December 2007 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

December 2007— Vol. XIII, no. 12

Dear Friends,

As we approach the end of the year 2007, it is time to send you my very best wishes for a festive season of remembrance, when we celebrate the coming of Our Lord. It is also the end of Volume XIII of this Newsletter. I began this venture on the occasion of my retirement from full-time teaching, expecting that it would provide a stimulating occupation for a few weeks. Instead, we have now completed thirteen years! Because of the rich plethora of publications in the field of contemporary church history, I have never had any lack of material to share with you through these short reviews which have appeared each month. I am of course deeply indebted to those of you who have contributed articles or reviews, or allowed their pieces to be reprinted from other sources. We also owe a great debt of thanks to Randy Bytwerk of Calvin College, who manages the website, to be found at the end of each issue. How long this service can continue I can’t tell, but I hope to be able to provide you with this kind of theological insight as long as possible. I am all the more encouraged to do so by the letters and messages I have received from so many of you, usually with favourable comments on the contents.

You will be interested to know that, at present, this Newsletter goes out to nearly 450 subscribers. Just out of interest I calculated the geographical distribution as follows:

USA – 182; Canada – 96; Britain – 56; Germany – 51; Australia – 22; France – 5; Italy, Denmark and Austria 4 each; Switzerland, South Africa and New Zealand 3 each; Ireland – 2; and Nigeria, Norway, Belgium, Japan, Phillipines, Holland, Finland and Oman – 1 each.

So we have a global outreach which is rather gratifying. And if you have any friends who might like to join us, please send me their names and addresses, both email and postal.


1) Franz Jägerstätter –
2) Book review, Mitzscherlich, History of the Diocese of Meissen, Saxony.

1) On October 26th in Linz, Austria, in the presence of his 94 year-old widow, and conducted by leading members of the Austrian Catholic hierarchy, the service of beatification of Franz Jägerstätter was celebrated. One of our members, William Doino, wrote the following description of Jägerstatter for the journal First Things, which is reproduced here (slightly abridged) with thanks.

a) Executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army, Jägerstätter was once known only to his relatives and neighbors—many of whom considered him mad. Born out of wedlock in 1907 in the tiny village of St. Radegund, his natural father was killed in the Great War. His mother eventually married a farmer named Jägerstätter, who adopted him. A Catholic from birth, Franz didn’t always follow church teaching. Rumor has it that he lived something of a wild life—possibly even fathering an illegitimate child—before reclaiming his faith and marrying.

In 1956, the American sociologist Gordon Zahn, then researching a book in Germany on another subject, came across Jägerstätter’s story. Transfixed, he thought it worthy of a serious biography and visited Austria to write it. After recovering Jägerstätter’s papers and interviewing surviving relatives and friends—including two priests who served as his spiritual counselors—Zahn published In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter (1964).

The book has since been translated into various languages, and it had a significant impact on the Church’s support for conscientious objectors. As the biography reveals, Franz Jägerstätter was the unlikeliest of heroes. He was “a relatively untutored man from a remote and isolated rural village,” writes Zahn. Moreover, he was “a married man with a wife and children for whom he was responsible and whose future welfare he was morally bound to consider.” . . .

After Hitler’s forces annexed Austria, completing the Anschluss, Jägerstätter was the lone voice in his village to oppose it and was appalled by the willingness of many of his countrymen, including high-level prelates, to acquiesce. “I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country,” he wrote, “than this hour when one watches in silence while this error spreads its ever-widening influence.” Commenting on the Austrian plebiscite, which gave approval to the Anschluss, he lamented: “I believe that what took place in the spring of 1938 was not much different from what happened that Holy Thursday 1,900 years ago when the crowd was given a free choice between the innocent Savior and the criminal Barabbas”. . . . .

As the takeover of Austria proceeded, Jägerstätter knew he would be asked to collaborate at some point. In early 1943, it came: He was ordered to appear at the military induction center at Enns, where he declared his intention not to serve. The next day, he was hauled off to a military prison at Linz, to await his fate. “All he knew when he arrived,” writes Zahn, “was that he was subject to summary execution at any moment.”

A parade of people—relatives, friends, spiritual advisers, even his own bishop—pleaded with Jägerstätter to change his mind. Some did not disagree with his anti-Nazi convictions or his moral stance; they simply argued he could not be held guilty in the eyes of God if he offered minimal cooperation under such duress, given the extreme alternative.

Jägerstätter, however, saw things differently. He believed Christians were called precisely to meet the highest possible standards—“be thou perfect,” said Our Lord—even at the cost of one’s life, if fundamental Christian principles were at stake. Serving Germany in a nonmilitary post would simply make it easier for someone else to commit war crimes. He could not participate in the Nazi death machine, even indirectly. He would not be swayed: “Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives—often in horrible ways—for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith.” Indeed, he added, “the important thing is to fear God more than man.”

After several months of imprisonment in Linz, Jägerstätter was taken to Berlin, where he stood military trial. According to witnesses, Jägerstätter was quite eloquent in his defense, but he was sentenced to death for sedition. On August 9, 1943, Jägerstätter was informed he would be beheaded that day. His last words as he was taken to the gallows were ones of peace, testifying to his faith: “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.” The prison chaplain who ministered to him that day later remarked, “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have met in my lifetime.”

During his ordeal, many of Jägerstätter’s neighbors considered his act unnecessary and foolish, a sentiment that remained long after his death. Zahn, who interviewed Jägerstätter’s critics, examines all the explanations offered to question Jägerstätter’s sacrifice—that he was selfish, reckless, spiritually vainglorious, or even disturbed—and makes a convincing case that none of them hold.

The most unfair charge is that Jägerstätter put himself above his family. “I have faith that God will still give me a sign if some other course would be better,” he wrote, as he struggled to find a solution to his dilemma. Images of the Passion filled his mind: “Christ, too, prayed on the Mount of Olives that the Heavenly Father might permit the chalice of sorrow to pass from His lips—but we must never forget this part of his prayer: ‘Lord, not my will be done but rather Thine.’” . . .

The letters and statements he made to his wife and family at this time show the anguish his decision brought; he was overwhelmed with the sense that he was abandoning them and feared reprisals against them lay ahead. But Jägerstätter knew that God was watching and would ultimately avenge his elect, and so expressed hope of a reunion yet to come.

Because his country’s establishment did not choose the path of martyrdom, his witness has been contrasted unfavorably to that of the Catholic hierarchy. Jägerstätter, however, was not a critic of the episcopacy, much less the Magisterium. In fact, he was a strong defender of the papacy and cited the authoritative teachings of Rome—particularly the famous anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (1937)—as a rebuke to the Catholics around him. “Many have not forgotten what the Holy Father said in an encyclical several years ago about National Socialism,” he wrote in 1942, contemplating his line of action, “that it is actually more of a danger than Communism. Since Rome has not to this day rescinded that statement, I believe it cannot possibly be a crime or a sin for a Catholic simply to refuse the present military service even though he knows this will mean certain death.” . . .

Since his cause was set into motion, predictably—and perhaps unavoidably—Jägerstätter has become a kind of political football, both in his home country and outside it. During the Vietnam War, he was invoked by its opponents as the ideal Christian, a prophet whose time had arrived. (Daniel Ellsberg actually said that Jägerstätter’s story influenced his decision to release the Pentagon Papers.)

Similarly, many pacifists have found in Jägerstätter a kindred soul. Zahn himself is a pacifist who refused service during World War II, serving instead in a work camp. Today, Jägerstätter is often cited by those who oppose the Iraq War. . . .

In his Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Robert Royal devotes an entire section to Jägerstätter’s martyrdom; and in his influential book on the Catholic just-war tradition, Tranquillitas Ordinis, George Weigel compares Jägerstätter to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The wide differences among Jägerstätter’s Catholic supporters reveals that he is actually a unifying figure, a Catholic who transcends politics and calls all members of the Church back to Christ.

There is a profound lesson in Franz Jägerstätter’s life and martyrdom. It compels us to be brutally honest with ourselves, teaches us never to bow to the powers of this world, and challenges us to live an authentic Christian life. Among the last words Jägerstätter wrote are these:

Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything possible to make life here easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there. Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal kingdom. But with this difference: We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons—and the foremost among these is prayer. . . . Through prayer, we constantly implore new grace from God, since without God’s help and grace it would be impossible for us to preserve the Faith and be true to His commandments. . . . Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love.”

b) One of Europe’s leading church historians, Victor Conzemius, writes from Luzern, as follows

Ein österreichischer Kriegsdienstverweigerer wird selig gesprochen.

Am 26. Oktober wird im Linzer Dom der oberösterreichische Bauer und Kriegsdienstverweigerer Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) selig gesprochen. Dass die Feier am österreichischen Nationalfeiertag stattfindet gibt ihr eine besondere Note. Es waren aber nicht die Österreicher, die den am 9. August 1943 im Brandenburger Zuchthaus enthaupteten Jägerstätter als Kultgestalt entdeckten, sondern der amerikanische Soziologe und Pazifist Gordon Zahn. . . . .Sein Opfertod wurde von der Mehrheit der Dorfgemeinschaft nicht verstanden und stiess auch manche Jahre nach dem 2. Weltkrieg auf Unverständnis. Doch dank der Biografie von Gordon Zahn, die in verschiedenen Übersetzungen verbreitet wurde, wurde Jägerstätter zu einer Leitfigur christlichen Pazifismus und über Österreich hinaus bekannt. Er inspirierte die amerikanische Friedensbewegung gegen den Vietnamkrieg und fand gewissermassen über den englischen Sprachraum den Weg zu seiner österreichischen Heimat. Weitere Biografien zu seiner Person entstanden; im Schul-und Religionsunterricht wurde er bald zum Begriff. Axel Corti drehte einen Fernsehfilm, der israelische Regisseur Joshua Sobol schrieb ein Drama. 1997 hob das Berliner Landgericht das Todesurteil gegen ihn auf. Die kirchliche Seite begleitete den wachsenden Kult um den Bauern aus St. Radegund und leitete 1994 in Rom den Seligsprechungsprozess ein. Im August 2006 weihte Bundespräsident Heinz Fischer einen Jägerstätter-Gedenkpark in Braunau – Hitlers Geburtsort- ein. Dass es heute noch Leute gibt, die in dem Kriegsdienstverweigerer einen irregeleiteten religiösen Fanatiker sehen, zeigen die Aufsehen erregenden unrühmlichen Äusserungen eines österreichischen Militärdekans (vgl. NZZ Nr. 189 vom 17.08.2007, S. 5.). Auf ihr Leben mit Franz angesprochen antwortet die heute 95jährige Franziska Jägerstätter in schöner Bescheidenheit: Wir haben einander gestärkt.

2) Birgit Mitzscherlich, Diktatur und Diaspora. Das Bistum Meissen 1932-1951. (Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Zeitgeschichte. Reihe B: Forschungen, Band 101). Paderborn, Schöningh 2005. 725 pp ISNB 3-506-71799-5

(This review first appeared on H-German on October 18th 2007)

The political division of Germany after 1945 into the rival states of the western Federal republic and the eastern, communist-controlled, German Democratic Republic necessarily affected the German Catholic Church too. This enforced separation led to very different developments on either side of the Iron Curtain. In West Germany, the Catholic Church regained virtually all of its privileges removed by the Nazis, successfully defended the validity of the 1933 Reich Concordat, and enjoyed an estimable place in the social and political life of the half-nation. By contrast, the Catholics in the GDR, like other religious communities, found themselves under a renewed political dictatorship, imposed by the central Marxist government in East Berlin, subjected to continual harassment and even persecution, and constantly spied on by the agents of the notorious ‘Stasi’.

The number of Catholics in East Germany was not large. The diocese of Meissen, which is almost coterminous with the state of Saxony, and includes the cities of Dresden and Leipzig, had only approximately 250,000 Catholics. Meissen derived this position from its mediaeval roots, and still retains the bishop’s seat in the small town of Bautzen. Compared to the much larger dioceses in western and southern Germany, Meissen was considered an outpost in the diaspora of the former Prussia. Nonetheless its comparative history during both the Nazi and Communist dictatorships is an illuminating and instructive chapter. It is all the more fitting because, throughout the period of 1932-1951 chosen for closer study, the diocese was under the leadership of one man., Bishop Petrus Legge. The nineteen stormy years of his episcopate are now thoroughly and excellently analyzed by Ms Mitzscherlich, formerly a doctoral student at Leipzig University, where she studied under Professor Ulrich von Heyl.

This volume appears, like many other previous dissertations, as a part of the renowned Blue Series published by the Catholic Commission for Contemporary History, which was first established in West Germany in 1967. There are now over a hundred similar studies in this series, forming an impressive record of first-class Catholic scholarship. (It would be fair to say that no other country or community can match this achievement). The original aim of the Commission was in part to provide documentary evidence of the Church’s experiences under Nazi rule, and in part to answer those critics who had challenged the hierarchy’s view, adopted immediately in 1945, that the Catholic Church had been a prime victim of Nazi totalitarian onslaughts. This aim was later expanded to cover earlier periods of German Catholic life, and more recently has been extended to the history of Catholicism in the German Democratic Republic. Mitzscherlich’s researches, which would clearly not have been possible during the period of communist rule, can therefore be regarded as a significant product of Germany’s and the Catholic Church’s reunification.

In Mitzscherlich’s view, the Catholics of the Meissen diocese were twice the targeted victims of totalitarian oppression. Their experience was brutal at the hands of the Nazi Gauleiter Mutschmann, one of the more radical of Hitler’s henchmen. So too, Saxony and its people suffered from the fact that the post-1949 communist regime aimed at remaking society along Marxist lines. Her concern is to depict how the Catholic population and its leaders coped with these onslaughts, and to describe in detail the successive waves of state-induced intimidation and indoctrination, At the same time she shows how the experience of Meissen was conditioned by the fact that the Catholics had all along been a minority and considered themselves as living in an isolated diaspora. Approximately half the book is devoted to the Nazi period and half to the post-war developments, and closes with the death of Bishop Legge in 1951. Its length derives from the need to consult the official archives in both west and east Germany, as well as the fortunately well-preserved local church records, and those of the Vatican for the early years. In addition, the author has been able to interview some survivors among the diocesan clergy, and adds this oral history to the record. As such, this is a meticulous and pioneering work.

When Bishop Legge was appointed in 1932, shortly before the Nazis took over power, the diocese of Meissen was a small and relatively poor Catholic outpost in a part of the country known for its strongly socialist, even communist, tendencies. Bishop Legge was a “”pastoral” bishop and resolutely abstained from all political utterances. But the dramatic events of 1933 evoked in Saxony the same ambivalent responses as elsewhere. The initial prohibition of Catholic membership in the Nazi Party was withdrawn by the bishops in March, and in July the signing of the Reich Concordat aroused hopes that the new political order would not only remove for ever the danger of a communist coup, but would lead to a working alliance with the church. In Meissen as elsewhere many churchmen came to believe they could be good Nazis and good Catholics at the same time.

Mitzscherlich’s narrative of events covers virtually all aspects of Catholic public life, but especially those which had political dimensions, such as the press, the schools, the associations or the youth work. Her examination of these different aspects is thorough and obviously based on exhaustive research. So her conclusions are all the more well-founded. She shows that for the first two years the Catholics of Meissen enjoyed a relatively quiet life, which only reinforced their illusions about their new political masters.

The situation changed drastically in 1935 with the arrest of several youth chaplains and leaders. This initiative apparently came from the Gestapo’s new campaign against “political Catholicism”, coupled with the Nazi drive to monopolize all youth work in the hands of Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader. At the same time, the Saxon Gauleiter Mutschmann took over the executive control of the provincial government. Matters quickly escalated. A series of edicts against Catholic youth clubs, including prohibitions, was issued during the summer months. And worse followed in October when the Bishop himself, as well as his Vicar-General, was arrested and imprisoned on alleged grounds of smuggling currency out of the country. Even though later acquitted, he had to take a leave of absence from his duties and spent more than a year in exile in west Germany.

Despite this clear evidence of Nazi hostility, the Catholic faithful continued their support of the regime, endorsed the Nazi anticommunist and anti-Semitic propaganda, and welcomed Hitler’s expansionist goals. The bishops were equally timid in failing to protest the persecution of their colleague Legge, were unwilling to mount any form of public protest, and instead merely attempted to uphold the legalities of the Concordat. As for Bishop Legge, the public humiliations of his trial, the lack of confidence demonstrated by his clerical superiors, and the imposition of an unwanted Coadjutor bishop, affected him deeply and had lasting consequences during the remainder of his episcopate.

In these depressing circumstances, the Catholics in Meissen were faced with ever-increasing Nazi depredations. Catholic schools were closed, newspapers and journals censored, building permits refused, festal processions prohibited, and state subsidies curtailed. Catholic officials were constantly walking on a tight-rope. Priests could not fail to note that their church services and sermons were under surveillance. Approximately thirty priests were put on trial for alleged anti-state activities, and eleven (nearly 10% of the diocesan clergy) were sentenced to a concentration camp. where three lost their lives. This atmosphere of intimidation went hand in hand with the belief amongst Catholics that supporting Hitler and his regime would be rewarded by more favourable treatment in the future. Particularly after the outbreak of war, the clergy were at pains to demonstrate their national loyalties and to preach obedience to their flocks.

Passivity, isolation and fear of the consequences led Catholics to concentrate on their internal religious life, as an alternative to the strident Nazi propaganda in their surroundings . Mitzscherlich’s skillful researches in the surviving documentation led readily enough to her view that the Meissen Catholics were victimized. At the same time, however, she found no evidence in the archives of any discussion of other aspects, viz.. the Catholics’ response to the Crystal Night pogroms, to the war-time mass murder of the Jews, to the so-called “euthanasia” program , or to the bestiality of the campaigns of the eastern front. But it was just these areas which demonstrated the Catholics’ failure to oppose the criminal regime which they had for the most part, loyally and vocally supported, or to take more than isolated measures to uphold Catholic and Christian values. How far such matters were spoken about privately in the parishes canot now be reconstructed. But the silence on these subjects in the Catholic records is rather glaring.

In the second half of the book Mitzscherlich pays the same close attention to the fate of the Meissen Catholics under the Soviet occupation and later East Communist dictatorship. She naturally stresses both the continuities and the discontinuities between the two regimes. Again her narrative and analysis of these new circumstances is insightful and exemplary. One of the first significant developments under Soviet rule was the re-establishment of political parties. Shortly after, the Christian Democratic Party was founded, appealing to both Protestants and Catholics. But within a year, and before the official establishment of local governments, it became clear that the Soviet authorities were determined to place power in their hands of their Marxist followers in Germany, many of whom had spent the war in exile in the Soviet Union. In Saxony, the so-called Socialist Unity Party came to dominate. Its leading officials included communist hard-liners who made no secret of their virulent anti-clerical and indeed anti-Christian antipathies. In such circumstances the CDU was quickly reduced to being a mere front party, which served to disguise the basic hostility of the new regime.

