The German bishops, as men, were not party to the crimes of Hitler; most were born after the end of the war. Yet the bishops’ conference has taken responsibility for the sins of its predecessors, or at least identified them. In a 23-page statement, the bishops said that the hierarchy in Germany was effectively complicit in the crimes of Hitler’s regime.
They declared: “Inasmuch as the bishops did not oppose the war with a clear ‘no’, and most of them bolstered the [German nation’s] will to endure, they made themselves complicit in the war. The bishops may not have shared the Nazis’ justification for the war on the grounds of racial ideology, but their words and their images gave succour both to soldiers and the regime prosecuting the war, as they lent the war an additional sense of purpose.”
This is a serious exercise in the examination of collective conscience. And it is convincingly nuanced. It identifies the sins of omission as being as serious as the sins of commission in respect of acquiescing in moral evil by a state. Few clergy were overtly sympathetic to Hitler but the reality is that only the bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing, condemned the treatment of the Jews and the invasion of Poland – and indeed, sought to protect Berlin Jews. If all the hierarchy had done so, the effects on German Catholics, who did not vote for Hitler up to 1933 – religious affiliation was the single most telling factor in determining how regions voted – would have been incalculable.
There were very many reasons why it was expedient to be silent or reticent in the face of manifest evil – the outcome for Catholics in the Netherlands of the Dutch bishops’ more courageous stance in 1942 was not encouraging. (When the bishops of Holland denounced the deportation of Dutch Jews, the Nazis turned on Dutch Catholics, including the 40,000 Catholics of Jewish origin, who had so far escaped. That left a deep impression on Pius XII.) Many bishops feared atheistic Bolshevism more than Nazism – but what the successors of the wartime bishops are saying is that the heroic option was the moral course.
“There is no need to conceal that this is not an easy task for us,” said the Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg – born in 1961, and chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference. “We know that presiding over our predecessors as judge and jury does not suit us. No generation is free from judgments and prejudices that are shaped by its time. But those who come later must confront history, in order to learn from it.”
“For all its ‘inner distance’ from Nazism and its sometimes open opposition, the Catholic Church in Germany was part of a society at war,” said the Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim – also born in 1961, and head of the conference’s foreign affairs committee, said. “Even if we can perceive that the bishops’ perspective on events shifted over the course of the war, they did not pay enough attention to the suffering of others.”
Indeed. The concordat between the Vatican and Hitler in 1933 constituted the first recognition of the Nazi government by an international organisation. And the effect on Germans was marked. It effectively annihilated any possibility that Christian Democrats could present a viable alternative to the grim alternatives of Nazism or Communism. In a preface to his extraordinary account of life in a concentration camp, If This Is A Man, Primo Levi recorded an exchange with a German Catholic who tried to exculpate himself for responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazis by recalling how the Concordat made him feel that if the Church could do business with the Nazis, so could he.
Yet I cannot quite share the view that nuns who tended to wounded German soldiers and priests who followed the Wehrmacht as chaplains to the soldiers should share the culpability of the bishops; as for turning convents into hospitals, it may have helped the regime, but it was hardly immoral. The duty to relieve suffering and offer the last rites to the dying overrides even that of refusing to accommodate evil.
The position of the pope, Pius XII, was another matter. Pius was aware of Nazi atrocities – and of those of the Soviet forces – and he took the view that oblique condemnation and diplomatic efforts would serve a more useful purpose than outright denunciation. Last week a researcher, Hubert Wolf, claimed based on one memorandum that Pius thought accounts of the Jewish situation were exaggerated. But that does not square with other accounts – and demonstrates the need to digest the whole archive rather than gobbets.
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