Michael Phayer. Church History. Volume 70, Issue 2. June 2001.
After the war was over leading Catholic laity and the lower clergy pointed their finger at their bishops, faulting them for not having the backbone and willpower to stand up to Hitler. Was this fair? Bishops said they tempered their criticism of Nazism because Hitler punished their priests rather than them. Were the bishops being candid and forthright with this statement? If so, was this the right strategy? Jesuits urged the bishops to become active in the Kreisau Circle of resistance. They did not. Should they have? Pope Pius XII gave the German bishops freedom to do as they saw fit regarding speaking out about the Holocaust. They spoke only guardedly. Should they have said more? The Concordat, the agreement between the Vatican and the German government, surprised German Catholics who had been warned again and again about Nazism. Was the Concordat a mistake? Once signed, should the church have stuck to it once Nazi racial policy had become manifest? There was an active Catholic resistance circle in Berlin. Were there others? If not, why not? Questions about Catholic resistance run on and on. Are they worth probing, trying to answer? In the end no matter what is said about Catholic resistance, the six million will have perished. And, in the end, no German managed to put an end to Hitler, although the Swabian Catholic, Klaus von Stauffenberg, came close. Is a discussion about Catholic resistance an exercise in futility?
Although Catholic resistance was feeble, it existed. The efforts of a few individuals and the small number of Jews who were saved by them laid the foundation for the understanding between Jews and Catholics today, a more positive relationship than has existed since Roman times. Without the effort of these few (and others like them outside Germany) what possibility would there ever have been of the post-Holocaust generation of Jews entering into a mutually respectful relationship with Christians? Thus, we study resistance because of the legacy of credibility its standard bearers bequeathed to the church and to the future.
The Limits of Catholic Resistance
Was there no Catholic resistance to Hitler himself and to his aggressive, unjust wars? Here is where the official church failed most conspicuously. Immediately after the war the American Catholic pacifist, Gordon Zahn, reviewed the wartime Bavarian Catholic press and characterized it as “hyper-nationalistic.” Diocesan newspapers sounded like, and to some extent actually were, Nazi venues for propaganda. Catholics became familiar with the ominous word Lebensraum, central to Nazi racial policy, in the official church newspapers of the dioceses of Augsburg, Bamberg, and Passau. By reading these papers Catholics became indoctrinated into the explicit Nazi justification for war, the fight for Lebensraum.
How could this happen? How could the Catholic press become a mouthpiece for Hitler? Once the Concordat of 1933 was in effect, an era of ongoing negotiation between the church and the state began with the Nazis taking away most of the gains. Each year the stakes went up. How this affected the Catholic print world is illustrated by the case of Josef Ludwig Hammerle, editor of the Regensburg diocesan newspaper. After the war de-nazification officials working for the Occupational Military Government of the United States (OMGUS) undertook to have Hammerle relieved of his duties for having unduly supported the Nazi regime. OMGUS personnel cited texts from a number of issues beginning in 1941 that demonstrated that the paper was 100 percent behind the war effort.
In his defense Hammerle said that his paper had been under constant pressure since 1933. Harassment began locally at the hands of the Gestapo; by 1936 the paper had been temporarily shut down twice. Because of this, Hammerle asserted, Catholic readers had learned to recognize which of the paper’s copy was forced upon it by the Nazis and which was not. When the war started, pressure on Hammerle increased and came now from Berlin itself. Josef Goebbel’s propaganda ministry wanted more support for the Nazi regime and for the war. Bishop Heinrich Wienken, the church’s front man for negotiations with the Nazis, relayed this information to Regensburg’s bishop, Michael Buchberger. The message was clear-more prowar, pro-Nazi copy or the paper would be shut down. Saying that it was his responsibility to keep the paper alive until the Nazi menace was over, Hammerle made his case, even providing documentary evidence of the threats to close the paper.
The diocesan newspaper of Aachen provides another example. Under pressure from the propaganda ministry to raise the war rhetoric, the decision was made to set up a Catholic central office in Berlin that would funnel “suitable” nationalistic news bites to the various local papers around Germany. Bishop Berning became the “press bishop.” When the fight against England began, the propaganda ministry gave explicit instructions that the struggle was to be written up as a fight for mothers and children and for jobs against English plutocrats. The Aachen diocesan paper followed instructions: English plutocracy has declared war on socialist Germany; those, who wish to fight for their Lebensraum, must win, for one is fighting for a natural and supernatural goal.
The Hammerle and Aachen cases show how the church gradually got sucked into doing the devil’s work. Not all church papers by any means slid down the slippery path on which Hammerle found himself. In the diocese of Cologne the number of Catholic periodicals and newspapers went from sixty-four to eight during the Nazi years; the attrition resulted partly as a result of a shortage of paper and partly from failure to comply with Goebbel’s line. But the opposite obtained as well; if you were still in business, there was a reason for it. Furthermore, by no means was the copy of the Regensburg paper any more offensive than that of neighboring dioceses. In the end, even if Gordon Zahn exaggerated the case against church publications, what this discussion is about is not the degree of resistance to Nazism but the degree of compliance.
How did it happen that the church leaders fell willy-nilly into support for Hitler’s war for Lebensraum? The German church historian Ulrich von Hehl attributes this partly to the fact that the bishops refrained after the Great War from attempting to define what constituted a just war. Undoubtedly, they were aggrieved like other Germans by the terms of the Versailles peace. When World War II began, with Germany invading a country that did not even exist during the Great War, the bishops said nothing. The fact that Pope Pius XII himself did not condemn Poland’s aggressors meant that the German bishops did not find their loyalties to church and state in conflict. It is not, therefore, surprising to read in some Catholic newspapers that the war and Hitler were all about setting Versailles straight. Catholic bishops told the faithful to fight bravely for Germany and to pray for a just peace, which, of course, was left undefined.
Most German bishops rejoiced in Germany’s early victories, sounding church bells jubilantly. As the fighting wore on, German victories turned to stalemates and stalemates to defeats, but the bishops never flagged in their support. Unquestionably, the Great War affected the bishops in this regard as well. In the event of a second catastrophic defeat the bishops did not wish to be fingered as stab-in-the-back culprits as Jews and Socialists (and even some Catholics like the Center politician Matthias Erzberger) were after World War I. At the last wartime conference of bishops, with the outcome of the war no longer in doubt, the president of the conference, Bishop Conrad Grober, preached the concluding sermon to a packed congregation in the Fulda cathedral, leaving no doubt about Catholic loyalties: “When the Fatherland is in danger Catholics can be counted on not to waver in their patriotism. Among the bishops there has not been a single one, no, not one, who entertained thoughts that opposed the best interests of our beloved people and Fatherland. We will remain faithful to the Fatherland to the last drop of blood.” It was actually easier for German church leaders to support Hitler in defeat than in victory because they knew that a postwar-nazified Europe would mean the suppression of Christianity.
Church Leaders and the Persecution of the Jews
The bishops’ patriotism, which kept them from joining resistance movements, did not deter them from criticizing the Nazis’ moral lapses. In 1942 and again in 1943 the bishops urged the regime to treat other races humanely, and they instructed Catholics not to violate the right to life of people, and they specified hostages, prisoners of war, and “human beings of alien races and origin.” Naturally, such bland words had no effect whatsoever on Hitler. Whether the bishop’s admonitions had any effect on Catholics, restraining some of them from joining in the slaughter, one cannot say.
Germany’s bishops debated whether they should speak out against the persecution of the Jews in their 1942 Fulda meeting. They decided to “give up heroic action in favor of small successes,” by which they meant protecting Jews clandestinely. In 1943 the bishops debated making a much stronger statement provided to them by Bishop Konrad Preysing and his assistant, Margarete Sommer. Their draft would have actually challenged Hitler on the grounds of mass murder. The statement began with the words, “With deepest sorrow-yes even with holy indignation-have we German bishops learned of the deportation of non-Aryans in a manner that is scornful of all human rights. It is our holy duty to defend the unalienable rights of all men guaranteed by natural law.” The final sentence of the proposed statement challenged Hitler on the Holocaust itself: “We would not want to omit to say that meeting these previously mentioned stipulations would be the most certain way to deflate the crescendo of rumors regarding the mass death of the deported non-Aryans.”
Unfortunately, the bishops were advised by Pope Pius XII that what they had already said in 1942 was enough to win them the world’s respect. Of course, this has not turned out to be the case. The pope’s advice was critical because a faction of the bishops, led by Konrad Preysing, were prepared to set nationalism and patriotism aside and force a showdown with Hitler over the Holocaust. The moment of truth at the height of the Holocaust slipped away. In this way the leaders of the German Catholic Church let the opportunity pass by to sieze the moral high ground and openly resist genocide.
Individual bishops edged closer to voicing resistance to genocide. Preysing in Berlin and Frings in Cologne made rather blunt statements in their sermons. In November 1942, Preysing preached that all people had a right to life. Frings said that “no one may take the property or life of an innocent person just because he is a member of a foreign race.” The Gestapo looked upon these statements as attacks on the state. Explicit as their words were, they did not have the force that a collective episcopal statement would have had, and they do not seem to have been effective in curbing genocide. After Gisbert Kranz, a Cologne seminarian who was drafted into the army, heard about the murder of civilians in eastern Europe, he debated intensely and continuously with himself as to whether fighting for Hitler could be morally justified. His own bishop’s statements, such as the above quote, did not register with him; that is, they were not taken into consideration by Kranz as he conscientiously sought out the correct moral path.
The fact that no bishop would clearly cross over the line into resistance necessarily lessened the chance that Catholics at large would do so. If one or more bishop had made protests by word or action as strong as those made by Canon Bernhard Lichtenberg in St. Hedwig’s church, Berlin, we can speculate that Catholics would have taken inspiration from them and acted more courageously. But no bishop did this. Futhermore, Christel Beilmann, who was a teenager during the war, recalls that the bishops did not praise people like Lichtenberg, the Jesuit Alfred Delp, the Munich students Hans and Sophie Scholl or von Stauffenberg, all of whom had crossed over the line into open resistance. According to Beilmann’s recollection, the message of the church at the time was unequivocal-obey the state.
German scholars have argued that the Concordat itself constituted a form of resistance. Konrad Repgen, a prominent church historian who fought in the war and was released from an English prisoner of war camp in 1945, sees the Concordat not as an alliance of church and state but as a defensive measure by the church that allowed passive resistance among Catholics. Repgen believed that the Concordat made allies of Jews and Catholics when Nazi-persecuted, “disgraced” priests were pictured next to caricatured Jews in publications like Der Sturmer. Does this constitute resistance? In the scale of resistance formulated by the Intitute fair Zeitgeschichte in Munich there are four levels: nonconformity, dissent, protest, overthrow. Repgen believes that the Concordat allowed the German church to achieve the second level. Actually, of course, it was not the church itself that achieved these levels but individual priests and Catholic lay people. It seems reasonable to ask, however, whether these levels would have been achieved just as readily without the Concordat. Were there not a good number of Protestant Christians who also achieved level two? And further, it appears that it was the Concordat itself that kept the bishops from rising to the next level of protest, specifically regarding the Holocaust, because the Concordat restricted them from addressing issues that did not relate directly to Catholics. In other words, Jews lay outside of the Concordat’s framework.
This does not necessarily imply that it was a mistake for the church to have agreed to the Concordat, although it certainly caught most German Catholics off-guard. What it does imply is that once the Concordat proved useless in regulating church-state affairs, it should simply have been abandoned. The alternative, to keep the agreement in force to await some future date in German history when the regime would not be hostile toward Christianity, was disfavored by Bishop Preysing but favored by Pope Pius XII.
Catholic Resistance: Gertrud Luckner and Margarete Sommer
Rescue of Jews goes to the heart of resistance because of the centrality of racism in Nazi ideology. Among the laity the most courageous and persistent rescuer was Gertrud Luckner, although she was not by that token the most successful. That distinction goes to Margarete Sommer and the Berlin circle of Catholic resistance.
