Review of Maria Anna Zumholz and Michael Hirschfeld, eds., Zwischen Seelsorge und Politik: Katholische Bischöfe in der NS-Zeit

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 2 (June 2019)

Review of Maria Anna Zumholz and Michael Hirschfeld, eds., Zwischen Seelsorge und Politik: Katholische Bischöfe in der NS-Zeit (Münster: Aschendorf Verlag, 2017), XII + 817 Pp., ISBN: 9783402132289.

By Lauren Faulkner Rossi, Simon Fraser University

This hefty tome, running past eight hundred pages, is a valuable contribution to the fields of German history, church history, and theological studies. Its inception was a conference held at the Catholic Academy Stapelfeld, in Cloppenburg in November 2016. Considering its subject – individual biographies of the Catholic bishops of Germany between 1933 and 1945 – its length is perhaps not surprising, though its editors caution us against treating it as exhaustive or comprehensive. For this reason, the reader may notice some sizeable gaps or curious omissions: Lorenz Jaeger, archbishop of Paderborn from 1941 into the postwar period, is not included (though his predecessor, Caspar Klein, is), nor are the bishops of Speyer, Aachen, Limburg, and Augsburg. Some chapters seem relatively cursory or incomplete: the chapter on Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber by Peter Pfister, director of the archdiocesan archive of Munich and Freising and an expert on this subject, runs a scant twelve pages, only six of which deal specifically with the Third Reich; similarly, the chapter on Clemens August Graf von Galen, bishop of Münster, focuses mostly on his pre-1939 biography.

The editors, Maria Anna Zumholz and Michael Hirschfeld, discuss significant forthcoming works on both von Faulhaber and Jaeger to account partly for the brevity of the studies here (13). And while there is a detailed chapter by Raphael Hülsbömer on Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli – later Pope Pius XII – and his relations with the German bishops, there is no attempt to integrate the episcopate into Vatican politics or consider the complicated, at times strained relationship between the wartime pope and the bishops as a collective. The editors justify this in part by referencing the closed archives covering the wartime pontificate of Pius XII; they could not have known that the year following this volume’s publication, the Vatican would finally announce the much-anticipated opening of these “secret archives” in 2020.[1]

Taken together, though, these gaps fail to significantly undermine what the volume brings to existing scholarship. Twenty-six German scholars, the majority with doctorates in history or theology (or both), several of whom direct diocesan archives or affiliated institutes, have produced twenty-one biographical chapters on twenty-three bishops.[2] Conscious that historical literature over the past seven decades has focused consistently on the political behaviour of the bishops, sometimes individually but more often as a group, and particularly on what the bishops failed or neglected to do – namely, explicitly condemn the Nazi regime’s human rights abuses and especially its persecution of the Jews – the contributors to this volume concentrate instead on studying the central purpose of the bishops: the exercise of their priestly, magisterial, and pastoral offices, which encompassed their zeal to preserve the teachings of the church and its values from distortion, and to immunize Germany’s Catholics against the Nazi world view.

In this, the contributors build on Antonia Leugers’ seminal 1996 study, which pointed to the bishops’ remarkably homogeneous backgrounds as a partial explanation for their lack of collective resistance to the regime’s policies during the war.[3] This volume goes further and acknowledges the distinctions not just between the bishops but also between their dioceses, exploring such diverse factors as age, health, the size of non-Catholic or non-German populations, the varied impact of industrialization and secularization, even the regional nature of German Catholicism, contrasting north versus south and centre versus periphery.

Despite these strong differences, the editors emphasize that the bishops remained united in thinking that the real lapse (Sündenfall) of Nazism was not its turn away from democracy, but its rejection of God and complete disregard for his commandments (11). They were not ignorant of the broader arena in which the Church was under attack by those intent on exterminating religion: events in Russia, Spain, and Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s urged the bishops to prepare for an existential battle within Germany up to the outbreak of war, a point made by Joachim Kuropka (to whom the volume is dedicated) in his introductory chapter.

