On Hitler, the Holy See and the Jews (Part 1)

Interview With Historian Father Giovanni Sale

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ROME, JUNE 11, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The Holy See was farsighted in understanding the dangers inherent in Nazism long before World War II, says a new book.



The book, "Hitler, la Santa Sede e gli Ebrei" (Hitler, the Holy See, and the Jews), Jaca Book publishers, is written by Father Giovanni Sale. In it, the Gregorian University professor analyzes the relations between the Third Reich and the Vatican during 1933-1945.

The book refers to unpublished archive documentation, in particular that of the Vatican Secret Archives relating to the nunciatures of Monaco and Berlin, and that of the review Civiltà Cattolica.

ZENIT interviewed Father Sale about the findings published in the book. Part 2 of this interview appears Sunday.

Q: Historiography has neglected what the Catholic clergy did to oppose Hitler and National Socialism from coming to power in Germany. Can you explain how the Catholic Church conducted itself?

Father Sale: With the recent opening of the Vatican Archives relating to the nunciatures of Monaco and Berlin, 1922-39, we now have the possibility to better assess how that prophetic political change of January 30, 1933, was commented upon and judged by the highest authorities of the Catholic Church at the time.

A series of reports, written by Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, the apostolic nuncio in Berlin, gives us the possibility to better assess those events.

The first German bishop to take action against National Socialism was the archbishop of Mainz, who already in September 1930 published some norms with the objective of impeding Catholics from being contaminated by the National Socialist epidemic. However, not all the German bishops approved them, considering them too harsh in content and, in any event, they judged the episcopal document premature, as Hitler’s movement was still in the process of formation.

Moreover, some bishops were of the opinion that it was not necessary to give too much credit to theoretical constructs of some intellectuals of the Hitler’s movement, such as the anti-Christian ideologist Rosenberg, while, instead, it was necessary to consider that the National Socialist Party was the only one that opposed with determination the advance of Bolshevism in Europe.

With the passing of time, however, the whole German episcopate associated itself with the line of conduct of the ordinary of Mainz -- "driven," nuncio Orsenigo wrote, "by the persistent irreligious attitude of some leaders of National Socialism."

In the Prussian bishops' conference meeting in Fulda from August 17-19, 1932, it was decided, "keeping in mind the danger that the National Socialist Movement might constitute for souls," to issue dispositions that would prohibit Catholics from belonging to Hitler’s party. The document was approved unanimously.

It was on the occasion of the electoral campaign for political elections of March 5, 1933, that the opposition between National Socialism and the Catholic world came into focus for the first time.

In a dispatch of February 16, 1933, sent to the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Orsenigo talked about the gravity of the situation and the harshness of the political clash under way between the parties, and about the orientation of Catholics in the political realm and the manipulation of religion for party ends.

"The electoral struggle in Germany," the nuncio wrote, "has now entered its acute stage. [...] Unfortunately, even the Catholic religion is often used by one or the other parties for electoral purposes. The Center Party naturally has almost total support from the clergy and Catholics and, yet to have a momentary victory, it acts without being overly concerned with the painful consequences, which might ensue for Catholicism, should the adversary gain a full victory."

In fact, during the electoral campaign, the religious element was seriously exploited for reasons of political propaganda both by the governing parties and the Zentrum [the Catholic Center Party].

The latter, considered by many as a "confessional party," appealed to Christian values to condemn and combat the principles of National Socialism; National Socialism, instead, appealed to the struggle against Communism to mobilize the Catholic forces against the common enemy. And we also know that many men of the Church were not at all insensitive to such an appeal.

In general, the control exercised by the German Catholic hierarchy during the whole period of the electoral campaign was marked by great prudence and a sense of responsibility. In general, it did everything possible not to fuel, with partisan or improvised statements, the existing conflict between National Socialism and the Zentrum.

The Holy See did as much as well. From the documentation consulted, we see that in fact neither the Holy See nor the nuncio in Berlin intervened in any way to influence the bishops and the leaders of the Center party in a specific direction.

In those months, the Secretariat of State limited itself only to examine what was happening in Germany, and tried in every way to remain outside of the complicated German political questions. Nevertheless, the secretariat looked with apprehension at all that was occurring in those months in such an important nation for the destiny of Europe.

Although sharing the point of view of the German bishops in their condemnation of the National Socialist ideology, and nourishing intense concern for the destiny of the Catholic Church in that country, the Vatican was also aware of the danger of an eventual "Bolshevization" of Germany, which would have drawn the whole of Continental Europe into conflict, consigning it defenseless to Communism.

This explains why at that moment the Vatican did not judge with excessive rigor Hitler's coming to power, much less so his political plan to create a Germany with a strong, authoritarian government on the model of that of Mussolini.

The most controversial issue from the historical point of view refers, however, to the decisive support given by the Zentrum to the consolidation of Hitler’s dictatorship, through the voting of the law on full powers of March 23, 1933.

It should be recalled that the granting of full legislative powers by the Reichstag to the chancellor was a procedure, although exceptional, provided by the Constitution and, therefore, legitimate.

In our opinion, the responsibility of the Zentrum in regard to the consolidation of the power of National Socialism is limited to the fact that with its vote it made possible the enlargement of the chancellor's powers.

This did not mean, however, the assumption of absolute power -- which remained in the hands of the army and of the president of the republic -- by Hitler, of which he was subsequently invested by simple decree, undersigned by himself, after President Hindenburg's death.

So, to put the burden of the advent of Hitler’s dictatorship on the Zentrum, as is often done by certain political journalism, seems to us, in addition to unjust, also erroneous on the plane of historical truth.

It was the reactionary and conservative forces of the state that permitted National Socialism to attain power in Germany and it was always the latter that allowed Hitler -- although they did not know the ideas and political plan -- to be invested with full powers, deluding themselves by the idea of being able to dominate and manipulate him to their own advantage.

Nor should it be forgotten, moreover, that it was the voters in the elections of March 5, 1933, who confirmed such a choice, giving to Hitler’s party a high percentage of the votes.

If on March 23 the Center Party had refused to vote full powers to the National Socialists -- who for the purpose of intimidating the Deputies had the building where the meeting was taking place surrounded by the SA -- it would have used force to obtain this result, even by spilling innocent blood.

In our opinion, the Deputies of the Center who voted in March 1933 the law of delegation of powers acted in good faith, thinking in this way of rendering a good service to the homeland, to preserve social and political peace and save the Constitution. And they certainly did not have before their eyes all the negative effects -- many of which at that time were unforeseeable -- which would then follow that assumption of powers.

Q: National Socialist ideology turned out to be pagan and decidedly anti-Christian. But the most serious clash between the Nazis and the Catholic Church occurred with the 1933 law on compulsory sterilization. It was with this law that the Nazis began to implement in a criminal manner the selection of race. Can you illustrate for us how the Catholic Church reacted?

Father Sale: In reality, the disagreements between the Holy See and National Socialism began already the day after the stipulation of the July 1933 Concordat, when, without hesitation, Hitler began to violate not just the spirit but also the letter, limiting at his pleasure the rights of the Church in matters of associations, formation, etc.

However, as early as April 1933 the Holy See had let Hitler know, either through channels of papal diplomacy or through the mediation of Mussolini, of disapproval of the anti-Semitic legislation adopted by the new government, as it was in violation of the natural law and did everything possible to attenuate its rigor.

It should be said, in any case, that it was the law on compulsory sterilization which entered into force at the beginning of 1934 that represented the first instance of a clash between the Vatican authority and that of the new German Reich, now decided on carrying out its eugenic theories in the matter of racial selection -- theories that Pius XI openly condemned in the 1931 encyclical "Casti Connubii."

At the request of the Holy See, the German episcopate did everything possible -- through pastoral letters, personal contacts with leaders of the regime, etc. -- to obtain the modification of the law on sterilization.

Such mobilization of the German Catholic world led in fact to the modification of the regulation of the application of the law, which was published on December 5, 1933.

It contained two important clauses, which were drafted to be inserted in the final text by representatives of the bishops after exhausting meetings with government authorities and against the resistance of the radical wing of the National Socialist Party.

The first allowed persons affected by hereditary illnesses who did not want to be sterilized to recover in a clinic or health center; the second guaranteed exemption to members of staff who for reasons of conscience did not wish to be involved or be present at operations for sterilization.

More fortunate was the courageous complaint made by some German bishops in 1941 against the program of euthanasia of individuals carriers of hereditary illnesses, especially mental patients -- the very ones on whom sterilization was practiced in virtue of the law of 1933 -- whose maintenance was considered too onerous by the state.

It was Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen of Muenster who, in a homily on August 3, 1941, recounted in particular how patients were killed who were brought in some cases, purposely predisposed to this objective, and how relatives were given false news on the death of their dear ones.

The bishop condemned these killings with force, describing them as real and proper crimes, and requested that those who were responsible be punished.

The lack of respect for human life, he continued, led in the end to the physical elimination of all people held to be unable to work, such as the seriously ill, the elderly and wounded soldiers returning from the front.

Woe to the German people, von Galen warned, if it allows the killing of the innocent, leaving unpunished those who perpetrate such crimes.

The homily made a profound impression among the civilian people and also among German soldiers fighting at the front. The Nazi leaders, seeing themselves attacked by the bishop's denunciation, reacted with violence. Some called immediately for the hanging of von Galen, accused of the crime of high treason.

However, Hitler reluctantly decided to put off the rendering of accounts with the Church until the end of the war, in order not to create ill will among the civilian population of that important region, and among numerous Catholic soldiers.

In any event, an order of the "Führer" on the same date, August 3, 1941, officially blocked the further implementation of the euthanasia program. In subsequent years, despite Hitler's order, euthanasia continued to be practiced in some special situations. But the official program on a large scale was never taken up again.

[Sunday: Pius XI's courageous encyclical]