Article Note: Thomas Brodie, “The German Catholic Diaspora in the Second World War”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 3 (September 2016)

Article Note: Thomas Brodie, “The German Catholic Diaspora in the Second World War,” German History 33, no. 1 (March 2015): 80-99.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Thomas Brodie of Jesus College, Oxford, has drawn from his doctoral research on German Catholics on the home front during the Second World War to publish this interesting article about the vagaries of religious practice among Rhenish Catholics displaced by Allied bombing. He follows Catholic evacuees from the Rhineland and Westphalia to places like Thuringia, Saxony, and southern Württemberg, where they often struggled to make new homes and develop healthy spiritual practices.

The article begins with a strong historiographical section, placing the author’s research in the context of recent scholarship on the air war, evacuations, the home front, and German religious history. While many accounts have suggested that the experience of the Second World War was conducive to an upswing in religious activity and clerical influence, Brodie disagrees, arguing that scholars have taken “insufficient account of the manifold strains the conflict imposed on the Churches’ pastoral structures during this very period” (82). To the contrary, he suggests that, “It was indeed precisely from 1943 onwards, as Allied bombing of northern and western Germany intensified, that civilian evacuations increasingly disrupted established religious geographies and networks of clerical ministry in these regions” (82). In short, he suggests that the western German Catholic milieu didn’t survive displacement.

Brodie asks a series of useful questions: Were clergy able to minister to their displaced parishioners, or were evacuees essentially removed from their influence? Did evacuation to Protestant or remote Catholic regions weaken the faith of Catholics from the Catholic strongholds of the Rhineland and Westphalia? Do the experiences of Catholic evacuees tell us anything about the wider level of religious engagement in German wartime society? And how did the Catholic clergy and laity understand their experiences as evacuees? His overarching argument is that population movements were significantly disruptive to confessional life: “German society may not have been disintegrating by 1943/1944, but the measures required to maintain the national war effort were proving increasingly corrosive of traditional ‘milieu’ boundaries” (83).

In the sections that follow, Brodie draws on the reports of Rhenish clergy working with evacuees to illustrate a series of problems created by the mass evacuation of western German Catholics. For instance, often Rhenish priests simply lacked important materials for their ministry, like Bibles, catechisms, or prayer books. Moreover, they frequently wanted for the necessary means of transportation to reach widely scattered evacuees. Large parishes and poor public transportation meant that they were frequently cycling 10 to 20 km to minister to families or provide religious instruction. Then, even if they could reach their charges, clergy needed a place to meet with them. In Thuringia, for example, the Protestant church government refused to allow Catholics to use their church buildings at any time during the war. On top of that, the Gestapo often prohibited Catholics from holding religious services in schools or homes. Even when evacuees ended up in Catholic regions, however, religious practices were often so different that the Rhinelanders struggled to join in.

Compounding these problems were others. Often, clergy had no way of knowing how many Rhenish Catholics had been evacuated, where they had settled, or if they had returned home. In one case relating to the Cologne Archdiocese, out of about 250,000 evacuees, only 16,500 had registered for religious supervision in the diaspora (86).

Brodie also notes the acute shortage of Catholic clergy. In late 1943, 9 percent of German parishes lacked a priest, and the vast majority of theology students and trainee priests–at least in the Cologne area–were being called up for military duty. (This research mirrors the reality in many Protestant regions, where many clergy cared for two and three parishes during the war and administrators struggled to fill gaps.)

In Protestant regions, Catholic priests often faced confessional hostility from Protestant lay people or police. Both they and their parishioners felt this, and Rhenish clergy developed a self-understanding of working in exile. They often complained about the secularism of Protestant regions like Thuringia, and viewed their labour as a participation in the wider effort to stem the tide of godlessness in Europe. Drawing on their neo-Scholastic theology, these clergy interpreted the spiritual apathy they observed to the Reformation’s “depowering of the sacraments and the sacrifice of the cross.” The result was, as one priest put it, “the whole faith increasingly collapses” (92). In Austrian Catholic regions to which evacuees had been sent, this declining religious vitality was attributed to “enlightened Josephinism” and its modernizing effect. Everywhere, however, priests also pointed to the morally corrosive effect of the war itself, including the prevalence of adultery and marital breakup.

In the final section of his article, Brodie suggests that the weakness of Catholic evacuees’ religious practice in wartime and their observations about Protestant secularism in places like Thuringia and Saxony suggests that the narrative of a general upsurge in German religious activity on the Second World War home front may be mistaken. In fact, Brodie suggested confessional identity took a beating, with Catholics slipping into Protestant services or (more often) just going shopping or sightseeing on Sunday. In parts of Saxony, for instance, the movie theatre seems to have outdrawn the church (95). Ultimately, if many Rhenish Catholics struggled to attend church at home, how much less likely were they in the situation of displacement?

In his conclusion, Brodie reiterates his primary argument that wartime was not conducive to increasing clerical influence or religious engagement. Rather, “the experiences of the Catholic diaspora as a whole indicate that although German society was not completely atomized during 1943 and 1944, certain traditional customs and networks were fraying under the pressures of war” (98).