Modern history



Hitler both admired and feared the Catholic Church, which at the time of his appointment as Reich Chancellor claimed the allegiance of about 20 million Germans, or one-third of the population, mostly in the South and West. Like Bismarck before him, he considered Catholics less than totally committed to the national cause because their Church owed its institutional allegiance not to the German state but to Rome. Other leading Nazis who had come from a Catholic background, such as Joseph Goebbels, also stood in some awe of the Church’s powerful and elaborate organization and its ability to convince its members of the rightness of its creed. Hitler admired the commitment that celibacy gave its priests, and the closeness of its links with the common people.45Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, reacted against a strict Catholic upbringing with a hatred of the Church that can only be called fanatical. In 1936, Heydrich classified the Jews and the Catholic Church, acting above all through political institutions such the Centre Party, as the two principal enemies of Nazism. As an international body, he argued, the Catholic Church was necessarily subversive of the racial and spiritual integrity of the German people.46 Moreover, the Catholics, unlike the Protestants, had been largely represented by a single political party, the Centre, whose voters, again unlike those of most other parties, had mostly remained loyal and resisted the appeal of Nazism during the elections of the early 1930s. Much of the blame for this could be laid in the Nazis’ view at the feet of the clergy, who had preached vehemently against the Nazi Party, in many cases ruled that Catholics could not join it, and strongly urged their congregations to continue voting for the Centre or its Bavarian equivalent, the Bavarian People’s Party.47 For many if not most leading Nazis, therefore, it was vitally important to reduce the Catholic Church in Germany as quickly as possible to total subservience to the regime.

The Catholic community had already agreed in 1933 to abandon the Centre Party, which duly wound itself up along with a few other obviously political organizations such as the Catholic Trade Unions, but it expected the vast majority of other lay organizations within the Catholic confession to be allowed to maintain their independence. This expectation seemed reasonable enough to many Catholics in view of the formal Concordat concluded between the Nazi regime and the Papacy in July 1933, which had promised to protect Catholic lay institutions in return for the Church’s commitment to abstain from any involvement in politics. 48 The Concordat’s provisions on this point were extremely vague, however, and during the summer of 1933 the regime began seizing the property of Catholic lay organizations and forcing them to close down if they did not do so voluntarily. On 20 July newspapers were forbidden to call themselves ‘Catholic’ (all newspapers were to be ‘German’), and on 19 September 1933, the Bavarian political police, under Heinrich Himmler, banned ‘all activities on the part of Catholic organizations’ apart from youth groups, church choirs meeting for rehearsal, and charitable organizations considering applications for support. Alarmed, Cardinal Bertram, in Breslau, told Pope Pius XI on 4 October of the problems he foresaw with the Nazi ambition to exert total control over society, the banning of Catholic periodicals, the state’s interference in Church charities, and the banning or ‘co-ordination’ of Catholic voluntary associations. Another leading figure in the Church, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, objected publicly to attacks on non-Aryan Catholics, although he made no criticism of the regime’s moves against non-Catholic Jews. In the Vatican, Cardinal Pacelli, former Papal Nuncio to Germany and now Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI, complained to the German Foreign Ministry and threatened to issue a public letter of protest. But in practice nothing was done. The Catholic hierarchy in Germany considered it more effective to issue general declarations of support for the regime in the hope that they would stem the tide of anti-Catholic actions. Thus Archbishop Gröber in Freiburg declared publicly on 10 October 1933 ‘that I am placing myself completely behind the new government and the new Reich’, and then used his open loyalty to the regime to try to persuade the Nazi authorities in Baden to stop attacks on the Church. Yet the hierarchy could not protest too forcefully against measures it disliked because that was to enter the realm of politics, from which it had explicitly excluded itself by agreeing to the Concordat.49

Map 6. Religious Affiliation in 1936

In practice, the leading Nazis were aware of the dangers inherent in attacking deep-rooted institutions and traditions in the Catholic community. So they proceeded slowly. Even Himmler insisted in an order issued on 2 November 1933 that no anti-Catholic measures were to be taken without his instructions. The Gestapo began surveillance of Catholic activities, including church services, and paid particular attention to laymen formerly prominent in the Centre Party and the Bavarian People’s Party, drawing up lengthy lists of Catholics thought still to be opposed to the regime.50 Leading Nazis were particularly concerned at the continued refusal of Catholic youth organizations to dissolve themselves, which meant that the Hitler Youth was unable to make much progress in strongly Catholic areas. Control over the younger generation was vital for the building of the future. On 15 March 1934 the Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach condemned the divisive influence of Catholic youth groups and urged parents to enrol their children in his own movement. He also started to encourage Hitler Youth units to pick fights with members of rival Catholic youth groups, thus beginning to apply the kind of coercion on the streets that had proved so effective on a wider scale in the first half of 1933.51 The hierarchy was given a sharp reminder when the SS shot dead Erich Klausener, General Secretary of Catholic Action, an important lay body, in his office in Berlin during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1934, along with Adalbert Probst, National Director of the Catholic Youth Sports Association. In Munich those shot included Fritz Gerlich, editor of the Catholic weekly The Strait Way (Der gerade Weg) and a well-known critic of the regime. It was also strongly rumoured that the former Centre Party leader and ex-Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning had been on the death-list, but he happened fortuitously to be on a visit to London and so escaped. The import of these events, which took place in the middle of personal negotiations between Hitler and the Catholic hierarchy on the future of Catholic lay organizations, could hardly have been clearer. Yet the same hierarchy made no protest about the murders. Instead, it joined with the Evangelical Church in a shared sense of relief at the defeat of supposedly immoral brownshirt radicals such as Röhm and appeared outwardly satisfied with the explanation that the murdered men had committed suicide or been shot while trying to escape.52


