Review of Hans-Otto Mühleisen and Dominik Burkard, Erzbischof Conrad Groeber reloaded: Warum es sich lohnt, genauer hinzusehen

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 1/2 (Summer 2023)

Review of Hans-Otto Mühleisen and Dominik Burkard, Erzbischof Conrad Gröber reloaded: Warum es sich lohnt, genauer hinzusehen (Lindenberg: Kunstverlag Josef Fink, 2020). ISBN 978-3-95976-305-9.

By Martin Menke, Rivier University

In this volume, two historians, one emeritus at Augsburg and the other still active at Würzburg, seek to restore scholarly credibility to the politicized debate about the role Archbishop Conrad Gröber played during the years of the National Socialist regime. Ordained to the episcopate as Bishop of Meißen in 1931, he served as Archbishop of Freiburg from 1932 until he died in 1948. Mühleisen and Burkard argue, each in a separate essay, that the politics of memory and history demands that historians undertake particularly accurate scholarly research and analysis. In the historiography of the Christian churches in the twentieth century, that constitutes a grave problem, as one can see from the Concordat debate of the 1950’s onward. Today, most historians have moved beyond defensive or accusatory positions. The history of the churches, like all history, is too complex to permit generalized conclusions.

In 2015, a movement arose to repeal Gröber’s honorary town citizenship based on impressions contemporaries had of his speeches and his supposed support for the National Socialist regime, especially in 1933-34. In response, Mühleisen offers a differentiated analysis of Gröber and avoids definite judgment where ambiguity remains. Mühleisen also avoids moral judgment, which he argues is not the purpose of this historical study. He questions whether or not one can weigh moral accomplishments against moral failings to arrive at a “bottom line” judgment. In a fairly balanced account, Mühleisen discusses several lapses in judgment by Gröber, such as his decision to join the SS “booster club.” Also, Mühleisen notes that Gröber’s early public support for the regime confused the laity. While incomprehensible today, some have described membership in this organization as a protection racket. Similarly, in the first months of the new regime, Gröber emphasized his willingness to work with the new government authorities. Possible evidence for this is the Gestapo’s fear of Gröber’s fundamental opposition to the regime.

Mühleisen suggests that Gröber walked a fine line of superficial support for the regime, necessary to continue his defense of Catholic teaching, the Church, and Catholics in his archdiocese—one should remember that all-too-open opposition against the regime led to the exile of Joannes Baptista Sproll, Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. For the war years, Mühleisen shows that Gröber’s homilies and speeches often appeared to focus on matters internal to the Church but that implicitly, they contained ambiguities and meaning that suggested complying with Gröber’s interpretation of Catholic teaching would lead if not to resistance, then at least to a more critical view of the regime. In authoritarian regimes, reading between the lines of public pronouncements by individuals not affiliated with the regime became a cultivated skill.

Mühleisen emphasizes Gröber’s unrelenting insistence on Catholic moral teaching and on protecting the rights of the laity to worship and especially of the clergy to fulfill their sacerdotal duties. Mühleisen goes so far as to claim that Gröber’s constant public insistence on the rights of the Church and the faithful constitutes a form of resistance, which might not apply in the regime’s early years, but became increasingly accurate as repression worsened.

An essential element of Muhleisen’s discussion relates to a homily Gröber preached in the fall of 1942. He employed vicious antisemitic tropes, such as the Jewish striving for world domination. Mühleisen does not attempt to excuse these lapses. He does, however, note that at the same time he was making such comments, he was providing Gertrud Luckner, charged with helping non-Aryan Christians and all those persecuted, with funds to bring to persecuted communities. Mühleisen does not explain these contradictions, primarily because Gröber’s true intentions are undocumented. Mühleisen is sympathetic to Gröber but refuses to absolve him from mistakes in his relationship with the regime.

In the second essay, Dominik Burkard responds to claims by Wolfgang Proske, doctorally qualified history teacher and publisher of Täter, Helfer, Trittbrettfahrer, a series of studies on those actively involved or enabling the National Socialist regime in southern Germany. Proske considered Gröber “an unambiguous aide to the regime and tarnished by National Socialism.” Rather than undermine Proske’s arguments directly, Burkard undertakes a scholarly analysis of Proske’s sources, in particular records of the French authorities, housed in the Archives de l’occupation franҫaise en Allemagne et en Autriche. These contain a dossier on Gröber, which is unsurprising given his position in the French zone. In the dossier, Burkard found several character appraisals of Gröber and thirty-pages of documentation of sexual liaisons in which the archbishop supposedly engaged. Proske believed these documents were collected by the Gestapo Karlsruhe, from where they ended up in French hands. Burkard, however, convincingly argues otherwise.

Given some of the details in the document, Burkard dates the documents’ creation to the fall of 1947, while a French translation, whose text does not precisely mirror the German text, was produced in 1949. Burkard believes these documents were created in response to the publication of a volume of Gröber’s wartime homilies and pastoral messages, which the author considered propaganda by the archbishop. The documents’ author described Gröber as a careerist, opportunist, power-hungry, non-religious, and superficial. There is a kernel of truth in these claims. Gröber’s career involved little parish work. He spent twelve years as rector of the minor seminary in Konstanz, from where he moved to diocesan administration. He was authoritarian. Given his willingness to test the limits of public criticism of the regime, however, his faith must have had some deep roots. In a well-differentiated study, Burkard discusses Gröber’s critics within the Church, particularly Vicar General Josef Sester and inactive priest Heinrich Mohr who supported National Socialism. Sester, before he died in 1938, had filed charges of sexual impropriety against Gröber, which the Holy See rejected. Mohr and his sister, Teresa Mohr, waged a decade-long campaign against Gröber in which they accused the archbishop of moral failings and close collaboration with the regime. After discussing several other possible authors of the documents against Gröber, Burkard convincingly points to a preponderance of evidence against Teresa Mohr, whom contemporaries described as unhinged in her hatred of Gröber.

Burkard notes, without irony, that today’s critics of Gröber, like Proske, rely on documents in part created by supporters of National Socialism to make their case. Not quite as convincingly, perhaps because he does not expand on the role of the Mohr siblings in the education politics of postwar Baden, Burkard argues that they opposed Gröber’s support for the Christian Democratic Union and interconfessional public schools. They demanded his support for the resurrected Center Party and the denominationally segregated public schools that had existed before 1933. Gröber also argues that the theologian Paul Jungblut, another priest critical of Gröber, revised the original text written by Teresa Mohr. He revised the text after Gröber’s death with the hope that none of Gröber’s confidants would succeed him as archbishop.

Mühleisen and Burkard, while sympathetic to Gröber, do not offer hagiography, nor do they engage in polemics against Proske and others. Instead, they go where the evidence leads them and subject their findings to rigorous scholarly inquiry. Concerning Gröber’s actions and intentions, there can be no clear conclusion, although the preponderance of the evidence leans toward characterizing him as a critic of National Socialism. Concerning the state of public discussion and scholarly work on the churches during the Nazi era, this work stands as a model of dispassionate research.