Catholic Church and Nazi Germany

Popes Pius XI (1922–1939) and Pius XII (1939–1958) led the Catholic Church during the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Around a third of Germans were Catholic in the 1930s, generally in southern Germany; Protestants dominated the north. The Catholic Church in Germany had opposed the Nazi Party, and in the 1933 elections, the proportion of Catholics voting for the Nazi Party was lower than the national average.[1] Nevertheless, the Catholic-aligned Centre Party voted for the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers.

Nazi-era Catholics

Top to bottom, left to right: Erich Klausener, Clemens August Graf von Galen, Edith Stein, Claus von Stauffenberg, Cesare Orsenigo, Polish prisoners at Dachau, Konrad von Preysing, Jozef Tiso, Alfred Delp, Jules-Géraud Saliège, Irena Sendler and Pope Pius XI

Hitler and several other key Nazis had been raised Catholic, but became hostile to the Church in adulthood; Article 24 of the NSDAP party platform called for conditional toleration of Christian denominations and the 1933 Reichskonkordat treaty with the Vatican guaranteed religious freedom for Catholics, but the Nazis sought to suppress the power of the Catholic Church in Germany. Catholic press, schools, and youth organizations were closed, property was confiscated, and about one-third of its clergy faced reprisals from authorities; Catholic lay leaders were murdered during the Night of the Long Knives.

During the regime, the Church often found itself in a difficult position. The Church hierarchy (in Germany) tried to work with the new government, but Pius XI's 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge accused the government of hostility to the church. Catholics fought on both sides during the Second World War, and Hitler's invasion of predominantly-Catholic Poland ignited the conflict in 1939. In the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany, as in the annexed regions of Slovenia and Austria, Nazi persecution of the church was intense; many Polish clergy were targeted for extermination. Through his links to the German Resistance, Pope Pius XII warned the Allies of the planned Nazi invasion of the Low Countries in 1940. The Nazis gathered dissident priests that year in a dedicated barracks at Dachau, where 95 percent of its 2,720 inmates were Catholic (mostly Poles, with 411 Germans); over 1,000 priests died there. Expropriation of church properties surged after 1941. Although the Vatican (surrounded by Fascist Italy) was officially neutral during the war, it used diplomacy to aid victims and lobby for peace; Vatican Radio and other Catholic media spoke out against the atrocities. Particular clerics stridently opposed Nazi crimes, as in Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen's 1941 sermons opposed to the regime and its euthanasia programs. Even so, Hitler biographer Alan Bullock wrote: "Neither the Catholic Church, nor the Evangelical Church ... as institutions, felt it possible to take up an attitude of open opposition to the regime".[2] Mary Fulbrook wrote that when politics encroached on the church, Catholics were prepared to resist; the record was patchy and uneven, though, and (with notable exceptions) "it seems that, for many Germans, adherence to the Christian faith proved compatible with at least passive acquiescence in, if not active support for, the Nazi dictatorship".[3] However, even as the Church hierarchy attempted to tread delicately lest the Church itself be destroyed, actively resisting priests such as Heinrich Maier sometimes acted against the express instructions of his church superiors to found groups that, unlike others, sought actively to influence the course of the war in favor of the Allies.

Nazi anti-Semitism embraced pseudoscientific racial principles, but ancient antipathies between Christianity and Judaism contributed to European antisemitism. Although outspoken public Catholic resistance to mistreatment of Jews was usually limited to individual efforts, even so, in every country under German occupation, priests played a major role in rescuing Jews. The church rescued thousands of Jews by issuing false documents, lobbying Axis officials, and hiding Jews in monasteries, convents, schools, the Vatican and the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo. Although Pius XII's role during this period was later contested, the Reich Security Main Office called him a "mouthpiece" of the Jews and his first encyclical (Summi Pontificatus) called the invasion of Poland an "hour of darkness." His 1942 Christmas address denounced race murders, and his 1943 encyclical Mystici corporis Christi denounced the murder of disabled people.[4]

In the post-war period, false identification was given to many German war criminals by Catholic priests and even elements within the Vatican motivated by nationalistic loyalties. Some, facilitating escape to South America; and clergy routinely provided Persilschein or "soap certificates" to former Nazis in order to remove the "Nazi taint";[5] although at no time was such aid an institutional effort.[5][6]