Jewish Affairs

German Catholicism and the Third Reich

The Roman Catholic church in Nazi Germany supported the regime’s antisemitic policies, says an American scholar specializing in modern German history.

Speaking in Toronto during Holocaust Education Week, Beth Griech-Polelle, a Bowling Green State University historian, said the German church accommodated itself to Adolf Hitler’s new order to protect its interests and parishioners.

Fearing it would be persecuted unless it fully backed the Nazis, the church extended a hand of friendship to Hitler. Acutely aware that Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century prime minister of Prussia, had placed restrictions on the church in the 1870s and 1880s, bishops and cardinals sought to curry favor with the Third Reich, she said.

Hitler regarded the crusade against communism as an integral component of Nazi ideology, and the church concurred with his view, she added.

Two months after his accession to power, Hitler met two leading representatives of the church and told them that his policy toward Jews was in complete accord with traditional Roman Catholic theory and practice, and they essentially agreed with Hitler’s assessment.

In this spirit, the church backed the brief Nazi boycott of Jewish-owned businesses in April 1933, with the cardinal of Munich describing it as an economic question that affected only one “interest group.”

And when the Nazis passed a series of anti-Jewish laws to isolate and humiliate Jews, the church remained conspicuously silent, she noted.

The church was similarly silent when mentally and physically handicapped Germans were subjected to forced sterilizations, a procedure totally at odds with its moral doctrine.

Nor did church leaders protest the passage of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which forbade marriages and sexual relations between Jews and Christians and stripped German Jews of their citizenship. Instead, the church demanded financial compensation from the regime for having researched the racial origins of its members, who comprised 40 percent of Germany’s population.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy supported Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, a mainly Catholic nation, on the grounds that the proportion of Catholics in Germany would increase.

Griech-Polelle said the church had no objection to Germany’s decision to emblazon theĀ red letter J (Jude) on theĀ German passports of Jews, calling the church’s acquiescence a “morally bankrupt policy.”

Neither did the church condemn Kristallnacht, the first pogrom to erupt under Nazi auspices and a precursor to the Holocaust, noted Griech-Polelle, who spoke on Nov. 9, the 75th anniversary of its eruption.

The church believed it would be “too risky” to denounce the pogrom, which claimed the lives of 91 Jews, led to the arrest and incarceration of 30,000 Jews and resulted in the destruction of most of the synagogues in Germany.

When World War II broke out in 1939, the church urged Roman Catholics to support the war effort as a civic and religious cause, she observed.

In reponse to the euthanasia campaign, which targeted physically and mentally handicapped Germans, the church maintained a deafening silence. During this process, 5,000 children and 70,000 to 80,000 adults were killed by slow starvation, lethal injection and poison gas.

The bishop of Munster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, denounced the campaign in 1941, she pointed out. But he said nothing about the persecution of Jews.

Some priests, however, condemned the Nazis and helped Jews.

Bernhard Lichtenberg, a priest in Berlin, prayed openly on behalf of Jews. Accused of treason, he was imprisoned. Two years into his sentence, he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, and died en route, said Griech-Polelle.

In 1996, the Vatican hailed him as a martyr.