Conference Report: 14th biennial Lessons & Legacies Conference

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: 14th biennial Lessons & Legacies Conference, sponsored by the Holocaust Education Foundation at Northwestern University and Claremont McKenna College, November 3-6, 2016, Claremont, CA

By Martina Cucchiara, Bluffton University

At this year’s Lessons & Legacies Conference, a number of scholars presented on the Catholic Church in Europe under Nazism and Fascism.

On Friday, Jonathan Huener (University of Vermont) presented his study on the little-known Nonnenlager Schmückert, a labor camp for Polish nuns in the Reichsgau Wartheland. Between February 1941 and January 1945, the Gestapo, in collaboration with the Reichsstatthalter’s office of Arthur Greiser (via the Gau Self-Administration), imprisoned over six hundred nuns in the camp. In his analysis of the camp, Huener emphasized the intersections and conflicts “between ideology and economic rationality” in the Nazis’ anti-Church policies in the Warthegau. Initially, the regime’s persecution of the Polish Catholic Church, that included the dissolution of cloisters and the imprisonment of nuns, was crucial to germanization measures in the Gau. As a key symbol of “Polish national consciousness,” the Nazis viewed the destruction of the Polish Catholic Church as tantamount to the destruction of the Polish nation. Nuns in their conspicuous habits thus represented the dual threat of Catholicism and fanatical Polish nationalism and animated the Gestapo’s efforts to imprison the women in 1941. But if the initial imprisonment of nuns was driven by ideology, Huener argued that by 1942, severe labor shortages became the main impetus for the Gau administration’s renewed efforts to round up and incarcerate the remaining nuns in the Warthegau. Attempts to use nuns as forced laborers at Schmückert failed, however. Still, although most of the women were simply too ill to work, Huener concluded that the camp’s continued existence shows both the “regime’s commitment to incarcerating and exploiting its alleged enemies,” and its “obsession with Polish Catholicism as an inherently dangerous and conspiratorial locus of anti-German, Polish-national sentiment.”

On Saturday, the panel “Antisemitism and Catholicism during the Holocaust” focused on manifestations of and responses to antisemitism in the Catholic Church in Germany, France, and Italy under Nazism.

Kevin Spicer (Stonehill College) and Martina Cucchiara (Bluffton University) explored the topic through the lens Erna Becker-Kohen, a Catholic of Jewish heritage, whose writings the presenters have translated and annotated. The volume, The Evil that Surrounds Us: The Writings of Erna Becker Kohen, is forthcoming in 2017 from Indiana University Press. Overwhelmed by fear and isolation in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Erna converted to Catholicism in 1936. The history of Catholics of Jewish heritage primarily has been told from the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy. Focusing on the experience of one Catholic of Jewish heritage, Spicer and Cucchiara lowered their gaze to illuminate the consequences of the Catholic hierarchy’s refusal to take a clear stance on Jews, even Catholics of Jewish heritage, in Nazi Germany. Largely leaving their flock to their own devices, Church leaders did little to check the pervasive antisemitism and malice that Erna routinely encountered in Catholic parishes and women religious communities. Nonetheless, Erna, along with a small number of German Jews, did benefit from the Catholic Church’s feeble intervention on their behalf when the regime refrained from dissolving marriages between Jews and non-Jews. On account of her “privileged” marriage to a non-Jewish man, Erna therefore was exempt, for a time, from the most severe anti-Jewish decrees, including deportation. But, as Spicer and Cucchiara argued, the Church’s contribution to the protection of “privileged” Jews was incidental, as the episcopate first and foremost sought to defend its traditional right to govern marriage. The Church did not intervene when the Nazis deported Catholics of Jewish heritage or when they imprisoned the “Aryan” partners of Jews in the fall of 1944 to force them to divorce their Jewish spouses. Erna felt the full brunt of this policy of silence when the regime imprisoned her “Ayran” husband Gustav in a labor camp. Erna and her young son Silvan struggled to survive the war and the Holocaust in southern Germany and Tyrol. Gustav, too, survived but eventually succumbed to severe injuries he sustained during his time of imprisonment.

In her presentation “Catholic Antisemitism in France and Italy during the Holocaust,” Nina Valbousquet (Sciences Po Paris) also raised the issue of intermarriage, albeit in post-Fascist Italy in 1943. Following Mussolini’s fall, Father Tacchi Venturi, a member the Italian Catholic clergy, advocated for the abolition of provisions of the Fascist racial laws of 1938 that forbade intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews. At the same time, he also lobbied the Italian Ministry of the Interior to retain certain antisemitic provisions that in his estimation were consistent with Catholic traditions and principles. Valbousquet argued that Venturi’s position was representative of members of the Catholic clergy in Fascist Italy and Vichy France who disavowed Nazi antisemitism as un-Christian but continued to spread “acceptable” forms of antisemitism. In their promotion of Catholic antisemitic propaganda that conflated traditional Christian anti-Jewish prejudices with modern secular antisemitic stereotypes, the Church became complicit in legitimizing anti-Jewish laws and measures in France and Italy. From here it was but a small step for some Catholic activists during World War II to cast Fascist antisemitic laws as “a legitimate self-defense of Christian civilization” against World Jewry. At the very least, Valbousquet concluded, Catholic antisemitic propaganda contributed to widespread indifference to the suffering of Jews, and for this reason the topic deserves far greater scholarly attention that it has received so far.

Suzanne Brown-Fleming (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) also sought answers to the Catholic Church’s apparent indifference to the persecution of Jews in the months following Hitler’s ascension to power. In particular, she examined the intersection between the Catholic Church’s response to the regime’s treatment of Jews and Catholics in 1933. Brown-Fleming argued that scholars must consider the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and Catholics together in order to gain a fuller understanding of the Church’s silence about the escalating persecution of Jews in 1933. Drawing on files from the Vatican secret archives, Brown-Fleming painted a vivid picture of discussions between the Vatican and the German episcopate on how to respond to the new regime’s persecution of Jews. In the end, Church leaders remained silent because, in the words of Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, should the Church defend Jews, “the war against the Jews would also become a war against the Catholics.” Whereas Brown-Fleming attributed the Catholic Church’s silence about Jews mainly to fears for its own flock, implicitly, she raised yet another intriguing reason for the Church’s public indifference to the suffering of Jews. It appears that upon Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, many Catholics were not fearful but enthusiastic about the new regime. Some younger Catholics chafed against the ban on Catholic membership in the NSDAP that the Fulda Bishops’ Conference had issued in 1930. Cesare Orsenigo the Vatican nuncio in Berlin, went so far as warning the Vatican in 1933 that the Church should take care not to alienate the many “National Socialist Catholics,” lest they left the Church. Although Brown-Fleming did not explicitly make the argument, she nonetheless raised the question whether the Catholic Church remained silent about the persecution of Jews not just because they feared a war against Catholics but because they feared losing the support of large segments of Catholics whose enthusiasm for the new regime clearly outweighed their trepidations about Nazism.