Arts & Books

Book review: Why did so few German clergy rebel against Hitler?

Blessed Clemens August von Galen: the strongest episcopal critic of the Nazis

Wehrmacht Priests
by Lauren Faulkner Rossi,
Harvard, £29.99

The title indicates the controversial subject raised by this book. The question the author considers is: why did so few bishops, as well as more than 17,000 priests and seminarians conscripted into the army during the Second World War, oppose the Nazi regime?

That there were heroic individuals, who often paid for their opposition with their lives, is not in doubt. They included Fr Franz Reinisch, guillotined for refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht under Hitler’s authority, Blessed Rupert Mayer SJ, imprisoned for preaching against the regime, and Alfred Delp SJ, executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. There were many others who were rounded up and imprisoned for minor or trumped-up infringements of the law. Yet the fact remains: the great majority were acquiescent, whether through misplaced patriotism, political naivety, a sense of duty towards the soldiers or other reasons.

The author is not trying to court controversy, although she might have alternatively entitled her book Priests in the Wehrmacht, which less suggests collusion. Her book should be read by all who seek an answer to the question she raises – not least because of its uncomfortable parallels in our own time, when uncritical loyalty to an institution and fear of scandal allowed clerical child abuse to go unchecked.

The majority of German priests, who survived wartime service and were interviewed decades later, saw no contradiction between wearing the army uniform with its Nazi insignia and their vocation. Some accepted in retrospect that it had been an unjust war, but all agreed that they would behave the same way if the situation arose again. They were, the author writes, both “deeply spiritual and proudly German”.

They were convinced that the soldiers needed their spiritual care. This sense of priestly obligation provided a powerful justification for their attitudes. Seminary training emphasised students’ obedience to spiritual and political authority. “One simply did not question the duties and demands that a legitimate authority made,” says Rossi. It took an exceptional individual to decide that the authority was illegitimate, that the war was immoral and that acting according to one’s conscience trumped obedience to one’s bishop.

The Concordat of 1933 between the Holy See and Germany, designed to safeguard the rights of Germany’s 20 million Catholics, did not help the Catholic population discern what was right. Although it meant that ordained priests did not have to bear arms, and were thus able to work as chaplains or in the medical corps as stretcher-bearers, the Concordat was widely perceived to have struck a compromise with Nazi Germany. Unwittingly, it appeared to give legitimacy to a regime that, as Rossi points out, was anti-Semitic, glorified war and violence, and was “antithetical to everything their faith stood for”.

German history played its part. During its persecution by Bismarck, the Church fought hard to retain its independence, as well as to show loyalty to the state. After the First World War, Catholics felt as dismayed as other Germans by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. The emergence of atheistic communism in Russia was viewed with particular abhorrence. Rossi writes: “There was little evidence that … in the early 1930s [the bishops] understood Nazism to be as lethal a threat to the Church as Bolshevism.” This partly explains why the bishops did not seriously resist Nazism when it came to power – after all, it was implacably opposed to communism, and preferable to the political instability that had preceded it. It was seen as the lesser evil.

Clemens August von Galen, the Bishop of Münster, did protest against the abhorrent Nazi euthanasia programme in 1941, but his was a lone voice, not representative of the hierarchy as a whole. Pius XI’s papal encyclical of 1937, Mit Brennender Sorge, widely distributed throughout Germany, was a rare instance of the German bishops’ unity in opposition.

The lone bishop consistent in his opposition to the regime from the beginning, who actively tried to help the plight of Jews, was Konrad von Preysing of Berlin.

The German Church reflected an underlying, if muted, anti-Semitism, based on the New Testament, and this too played into Nazi hands. There was also a powerful Christian theology of suffering and submission, rather than protest and challenge.

The author has relied for much of her research on the copious notes, reports, letters, memoranda and reflections of the field vicar-general and second-in-command in the army chaplaincy, Georg Werthmann. A controversial figure, Werthmann did not regard chaplaincy work as “collaboration with a loathed enemy”. Indeed, he seemed at ease working with the Nazi regime and “did not criticise Nazi policy after 1935”. Although the German army was involved in many war crimes, especially on the Eastern Front, Werthmann did not raise moral concerns, preferring to concentrate on organising the Catholic soldiers’ spiritual care.

Historians will continue to sift and interpret the evidence. Nonetheless, this remains a disturbing book.

This article first appeared in the the Catholic Herald magazine (11/9/15).

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