“The German Catholic Bishops and the Second World War: A Historic Reappraisal”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 1/2 (June 2020)

“The German Catholic Bishops and the Second World War: A Historic Reappraisal”

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

On May 8, 2020, the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, the German Catholic bishops issued a statement, “Germany’s Bishops during the War,” admitting their complicity in the Second World War. “By not unequivocally saying ‘no,’ to the war and by strengthening instead the resolve (to fight and persist), they came to share in the guilt for the war,” declared their twenty-three page message released during a video conference because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Without a doubt, this statement’s critical tones marked a massive departure in how the German bishops portrayed their conduct during the war.  Earlier claims of the hierarchy’s guilt had been met with fire and fury. When in September 1959, the American Catholic pacifist, Gordon Zahn, accused the German bishops of having unconditionally supported what he called “Hitler’s predatory wars,” the West German bishops responded critically, commissioning a team in the Central Committee of German Catholics to gather exculpating documents.[1] No less than Cardinal Augustin Bea, who later would gain a reputation as an influential ecumenical representative at the Second Vatican Council, attempted to have him removed from his position as a tenured professor at Loyola University, Chicago.[2]

What made possible this remarkable shift? The recent bishops’ statement was, in part, the fruit of Professor Heinrich Missalla, a Catholic theologian based for much of his career at the University of Essen and a pacifist. Missalla was long known as an ardent and passionate critic of the Catholic Church’s conduct during the Third Reich.  His last published book from 2015 was entitled, Remembering for the Future: How the Catholic Bishops supported Hitler’s War.[3]

Missalla had hoped to publish an open letter to the bishops for the 80th anniversary on the outbreak of war in 2019. But his death on October 3, 2018 put an end to those plans. The left-wing Catholic newspaper, Public Forum, instead published his letter posthumously in its August 2019 edition under the imposing title: “Do you finally have the courage to face the truth? Not only Protestant but also Catholic Bishops let themselves be carried away by the enthusiasm for war.”[4] In this final statement, Missalla raised the questions that had occupied him for his entire life: how was it possible that the German Catholic bishops could send soldiers to their deaths up to the very end in a war of unspeakable cruelty and annihilation – and justify this with religious and theological arguments? Why did they hold on for so long to their justifications for fighting which included “duty,” “obedience,” “readiness to sacrifice,” and “Christian struggle.”  As he put it: “It remains a puzzle why nearly the entire German episcopate did not call out the criminal nature of Hitler’s war by name and accordingly called on the faithful entrusted to it to place itself (at Hitler’s command) obediently and with a willingness to die.”

But Missalla was also preoccupied by the church’s failures in the postwar era. Why were the bishops not able to find the courage to own up to their failure and guilt after 1945? Missalla believed that inadequate historical research was part of the problem. “In reality,” he wrote, “there are numerous documentations and investigations of the events and problems of this dark period of German Catholic Church history.  It is somewhat astounding, however, that no comprehensive account of the conduct of the German Catholic Church in the war has been put together.”

This claim is, of course, not entirely accurate. Numerous scholars, including many church critics, addressed the conduct of the church in the war, from Gordon Zahn’s classic work from 1962, German Catholics and Hitler’s War: A Study in Social Control, to Lauren Faulkner’s monograph from 2015, Wehrmacht Priests: Catholicism and the War of Annihilation. [5] Thomas Brodie’s book from 2018, German Catholicism at War, 1939-1945, provided precisely the comprehensive, critical and nuanced account Missalla was calling for.[6] Yet even on the other side of the Atlantic, Karl-Joseph Hummel’s and Christoph Kösters’ 600-age edited volume from 2007, Kirchen im Krieg: Europa, 1939-1945, provided valuable snapshots into the theology, conduct, and world-view of the German church hierarchy.[7]

However inaccurately as Missalla may have represented the state of existing scholarship, the chair of the German Bishops Conference, the Bishop of Limburg, Georg Bätzing, nonetheless expressly acknowledged Missalla’s lifelong engagement when he formally presented the Bishops’ Statement to the public.  The Bishops Conference, moreover, did draw on recent and critical findings from scholars, most from contemporary German historians and theologians, in putting together its statement.  They turned to the scholarship of the recently retired church historian and theologian from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Wilhelm Damberg, who had critically analyzed the theologies of war and understandings of just war that had informed the thinking of theologians from the 1920s through the 1950s.[8] In this vein, they also drew on the scholarship of the Tübingen theologian and church historian, Andreas Holzem.[9]  Both Damberg and Holzem played a significant role in steering the Bonn-based Kommission für Zeitgeschichte in a new direction over the course of the last decade. Long seen by critics as a nexus for defensive and apologetic accounts of the church during the Third Reich, the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte under Damberg’s leadership in particular shed this reputation as a fortress for Catholic culture warriors.  It brought in many younger scholars, theologians and historians alike, into its ranks. Just this year, it received a multi-million Euro grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft to research the history of the Catholic Church in Germany from 1965 through 1989.  Scholarship from the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte during the last twenty years thus marked a decisive break from that of earlier generations which focused primarily on the “resistance” and “distance” brokered by the ecclesia and laity alike.