This underscored the bishops’ commitment, at once individual and collective, to maintaining their office as pastoral care providers, even at the expense of becoming political actors. As pastors, they consistently identified their primary goal as confronting and limiting the insidious impact of Nazi ideology on German Catholics. They recognized Nazism, with its absolute political rule and its feverish attempts to claim universal jurisdiction over the construction of all worldly meaning, as a grave threat to the autonomy of the Church in Germany. They wielded an array of methods, from sermons to pastoral letters to a rigorous defense of the independence of Catholic youth organizations, to try to keep their flocks immunized against Nazism (die Immunisiering gegen die NS-Ideologie, 7). In this they were successful: there was no steep drop in the number of Germans identifying as Catholic throughout this period, to which the useful diocesan statistics in the appendix testify. Kuropka references Gestapo reports that describe a spiritual battle between the regime and German Catholics, which, he insists, the former lost (27).

Despite this uniform commitment to pastoral work, the bishops were not a uniform group, as their biographies emphasize. In his study of the two bishops of Fulda (Joseph Damian Schmitt and Johannes Baptist Dietz), Stefan Gerber argues that the most prominent members of the episcopate – Clemens von Galen, Michael von Faulhaber of Munich and Freising, Konrad von Preysing in Berlin, Joannes Baptista Sproll in Rottenburg – were in many ways exceptions and therefore are not helpful in reconstructing the self-perceptions, motives, expectations, and frictions of the “so-called second row” bishops (347). Indeed, von Galen, bishop of Münster, spoke publicly and forcefully against the regime’s euthanasia program in the summer of 1941 (Kuropka, the chapter’s author, gives this incident short shrift, more interested in other aspects of von Galen’s personality; he does not stress that von Galen spoke on his own, and not as a representative of the bishops), but he was the only Catholic bishop to do so. Other bishops designated assistants to spearhead efforts to help the victims of Nazism, particularly Catholics who had converted from Judaism and who were thus Catholic in the eyes of the Church, but Jewish in the eyes of the regime: Conrad Gröber in Freiburg, Cardinal Adolf Bertram in Breslau, and von Preysing in Berlin all took this route.

Other authors wrestle with source-based or historiographical problems. Thomas Flammer’s study of Joseph Godehard Machens, in the diaspora diocese of Hildesheim (its population in 1933 was less than 10% Catholic; the only diocese smaller than this, according to 1933 numbers, was Berlin) points to contradictory descriptions of the bishop’s personality: scholars have called him warmonger and Nazi and, according to his employees, he was both vain and humble, egotistical and shy, and “trusted very few people and counted even fewer among his friends.” (381) But upon his death in 1956, the Bundestag held a moment of silence, calling him a warrior against Nazism, and the Jewish community of Lower Saxony spoke of him as a friend and a great Catholic bishop.

Christoph Schmider wrestles with the legacy of Conrad Gröber, archbishop of Freiburg, which swings between the poles of “brown Conrad” (for his early openness to working with Hitler’s regime) and of “warrior of the resistance” (411). Schmider concedes ultimately that such a personality abjures a simple black-and-white characterization but instead requires “numerous gray tones so that, depending on the view of the observer, sometimes the gloomy and sometimes the brighter nuances prevail” (433).

Ulrich Helbach writes about how Cardinal Karl Joseph Schulte, the archbishop of Cologne who died during a bomb attack in 1941, has been consistently overshadowed in scholarship by his successor, Josef Frings, and his detailed analysis of Schulte centers on his personality, the challenges of leading one of Germany’s larger dioceses, and the impact of a serious heart attack (at the relatively young age of fifty-six, in 1927, six years into his tenure as archbishop) on his vocation and his reactions to Nazism. His observation about Schulte’s tendency towards compromise and conflict reduction (161), strengths which served him well in the 1920s, were a completely different matter under Nazism, and one that might be applied to other bishops as well.

All contributors treat diocese and region as integral to understanding the personality and behaviour of the bishop in question, and do not shy away from posing difficult historical and theological questions. In one of the longest chapters, Bernhard Schneider situates Bishop Franz Rudolf Bornewasser’s particular difficulties partly in the task of shepherding the peripheral diocese of Trier. So, on the one hand, Bornewasser was deeply involved in formulating a church-based approach to the pro-German campaign of the 1935 Saar plebiscite, a task for which his ardent love for the Fatherland (which he distinguished from “unchristian nationalism”) prepared him well and which seemingly put him in step with the regime (260). On the other hand, in September 1941 he preached about the prohibition against killing, referring to the T4 program and referencing other episcopal writings (including von Galen’s, indirectly), apparently willing to risk the wrath of the regime in doing so.

Andreas Hölscher writes of Jacobus von Hauck as decisive in shaping the archdiocese of Bamberg for the twentieth century; in 1933, when he was seventy-one, he was the second-oldest and second-longest serving of all the German bishops, having been archbishop since 1912. Since the 1990s his reputation has been shaped by accusations of accommodation with Nazism and a failure to speak out on behalf of human rights. But as Hölscher argues, these questions can, and should, be asked of all the bishops, and of the Church as a whole: what was, and is, the Church’s mission in connection to the defense of human rights? Does the Church have a clearly defined mission beyond the recognized and accepted ecclesiastical milieu (kirchliches Umfeld, 615)? Hölscher and other contributors address these issues, but mostly by way of concluding remarks, and do not attempt to wrestle with them at length. It should be noted that these questions have risen largely in hindsight, after 1945, and that it is far from clear that any of the German bishops at the time entertained them, either in the safety and security of their own minds or, with less security, in conversation with each other.

While the volume fails to tackle these questions directly, its contributors and editors might claim, with justification, that they lie beyond the scope of their objective, which is to consider each bishop in the context of his diocese. They have eschewed overly moral or hagiographic narratives in favour of critical historical analyses of how each bishop approached his office as pastor, and how this shaped his interactions to the Nazi regime, from accommodation to opposition. In some cases, this spectrum is apparent even within an individual case (the best example is Gröber). This is the real strength of the book as a whole: each chapter demonstrates the significance of background (birthplace, education, family history, friendships) and location in helping to determine the course of action a bishop took. Ultimately the image of the episcopate as a group that emerges is not simply one of collective silence in the face of murder and atrocity, as previous histories stress, but also of collective concern for the preservation of the Church in Germany, a concern that co-existed, sometimes with considerable tension, alongside individual hopes and fears, private dissent and frustrations, and physical and emotional limitations. United they may have been in presenting a unified front to Hitler, but behind this façade these men were individual humans, with myriad strengths and weaknesses.

The tendency throughout the volume is to rely on archival material, though the contributors and editors have also relayed relevant historiographical information, detailing shifting interpretations of episcopal actions and reactions across several decades. Michael Hirschfeld’s introductory essay is particularly illuminating in this regard, tracing the post-1945 history of the bishops under Nazism through three distinct phases that affected the broader narrative of the history of the Catholic Church under Nazism between the end of the war and twenty-first century. In this he echoes, though with far less detail, some of Mark Ruff’s findings in his recent book, The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany, 1945-1980, which appeared in print a year before this volume. Hirschfeld does not cite Ruff (likely the book was not available in time), and the secondary literature included in the bibliographies is entirely in German. This reflects the state of the field, in which – predictably – German scholars have undertaken the great bulk of writing the history of their Church leaders.

This book is currently the most up-to-date collection of biographical chapters on the German Catholic bishops during the Third Reich. Its dedication to highlighting revelatory contextual information by plumbing their personal backgrounds and integrating them more fully into their diocesan environments is invaluable, and is rendered explicitly, as Hirschfeld tells us, to reflect a growing trend: the rejection of the easy, unambiguous understandings of historical figures that our contemporary information society peddles in order to “embrace the grey tones that make possible a nuanced image of the respective personalities of the bishops” (49-50). Many contributors acknowledge this trend as well, and reference research projects of various sizes that are underway, for example of Jaeger and Faulhaber, as already mentioned, but also of Machens and Sproll. Thus the volume will hardly be the final word on many of the individual histories. So too we must anticipate that the opening of Pope Pius XII’s “secret archives” next year will generate a new wave of questions and challenges about the Catholic Church’s leaders in Germany and their relationship with the Vatican during the war. Until then, Hirschfeld and Zumholz and their host of contributors have given those of us interested in the Catholic bishops and their historical legacy much to consider.