These events were swiftly followed by the death of Hindenburg, who was strongly identified as a representative of a conservative, Protestant, Christian faith, and the ending of the Nazi project of creating a national Church united around the German Christian idea. All this opened the way to a sharp escalation of anti-Catholic policies. It was at this time that a fierce debate began over the anti-Christian writings of the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, who publicly rejected such central doctrines as the immortality of the soul and Christ’s redemption of humankind from original sin. In his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century, Rosenberg excoriated Catholicism as the creation of Jewish clericalism, and he elaborated these ideas further in a series of books published in the mid-1930s.53Even the German Christians were appalled. They asked Hitler to repudiate these ideas, though without success. Rosenberg’s publications were immediately placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, and elicited a furious response from the German Catholic clergy. A variety of pamphlets, books, meetings and sermons condemned Rosenberg’s teachings, and anathematized his supporters within the Nazi Party. Rosenberg’s works were officially treated by the regime as nothing more than expressions of his own private views, however. It felt no need to disown them. But the regime recognized at the same time that the controversy was building up the resistance of the Catholic community to further penetration by Nazi ideology and institutions. As a Gestapo report noted in May 1935: ‘Numerous clerics are now taking a very critical position from the pulpit towards Rosenberg’s Myth and his new work To the Obscurantists of Our Day. They curse the spirit of the new age, the Godless and the heathen, by which they mean National Socialism.’54

The controversy over Rosenberg’s ideas soon began to take on what the Nazi leadership regarded as more dangerous forms as the German bishops issued public rebukes to the Nazi ideologue and called on the faithful to reject his ideas.55 In his Easter message, written on 19 March 1935, Clemens von Galen, the Bishop of Münster, launched a fierce attack on Rosenberg’s book. ‘There are heathens again in Germany,’ he noted in alarm, and he criticized Rosenberg’s idea of the racial soul. ‘The so-called eternal racial soul’, declared Galen, ‘is in reality a nullity.’ Early in July 1935, Rosenberg took the opportunity to criticize Galen at a rally in Münster, and in response, the Catholic faithful in Münster appeared in unprecedented numbers at the annual July procession through the streets held to commemorate the local Church’s survival of Bismarck’s persecution half a century before and - on this occasion - the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Anabaptists who had instituted a reign of terror in the town during the Reformation. Nineteen thousand Catholics, double the usual number, came out to cheer their bishop, who issued a ringing declaration that he would never give in to the enemies of the Church. In response, the local Party put up notices denying any intention of renewing the Bismarckian attempt to suppress the Church’s independence, while local officials reported to Berlin that Galen was stirring up discontent and accused him of meddling in politics.56 Galen wrote personally to Hitler complaining about attacks on the clergy by leading Nazis such as Baldur von Schirach.57 Compromise was clearly not in the air. Tightening the screws on the Church, Himmler and the Gestapo now began to introduce tougher measures against Catholic lay organizations and institutions, limiting public meetings, censoring the remaining Catholic newspapers and magazines and banning particular issues, and putting proven Nazis into editorial positions in the Catholic press. Both Hermann Goring and Wilhelm Frick, the Reich Interior Minister, spoke out against ‘politicizing Catholicism’, declaring that the continued existence of Catholic lay organizations was incompatible with the spirit of the age.58 Towards the end of 1935, Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry took a hand in the controversy, releasing a flood of accusations against Catholic organizations for financial corruption, just as they had done in 1933 with the trade unions.59

These new tactics failed altogether to have the desired effect in weaning the Catholic community away from its faith. The Gestapo reported that the priesthood, through the confessional and through a whole programme of house visits, was so successful in countering the allegations that the laity, especially in rural areas, ‘regards what stands written in the newspapers as a falsehood, or at least a great exaggeration’.60 The drive to recruit young people to the Hitler Youth and its female equivalent, the League of German Girls, ran up against tough opposition from Catholic priests, who were reported in some areas to be refusing absolution to girls who joined the League instead of a Catholic girls’ organization.61 Incidents began to multiply. Catholic congregations reacted with undisguised fury at the attempts of local Party bosses to remove religious statuary from public buildings such as mortuaries, and demonstratively flew Church flags instead of swastika banners to welcome visiting Catholic dignitaries. The brownshirts staged public demonstrations such as one in Rosenheim, where they demanded the sacking of a teacher who had been disciplining his pupils for failing to attend Church (‘to Dachau with him!’ was the cry).62 The Church, complained the regional government in Upper Bavaria in July 1937, was becoming a ‘state within a state’, and local Nazis were angry ‘that the Church is propagating an ongoing opposition in the most public way from its pulpits’.63 The regime’s policy even had repercussions near the centre of government: when Hitler held a ceremony to pin the golden party badge on the remaining non-Nazis in the cabinet on 30 January 1937, the Postal and Transport Minister, Peter Baron von Eltz-Rübenach, a staunch Catholic, refused to accept it and told Hitler to his face to stop repressing the Church. Furious at the embarrassment, Hitler stormed out of the room without saying a word, while the quick-witted Goebbels secured the refractory Minister’s resignation on the spot.64

In one area the conflict erupted into open protest. Villagers in a rural, deeply Catholic part of southern Oldenburg had already been upset by a reduction of religious education in the schools and the regional Education Minister’s defence of Rosenberg’s anti-Catholic diatribes. On 4 November, the Minister made matters far worse by banning the religious consecration of new school buildings and ordering the removal of religious symbols such as crucifixes (and, for that matter, portraits of Luther) from all state, municipal and parish buildings, including schools. The local Catholic clergy protested from the pulpit. On 10 November, 3,000 war veterans assembled to celebrate Remembrance Day heard a priest swear never to tolerate the removal of crucifixes from the schools. He would, he told the crowd, fight the decree and if necessary die for the cause, just as the veterans had in the First World War. Parish bells were rung everywhere in the morning and evening as a further sign of protest. Mass petitions were handed in ceremoniously to the regional Education Ministry. Crosses on people’s houses and in the schools were decorated, and large crosses were affixed to church towers and lit up at night with electric light bulbs. Parishioners began to resign from the Nazi Party and one branch of the brownshirts dissolved itself in protest. At a meeting attended by 7,000 ordinary citizens, the Party’s Regional Leader was forced to announce the decree’s withdrawal. It was followed by the renewed ringing of church bells all over the district, services of thanksgiving and the publication in the whole diocese, far beyond the immediate locality, of a pastoral letter by Bishop von Galen recounting the affair, celebrating the victory, and vowing to have no truck with enemies of Christ. The affair did lasting damage to the standing of the Nazi Party in southern Oldenburg, where despite massive manipulation and intimidation it gained a strikingly low vote in the Reichstag election of 1938 - 92 per cent as against 99 per cent in the same district in the election of March 1936.65

