By Jim Walker | 22 December 2005
The propaganda by the Christian churches in regard to their role during WWII in Fascist Italy, Yugoslavia, and Nazi Germany has so conditioned their believers that most of them believe that Christianity played an honorable role at best, and only a silent role at worst. Yet there seems little recognition that the very framework of the beliefs owned by the Fascists and Nazis came from their Christian upbringing from church, school, and Christian traditions. The entire anti-Jewish and racial sentiments came not from some new philosophy or unique ideology, but rather from centuries of Christian preaching against the Jews, gypsies, and heretics. This comes especially true for European countries, for the Christian practice of crusades, inquisitions and holy wars occurred in their own backyards. Moreover, the wars conducted by Providence, approved by God, appears so often in the Bible, and practiced by Christians throughout the centuries has disciplined Christians to believe that they could engage in offensive war honorably and even worse—morally. One must remember that the Catholic raised and Protestant conditioned Hitler took his cause of war for an expanded Germany and his fight against the Jews, for Providence’s sake, and a fight for the Lord. He appealed to his fellow German Christians to put him in power and he achieved popular support. I find it unimaginable that Hitler, without this religious foundation, could have churches, politicians and citizens electing him into office, much less have acted against the Jews.
The intolerance against humans and religious wars committed before WWII comes from such abundant sources of Christian history that to deny an influential connection can only come from immeasurable ignorance. Moreover the justification for atrocious acts committed by Christians and priests during WWII could only have come from their own beliefs and faiths.
I do not think I understate the claim that the conditions required for a Nazi or Fascist state cannot occur without a deep religious or superstitious underpinning. I charge that the major accountability for World War II and the Jewish holocaust must go to the ones who created the conditions for it to occur. And the people who created the conditions come in the form of the Christian churches—the body of believing people who acted according to their Christian beliefs and who taught their children, preached to their congregations, and influenced their society’s political leaders.
I aim to provide the reader with a flavor of the forgotten or denied role of Christians during WWII. Nothing here comes from a unique or original understanding. Rather, I have taken parts of what comes almost directly from established and well researched historical works on the Catholic and Protestant involvement in Europe.
The Catholic Church during WWII
Jewish persecutions: banning Jews from working for public office, the enforcement of wearing yellow badges, the Jewish ghettos, burning of synagogues, and the extermination of Jews remind us of the atrocities committed by Nazis in WWII. However the atrocities above do not pertain to Nazi actions but rather the practices of Catholicism, centuries before Hitler came into power.
The seeds of Christian hatred for Jews begins from the readings of the New Testament and the persecutions began when the Church first held power to enforce its dogmas. The Biblical Paul, for example, put the blame of Jesus’s death entirely on the Jews. In the first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians (2:14-15), it says, “the Jews who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets….” Also the gospel of John, makes it clear that the Jews represent an enemy (and John 8:44 puts the devil as the father of the Jews). Many prominent priests used Paul’s epistles and the gospels as Biblical justification for Jewish persecution.
Historical Christianity makes it clear that the Jews formed an essential part of early Christian theology. Examples include the letter of Barnabas (circa 130), Justin the Martyr’s “Dialogue with the Jew Trypho” (circa 160), Tertullian’s treatise against the Jews (circa 200), Orgin’s work against Celsus (circa 250). The sermons by John Chrysostom in 387, especially, show an indigence against the Jews. Origen had written, “The blood of Jesus falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world.” John Chrysostom wrote, “The Synagogue is a brothel, a hiding place for unclean beasts…. Never has any prayed to God…. They are possessed by demons.” [Cornwell, pp. 24-25]
When Christianity became officially accepted for the state in the 4th century, the Christians began to act against the Jews. Constantine imposed heavy penalties on anyone who visited a pagan temple or converted to Judaism. Mixed marriages between Jews and Christians were punished by death. In the Codex Theodosianus of Theodosis II (408-450), it forbade Jews to hold any public office. It first came from Justinian who legalized the burning and pillaging of Jewish synagogues by Christian bishops and monks (often canonized later). Thomas Aquinas, in the treatise De regimine Judaeorum ad Ducissam Brabantae, made it acceptable for popes and kings to dispose of property belonging to the Jews.
