Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Peter Godman
Free Press, 304 pages, $27
By Robert A. Krieg
Continuum, 286 pages, $24.95
Assessing the church's role in the Reich


The public has long been interested in how the Vatican and the German Catholic church related to National Socialism during the 1930s and ’40s. Now, with the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a man who grew up under the Nazi regime, there has been even more popular discussion about how Catholics -- and especially Catholic leaders -- spoke out or failed to speak out against the Third Reich.

Early in 2003, the Holy See opened the Vatican archives for material pertaining to Germany from the years during the pontificate of Pius XI, that is, up to 1939. At the same time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened its archives for that period. With Hitler and the Vatican, Peter Godman is the first to use those archives and publish his findings in English.

The New Zealand-born Dr. Godman has taught at Tübingen in Germany and, most recently, at the University of Rome. Primarily a medievalist, he has also published on the history of the Inquisition. In Hitler and the Vatican, Dr. Godman focuses much of his research on Pope Pius XI and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who was secretary of state from 1929 to 1939, when he became Pius XII.

Cardinal Pacelli was trained as a diplomat and had served as nuncio first in Bavaria and then to the Weimar Republic from 1915 until his call to Rome in 1929. Cardinal Pacelli and Pope Pius XI relied too heavily on concordats, says Dr. Godman -- whether the one the Vatican signed with Italy in 1929 or the one with Nazi Germany ratified in September 1933.

Some contemporary writers have painted the cardinal in stark black and white; Dr. Godman sees him in shades of gray. Cardinal Pacelli may have been naive, especially in regard to Germany, but he thought that if the Vatican signed a concordat with the Reich, this would give the church legal grounds on which to combat totalitarianism.

Dr. Godman provides a fascinating view of the drafting of Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Deep Anxiety”), which Pius XI issued in 1937 to condemn Nazi violations of the 1933 concordat. Three German cardinals, Adolf Bertram, Michael von Faulhauber and Karl Joseph Schulte, and two bishops, Conrad Graf von Preysing and Clemens von Galen, were summoned to Rome to draft the encyclical. Dr. Godman gives an insightful analysis of the differences between the meeting notes of Cardinals Pacelli and Faulhaber and points out that Nazis were not mentioned by name in Mit Brennender Sorge. He also acknowledges that the encyclical was read from the pulpits of every Catholic church in Germany on Palm Sunday, 1937, but fails to point out that according to the recently released documents, anyone who printed or distributed the encyclical was subject to arrest.

Hitler and the Vatican also provides a lively portrait of the ambiguous and ambitious character Bishop Alois Hudal, consultant to the Holy Office and rector of Santa Maria dell’Anima, one of three German institutions within Rome. Nicknamed the “brown bishop” for his pro-Nazi sympathies, Bishop Hudal becomes a more complicated figure as Dr. Godman explains that he at first opposed German racial policies and heightened nationalism, but then out of naiveté or ambition sought to build a bridge to “conservative” members of the Nazi party, among whom he numbered Hitler. But Bishop Hudal overstepped the propriety of what was expected of a curial official by publishing a book in Austria showing his version of the compatibility of Christianity with “conservative” National Socialism. He then became a pariah both to Cardinal Pacelli and to German bishops seeking to preserve the rights of the church. Cardinal Pacelli expelled him, which may in fact have made Bishop Hudal a martyr for Nazism.

Dr. Godman provides some valuable contributions, especially the four appendices of Holy Office draft positions on nationalism and racism, and the instruction of the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities in 1938 condemning the racial theories of the Nazis.

Yet until the Vatican archives are opened for the war years, it will be impossible to know what the book’s subtitle claims: “the complete story of the Nazis and the church.”

Robert A. Krieg’s Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germany expands his earlier work on Romano Guardini, the famed German theologian of the liturgy, and explains why so many leading German Catholic theologians initially sided with National Socialism.

Relying primarily on their own written works, the author provides a broad overview of their motivations. Karl Eschweiler, dean of the Hochschule in Braunsberg, sought a return to the Holy Roman Empire and saw in Hitler’s program similarities with Thomistic thought. He joined the party and proudly wore its uniform, even after he was suspended from priestly ministry. Even Karl Adam, perhaps the theologian best known in the United States, sought to show the compatibility between Catholicism and National Socialism, although he stopped short of joining the party. Yet there were theologians who opposed the regime, notably the historian Josef Schmidlin, who was executed by the Nazis, and Romano Guardini, who managed to survive at the University of Berlin for some time by not discussing politics with his colleagues.

Nevertheless, Fr. Guardini wrote careful but thinly disguised articles challenging the Nazi philosophy. In one essay, “Der Heiland,” for example, he played on the Nazi greeting to show that “Heil,” “salvation” and “happiness,” could only come through Jesus Christ, not a new world order that relegated scripture to mythology. Fr. Guardini saw Nazism as a new form of idolatry.

Dr. Krieg provides a useful chronology of four stages in German episcopal activity under Nazism:

First, from 1933 to 1934, the bishops sought to preserve the autonomy of the church within Nazi Germany.

Second, from 1935 to 1939, they defended the church against increasing Nazi persecution as priests and religious were arrested on a variety of charges ranging from pedophilia to breaking financial laws. It was in this period that Pius XI issued Mit Brennender Sorge. Yet later in that year, the bishops made no public protest after Kristallnacht.

Third, from 1939 to 1943, the bishops all sought to express their patriotism but differed on what stance to take against Hitler’s abuse of human rights.

Finally, from 1943 to 1945, the disagreement among the bishops increased. With the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad in February 1943, Hitler became more ruthless back in Germany. While Bishop Bertram urged caution in order not to draw the attention of the Gestapo, Bishop von Preysing succeeded in having the bishops endorse a statement condemning the Reich’s slaying of innocent people.

Dr. Krieg’s book is a well-written survey of the attitude of Catholic theologians toward Hitler. There are, however, some minor problems, such as when the author states: “The pontiff [Pius XII] conveyed in private his personal disdain for the Nazi state and his disapproval of the war.” The document Dr. Krieg cites is actually from Cardinal Pacelli, still the secretary of state, to Joseph Kennedy, the ambassador to Britain, after the Anschluss in 1938. It was a warning for Mr. Kennedy to convey to President Roosevelt that Hitler was not to be trusted.

Together, these new books provide an interesting insight into the Vatican on the eve of the war and the attitude of German Catholic leadership toward Hitler. Unfortunately, historians will have to wait for more definitive answers until the Vatican archives for the war years become available.

Jesuit Fr. Gerald P. Fogarty is a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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