Conference Report: “German Catholics negotiate National Socialism: Three Case Studies,” Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2011

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2011

Conference Report: “German Catholics negotiate National Socialism: Three Case Studies,” Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2011, Boston, MA.

By Mark Edward Ruff, St. Louis University

Sponsored by the American Catholic Historical Association as a contribution to its annual meeting, the panel, “German Catholics negotiate National Socialism: Three Case Studies,” put on display the work of three scholars of German Catholicism who directed their attention to the thirty-year span from 1933 through 1963. Ulrike Ehret of the University of Erlangen in Germany analyzed the attitudes of German Catholics towards the Nazi state. Kevin Spicer of Stonehill College honed in on the small number of German Catholic priests who spoke out on behalf of the beleaguered Jewish population. Mark Edward Ruff of Saint Louis University moved ahead to the postwar period to analyze the efforts of the Berlin Prelate, Walter Adolph, to commemorate the German Catholic martyrs from the Nazi era. Beth Griech-Pollele, professor at Bowling Green State University, chaired the panel.

In her paper, “Negotiating ‘Volksgemeinschaft:’ Roman Catholics and the NS-State.” Ulrike Ehret discussed how the National Socialist ideal of Volksgemeinschaft (national unity) became so persuasive to ordinary Catholics. Ehret argued that ordinary Catholics, like most Germans, nurtured and supported the idea of a revived and strengthened nation, even if it meant establishing a German nation without Jews. Drawing on her examination of government reports on public opinion as well as of petitions and denunciations addressed to the government as well as to the bishops, Ehret suggested that the Catholic bishops and clergy turned the concept of Volksgemeinschaft into a means to protect particular Roman Catholic interests and traditions. To warn their flock about divisive state politics, Catholic leaders frequently revived the memories of the nineteenth-century Kulturkampf.  Most of their protests were directed against Nazi religious policies; relatively few focused on Nazi racial policies. Yet most German Catholics, according to Ehret, insisted that the Volksgemeinschaft needed to be properly rooted in religious traditions. In popular opinion, this meant ignoring National Socialist midsummer festivals, attending mass and participating in pilgrimages in growing numbers. One needs to look at what Catholics did rather than at what they said.

Compared to Catholic anti-Semitism during Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, Catholic publications rarely reverted to anti-Jewish images. However, Catholic popular defense literature clung to traditional creeds and values of the Catholic Church. It defended biblical Jewry but failed to defend modern Jewry against contemporary anti-Semitic prejudices. Indeed, the Catholic defense was often clad in the language of the time and consequently used images of Jews that strikingly resembled those used in the Nazis’ notorious racial rhetoric. The defense drew on images of Jews as the sources behind Bolshevism, as usurers and as men and women of a different race. These were all images that may have been the essence of how Catholics viewed Jews at the time.

In his paper, “Catholic Clergy and Jews under National Socialism,” Kevin Spicer continued his examination of the relationship of Jews and Catholic priests during the Third Reich.  In particular, he examined the portrayal of Jews in priests’ sermons and public addresses.

Mark Edward Ruff’s paper, “Walter Adolph and the Construction of Catholic Martydom”  analyzed how one leading Catholic chronicler of the past constructed images of Catholic martyrdom. Between 1945 and 1965, Adolph penned more than six books that described Catholic opposition to Nazism and the suffering of Catholic victims of National Socialism, including Bernhard Lichtenberg and Erich Klausener. As the editor of the diocesan newspaper for Berlin, Das Petrusblatt, he composed and put the finishing touches on many additional commemorative articles. In addition, he spearheaded the effort to build a church to memorialize Catholic victims, Maria Regina Martyrum, which was consecrated in 1963.

Yet Adolph’s commemorative efforts were inextricably bound up with the political and ideological battles of the postwar era. His diocese straddled both the Western and Eastern zones of Berlin. From the former, he was confronted by an array of church critics who denounced Catholic resistance during the Third Reich as feeble. From the latter, he was confronted by regular articles in the Communist press that argued that the church had been in league with Fascism. These articles extolled Communist victims of the Third Reich as the sole legitimate martyrs of the past and typically couched their suffering in a quasi-religious language.  To defray the charges of Western church critics like Rolf Hochhuth, he and others claimed that Maria Regina Martyrum was the answer to Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy.

Ruff’s paper argued that Adolph’s created a hermeneutic of martyrdom that was, in fact, a combination plate. It was written in a language equal parts theological, journalistic, and political. But it also necessitated glossing over the less savory aspects of those Catholic victims of National Socialism he placed into the category of martyrs. In his profile of Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action who was murdered on the night of the Röhm purge in 1934, he carefully deleted all of the sentences from the original manuscript that described Klausener’s sympathies in 1933 and 1934 for the National Socialist movement.

The comments were offered by James Bernauer, SJ, professor of philosophy at Boston College, who expounded upon the theme of martyrdom that linked the three papers. At the end of the war, he noted, Pope Pius XII spoke of the “sorrowful passion of the Church” and of the “incessant opposition maintained by the Church” in the Nazi years.  “But did the German Bishops,” he asked, “ever summon Catholics to heroic resistance?  Did the Bishops themselves ever risk real as opposed to symbolic martyrdom?” Pope John Paul II’s numerous apologies, he suggested, might be thought of as a “corrective embrace of reality for Church responsibility in what had happened to Jews, women, Protestant reformers, American Indians, the Eastern Churches and so forth.”