Compelling Jews to wear yellow badges came from an invention of the Catholic Church. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 set up the Inquisition along with enforcement of Jews wearing a yellow spot on their clothes and a horned cap (pileum cornutum) to mark them as the murderers of Christ and to remind them of their descent from the devil. During the Black Death plague which ravaged Europe in the 14th century, the Catholic clergy aimed its blame at the Jews claiming they worked for the Devil and had poisoned the wells and springs. Their extermination compares with the pogroms that took place in the 20th century under Hitler. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church directed its actions against the baptized Jews, the marranos. They forbade them to hold any office in the Church or the state; many suffered torture or death.
Popes have traditionally supported anti-Jewish acts and beliefs. Pope Paul IV in the sixteenth century established the Roman ghetto (another Catholic invention). For more than two centuries afterward, Catholics humiliated the Roman Jews and degraded them at the annual carnival. In the same century, Pope Gregory XIII instituted enforced Christian sermons insulting Judaism. [Cornwell, p. 299]. In a Papal custom Popes performed an anti-Jewish ceremony on their way to the basilica of St. John Lateran. Here the Pontiff would receive a copy of the Pentateuch from the hand of Rome’s rabbi. The Pope then returned the text upside down with twenty pieces of gold, proclaiming that, while he respected the Law of Moses, he disapproved of the hard hearts of the Jewish race. [Cornwell, p. 27]
Forcing Jews, and heretics into the Catholic faith, of course has always served as a hallmark of Catholicism. When they could not legally use strong-arm tactics they used propaganda. Although most people associate the term with Hitler, propaganda actually came as an invention by the Catholics long before the Nazis, from the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, an organization established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.
In the 1930s, as the Catholic leaders listened to Hitler’s rhetoric against the Jews during his appeal for power, his speeches condemning Jews only correlated with the Church’s own long history of Jewish hatred. Indeed, in Hitler’s meeting with Bishop Berning and Monsignor Steinmann on April 26, 1933, Hilter reminded his Catholic guests that the Church, for 1,500 years had regarded the Jews as parasites, had banished them into ghettos, and had forbidden Christians to work for them. Hitler said he merely intended to do more effectively what the Church had attempted to accomplish for so long. [Lewy]
It should come to no surprise that at no time before or during Hitler’s rise did the Catholic Church speak up against such talk. Sadly the Church remained mostly silent, with its main objections concerned with its own power structure in Germany. Thus it aimed to prevent loss of control and, indeed, to gain Church control through an expansion of papal power, control of appointment of bishops, and the control of Catholic schools. This self-serving interest gave the Vatican an impetus to form an agreement with Germany. In this sense, Hitler actually saved Catholicism in Germany, especially considering that Bismark before him had begun a Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”), a policy of persecution against Catholicism. [Cornwell, p.14]
The Reich Concordat between Hitler and the Vatican:
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
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.
Catholic Croatia’s Atrocities:
In 1941 Croat Fascists declared an independent Croatia. Italy and Hungary (also a fascist state) joined forces with Hitler for a share of Yugoslavia. Hitler had issued his plan for a partitioned Yugoslavia, granting “Aryan” status to an independent Croatia under the Catholic Ante Pavelic. This resulted in a campaign of terror and extermination conducted by the Ustashe of Croatia against two million Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and Communists between 1941 and 1945 (Note that the Croats were Roman Catholics, the Serbs were Orthodox Christians). According to Cornwell, “Pavelic’s onslaught against the Orthodox Serbs remains one of the most appalling civilian massacres known to history.”
From the outset, Pope Pius XII and the Vatican knew of the racist and anti-Semitic statements made by the Croats even as the Pope met with Pavelic and bestowed his papal blessing. Not only did the Croatian Catholic clergy know the details of the massacre of the Serbs and the virtual elimination of the Jews and Gypsies but many of the priests took a leading role! Monks and priests worked as executioners in hastily set up concentration camps where they massacred Serbs. These killings had gotten so brutal that even the Nazis protested against them. By the most reliable reckoning, the Catholic fascists massacred 487,000 Orthodox Serbs and 27,000 Gypsies between 1941 and 1945 in the independent State of Croatia. In addition, approximately 30,000 of the 45,000 Jews died in the slaughter.
At no time did the Vatican make an attempt to halt the forced conversions, appropriation of Orthodox property, or the mass killings. Croat priests had not only sympathized with the fascist massacres but took part in them. According to Cornwell, “Priests, invariably Franciscans, took a leading part in the massacres. Many went around routinely armed and performed their murderous acts with zeal. A father Bozidar Bralow, known for the machine gun that was his constant companion, was accused of performing a dance around the bodies of 180 massacred Serbs at Alipasin-Most.” Individual Franciscans killed, set fire to homes, sacked villages, and laid waste the Bosnian countryside at the head of Ustashe bands. In September of 1941, an Italian reporter wrote of a Franciscan he had witnessed south of Banja Luka urging on a band of Ustashe with his crucifix.” In the Foreign Ministry archive in Rome there sits a photographic record of atrocities: of women with breasts cut off, gouged eyes, genitals mutilated; and the instruments of butchery: knives, axes, meat hooks. [Cornwell, pp. 253-254] Not only priests, but even many nuns sympathized to the movement. Some of these nuns marched in military parades behind soldiers with their arms raised in the fascist salute.
From the very beginning the Catholic clergy worked in collaboration with the Ustashe. Archbishop Stepinac got appointed spiritual leader of the Ustashe by the Vatican in 1942. Stepinac, with ten of his clergy held a place in the Ustashe parliament. Priests served as police chiefs and officers of in the personal bodyguards of Pavelic. There occurred frequent BBC broadcasts on Croatia of which a February 16, 1942 typical report stated: “The worst atrocities are being committed in the environs of the archbishop of Zagreb [Stepinac]. The blood of brother is flowing in streams. The Orthodox are being forcibly converted to Catholicism and we do not hear the archbishop’s voice preaching revolt. Instead it is reported that he is taking part in Nazi and Fascist parades.” [Cornwell, p.256] The French cardinal Eugene Tisserant, a Slavonic expert, told a Croat representative on March 6, 1942, “that it is the Franciscans themselves, as for example Father Simic of Knin, who have taken part in attacks against the Orthodox populations so as to destroy the Orthodox Church in banja Luka….” [Cornwell, p. 259]
Even though petitions against the Catholics and their massacres got sent to Pius XII, not once did Pacelli, the “infallible” Pope, ever show anything but benevolence toward the leaders of the Pavelic regime. His silence on the matter matched his silence about his knowledge of Auschwitz.
To this day, there occurs ethnic cleansing, outbreaks of war and intense bitter feelings between Croats and Serbs. The religious organizations in the area must bear the major responsibility for these intolerances, atrocities and wars.
Yes there occurred some brave protests by priests and nuns against Nazism and their Jewish attacks but they came few and far between. For example, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (a Jewish convert also known as Edith Stein) wrote a letter to Pius XI begging him to “deplore the hatred, persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews, at any time and from any source.” Her letter drew no response. Faulhaber defended converted Jews, but not all Jews. Catholics point to the canonized friar, Maximilian Kolbe, who voluntarily took the place of another person in a concentration camp, but conceal the point that he took the place of a gentile, not a Jew; nor do we hear that he had served as editor of an antisemitic Catholic journal. We also have bishops such as Jozsef Midszenty of Hungary who openly condemned the Nazis after they invaded his country.
We should, of course, always applaud individuals against oppression, but the few protests cannot, by any standard, serve to absolve Christianity, much less honor it.
The deploring fact remains: the major body of the Catholic Church in Germany, that being popes, priests, nuns, and Catholic lay-people supported Hitler and anti-Semitism. Catholicism had links to government organizations, right-wing nationalism, including Fascism and Nazism. Moreover, most every right-wing dictator of the period had been brought up a Catholic: Hitler, Horthy, Franco, Petain, Mussoline, Pavelic, and Tiso (who has served as a Catholic priest). Catholic bishops and cardinals throughout the war expressed anti-Semitic views even as the actions against the visibly persecuted Jews increased. In 1936, for example, Cardial Hlond, primate of Poland, opined: “There will be the Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain.” Cardinal Maglione, even though he recognized the hellishness of Hitler, justified himself with the private view that “Hitler and all his diabolic works may be the process of the casting out of the devil in the subconscious of the German race.” [Cornwell, p. 282] Slovak bishops issued a pastoral letter that repeated the traditional accusations that the “Jews were deicides,” and evidence exists that anti-Judaism occurred in the heart of the Vatican. [Cornwell, p. 280] Pope Pius XII, his campaign of silence and subterfuge, his fanatical urge to complete a Concordat and to assist Hitler into legal dictatorship, shows his complicity with the Nazi Government. And at no time did the bishop of Rome make a single liturgical act for the deported Jews of Rome. Even after the lost war for Germany and upon hearing of the death of Adolf Hitler, Adolf Bertram, the cardinal archbishop of Berlin ordered all the parish priests of his archdiocese “to hold a solemn Requiem in memory of the Fuhrer and all those embers of the Wehrmacht who have fallen in the struggle for our German Fatherland, along with the sincerest prayers for Volk and Fatherland and for the future of the Catholic Church in Germany.” [Cornwell, p. 317]
The followers of the Catholic Church, the common German Catholic citizens also had ingrained into them a loyalty to the Church and to Germany. Most of them held anti-Semitic views. Many of the police battalions that formed execution squads came from religious men. According to Goldhagen, “some of the men who went to church, prayed to God, contemplated the eternal questions and recited prayers which reminded them of their obligations to other humans; the Catholics among them took communion and went to confession. And when they went at night to their wives and girlfriends, how many of the killers discussed their genocidal activities?” [Goldhagen, pp.267-268].
The Protestant Churches in Germany
Protestantism constituted the major religion in Germany during the early 1930s. Until Hitler attempted to establish a German Reich Church, there existed no such thing as an official German Protestant Church. The Nazi party made a call for all German Protestants to unite in the hour of national need [Holt, p.168-9]. The Christian Evangelical Church would receive the dignity due it within a National Socialist State (Nazism) based on positive Christianity (“Positive Christianity” was stated in point twenty-four of the Nazi Programme, their version of a constitution), and whom Martin Luther served as their spiritual patron.
Most German Protestants followed Luther (who they knew hated Jews) and believed in the sanctity of the secular authority and the supremacy of the authority over all religious organizations. To Luther, the head of the temporal state should also be head of “the church visible.” [McGovern, p.650] On May 14, 1933, Ludwig Muller, a prominent member in the ranks of the German Christian Movement became the principle Bishop of the Evangelical German Reich Church.
Of course the thought of a state controlled national church could mean loss of control by the pastors of the Church. Naturally many pastors became concerned; some protested quietly to themselves and others, openly, by forming the Confessing Church. Nevertheless, most pastors allied themselves with the Nazi party and their anti-Semitic views got published in the Protestant press even before Hitler’s election into power. The Protestant press influenced millions of its readers with the most prominent being the Sonntagsblatter, and the weekly Sunday newspapers. These weekly papers dwelled on religious piety and preached how they thought of Jews as “the natural enemies of the Christian-national tradition.” [Goldhagen, 1996] As far as anyone knows, there had never occurred any visible or vocal church protest against the anti-Semitism of the Nazi party before it came into power. Considering that the majority of Germans at that time held anti-Semitic feelings (no doubt due mainly to religious preachings and propaganda), this should not surprise anyone. As many have pointed out, the religious rhetoric influenced Hitler during his youth.
Other pastors openly welcomed the Nazi’s believing that the reintroduction of government by Christian authorities, affirmed St. Paul that “the power that be are ordained by God.” (Romans 13:1). Under the continuing influence of the Lutheran Court Preacher Adolf Stocker, they believed that the future of German Lutheranism lay in obliterating the Jewish background of Christianity, and creating a national religion based on the traditions of German Christianity. They repeatedly stressed Luther’s anti-Semitic statements.
One of the “moral” pastors of the nation, Bishop Otto Dibelius, declared in a letter after April 1933, that he has been “always an antisemite.” Dibelius had expressed that he wanted the Jews to die out peaceably, bloodlessly (what a guy!) Wolfgang Gerlach, a German Evangelical pastor and historian of the Christian churches during the Nazi period, observed Bishop Dibelius’ anti-Semitic sentiments as “well nigh representative of German Christendom in the beginning of 1933. [Goldhagen, pp.108-9].
Bishop Martin Sasse of Thuringia, a leading Protestant churchman, published a compendium of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic vitriol shortly after Kristallnacht (the first openly public attacks against the Jews by the Nazis). He applauded the burning of the synagogues and the coincidence of the day: “On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany… of the greatest antisemite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.” [Goldhagen p.111] He also edited a brochure for his ministers at the end of November 1938 titled, “Martin Luther and the Jews: do Away with Them!” He quoted extensively from Luther’s book “On the Jews and their lies.” [Wollenberg, p.73]
After the Nazi party took over, they began to exclude Jews from jobs and schools and later to exclude baptized racial Jews from the Land churches and to force them to live completely by themselves. Notably, the churches deeply involved themselves in furnishing data about racial origins from the very beginning of the Nazi era. Even Bishop Wurm saw no harm in this, and in 1934 informed his clergy: “The use of the ‘hereditary passports’ (Ahnenpasse) can also be recommended from the standpoint of the church.” [Helmreich, p. 328]
On September 1, 1941, a national law made it compulsory for all Jews to display the Star of David when they appeared in public. The ordinance presented a problem to the churches because they did not know that many of the Christians in their congregations had Jewish origins.
How did the Protestant churches respond to this oppression of their fellow Christians? On December 17, 1941, Protestant Evangelical Church leaders of Mecklenburg, Thuringia, Saxony, Nassau-Hesse, Mecklenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Anhalt, and Lubeck collectively issued an official proclamation:
From the crucifixion of Christ to the present day, the Jews have fought Christianity or misused and falsified it in order to reach their own selfish goals. By Christian baptism nothing is altered in regard to a Jew’s racial separateness, his national being, and his biological nature. A German Evangelical church has to care for and further the religious life of German fellow countrymen; racial Jewish Christians have no place or rights in it. [Helmreich, p. 329]
One must also remember that most of the German citizens held beliefs as Protestant Christians. Many of the German police battalions who executed Jews with anti-Jewish zeal got recruited straight from the German populace, citizens that grew up in traditional Christian homes. For example, the men of one Police Battalion came predominantly from Hamburg and the surrounding region, an overwhelmingly Evangelical Protestant area. And even those battalion members who renounced the Church, declared themselves “gottglaubig,” a Nazi term for having a proper religious attitude without being a member of a traditional church [Goldhagen, p. 209].
In the end neither the official Protestant or Catholic churches tried to stem the tide of anti-Semitic measure taken by the Nazis, The Kirchliches Jahrbuch summarized it after the war:
The anti-Semitism of the NSDAP found the Evagelical church unprepared. Indeed, at least the Confessing church resisted the Aryan paragraph in the church and the separation of Jewish Christians out of the Evangelical church of Germany, but against anti-Semitism they uttered no word, and even at the time of the Jewish persecutions and of their extermination it could not bring itself to stand against the measures of the National Socialist regime both in and without the church. [Helmreich, p. 332]
The Confessing Church
Inevitably, whenever one questions the role of Christianity during WWII, Christians will quickly respond by providing examples of heroic Catholics or Protestants who saved lives, protested against Nazism, or had given their lives by dying in concentration camps. What appears most puzzling by these defenses comes from their complete lack of perspective of the history of their own faith-system. Of course there lived a few brave Christian men and women who opposed Nazism and performed courageous deeds. But the key word here, “few,” can hardly absolve the whole. One can say the same of the few heroic Nazis who protested against the atrocities committed by their own government. But can we prop up these few as a banner, while ignoring the majority of those who committed crimes to justify a belief-system regardless if it comes from a political ideology or a religion? If this served the case, then we could mine any intolerant system for its “few” noble members as justification for the system by calling it the True system, as do Christians who love to use the term True Christianity as if this had any definable meaning. Any honest reader should recognize that if this ploy cannot work for support of Nazism, Communism, Islam, (or any religion not your own) or any ideological belief-system, then neither can it work for Christianity.
As for the Church’s supposed role against Nazism, when the focus gets narrowed as to just what Church opposed Hitler, sadly, one can only point to a single minor opposing Church body: the Confessing Church. Although one should always fairly honor any heroic struggle against oppression of human freedom, the ethical dilemma faced by the Confessing Church did not exactly meet the demands for opposing anti-Semitism.
Hitler wanted to combine all the regional Protestant churches into a single and united Reich Church. Of course this meant government control of the Church and a minority of Lutheran Pastors foresaw the dangers. In 1933, a few Protestant Pastors, namely Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and others formed the “Pastors Emergency League” which later became known as “The Confessing Church” to oppose the state controlled Nazi Church.
It bears some importance to understand that Germany did not recognize the Confessing Church as an official Church. Not only the Nazis, but all other Protestant Churches condemned the Confessing Church. They thought of it as a minority opposition that held little power. The vast majority of German churches supported Hitler and his policies against the Jews. Moreover, they advocated composing an “Aryan Paragraph” in church synods that would prevent non-aryans from joining the Church, which of course included Jews.
In spite of the myth that has developed that the Confessing Church opposed Hitler for anti-Semitic reasons, the main reason for the opposition actually aimed to protect the power of Pastors to determine who should preach and who they can preach to. The Barmen Declaration of Faith (by Karl Barth, et al) became the principle statement of The Confessing Church. Not a single sentence in it opposes anti-Semitism. According to Professor John S. Conway: “The Confessing Church did not seek to espouse the cause of the Jews as a whole, nor to criticize the secular legislation directed against the German Jews and the Nazi racial philosophy.”
Basically, the Confessing Church wanted to save themselves from state control by forming what they considered themselves as the “True Church” (don’t all Christians think of themselves as belonging to the True Church?). They did not want government interference with Church self-regulation. This of course deserves plaudits as history has shown that state controlled religions have always ended in oppressing its people. The formation of the United States with its secular government aimed at just this kind of freedom of religion from the state. On this account, the Confessing Church deserves honorable mention. However, just what did they oppose about the Jewish question?
It turns out that the Pastors of the Confessing Church held concerns only for Jews who converted to Christianity. Of course they viewed Jews who converted to Christianity as Christian, not Jewish. This Christian centered view gave them the reason for their objection to the “Aryan Paragraph.” For Jews who did not convert, they held strong anti-Semitic feelings. Remember that these pastors lived as well read Lutherans; any reading of Martin Luther will reveal strong anti-Semetic feelings toward Jews who did not convert (see, On the Jews and their lies).
Although Martin Niemöller opposed the Nazi regime, he concurred with the Nazi view in one foundational respect: the Jews as eternally evil. In one of his sermons, he attacked the Nazis (without naming them) by likening them to the Jews! [Niemöller 1937] Pastor Bonhoeffer, according to his beliefs, saw the Nazi treatment against Jews as proof of God’s curse on Jews. Shortly after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer wrote to a theologian friend that regarded the Jews “the most sensible people have lost their heads and their entire Bible.” [Goldhagen, 1996, p.109] To Bonhoeffer’s credit, he did proclaim a credo of non-violence, but this did not come from Christian theology. Rather he based his non-violent stand from Mahatma Gandhi and the humanistic movement (he claimed to be a disciple of Gandhi). His neo-orthodox view opposed most every cardinal doctrine of Christian faith to a point that some considered him an atheist. Indeed he claimed it impossible to know the objective truth about Christ’s real nature and even claimed that “God was dead” (Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Macmillan Co., 1972, pp. 9-12, 378; Ethics, pp. 38, 186; No Rusty Swords, pp. 44-45). Karl Barth, considered a great theologian, and an opponent of the Nazis, and to his credit, did oppose the persecution of Jews, had nevertheless, made us quite clear of his own anti-Semitism. In his Advent sermon of 1933, he denounced the Jews, Luther style, as “an obstinate and evil people.” In a July 1944 Lecture in Zurich, Barth said, “We do not like the Jews as a rule, it is therefore not easy for us to apply to them as well the general love for humankind…”
Richard Steigmann-Gall’s research found that, “many confessional Lutherans who would later join the Confessing Church received the Nazi movement warmly.” Otto Dibelius, General Superintendent of the Kurmark, and one of the most conservative in the Confessing Church, certified the Nazi movement as Christian: “The National Socialists, as the strongest party of the right, have shown both a firm, positive relationship to Christianity…. We may expect that they will remain true to their principles in the new Reichstag.” After the Nazi Seizure of Power, Dibelius continued to view Nazism this way, even to the point of excusing Nazi brutality [Steigmann-Gall]. At a 1933 service in Berlin’s Nikolaikirche for the new Reichstag, Dibelius announced: “We have learned from Martin Luther that the church cannot get in the way of state power when it does what it is called to do. Not even when [the state] becomes hard and ruthless…. When the state carries out its office against those who destroy the foundations of state order, above all against those who destroy honor with vituperative and cruel words that scorn faith and vilify death for the Fatherland, then [the state] is ruling in God’s name!” [Steigmann-Gall].
Unfortunately, several of the members of the Confessing Church lost their lives in opposing Hitler. Bonhoeffer, for example, joined with several high ranking Nazi officers in a plan to assassinate Hitler. He also contacted foreigners to gain support for a call to resistance. The Nazi’s sentenced him for his opposition to Hitler and his policies (not because of his Christianity as some believers want us to believe). He died in the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945.
Nevertheless, even after the war, members of the Confessing Church admitted their guilt. For example, Gerhard Kittle, a world-renowned scholar of the New Testament confessed his political guilt as he insisted that a “Christian anti-Judaism” which he found in the New Testament and in the tradition of the Christian church determined his attitude toward the Jewish question during the Third Reich.[Wollenberg, p. 76] On March 1946, in a lecture in Zurich, Martin Niemöller declared: “Christianity in Germany bears a greater responsibility before God than the National Socialists, the SS and the Gestapo.” [Goldhagen, p.114]
Considering that the Confessing Church with its few members, represents the most active religious protest against Nazism in Germany, it projects a poor commentary on the state of Christiandom as a whole, even if the other churches had remained passive. Unfortunately most Christian churches in Germany took an active role, not only by accepting Nazism, but to support and strengthen it.
The repulsive behavior of the Catholic hierarchy and the Protestant leaders in Germany presented here gives only a glimpse of the known atrocities and inhumane acts perpetrated through religious beliefs. Much remains unknown; the uncovering of the terrible history of Catholic and Protestant Germany during WWII continues. The silence of Catholic and Protestants, church members, priests, and nuns continues to this day. However, there occurs a few brave researchers who dig to uncover the facts. As one example, Anja Elizabeth Romus (best known in the U.S. from the fictionalized movie, “The Nasty Girl ”) continues to research and write about the priests who suppressed their anti-Semitic role in Germany (Romus’ first book: “A Case of Resistance and Persecution, Passau 1933-1939,” 1983). In her latest book, “Wintergreen: suppressed Murders,” she documents the atrocities in her hometown [Passau] at the end of the war including the slaying of 2,000 Soviet prisoners, the murder of slave laborers’ infants and the efforts to change memorials to victims so that Nazi horrors would remain forgotten. Rosmus has endured verbal abuse, death threats and lawsuits in response to her dedication to the memories of those who faced Nazi persecution.
Recent evidence has surfaced that shows that both Germany’s Roman Catholic Church and Germany’s Protestant Church used forced laborers during the Third Reich. Religious affairs organizations have attempted to get the Churches to pay into a compensation fund for Nazi victims. According to Christa Nickels, religious affairs spokeswoman for junior coalition government partners the Greens, said the Church should immediately pay into the fund; “The correct thing to do is for the Church to pay into the fund. It’s not about when, where and how many forced laborers were used, but whether the two main churches were involved in the system.” [Reuters news, 20 July 2000]
How can one come to terms with such a powerful and oppressive system that denies its involvements with crime? Priests and ministers get held in high regard as they unconsciously hide their tracks with “moral” platitudes and religious services that seem to have nothing in common with past Church intolerances. In the United States, Father Patrick Peyton in the 50s campaigned at encouraging the recital of the Rosary in the home with the famous slogan, “The family that prays together stays together” and “A world at prayer is a world at peace.” How in the world can anyone justify such fake sentiments in light of the fact that Christians have prayed for peace ever since Christianity’s invention without a single lasting result? The horrors of WWII introduced by religious minds appear so obvious and dominate that only some powerful agency could possibly conceal the obvious facts from so many people for so long a time. That agency, indeed, does exist and it confronts every conscious believing human being at every waking hour: the power of Faith, that hideous instrument of counterfeit reality that can convince even the most educated human.
One should also keep in mind that the sheep of Christ, the blind followers of Christian leaders, no matter how grievous their sins or the sins of their pastors and priests, could rest in assured comfort that they lived as a part of the people of God. This religious system excluded anyone who refused to pay allegiance to Popes and ministers.
The questioned cry of “How could these atrocities have happen?” could only come from a religious mind overwhelmed by falsification or who must live in a state of denial against the abundant facts of history to protect a religious illusion. The Nazi atrocities did not come from a mad leader (a common excuse) or from a superstitious Satan, or from the mysterious workings of God—they occurred from common people acting from their beliefs. The question has an obvious answer and it sits staring at us in the face for anyone who dares look.
Today the Catholic Church has undertaken a campaign of suppression and propaganda to belittle Cornwell, Goldhagen, Romus or any researcher that dares to uncover the reality of the atrocities committed by Roman Catholic Christians. Today, Protestant leaders rarely mention the influence by Martin Luther and his anti-Jewish sentiments taught throughout Germany. Indeed, most Protestants live completely unaware of the hatred and intolerances spread by their congressional ancestors. Instead of releasing documents and admitting to the crimes of their fellow Christians, they have opted to protect their religious power structures by silence, concealment, suppression, and projecting the story of persecutions committed against their own religion by other ideological systems, a ploy that disguises their own complicity of persecutions heaped upon others.
Catholics and Protestants might protest against revealing the reality of Church involvement by claiming a trampling on the sensibilities of the religious people between Church and the modern effort to form some sort of conciliation between Christians and Jews. However this tactic only distances themselves from the recognition of the very problem that created the problem in the first place. The seeds of intolerance sits firmly in the place where it has always been—in the “sacred” scriptures and in the minds of believers who read them and act upon its words.
Cornwell, John, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, Viking, 1999
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Alfred A. Knoph, 1996
Helmreich, Ernst Christian, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1979
Hold, John B., Under the Swastika, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1936
Lewy, Guenter, “The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany,” Da Capo Press, 1964
Macfarland, Charles S., The New Church and the New Germany: A Study of Church and State, N.Y. Macmillan Co, 1934
McGovern, William Montgomery, From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1941
Niemöller, Martin, Here Stand I! Chicago: Willett, Clarke & Co., 1937
Steigmann-Gall, Richard “The Holy Reich: Nazi conception of Christianity, 1919-1945,” Cambridge University Press, 2003
Wollenberg, Jorg, Ed., The German Public and the Persecution of the Jews 1933-1945: No One Participated, No One Knew (Chapter: When the Witnesses Were Silent, The Confessing Church and the Jews, by Wolfgang Gerlach), Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1996
The Protestant Reaction to the Nazi Holocaust, by Michael Hakeem, Ph.D.:
1945: The German churches before and afterwards:
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