[1] “Pius XII: Vatican to Open Secret Holocaust-Era Archives,” BBC World News,, last accessed 30 May 2019.

[2] Hirschfeld and Zumholz define the German episcopate from 1933 to 1945 as consisting of 9 archbishops and 25 bishops, using the Altreich (1937) borders of Germany (pg. 2). The study therefore excludes the Austrian bishops and dioceses integrated into Germany following the 1938 Anschluss.

[3] Leugers, Gegen eine Mauer bischöflichen Schweigens : Der Ausschuß für Ordensangelegenheiten und seine Widerstandskonzeption 1941 bis 1945 (J. Knecht Verlag, 1996).


Review of Stiftung Topographie des Terrors and Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, eds., “Überall Luthers Worte …” – Martin Luther im Nationalsozialismus

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 3 (September 2017)

Review of Stiftung Topographie des Terrors and Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, eds., “Überall Luthers Worte …” – Martin Luther im Nationalsozialismus (Berlin: Stiftung Topographie des Terrors, 2017). 271 Pp., ISBN 978-3-941772-33-5.

By Dirk Schuster, University of Potsdam

“Luther’s words are everywhere …” – this quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer from 1937 correctly reflects the public perception of the Reformation Jubilee in Germany today. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Berlin Topography of Terror Documentation Center chose the words of Bonhoeffer as the title holder for an exhibition on Martin Luther in National Socialism, to be seen in Berlin from April 28 to November 5, 2017. The exhibition catalog illustrates impressively that there was a broad reception of Luther at the time of the Third Reich. The catalog is divided into three periods: the years 1933 to 1934, the period from 1935 to 1938, and the years of the Second World War. In addition, it offers seven essays by well-known scholars, which concisely and intelligibly summarize the current state of the research and, based mostly on the authors’ own work, the respective subject areas. At this point, the main criterion of the catalog can already be formulated. The documentation, including the introductory texts, is written in German and English, in contrast to the essays. These are only written in German with an English abstract. For an internationally renowned documentation center like the Topography of Terror, such an approach is somewhat incomprehensible. The German and English description of the presented objects emphasizes the intention to address an international audience against the backdrop of the Reformation Jubilee. Why this was not implemented with regards to the essays remains an open question and might irritate non-German speakers.

The first part of the catalog impressively illustrates the instrumentalization of Luther as the “German faith hero” in the first two years of the Third Reich by using photographs and covers of contemporary publications. Several Protestant representatives drew an additional historical and theological continuity line from Luther to Hitler. Publications and celebrations such as the 450th anniversary of the reformer in 1933and the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bible translation in 1934 illustrate the reference to Luther at this time. Likewise, many new church buildings were named after the reformer, the most well-known example being the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin-Mariendorf, consecrated in 1935. On the theological level, in the early years of the Nazi regime, Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms was the center of church-political debates concerning the relationship between the church and the state. But this was increasingly changing in the mid-1930s. As a result of the exclusion of the Jews forced by the National Socialists, Luther’s antisemitic “Jewish writings” were increasingly placed at the center of the reformer’s reception. These writings often served as justification for the persecution of the Jews from a theological point of view. It is somewhat surprising that the section on the state-church relationship is mainly related to the view of the National Socialists, Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, and other representatives of the Confessing Church. The German Christians with their theological line of continuity of Jesus-Luther-Hitler are hardly mentioned in this section.

Chapter 2 illustrates the legitimacy of the antisemitism of the National Socialists by the German Christians, using the example of the pamphlet by the Thuringian regional bishop, Martin Sasse. In his preface, Sasse referred to the connection between Luther’s birthday on November 10 and the November pogroms in Germany of 1938, in order to present Luther as the greatest antisemite of his time, who had always warned against the Jews (p.118 f.).

