Review of Jonathan Huener, The Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation. The Reichsgau Wartheland 1939-1945

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 2 (June 2021)

Review of Jonathan Huener, The Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation. The Reichsgau Wartheland 1939-1945 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2021). 353 pages. Cloth $90.00, ISBN: 978-025305402-9; Paperback $42.00, ISBN: 978-025305404-3; Ebook $41.99 ISBN: 978-025305406-7.

By Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., Stonehill College

Jonathan Huener, professor of history at the University of Vermont, has produced a definitive study of the Catholic Church in western Poland under German occupation. Identified by the Germans as the Reichsgau (district) Wartheland or Warthegau, it encompassed 45,000 square kilometers (“roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire,” Huener notes) with a “population of more than 4.9 million, including approximately 4.2 million Poles, 400,000 Jews, and 325,000 Germans.” Of this demographic, 3.8 million were Catholic and ninety percent were ethnic Poles. The German Reich incorporated the territory even though its borders remained guarded and not easily crossed. Ecclesiastically, it was expansive, encompassing the “prewar archdioceses of Poznań (Posen) and Gniezno (Gnesen), nearly all of the Włocławek (Leslau) diocese, the majority of Łodź (Lodsch/Litzmannstadt) diocese, and fractions of the Częstochowa (Tschechenstochau), Warsaw (Warschau) and Płocl (Schröttersburg) dioceses.” It included 1,023 parishes, served by 1,829 diocesan priests, 277 male religious, and 2,666 women religious (2). Before World War II ended, the German occupiers would close more than ninety-seven percent of the churches, dissolve all Catholic organizations, deport or imprison most women religious, and arrest more than 1,500 priests, of whom 815 they murdered directly or indirectly. In eighteen succinct and exceptionally well-written chapters, Huener uncovers the history of the church in the Warthegau, masterfully contextualizing it in the politics of the Nazi occupation. It is the first English language study on this topic, extensively based upon sources from both church and state archives.

Many studies on the existence of churches under National Socialism point to the Warthegau as a blueprint of the Nazi state’s plans of actions for the future of all churches in Germany. Generally, however, historians have drawn such conclusions prematurely, basing them on select archival documents without examining the broader context of Nazi policies for the Warthegau and for Poland as a whole. By setting right these ill-considered assumptions, Huener situates his analysis of the church’s plight in the Warthegau clearly in the Nazi state’s Kirchenpolitik and Volkstumskampf or ethno-racial struggle. Dominating this regional policy was Arthur Greiser, a native of the region and the Warthegau’s long-serving (1939-1945) Gauleiter (district leader) and Reichsstatthalter (Reich governor), and his deputy, August Jäger, whom historian Klaus Scholder had previously identified as instrumental in intensifying state involvement in Protestant Church affairs in the initial years of Nazi rule. Huener mentions but does not explore this connection. Greiser and Jäger did not act alone. From Munich, Martin Bormann, chief of staff in the Office of the Deputy Führer and, after May 1941, head of the party chancellery, and from Berlin, Heinrich Himmler, SS Leader and Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood, influenced Warthegau church policy while also allowing Greiser freedom to craft and implement it locally. The result revealed competing concerns between the ethno-racial struggle against Poles and an existing distrust of Catholicism. What historians have traditionally interpreted as attacks on Christianity by limiting or prohibiting Masses, Huener explains, were primarily security measures implemented by the occupiers to “prevent Poles from congregating and fomenting dissent or resistance” while they continued their policy of  “undermin[ing] Poles’ sense of national identity and community” (6). Amid such motivations, strong anti-church sentiments also existed.

Despite the multiplicity of motivations for curtailing the church’s freedoms, the German occupiers’ actions against the Polish Catholic Church were drastic. From the outset, the Germans targeted the church and its priests, especially viewing the latter as instigators of Polish nationalism and extremely hostile to Germany. Huener explores the origins of Nazi anti-Polish, bias, tracing it in significant depth. While clergy were not specifically signaled out for imprisonment or execution, he shows how the Einsatzgruppen (operation groups) included them among the more than sixty-thousand Polish citizens that they massacred during Operation Tannenburg, following the invasion of Poland. After the military handed governing to a German civilian administration in late October 1939, clergy continued to be counted among the intelligentsia chosen for execution or imprisonment. In chapter three, Huener delves deeper into the reasons for the Germans’ anticlerical outlook, tracing it back to the 1870s Kulturkampf in Polish regions under Prussian rule. According to Huener, the church “functioned as a vector of Polish nationalism,” with the clergy often supporting right-wing nationalist politics, including the Endecja or National Democracy movement. He describes this movement as “socially conservative, generally antisemitic, hostile to minorities,” and advocating “the Polonization of the German minority in Poland” (47).

