the Clergy. She attempts to justify the acceptance of the new regime as a move to preserve the position of Catholicism in the modern state and by creating a Concordat (something Pacelli had been trying to do all over Europe for roughly a decade); he would make this a reality.
As an accredited historian working as a Professor of Modern History in the USA, Greich-Polelle uses a vast amount of primary sources from the diaries of Bishop von Galen, a German nationalist who initially welcomed Hitler before becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi Anti-Semitism after 1934, roughly the same time as Niemöller and Bonhöffer broke away to form the Confessional Church for the same reasons. With this in mind the source above seems very useful when deciding what motives were really behind Pacelli’s signing of the Concordat since von Galen’s view as a fellow nationalist would have been somewhat in line with Pacelli’s.
In addition to J R C Wright and Beth Greich-Polelle, Martyn Housden also agrees that the Church wanted to preserve its own position, rather than ratifying the Nazi establishment. He comments:
“The Churches and their followers generally were more interested in defending their religious space … rather than rooted in a … politically active anti-Nazi morality.”
As with Wright and Greich-Polelle, Housden agrees that the Church was attempting to distance itself from the political aspects of Nazism in order to preserve its religious position. However while reviewing his work, Richard Steigmann-Gall of the University of Toronto, points out that ‘by overlooking [the] admittedly more disturbing acts of ideological commission, he leaves the reader with a flawed analysis’. He does this by ignoring the works of Wolfgang Gerlach, Hermann Grieve, Richard Gutteridge, and Markje Smid, authors who have all directly tackled the issue of the Catholic Church in Germany and whose works includes anti-Semitism. Steigmann-Gall goes on to point out that when reading his chapter entitled ‘opposition born of belief’; Housden again does not discuss Christian Anti-Semitism. Steigmann-Gall in a sense therefore is making the claim that there must have been some ‘tacit-support’ of Anti-Semitism in the church and that the actions of the Church cannot be solely for self-preservation. This of course is a crucial feature of Goldhagens thesis and backs up his claim that anti-Semitism, in some form, did exist within the Catholic Church. Housdens’ failure to include anti-Semitism could be for two reason, either Housden has failed to address the critical debate of Anti-Semitism by mistake, or he may be trying to distance his own personal beliefs in Christianity, from that of the atrocities synonymous with the Anti-Semitism within the Nazi concentration camps. As a result, his work becomes questionable, compared with Wrights’ and Greich-Polelle’s’.
On the other extreme of the overall debate, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and John Cornwell, both believe that the Church as an institution was anti-Semitic and that racism played a massive part in what they believe, was the Churches acceptance and collaboration with the Nazi Regime. They both publicly denounce Pope Pious XII as ‘Hitler’s Pope’ and criticise the Church as ignoring the atrocities performed by the Nazi’s, even though it posed a complete antithesis to their moral code of ethics.
In Daniel Goldhagens’ book ‘A Moral Reckoning’, he condemns the Church as wholly racist against the Jews and attacks particularly Pacelli as a nationalist. He cites the suppression of the encyclical ‘Humani Generis Unitas’ as a clear example of Pacelli’s true anti-Semitism and his abandonment of decent Catholic morals and ethics. This encyclical was written by Pius XI in which he condemns the actions of the Nazi’s and those who are involved in the racial segregation of the Jews.
“The practise of evasion and denial began as early as 1939 when Pope Pious XII suppressed Humani Generis Unitas, the … antiracism encyclical of his … predecessor… It would finally … have the Church defend the hounded Jews”
Goldhagen rightly points out the importance of this encyclical because it would clarify, officially, the position of the Church on genocide in Nazi Germany, specifically condemning it, “such persecutory methods are totally at variance with the true spirit of the Catholic Church”.
Goldhagen goes on to make clear the distinction between Pope Pious XI and Pious XII, citing Pious XI as an ideologue who was set to uphold the Catholic moral of denouncing the Nazi Regime through the ‘hidden encyclical’. Goldhagen then presents Pious XII as a nationalist in his own right and hints that this suppression was part of a deal between Hitler and Pious XII. He paints a picture of Pacelli as an ambitious anti-Semitic who wanted to pursue his doctrine due to his belief in the Jews’ unshakable guilt over the death of Jesus.
