This post originally appeared at Heretic Ation.
My choicest political adviser is God who told me to run for the Presidency.
—Rev. Pat Robertson, quoted in the Church Times, March 1988.
When all countries lived under absolutist governments the Churches enjoyed a much closer relationship with the State than they do in democratic societies. Some of the most cruel rulers in history were happily accommodated by the Church. (Vlad the Impaler was a convert to Roman Catholicism).
In recent centuries the Roman Church has always favoured authoritarian regimes that have allowed it privileges, while opposing liberal and democratic governments that have not. For example, in 1862 Pius IX concluded a concordat with the right wing Roman Catholic President of Ecuador, who had achieved power through a coup against the liberal government. Roman Catholicism was to be the only religion permitted and was to be given a dominant role in the country’s affairs. The Church was granted total control of education. This was the sort of arrangement that the Church would try to emulate wherever it could.
As it still does today, the Church felt itself competent to give direction on political matters. Pius IX forbade Catholics from engaging in Italy’s new democratic process, either as candidates or voters. Pius’s successor, Leo XIII (pope 1878-1903), was a keen critic of socialism, and of other political theories. The next pope, Pius X who reigned between 1903 and 1914, consistently criticised and suppressed liberal and socialist influences. On the other hand he was exceedingly tolerant of right wing groupings such as Action Française in France and Azione Cattolica in Italy. Pope Pius XI (pope 1922-1939) had equally clear ideas about the suitability of national governments. He was a fierce opponent of communism. Much more acceptable were the politics of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, all of whom were Roman Catholics.
In 1928 Pius reached an easy accommodation with Mussolini, under which civil divorce was not to be permitted in Italy. Under the terms of a Concordat the following year, priests in Italy who left the Church were to be penalised, for example by being precluded from certain jobs. Under the terms of the Lateran Treaty the pope recognised the state of Italy with Rome as its capital, getting in return the Vatican City as an independent state, an indemnity for the loss of the Papal States, and an undertaking that Roman Catholicism should be the state religion of Italy. Mussolini described the Pope as a “good Italian”, and the Pope declared that the treaty had “given Italy back to God”. Pius must have been highly impressed by Mussolini’s ability, since he encouraged him to use it by invading and colonising Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 1935.
Franco also enjoyed the most cordial relations with the papacy. The pope had denounced the separation of church and state in Republican Spain and supported Franco when he started the Spanish Civil War in 1936. For his part Franco felt himself to have been appointed by God, and considered the Civil War to be a Holy War. A devout Christian, he persecuted atheists and habitually carried around the mummified arm of St Theresa of Ávila. He even granted the Blessed Virgin Mary the rank of Field Marshal in the Spanish army. The Roman Church supported Franco throughout. When he won the war Pope Pius XII sent him a telegram congratulating him on his “Catholic victory”. Under Franco divorce became illegal, adultery became a criminal offence, and religious education was made compulsory, with the Church controlling the text-books. Children had to be given at least one name with adequate religious connotations. Some 25,000 civil marriages were declared invalid. A Concordat with the Vatican in 1953 made it illegal to publish works of religion or philosophy without the approval of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Church had a slightly less easy time with Nazi Germany, yet did not find too much difficulty with the relationship. In 1933 the Catholic bishops in Germany, at a conference at Fulda, voted down a resolution critical of Nazism. Instead they issued a pastoral letter expressing gratitude to Hitler for his moral stance, their ideas of morality being concerned with matters like family planning and mixed bathing. Like many other Christian leaders, Cardinal Faulhaber thought Hitler to be a good Christian, although he had doubts about some of his “evil associates”.
The Roman Church adopted an altogether positive attitude towards Hitler’s regime. As soon as he came to power in 1933 Rome advised that there would be no support for any policy of opposition. A concordat between Germany and Rome concluded in the same year reassured Catholics that the German State was legitimate and acceptable. Pope Pius XI had little difficulty in negotiating his concordat with Nazi Germany. It followed an established authoritarian model of the Lateran treaties. It explicitly documented the symbiotic relationship between Church and State, binding them together in the traditional manner. Article 16 for example included a bishops’ oath of loyalty to the State, and Article 30 a prayer for the Third Reich. As a Roman Catholic himself Hitler made basic decisions concerning the Catholic Church personally, leaving the Protestant Churches to his Protestant colleagues. No Christian Church seriously opposed Hitler, and many supported him. Some even regarded him as a new redeemer, sent by God. In 1936 Hitler warned Cardinal Faulhaber that: “unless National Socialism gets the better of Bolshevism, all is up in Europe for Christianity and the Church”.
Eugenio Pacelli (later to become Pope Pius XII) signs the Concordat between Nazi Germany and the Vatican at a formal ceremony in Rome on 20 July 1933. (Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R24391 / Unknown author / CC-BY-SA 3.0) https://t.co/oozc16z3Gb pic.twitter.com/W67xFBeXTd
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) February 12, 2021
Hitler had been brought up as a Catholic, and would certainly have absorbed anti-Semitism from his earliest years. In a speech made in April 1922 he had spoken about his own Christian feelings, and said that it was not merely possible for a Christian to be anti-Semitic, it was necessary for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. Again, he wrote in Mein Kampf:
“…I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the word of the Lord”.
Nazi ideas about the Jews and measures against them were not the invention of contemporary minds, they were what the Church had been saying and doing for centuries. There was nothing at all new in Nazi anti-Semitism. It was simply repackaged traditional Christian anti-Semitism. The whole panoply of persecution was founded on Christian precedents. Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were modelled in part on the decrees of Popes Innocent III and Paul IV. Jews were once again deprived of civil rights, and marriage between German Christians and Jews was once again forbidden. When Nazis confined Jews to specified districts they consciously called those districts ghettos, maintaining respectability by emphasising that what they were doing was exactly what the Roman Church had done. The link was explicit. Before the war Hitler had boasted to Bishop Berning of Osnabrüch that he would do nothing that the Church had done for fifteen hundred years.
Before the holocaust Hitler had encouraged the expulsion of Jews from Germany, just as Pope Leo VII had done in 937, almost exactly a thousand years before. Denial of citizenship to Jews dated from the earliest days of Christian power. So too the denial of civil rights, and the restrictions on practising medicine. Public humiliation of old Jews was another traditional Christian pass-time. Nor did the Nazis invent the idea of making Jews wear distinctive badges; they simply adopted Church practices, even down to the colour yellow. Other minority groups had also been forced to wear a distinctive “badges of infamy” by the Church, and new minorities were obliged to wear them under the Nazis. The SS used much the same propaganda techniques to whip up hatred against the Jews as the Dominicans and Franciscans had used for centuries. The traditional blood libel against the Jews was revived. In 1934 Der Stürmer carried a front page article under the headline Jüdischer Mordplan (Jewish Death-plot), with an illustration showing Jews draining blood from the throats of blonde haired infants.
In medieval times beneficiaries of Church justice had been obliged to don sulphur shirts in order to help them burn in purpose built furnaces. The Nazis used the same basic idea, but carried it out more efficiently with gas chambers and crematoria. Towns boasted in Nazi times that they were free of Jews (Judenrein), just as they had done in Medieval times. The concept of collective guilt, the burning of books, the destruction of synagogues – all were traditional Christian ideas and practices promoted by the Holy Mother Church and validated by men like Luther.
While the encyclical Divini redemptoris explicitly condemned Communism in Russia, Mexico and Spain, a simultaneous encyclical directed at German Catholics, Mit brennender Sorge failed to make any explicit criticism of Nazism, and consequently had little if any impact. Article 24 of the Nazi party programme stated explicitly that “The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity” and its protection was guaranteed. When Nazi Germany seized Czechoslovakia in 1939, the recently elected Pope Pius XII refused to criticise the seizure, describing it as one of the “historic processes in which, from the political point of view, the Church is not interested”. The following month both Roman Catholic and Protestant church bells rang out in celebration of Hitler’s fiftieth birthday, and Cardinal Bertram sent him a congratulatory telegram. Throughout the war, Church bells were to ring out not only for Hitler’s birthday, but also for each of his victories, at least until the bells had to be melted down to help the Nazi war effort. When Hitler incorporated Austria into Nazi Germany he was greeted in Vienna by Cardinal Innitzer who proclaimed the ansluss to have been ordained by divine providence. Hitler himself on occasion referred to the divine providence that controlled his actions.
In 1939 and 1940 Pope Pius XII and bishops were unusually fulsome in their birthday greetings to the Führer. On Hitler’s 51st birthday, 20th April 1940, Cardinal Bertram conveyed “warmest congratulations” in the name of all bishops in Germany, and assured Hitler that these congratulations were associated with the “fervent prayers which the Catholics of Germany are sending to heaven on their alters on 20th April for Volk, army and Fatherland, for state and Führer”, a sentiment that was to be echoed on subsequent birthdays until Hitler’s suicide. When he heard of Hitler’s death in 1945, the Cardinal, writing in his own hand, instructed all priests in his archdiocese “to hold a solemn requiem in memory of the Führer and all those members of the Wehrmacht who have fallen in the struggle for our German Fatherland…” According to Roman Catholic Church Law at the time, a solemn requiem could be held only for a public concern of the Church. Unlike the invasion of Czechoslovakia, this was an historical process in which the Church was interested.
It is no coincidence that the groups who suffered most under the Third Reich were precisely the groups traditionally persecuted under Christianity – Jews, homosexuals, the physically and mentally handicapped, gypsies, and other dissenters from the current orthodoxy. Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who were killed for their beliefs by the Nazis, can be seen as successors to the heretics who were killed for refusing to swear allegiance and for refusing to enlist in armies or fight in wars.
Pius XII (pope 1939-1958), though nominally neutral, seemed to many to favour the axis powers during the second world war. He could not bring himself to criticise Nazi atrocities. Nor did he see fit to criticise the many bishops and priests who supported the Nazis and collaborated with them. After the war the Pope’s behaviour was explained by loyal Catholics in a number of ways: the Pope had not known about the atrocities, or he had known but had felt unable to speak out because he did not interfere in political matters, or he had more important matters to deal with, or alternatively he could not make a stand because of the vulnerability of the Vatican – it was better for the Church to sit out this time of difficulty so that he would be of help after the war had finished. All of these arguments are untenable. In the first place the Vatican knew full well about Nazi atrocities. At one stage Vatican radio broadcasters had criticised them, but the Nazis had complained and the criticism immediately ceased. Jan Karski and the President of Poland, on behalf of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, asked the Pope to excommunicate those responsible for persecution and murder. The answer was no. The mass murder of Jews was reported directly to the Pope by Gerhardt Reigner, but again no action was taken. When the US government asked the Vatican whether it could confirm information about genocide the Vatican refused to do so.
The story about the Pope not wanting to interfere in politics is also difficult to sustain: there has never been a time since the creation of the Papacy that it has not been actively involved in the politics of numerous countries. Many people have been excommunicated for purely political reasons, and there were adequate grounds for excommunicating Hitler and his government. (People were at that time excommunicated for trivial reasons, for example for having expressed a wish to have their bodies cremated after death. It is also noteworthy that the Pope frequently threatened to excommunicate Communists because of their beliefs.) Furthermore the Pope took an active interest in the conduct of the war and felt free to speak about it. For example he was quite prepared to speak out against the allies when he thought they might bomb Rome.
The relative unimportance of the Holocaust is also difficult to sustain in view of the other matters that occupied the Pope’s time (he was for example concerned about the danger of black men on his property. When Rome was liberated he asked the allies not to use black soldiers to garrison the Vatican). Finally the excuse that his personal safety was necessary for the survival of the Church cannot be sustained. The Pope could have given implicit guidance, even if he feared to give explicit guidance. He could for example have stated that the injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself applies to all neighbours, not merely Christian ones. He could have stated that there are circumstances when military orders can justly be disobeyed. He could have pointed out that Mary, Jesus and the apostles were all Jewish. He could have said that mass murder was contrary to one of the Ten Commandments. He could have done any of these things without endangering himself in the least. Also, apart from any ethical considerations it is a fact that Pius kept silent even after Rome was safe, the allies were winning and Germany was on the defensive. The bald fact is that the Papacy was far more sympathetic to Nazis and Fascists than to the Democracies. Only after the War was lost, Hitler dead, and world opinion unanimous did the pope disclose to his college of cardinals that Nazism had been a “Satanic spectre” and an “arrogant apostasy from Jesus Christ”.
Pius had also enjoyed friendly relations with Pétain’s Vichy government, Pétain being another keen Catholic leader with a taste for exterminating Jews and other minorities. Marshal Pétain and his government were appointed in July 1940 by an overwhelming vote in the democratically elected French parliament. Under this government Jews were rounded up by French police, herded into cattle trucks and sent to Nazi death camps. Altogether, over 70,000 French Jews were seen off by their Christian neighbours, never to return. Though he failed to criticise such atrocities, the pope did again manage to find time to condemn communism. He also found time to deplore the surrender terms demanded by the allies at Casablanca. Even after the war Pius never quite found the time to make public statements about Nazism, genocide, atomic weapons or global war. He was occupied with matters such as the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven, which he was to proclaim in Munificentissimus deus in 1950.
Significantly, none of the mainstream Churches spoke out against the excesses of Nazism – true enough they protested loudly about the removal of crucifixes from schoolroom walls, but with the arguable exception of euthanasia, they lodged no objections and made no public criticism of the invasions of successive countries, the suppression of free speech, the abrogation of democracy, judicial murders, or concentration camps. They did however offer prayers to the Lord of Battles for the Führer’s victory.
Since the end of the war the German bishops have consistently failed to acknowledge their rôle in the success of Nazi persecutions, a fact which keeps alive a great deal of bitterness in Germany and elsewhere. In recent years the German Catholic bishops have edged nearer to admitting their complicity in Nazism, but their failure to making any sort of clear unambiguous admission continues to irritate and anger many.
Throughout Europe, Catholic groups had carried out atrocities during the Second World War. The Croat Ustasha, overwhelmingly Catholic, ultra-nationalist and fascist outdid the Nazis in their barbarism against Orthodox Serbs and partisans, and assisted in exterminating Jews. Some of their leaders, who together were responsible for hundreds of thousands of murders, were Franciscans. One, the commandant of Jasenovac concentration camp, known as “Brother Devil”, accounted for 40,000 lives or more. Other churchmen also found common cause with the Nazis. The President of Slovakia, Joseph Tiso, was a leading Nazi responsible for setting up concentration camps in his country. But this was not his only vocation, For President Tiso was also a Roman Catholic Priest. He was executed for his crimes in 1946. Other bishops and priests were responsible for many thousands of deaths, having collaborated freely with the Nazi authorities. Here is Dr Joachim Kahl, an ex pastor and German Church historian on the Catholic fascist movement in Croatia which flourished between 1941 and 1944:
The Ustaša, as this terrorist organisation was called, was responsible for the forcible conversion of some 240,000 Orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism and for putting about 750,000 of these people to death. There was, from the very beginning, close collaboration between the Catholic clergy and the Ustaša. Archbishop Stepinac, whom the Vatican appointed in 1942 to be the spiritual leader of the Ustaša, had a place, together with ten of his clergy, in the Ustaša parliament. Priests were also employed as police chiefs and as officers in the personal body-guard of the fanatical Croatian head of state, Pavelic. Nuns marched in military parades immediately behind the soldiers, their arms raised in the fascist salute. Abbesses were decorated with the Ustaša order. The most cruel part of this movement was played, however, by the Franciscans, whose monasteries had for some time been used as arsenals. Several monks and priests agreed to work as executioners in the hastily set up concentration camps to which the Orthodox Serbs were sent for mass execution by decapitation. These massacres were so brutal that even Croatia’s allies, the German Nazis, protested against them and petitions were sent to the Vatican. Pope Pius XII, however, said nothing, just as he also said nothing about Auschwitz. It was not until some ten years later, in 1953, that he broke his silence by promoting Archbishop Stepinac, who, as one of those bearing the greatest guilt, had been sentenced by the Supreme People’s Court of Yugoslavia to sixteen years’ forced labour, to the rank of Cardinal for his “great services” to the Church.
Cardinal Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb, had been imprisoned on charges of collaboration. In the Ukraine, the Uniate Church (which owes allegiance to Rome) was similarly associated with Nazism. A number of Uniate bishops were arrested after the war, convicted as collaborators, and given long prison sentences.
Towards the end of the Second World War the Vatican helped Nazi War criminals to escape prosecution by issuing them with false passports and moving them to safe countries. In one known case (that of Paul Touvier, to which we will return) a convicted criminal was moved from one European state to another over 30 years, entering countries illegally and taking refuge in Church institutions. More usually such criminals were transferred to the safety of Roman Catholic countries. Often they were sheltered in monasteries, until red-cross passports could be obtained, and then taken to countries such as Spain and Argentina. Sometimes they were dressed as priests for the journey. This so called ‘rat-line’ was funded by a parallel ‘gold-line’. Gold taken from Jews, Serbs and Gypsies was spirited to the Vatican where it financed the work of saving alleged and convicted war criminals. Vatican reticence on the matter has been largely due to the fact that the men responsible held high office in the Vatican up to the late 1980’s at least. This was confirmed in 1988 by Cardinal Franz König, who knew two such men personally, though he declined to name them.
Such admissions are untypical within the Church. More usual is either silence, or continued explicit support for extreme right wing organisations. In France, masses are still said for Marshal Pétain and leaflets for Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front pamphlets are available at church doors. Neo-fascists in Italy are also looked on by the Church with a kindly tolerance. When Giorgino Almirante, leader of the MSI fascist party, died in 1988 his body was borne in state to the church of Sant Agnese in Agone in Rome. After rousing shouts of “Duce! Duce!” from the ten thousand strong crowd and a hail of salutes from as many straight right arms, the body was led into the church by the new Neo-fascist leader. There, eight priests waited to perform the funeral mass amid the fascist political banners hung around the alter. The sermon faithfully reflected the dead man’s political views, incorporating as it did quotations from his lifetime of fascist thought.
Elsewhere, the Vatican has frequently lent support to right wing groups. In 1946 Cardinal Mindszenty organised a plot with the help of the Fascist Arrow Cross and Cardinal Spellman to overthrow the Hungarian government. Fascism has had a good friend in the Roman Catholic Church. Senior churchmen have supported every right wing dictatorship – from Spain under Franco and Portugal under Salazar to Argentina and other South American dictatorships under their military juntas.
The position of Protestants is very little better than that of the Roman Catholics. Luther had stated that the bible confirms the right of the state to rule by force, and described this as a benevolent provision of God. Protestants were thus happy to accept a Nazi dictatorship, and collaborated with Nazis just as much as their Roman Catholic brethren. On 3rd April 1933 German Protestants, at the first National Conference of the Faith Movement, affirmed in a resolution that for a German the Church is a community of believers who are under an obligation to fight for a Christian Germany. In the 1930’s Deutsche Christen, Protestants who found Nazism and Christianity to be perfectly compatible, became the largest Protestant faction. They were led by Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller, a favourite of Hitler, who regarded the Führer and the Nazis as ‘presents from God’. Their motto was “The swastika on our breasts; the cross on our hearts”. Their synods passed Arian legislation. They sang Nazi hymns. Nazi flags hung in their Churches. Their pastors wore Nazi uniforms. Their Church was an arm of the State. Like the Roman Catholic Church they were funded by the State, and benefited from public taxation. Church subsidies increased from 130,000,000 marks per year in 1933 to over 1,000,000,000 marks a few years later. Protestant Churches advocated obedience towards the Führer, and gave prayers for him and for the Third Reich. Congregations gave Nazi salutes in Church. Bishops asked for God’s blessing for those who accepted the Führer’s call. After the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on 20th July 1944, the Clergy Council of the German Evangelical Church sent a telegram to him which said “Thanksgiving is being offered in all the Protestant Churches of Germany for God’s gracious protection and his manifest preservation…”.
No mainstream Church offered any significant opposition. Very few Evangelical pastors were imprisoned at all for opposing the Nazi State. Amongst Roman Catholic bishops one was expelled from his see, and another served a short term for currency offences. Hardly any churchmen of any denomination spoke out against the evils of Nazism. For political reasons, Church governments often refused to show solidarity with those who had been arrested and condemned for opposing the Nazi government. As Konrad Adenauer later wrote to one pastor:
I believe that if all the bishops had together made public statements from the pulpits on a particular day, they could have prevented a great deal. That did not happen, and there is no excuse for it. It would have been no bad thing if the bishops had all been put in prison or in a concentration camp as a result. Quite the contrary. But none of that happened and therefore it is best to keep quiet.
In recent years the Roman Church in much of South America has abandoned its traditional right wing friends and, to the annoyance of the Vatican, has espoused Liberation Theology, a system of thought verging on Marxism. While priests and bishops support revolutionaries, their traditional role has been taken over by Baptists and other evangelists from the USA who find that their God has a strong affinity for dictatorships. Sociological studies have frequently noted the tie between Protestant fundamentalism and extreme right wing politics in the USA (and sometimes between Catholic fundamentalism and extreme right wing politics). One study showed that Protestant fundamentalists accounted for much of the support given to George Wallace in the 1968 presidential election in the USA. Extreme right wing politics are espoused by fervent Christian organisations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society (an extremist group named after the Baptist missionary who founded it). The affection between religion and extreme politics is mutual. As one commentator has observed: “All Right-wing dictatorships today have established churches of one world religion or another. The only political party in Britain which decrees religious allegiance for its members is the Nazi Party.”
Nazi War Criminal and Roman Catholic Cardinal Stepinac
Christopher Hitchens – Hitler, Fascism and the Catholic Church
Geoffrey Robertson QC: Pope Pius XII did everything to help the Nazis, and nothing to save the Jews
Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook