By Lothar Groppe, S.J.
This article originally appeared in German in the IBW JOURNAL and has been translated by Dr. Alan F. Lacy.
The fiftieth anniversary of Hitler's "seizure of power" on January 30, 1983, again raises the
question of the Catholic Church's attitude towards National Socialism. The accusation was frequently
made and still is made that the Church understands very well how to get along with political power,
partially from some kind of striving for power, partially from simple opportunism in order to feather its
own nest with as little damage as possible and to save its clerical skin. It cannot be denied that
exterior appearances occasionally seem to justify the critics. Often the Church appeared all too timid
when many expected the papal anathemas against Hitler. Even not a few Catholics within and outside
the Reich were frequently dissatisfied with the Catholic hierarchy because the long-expected papal
and episcopal thunderbolts did not strike.
However, if one takes the trouble - and it really is a good deal of trouble because the number
of documents is legion - to study the numerous statements of Catholicism and its prelates, then one
becomes more and more surprised about what hard truths the German bishops reproached National
Socialism and its highest representatives with and how they stated the facts as they were, something
which nobody else in Germany even dared to attempt. Even in 1940 and 1941, as Hitler had reached
the zenith of his power, the bishops opposed the Gestapo and its idolization of state-sanctioned
arbitrariness and terror and held up their "non licet" to the almost omnipotent dictator.
No one will want to declare - not even the Catholic who is most faithful to the Church - that
more resistance would not have been possible, that even bishops did not fail here and there - I only
have to think about the extremely unpleasant example of the Catholic Chief of Chaplains Rarkowski,
to whom the "black general" (as he was called by the armed forces and the Party) gave a thorough
dressing down to at an official visit: "You, Bishop, cause me the greatest problems, more than the
Occasionally the bishops should have spoken even more clearly and plainly. Here again,
occasionally human weakness might have played a role as well as certainly total lack of experience in
associating with a dictatorial regime. But who would like to set himself up here as a judge who has not
himself risked everything and is familiar with dictatorial governments only from books or newspapers.
It is an undeniable fact, however, that the bishops by and large actually did revolt against Godless
tyranny, both alone and in common, and that they did raise their voices fearlessly and sharply when
many others had long since fallen silent. The Church does not at all need to fear any comparison with
any group of people or any institution that stood in opposition to the Nazis.(2)
In the years 1933-45, a large number of believers were called from the Catholic Church to give
blood testimony for freedom of belief and conscience. Thus, the question arises where the great
contradiction between the Catholic Church and the national Socialist State lay, a contradiction which
led to the death penalty or to the murder of numerous faithful. Then we must clarify which laws the
Nazi state applied in order to condemn Christians as Christians.
HITLER'S POSITION AT THE TIME
One must bear in mind the unique position of Hitler during the Nazi era in order to be able to
answer these questions. Up until the last hour Hitler was the unlimited ruler of the State and the Party.
From this it follows that the treatment of the Catholic Church by Hitler was dependent upon Hitler's
opinion of this Church. Even if one might evaluate Hitler's reasons for this or that decision in domestic
or foreign policy, incontestable documents regarding the religious policies of the Fuhrer speak very
clearly so that there can exist no doubt about why Hitler persecuted the Catholic Church with
In the years 1932-44, Hitler spoke before a small circle of trusted Party members, among
whom at the beginning was the then President of the Danzig Senate Hermann Rauschning. Here he
spoke openly about his religious-political plans. Later, Rauschning separated himself from Hitler and
in 1939 published his Conversations With Hitler in Zurich. In these he writes: "I usually made notes for
myself directly under the impression of what was heard. Much can be considered as a virtually literal
According to Rauschning, Hitler considered himself the liquidator of the Catholic Church:
The blacks (Catholics) should not have any illusions. Their time is up. They have reached the end of
their game. I am a Catholic. Fate decreed that things should be this way. Only a Catholic knows the
weak points of the Church. I know how one has to attack the brothers. Bismarck was foolish. He was
just a Protestant; they simply don't know what the Church is. One must feel and know along with the
people what the people love and what they hate. Bismarck had his paragraphs and his Prussian
police. This did not work. I will not get involved in a Kulturkampf at all. This was foolishness as if the
blacks were not at all interested in shining before the poor little women with their holy crown of
martyrdom. But I will put an end to them, that I guarantee.(4)
'LIKE A POISONOUS TOAD'
The best expression of Hitler's enmity towards Christianity appears in his comments on the
"castle of the teutonic knights" Vogelsang: "I will crush Christianity under my boot like a poisonous
toad." The German general Groppe received a confirmation for the authenticity of this in April, 1939,
during a fairly long private audience with Pope Pius XII. They Holy Father confirmed the correctness
of Hitler's words and added, the papal nuncio had sought out the Reich chancellor and asked him how
such a statement could be reconciled with the concordat. Hitler supposedly gave him "his holiest word
of honor" that he had never said any such thing. However, the Pope declared: "He had indeed said it."(5)
Hitler expressed himself in essentially the same way to the chief ideologue of the Party, Alfred
Rosenberg. The latter noted in his diary the slight reproach against Hitler: "Posterity would not know
the Fuhrer's religious position since he does not express it." Hitler's answer (in Rosenberg's diary)
Now, one could know it. He had never allowed a member of the clergy to a Party meeting or to the
burial of a member of the Party. The Judeo-Christian plague was now heading towards its end. He
said it was downright horrifying that a religion could ever have been possible which literally gobbled up
its God in communion.(6)
The entry for December 14th reads:
Furthermore, there cannot be any help in the people's struggles in the long run from a moral doctrine
which preaches love of the enemy, orders one to turn the left cheek when the right has been struck,
etc. It is almost enough to make one despair regarding all of mankind when one must devour his God
and spend twenty years debating whether one should do this devouring in one form or another.
Several generals and also one Party minister asserted that only as a Christian could one become
brave at all as if the Germanic peoples, the Romans, or the Greeks had been cowards. Even the
Bolsheviks knew how to die and often, given the prospect of being taken prisoner, they had shot
themselves in the head… If the churches step in for the maintenance of idiots, then he was ready to
hand them over to them as priests and congregation. If we ever get rid of Christianity, then other
nations can have it.(7)
HATRED OF RELIGION
On February 8, 1942, Henry Picker literally wrote down Hitler's table talks, which showed that
Hitler planned a great reckoning with the religious of both churches after the "final victory":
The greatest harm to our people are our pastors of both churches. I cannot give you the answer now,
but everything will come in my large notebook. The moment will come when I carry out a reckoning
with them without wasting much time. I will not stumble over legal red tape in such times. Here, only
considerations of expediency will be decisive. I am convinced that things will look quite different in ten
years, because we will not get around the basic solution.(8)
Robert D'Harcourt, in his preface to the French edition of the "table talks," sums up Hitler's anti-religious views as follows:
Judaism, Christianity, Bolshevism are all bound together. Comrades in agitation, born tools of decay,
they possess the same talent to destroy the natural structure of society. Bolshevism is the historical
and logical continuation of Christianity. It realizes on a technical level what Christianity has done on a
metaphysical level. Should one reproach the Jew and the Christian with his destroying influence? Both
of these are following their nature, their law when they destroy. One does not reproach a cat with the
fact that it eats mice. Paul of Tarsus and Trotsky are brothers. Perhaps it is necessary to accord them
the effect of certain bacilli, to be the protozoa in the lazy masses of the people. In any case, like the
bacillus, they produce a reaction in the threatened organism.(9)
A number of his closest accomplices shared Hitler's hate toward the Church and his decision to
destroy it. Probably the best known among them were Bormann, Himmler, Heydrich, Rosenberg and
Goebbels. Gerhard Reitlinger characterizes Himmler as follows: "Himmler's profession became
destroying Jews, liberals and priests."(10)
How downright petty the animosity of the heads of the Party of the time was against Catholics,
especially in leading positions, becomes clear from the fact that besides the other reproaches which
the feared Heydrich made against my father to the high command of the armed forces, was the one
that as general and commander of a division, he shared quarters with a Catholic pastor at the
beginning of the second World War.(11)
As numerous war crimes trials have shown, those who were in power at the time were never
lacking for willing collaborators in the lower ranks. However they also found all too compliant tools in
high positions and even in the highest positions, as for example, the President of the People's Court,
Roland Freisler, whom Hitler himself called a Bolshevik,(12) or Arthur Greiser, an especially fanatical
church-hater, who was hanged in Poland after the war. They all shared the common goal: to
exterminate the Church without mercy.
Even during the time of the Third Reich, but especially after the war, people tried to dismiss
Hitler as a simple house painter. Thus, for example, the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein,
unmercifully lashed out, on May 18, 1937, before his clergy against the fear and slavery which were
being practiced by "an Austrian paper-hanger - and furthermore, not even a good one! - and a few
accomplices like Goebbels and Goering."(13) These words reached the world public as "hot news" and
resulted in furious reactions on the part of the brown-shirted despots. Goebbels, at the time Minister
of Propaganda, threatened that he would unmask the Catholic Church by reinstituting the so-called
Morals Trials.(14) Protests rained down on the American government and the Vatican. The Cardinal
Secretary Pacelli, however, declined to make any retraction. He pointed to the fact that the press,
which was controlled by the Nazis, was dragging the Church and the clergy through the dirt and
thereby was provoking such statements. He also said that Rome was ready for discussions regarding
this question only if the persecution which was being carried out in Germany against the Church could
be discussed at the same time.(15)
To be sure, the author considers such expressions on the part of high leaders of the Church to
be irresponsible. In truth, it takes no courage to make them; advice is easy to give from a secure port.
On the other hand, how courageous something like the sermons of the Bishop of Muenster, Count
von Galen, seem. He was not protesting from a safe position, but rather in Germany, against the
Nazis' injustice and arbitrariness. It cannot be denied that Hitler understood the art of reaching power,
preserving this power and even expanding it. It is precisely from a certain instinct for power that he
acted cunningly but carefully in his religious policies. Thus it was even intimated to my father during
his interrogation by the Gestapo, "The Fuhrer, to be sure, had ordered that during the war these
ideological questions should be ignored, but after the war…"(16)
It was clear to Hitler that he could not solve the Church question in the same way that he
suppressed the parties, for example, or removed the labor unions from power. He did not know
exactly how strong religious life was rooted among the people. For that reason, he carried on his
struggle against religion often under camouflage and in many different stages. Thus he enjoyed a
great amount of flexibility in this area which allowed him on the one hand, to conclude the Reich
concordat on July 20, 1933, but on the other hand, to grant to the Reich governor in Warthegau,
Greiser, the power to bring about the practical elimination of the Catholic Church in his area. Here we
may not forget that the Warthegau according to the view of the Nazis, was considered a part of the
new Germany at the time. Thus, Greiser created a model case for how to proceed against the Church
in the entire Reich area after the "final victory."
The note of the Holy See dated March 2, 1943, points to the persecution with clear words. It
says in it, among other things:
In August 1939, six bishops resided in that area (Warthegau). Today, only one of them remains,
because: The Bishop of Lodz (Litzmannstadt) and his auxiliary bishop were… held under arrest, then
driven out and then banned to the "Polish territory under German rule." Another bishop, Msgr. Michael
Kozal, Auxiliary Bishop and General Vicar of Wladislavia (Leslau), was arrested in the fall of 1939…
and finally transferred to the concentration camp Dachau.(17)
The Cardinal-Archbishop of Gnesen and Posen and the Bishop of Wladislavia were no longer
allowed to go to their official residences which they had left during the military operations. The
Suffragan Bishop of Posen was left as the only one there. However he was interned in his home until
at least November 1942. Every intervention of the Holy See on the part of these bishops turned out to
be useless. In vain the Office of the Apostolic Nuncio lodged a protest with his verbal note No. 44007,
date December 4, 1941, against the deportation and the banning of the Bishop of Lodz and his
auxiliary bishop, and demanded their return to their diocese.
THE SITUATION IN POLAND
Before the war more than 2,000 priests were carrying out their duties in the "Warthegau." That
then shrank to a meager number, not a few of whom were shot to death or otherwise killed.(18) The
following background is of the greatest importance for the shooting to death of numerous Polish
priests by the Nazis. Bishop Carl Maria Splett of Danzig, who did not belong to the German
Episcopate, was entrusted by the Pope with the interim administration of the neighboring Polish
diocese, Kulm, whose bishop had fled from the Germans. On January 14, 1949, Splett wrote to the
At my inquiry the Gestapo told me that Cardinal Hlond had called for resistance among the Polish
population over the Vatican radio station, and the Gestapo had to prevent him… They say that
Cardinal Hlond called the Polish people to rally round its priests and teachers. Thereupon, numerous
priests and teachers were arrested and executed, or were tortured to death in the most terrible
manner, or were even shipped to the far east.(19)
A comment analogous to that made regarding Cardinal Mundelein can also be made here: It is
easy to be "courageous" from a safe place. It would certainly have been more correct if the Polish
Cardinal had remained with his flock instead of running away and, through irresponsible calls from the
safety of the Vatican, inciting his already suffering believers to useless revolt against the terror of the
SS and the Gestapo, and exposing them to their reprisals. In such situations one can only act
according to the old Roman axiom: Quidquid agis, prudenter agas et respice finem!
According to a note from the Holy See dated March 2, 1943:
At the beginning of October 1941, the number of priests from the diocese "Warthegau," who were
under arrest at Dachau, amounted to several hundred; but this number swelled considerably every
month as a result of a strong intensification of police measures which resulted in the arrest and
deportation of further hundreds of clerics…
The fate reserved for those clerics who were members of orders was no less pitiable. Several
members of the clergy were shot to death or killed in other manners. The overwhelming majority of the
others were arrested, deported or driven out… The diocesan seminaries were closed in Gnesen and
Posen, Leslau and Litzmannstadt…
Even the nuns who were members of orders were not able to continue their charitable work without
disturbance. A corresponding concentration camp was established for them in Bojanowo
(Schmuckert) where approximately 400 sisters were interned at the middle of 1941…
When the Holy See used its influence for them through the Apostolic Nuncio in Berlin…, the foreign
office of the Reich replied… that it was a matter of "temporary measures taken with the agreement of
the Reich governor for the Reich district of Wartheland, in order to counter the lack of shelter of the
Polish Catholic nuns."(20)
Although these were allegedly temporary measures, at the end of 1942, a few hundred sisters
were still interned in Bojanowo:(21)
All Catholic schools were closed.
An order of the Reich governor, dated August 19, 1941, said that young Germans could receive
religious instructions only in the ages from 10 to 18 years old and, furthermore, only at the places of
worship and one hour per week, which was to be set between 3 and 5 PM (excluding the days
reserved for the exercises of the Hitler-youth). It was further ordered that the police had to be
informed in advance regarding the time, the place and the instructional personnel… Several churches
were… removed from use as places of worship. With many others this happened later on… religious
services were limited to specific hours…
For example, the hourly schedule established by the Office of the Reich governor for Polish Catholics
in the winter of 1940-1941 included:
Religious services on Sundays and legally recognized holidays from 8 AM until 11 AM. Holy masses
on week days from 8 until 9 AM (Saturdays with the participation of the faithful, other days with the
exclusion of the faithful). Instruction of youth for confession and communion: Wednesdays from 2 until
4 PM. Confessions for adults from 2 until 6 PM. The same regulations were also in effect for the
winter (1942-1943) with the one difference that religious services are allowed from 7 until 10:30 am on
In the rest of the Reich, there was a whole series of measures which, to be sure, were not as
extensive as this but were also very harrassing. If the evening air-raid alarm ended after midnight,
then religious services on the next morning were not allowed to begin until 10 am. Violations were
punishable by arrest. The Chronicle of the City Pastorage of Maria's Name in Hanau-Main reports: On
July 21, 1941, the dean Theodor Weidner was arrested (He remained under arrest until August 11.)
because he gave communion to several female factory workers from a different parish before 10 am
after an air raid the previous night.
The faithful of one parish were not allowed to go to a different church, and the strictest separation was
enforced between German and Polish Catholics. Poles were not allowed to go to a religious service
which a German priest gave, and vice versa. The minimum age for Poles who wanted to enter into
marriage was set at 28 years old for men and 25 years old for women. All Catholic clubs and
organizations were dissolved; all cultural, charitable and social organizations were abolished. In the
Warthegau there was no longer a Catholic press, not even one Catholic bookstore.(23)
Like all dictators, Hitler too made the claim that the freedom of belief and conscience was
guaranteed in the Third Reich both legally and practically. For that reason a Christian could not be
punished as such, not even as enemies of the state. The general norms for criminal prosecution were
interpreted according to the "sound patriotic feelings for the people"; however, one need only think of
the famous principle which was the basis of Nazi law: what is of benefit to the German people is right!
There were only two exceptions: on the one hand the pulpit paragraph from the time of the
Kulturkampf (24) and on the other the criminal laws which were passed specifically for the protection of
the National Socialists' religious policies in the Warthegau. In this way they wanted to maintain the
fiction that Christians were punished not as Christians but rather simply as criminals. The great
concern of all totalitarian states is that they do not create any martyrs.(25) In this, as in the struggle
against religion, the Nazis are not different in any way from the Bolshevists and other "people's
THE ROLE OF THE SS
The SS and its subsidiaries, including the SD (security service) and the Gestapo (secrete state
police), became the chief agencies responsible for the persecution of Christians. SS leaders like
Himmler and Bormann carried out their determined struggle against religion almost until the last hour.
In his secret decree of June 6, 1941, Bormann says:
The people must be freed more and more from the churches and their organs, the pastors… Just as
the harmful influence of astrologers, fortunetellers, and other swindlers is eliminated and suppressed
by the State, so too must the Church's possibility for influence be removed without a trace. Only when
this has happened will the leadership of the State have full influence over the individual members of
the State. Only then are the people and the Reich secure in their existence.(26)
Heydrich, the most dangerous and most influential representative of the SS regime up until his
murder in the year 1942, called for a meeting in Berlin in September of 1941 of the Church experts
from the various headquarters of the state police, in order to give directives for the persecution of the
Church. Their task was clearly presented:
The immediate goal: The Church may not win back a single step of the territory which it has lost in the
The long-term goal: The destruction of the confessional churches by presentation at the correct time
of all pertinent material with the goal of presenting to the Church the proof of its treasonable behavior
during the Germany's life and death struggles.(27)
In his infamous speech in Posen on October 4, 1943 before the SS group leaders, SS Reich
leader Heinrich Himmler made clear that there existed an unbridgeable gap between Christianity and
National Socialism: "We automatically have everyone against us who is a convinced Communist; we
have every Freemason against us, every Democrat, every convinced Christian. These are the
ideological opponents which we have against us in all of Europe and which the enemy has all for
These enemies of Christianity, however, did not stop at words, but rather knew how to
transform their hate into deeds. The so-called central offices of the Gestapo in particular had to serve
the policies of Hitler and the SS which were inimical to religion. The Gestapo was feared above all not
only because it made use of brutal "interrogation" methods whenever it needed to, but also because
its measures were subject neither to judicial examination nor could they be criticized by public opinion.
Thus in the Third Reich there was probably nothing so feared as a so-called "order to protective
custody" of the Gestapo.
A large number of the martyrs for freedom of belief and conscience in the years 1933-45 died
in the German concentration camps because of the Gestapo's decision. Even if someone were first
handed over to the regular system of justice, he was never safe against intervention by the Gestapo.
In principle, there were only two possibilities for the accused: either he was convicted, and then it
could happen to him that after he had spent his time in jail he was met by the Gestapo at the prison
gate in order to be "transferred" to a concentration camp. Or he was acquitted, and then he could
count on being arrested by the Gestapo if they were "interested" in him. The former happened, for
example, to the Berlin Cathedral Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg, who had been sentenced to two
years in prison because he had prayed in the Hedwigs Cathedral in Berlin publicly for the persecuted
Jews and the inmates of concentration camps. This happened to countless others, as well as, for
example, to Lieutenant-General Groppe, who was acquitted by the Reich court-martial in Torgau of
the accusation of defeatism and the corruption of the defenses. Scarcely was he back home than he
was arrested upon Himmler's telegraphed order.(29)
Even in the years before Hitler's seizure of power, such a sharp opposition had developed
between the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party that the bishops decided to condemn Nazism. In the
minutes of the Bishops' Conference in Fulda, of August 17, 1932, the passage concerning the NSDAP
All the gathered bishops have declared that membership in this Party is not allowed because: 1)
Portions of its official program, the way they read and as they must be understood without
reinterpretation, contain false doctrine; 2) Because the announcements of numerous leading
representatives and journalists of the Party contain statements of a character which are opposed to
faith, expressing a hostile attitude towards basic teachings and requirements of the Catholic Church,
and these statements have not been denied or withdrawn on the part of the highest Party
By 1930 the general-vicar in Mainz had already issued guidelines for the attitudes toward the national
Socialists: No Catholic was allowed to be a member of the Hitler party, to take part in Church
functions in uniformed groups, or to be allowed to receive the sacraments.(31)
On February 10, 1931, the Bishops' Conference in Freising gave pastoral directions for the
clergy, the main idea of which was a warning against National Socialism, "as long and insofar as it
expresses cultural-political views which are not compatible with Catholic doctrine."(32) On March 5, 1931,
the bishops of the Church-Province of Cologne condemned National Socialism. In the same year on
March 10, the Church-Province of Paderborn did the same, and on March 19 the Church-Province of
Freiburg.(33) The Catholic press and Catholic organizations supported the bishops in this negative
attitude toward the Nazis.(34) Above all it was the racial doctrine which had called forth the bishops'
condemnation, but also the goals of the national Socialist school policies and the anti-Catholic
diatribes written especially, but not exclusively, by Alfred Rosenberg. Also the rude manner with which
the Nazis undermined authority and trust, and the brutal methods which they applied on their way to
seizing power also contributed their share towards the negative attitude of the bishops.
After January 30, 1933, the day of the "seizure of power," Hitler was interested in allowing the
opposition towards the Catholic Church to retreat into the background, for the time being, for tactical
reasons. At first he had success in this, because Hitler gave the impression that the government was
interested in renewing a Christian national conservative state. One should remember that only three
National Socialists were members of the new government!
The elections in March brought Hitler the necessary majority. The new parliament let itself be
stripped of authority through the disastrous Act of Enablement and abdicated any possibility of control.
On March 23, 1933, Hitler delivered his Government Declaration which, because of sentences which
were friendly towards the Church, had an almost sensational effect: "The national Government sees in
the two Christian religions the most important factors for the maintenance of our folk. Their rights will
not be touched."(35)
However, only two weeks later Hitler revealed his true attitudes towards the Christian churches
before his closest supporters in the Reich chancellory:
There is no more future with the churches - whether this one or that one, it's all the same. At least not
for the Germans. Facism may make its peace with the Church in God's name. I will do that too. Why
not! This will not keep me from exterminating Christianity from Germany root and branch. One is
either a Christian or a German. One cannot be both.(36)
Naturally, only the words of the Government Declaration were for the public, and these seemed
to signal a complete turnabout in the attitude towards Church and religion. In addition, Hitler offered
the Catholic Church a concordat which seemed to promise to church life a solid basis in civil law.
As is well known, the Church has been reproached with making an arrangement with the Nazis
precisely because of the conclusion of the Reich concordat, and not just as a result of Hochhuth's
accusations. However it seems to me personally that Ernst Deuerlein is correct when he says, "It can
only be claimed by a person who distorts the situation of the year 1933 that the bishops,
'representatives of the despised and partially hated minority,' at the time should have dared to refuse
a modus vivendi with Hitler."(37)
One must understand the situation of the bishops of those days and seek to comprehend the
task before them. The Church has to fulfill its necessary work of salvation and must also take pains to
exercise its pastoral function even under unfavorable political conditions. Incidentally, if the majority of
the German bishops had decided not to conclude the concordat, would not then people have made
the reproach against the Church, perhaps justifiably, that it was rejecting the olive branch which was
offered to it and abandoning its faithful to difficult conflicts of conscience while the representatives of
the Church could lull themselves into a false sense of security; it's an old platitude that one is always
wiser after the fact.