Already since even before the Concordat had been ratified, Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State in Rome, had been sending a steady stream of lengthy and circumstantially detailed complaints to the German government about such violations, listing hundreds of cases in which the brownshirts had closed down Catholic lay organizations, confiscated money and equipment, engaged in anti-Christian propaganda, banned Catholic publications, and much more. In response, the German government repeatedly told the Vatican that its fight against Marxism and Communism demanded the unity of the German people through the ending of confessional divisions. Catholic priests were hindering this struggle, publicly branding the swastika as the ‘Devil’s cross’, refusing to use the Hitler greeting, expelling brownshirts from church services and continuing to violate the Concordat by including political attacks on the regime in their sermons. The regime therefore continued the war on the cultural infrastructure of the Catholic community on many fronts. Catholic youth organizations, which in May 1934 numbered 1.5 million members, and ranged from the Catholic equivalent of the Boy Scouts to Catholic sports clubs of many kinds, were an obvious target, especially since there were frequent clashes with the Hitler Youth, though these were mostly confined to the shouting of insults. Catholic youth organizations in the eyes of the regime were ‘anti-nationalist and anti-National Socialist’ and had to be suppressed. Members of these organizations came under growing pressure to resign and join the Hitler Youth instead.66 The Reich Theatre Chamber began from 1935 onwards to ban Church-sponsored musical and also theatrical events, arguing that they were competing financially and ideologically with Nazi-sponsored concerts and plays. By 1937 it was banning Nativity plays, arguing they were a form of Catholic political propaganda and so contrary to the provisions of the Concordat.67

In these as in many other areas, Pacelli continued to remonstrate with the German government in a stream of lengthy, detailed and strongly worded memoranda. After the beginning of Goebbels’s campaign against alleged financial corruption in the Church, the tone of the exchanges between Berlin and Rome became much sharper. Relations seemed to be plunging into open hostility.68 Church services and sermons in Germany were now, the Vatican complained, being subjected to constant surveillance by the authorities: ‘The repellent phenomenon of informers hovers around every step, every word, every official act.’69 In many parts of the country, Catholic priests were engaging in a largely spontaneous war of words with local Party leaders and officials over continuing Party attempts to co-ordinate denominational schools and Catholic youth organizations. These struggles were indeed, regional state officials reported, the only cause of open political dissent within Germany by the mid-1930s.70 Matters came to a head when, alarmed at the escalating conflict, a delegation of senior German bishops and cardinals, including Bertram, Faulhaber and Galen, went to Rome in January 1937 to denounce the Nazis for violating the Concordat. Meeting with a favourable response from the Pope, Faulhaber drafted a Papal Encyclical which was considerably extended by Pacelli, drawing on his lengthy correspondence with the German government and summing up the complaints that the Vatican had now been making for several years. The document was approved by the Pope, smuggled into Germany, secretly printed at twelve different locations, distributed to parish priests by boys on bicycles or on foot, and read out from virtually every Catholic pulpit in the land on 21 March 1937.

Written in German and entitled Mit brennender Sorge, ‘with burning concern’, it condemned the ‘hatred’ and ‘calumny’ poured on the Church by the Nazis.71 Although much of the document was cast in theological language not easily comprehensible to laypeople, some of it at least was clear enough. When it came to the regime’s policies towards the Church, Pope Pius XI, using language supplied to him by Cardinal Pacelli, certainly did not mince words. ‘Anyone’, he thundered, who unties the race, or the people, or the form taken by the state, the bearers of state power or other basic values of human social construction - which claim a significant and honourable place within the earthly order of things - from this, its temporal scale of values, makes it the highest norm of all, including religious values, and deifies it with an idolatrous cult, overturns and falsifies the order of things created and commanded by God.72

For the faithful, the eternal values of religion had to be paramount. In order to undermine them, however, the Encyclical went on, the German government, was conducting an ‘annihilatory struggle’ against the Church:

With measures of compulsion both visible and concealed, with intimidation, with threats of economic, professional, civic and other disadvantages, the doctrinal faithfulness of Catholics and in particular of certain classes of Catholic civil servants are being placed under a pressure that is as illegal as it is inhumane.73

Enraged at this condemnation, and alarmed at the evidence it provided of the Catholic Church’s ability to organize a nationwide protest without arousing the slightest suspicion in advance even from the Gestapo, Hitler ordered all copies of the Encyclical to be seized, anyone found in possession of it to be arrested, any further publication of it to be banned and all the firms who had printed it closed down.74

Armed since 1936 with his new powers as Head of the German Police, Himmler now stepped up the campaign against the Church. Together with his deputy Reinhard Heydrich, he placed secret agents in Church organizations, and escalated police harassment of clerics. There was a further clamp-down on the diocesan press, restrictions were placed on pilgrimages and processions, even Catholic marriage guidance and parenthood classes were banned because they did not convey the National Socialist view of these things. By 1938 the majority of Catholic youth groups had been closed down on the grounds that they were assisting in the dissemination of ‘writings hostile to the state’. Catholic Action, whose leaders in Germany allegedly maintained communications with Prelate Kaas, the former leader of the Centre Party, was also banned in January 1938.75 State subsidies for the Church were cut in Bavaria and Saxony, and monasteries were dissolved and their assets confiscated. House-searches and arrests of ‘political’ priests underwent a sharp increase, with a steady stream of well-publicized cases of ‘abuse of the pulpit’ brought before the court. The arrest and trial of one Jesuit priest, Rupert Mayer, led to angry public demonstrations in court by his supporters and special prayers for him being defiantly said in Munich’s St Michael’s church. Some priests continued to refuse to knuckle under, and there were reports of priests refusing to give the Nazi salute and telling children to say ‘Praised be Jesus Christ’ instead of ‘Hail, Hitler’.76 In the course of this struggle, more than a third of Catholic priests in Germany were subject to some form of disciplining by the police and state authorities, up to and including imprisonment, over the whole course of the Third Reich.77 The Encyclical had clearly failed to have any immediate effect apart from further worsening relations between the Church and the regime.