Chapter 3 deals with references to Luther in the Second World War. The first section shows documents and pictures, including clergymen who stylized Luther as the heroic leader in their war sermons, even though there was no comparable war enthusiasm among church representatives as there had been in 1914. A separate sub-chapter is about the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, which was founded by Protestant regional churches on May 6, 1939, and which Susannah Heschel addressed in her highly-respected book, The Aryan Jesus. [1] The documents and books presented in the catalog clearly illustrate how this institute was intended to create a “German” Christianity and thus to complete Luther’s “unfinished” reformation, as Walter Grundmann, the director of the institute, pointed out in his opening lecture in 1939.[2]

The seven essays at the end of the catalog summarize the current state of research on Protestantism in Germany from the Kaiserreich to the Third Reich in compressed form. Hartmut Lehmann shows that Luther was already formed into a German hero in the Kaiserreich. Together with “völkisch” patterns of thought, the idea arose that the German people were meant to have a special destiny in the world. Heinrich Assel, on the other hand, addressed the inner-theological discourses on the Lutheran heritage at the beginning of the 1930s, which were often characterized by the acceptance of an authoritarian leadership state. Beate Rossié, Stefanie Endlich, and Monica Geyler-von Bernus describe the different Lutheran images in the Third Reich, whereby the German Christians, in the sense of the Nation-Socialist point of view, linked Luther with combat. Cornelia Brinkmann on hymnal reforms and Manfred Gailus on the reception of Luther’s Jewish writings show once again that not only the German Christians used Luther. Representatives of the so-called intact regional churches, as well as representatives of the Confessing Church, also developed antisemitic reform ideas these areas. Olaf Blaschke still devotes himself to the “well-intentioned antisemitism” in Catholicism at the background of National Socialism, and Peter Steinbach treats the churches’ dealings with their own guilt and responsibility after 1945.

The catalog, which reproduces the printed parts but not the contents of the listening stations in the exhibition, is a very good example of the present-day public discussion about the church in National Socialism. Scholars who are familiar with the subject won’t find anything new, but this is not the aim of such an exhibition. The exhibits, and above all, the documents, photographs, and books, show how Luther was instrumentalized more than 400 years after his Reformation. If you cannot visit the exhibition, which can be seen until November 5, 2017, in Berlin, this very good exhibition catalog can be recommended.

[1] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[2] Walter Grundmann, Die Entjudung des religiösen Lebens als Aufgabe Deutscher Theologie und Kirche (Weimar 1939).


Review of Christoph Picker, Gabriele Stueber, Klaus Buemlein, and Frank-Matthias Hofmann, eds., Protestanten ohne Protest: Die evangelische Kirche der Pfalz im Nationalsozialismus

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 3 (September 2016)

Review of Christoph Picker, Gabriele Stueber, Klaus Buemlein, and Frank-Matthias Hofmann, eds., Protestanten ohne Protest: Die evangelische Kirche der Pfalz im Nationalsozialismus, 2 Vols. (Speyer and Leipzig: Verlagshaus Speyer and Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2016), Pp. 911, ISBN: 9783374044122.

By Manfred Gailus, Technical University of Berlin; translated by John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Picker-ProtestantenThe Protestant Union Church of the Palatinate is one of the smaller regional churches in Germany, with its headquarters in Speyer on the west bank of the Middle Rhine. The church authorities, after lengthy delays, have now published this voluminous collection of essays by more than 60 contributors, which describes the fate of the church during the years of Nazi rule. It constitutes one of the best regional studies of the Protestant church for this period, although, as the chief editor Christoph Picker acknowledges in his introduction, the results are highly sobering. In this region of Germany which was diverse in its denominational loyalties, Protestantism and National Socialism went hand in hand. Many leading Nazi functionaries saw themselves as “good Protestants,” and the collaboration between the church leadership under the “German Christian” Bishop Ludwig Diehl and the Nazi Party’s regional hierarchy was at first close and on very good terms. Above all, the desire among churchmen for stability led them to endorse the Nazi project for “national unity” (Volksgemeinschaft) in the interests of harmony. So no real Church Struggle took place in the Palatinate Church, and it is estimated that  50 percent of the pastors belonged to the German Christian faction in 1933. The limited opposition from those who supported the Confessing Church when it was organized in 1934 was successfully integrated with the dominant German Christians. More than 20 percent of the pastors took out membership in the Nazi Party.
Four large chapters in Volume 1 spell out the details:

Chapter one describes the historical developments of this Church from the political and religious situation during the Weimar Republic up to the difficult and contentious coming-to-terms with its “brown” past during the immediate post-war years up to 1949. Chapter two (“Institutions, organizations, and groups”) includes the relationships with the national Reich Church under Bishop Ludwig Mueller as well as with the Nazi state. Details are also provided about the traditional church parties, the German Christian Movement and the local Confessing Church in the Palatinate. Chapter three covers the growth of antisemitism and the church’s reactions to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, as well as the results of the Nazi plans for ethnic cleansing through its euthanasia program in church institutions, and also the more general Nazi persecution measures against Protestants. Chapter four details internal church developments. This section describes such things as the character of church services, church art and architecture, youth work, the church press, the continuing and formative hostility towards the Catholics of this very mixed region, and finally the role of church women and especially of the pastors’ wives, who held prominent position in the parishes. All this is described in great detail in the 638 pages of the first volume. At the same time, a large number of impressive photographs are included, which are of considerable historical value.

The second and less extensive volume covers the activities of the major church protagonists, who were mainly pastors, with short biographical sketches. Given the multiplicity of these articles, it is naturally impossible  to examine individual items. Particularly notable, however, is Walter Rummel’s contribution on the performance of the church during the Second World War, which describes the extensive and willing participation of church members in Hitler’s campaigns. For example, the Dean of Speyer, Karl Wien, gave a rousing sermon on Heroes’ Remembrance Day in 1940, which, in flaming tones, exalted the list of German heroes from those who had fallen during the First World War to the “freedom fighters” in the postwar period up to the fighters in the SA and those who were actually now fighting in the ranks of the German army. After the German victory over France in June 1940, Bishop Diehl ordered all parishes to hold services of Thanksgiving. As long as these victories continued, there was a regular personality cult around Hitler, even in church pronouncements.

Roland Paul describes the church reactions to the Nazi pogroms against the Jews of November 1938, noting the widespread silence in church circles. Shortly afterwards, in his annual report, Pastor Georg Becker of Iggelheim wrote that, with these pogroms, the Nazis were actually carrying out Luther’s intentions and inheritance. “Those cities and sites where the Jews have blasphemed God and Jesus Christ will shortly disappear from the Reich of our dear leader Adolf Hitler” (357). Pastor Johannes Baehr in Mutterstadt was the exception. In November 1938, while teaching his class of schoolchildren, many of whom had witnessed the burning-down of the local synagogue, Pastor Baehr declared that such actions were not to be justified. On the very same day he was taken into “protective custody” and only released two days later after the intervention of Bishop Diehl.

This is a significant publication, providing a self-critical account of the church’s activities and attitudes. Of course, its appearance is very late. Only after several generations have passed by can we expect such a sobering and self-critical analysis of these twelve horrifying years of Nazi rule, which were also twelve fatal years for German Protestantism. So far not all regional Protestant churches have found the courage to undertake such a thorough and self-critical examination. So this example by a relatively small church shows what can be done on its own initiative. We can hope that these two volumes will find many readers, especially since 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Not only do these volumes provide us with examples of dangerous perversions to be avoided, but also remind us of the long and illustrious history which German Protestantism has enjoyed for the last 500 years.


Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “Were the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 3 (September 2016)

Article Note: Samuel Koehne, “Were the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas,” Central European History 47, no. 4 (2014): 760-790.

 By Christopher Probst, Washington University in St. Louis, University College

As Kyle Jantzen noted in our most recent issue, Samuel Koehne has published over the last several years a series of articles that offer significant insights on National Socialist views of religion. This study is no exception. Koehne offers nuanced conclusions based on meticulous research. The article is especially valuable for the light it sheds on the interaction between “the völkisch world of thought,” (764) which he dubs the “strange worldview out of which Nazism emerged,” (767) and Nazi views on religion as illuminated by their celebrations of Christmas in the early years of the Weimar Republic.

