Conference Report: “Catholic Antisemitism and German National Socialism”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 1/2 (June 2017)

Conference Report: “Catholic Antisemitism and German National Socialism,” Panel Presentation, Annual Meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association, January 6, 2017

By Jeremy Stephen Roethler, Texas State University

This session provided a broad survey of the complex history of the early twentieth century German Catholic Church and its legacy of both resistance to and complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich. The panel was attended by approximately 20-25 people from the American Catholic Historical Association, which met in conjunction with the annual American Historical Association conference in Denver.

Under the title, “Father Erhard Schlund: A Catholic Dialogue with Nazi Antisemitism,” Jeremy Roethler focused on an individual who exemplified the challenges facing historians seeking to understand the views of Nazi era German Catholics on both National Socialism and Judaism. A Munich-based Franciscan theologian and a prominent figure in the leadership of Germany’s largest national Catholic fraternity organization, Dr. Schlund left a strong record of vehement criticism against Nazism, particularly its glorification of the state, its deification of the German nation and its grave threat against the moral prerogatives of the Catholic Church and its vast network of auxiliary institutions in Germany (including the Catholic fraternities). At the same time, in many of his writings and public pronouncements, Schlund paradoxically embraced a racial bias towards Jews that was strongly consistent with the Nazi pattern of isolating Jews as a racial other, inherently outside of the German national community. While Schlund remained consistent with a long-standing Catholic theological tradition in his insistence that God’s love applied to all national peoples equally, he was apparently not at all bothered by the belief held by the nationalist right that Germany’s Jews exerted a disproportionate influence in German society, and that they therefore posed an existential threat to the German nation. Thus, in the words of commentator Martin Menke, “Schlund personified the dilemma of German Catholicism: how to be both Catholic and German, and how to be German Catholic without excluding or discriminating against others.”

The next paper, entitled “Privilege Marriage and Catholicism under National Socialism,” was co-authored by Martina Cucchiara and Kevin P. Spicer, both eminent scholars well-versed in the complexities of German Catholic thinking about Jews during the Nazi era. The paper focused on the precarious place of Christians of Jewish heritage in “privileged” marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans in the Third Reich. Starting in 1938, the Nazis exempted “privileged” Jews from the worst anti-Jewish measures, including, for a time, deportation. In particular, the presenters focused on the fate of one individual, Erna Becker-Kohen, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism in the 1930s. Although a number of scholars have utilized Erna Becker-Kohen’s memoir to illuminate aspects of “privileged” marriages in Nazi Germany, they have mostly ignored Kohen’s complex relationship with Judaism, Catholicism, and the institutional Catholic Church. The presenters have translated and annotated the memoir which will appear this September with Indiana University Press under the title, The Evil That Surrounds Us: The WWII Memoir of Erna Becker Kohen. The Catholic Church’s official position, seemingly contra to Nazi racial ideology, was that converts be treated as Christians, not Jews. In fact, Erna’s account provided a painfully different picture, illustrating that the Catholic Church would accept converts like her only with ambivalence and qualification. In light of the Church’s deafening silence toward the persecution of Jews, including Christians of Jewish heritage, Erna relied primarily on the uncertain individual initiatives of priests and the laity as she sought refuge in the rural Catholic communities of Southern Germany and Tyrol. More broadly, this paper demonstrates convincingly that when Catholic Church leaders differentiated between supposedly acceptable religious antisemitism and unacceptable Nazi racism, they were drawing a difference without a meaningful distinction for victims like Erna. In his commentary, Menke pointed out that this paper opens a gateway to further, critically necessary research into the attitudes of Catholic school authorities, parish priests, and monastic leaders. “How susceptible were lay Catholics to Nazi racial ideology,” remains a question, observed Menke. “From what we heard today, there is little room for proud self-congratulation.”

The third and final paper, entitled “Vatican Responses to Antisemitism,” was delivered by Suzanne Brown-Fleming of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While the first two papers offered the individual experiences of Catholic antisemite and Jewish victim of Nazism, Brown-Fleming’s paper broadened the scope to the institutional Catholic Church. Brown-Fleming’s paper demonstrated that when it came to the Jewish question during this period, the Catholic Church could by no means be characterized as a monolithic institution. While individuals within the Catholic Church continued to view Nazi racism with justifiable alarm, Brown-Fleming notes that the German Catholic episcopate moved with shocking speed in declaring the compatibility of Catholic faith with Nazi Party membership in March 1933, in so doing, reversing established policy, without waiting for authoritative directives from Rome. In his commentary, Menke lauded Brown-Fleming for her “excellent” exegetical reading of the papal records, and called for continued research in the “hierarchical and institutional records, as well as in the diaries, letters and other records of public opinion and individual action.” Menke noted further that all three papers demonstrated a “saddening” pattern among Germany’s Catholics in distinguishing their own need for salvation and the “need to preach the gospel by the way they live.”

After the three paper presentations and Menke’s commentary, questions were posed by the audience. Notably, Dr. Franz Posset, an independent scholar and recipient of the 2016 ACHA Harry C. Koenig Prize for Catholic Biography for his recently released, Johann Reuchlin, 1455-1522. A Theological Biography (De Gruyter, 2015), asked if it was worth observing that many members of the Catholic Church itself were targeted by a terroristic Nazi regime. Could their consequent fear of retaliation at least in part explain their seemingly ambivalent and conflicted behavior when it came to protecting or standing up for Jews? The three panelists and commentator agreed that instances of Nazi pressure against Catholic Church authorities and lay faithful was at times significant; but they also responded that antisemitic attitudes were pervasive within Germany’s Catholic milieu in this period (even among those otherwise opposed to Nazism), and that many figures in the Catholic Church remained firm in their understanding of Jews as a racial other, without any external prodding from Hitler’s regime.

Beth Ann Griech-Polelle, Kurt Mayer Chair of Holocaust Studies at Pacific Lutheran University, served as moderator.