Catholics and the Nazis

Religion’s Role in the Third Reich

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ROME, DEC. 5, 2010 ( The Church is often criticized for not having done enough to oppose Hitler. In his recent trip to England and Scotland, Benedict XVI took the opportunity to present the other side of the situation, reminding people of the anti-religious nature of the Nazi regime.
«I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives,» he told the Queen Elizabeth II and others at the state reception in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Pope’s depiction of the Nazis as being atheistic and wanting to eradicate God from society was not accepted by all. In a Sept. 16 press release Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Society, denied that it was the atheism of the Nazis that led to their extreme behavior.
A book published earlier this year sheds some light on the question of religion and the Nazis. In «Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism» (Oxford University Press), Derek Hastings shows how in the early years there was indeed a strong Catholic element in the Nazi movement. He also affirms that there was a sharp discrepancy between the nature of the Nazi regime in power in the 1930s and 1940s and the early movement in Munich in the years following World War I.
«Despite the occasional maintenance of a conciliatory facade, there is little question that the Nazi party exhibited a broad antipathy toward the Catholic Church — and, in many ways, toward Christianity more generally — for most of the duration of the Third Reich,» commented Hastings.
He noted that numerous historians have argued compellingly that after the Nazis assumed power in 1933 the party should best be viewed as a sort of political religion and as a rival form of secular devotion that strove to supplant Catholic or Christian identity.
The Nazi party was founded in 1919, in Munich. In the period from 1919 to the failed Beer Hall Putsch (overthrow) in Munich in 1923, the Nazis openly courted Catholics. Their openness to Catholicism enabled the Nazis to gain supporters and to stand out from other popular movements. In the aftermath of the 1923 failure, which saw Hitler briefly imprisoned, the Nazi movement was re-founded in 1925 in a way that left little room for its earlier Catholic orientation.
Hastings explained that this Catholic link to the Nazis during the first years was due to some local factors not typical for the rest of Germany. Support for the Bavarian People’s Party (BVP) was much lower in Munich and the surrounding region of upper Bavaria than in any other Catholic area in the country. Instead they tended to support folk-based movements with a more nationalistic streak.
Another distinguishing feature among Catholics in Munich and the surrounding areas was their hostility to what they saw as an excessive ultramontanism by the BVP and the bishops of the Church. The ultramontane movement, Hastings explained, came about in the 18th and 19th centuries as Catholics in Europe increasingly looked to the Pope who resided «over the mountains» (ultra montes).
In the decade before World War I there was a Catholic Reform movement in region around Munich consisting in a push for a new form of religious identity that was loyal to the Catholic Church in a spiritual sense, but more open to a radically nationalistic political and cultural course, Hastings observed. The Nazis were able to take advantage of these local tendencies, combined with the general disillusionment following World War I, to appeal to Catholics in the initial stages of their development.
By 1923, the Nazis had obtained the support of many thousands of Catholics in and around Munich, Hastings noted. At first, the BVP ignored the new party, probably motivated by a desire not to give it greater publicity. By late 1922, seeing the growing numbers of adherents to the Nazi party, the BVP decided to embark on a campaign to make Bavarians aware of the dangerous nature of the Nazis.
This did not deter the Nazis from courting Catholics and, according to Hastings, 1923 was the high point of their efforts. That year they set off on a membership drive designed to draw Catholics into their party. Their efforts were successful, even to the point where numerous Catholic priests became involved.
In speeches at the time, Hitler openly referred to his Catholic faith and the influence it had had on his political activism. In 1923, the Nazi newspaper, the Beobachter, even started publishing Sunday Mass times and exhorted its readers to fulfill their religious obligations.
This closeness between Catholics and the Nazi party came to a sudden end, however, with the the Beer Hall Putsch in November of that year. Hitler’s attempt to seize control of the Bavarian state ended in rapid failure and the Nazi movement entered a period of division and decline, Hastings explained.
This coincided with an upsurge in anti-Catholicism in the other folk movements in Munich that also affected part of the Nazi party. According to Hastings, in this period many Catholics left the Nazi party, and those who remained did so by sacrificing their Catholic identity. The Catholic priests who had joined the party also left. In fact, in the fall of 1923 the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising had forbidden them from attending meetings of the Nazi party.
Once re-founded, the previous Catholic orientation was reversed and in large part replaced Christianity with its own set of martyr figures drawn from the failed putsch. From that time too Hitler no longer portrayed himself as a believing Catholic or even as an advocate of Christianity, Hastings affirmed.
With time the Nazi movement became more and more overtly anti-Catholic to the point where the Nazis strongly opposed the establishment of a concordat between Bavaria and the Vatican. They were also openly critical of the papal nuncio Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. The German bishops were frequently attacked in Nazi publications, particularly Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, who just prior to the 1923 putsch had spoken out in defense of the Jews.
On the issue of Nazi anti-Semitism and the influence of Catholics, Hastings noted that in the early years the Nazi movement drew on New Testament imagery — such as Christ’s driving the money-changers out of the Temple — in their propaganda. At this stage, however, the Nazi ideology was still not fully defined, and as it took more definitive shape in later years it became a much purer and overtly secular form of anti-Semitism.

By the early 1930s, especially after the official ecclesiastical condemnations, Hastings argued that the mutual exclusivity of the Catholic and Nazi worldviews came into clearer focus.

In conclusion, Hastings said that while it is necessary to recognize the very real role played by Catholic clergy and laypeople in the early Nazi movement, at the same time there are not grounds for an indictment of Catholicism as an institution or set of ideas.
Moreover, the cohabitation between Nazi and Catholic identities disappeared in what Hastings termed, «the flood of anti-Catholic invective that washed over the fractured movement in the wake of the failed putsch.»
This cohabitation became an early victim of Hitler’s increasingly messianic political ambition, Hastings related. What does become clear, both from Hastings and other accounts, is that the horrible excesses of the Nazi regime were in spite of, and not because of, any Catholic influence.

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