Article Note: Thomas Brodie, “Between ‘National Community’ and ‘Milieu’: German Catholics at War, 1939-1945”
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 25, Number 1 (March 2019)
Article Note: Thomas Brodie, “Between ‘National Community’ and ‘Milieu’: German Catholics at War, 1939-1945,” Contemporary European History 26 no. 3 (August 2017): 421-440.
By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Pacific Lutheran University
Thomas Brodie’s examination of German Catholics in the Rhineland and Westphalia from 1939-1945 offers a challenge to arguments presented by both the “Volksgemeinschaft” (“National Community”) paradigm and the analysis which argues for a Catholic subculture sealed off from the dominant Protestant majority. Brodie’s analysis reveals that neither the explanation that Catholics were living in a hermetically sealed “milieu”, separated from the Third Reich and its supporters, nor the presentation of a homogenous “National Community” with all Catholics going along with Nazi propaganda are accurate portrayals capturing the everyday lived experiences of Rhenish-Westphalian Catholics. Instead, Brodie presents readers with a much more nuanced and complex examination of Catholic loyalties, mentalities, and influences acting upon them. He argues that Catholics’ membership in the Volksgemeinschaft as well as their participation in the Catholic milieu subculture of the region contributed to a wide range of opinions, effectively curbing church-state conflict during the war years.
One of the main issues for Catholics living in the Rhineland-Westphalia region was the question of loyalty. Could Catholics be loyal to the Hitler State while simultaneously thinking of themselves as “good Catholics”? For many Nazi Party members, who were also practicing Catholics, the answer was a clear and emphatic “yes.” Brodie’s article explores the compatibility of religious identity with Nazi ideology for Catholics who were negotiating the complexities of living in a dictatorship that demanded undivided loyalty. For those Catholics who were perhaps not ardent Nazi Party members, Brodie finds that younger Catholic clergy were interested in combining their Catholicism with the Volksgemeinschaft in order to place their Church firmly into the “National Community.” Older clergy tended to maintain a stricter sense of church hierarchy and more traditional neo-Scholastic teachings. For many lay people, navigating a course between the practice of their Catholic faith and their participation in the Third Reich reveals the growing tensions in German society as the war years intensified.
What Brodie’s research offers is a much more complex, nuanced understanding of issues related to the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft, particularly as his research aims to address confessional identities whereas most works on the “National Community” ignore the role of religious beliefs. His work examines the minor conflicts which arose between local government and Church officials in the region. He tracks the decline of support for the Nazi regime among Catholic lay people as the war turned against Germany yet Brodie also highlights areas of ideological overlap between Catholics and National Socialists. Here he is able to demonstrate effectively how Catholics could incorporate traditional nationalistic language with Catholic devotion, thereby bringing their faith and support for the war effort into greater alignment. Brodie argues that Catholic laity, in particular, often criticized religious leaders if they were seen as being too harsh or too critical of the regime during its difficult years.
Brodie concludes with an examination of popular Catholic attitudes towards the Jews and their persecution. In this, he sees the co-mingling of both Catholic teachings about divine punishment as well as Nazi regime propaganda arguing that Germany’s fate was linked to the destruction of the Jews. Finally, what emerges is a much more complex understanding of Catholic reactions to church-state conflict underscoring the intermixing of both Catholic religious subculture and Nazi Volksgemeinschaft influences.