The campaign was not confined to the police and the judicial administration. Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels also played his part. After the Encyclical, he intensified the publicity campaign against alleged sexual scandals involving Catholic priests that had already begun in the middle of 1935. Fifteen monks were brought before the courts in November 1935 for offences against the law on homosexuality in a home for the mentally ill in western Germany, revealing, as the press put it, a state of affairs that was ‘worse than Sodom and Gomorrah’.78 They received severe prison sentences and the attention of endless column-inches in the press. Other priests were soon being tried for alleged sexual offences against minors in Catholic children’s homes and similar institutions. By May 1936 the press was reporting the trial in Koblenz of over 200 Franciscans for similar crimes.79 Such stories meshed with the Nazi disapproval of homosexuality. They often took up the whole of the front page of national newspapers. Less publicity was given to incidents of Catholic priests and monks arrested for sexual offences against girls. Focusing on allegations of pederasty, the press claimed that the monasteries were ‘breeding-grounds of a repulsive epidemic’ which had to be stamped out. By April 1937 over a thousand priests, monks and friars were said - with what degree of truth is uncertain - to be awaiting trial on such charges.80 The tabloid press had no hesitation in leading these stories with headlines such as ‘Houses of God degraded into brothels and dens of vice’, and demanding of the Catholic Church ‘off with the mask!’, more than hinting that homosexuality and paedophilia were endemic in the Church as a whole, and not merely in isolated instances.81 These trials were created above all by the Propaganda Ministry, which supplied detailed reports to the Reich Justice Ministry and pressed for the supposed culprits to be brought before the courts in such a way that would allow it to draw the maximum publicity.

Particularly offensive, declared the press, was the fact that the Church stood behind the accused and treated them as martyrs.82 As more trials followed, the Propaganda Ministry built up a steady campaign to portray the Church as sexually corrupt and unworthy of being entrusted with the education of the young. Reporting on other sexual offences was largely suppressed, in order to convey the impression that such things only went on in the Church, where, it was suggested, they were an inevitable by-product of the celibacy that was required of the priesthood by the Church. The Catholic Church was a ‘sore on the healthy racial body’ that had to be removed, declared one article in the Nazi press.83 The campaign culminated in a furious speech by the Reich Propaganda Minister himself, delivered to an audience of 20,000 of the Party faithful, and broadcast on national radio, on 28 May 1937, denouncing Catholic ‘corrupters and poisoners of the people’s soul’ and promising that ‘this sexual plague must be exterminated root and branch’.84 These were not show trials on trumped-up charges, as the Catholic Church had complained, he told his audience, but a necessary ‘reckoning’, as the press put it, with the ‘hereditarily diseased wearers of the monk’s habit in monasteries and brotherhoods’ in the name of the moral rectitude that was inborn in the true German. The state was confronting a systematic undermining of the morality of the German people. And if the bishops continued to dispute the facts, they too would be brought before the courts. ‘It is not the law of the Vatican that rules here amongst us,’ he warned the Church, ‘but the law of the German people.’85

The campaign was a typical product of the Propaganda Ministry - drawing on what may have been an element of truth in some of the allegations, but then blowing it up out of all proportion in the service of a political aim that had little or nothing to do with the cases at issue. Goebbels’s intention was to convince ordinary Catholics that the Church was corrupt and immoral as an institution. More specifically, however, the trials provided a constant backdrop of propaganda, backed by police harassment and intimidation, against which the Nazis now launched a sustained campaign to close denominational schools and replace them with non-religious ‘community schools’, backed by votes from parents that followed the familiar pattern of elections organized by the Nazis. Parents were forced to sign prepared statements declaring that they ‘did not want the education of my child at school to be misused by stirring up religious unrest’ and supported the slogan ‘One Leader, One People, One School’. Already at the beginning of 1936, Cardinal Bertram had complained directly to Hitler of the ‘unheard-of terror’ which was being practised ‘in Bavaria, Württemberg and elsewhere. Those who vote for the denominational school are branded as enemies of the state.’ His appeal fell on deaf ears. The campaign, backed up by massive local propaganda, continued.86 ‘We don’t want to let the chaplain teach us any more!’ children were reported as saying by the leading Nazi daily paper on 25 May 1937 under the headline: ‘Entire school class defends itself against sex offender in priest’s clothing’.87

The campaign was not long in bringing results. In 1934, 84 per cent of children were still registered in denominational schools in Munich; but by the end of 1937, the proportion had fallen to a mere 5 per cent, a result achieved, as the Munich Diocesan Administration complained, ‘by means that were entirely unjust and illegal’ and involved ‘indescribable terrorism that contravened every principle of law and justice’, including the withdrawal of welfare support for those who refused to vote for the schools’ abolition. By the summer of 1939, all denominational schools in Germany had been turned into community schools, and all private schools run by the Churches had been closed down or nationalized, and the monks and priests who staffed them dismissed. Pastors and priests were prevented from teaching in primary schools in increasing numbers. At the same time, religious instruction classes were reduced in number. Later the same year, the Nazi teachers’ organization told its members not to take over religious instruction classes from the now-banned clergy, though not all obeyed. By 1939 religious instruction in vocational schools had been reduced to half an hour a week, and in many areas it had to follow guidelines that described Jesus as non-Jewish. Parents who objected to these moves - and there were many of them, Protestant as well as Catholic - were obliged by the local authorities to withdraw their objections, summoned to special meetings at the school to pressure them to sign their children up for ideological instruction instead of religious education, or even threatened with dismissal from their jobs if they refused. In similar vein, the Education Ministry drew up plans to merge or close down many of the theological faculties in the universities, while from 1939 theology posts in teacher training colleges that fell vacant were no longer filled, by order of the Education Ministry in Berlin. In a few areas, notably in Württemberg, where the Education Minister Mergenthaler was strongly anti-Christian, there were attempts to abolish religious instruction and replace it with classes on the Nazi world-view. The regime did not succeed in abolishing religious education altogether by 1939, but its long-term intentions had become abundantly clear by this date.88

The power and influence of the Catholic Church in Germany, like that of its Protestant counterpart, had been severely dented by 1939. It had been intimidated and harassed until it began to scale down its criticisms of the regime for fear that even worse might follow. Widespread threats of imprisonment, reported a local government official towards the end of 1937, had produced a ‘cautious restraint on the part of the clergy’.89 In some areas, the Gestapo took over the anti-Church campaign and rapidly succeeded in driving the Catholic Church out of public life.90 Elsewhere, there were reports by mid-1938 of a general ‘pacification in the area of Church affairs’.91 From Rome, Cardinal Pacelli continued to send interminable letters of complaint to the German government charging it with continued violations of the Concordat.92 Yet although he contemplated doing so in September 1937, Hitler in the end refrained from openly repudiating the Concordat. It was not worth the risk of arousing the hostility of the Vatican and the protests of Catholic states, particularly Austria, in the increasingly delicate state of international relations in the late 1930s. Privately, however, the Foreign Ministry made no bones about the fact that it regarded the Concordat as ‘out of date’ because many of its provisions, particularly concerning education, were ‘fundamentally opposed to the basic principles of National Socialism’. 93 It was easier to proceed piecemeal and by stealth and avoid all mention of the Concordat. In public, Hitler continued to call for the Church’s loyalty and to point out that it still received substantial state support. In the long run, however, he made it clear in private that it would be completely separated from the state, deprived of income from state taxes, and become a purely voluntary body, along with its Protestant equivalent. Catholics by and large were unaware of such intentions. For all the bitterness of the conflict, it did not result in any general alienation of the Catholic community from the Third Reich. Many Catholics were highly critical of the Nazi Party, and especially of zealots such as Rosenberg, but Hitler’s standing even here was only mildly affected. The deep-seated desire of the Catholic community since Bismarck’s time to be accepted as a full part of the German nation blunted the edge of its hostility to the anti-Christian policies of the regime, which many imagined were being pushed by radicals without the knowledge or approval of Hitler himself. This was an illusion. In the long run, as Rosenberg declared in September 1938, since young people were now almost completely under the control of the Hitler Youth and the Nazified education system, the hold of the Church over its congregation would be broken and the Catholic and Confessing Churches would disappear from the life of the people in their present form. It was a sentiment from which Hitler himself did not dissent.94


Dramatic though the escalation of this conflict may have appeared, it was in fact neither new in kind nor exclusive to Germany. Like the older generation of Social Democrats in the 1930s, older Catholic priests at the same time had experienced persecution before. In the 1870s, Bismarck had launched a determined assault on the Catholic Church in Germany that had resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of Catholic priests and the imposition of a wide range of secular checks and controls over the clergy. Similar policies were pursued at around the same time by secularizing governments in Italy and France, where the newly created states - the unified Italian monarchy and the French Third Republic - had wrested control of education from the clergy and placed it in the hands of state-appointed teachers in state-funded schools. Such policies were justified, too, by massive secularist propaganda against the supposed sexual immorality of the Catholic priesthood, above all in the use of the confessional to discuss the intimate secrets of young Catholic women. Pope Pius IX had partly sparked these conflicts, partly fuelled them, by issuing his denunciation of secularism and modernity through the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and by claiming first call on the allegiance of his flock through the Declaration of Papal Infallibility (1871). In the twentieth century, secularist persecution of the Christian Church had reached a new intensity in Mexico and Russia in the wake of the two countries’ respective revolutions. Crushing an international organization like the Church, which downgraded the state in its thinking, could form part of the process of building a new nation or a new political system. At a local level, village schoolteachers and village priests were engaged in a battle for supremacy over the minds of the young all across western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bitter Church-state struggles were nothing new, therefore, in the 1930s. What was new, perhaps, was the Nazi rejection of rationalistic secularism. In all these other cases the persecution of the Church was not tied to the promotion of an alternative religion. However powerful the claim of the state’s ideology might be, it was the claim of a secular, earthbound ideology. In the case of the Third Reich, however, the matter was not so clear.95

What would replace the Churches in Germany when they finally disappeared? Leading Nazis took a variety of positions on this issue. Hitler and Goebbels’s religious beliefs retained a residual element of Christianity, albeit an eccentric one that became notably weaker after the failure of the German Christian project in 1934-5. Even Rosenberg qualified his anti-Christian stance with support for the German Christians until their failure to take over the Evangelical Church had become clear. Initially at any rate, he admired Luther, adapted doctrines from the medieval mystic Master Eckhart and thought that a racially amended Christianity could be merged into a new Germanic religion, which would dispense with the services of priests and dedicate itself to the interests of the Aryan race. Still, by publicly advocating such a new religion in the mid-1930s, Rosenberg became the most prominent spokesman for the anti-Christian tendency within the Nazi Party.96The Myth of the Twentieth Century sold over a million copies,97 though Hitler subsequently rejected any idea that it was an official statement of Party doctrine. ‘Like many Regional Leaders’, he remarked, ‘I have myself only read a little bit of it.’ It was, he said ‘written in a style too difficult to understand’. It only began to sell, he claimed, when it was publicly condemned by Cardinal Faulhaber and placed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books.98 Yet leading Nazis, despite having failed to plough all the way through the Myth, were not averse to using its ideas in support of their policies, as when Baldur von Schirach, urging young people in 1934 to leave Catholic youth organizations and join the Hitler Youth, declared that ‘Rosenberg’s path is the path of German youth’.99 In July 1935, at the height of the controversy over Rosenberg’s attacks on the Churches, a speaker told a meeting of the Nazi Students’ League in Bernau: ‘One is either a Nazi or a committed Christian.’ Christianity, he said, ‘promotes the dissolution of racial ties and of the national racial community . . . We must repudiate the Old and the New Testaments, since for us the Nazi idea alone is decisive. For us there is only one example, Adolf Hitler and no one else.’100

Such anti-Christian ideas were widespread in the Hitler Youth and formed an increasingly important part of the Party’s programme for the indoctrination of the young. Children receiving lunches from the National Socialist welfare organization in Cologne, for example, were obliged to recite a grace before and after the meal which substituted the Leader’s name for God’s when thanks were given.101 At one training camp for schoolchildren in Freusberg, the inmates were told that the Pope was ‘a half-Jew’ and that they had to hate the ‘oriental-Jewish, racially alien teaching of Christianity’, which was incompatible with National Socialism. The mother of a twelve-year-old Hitler Youth found the following text in his pocket when he came home one evening; it was also sung in public by the Hitler Youth at the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally:

We are the jolly Hitler Youth,
We don’t need any Christian truth
For Adolf Hitler, our Leader
Always is our interceder.

