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Totalitarianism: Questions about Catholic Resistance

  • Michael Phayer (a1)


After the war was over leading Catholic laity and the lower clergy pointed their finger at their bishops, faulting them for not having the backbone and willpower to stand up to Hitler. Was this fair? Bishops said they tempered their criticism of Nazism because Hitler punished their priests rather than them. Were the bishops being candid and forthright with this statement? If so, was this the right strategy? Jesuits urged the bishops to become active in the Kreisau Circle of resistance. They did not. Should they have? Pope Pius XII gave the German bishops freedom to do as they saw fit regarding speaking out about the Holocaust. They spoke only guardedly. Should they have said more? The Concordat, the agreement between the Vatican and the German government, surprised German Catholics who had been warned again and again about Nazism. Was the Concordat a mistake? Once signed, should the church have stuck to it once Nazi racial policy had become manifest? There was an active Catholic resistance circle in Berlin. Were there others? If not, why not? Questions about Catholic resistance run on and on. Are they worth probing, trying to answer? In the end no matter what is said about Catholic resistance, the six million will have perished. And, in the end, no German managed to put an end to Hitler, although the Swabian Catholic, Klaus von Stauffenberg, came close. Is a discussion about Catholic resistance an exercise in futility?



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1. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Dirks papers; 1960 R-Z.

2. Marquette University Archives, Riedl Papers, Box 2, Catholic Church and Nazism File. John Riedl, a Marquette University professor, held the position of Director of Internal Affairs and Communications in the Allied Religious Affairs Committee division of OMGUS.

3. Brecher, August, Die katholishe Kirchenzeitung för das Bistum Aachen im Dritten Reich (Aachen: Einhard, 1988), 107. The office was called the Informationsstelle för die kirchliche Presse.

4. Brecher, 109.

5. Brecher, 104.

6. Lemhöfer, Ludwig, “Zur tapferen Pflichterfüllung Gerufen. Die Katholiken in Adolf Hitler Krieg,” in Katholische Kirche und NS-Staat, eds. Kringels-Kemen, Monika and Lemhöfer, Ludwig (Frankfurt: Knecht, 1981), 87.

7. Bundesarchiv Abteilung Potsdam, Reichsministerium für den kirchlichen Angelegenheiten 21793 Bischofskonferenzen. This report was filed by a Gestapo agent who paraphrased the bishop's words; thus, it is not a direct quote.

8. Corsten, Wilhelm, ed., Kölner Aktenstücke zur Lage der katholischen Kirche in Deutschland, 1933–1945 (Koln: J. P. Bachem, 1949), 255. See also, Hamerow, Theodore S., On the Road to the Wolfs Lair: German Resistance to Hitler (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 305.

9. Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, 38, 218–20. For the full text, see my article on Nazism and Some German Bishops,” Continuum 1 (1990): 150.

10. Friedlander, Saul, Pius XII and the Third Reich (New York: Knopf, 1966);see the pope's letter to Cardinal Preysing, 135–45.

11. Hürtgen, Robert, “Untergang und Neubeginn, Köln in den Jahren 1942–1946,” in Kardwal Frings, ed. Froitzheim, Dieter (Köln: Wienand, 1980), 238ff.

12. Kranz, Gisbert, Eine katholische jugend im Dritten Reich. Erinnerungen, 1921–1947 (Freiburg: Herder, 1990). See my fuller discussion of this in Phayer, Michael, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2000), chap. 5.

13. Beilmann, Christel, “Eine Jugend im katholischen Milieu. Zum Verhältnis von Glaube und Widerstand,” in Piraten, Swings und Junge Garde, ed. Breyvogel, Wilfried (Bonn: Dietz, 1991), 5773.

14. Repgen, Konrad, “Kardinal Frings im Rückblick-Zeitgeschichtliche Kontroverspunkte einer könftigen Biographie,” Historisches Jahrbuch 100 (1980): 309.

15. Repgen, Konrad, “Das Wesen des christlichen Widerstandes,” 13–20 of Christliches Exil und christlicher Widerstand, eds. Frühwald, W. and Hürten, H. (Regensburg: Pustet, 1987), 16.

