The Reich Concordat between Hitler and the Vatican

This post by Jim Walker originally appeared at NoBeliefs.com.

Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pope Pius XII (photo credit: Carl Baer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain). Adolf Hitler (photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S33882 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0).

In 1917, Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pope Pius XII, resided in a nunciature in Munich, directly opposite to what was later to become the Brown House, the cradle of Nazism. There he showed his first inkling of his unsympathetic feelings toward the Jews when he refused to come to the assistance of Jews and calling them a “Jewish cult.” [Cornwell, p. 70]. In a typewritten letter, he described “a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews as like all the rest of them, hanging around in the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles.” [Cornwell, p. 75] In the 1920s Pacelli presented his credentials to the Weimer government where he stated, “For my part, I will devote my entire strength to cultivating and strengthening the relations between the Holy See and Germany.” Pacelli’s stay in Germany with his familiarity with their political, religious, and racist views must have influenced his later work to unify Catholicism with Germany.

In Italy, the Holy See signed a pact (drafted by Pacelli’s brother and Pietro Gasparri) with Mussolini in February 1929, known as the Lateran Treaty. Hitler had taken note of the Lateran Treaty and hoped for an identical agreement for his future regime. [Cornwell, pp. 114-115] The Vatican encouraged priests to support the Fascists and the Pope spoke of Mussolini as “a man sent by Providence.” The Church has a history of pacts with criminal states as the Holy See signed treaties with monarchs and governments regardless of slavery, inhumanity, or torture they may have induced upon fellow human beings. Even Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia on October 3, 1935 was not condemned by the Holy See. Nor did Pius XI restrain the Italian hierarchy from war enthusiasm. “O Duce!,” declared the bishop of Terracina, “today Italy is Fascist and the hearts of all Italians beat together with yours.” [Cornwell, p. 175]

In the 1930s, Pacelli and his associates negotiated with the Nazis to form a contract which got signed in 1933 as the Reich Concordat with the approval of the Pope. Note that the Catholic hierarchy believes in the infallibility of Popes in matters of faith and morals (ever since the First Vatican Council of 1870). This Concordat with its Papal infallible authority had arguably neutralized the potential of 23 million Catholics to protest and resist and which helped Hitler into legal dictatorship. [Cornwell, p. 4] After the agreement, Hitler, mimicking Pacelli fourteen years earlier stated, “I will devote my entire strength to cultivating and strengthening the relations between the Holy See and Germany.” [Cornwell, p. 136] (Hitler, spent more time and effort on the concordat with Pacelli than on any other treaty in the entire era of the Third Reich [Cornwell, p. 150]). This Concordat gave Germany an opportunity to create an area of trust with the Church and gave significance to the developing struggle against international Jewry. According to John Cornwell, this papal endorsement of Nazism helped seal the fate of Europe which makes it plausible that these Catholic prejudices bolstered aspects of Nazi anti-Semitism. [Cornwell, p. 28]

The Concordat and the following Jewish persecutions resulted in the silence of the Pope and the bishops. Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich, referring to the Nazi attacks on the Jews, wrote to Pacelli, confirming that protest proved pointless since it could only extend the struggle to Catholics. He told Pacelli, “Jews can help themselves.” [Cornwell, p. 140] Most bishops and Cardinals were Nazi sympathizers as were bishop Wilhelm Berning of Osnabruck and Archbishop Grober of Freiburg (Pacelli’s choice for emissaries).

On April 25, thousands of Catholic priests across Germany became part of an anti-Semitic attestation bureaucracy, supplying details of blood purity through marriage and baptism registries in accordance with the Nazi Nuremberg laws which distinguished Jews from non-Jews. Catholic clerical compliance in the process would continue throughout the period of the Nazi regime. [Cornwell, pp. 154] Any claimed saving of all-too-few Jewish lives by a few brave Catholics must stand against the millions who died in the death camps as an indirect result of the official workings of the Catholic body.

After Kristallnacht (where Nazis broke Jewish store windows and had synagogues burned) there issued not a single word of condemnation from the Vatican, the German Church hierarchy, or from Pacelli. Yet in an encyclical on anti-Semitism, titled Humani generis unitas (The Unity of the Human Race) by Pope Pius XI, a section claims that the Jews were responsible for their own fate. God had chosen them to make way for Christ’s redemption but they denied him and killed him. And now, “Blinded by their dream of worldly gain and material success,” they had deserved the “worldly and spiritual ruin” that they had brought down upon themselves. [Cornwell, p. 191] Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, archbishop of Vienna warmly received Hitler in Vienna after his triumphal march through the capital where he expressed public satisfaction with Hitler’s regime. [Cornwell, p. 201] Meanwhile, Cardinal Bertram sent Hitler an effusive telegram, published on October 2 in the Nazi newspaper Volkischer Beobachter, “The great deed of safeguarding peace among the nations moves the German episcopate acting in the name of the Catholics of all the German dioceses, respectfully to extend congratulations and thanks and to order a festive ringing of bells on Sunday.” [Cornwell, p. 202]

After the death of Pius XI, the electoral procedure to elect another pope had begun. The March 1939 election favored Pacelli and four days later, Pacelli made it clear that he would handle all German affairs personally. He proposed the following affirmation of Hitler:

To the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer and Chancellor of the German Reich! Here at the beginning of Our Pontificate We wish to assure you that We remain devoted to the spiritual welfare of the German people entrusted to your leadership…. During the many years we spent in Germany, We did all in Our power to establish harmonious relations between Church and State. Now that the responsibilities of Our pastoral function have increased Our opportunities, how much more ardently do We pray to reach that goal. May the prosperity of the German people and their progress in every domain come, with God’s help, to fruition!

Pacelli became a crowned Pope on March 12, 1939 (Pius XII). The following month on April 20, 1939, at Pacelli’s express wish, Archbishop Orsenigo, the nuncio in Berlin, opened a gala reception for Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. The birthday greetings thus initiated by Pacelli immediately became a tradition; each April 20 during the few years left to Hitler and his Reich, Cardinal Bertram of Berlin would send “warmest congratulations to the Fuhrer in the name of the bishops and the dioceses in Germany,” to which he added “fervent prayers which the Catholics in Germany are sending to heaven on their altars.” [Cornwell, p. 209] By this time Pacelli could call on the loyalty and devotion of a half-billion people, of which half the populations of Hitler’s new Reich had become Catholics, including a quarter of the SS. At this time bishops, clergy, religious, and faithful had bound themselves to the Pope, and by his own self estimation, served as the supreme arbiter of moral values on earth. [Cornwell, p. 215]

Throughout the war, not only did Catholic priests pay homage to Hitler and contribute to the anti-Semitic feelings, several priests also protected Nazis from criminal charges. For example, Nazi sympathizers such as Bishop Alois Hudal helped Nazi criminals escape to South America by assisting them with false papers and hiding places in Rome. Father Dragonovic worked with the U.S. Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) to organize the escape of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie to South America. Barbie had also lived under Dragonovic’s protection in San Girolamo for about a year.

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