Whatever the Papist priests may try,
We’re Hitler’s children until we die;
We follow not Christ but Horst Wessel.
Away with incense and holy water vessel!

As sons of our forebears from times gone by
We march as we sing with banners held high.
I’m not a Christian, nor a Catholic,
I go with the SA through thin and thick.

Not the cross, they sang, but ‘the swastika is redemption on earth’.102

Such propaganda emerged at least in part out of the drive to abolish Catholic youth organizations and enrol their members in the Hitler Youth instead. Yet it also propagated a fiercely anti-Christian ethic whose virulence and potency should not be underestimated. Watching a young Hitler Youth member enter a Munich classroom in August 1936, Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen

observed how his glance fell on the crucifix hanging behind the teacher’s desk, how in an instant his young and still soft face contorted in fury, how he ripped this symbol, to which the cathedrals of Germany, and the ringing progressions of the St Matthew Passionare consecrated, off the wall and threw it out of the window into the street . . . With the cry: ‘Lie there, you dirty Jew!’103

And there were other outspokenly anti-Christian figures within the Nazi leadership besides Schirach. Open paganism in the Party, championed by Erich Ludendorff in the mid-1920s, did not disappear with Ludendorff’s foundation of the Tannenberg League in 1925 and his expulsion from the Party two years later. Robert Ley, leader of the Labour Front, went even further than Rosenberg in his disdain for Christianity and his rejection of the Divinity of Christ, though he did not follow him down the road of creating a substitute religion.104 A more consistently paganist figure in the Nazi elite was the Party’s agricultural expert Richard

Walther Darré, whose ideology of ‘blood and soil’ made such a powerful impression on Heinrich Himmler. Darré believed that the medieval Teutons had been weakened by their conversion to Christianity, which he claimed had been foisted on them by the effete Latins from Southern Europe.105 Himmler in his turn abandoned his early Christian faith under Darré’s influence. In Himmler’s plans for the SS after 1933, the black-shirted racial elite was to become a kind of quasi-religious order, modelled to some extent on the Jesuits. The ideas that were to cement it together were drawn from supposed Germanic pagan rituals and beliefs of the Dark Ages. As an SS plan put it in 1937: ‘We live in the age of the final confrontation with Christianity. It is part of the mission of the SS to give to the German people over the next fifty years the non-Christian ideological foundations for a way of life appropriate to their own character. ’ These were to be a mixture of bits of Viking or Teutonic pagan religion with Wagnerian symbols and pure invention. The SS devised its own marriage service, with runes, a bowl of fire, Wagnerian music playing in the background and symbols of the sun presiding over the whole bizarre ceremony. The families of SS men were ordered by Himmler not to celebrate Christmas, but to mark Midsummer instead. Christianity, Himmler was to declare on 9 June 1942, was ‘the greatest of plagues’; true morality consisted not in exalting the spirit of the individual but in abnegating oneself in the service of the race. Moral values could be derived only from consciousness of one’s place in, and duty to, the chain of ‘valuable’ heredity.106

Once it became clear that there was no real possibility of fulfilling the Nazis’ early ambition of creating a unified state Church along German Christian lines for the whole of the Third Reich, leading Nazis began to encourage Party members to declare their formal renunciation of Church membership. Rosenberg, predictably, had already left the Church in 1933; Himmler and Heydrich resigned in 1936, and a growing number of Regional Leaders now followed suit. The Interior Ministry ruled that people leaving their Church could declare themselves to be ‘Deists’ (gottgläubig), and the Party decreed that office-holders could not simul taneously hold any office in the Catholic or Protestant Church. In 1936, stormtroopers were forbidden to wear uniforms at Church services, and early in 1939 the ban was extended to all Party members. By 1939, over 10 per cent of the population in Berlin, 7.5 per cent in Hamburg, and between 5 and 6 per cent in some other major cities were registered as Deists, a term which could encompass a variety of religious beliefs including paganism. The great majority of these are likely to have been Party members; the proportion of Deists in the SS had reached over 25 per cent by 1938, for instance. This process was accelerated by an escalating series of measures pushed by the energetic and strongly anti-Christian head of Rudolf Hess’s office, Martin Bormann, banning priests and pastors from playing a part in Party affairs, or even, after May 1939, from belonging to it altogether. Still, there was a long way to go before the population as a whole took part in this movement. ‘We won’t let ourselves be turned into heathens,’ one woman in Hesse was heard to say by a Gestapo agent.107 The German Faith Movement, which propagated a new, racial religion based on a mishmash of Nordic and Indian rites, symbols and texts, never won more than about 40,000 adherents, and other neopagan groups, like Ludendorff’s esoteric Tannenberg League, were even smaller.108 Nevertheless, for all the general unpopularity of the movement, it remained the case that the Nazi Party was on the way to severing all its ties with organized Christianity by the end of the 1930s.109

Whether this process was leading in the direction of a heavily amended form of ‘German Christianity’ or out-and-out paganism was the subject of an ongoing struggle between Rosenberg, whose office repeatedly tried to clamp down on publications sympathetic to the old idea of a Reich Church based on a synthesis of Nazism and Christianity, and Goebbels, who, as so often, took a more relaxed view. Goebbels teamed up with the head of the Leader’s Chancellery, Philipp Bouhler, who ran the ‘Official Party Examination Commission for the Protection of National Socialist Literature’. Its task, endorsed by Goebbels, was to check Nazi Party publications for their ideological correctness. Rosenberg’s Office for Ideological Information repeatedly tried to take over Bouhler’s commission, which it considered ideologically lax, but without success, despite the occasional tactical victory in getting Hitler to intervene against particular publications.110 Another, far less adept player in these complicated games, the Church Minister Hans Kerrl, tried to propagate the idea of a reconciliation of Protestantism and Nazism, but this had already had its day by the time of his appointment in 1935, and the obdurate refusal of the Confessing Church to go along with his plans made him seem weak and rendered him vulnerable to the attacks of more radical figures like Himmler and Rosenberg. His Ministry’s attempt to get the Concordat with the Catholic Church annulled met with similar failure, as Hitler considered it diplomatically inadvisable. By 1939, Kerrl’s influence was on the wane. He had proved quite unable to assert the monopoly over policy towards the Churches that his Ministry had ostensibly been set up to exercise.111