He then goes on to claim that only German Catholics were capable of being united behind anti-Semitism thus being able to create the circumstances for genocide. He claims, rightly or wrongly, that the German mindset was the only one capable of rallying so quickly to nationalism and that the German way of thinking does play a significant part in understanding the Catholic Church’s’ role during the Nazi period.
“… So powerful was the racial cognitive … in Germany … that the Catholic Church by and large accepted and disseminated it in its own teaching.”
Goldhagen believes that this does not just include Catholics, but Lutheran Protestant Christians, as well as non-believers. Goldhagen makes this point in his first book (Hitler’s Willing Executioners) but touches only briefly on it in ‘A Moral Reckoning’, a book devoted to the Churches involvement during the Nazi Period. He concentrates much more on the individual Catholic mental struggle with the past. He claims that the Church still blamed ‘contemporary Jews’ for the death of Jesus. Goldhagen cites Archbishop Konrad Grőbers’ published pastoral letter of 1941 as evidence of this: -
“[Archbishop Grőber] … placed the blame upon the Jews for the death of Jesus, which he implied justifies what Germans were then doing to the Jews”8
This clearly attempts to justify the persecution of Jews as retribution for the ‘murder’ of Jesus. However, this may not however a fair appraisal of the contents of the letter as we are only provided with a limited extract in the book. Goldhagen, as mentioned before is a radical Zionist historian and is likely to overemphasize evidence in order to discredit the Church, this selective use of the Gröber letter can be evidence of this.
Norman Finklestein, a Jewish Political historian cites numerous examples of Goldhagens exaggeration in his book ‘The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth’. He cites the example of the 12 Ritual Murder trails (1867-1914), where Goldhagen reverses the findings of Pulzer (whom he quotes in Hitler’s Willing Executioners) by exemplifying the single guilty case when the meaning of the findings was to show how eleven of the cases came to other conclusions, conclusions Finkelstein suggests, may have proved his point flawed. Finklestein also points out a number of Diary entries, and covertly placed texts, like that of crucial evidence referring to the anti-Semitic petition in 19th Century Bavaria, as being ‘buried in the back pages’9. As a result, Goldhagens work can never be taken at face value, due, in part, to his selective use of sources, which Finklestein suggests, tries to undermine the Churches authority in the eyes of the reader
John Cornwell also attacks the Church for its anti-Semitism during the Nazi period. He places a greater emphasis than Goldhagen does on the actions of Pious XII but is still critical of the Catholic Church in general for its involvement with the Nazi regime. Cornwell references, like Goldhagen, the importance of the encyclical ‘Humani Generis Unitas’ and condemns Pacelli for ‘sitting on it’10, as well as including information about the true extent to which Pius XII had detailed knowledge of the final solution.
Cornwell believes that Pious XII’s anti-Semitism had a lot to do with the links between Russian Communists and ‘world Jewry’. This is qualified by the fact that most of the top KDP members in Weimar Germany were infact Jewish. One of the main reasons why the Church was so afraid of Communism was because of the atrocities in the Soviet Union during the periods of War Communism with Churches being shut down and outlawed. It is for this reason that Cornwell believes that Pacelli is not willing to stand up for the Jews, moving away from the traditional anti-Semitic argument, to a more Communist influenced anti-Semitism.
“Pacelli and the office for which he was responsible betrayed an antagonistic policy towards the Jews … [based on] a link between Judaism and the Bolshevik plot to destroy Christendom.”
It is clear that Cornwell seeks to link Pious XII to this misconception and does make a very convincing line of argument. It could be possible for the link between Judaism and that of Communism to be forged so closely and that, what Goldhagen describes as ‘the German mindset’, could have pushed Pacelli to the extent of anti-Semitism. Cornwell then goes on to heavily criticise Pacelli for not condemning those members of his clergy engaged in the unmasking of Jews and the stopping of conversions in very strongly Catholic areas. This unmasking of Jews by Catholics and Catholic Bishops is well documented in the Gestapo reports of the period. Catholicism never accepts racism or any attempt to assist racism under any circumstances.