Koehne’s main argument is threefold: that “the Nazis were clearly a part of the völkisch movement, that they reflected the movement’s diverse religious trends, and that there is an urgent need for historians to reconnect the Nazi Party to the milieu from which it emerged” (762-763). While major histories of the Third Reich have examined the role played by antisemitism, eugenics, and Social Darwinism in the broader völkisch subculture in which the Nazis operated, he avers, “there is a need for a deeper analysis of the intellectual roots of National Socialism with respect to its religious beliefs—and to how those beliefs connected with earlier völkisch religious trends” (763). Koehne’s emphasis on the syncretistic interaction between Nazi ideology, the völkisch milieu of the early twentieth century, and Christianity is both welcome and thoroughly elucidated here.

Koehne’s conclusions are also threefold. First, he concludes that there was no “cohesive meaning” to “positive Christianity,” a much discussed phrase used in Point 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Program. Instead, the fact that this “positive Christian” party both promoted and reported its own Christmas celebrations as “the Germanic pagan festival of winter solstice” demonstrates both that leading Nazis (including Hitler) were not concerned about appearing as traditional Christians and that a wide array of religious views existed within the party (787). Second, he contends that “the early Nazi Party was immersed in the völkisch movement, including its pagan trends and traditions” (787). Koehne demonstrates that the party both promoted and was influenced to a significant degree by the ideas of people like Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Theodor Fritsch, and Arthur Dinter. Third, Koehne concludes both that there is no “inherent dichotomy” within the Nazi Party between its pagans and its Aryan Christians and that—because of the context and meaning poured into the terms by their Nazi adherents—references to Jesus Christ, Christianity, and the Bible do not necessarily exclude paganism (788). The picture that emerges here is one of a wide diversity of beliefs and indeed a great deal of syncretism between Christianity, Germanic paganism, and völkisch ideology.

Koehne’s study of a rather narrow topic—early Nazi views of the celebration of Christmas—offers tantalizing answers to much bigger questions, including the one posed in the article’s title. The study is extremely meticulous. The author’s nuanced conclusions are worthy of careful consideration and will no doubt propel others to plow further ground in this relatively fallow area of scholarly research.





Conference Report: “German Catholics negotiate National Socialism: Three Case Studies,” Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2011

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2011

Conference Report: “German Catholics negotiate National Socialism: Three Case Studies,” Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2011, Boston, MA.

By Mark Edward Ruff, St. Louis University

Sponsored by the American Catholic Historical Association as a contribution to its annual meeting, the panel, “German Catholics negotiate National Socialism: Three Case Studies,” put on display the work of three scholars of German Catholicism who directed their attention to the thirty-year span from 1933 through 1963. Ulrike Ehret of the University of Erlangen in Germany analyzed the attitudes of German Catholics towards the Nazi state. Kevin Spicer of Stonehill College honed in on the small number of German Catholic priests who spoke out on behalf of the beleaguered Jewish population. Mark Edward Ruff of Saint Louis University moved ahead to the postwar period to analyze the efforts of the Berlin Prelate, Walter Adolph, to commemorate the German Catholic martyrs from the Nazi era. Beth Griech-Pollele, professor at Bowling Green State University, chaired the panel.

In her paper, “Negotiating ‘Volksgemeinschaft:’ Roman Catholics and the NS-State.” Ulrike Ehret discussed how the National Socialist ideal of Volksgemeinschaft (national unity) became so persuasive to ordinary Catholics. Ehret argued that ordinary Catholics, like most Germans, nurtured and supported the idea of a revived and strengthened nation, even if it meant establishing a German nation without Jews. Drawing on her examination of government reports on public opinion as well as of petitions and denunciations addressed to the government as well as to the bishops, Ehret suggested that the Catholic bishops and clergy turned the concept of Volksgemeinschaft into a means to protect particular Roman Catholic interests and traditions. To warn their flock about divisive state politics, Catholic leaders frequently revived the memories of the nineteenth-century Kulturkampf.  Most of their protests were directed against Nazi religious policies; relatively few focused on Nazi racial policies. Yet most German Catholics, according to Ehret, insisted that the Volksgemeinschaft needed to be properly rooted in religious traditions. In popular opinion, this meant ignoring National Socialist midsummer festivals, attending mass and participating in pilgrimages in growing numbers. One needs to look at what Catholics did rather than at what they said.