Nazi policy towards the Churches was thus in a state of some confusion and disarray by the eve of the war. The ideological drift was clearly away from Christianity, though there was a long way to go before the neopaganist alternative found general acceptance even within the Party. Yet for all the ideological in-fighting, one objective had remained clear from the very outset: the regime was determined to reduce, and if possible eliminate, the Churches as centres of real or potential alternative ideologies to its own.112The primacy of this objective was nowhere clearer than in the regime’s treatment of one small but close-knit sect, the ‘Earnest Bible Researchers’, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since the members of this sect had sworn to obey only Jehovah, they refused absolutely to render an oath of loyalty to Hitler. They did not give the ‘German greeting’, go to political demonstrations, take part in elections or agree to be conscripted into the armed forces. Although their humble social background in the lower middle and working classes did bring them into contact with former Communists and Social Democrats, Gestapo claims that they were merely a front for labour movement resistance groups had no basis in fact whatsoever. Indeed, the Witnesses’ movement had some resemblances to that of the small, anti-liberal political sects of the immediate postwar years from which Nazism itself had sprung. Just as important for the police was the fact that their organization was directed from outside Germany, in the United States; the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn was one of the earliest public critics of European fascism, and supported the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Predictably enough, Nazi Party organizations and Gestapo officers used crude intimidation and bullying to try to bring the Jehova’s Witnesses into line. But this only made them more stubborn. Fortified by a resolution passed at their international conference in Lucerne in 1936 strongly criticizing the German government, they began distributing what the regime regarded as seditious leaflets. The police responded with arrests and prosecutions, and by 1937 Jehovah’s Witnesses accounted for well over half of all cases brought before the Special Court in Freiberg, Saxony, and a substantial proportion elsewhere as well.113

Inside the prisons, the Witnesses steadfastly refused to abandon their faith and compromise with the secular state. While some prison governors and officials considered them no more than harmless fools, others, such as the governor of the Eisenach prison in Thuringia, made strenuous efforts to brainwash them, subjecting them to regular sessions of indoctrination. After a year, however, his experiment, begun in 1938, had made no real progress and was abandoned. Punishment and persecution for the Witnesses were simply tests of their faith, imposed on them, as they saw it, by God. Many of them refused to work in prison despite repeated punishments. Others went even further. The Jehovah’s Witness Otto Grashof, sentenced to four years in the Wolfenbüttel gaol for refusing to serve in the army and trying to convince another young man to do the same, went on hunger strike when his family was evicted from their home and his children taken into care. Brutal force-feeding had little effect, and he died early in 1940, weighing less than forty kilos.114

Legal repression had no effect on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, therefore. They were strengthened not least by the close family and community ties that bound many of them together. Frustrated at their refusal to knuckle under, the police and the SS began taking them straight into the concentration camps on their release from prison. Even a senior official at the Justice Ministry criticized the judiciary for failing to take the threat posed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses with sufficient seriousness. There were, he claimed, nearly two million of them in Germany - a gross exaggeration, since there were in reality fewer than 30,000 - and they were acting as a Communist front, an assertion for which, needless to say, there was not a shred of evidence. Nevertheless, the Gestapo unleashed a fresh wave of arrests. By the end of the Third Reich about 10,000 Witnesses had been imprisoned, 2,000 of them in the camps, where some 950 died.115 Here too, however, their sufferings only spurred them on to fresh acts of pious self-sacrifice and martyrdom. In some respects they were model prisoners, clean, orderly and industrious. Yet the SS man Rudolf Höss, a senior official in the Sachsenhausen camp in the late 1930s, reported later that Witnesses refused to stand to attention, take part in drill parades, remove their caps, or show any sign of respect to the guards, since respect, they said, was due only to Jehovah. Flogging only made them ask for more, as a sign of their devotion. Forced to watch the execution of fellow Witnesses who had refused to carry out military-related work or obey orders conscripting them into the armed forces, they only begged to be allowed to be martyred themselves. Höss reported that Himmler was so impressed by their fanaticism that he frequently held it up to his SS men as an example.116

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were, however, alone amongst religious groups in their uncompromising hostility to the Nazi state. For all the courage of many leading figures in the mainstream Churches, and many ordinary members of their congregations, none of them opposed the Third Reich on more than a narrowly religious front. The Gestapo might allege that Catholic priests and Confessing pastors hid out-and-out opposition to National Socialism under the cloak of pious rhetoric, but the truth was that, on a whole range of issues, the Churches remained silent. Both the Evangelical and Catholic Churches were politically conservative, and had been for a long time before the Nazis came to power. Their fear of Bolshevism and revolution, forces that showed their teeth once more in reports of the widespread massacre of priests by the Republicans at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, strengthened them in their view that if Nazism went, something worse might well take its place. The deep and often bitter confessional divide in Germany meant that there was no question of Catholics and Protestants joining forces against the regime. The Catholics had been anxious to prove their loyalty to the German state since the days when it had been doubted by Bismarck during the 1870s. The Protestants had been an ideological arm of the state under the Bismarckian Empire and strongly identified with German nationalism for many years. Both broadly welcomed the suppression of Marxist, Communist and liberal political parties, the combating of ‘immorality’ in art, literature and film, and many other aspects of the regime’s policies. The long tradition of antisemitism amongst both Catholics and Protestants ensured that there were no formal protests from the Churches against the regime’s antisemitic acts. The most they were prepared to do was to try and protect converted Jews within their own ranks, and even here their attitude was at times extremely equivocal.

