Guenter Lewy
The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2009 by Gary McGath
"We feel offended on account of this questioning of our loyalty to the state. Catholic men, we will now pray together a paternoster for the life of the Führer." ("Katholische Männer, wir beten jetzt zusammen ein Vaterunser für das Leben des Führers.") -- Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, June 7, 1936

The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany isn't the most recent word on the subject, but the points which it makes are important enough that I want to write this review as a historical note. It records a history of collaboration, cowardice, and outright support by most of Germany's Catholic clergy for the Nazi regime. Nearly all segments of German society of the time, except those that were targeted for persecution, were similarly guilty, but especially heavy guilt falls on those who claimed to offer a positive moral force while excusing one of the most brutal regimes in world history.

The leading Catholic bishops in the early thirties disliked the rise of liberalism and individualism with the Weimar Republic. Many of them saw National Socialism, with its stress on authority and nationalism, as a correction to this, as well as a defense against atheistic Communism. As the outrages under Hitler grew, their support only became stronger, with a pronounced shift from national loyalty to personal loyalty to the Führer.

Lewy notes the courageous exceptions, such as Alfred Delp, who joined the resistance and was executed. He discusses some issues, such as the execution of the ill and forced sterilization, where church leaders did speak out, sometimes with positive effect. He cites the many local priests who were sent to concentration camps. But he leaves no doubt that the Catholic leadership in Germany gave a disgraceful degree of support to Hitler's government and generally remained silent on its atrocities and aggression.

The book covers the role of the Vatican in less detail, but doesn't let Popes Pius XI and XII off lightly. They maintained a policy of strict neutrality, and Pius XII encouraged the Catholics of England, France, Germany, and Italy to kill each other with God's blessing. While the Vatican offered sanctuary to Jews in Italy, Pius XII never denounced the Nazi persecution, and the Church never excommunicated Hitler. The excuse is commonly offered that doing so would have increased the persecution of Catholics; the truth, according to Lewy, is that German Catholics would have revolted against an explicit denunciation of the Nazis.

Any institution which is over 1500 years old has learned to protect its existence and make deals. Perhaps nothing more could have been expected of the Catholic Church under the circumstances. But other institutions in Germany have at least admitted the wrongfulness of the support they gave to the Nazis. Since the Catholic Church claims to be divinely inspired, an admission of institutional guilt borders on blasphemy. Nonetheless, it needs to admit it.

This review last revised on February 21, 2009

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