Review of Thomas Forstner, Priester in Zeiten des Umbruchs. Identität und Lebenswelt des katholischen Pfarrklerus in Oberbayern 1918 bis 1945

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2014)

Review of Thomas Forstner, Priester in Zeiten des Umbruchs. Identität und Lebenswelt des katholischen Pfarrklerus in Oberbayern 1918 bis 1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 603 pp., ISBN: 978-3-525-55040-3.

By Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., Stonehill College

In his work, Priests in Times of Upheaval: Identity and Culture of Catholic Parish Clergy in Upper Bavaria 1918 to 1945, Thomas Forstner, a freelance historian in Berlin, offers an in-depth examination of the world of parish clergy in Germany during the Weimar Republic and later under National Socialism. Originally produced as a 2011 dissertation at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich under the direction of Dr. Walter Ziegler, professor emeritus for Bavarian regional history, this edition, according to Forstner, has been slightly revised and slightly shortened. Still, the present work inherently reveals its dissertation origins with extensive, but certainly informative citations, which, at times, act as parallel narratives to the text itself. The sources constituting these citations are also equally impressive. Quite significant among the sources are twenty interviews Forstner conducted with priests who had first-hand experience of the priestly world so-well documented in this work. Forstner incorporates selections from these interviews convincingly throughout his work. While all of the above points are naturally of great interest to the historical specialist and perhaps to modern-day clergy, the study’s thoroughgoing nature will more than likely make it daunting for most readers.

forstner-priesterFrom the outset, Forstner makes it clear that his book will depart from the following works: Thomas Breuer’s Verordneter Wandel? Der Widerstreit zwischen nationalsozialistischem Herrschaftsanspruch und traditionaler Lebenswelt im Erzbistum Bamberg (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald, 1992); Thomas Fandel’s Konfession und Nationalsozialismus: Evangelische und katholische Pfarrer in der Pfalz 1930-1939 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1997); and Tobias Haaf’s Von volksverhetzenden Pfaffen und falschen Propheten: Klerus und Kirchenvolk im Bistum Würzburg in der Auseinandersetzung mit dem Nationalsozialismus (Würzburg: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2005). All of these works, he argues, centered primarily on questions relating to resistance and politics without significant consideration of priestly culture and everyday life. Forstner places my own 2004 study, Resisting the Third Reich: The Catholic Clergy in Hitler’s Berlin (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press) in the same category, though he does acknowledge that my work included “some” discussion of priestly culture. By contrast to these studies, Forstner seeks to understand specifically the all-too often hermetic world of Munich’s clergy, especially their pastoral training, outlook, and practices, quite closely akin to Monika Nickel’s Habilitation, Die Passauer theologisch-praktische Monatsschrift: Ein Standesorgan des Bayerischen Klerus an der Wende vom 19. Zum 20. Jahrhundert (Passau: Dietmar Klinger, 2004), a study upon which Forstner lavishes great praise. Nickel’s work examined pastoral practice addressed in the Passau Monthly of Practical Theology.

In his introduction, Forstner spells out the three aims of his work: (1) to describe the formation of the Upper Bavarian clergy in the period between the two world wars; (2) to build upon the research of the late Erwin Gatz among others by further examining the cultural, social and attitudinal history of German Catholic clergy; and (3) to detail the ways in which clergy did and did not overcome the challenges of the tumultuous time in which they lived, especially taking into account the strategies they employed to negotiate the difficulties they faced. In my opinion, Forstner convincingly accomplishes his first two goals, though falls a bit short of his third ambition.

In his efforts to address the aims of his work, Forstner regularly employs the term Lebenswelt, though he purposely avoids the term “milieu” when discussing the nature of Munich Catholicism. According to him, a unique single Catholic milieu did not exist in the archdiocese, even though 89% of its population professed Roman Catholicism. Despite the lack of uniformity, Forstner finds the Catholic clergy of Munich and Freising quite unified in their world view. According to him, the Catholic clergy’s ideals revolved around the understanding of Habitus clericalis – the imposed norms for priestly conduct in private and public life. These priestly ideals embodied the practices of self-sanctification and self-denial. The challenges of the modern world interfered significantly as the clergy strove to live ascetically pure lives. This was especially true as the society, in which they lived, especially following the First World War, became more tumultuous. Increasingly, Catholic clergymen found they often lacked the training and abilities to deal with the harsh realities of modern-day German society. The archbishop and his clerical staff were of little assistance in addressing this situation.