This increasingly nuanced and even critical scholarship from the 2000s and 2010s about the church and the war found its way directly into the Deutsche Kommission Justitia et Pax of the Bishops Conference.  It informed not just the ensuing statement’s tone but its epistemology.  “As difficult it is to understand and as incorrect the conduct of our predecessors in the ranks of the bishops might seem to us today, it does not defy historical understanding. Only this way can we escape the temptation of letting the events from that time not come close to us today.”

The commission drew on the findings of these theologians and historians who had pointed to the resources that the church provided for Hitler’s war. These ranged from patriotic pastoral letters to the nationalistic exhortations of military chaplains and even to the role played by women religious in military hospitals and sick wards.  The bishops thus duly painted a picture of ambivalence. In spite of an inner distance to National Socialism and on occasion even enmity, they stated, the Catholic Church in Germany remained part of a “war society.” In this regard, the increased repression towards Christianity, the war of annihilation, the change in the tides of war between 1940 and 1943, and the increasing casualties as a result of the bombing war against Germany changed the bishops’ attitudes but little.

At the same time, the Bishops Conference did not want this statement to be seen as a formal “ostracism” (Scherbengericht) of their predecessors. On the contrary: they saw it instead as a new link in a chain of Catholic institutional memory, one understood not as an end in itself but rather as a tool for peace and the reconciliation of peoples.

“With the distancing effect of time, the reality that for many years there was no understanding of the suffering and sacrifice of others is particularly shameful,” asserted the closing section of this declaration. “Exchanges and the paths to reconciliation with our neighbors, especially Poland and France, have helped us to put behind this way of seeing things, which was characterized by avoidance, repression and a fixation on our own pain. Through this, we hope to experience that these meetings and contacts also have contributed and contribute to the renewal of the church.”

To no surprise, this declaration was received well by Germany’s neighbors, and in particular Poland. This showed that the church in Germany has made an important stride forward as far as the politics of the past is concerned. It followed Missalla’s dictum: “remember for the sake of the future.”

The text of the declaration and the statements to the press from April 29, 2020, can be found at the following link:



An English-language translation is scheduled to be made available in June 2020.

[1] Archiv der Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, Bonn, NL Walter Adolph, WA 16a, Auszug aus dem Protokoll der Konferenz der westdeutschen Bischöfe, Pützchen, 9.-11.12.1959

[2] Diözesanarchiv Berlin, NL Julius Döpfner, Augustin Bea to Julius Döpfner, February 11, 1960.

[3] Heinrich Massalla, Erinnern um die Zukunft willen: Wie die katholischen Bischöfe Hitlers Krieg unterstützt haben (Oberursel: Public-Forum-Verlags GmbH, 2015).

[4] Heinrich Massalla, „“Haben Sie endlich Mut zur Wahrheit?“: Nicht nur evangelische, sondern auch katholische Bischöfe ließen sich von der Kriegsbegeisterung mitreißen,“ in: Publik-Forum, August 23, 2019, 34-35.

[5] Gordon Zahn, German Catholics and Hitler’s War: A Study in Social Control (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962); Lauren Faulkner, Wehrmacht Priests: Catholicism and the War of Annihilation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[6] Thomas Brodie, German Catholicism at War, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[7] Karl-Joseph Hummel and Christoph Kösters, ed., Kirchen im Krieg: Europa, 1939-1945 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2007).

[8] See Wilhelm Damberg, „Krieg, Theologie und Kriegserfahrung,“ in: Karl-Joseph Hummel and Christoph Kösters, ed., Kirchen im Krieg: Europa, 1939-1945 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2007), 203-216.

[9] Andreas Holzem, “Theological War Theories,” in: Angela Kallhoff and Thomas Schulte-Umberg (eds.), Moralities of Warfare and Religion (Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformationin Contemporary Society [J-RaT], Vol. 4), Vienna 2018, 21-37; Andreas Holzem, “Christentum und Kriegsgewalt,” in: Theologische Quartalschrift 191 (2011), 314-338; Andreas Holzem, ed., Krieg und Christentum. Religiöse Gewalttheorien in der Kriegserfahrung des Westens (Krieg in der Geschichte, Bd. 50), (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2009).