The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Nazi State was a complicated mixture of opposing views, mutual dislike and mutual recognition of the others significance. It is both a highly political relationship, and also one based on simple day to day actions and beliefs: from both sides.
As the Nazi Party grew in size and electoral prominence the Catholic Church had to take the prospect of a Nazi regime seriously. There were many things that the NSDAP stood for that were quite clearly at odds with the doctrine of the Catholic Faith. At the same time though, there was a fear of a Communist takeover and acceptance that the voters, many of whom were Catholic, were the ones putting the Nazi’s into a position of power.
Shortly after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the German State and the Vatican entered into discussions. So to did the NSDAP and the Catholic Centre Party. The results of these discussions were a) the Catholic Centre Party voting for the Enabling Act and b) The Concordat, which provided for freedom of worship for Catholics along with a promise from the Church to respect the aims of the NSDAP led government of the time.
Officially, at least, the two parties were at peace with one another at the beginning of the Nazi Dictatorship. However, the Nazi party were quick to ignore the Concordat and some members of the Catholic Clergy were open in their dissent.
Nazi Steps against the Catholic Church:
- Pressure was placed on parents of children to send them to Hitler Youth groups rather than the Catholic Youth Organisations
- This was accompanied with thousands of arrests of Lay people (Catholics who were not part of the Priesthood)
- A number of prominent Catholics were assassinated on the Night of the Long Knives. For example, Erich Klausener, Adalbert Probst and Fritz Gerlich were targeted due to their control over church organisations, youth movements and the Catholic Press respectively
- Catholic Newspapers were forced to close down
- Catholic Schooling was placed under increasing pressure. Firstly through a ban on the display of the crucifix in classrooms and later through concerted pressure to close the schools: by the outbreak of war, there were virtually no Catholic Schools remaining open
- In 1936 over 250 members of religious orders (all denominations) were arrested on trumped up charges of homosexuality
- 1937 saw mass arrests of Clergy
Some of the above were Nazi responses to Catholic resistance. Others were simply intended to eradicate the power and influence of the church.
The response element of the above actions was a result of priests and lay members continuing to be outspoken about the Nazi regime. A number of issues led to sermons about the Nazi’s in churches. The Sterilisation and Eugenics programmes were both unacceptable to the Catholic Church; The regular breaches of the Concordat, in particular the breach of the sanctity of the Church and Confessional and the restrictions on the Churches ability to educate, congregate and discuss openly, all led to criticism of the State.
By 1937 the situation had become too much. The leadership of the church had, to this point, used diplomatic methods to oppose specific policies. In general, it was individual clerymen or localised groups gathered around an outspoken Bishop who had spoken out.
On March 21st, 1937, a statement from the Pope was read out in every Catholic Church in Germany. The statement, Mit brennender Sorge (With burning Anxiety), had been smuggled into Germany from the Vatican and distributed without the Gestapo finding out. Whilst the statement did not name the Nazi Party, or any individual politicians, it’s message was clear enough.
The statement condemned racism, talked of ‘threatening storm clouds’ and referred to violations of the Concordat. it was a veiled attack, but one that was clear enough.
From this point on there was fairly open confrontation between the Church and the State. It took several forms:
There were several well known Bishops within Germany who continued to preach Anti-Nazi sermons throughout the the existence of the Third Reich. Bishop Preysing was particularly vocal and disliked by Hitler. He had been Bishop of Eichstatt from 1932 to 1935 and then was transferred to become Bishop of Berlin. He granted baptisms to Jews, resisted measures to close Catholic Schools, Protested against the Euthanasia programme and established a Welfare Office that aided those who were being persecuted by the regime. His Christmas message was sufficiently anti-nazi that it actually broadcast, in the middle of the war, on BBC Radio! Other examples include Bishop von Galen, Cardinal Faulhaber and Archbishop Frings.
Leading Catholic opponents of the Nazi regime will have individual posts written about their actions. The same will be the case for leading Protestant opponents of the regime. A post on Bonhoeffer has already been posted.