Hitler's declaration for the most part removed the previous hostility between him and the
Catholic Church. It was a formal and solemn denial of the previous policies of the NSDAP which were
hostile towards the Church. Many Catholics, even many bishops, still retained for many a year the
initial optimism that after all a modus vivendi with the Nazis must be possible.
THE BISHOP'S RESPONSE
On March 29, 1933, the German bishops published a common pastoral letter which says
The bishops of the Diocese of Germany have assumed in recent years a negative position towards
the national Socialist movement through prohibitions and warnings for relevant reasons which have
been repeatedly explained in their dutiful care for the maintenance of the Catholic faith and for the
protection of the inviolable tasks and rights of the Catholic Church. These will remain in effect as long
as and insofar as these reasons continue to exist.
Now, it must be recognized that proclamations have been made publicly and solemnly by the highest
representative of the Reich government, who at the same time is the authoritarian leader of that
movement, through which the inviolability of the Catholic doctrines of faith and the unchangeable
tasks and rights of the Church are recognized; also the full validity of the state agreements concluded
by the individual German states with the Church are expressly guaranteed by the Reich government.
Without rescinding any of the condemnations of certain religious and moral errors contained in our
earlier measures, the episcopate thus believes that it is able to maintain with confidence that the
above mentioned general prohibitions and warnings no longer need to be considered necessary.
What does remain valid is the reminder which has gone forth so often in solemn announcements to all
Catholics that they should always be alert and ready to make sacrifices for peace and the social
welfare of the people, for the protection of Christian religion and morals, for freedom and rights of the
Catholic Church and the protection of the religious schools and Catholic youth organizations. What
further remains valid is the reminder to all political and similar organizations and clubs to avoid what
appear to be political or Party demonstrations in God's house and in Church functions out of respect
for the holiness of God's house because they can cause scandal.(38)
The common pastoral letter of June 3, 1933 is also of greatest importance here. In this letter
the bishops state unmistakably:
What has been valid for every national community up until now, namely that justice is the basis of the
welfare of all people, must also be valid in the new order of the German nation. This justice must not
fail even towards a former enemy, but, rather even when the foe has been shown to be wrong, one
should think less of reckless judgment and punishment than of bettering and rewinning themselves to
the national family.(39)
The German bishops' cooperation with Hitler, which was doubtless present in the common
pastoral letter of March 29, was however joined with an uncompromising denial of the core of the nazi
ideology. Totalitarian politicians have a fine feeling for nuances in the statement of their opponents.
Hitler understood exactly the attitude of the bishops and saw them until the very end as his declared
He did not let himself be swayed from his stated goal of realizing the destruction of the Catholic
Church through the concordat. He simply proceeded cautiously in order not to betray himself too
early. Indicative for the atmosphere in Church politics of the time is the circular of the Prussian
Minister-President Goering, issued from Obersalzberg on July 16, 1935:
Thus the Church loses any cause to maintain political influence beyond the area of religious activity or
to strive for new influence. It may not call down God against this State, a monstrous action which we
could experience in plain or in concealed form on any Sunday, nor may it organize its own political
forces with the flimsy excuse that it must protect itself against dangers threatened by the State…
Religious who nonetheless believe that they can attack the Fuhrer and his national Socialist State as
a protection against manners of thought which run against their religious convictions must be stripped
of their harmful influence on the nation with all means at our disposal…(40)
By the beginning of the second World War, using numerous breaches of law and the massive
exertion of force, Hitler had reduced church life in Germany, at least in general, to the status of a cult.
On this point he said in his table talks: "After we have been successful in Germany in excluding Jews
and Christians from political life, then let's see where these elements lead people in England and
The bishops realized more and more that a modus vivendi with National Socialism was
impossible. During the war the circles of the SS who were opposed to the Church took advantage of
every chance to liquidate the Church. To this strategy belong the monastery tower in "Altreich" as well
as the religious policies in Warthegau and in Lorraine. In the "Altreich" it was simply necessary to take
the population into greater consideration during the war.
AN UNBRIDGEABLE GAP
The gap between the Church and the government became unbridgeable because of the Nazi
regime's murderous policies, which included euthanasia as well as the extermination of the Jews. Like
most Germans the bishops too could not get a clear view of the extent of the destruction. In the trial
against the SS Head Squad-Leader Wolff, the SS Head Squad-Leader Berger declared that
according to Hitler's statements to him there were only 89 people who knew the secret extermination
plans, and they were sworn to absolute silence. Whether this statement is true or not is immaterial.
However, we know with certainty that even well informed circles did not suspect the extent of the
destruction of Jews, Gypsies, and other groups during the war. Nonetheless, as can be expected,
some reports did trickle through, and the bishops again and again raised their voices in warning and
accusation. In the common pastoral letter of June 26, 1941, they declared:
There are however also holy duties of conscience from which no one can free us and which we must
fulfill even if it costs us our own lives: Never under any conditions may man blaspheme God; never
may he hate his fellow man; never may he kill an innocent person outside of war and justified self-defense…(42)
In the pastoral message of the Church-Provinces of Paderborn and Cologne, that is the
present bishoprics of Cologne, Essen, Aachen, Munster, Osnabruck, Paderborn, Fulda, Hildesheim,
Limburg and Trier, the bishops said:
Each human being has the natural right to life and to the goods which are necessary for life. The living
God, the creator of all life, is alone the Lord over life and death. Under no conditions may man take
his own life nor kill an innocent person unless it is in war or in justified self-defense. We bishops will
not fail to protest against the killing of innocent persons. No one is sure of his life if the Commandment
does not remain untouched: "Thou shalt not kill"!(43)
During the Advent period the Bishop of Berlin, Konrad Count von Preysing, had a pastoral
letter read regarding a law which was adopted by the bishops of the West German dioceses:
Whoever bears the countenance of a human being has rights which no earthly power can take from
him… All of the basic rights which the human being has - the right to life, the right to freedom from
bodily injury, to freedom, to property, to a marriage whose existence does not depend upon the
arbitrary nature of the State - can and may not be denied even to someone who is not of our blood or
who does not speak our language… We must realize that a failure of such rights or even terrible
actions against our fellow human being is an injustice against the foreign people but also against our
own people. If it ever possessed any validity then the following statement must be valid here: "That
precisely is the curse of the evil deed, that it must bear evil continually."(44)
THE BISHOPS' PASTORAL
In the common pastoral letter of the German bishops of September 12, 1943, they reaffirmed
the validity of the Ten Commandments and said about the fifth:
Otherwise, however, the following is true for them (that is, the authorities) as for each private person:
Thou shat not kill, thou shalt not directly harm and destroy the body and the life of an innocent human
Killing is of itself bad even if it is supposedly exercised, in the interest of the common good, on the
mentally retarded and mentally ill who are guiltless and defenseless, on the incurably sick and mortally
wounded, on the genetically handicapped and on the newborn who are not capable of living, on
innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war or jail inmates, on people of other races and origin.
Even the authorities can and may punish with death only those criminals who are really deserving of
Today one cannot act as if the language of that time was not clear and unambiguous. At that
time, in any case, each person knew quite precisely who and what as meant, both the Party as well as
the simple man in the street.
The unrelenting hate of Hitler and the Nazis inevitably had to lead to a bloody martyrdom - at
least for a few who were not prepared to bow. Even biased critics of the Church cannot question this.
To be sure, they believe they are able to make a distinction between the individual who often resisted
to the point of martyrdom without the backing of the Church and in spite of its "official" course, and the
Church as an institution which adopted at least an apparently tolerant attitude toward the National
Socialist regime. However, the decisive and uncompromising language of the bishops does not allow
any such distinction. Certainly Hitler made a distinction between a chaplain and a bishop in practice.
But he did hate both of them. He knew very well that the Bishop of Osnabruck visited and blessed
three of his chaplains in Hamburg who had been condemned to death, and that the Bishop of Berlin
visited and blessed his pastors and chaplains from Greifswald and Stettin in Tegel and Torgau, who
also had been condemned to death. Wherever it seemed possible to Hitler he even had bishops put
into concentration camps, as happened with several Polish and French bishops. Even if he never
arrested German bishops nonetheless that was a purely tactical measure. We know precisely that the
plan to hang Bishop Count von Galen, in the opinion of those in power at the time, would lead to a
situation where "the population of Munster would have to be written off during the war. Furthermore,
one would simply have to write off all of Westfalen as well."(46) "The regime reserved a terrible general
accounting for the future and thought about a 'revenge which was to enjoyed coldly.'"(47)
As early as February 9, 1936, in a sermon given at Xanten, Bishop Count von Galen made the
following comments regarding the numerous martyrs from the period of the Church struggle in the
Third Reich: "There are fresh graves in German states in which rest the ashes of those whom the
Catholic people consider to be martyrs of faith."(48) Of these martyrs Konrad Count von Preysing said:
Some suffered and died because they followed God's law more than the law of man; others were
arrested under any kind of pretense, whether it was "being an enemy of the state," "corruption of the
armed forces" or something else. In the final analysis they all died because they were upright
Catholics and because the Nazis knew that they couldn't be brought into line any other way.(49)
Please also see ANTI-SEMITISM BEFORE CHRISTIANITY which deals with some of the Protestant Evangelical heroes who likewise stood up against Nazism.
Lothar Groppe, Theodor Groppe - der "Schwarze General" (Vienna, 1997), p. 15. Cf. Also the entry in General Groppe's private war
diary for October 28, 1939: "In the afternoon Military Bishop Rarkowski visited me. I tried to straighten him out."
"It remains undeniable that the military bishop was an enthusiastic follower of Hitler and supported the war without
reservation. But there is also no doubt about the fact that he did not play the slightest role in the controlling body of the German
bishops." Walter Adolph, Die katholische Kirche im Deutschland Adolf Hitlers (Berlin, 1974), p. 113. Cf. Also the devastating
criticism in the Vatican Radio broadcast of October 6, 1940, which culminates the conclusion that it almost looked "as if the Army
Bishop sometimes falls in line easier with the Nazis than with his Church." Op. Cit., p. 114.
Cf. Lothar Groppe, "Church and Jews," in Fidelity, November 1983. Pinchas E. Lapide, Rom und Die Juden (Freiburg, 1967), passim.
Lothar Groppe, Die Erzhischofliche Hilfsstelle fur nichtarische Katholiken in Wein (2.) (1981), p. 7 and passim.
Hermann Rauschning, Gesprache mit Hitler (Zurich, 1939), p. 6: cf. Also B.J.J. Visser, Gewalt gegen Wissen (Wurzburg, 1974), p.
Rauschning, op. Cit., p. 52f.
Theodor Groppe, Ein Kampf um Recht und Sitte (2.) (Trier, 1959), pp. 10, 56.
Hans-Gunther Seraphim, Das politische Tagebuch Alfred Rosenbergs 1934-1935 und 1939-1940 (Gottingen, 1956), p. 97.
Seraphim, op cit., entry for January 19, 1940, December 14, 1940.
Henry Picker, Hitlers Tischgesprache im Fuhrerhauptquartier 1941-1942 (2.) (Stuttgart, 1965), p. 176.
Robert D'Harcourt, Libres propos sur la guerre et la paix sur l'ordre de Martin Bormann (Paris, 1952), p. XVI.
Gerhard Reitlinger, Die SS-Tragodie einer deutschen Epoche (Munich, 1977), p. 29.
Klaus-Jurgen Muller, Das Heer und Hitler (Stuttgart, 1969), p. 468.
Christian Zentner, Lexikon des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Munich, 1977), p. 70.
Visser, op. Cit., p. 19.
Conclusion of the German Bishops, June 1, 1937; "Of 21,641 parish priests in Germany, 49 are involved in these trials. Of these 21
have been condemned… Of 4,174 priests in Orders, 9 are accused, and one of them condemned." P. Rubert Mayer vor dem
Sondergericht, (Pustet, Regensburg, 1965), p. 21.
Visser, op. Cit., p. 19.
Theodor Groppe, op. Cit., p. 42.
Walter Adolph, Im Schatten des Galgens (Berlin, 1953), p. 21ff.
Adolph, op. cit., p.21ff. Because of the length of the description the note was shortened here.
Visser, op. cit., p. 29ff.
Adolph, op. cit., p. 23ff.
Ibid., p. 24, See comment, Note xviii.
Ibid., p. 24ff.
Ibid., p. 25. See comment, Note xviii.
This criminal law regulation was drawn up in 1871 at the request of the Bavarian Minister of Culture and extended in 1876. Clergy who
made "affairs of the state the object of a proclamation or announcement, in a manner threatening to the domestic peace," in the exercise
of their profession, in speech or writing, were threatened with prison or detention for a period of up to two years. It was invoked almost
solely during the Kulturkampf and the Nazi era. This criminal law regulation was revoked in the Federal Republic in 1953, but is still in
force in the GDR. Cf. In this regard L Thu K, vol. 5, col. 1312.
Very early on Hitler had made the following statement in the circle of his closest supporters: "I will certainly not make martyrs out of
them. We will brand them as simple criminals." Rauschning, op. cit., p. 53.
Adolph, op. cit., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 32.
Ibid., p. 19ff.
Lothar Groppe, op. cit., p. 28.
Kirche Gotto-Repgen, Katholiken und Nationalsozialismus (Mainz, 1980), p. 126.
Gotto-Repgen, op. cit., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 14.
Annedore Leber, Das Gewissen entscheidet, Berlin, 1962, p. 137.
Visser, op. cit., p. 186.
Johann Neuhausler, Kreuz und Hakenkreuz (Munich, 1946), II, p. 50f.
Ibid., p. 54.
Wichmann, Jahrbuch fur Kirchengeschichte im Bistum Berlin, 1957-1958, p. 15f. The text was not allowed to be printed in 1935.
Henry Picker, Hitlers Tischgesprache (Bonn, 1951), p. 300. There is also voluminous material on the church persecution in the so-called Ostmark and the resistance to it.
Neuhausler, op. cit. II, p. 365.
Gotto-Repgen, op. cit., p. 144.
Dokumente aus dem Kampf der kath. Kirche im Bistum Berlin gegen den Nationalsozialismus (Berlin, 1946), p. 117ff.
Neuhausler, op. cit. II, p. 70.
Gotto-Repgen, op. cit., p. 141.
Ibid., p. 115.
Neuhausler, op. cit. II, p. 159.
Konrad Count von Preysing, Hirtenworte in ernster Zeit (Berlin, 1947), p. 20.