“Nor did he [Pacelli] attempt to intervene in the process by which Catholic Clergy collaborated in racial certification to identify the Jews…”
This collaboration Cornwell goes on to say, aided the persecution of the Jews and contributed heavily in the rural communities assistance during the Final Solution. He then moves on to make the accusation that the Church was not as unaware of the Final Solution, as it historically has claimed. With the opening of the Vatican archives, letters and diaries from prominent members of Pacelli’s Privy Council display that Pacelli was infact one of the first in the world to know of the Nazi plans and took no action whatsoever, even waiting months before accepting that he had even received the letter. This can be interpreted as self-preservation, but Cornwell is convinced by Pacelli’s actions during the 1930’s that anti-Semitism was the main factor in Pacelli’s decision not to act upon this information. The Vatican archives prove this by showing Pacelli’s registered disagreement with Pius XI over condemning anti-Semitism in the mid 30’s, which adds weight to the accusation that his actions weren’t just for self-preservation.
“… Through the mid to late 1930s, Pacelli failed to sanction protests by the German Catholic episcopate against anti-Semitism … it is clear that Pacelli believed that the Jews had brought misfortune on their own head…”11
When discussing the merits of Cornwell’s work, Dr Peter Gumpel S.J, a leading expert on the Catholic Church during the period, cites a number of clear mistakes in Cornwell’s work. His work mainly concerns itself with a lack of proper research, referring to the list of archives, which Cornwell claims to have consulted. Gumpel claims that a book, which makes such pretentious claims, should have consulted such archives as the German, Italian and most notably the Acts of the Nuremberg Trials which would, Gumpel claims, have shown Pacelli’s work to save the Jews, which Ralph McInerny estimates is around 860,000. He goes on to question the value of the content describing the first section of the book as ‘wishy-washy’, while describing his criticisms of the Concordat as wholly unfair as at no point does he ever discuss the primary papal importance of the Concordat. He even shows a massive translation error, which completely changes the whole context with which a Chapter of his book refers to.
“ … The Encyclical letter … with ‘burning preoccupation’ and not ‘with great appreciation’ as Cornwell mistranslates…”
As a result, the value of Cornwell’s work has come under massive strain. Although Dr Gumpel also has been criticised for his attacks on Cornwell, the evidence that Cornwell has misrepresented Pacelli as a character is considerable and as a result, his work is less useful that it at first appears to be.
In Conclusion, the evidence supporting the claim that the Churches actions during the Nazi period were purely in self-defence, in other words, for self-preservation, I believe outweigh the accusations of anti-Semitism within the Church. There is strong evidence that the Church as an institution is anti-Semitic, and there can be no doubt that there are sections of the Catholic Church that do believe that the Jews still posses an unshakeable guilt over the death of Jesus. There is also a chance that Pacelli (Pope Pious XII) could have been one of those people who believed in this guilt, but when critically appraising the merits of the historians that have claimed this, I have found myself more convinced by Bette Greich-Polelle’s explanation of events. In reference to her work, it is my belief that the Church during the Nazi period was self-interested and was set on trying to avoid another Kulturkampf, thus by accepting restrictions on their political freedoms it would ensure the spiritual dimension of Catholicism would live on throughout and beyond Nazi Germany.
P.39 Robert Gellantely The Gestapo & German Society
J R C Wright – “Hitler and the Churches” 1970
J R C Wright – Private Correspondence (See Appendix 1)
Encyclopaedia (Internet Site) - The Secret Vatican Archives
Beth A Greich-Polelle – Private Correspondence (See Appendix 2)
P.64 Martyn Housden – Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich 1996
Richard Steigmann-Gall – (Internet Article) All internet article addresses can be found in the bibliography
P 39 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen – A Moral Reckoning
Section 114 – Humani Generis Unitas – Issue of the Vatican Library
P. 109 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen – Hitler’s Willing Executioners
P. 2 Norman Finkelstein – Internet Article (April 9 1998) Finklestein Response to Goldhagen
P. 296 John Cornwell – Hitler’s Pope
P. 296 John Cornwell – Hitler’s Pope
P. 281 John Cornwell – Hitler’s Pope
All sources from Dr P Gumpel – (Internet Article)
P. 1 Ralph McInerny – (Internet Article) The Defamation of Pius XII