16. This resulted from a conscious decision the bishops made in 1937 to administer the sacraments and preach the word, but let lay people engage in resistance if they wished. See Konrad Repgen, “Das Wesen des christlichen Widerstandes,” 16.

17. This would mean that the bishops could only speak out about Catholic “Jews,” converts. Since the Nazis did not recognize that conversion altered Jews racially, they would not have entertained protests on this score.

18. For more information on this topic see my article, The Catholic Resistance Circle in Berlin and German Catholic Bishops during the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 7 (1993): 216–29;I also have chapters on each woman in the book that Eva Fleischner and I authored, Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1997), chaps. 2 and 7;see also, chap. 7 of Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust.

19. Klemperer, Victor, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of Nazi Years, 2 vols., trans. Chalmers, Martin (New York: Random House, 1998 and 2000).

20. Deutschercaritasverband house archives (henceforth, DCV) R 611 II; report on Luckner's 1950 visit to England.

21. London Jewish Chronicle, 13 01 1950.

22. Much of the material on Luckner in this essay comes from an interview of her and Marie Schiffer by Dietrich and Ursula Goldschmidt, Barbara Schieb, and Elizabeth von Thadden on 27 10 1988 in Berlin. I am indebted to Dietrich Goldschmidt for lending me the written transcript of the interview.

23. Myszor, Jerzy, Stosunki Kosciol-Panstwo Okupacyjne W Diecezji Katowkkiej, 1939–1945 (unpublished manuscript: Katowice, 1992), 266.

24. It is difficult to deduce from the 1988 interview of Luckner exactly when she knew that Jews were being murdered in Poland. In the interview she says that she finally knew for certain only after her own incarceration at Ravensbrück in 1943. But other passages in the interview suggest earlier knowledge. It seems likely that after more than forty years Luckner's memory no longer retained chronological details accurately.

25. For a more detailed discussion of Sommer, see Phayer and Fleischner, Cries in the Night, chap. 2.

26. Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness.

27. See the case of Werner and Stella Borcher in Phayer and Fleischner, Cries in the Night, 28.

28. Globke, a Catholic, may have been suffering from a bad conscience. He was responsible for writing many of the manuals that instructed Germans and then other Europeans what measures could be legally undertaken against Jews. Sommer did not exonerate his work just because he divulged genocide secrets to her, but she admitted that he did play a dangerous double game. See the Sommer file, I/1–103, in the Berlin diocesan archives.

29. Baron, Lawrence, “The Historical Context of Rescue,” The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, eds. P, Samuel. and Oliner, Pearl M. (New York: Free, 1988), 24.

30. Bleistein, Roman, , S.J., Alfred Delp (Frankfurt: Knecht, 1989), 261.

31. Rösch, Augustin, Kampf Gegen den Nationalsozialismus, ed. Bleistein, Roman (Frankfurt: Knecht, 1985), 206.

32. Bleistein, Roman, , S.J., “Lothar Koenig,” Stimmen der Zeit 204 (1986): 321.

33. Bleistein, “Koenig,” 320.

34. Lewy, Guenter, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 307.

35. Bucker, Vera, Die Schulddiskussion im deutschen Katholizismus nach 1945 (Bochum: Studienverlag Brockmeyer, 1989), 166.

36. Bleistein, Delp, 281.

37. Roon, Ger van, Neuordnung im Widerstand (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1967), 241.

38. Interview of Gertrud Luckner and Marie Schiffer. Page 98 of the written transcript.

39. Bleistein, Delp, 278.

40. Bleistein, Delp, 257.

41. Bleistein, Delp, 288.

42. Bleistein, Delp, 284.

43. Frankfurter Hefte 1/8 (1946): 715–33.

44. Bishop Muench, who certainly did not agree with these comments, noted them in his diary; see Catholic University Archives, 37/1–4, Muench's Diary from 10 04 1947, to 12 November 1947.

45. Adenauer to Bernard Custodis; 23 February 1946, quoted Mensing, Hans Peter, ed., Konrad Adenauer Briefe Über Deutschland, 1945–1951 (n.p.: Corso, 1983), 32ff.

46. See chap. 6 of Phayer, Catholic Church and the Holocaust.

47. Bleistein, Delp, 289.

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Church History
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