Yet the Nazis regarded the Churches as the strongest and toughest reservoirs of ideological opposition to the principles they believed in. If they could win the ideological battle against them, then it would be easy to mould the whole German people into a unanimous Nazi mass. Despite the many setbacks they encountered in their confrontation with the Churches, they did indeed seem to be winning this battle by 1939. Many lower officials in the regime concluded that the only way to combat the Churches was to develop an attractive alternative to Christian ritual. ‘It is necessary to effect a kind of mysticism’, a Gestapo report urged as early as 1935, ‘that exerts an even stronger effect on the masses than that which the Christian Church has built up through the objects of a - dusty - tradition, surrounding them with an atmosphere of foreign magic and covering them with the patina of age.’117 Yet despite the prevalence of such views amongst the more committed Nazis, most notably Heinrich Himmler, Hitler and Göring remained deeply sceptical about such attempts to revive what Goring referred to as the ‘ridiculousness’ of ‘Wotan and Thor’ and the ‘Germanic wedding’. The Nazi Education Minister Bernhard Rust inveighed against attempts to propagate ‘Valhalla as a substitute for a Christian heaven’.118 And on 6 September 1938, Hitler himself weighed in with a speech attacking attempts to turn Nazism into a religion:

National Socialism is a cool, reality-based doctrine, based upon the sharpest scientific knowledge and its mental expression. As we have opened the people’s heart to this doctrine, and as we continue to do so at present, we have no desire to instil in the people a mysticism that lies outside the purpose and goals of our doctrine . . . For the National Socialist movement is not a cult movement; rather, it is a racial and political philosophy which grew out of exclusively racist considerations. Its meaning is not that of a mystic cult; but rather the cultivation and command of people determined by its blood. Therefore we do not have halls for cults, but exclusively halls for the people. Nor do we have places for worship, but places for assembly and squares for marches. We do not have cult sites, but sports arenas and play areas . . . In the National Socialist movement subversion by occult searchers for the Beyond must not be tolerated.

Nazism, he concluded, was based on respect for the laws of nature, which themselves were given by God; at its centre was the creature whom God had created to rule the earth, namely the human being, and it was by serving the interests of humanity that Nazism served God. ‘The only cult we know is that of a cultivation of the natural and hence of that which God has willed.’119

Many observers over the years have seen in Nazism a kind of political religion.120 Its use of religious language, ritual and symbolism, its unquestionable and unalterable dogma, its worship of Hitler as a messiah come to redeem the German people from weakness, degeneracy and corruption, its demonization of the Jew as the universal enemy, its promise that the individual, racked by doubt and despair in the wake of Germany’s defeat in 1918, would be born again in a shining new collectivity of the faithful - all these were strongly reminiscent of a religion, shorn of its supernatural elements and applied to the world people really lived in. The Nazis had no hesitation about adapting the Ten Commandments or the Creed to the purposes of a nationalistic catechism of belief in Germany or its Leader, nor did they shrink from using language that portrayed Hitler’s gathering of his early supporters such as Göring and Goebbels in the same terms as the Bible portrayed Jesus gathering His early disciples.121 ‘Once you heard the voice of a man,’ Hitler told his followers on 11 September 1936 at the Nuremberg Party Rally, ‘and that voice knocked at your hearts, it wakened you, and you followed that voice.’122 Clearly much of this was calculated to have an appeal to disoriented people searching for a solution to the terrible problems they confronted in the chaotic times they lived in. Equally clearly, the more the Third Reich moved away from the attempt to co-ordinate the Churches and towards the drive to destroy them, the more the regime began to take on quasi-religious qualities of its own.123 But one must be careful about pushing the religious metaphor too far. It would be just as easy to interpret Nazism by means of a military image: the promise of turning defeat into total victory, the image of a nation marching in step, annihilating its enemies and merging the doubting individual into the motivated military mass, the hierarchical command structure dominated by the great military leader, and so on; and though religion and militarism have often been connected, in essence they have also frequently been two quite different and mutually hostile forces.124

Nazism as an ideology was no religion, not just because Hitler said it was not, nor because it had nothing to say about the hereafter or eternity or the immortal soul, as all genuine religions do, but also, more importantly, because it was too incoherent to be one. Leading Nazis did not spend time disputing the finer points of their ideology like medieval scholastics or Marxist-Leninist philosophers, their modern equivalents. There was no sacred book of Nazism from which people took their texts for the day, like the bureaucrats of Stalin’s Russia did from the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin: Hitler’s My Struggle, though everyone had to have it on their bookshelf, was too verbose, too rambling, too autobiographical to lend itself to this kind of use. Nor in the end did Nazism promise any kind of final victory to be followed by a Heaven-like stasis; rather, it was a doctrine of perpetual struggle, of conflict without end. There was nothing universal about its appeal, as there is with the great world religions, or with major political ideologies such as socialism and Communism: it directed itself only to one small segment of humanity, the Germans, and ruled everyone else ineligible for its benefits. Conservative philosophers of the mid-twentieth century commonly argued that Nazism as a political religion filled the need for religious faith felt by millions of Germans who had been left bereft by the secularism of modernity. But its appeal cannot be reduced in this way. Millions of Catholics opposed it or remained relatively immune. Millions of Protestants, including many of the most committed, such as the German Christians, did not. Millions more people resisted its ideological blandishments despite having grown up in the atheistic and anticlerical political traditions of the German labour movement.125

Religion does not necessarily imply a rejection of democracy, rationality or toleration; some historians have pointed out that the labour movement too had its banners, its rituals, its dogma and its eschatology, though none of this prevented the Social Democrats from embracing democracy, rationality and toleration. Nor, finally, are dogmatism, faith in a great leader, intolerance or belief in future redemption from present ills confined to religious modes of thought and behaviour. Nazism’s use of quasi-religious symbols and rituals was real enough, but it was for the most part more a matter of style than substance. ‘Hitler’s studied usurpation of religious functions’, as one historian has written, ‘was perhaps a displaced hatred of the Christian tradition: the hatred of an apostate.’126The real core of Nazi beliefs lay in the faith Hitler proclaimed in his speech of September 1938 in science - a Nazi view of science - as the basis for action. Science demanded the furtherance of the interests not of God but of the human race, and above all the German race and its future in a world ruled by ineluctable laws of Darwinian competition between races and between individuals. This was the sole criterion of morality, overriding the principles of love and compassion that have always formed such an important element in the beliefs of the world’s great religions.127 A conceptualization of Nazism as a political religion, finally, is not only purely descriptive but also too sweeping to be of much help; it tells us very little about how Nazism worked, or what the nature of its appeal was to different groups in German society. The failure of the Third Reich to find a substitute for Christianity, indeed the feebleness of such attempts as it did make, was nowhere more apparent than in its policy towards the youth of the country, Germany’s future.

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