Nazis and Church Locked Horns Early


While the Nazi regime is most often identified with anti-Semitism and the systemic murder of some 6 million Jews, Hitler's regime was also responsible for creating untold numbers of Christian martyrs.

While the Nazi regime is most often identified with anti-Semitism and the systemic murder of some 6 million Jews, Hitler's regime was also responsible for creating untold numbers of Christian martyrs.

In anticipation of Pope John Paul II's May 7 ecumenical commemoration of 20th century martyrs, the Legionaries of Christ's Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome held a congress on "The Martyrs of Eastern Europe and Nazism."

Speakers included Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, a leading historian and the official postulator for the canonization cause of Pope Pius XII. Father Gumpel has been outspoken in his defense of the wartime Pope in face of published criticisms alleging indifference by the Pope regarding widespread suffering by the Jews.

He spoke to ZENIT, the Rome-based news service, prior to making his presentation.

What was the Catholic Church's position on Hitler before he came to power?

Father Gumpel: Before Hitler's arrival in power, the German Episcopate condemned the National Socialist Movement repeatedly and categorically. It prohibited Catholics from being associated with it or voting for it. The vast majority of faithful followed these instructions. From the statistics, regarding the political votes that took place on Jan. 30, 1933, and on March 5 of the same year, it is readily seen that virtually all the Catholics remained faithful to the Zentrum Christian party, well-known for its opposition to Hitler's Party.

What was the basis of the Catholic opposition?

This vehement opposition of the German [bishops] and the Catholic faithful was based essentially on the fact that in his book,Mein Kampf, and in his speeches, Hitler took the supremacy of the state to an extreme, to the degree of doing away with individual freedom. Moreover, his theology was totally pagan and racist, in conflict with the open and determined condemnation of anti-Semitism proclaimed by the [Vatican's] Holy Office, by order of Pius XI as early as 1928. In a word, Hitler was a pure opportunist, who lied publicly and consciously; therefore, he was someone who did not inspire trust.

What was the role of Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, in all this? He has been accused of failing to denounce Nazism sufficiently, and of being "Hitler's Pope."

The German [bishops'] position was identical with that of Eugenio Pacelli, then [serving as] apostolic nuncio in Germany. He also actively supported this position. During his stay in Germany, Pacelli made 44 public speeches and in 40 of these attacked the fundamental theses of communism and National Socialism.

Can you site an example of his personal feelings toward Hitler?

As Sister Pascalina, his close collaborator, explains and is confirmed by other witnesses, Pacelli, the future Pius XII, said of Hitler: "This man is completely earned away; everything he says and writes has the mark of his egocentrism; this man is capable of trampling on corpses and eliminating anything that is an obstacle. I cannot understand how there are so many people in Germany who do not understand him, and cannot draw conclusions from what he says or writes. Have any of them even read his horrifying Mein Kampf?"

Some authors maintain that the relation between the Church and Nazism changed after the concordat between the Holy See and Germany in 1933.

As the Vatican itself and the most astute Catholics foresaw, Hitler never had any intention of respecting the concordat. With the exception of the strictly liturgical or para-liturgical functions, the rest of the Church's activities were systematically hampered and later gradually suppressed. The newspapers, magazines and books published by Catholics were quickly [and] strictly censured and later eliminated. Religious schools were blocked in their activity by fraudulent methods and later closed.

Numerous Catholic associations were forced to join with Nazi associations, or were banned and dissolved.

Tell us more about Catholic life under the Nazis.

Convents and religious houses were confiscated under all kinds of pretexts. Priests and religious were spied on even in churches, and denounced to the Gestapo if they explained Christian doctrine in a way that displeased the Nazis.

Close to a third of the diocesan and regular clergy suffered persecutions by the political police and a good number of them ended up in prisons or concentration camps. A large number of lay people suffered the same fate.

What impact did this have, especially on the young?

Adolescents who did not form part of the "Hitler Youth" were not admitted to graduation exams, much less to university, nor could they find work.

There was a systematic campaign against the Catholic Church, the Pope, priests, religious, and believers in general in newspapers, magazines, and radio transmissions, which labeled them enemies of the Reich and often obscenely accused them of all kinds of crimes against morality.

Public opinion was constantly influenced by the dissemination of anti-Catholic shows and songs. The bishops and the Holy See protested but the German government did not respond.

In 1937 the cup overflowed - the Holy See published the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern).

The results were dramatic because it unleashed a violent reaction on the part of the Nazis, enormously increasing the persecution of the Church in Germany.

What motivated Hitler to move against the Church?

From the beginning Hitler and his closest followers were motivated by a pathological hatred for the Catholic Church, which they appraised correctly as the most dangerous opponent to what they hoped to do in Germany. Proof of this, among other things, are Hitler's already published discussions with those closest to him, Joseph Goebbels' diary, Martin Bormann's decrees, Alfred Rosenberg's delirious diatribes, and Heinrich Himmler's orders to the SS and Gestapo.

Why was this so?

There was radical divergence between the Nazis and the Catholic Church.

All those who did not adhere unconditionally to their way of thinking and acting were considered and treated as enemies who had to be annihilated.

This attitude necessarily meant ... an enraged struggle ... against the Catholic Church, which by its character and nature could not consent. In the face of a totalitarian state, Catholics faithful to Christ and the Church essentially only had faith, hope, and charity, the weapons of the spirit.

They could only suffer persecution, remain firm, not cede and, if necessary, be ready to suffer martyrdom,


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