Review of Antonia Leugers, Jesuiten in Hitlers Wehrmacht. Kriegslegitimation und Kriegserfahrung

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

Review of Antonia Leugers, Jesuiten in Hitlers Wehrmacht. Kriegslegitimation und Kriegserfahrung, Krieg in der Geschichte, Band 53 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöning, 2009), 233 Pp. ISBN 9783506768056.

John S. Conway,University of British Columbia

The Jesuits in Germany had a roller-coaster history in the twentieth century. Persecuted by Bismarck in the newly-created German Reich, and later expelled from the country, they were re-admitted in 1917 as a concession to German Catholics in order to uphold their war efforts. In the inter-war period, they build up some notable schools and colleges, and re-established three Provinces. But when the Nazis came to power in 1933, their fortunes suffered a sharp downturn. Nazi radicals accused the Jesuits of being the Vatican’s shock troops, threw doubt on their loyalty to the “new”Germany, attacked their institutional life, particularly their youth work, and later on confiscated many of their properties. At the same time, the younger members, like all other German males, were conscripted for military service, even including those who were already ordained as priests. During their war-time service after 1939, these Jesuits regularly and faithfully wrote to their clerical superiors, relating their war experiences, and in return received circular bulletins from their Provincial headquarters.

The almost 3000 letters from the nearly 300 Jesuits who served in military units from 1939-1945, form the basis of Antonia Leugers’ research. However, the fate of these Jesuits in Hitler’s armies was strikingly affected by a secret decree issued from Hitler’s headquarters at the end of May 1941, shortly before the invasion of the Soviet Union. This ordered all soldiers belonging to the Society of Jesus to be demobilized forthwith, and returned to civilian life. Curiously Leugers does not investigate the reasons behind this remarkable edict, since she is interested only in its impact on the Jesuits themselves. The great majority were overwhelmingly dismayed. This implacable order seemed to challenge their loyalty to the army and the nation. It might well signal the escalation of the repressive measures against the Jesuit order already launched by the Nazi Party. No explanations were ever provided to the individual soldiers, and Leugers provides none to the reader.

Although her sample is very small, and lacks any comparative examination of other series of soldiers’ letters home from the front, Leugers systematically analyses how the war affected this particular group of dedicated Catholics. In particular she is interested in how these men justified their participation in Hitler’s aggressive wars, and how they reacted to the increasingly brutalizing conditions, especially after the German war machine invaded the Soviet Union. She shows that, surprisingly, even after Hitler’s decree, many Jesuits still continued to serve in the army. Their reports on how they reacted to the devastations inflicted on the Russian people are particularly illuminating.

Essentially, Leugers shows, Jesuits were influenced both by the traditional Christian justifications for war, derived from centuries-old models, but also by the more recent development of a youth culture which advocated comradeship and adventure in a romanticized setting and applied it to Germany’s national destiny. Both sets of justification were compressed into the slogan: “All for Germany,Germany for Christ”. The evidence provided shows clearly that Jesuits were eager to demonstrate their support of this slogan by serving in the military’s ranks, all the more since conscientious objection was illegal and carried a death penalty. Their enthusiastic desire to join in with their comrades in this God-blessed struggle against godless Bolshevism, or its handmaid, Jewish skulduggery, was limited only by the refusal to take part in the less moral pastimes of the common soldiery, such as drunkenness and fornication. But political scruples were absent – or at least were never reported to their superiors. Many Jesuits shared naive views about the war’s purposes. They could believe that the invasion of Russia would lead to its liberation from the evils of Communism, and to the re-Christianization of the people. So too they shared a widespread belief that a distinction could be drawn between service forGermany’s sake and the acceptance of Nazism’s ideology and practices. Most seemed to cling to the self-induced idea of the nobility of military service and to the notion of heroic sacrifice, if necessary, of their lives for their country.

Leugers does not explore how far – if at all – these sentiments were the means of avoiding any far-reaching crises of conscience. The extracts here given provide no hints of any psychological conflicts, although this may well be due to the writers’ awareness of their letters being censored. For the most part, the Jesuits failed to recognize how far they were being made accomplices of the Nazi terroristic regime. All too readily they accepted the Nazi propaganda about the enemy, while deluding themselves that they were fighting for a “better”Germany. The fact remains that only a handful of Jesuits recognized – too late – that active resistance was required against all forms of Nazi indoctrination and terror. The rest, captivated by their religiously-flavoured nationalism, were condemned to share the moral and physical disasters which overwhelmed Germany in the final years of Hitler’s Reich.