Review of Michael Hirschfeld/Maria Anna Zumholz, eds., Oldenburgs Priester unter NS-Terror, 1932 – 1945. Herrschaftsalltag in Milieu und Diaspora

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2010

Review of Michael Hirschfeld/Maria Anna Zumholz, eds., Oldenburgs Priester unter NS-Terror, 1932 – 1945. Herrschaftsalltag in Milieu und Diaspora (Münster: Aschendorgg Verlag, 2006), 818 pp. ISBN: 3-402-02492-6.

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

This review appeared first in the Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 96 No. 1 (January 2010): 160-161, and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.

This mammoth volume details the persecution of Roman Catholic priests in Oldenburg during the years of National Socialist rule.  Containing nearly 80 separate accounts of individual priests and clergy who ran afoul of the Nazi state, this compilation is a Festschrift for Joachim Kuropka, the historian at the local University in Vechta known for his regional histories of the Oldenburg region in Northwestern Germany and his scholarship on the Cardinal of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen.

This dense volume centers on Oldenburg, a long, slender sliver that technically belonged to the diocese of Münster but was cut off geographically by the diocese of Osnabrück. The northern sections were part of the Catholic diaspora, an almost exclusively Protestant bastion known for his strong support for the Nazis. In contrast, the southern regions, which included the regional centers of Cloppenburg and Vechta, was home to a thriving Catholic milieu.  With than 90 percent of the population consisting of registered Catholics, the Catholic parishes there boasted thriving ancillary organizations and a dynamic parish life.

The editors, Michael Hirschfeld and Maria Anna Zumholz, leave little doubt that the strength of the Catholic milieu in these southern regions contributed to the efficacy of actions that thwarted Nazi efforts to dismantle the building blocks of this Catholic subculture. They argue that the milieu in this region did not erode. The “indicators” of religious strength – the number of priests in a region, Easter attendance, etc. – show that the milieu, in spite of significant persecution, more than held its own. Nor did clergy contribute to an attitude of uncritical obedience to the Nazi state. Instead, they were in the forefront of the resistance to Nazi ideology, seeking to counter the anti-Christian attacks launched by the Nazi ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg. As such, these priests earned the special enmity of Nazi enforcers in the Gestapo, who cracked down – sometimes methodically, sometimes sporadically – on Catholic institutions and their associates.

To be sure, this focus on persecution – the arrests, the threats, the disruptions to parish life – is an indispensable part of the story of the Catholic church under Nazi rule. For in fact, as the section on regional Nazi perpetrators in the Gestapo, party and the courts makes clear, hardliners sought to eradicate nearly all traces of religious influence on German public life.

But this is a selective lens with which to view this era, one which is by definition, incomplete. The focus on persecution necessarily precludes an analysis of accommodations to the Nazi state made by other clergy either by choice or out of necessity.  Absent are what might be termed the grey areas in the relationship between the church and National Socialism. To what extent were these priests representative of the clergy as a whole and were there areas in which they granted their approval to the other aspects of the Nazi agenda and state? The editors pay lip service to these questions, but their answers ultimately hearken back to works of earlier eras. The narratives they create are those produced already in the 1940s by chroniclers such as Johannes Neuhäusler : the patterns they use were laid out in the 1980s and 1990s in the voluminous works, Priester unter Hitlers Terror, produced by the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte in Bonn.  This is not to negate their findings but to suggest that this is but one part – and a necessary part – of a larger picture.