Whether the Polish clergy did or did not embody such nationalistic anti-German sentiments, Reichsstaathalter Greiser obsessively believed they did and planned to purge his Mustergau (model Gau) of such unwanted elements. As chapter four reveals, he had a monumental task as the region was predominantly Polish; and even its Jewish minority was larger than its ethnic German inhabitants. Huener recalls that in 1944, despite countless arrests, murders, and deportations, only thirteen percent of the Warthegau’s population was ethnically German. Such percentages did not bode well for Greiser, considering that the neighboring Gau of Danzig-Westpreu­ßen was fifty-eight percent German.

To carry out his purge, Greiser and other Gau authorities initiated a series of actions against the church, becoming more draconian and ruthless over time. Chapter five discusses the 5 October 1939 “invasion” of the Ostrów Tumski island enclave of the Poznań diocesan administration. Popularly known as the “Cathedral Island Action,” the Gestapo and various police units raided the diocesan archive seeking files that might reveal “potentially dangerous clergy and church institutions” and arresting four priests who worked in the diocesan chancery. Although August Hlond, archbishop and primate, left Poland in late September 1939 at the request of the Polish government, his auxiliary, Walter Dymek, remained in Poznań and was placed under house arrest. At first, German officials promised Dymek that the church would be left unharmed. In return, Dymek issued a memorandum calling on diocesan clergy to “care for the poor and to maintain social peace, and also to comply with the orders of the authorities” (78). Huener stresses that this should not be “seen as an expression of sympathy or eager compliance” but rather an “attempt to ensure that Polish Catholics would continue to have access to ‘word and sacrament’” (79). Such promises meant nothing, of course, as the occupiers began to restrict the number and times of Masses and enforce further limitations on the church’s ministries. Huener argues such restrictions were part of a threefold plan to incarcerate and deport a significant number of clergy, restrict Poles’ access to churches and parish facilities, and take “economic and legal measures to undermine the unity, integrity, and structure of the Polish church as an institution” (82).

Chapters six, eleven, and twelve detail the specific actions Nazi authorities took against Polish priests that nearly deprived Warthegau Catholics of the sacraments. These actions took place in four stages: (1) immediately following the fall 1939 invasion; (2) in early 1940 (aimed primarily against priests of the Gniezno and Poznań archdiocese); (3) in August 1940, when the Gestapo and police rounded up two hundred priests and deported them to Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald; and (4) in early October 1941 when more than 500 Warthegau priests were arrested in a move meant to destroy the Polish clergy (86). Priests of religious orders were rounded up and exiled at higher rates than diocesan priests. Before deportation to the General Government (non-incorporated part of occupied Poland) or to a concentration camp, many clergy were held in confiscated monasteries or friaries appointed for such purposes. Life in these transitional sites was not ideal but significantly less harsh than that experienced in camps such as the notorious Fort VII, located on the western outskirts of Poznań. Huener recounts numerous tragic tales of the brutal torture of interned clergy. Such horrible and murderous experiences reached their apex at Dachau, the subject of chapter twelve, where more than 1,700 Polish Catholic priests were incarcerated, of whom 850 perished, accounting for eighty-three percent of all clergy who lost their lives there (185).

As state authorities ended priests’ freedom to minister in a variety of pastoral settings, parish worship was also affected, as chapters seven through nine reveal. Memorandums from Berlin forbade the use of Polish in worship and called for “‘specially selected, German-conscious German clergy’” (104). Huener points out that generally, the implementation of such commands was more radical than initially proposed. Interestingly, he notes that this was not only to curb Polish nationalism, but also, in the Warthegau, to restrain the Catholic Church, which “remained a foreign and hostile element, regardless of whether its clergy were patriotic Germans or allegedly subversive Poles” (105). Evidence of restrictions on religion affecting ethnic Catholic Germans residing in the Warthegau appears at several points in the narrative. Not only were Masses and the sacraments limited, but state authorities also systematically destroyed roadside devotional sites throughout the Warthegau. Vivid photos reproduced alongside the narrative visually document such desecration. Likewise, both the Gestapo and police confiscated churches, cloisters, friaries, and parish buildings, converting them to secular use by organizations such as the National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV).

Prohibition of the Polish language in worship and parish ministry was intertwined in the Nationalitätenprinzip or national principle calling for racial segregation in church life. Following the National Socialist racial principle, Germans and Poles were strictly separated in all religious contexts, designating separate churches for each demographic. Huener incorporates the memoir of Father Hilarius Breitinger, a German Franciscan who served in Poznań as the apostolic administrator for German Catholics from 1942-1945, to recount the obsession of Nazi authorities to implement this form of segregation. Interestingly, Huener also reveals that such regulations were, at times, challenging to enforce as religious practice appears to have superseded racial segregation. Extremely harsh penalties could be imposed on both Germans and Poles who failed to follow segregational ordinances. An August 1943 report of the Polish underground resistance recounts, German parishioners formed a cordon to prevent Poles from entering their “German” church before an impending search by the Gestapo during Mass (129). Huener clarifies that the guards’ motives were not apparent but appeared to have an altruistic motive of concern for their Polish co-religionists. He concludes, “for some of the population (and some clergy among them), the church could erase, or at least blur, the linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and racial frontiers that the regime so rigorously imposed and defended” (131). Huener here points to the research of James Bjork on Upper Silesia, which draws similar conclusions. Unmentioned is that John J. Delaney previously reached the same conclusion regarding Polish forced laborers living among rural Bavarian Catholics.

Behind the segregation and anti-church policy stood thirteen points articulated in September 1939 by Jäger and Gerhard Klopfer, the latter a representative of Martin Bormann. Huener reconstructs the thirteen points from various primary documents. They include destroying denominational associations, upholding the national principle, prohibiting religious instruction in schools, limiting church offertory collections, forbidding religious organizations to engage in social welfare activities, abolishing religious orders, dismantling theological studies at Posen University, and turning the priesthood into a part-time profession. Without mentioning the thirteen points, Albert Hartl, an SD official and a former priest of the Munich and Freising archdiocese, and a Dr. Fruwirth, incorporated the spirit of the thirteen points into a fourteen-page memorandum to guide future state ecclesiastical policy. Huener argues that this document revealed, “a basic synergy with respect to church policy between the party leadership, SD, and Warthegau administration” (144). Such insights highlight the importance of Huener’s well-grounded argument and his exceptional ability to integrate National Socialism’s political and social history into church history.

Although much of the information In Huener’s work will be new, at least for English-speaking readers, chapter thirteen is especially ground-breaking. In it, Huener describes the persecution of women religious in the Warthegau and their internment in Bojanowo Labor Camp, located near the southern border of the Wartheland. During the occupation, women religious often had to take up the ministry left unfulfilled by the arrested and murdered priests. Though they could not administer the sacraments, women religious still provided essential pastoral care and spiritual enrichment to Catholics throughout Poland. Such activity, coupled with the Nazis’ hatred of religious orders, resulted in more than six hundred women religious being incarcerated in the camp. Conditions in the camp were hard but not as brutal as other concentration camps and prisons in the Warthegau. In Bojanowo, women religious had to engage in labor, including manufacturing munitions. Unlike their male counterparts, they were granted brief furloughs to venture into the local village. In some cases, their captors released them to return to live with their relatives. Huener reports that deaths were rare, with only eight to eleven sisters perishing in the camp.

As with almost any discussion on the Catholic Church under National Socialism, Huener addresses the silence of Pope Pius XII, in this case, his silence toward the persecution of Poles and the Polish Catholic Church. Huener emphasizes that by the fall of 1939, Pius XII had already been well informed about German atrocities against the Poles and the Polish Catholic Church. Huener concludes that the pope “preferred expressions of sympathy and avenues of diplomacy over overt protest, condemnation, or calls for resistance” (273). For him, Pius chose “impartiality” over “neutrality” (283). Still, Huener points out that the Poles and their religious leaders were not cognizant of the extent of intervention exerted on their behalf, for example, by Cesare Orsenigo, the Berlin papal nuncio. He acknowledges such intervention as remarkable, especially considering Orsenigo’s checkered history under National Socialism. At the same time, he also emphasizes the limitations of such an approach.

Huener concludes his study by again recounting the devastating losses among the Polish clergy. Though such emphasis might seem hagiographic, it is far from it. Throughout the work, Huener balances his presentation and judgment, describing the Polish church’s strengths and weaknesses, including its antisemitism, as it sought to exist under German occupation. In the end, he concludes that unlike the German Catholic Church and the papacy that “emerged from the Second World War as institutions compromised,” the Polish Catholic Church “survived more than five years of Nazi occupation and emerged in 1945 as an institution with significant moral capital” (311). Huener has provided excellent documentation of this ecclesiastical and human narrative of survival.