In Meissen, Bishop Legge showed no willingness to allow himself to be drawn into any new political troubles. He and his officials sought in vain to regain lost ground in the matter of schools, press publications and youth work. But with the official establishment of the German Democratic Republic in 1949, it was clear that only a repetition of totalitarian repression was to be expected. Which indeed followed. The few priests who had believed it possible to achieve a Christian socialism were soon enough disillusioned by the barrage of stereotyped defamation against the Catholic Church members as the agents of the imperialist west, in the pay of Rome, ex-Nazi sympathizers, or unrepentant warmongers. The 1950s saw a continuous onslaught which differed little from that of the Gestapo. The aim was clear: to achieve a complete separation of church and state, and to assert the ubiquitous political control of the ruling party.

Despite all this, the new regime sought to attract the support of those it called “progressive Catholics” who would demonstrate their anti-fascist credentials by aligning themselves with the goals of the new communist rulers, especially in the creation of a “peace front” against the ”revanchists”. The evidence, as Mitzscherlich tell us, is that such propaganda was virtually everywhere ineffective. Catholics had for too many years been indoctrinated against the errors of Marxism. There was little of the self-deluding wishful thinking they had displayed under the Nazis. And the outspoken opposition of both the Vatican and their West German colleagues to any such compromises or concessions prevented the emergence of any group of Catholic “fellow-travelers”.

With the growing tensions of the Cold War and the unremitting ideological campaigns of the SED party, the pressures increased on the Catholic church to conform with suitable messages of support for the communist aims. Any refusal was naturally seen as a sign of the “reactionary and state-hostile” attitudes of the clergy, a few of whom suffered imprisonment as a result. So discretion led to an almost complete silence on political matters. At this point, it would have been helpful if Mitzscherlich had made some comparisons with the parallel experiences of the Evangelical Church, though this might well have led to an unmanageable expansion of her text.

Bishop Legge’s final years were ones of great disappointment. His hopes of recovering from the Nazi depredations were increasingly frustrated by the deliberate plans of the new Saxon authorities to impose their own totalitarian monopoly over all aspects of communal life. The result was once again to force the church to withdraw into its liturgical sanctuary and to concentrate on inner spiritual tasks. The Catholic community became an island of ideological nonconformity. This stance was to be maintained throughout the forty years of the GDR’s existence, and as such enabled the church to emerge in 1990 relatively uncompromised. This retreat was only strengthened by Legge’s unwillingness to associate himself with colleagues beyond the diocese’s borders. He only once attended the national bishops’ conference in Fulda, which may be seen as a sign of his continuing frustration. He died early in 1951 as the result of a car accident.

No one familiar with the events of the German Church Struggle, or the vast historiography which has since been written, can fail to admire Mitzscherlich’s praiseworthy industry. This is a story which will not need to be told again. Mitzscherlich is to be congratulated in her fine analysis of the developments in an undistinguished minority diocese and on the even less than striking leadership of its bishop. It can only be regretted that similarly insightful studies of other larger and more significant dioceses are still to be written. Yet she is quite right in seeing this as another chapter in the long history of struggle in Germany between the religious milieu and in this case two variants of political power. Avoiding any hagiographical overtones, the author presents her material more as an omen for the future. As such we can be grateful for her diligent research and perceptive analysis.

Appended are some useful statistics relating to the Catholics in Saxony; biographical notes on the personalities mentioned; and a full bibliography and index.


3) Call for Papers:

The Canadian Catholic Historical Association will be holding its annual meeting for 2008 at the University of British Columbia from May 31st – June 8th, as part of the Annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation.

The general theme of the Congress is “Thinking Beyond Borders’

Proposals are invited for scholarly papers on Canadian Catholic history, or on any aspect of Catholicism in Canada. These should be sent with a 250 word summary and a one-page c.v. before January 31st 2008 to the President and Program Chair, Dr Heidi MacDonald of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta =

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, and God’s blessings on all your endeavours,

John Conway