Today is the anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1. Now that 100 years have lapsed, all that seems evident is the unimaginable carnage and the sense that it should have been avoidable. After a century of two world wars we know better that it is rarely the solution to human conflict. Indeed, does the Church still adhere at all to the principle of a “just war”? St John Paul II seemed to indicate otherwise, in his own impassioned opposition to the Iraq War. Again, it is unthinkable today for Christian leaders to give their blessing to troops going into battle on the assumption that right is on their side, as happened in the Great War.
These thoughts have been prompted not only by today’s solemn anniversary but by reading the obituary of a man called Roland Hill in the Telegraph for last Friday August 1st. He was born Roland Johannes Hess in Hamburg in 1920 to parents of Jewish origin who had become Lutherans. In 1934, after Hitler came to power the family moved to Prague and then to Vienna. I read in the obituary that in Vienna Hess “became a keen Boy Scout and in 1937, influenced by the idealism of a Boy Scout leader, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Though deeply committed to his faith, he was shocked after the Anschluss when, out of curiosity, he joined the crowd outside the hotel where Hitler was staying, to see the Austrian primate, Cardinal Innitzer, among the VIPs queuing to make their obeisance to the new head of state.”
This would have been in March 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria. It was a shocking gesture on the part of Cardinal Innitzer, who was immediately strongly reprimanded both by Pope Pius XI and the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (soon to become Pius XII). Yet Innitzer was naive about Hitler – rather like Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister at the time – rather than anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi. He referred to the Jews as “Christ’s brothers in Judaism” and it seems he had pledged the loyalty of the Church to the new regime in exchange for a promise from Hitler (later broken) that he would respect the independence of the Church. To this end he had also ordered church bells to be rung in Vienna when Hitler entered the city on March 14.
My further research into the history of this conflicted ecclesiastic reveals that the Catholic Herald of October 14 1938 reported that the Cardinal’s residence had been ransacked in response “to a courageous sermon the Cardinal had preached earlier in the evening…This sermon marked the end of Cardinal Innitzer’s attempt to establish a religious peace with the Nazis…Cardinal Innitzer is now in line with his German brothers, openly urging Catholics to resist anti-Catholic measures.” The Herald stated that “Nazi mobs have penetrated into the Archbishop’s Palace…and have demolished part of the furniture.”
The story of Cardinal Innitzer also shows why giving scandal to others is so grave an offence, especially in members of the hierarchy. If young Roland Hess (he later settled in England and changed his name to “Roland Hill” because of his affection for Rowland Hill, the inventor of the stamp postage system) was scandalised by the Cardinal’s initial welcome of the Nazi leader, how many devout Austrian Catholics would have felt the same – and how many more would have been led to support Hitler, following his example? Thank goodness that good example can also have profound implications. One would like to know more of the unidentified “Boy Scout leader” whose faith – or “idealism” as it was described in the obituary – was instrumental in bringing the youthful Roland Hess into the Church.