Both Luckner and Sommer became involved with assisting Jews early on, Luckner by the time of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 and Sommer by 1938. Remarkably, Luckner had sensed almost immediately after the Nazis took power that Hitler spelled doom for Germany’s Jews. Because of this, her rescue work was self-motivated. Sommer, however, on the other hand, drew inspiration from the famous Berlin priest, Bernhard Lichtenberg, whom Bishop Preysing had appointed to head his diocesan office for assisting Jews. After Canon Lichtenberg’s arrest and subsequent death, Sommer took over the office. During the postwar era both Luckner and Sommer remained fully committed to helping those Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Both Catholic women, each in her own way, sought to expand their rescue work to the national level, but both failed. A review of the work of Luckner and Sommer will allow us to glimpse their tremendous effort and at the same time allow us to see the limits of German Catholic resistance.
Gertrud Luckner lived and worked in the city of Freiburg in a very Catholic area of Germany. After finishing her doctoral degree in social work, Luckner was hired by Caritas, the national Catholic charitable organization whose central offices were in Freiburg. It was through Caritas that Luckner hoped to expand Catholic help for Jews nationally. At the same time Luckner sought to rescue local Jews of Freiburg.
The enforcement of the Nuremberg Laws had the effect of isolating German Jews from the rest of society. Luckner tried to reverse this process. I Will Bear Witness, the diary of Victor von Klemperer, reveals that the Nazis were not entirely successful in ostracizing the Jews. Many Germans felt that the Nazi treatment of Jews was unfair or unwarranted and manifested their dissent by extending kind words or small favors to Jewish acquaintances. Still, Klemperer makes it clear that Nazi restrictions on Jews regarding housing, markets, transportation, and a host of other limitations were painful. Luckner made it her task to break through the wall that the Nazi regime built around the Jews. As the latter’s situation became ever more desperate during the early war years (and before their “transportation”), contact with an “Aryan” like Luckner improved the quality of life immensely. I Will Bear Witness allows us to see the importance of resistance work like Luckner’s in ways that hitherto have eluded historians.
When genocide began and the time came for “transporting” German Jews, Luckner resisted the government by assisting Freiburg Jews across the nearby Swiss border (made difficult by the reluctance of Swiss to receive them), by disabling trucks used for “transportation” and by finding places to hide Jews. On several occasions she managed through a contact in Berlin to have a person sent to the “safe” Theresienstadt concentration camp instead of “to the east,” which she understood to be ominous in the extreme. Luckner succeeded in saving a small number of Jews from the gas chambers of “the east.” In 1950 the Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain invited Luckner to London where they praised her work. “In the days of persecution in Germany of German Jews some were nearly to the point of losing faith in human decency. Thanks to noble personalties, like Dr. Luckner, this didn’t happen.”
Luckner’s national work was less successful. Since Caritas was a national organization, Luckner had hoped to set up small cadres of Catholics throughout Germany to help save Jews. An article in the London Jewish Chronicle quotes Luckner in this regard: “In almost every German city we attempted to set up small groups of helpers so that the persecuted would not feel completely isolated.” By saying that “we attempted” to do this, Luckner was being accurate. In fact, Caritas did not prove to be an effective organization for working for or saving Jews from “transportation.” Its members, mostly women, fearful of the Gestapo, lacked Luckner’s high level of motivation.
Luckner’s efforts were nevertheless greatly appreciated by Rabbi Leo Baeck, dean of German Jews, and greatly opposed by the Gestapo. Baeck gave Luckner secret passwords that provided her entree into Jewish groups in various German cities where she was not known. Everywhere she went, the Gestapo tailed her. (Later, after her arrest, a Gestapo agent scolded Luckner, saying that other Germans were “riding bikes for victory” but she was “riding trains for Jews.”)
While traveling, Luckner made it her business to find out all she could about what was happening to Jews “in the east.” On several occasions, Luckner crossed the border into Poland. She succeeded in getting to Kattowitz, a city located in the immediate vicinity of Auschwitz. Luckner’s last visit to Kattowitz took place early in 1943 at which point in time the new, modernized gas chamber-crematorium complexes were just being constructed at Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Putting two and two together, Luckner might well have guessed why gas chambers were being constructed under the same roof as the crematoria. Shortly after this visit Luckner was arrested by the Gestapo. She breathed a sigh of relief when she learned that she was not going to be sent to Auschwitz.
Luckner’s arrest took place on 24 March 1943, while she was en route to Berlin with over a thousand dollars that she intended to give to Rabbi Baeck for support of Berlin’s large Jewish population. The arrest ended her resistance work and began a two-year long, life-threatening ordeal. In the RavensbrUck concentration camp Luckner became ill, nearly died, and narrowly avoided being sent away to a gas chamber on several occasions; she was rescued by communist women barrack mates. The penalty for resisting Nazi racism was indeed excessive.
Luckner had distinguished herself by courageous resistance against the Nazis. She was awarded Germany’s highest distinction, the Bundesverdienstkreutz, in 1953, and in 1966 the state of Israel awarded her the Medal of the Just. Nevertheless, we can see that Luckner’s work on a national level was not successful. Part of the reason for this lay in the fact that Luckner was an impulsive person who lacked organizational skills.
Margarete Sommer, Luckner’s counterpart in Berlin, was a person of a different stamp. During the desperate years when Germany’s Jews faced emigration, deportation, and mass murder, Sommer was in charge of a Berlin church office whose sole purpose was to help them. In this capacity Sommer, an intense, extremely conscientious woman, became acquainted with all aspects of the ordeal that German Jews faced. Working in the diocesan office, Sommer began to help Jews who had converted to Catholicism, but ended up helping all Jews. (The Nazis, of course, considered baptized “Jews” to be just as Jewish as Mosaic Jews.)
The diary of Victor Klemperer has disclosed in rich detail the problems that Jews faced under Hitler, especially after the war began. Just as in Klemperer’s Dresden, Berlin’s Jewish population, nearly 200,000, suffered every sort of deprivation. Jobless, propertyless, cold, hungry, and virtually shoeless, social problems compounded for them. Sommer, who held a doctorate in social work from Berlin’s Humboldt University, dealt with these as well as she could while at the same time assisting emigrating Jews who began to flee Germany en masse after the national pogrom of 1938. Never imagining what ultimately lay in store for Jews, Sommer divided the time, energy, and funds roughly equally between the emigrating and nonemigrating Jews.
Several situations were especially frustrating to deal with for a social worker. The Nazis made it easy for “Aryans” to divorce their Jewish spouses. If a father abandoned his family, there would be no one to provide for the children of the marriage. Sommer was infuriated by these cases of abandonment because, for one thing, in the eyes of the church a converted “Jew” was not considered Jewish. A second more tragic situation occasionally occurred during the war when an “Aryan” father would be killed in action and his Jewish wife perished in the Holocaust. What would become of the children? Sommer actually knew of cases like this and of others when an entire family would commit suicide rather than be torn apart by Nazi genocide.
Nothing caused Victor Klemperer more psychological distress than having to wear the star attached to his vest whenever he appeared in public. When this decree first was implemented in the fall of 1941, Sommer immediately appealed to the titular head of the German Catholic church, Cardinal Adolf Bertram, to issue pastoral guidelines to priests that would alleviate the humiliation “Jews” experienced when attending church. Bertram responded by reminding the faithful in the spirit of St. Paul that Christians were neither Jew nor Greek, but he advised that “Jews” should attend an early Mass, if Catholic Nazi party members made a scene over their presence. Thus, had this matter become an issue in Catholic parishes (apparently, it did not), Nazi Catholics would have been given preference to “Jewish” Catholics. The star affair illustrates the weakness of Catholic episcopal leadership.
Jews who were forced to emigrate to eastern Europe during the first years of the war did not know what fate awaited them. Although they dreaded the day when they would have to part with their homes (or shared flats if they had been forced earlier to relocate within their cities), Jews hoped that “transportation” would not lead to death and that once the war ended they could return to Germany. During this period Sommer organized teams of Catholics, many of whom were “Jewish,” to visit a soon-to-be-deported family, take inventory of their property so that, one day, they could reclaim it, prepare practical provisions for their journey, and calm them as much as possible.
But as Sommer dealt with the immediate crises in Berlin that Nazi racism caused families, she became aware of genocide taking place beyond Germany in eastern Europe. At first she learned about Jews being machine-gunned in open pits and of living conditions in ghettos in Poland that led quickly to the death of German Jews who had been “transported” to the east. As Nazi genocide passed from the gunfire to the gas chamber phase, Sommer learned about it from a number of sources within Nazi government circles, one of whom was Hans Globke, a bureaucrat in the interior ministry and, after the war, cabinet member under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Once Sommer felt assured that Nazi “transportation” meant Nazi murder, she began to organize people to hide Jews. Providing refuge required a team effort because extra ration cards and secondary hiding places had to be located. This circumstance made rescue activity perilous. Just one informant could bring ruin to a number of activists and their families. Consequently, Sommer made it a practice never to organize her team members by letter or phone, and she never informed one team of the activity of others. She herself made it a point not to know what others were doing, if she had no need to know. After the war for a number of years Sommer plunged deeply into work on behalf of those who had survived the Holocaust and never mentioned just how many Berliners she herself or those she had organized saved. As a consequence, we will never know the extent of Sommer’s rescue activity. Lawrence Baron has estimated that five thousand Jews were in hiding in Berlin at one time or another and, further, that about one thousand of them survived the Nazi era. Some of these survivors owed their good fortune to Sommer and to the teams she organized.
While working locally in Berlin to rescue Jews, Sommer and her bishop, Konrad Preysing, sought to have all of the German bishops challenge Hitler regarding the murder of the Jews. The appeal, reviewed above, might well have been written by Sommer herself. She was the bishops’ main source of information about what was happening to German and European Jews. Preysing dispatched her regularly to travel from Berlin to Breslau, there to provide Cardinal Bertram with Holocaust updates. But Bertram refused to extend credibility to Sommer’s words and eventually told her not to come to see him unless Preysing had signed off on her report. Given the extent of Gestapo surveillance of Sommer and Preysing, this was a ridiculous request. As we have seen, the bishops decided in 1943 to reject the Preysing-Sommer proposal.
No other group of Catholic people resisted Hitler as much as the Munich Jesuits. Their importance lies in the extent of their activity. The Jesuits sought to push the bishops into confrontation with Hitler; they worked with the Kreisau Circle in planning for a post-Nazi government of Germany; some of them involved themselves in the moral question about assassinating Hitler, and some rescued or attempted to rescue Jews. Their activity cost one of their members, Alfred Delp, his life.
Who were these men and what motivated them? Augustin Rosch was the leader of the Munich Jesuits. After being contacted by Helmut von Moltke, who organized the Kreisau resistance circle, Rosch brought fellow Jesuits Delp, Braun, Koenig, and Siemer into the resistance movement. The group probably found its motivation in an entire array of factors, but two issues seem prominent-knowledge of the murder of the Jews and the conviction that when Hitler had finished with them, they would be next. In December 1942, Rosch learned through a leak in the Judenkommissariat office that the plan to deport and exterminate Jews “is frequently already underway.” Shortly thereafter, Lothar Koenig obtained records that listed the priests who had been executed in Nazi concentration camps-1939: 169, 1940: 1789, 1941: 2622, 1942: 5136, 1943 (half year): 827. The conclusion to be drawn from these two pieces of information seemed obvious.
Being of the opinion that the Protestant church was too hopelessly divided ever to speak with one voice against Hitler, Helmut von Moltke turned to the Catholic Church. Moltke asked the Jesuits within his Kreisau Circle to be his intermediaries; they were to solicit new members from the ranks of the bishops. The effort would culminate, it was hoped, in an unanimous and public condemnation of the Nazi transgressions. The Jesuits’ strategy was to find one bishop who would act as the agent to bring others into the Kreisau movement. They contacted Preysing in Berlin, Faulhaber (Munich), Groeber (Freiburg in Breisgau), and Dietz (Fulda) among others. Lengthy, hours-long exchanges ensued. Groeber, once known as the “Brown Bishop” because of his support of Hitler, was high on the Jesuits’ list of possible episcopal leaders because he shifted his position 180 degrees regarding Nazism. But the Jesuits found him to be a “tough nut” to crack, and no other bishop was willing to step forward and assume such a role.
This does not mean that the effort ended in total failure. What emerged in place of the bishops joining the Kreisau movement was a clique that sought to win over those bishops who were siding with the ultra-accomodationist, Cardinal Adolf Bertram. Konrad Preysing stood in closest contact with von Moltke, and not surprisingly, he was the one who led the clique against Bertram. The Jesuits worked as intermediaries in this effort as well, using their knowledge and intensity to win over bishops to Preysing’s position. It was an important mission, even if it too failed. Rather than be persuaded by the number of martyred priests who had already fallen, bishops tended to think more about not endangering their still active priests by aggravating Hitler. The question that could be asked of them is, of course, why their priests were setting the example of martyrdom for the faith rather than the bishops themselves. The Jesuits found that if they pushed their appeal too demandingly, the bishops became alienated or peevish. In the end, as we have seen, Preysing was unable to organize a large enough block of bishops to win out over Bertram. The failure of the bishops to speak out against Hitler frustrated the Jesuits. Alfred Delp wrote, “Has the church forgotten man and his fundamental rights?” Later, in prison awaiting his execution, Delp disclosed to his diary that National Socialism could be seen as a judgment of God against the church.
As it became clearer to the Jesuits that they would not be successful with the bishops, they turned more toward the political sphere. Of the Munich Jesuits, Alfred Delp became the most dedicated to resistance. As a sociologist he had taken part, along with other intellectuals of various specialties, in the Kreisau Circle’s blueprint for a post-Nazi society. But Delp inclined toward action not just theoretical planning. He became the most active Jesuit in von Moltke’s scheme to galvanize the bishops into action. Earlier, during the prewar persecution of the Jews, Delp and a certain “Annemarie” had founded a group in Munich to help them. Gertrud Luckner recalled after the war that the Munich Gauleiter was a particularly mean anti-Semite, because of which she traveled often to Munich, there to interact with Delp’s group. During the war he was in touch with the Hans and Sophie Scholl resistance group at the University of Munich.
Not surprisingly, it was Delp who thought the most about the question of Hitler’s assassination. The morality of assassinating Hitler had initially bothered the Jesuits. Rosch told von Moltke when they first met that he could not go along with murder. But as the extent of Germany’s crimes mounted, the Jesuits probably reconsidered the question. Delp certainly did. A little more than a month before Claus von Stauffenberg’s dramatic attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944, Delp visited him under cover of darkness for more than an hour. What did they discuss? Delp maintained after his arrest and sentencing that he did not know what Stauffenberg planned to do. But the Jesuit had gradually come to the position that under the prevailing circumstances, murdering Hitler was not immoral. Included under the rubric “prevailing circumstances” would certainly be the killing of the Jews. Roman Bleistein, Delp’s knowledgeable biographer, believes that Stauffenberg and Delp may have discussed the morality of assassination, if not the actual plan. After the meeting was over, Delp said to an acquaintance, “I believe that tonight I have done more for my Fatherland and for all of you than in my entire previous life.” In fact, the meeting with Stauffenberg cost Delp his life.
Resolving the Questions
At the outset of this essay I posed a number of questions. It is time now to attempt to respond to them. We may begin with the Concordat, the first official interaction between the Nazi state and the Vatican. Was it a mistake? In retrospect, yes; even the bishops opposed its renewal after the war. John Cornwell has argued emphatically, if not persuasively, that the Concordat was nothing more than a papal power play. In reality, it is quite understandable why the church would be most pleased after experiencing the Weimar Republic to conclude an agreement in 1933 with the new Nazi state that guaranteed it the religious culture that it wished to instill in the faithful.
Should the bishops have joined the Kreisau Circle as the Munich Jesuits wanted? Here, again, from an historical perspective their reluctance to do so is entirely understandable. After the Great War, socialists and even some Catholics were accused of being the traitors who “stabbed Germany in the back” thereby bringing about the country’s defeat. False as the accusation most assuredly was, the great majority of Germans subscribed to it in one form or another (was it communists? Jews? socialist and Catholic “peaceniks?”). That the bishops would have joined during wartime a political movement that opposed the country’s government is nearly unthinkable. The fact that even the most ardent episcopal opponent of Hitler, Konrad Preysing, refused to do so is instructive.
Should the bishops have spoken out against the war? Germany was clearly the aggressor in attacking Poland and, thereafter, western European countries. Not only did the bishops not speak out, they cheered Nazi aggression. Only a few, like Bishop Preysing, kept their heads and held their tongues. Later, in 1941 when Germany attacked Russia, the bishops dressed up their ardent nationalism by posing as crusaders against communism.
Should the bishops have spoken out against the Holocaust? The fact that in 1943 they debated intensely whether to do so indicates their acute awareness of an obligation to address this question. To protest about a matter that pertained to non-Catholics would have meant breaking the Concordat between the Vatican and the Nazi state. But the bishops saw as early as 1936 that Nazi racism increasingly violated Catholic teaching. Their failure to break with Hitler at that point or after the National Pogrom of 1938 paved the road for their weak, ineffectual protests of 1942 and 1943. In the 1960s German bishops themselves recognized and admitted that their predecessors had shirked their responsibility in 1938 and again during the Holocaust itself.
German bishops share the onus for not speaking out with Pope Pius, who told them that they had said enough in 1942 to win the respect of the world. How far off the mark this advice was we know and regret today. But at the same time the pope clearly put the ball in the bishops’ court by telling them that it was up to them to decide what to say about the Holocaust. Ultimately, then, the German bishops bear the blame for their silence.
Blaming them was exactly what German Catholics did after the war. In 1946 an outspoken Catholic lay woman, Ida Friederike Gorres, published an “Open Letter on the Church,” which appeared in a new journal, the Frankfurter Hefte. Gorres penned a profile of German bishops that was devastating: career-minded prelates, a power-hungry institution, authoritarianism, and tendencies toward mediocrity, insensitivity, and triumphalism. Literally hundreds of other Catholics joined in, charging, among other things, that after the war the bishops had failed to make Germans aware of their guilt and that during the Nazi era the hierarchy had issued only correct “paper” protests to the Nazis, leaving it to the faithful to live out the consequences of their words.
The accusation that the hierarchy had hid behind the flock instead of leading it rang true, and it cut the bishops to the quick. The bishops had been chary of confronting Nazism, they said, because they were loathe to see their priests carted off to concentration camps or be executed. Now the bishops were confronted with the fact that they never placed themselves in peril. The plain fact stood out for all to see: none of the bishops ever went to Dachau or became a martyr for his faith against Hitler. Konrad Adenauer, the future chancellor of Germany, took note of this himself in 1946: “I believe that if the bishops altogether had publicly taken a stance from the pulpit a lot could have been avoided. That didn’t happen and there’s no excuse for it. If the bishops had been taken to the concentration camps or to jail it wouldn’t have hurt anything-on the contrary.”
Should more lay Catholics have joined in resistance at least by sheltering Jews? Although many German Catholics-how many we do not know-did offer Jews protection, they acted individually. We have found no additional Sommers or Luckners who organized group resistance against the Holocaust. It seems unlikely that now, more than fifty years after Hitler, we will discover any more heroic Catholics like these two women. Regrettable as this is, the fact that their leaders in the church lacked courage makes it understandable that ordinary Catholics would hold back.
The Holocaust was a European violation of religion and law. To a greater or lesser extent all Europeans collaborated with the Nazis. In comparison to other European bishops, especially those in eastern Europe, German bishops conducted themselves with a degree of uprightness. But because Germany instigated the Holocaust, something beyond uprightness had to be demonstrated by that country’s hierarchy, if the Holocaust were to be stopped or slowed. Crossing over the line of respectable warnings to courageous, outspoken protest was more than the German bishops could manage. Let Alfred Delp’s words be their epitaph, “whoever lacks the courage to make history, will become its miserable by-product.”