Forstner begins his work by offering an overview of the archdiocese from 1918 to 1945. Throughout this period, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, imposing archbishop of Munich and Freising (1917-1952), set the tone for the archdiocese. Yet, at the same time, his clergy found him distant and aloof. As one priest frankly commented, “Following my priestly ordination, I never saw Faulhaber in my life again, never again. We had no access; he was a feudal Lord in his palace. Any baroness had access to Herr Cardinal, but curates not…. I only remember Faulhaber from his majestic behavior, as if he was a noble’s son, even though he was, I believe, a master baker’s son” (p. 51). Still, Cardinal Faulhaber was an entity from whom many of Munich’s 1.47 million Catholics (in 1933) took heed. Such regard among Catholics did not translate into weekly Mass attendance. In fact, the Munich archdiocese had one of the lowest records for Mass attendance in Germany. Similarly, Munich Catholics offered less support for political Catholicism than Catholics in other regions of Germany. In the 1924 state elections, for example, three out of four Catholics did not cast a vote for a Catholic party. As the rector of the Freising seminary lamented, “The men of our age no longer enjoy the protection and advantage of an ideologically closed culture and a uniform milieu” (pp. 43-44). Yet, within such a diverse culture, Forstner stresses that the clergy maintained their united anti-modern conservative outlook. Only a few priests, minor figures, Forstner argues, embraced a reform anti-Ultramontane strain of Catholicism present in Munich and its environs.

In the following chapter, Forstner examines the recruitment and training of Munich priests. Interestingly, he reports that more than half the priests of the Munich archdiocese came from the countryside, though he finds that this trend began to change after the First World War, especially since German society experienced an upheaval in general. The majority of the priestly candidates began their studies as young teenagers (ages 11-15), attending one of the minor seminaries in Freising, Scheyern, or Traunstein. The seminarians continued their studies at either the Freising Major Seminary or at the more liberally structured Georgianum in Munich – the latter included seminarians from other dioceses who attended classes at the University of Munich, taught by members of its Faculty of Theology. Forstner offers pages upon pages of detail as he richly documents seemingly every aspect of vocation recruitment and seminary life. The directors and rectors of the seminaries made every attempt to ensure that the young men entrusted to their care were kept as far from possible from outside worldly influences. Still, the realities of the times did creep into seminary life. For example, Nazi enthusiast, Father Albert Hartl, a prefect at the Freising Minor Seminary, had his students read and discuss the contents of the Völkischer Beobachter during morning study period. By late 1933, Hartl had further awakened everyone at the minor seminary to the realities of living under National Socialism when he denounced seminary director, Father Josef Roßberger, for speaking against the government. Actually, Forstner reveals that seminary life was never as insular as one might believe. In 1929, for example, 43 seminarians at the Freising Major Seminary supported the NSDAP candidates in local district elections, despite the rector’s assurances to his superiors that no seminarian was a member of the NSDAP.

It became impossible for seminarians to escape the grasp of National Socialism. In June 1935, the German government instituted a law that made six months of labor service (Reichsarbeitsdient) compulsory for all young men ages 16 to 25. According to Forstner, the seminarians, who were used to being away from family and friends for long periods of time, actually fared better than the majority of their peers. Anti-Church propaganda also had a reverse effect, by primarily strengthening the resolve of most of them. In 1939, the German government added another impediment to seminary training by making membership in the Jungvolk (ages 10 to 14) and the ordinary Hitlerjugend (ages 14-18) compulsory. By this time, however, priestly formation was already under significant stress in Upper Bavaria as the government requisitioned seminary buildings for military use, disbanded theological faculties, and altered or ended seminary programs of study.

In chapters three and four, Forstner centers upon parish ministry and the ideals of priesthood within active ministry. He offers an extensive portrayal of parish life, including a detailed examination of pastor-vicar work relationships, priestly social life, and remuneration. In particular, he illustrates how parish life revolved around the pastor who served not only as a pastoral care provider who dispensed the sacraments but also as an individual from whom everyone in a particular area sought advice. The latter role underwent a gradual but significant change as mayors more and more assumed this role. After 1933, this was even more the case when the National Socialist government removed priests from most honorary local positions.

In chapter five, Forstner discusses a topic rarely addressed in the existing literature on the German Catholic Church in this period: clerical deviancy and punishment. After explaining the various penalties that Church hierarchy had at its disposal to deal with recalcitrant priests, Forstner examines specific problems that befell individual priests and offers brief individual case studies. These issues included breaking celibacy, partaking in financial irregularities, and suffering severe psychological illness. In the latter discussion, the case of Father Richard H. stands out. Soon after his ordination, Father Richard manifested schizophrenic symptoms so his superiors placed him in Schönbrunn asylum, a Catholic sanitarium run by Franciscan sisters. His condition worsened and the asylum’s director, Monsignor Josef Steininger, approved his transfer to Eglfing-Haar, a state asylum in which the decentralized euthanasia program was still taking place – a fact of which Steininger was well aware. Soon after his transfer, the 35 year old Father Richard was reported as having died “officially” of fever and pneumonia, but, quite possibly, Forstner argues, a victim of the euthanasia program. Forstner speculates about Steininger’s choices and role in Father Richard’s death.

The sixth chapter deals with complicity in the crimes of National Socialism. Here Forstner examines brown priests, clergymen who openly supported National Socialism. Forstner acknowledges my book, Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism, (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008) and various articles on this subject, but believes that I did not differentiate sufficiently enough the varying degrees of “brownness” among such priests. Instead he turns to four categories of complicity suggested by University of Heidelberg historian Olaf Blaschke: “(1) Selective Contentedness, (2) Cooperation and Conformity, (3) Loyalty to Consent, and (4) Active Collaboration” (p. 425). Forstner argues that scholars should only label priests “brown” if their behavioral pattern falls within the third or fourth categories of complicity. Such priests consented to the core aims of National Socialism and, in turn, cooperated with National Socialism against the beliefs and practices of their own religious tradition. From this group, he singles out seventeen Munich archdiocesan priests, of which eleven were members of the NSDAP. Forstner offers compelling informative overviews of the careers of almost all these brown priests and concludes that these clergymen can primarily be placed in one of two groupings to explain their reasons for siding with National Socialism: extreme nationalism and opportunism. Forstner also argues that most of these individuals belonged to the generation that Detlev Peukert called the “Superfluous Generation” and Michael Wildt termed the “Uncompromising Generation” – those born between 1900 and 1910, too late to prove themselves during the First World War. While such characterization may help to explain the motivations for some brown priests, it does not cover the overwhelming majority of them. Still, Forstner does build upon and add to the existing literature as he discusses these problematic priests, even if his conclusions are not entirely new.

In chapter seven, Forstner offers a comparative examination of the role of priests in both world wars. In World War I, 6.5% (90 priests) of the diocesan clergy and almost all seminarians served in the military. Of the 301 seminarians who carried arms, 95 perished, a third of these falling in direct combat. Like most Germans, the priests of Munich shared in the nationalism and monarchism that so filled the air in 1914. Michael von Faulhaber, then serving as Deputy Field Provost (Stellvertretender Feldpropst) of the Bavarian army, was no different. His sermons used terms such as “soldiers of Christ” and described the war as “sacred” and “just.” By contrast, Forstner argues that Faulhaber’s public rhetoric during the Second World War was much more reserved. He does acknowledge though that any positive statements about the war, even if in support of the soldiers or seminarians in military service, still served indirectly to support the war effort and Hitler’s criminal regime. Munich’s clergy and seminarians showed much less enthusiasm for this war than the previous one. The church-state conflict clearly had affected diocesan seminary life by then. Despite exhibiting a zealous enthusiasm for the war, theologians were still drafted due to a secret provision in the 1933 Reich-Vatican Concordat. Before the war was over, 230 Munich priests, 270 seminarians and 182 pre-theology students from the minor seminary took part in military service. 10% of the priests and 30% of the seminarians fell in military service, the majority on the eastern front.

In his final chapter, Forstner focuses on the question of resistance among Munich’s clergy under National Socialism. While making great effort to differentiate his argument from other historians, his conclusions are not novel. Few priests, Forstner concludes, participated in open resistance against the National Socialist regime. Most considerations were subordinated and guided by the necessity to administer the sacraments and maintain pastoral care. He arrives at such conclusions without significant archival evidence. Rather, he relies primarily on his analysis of the materials collected by Ulrich von Hehl and his collaborators, published in the third edition of Priester unter Hitlers Terror (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1996). Overall, this chapter seems wanting, especially when compared to the depth of study and analysis presented in the other chapters of this work.

According to the portrait Forstner offers, Cardinal Faulhaber did not inspire resistance among his clergy. In a 1940 pastoral conference, Faulhaber told his priests: “Guarding the tongue in the pulpit is the strictest Canon of the time” (p. 532). Evidently, from the number of priests who came into conflict with the state primarily over issues relating to pastoral care, such words of advice were not easily followed. Other priests found Faulhaber of little assistance in their daily negotiation with the state. One clergyman commented: “The man [Faulhaber] left us completely alone as chaplains in the difficult conflict over the schools and in our preaching. We never received any help in the time of the Nazis, never! … The bishops were not for us.” Another priest added: “There was no help to be expected from the Church” (p. 538).

Overall, Forstner has produced a magisterial study on the culture of priesthood in Munich and Freising during some of its most trying times in the twentieth century. Certainly, it will become a standard work on this subject. Despite this important contribution and the information that it contains, the work does little to address the larger questions about the relationship of the Catholic Church with National Socialism and less to engage existing literature in these areas. In all of its 552 pages of text and footnotes, Forstner devotes but five pages (pp. 510-514) to a discussion of relations between clergy and Jews. Neither is any general picture offered on this topic. Those seeking to gain a broader portrait of the Catholic Church in such troubled times will have to look elsewhere. By contrast, those who wish to know specifically about clergy, seminary training, and parish life will find a rich resource in Forstner’s work.