Compared to Catholic anti-Semitism during Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, Catholic publications rarely reverted to anti-Jewish images. However, Catholic popular defense literature clung to traditional creeds and values of the Catholic Church. It defended biblical Jewry but failed to defend modern Jewry against contemporary anti-Semitic prejudices. Indeed, the Catholic defense was often clad in the language of the time and consequently used images of Jews that strikingly resembled those used in the Nazis’ notorious racial rhetoric. The defense drew on images of Jews as the sources behind Bolshevism, as usurers and as men and women of a different race. These were all images that may have been the essence of how Catholics viewed Jews at the time.

In his paper, “Catholic Clergy and Jews under National Socialism,” Kevin Spicer continued his examination of the relationship of Jews and Catholic priests during the Third Reich.  In particular, he examined the portrayal of Jews in priests’ sermons and public addresses.

Mark Edward Ruff’s paper, “Walter Adolph and the Construction of Catholic Martydom”  analyzed how one leading Catholic chronicler of the past constructed images of Catholic martyrdom. Between 1945 and 1965, Adolph penned more than six books that described Catholic opposition to Nazism and the suffering of Catholic victims of National Socialism, including Bernhard Lichtenberg and Erich Klausener. As the editor of the diocesan newspaper for Berlin, Das Petrusblatt, he composed and put the finishing touches on many additional commemorative articles. In addition, he spearheaded the effort to build a church to memorialize Catholic victims, Maria Regina Martyrum, which was consecrated in 1963.

Yet Adolph’s commemorative efforts were inextricably bound up with the political and ideological battles of the postwar era. His diocese straddled both the Western and Eastern zones of Berlin. From the former, he was confronted by an array of church critics who denounced Catholic resistance during the Third Reich as feeble. From the latter, he was confronted by regular articles in the Communist press that argued that the church had been in league with Fascism. These articles extolled Communist victims of the Third Reich as the sole legitimate martyrs of the past and typically couched their suffering in a quasi-religious language.  To defray the charges of Western church critics like Rolf Hochhuth, he and others claimed that Maria Regina Martyrum was the answer to Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy.

Ruff’s paper argued that Adolph’s created a hermeneutic of martyrdom that was, in fact, a combination plate. It was written in a language equal parts theological, journalistic, and political. But it also necessitated glossing over the less savory aspects of those Catholic victims of National Socialism he placed into the category of martyrs. In his profile of Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action who was murdered on the night of the Röhm purge in 1934, he carefully deleted all of the sentences from the original manuscript that described Klausener’s sympathies in 1933 and 1934 for the National Socialist movement.

The comments were offered by James Bernauer, SJ, professor of philosophy at Boston College, who expounded upon the theme of martyrdom that linked the three papers. At the end of the war, he noted, Pope Pius XII spoke of the “sorrowful passion of the Church” and of the “incessant opposition maintained by the Church” in the Nazi years.  “But did the German Bishops,” he asked, “ever summon Catholics to heroic resistance?  Did the Bishops themselves ever risk real as opposed to symbolic martyrdom?” Pope John Paul II’s numerous apologies, he suggested, might be thought of as a “corrective embrace of reality for Church responsibility in what had happened to Jews, women, Protestant reformers, American Indians, the Eastern Churches and so forth.”



Article Note: “Holy See Documents From World War II Go Online. Researchers Welcome Availability of Pius XII Information”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2010

Article Note: “Holy See Documents From World War II Go Online. Researchers Welcome Availability of Pius XII Information” Zenit, March 25, 2010.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University College

Scholars have long desired greater access to the Vatican Archives, not least for the era of National Socialism, the Second World War, and the Holocaust. This article, in the March 25 issue of Zenit, explains that the Vatican has now made material from the Actae Sanctae Sedis and the Acta Apostolica (the official acts of the Holy See) available online in pdf format. While some of this material had already been published in the Actes et documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Acts and Documents of the Holy See Related to the Second World War) between 1965 and 1981, it is a hopeful sign that theseVatican holdings are now appearing digitally.

To view the entire article in Zenit, go to:

To view the document collection online, go to: