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The Church, the Nazis, and the Facts

Joanna Bogle’s article on Cardinal von Galen (“The Bishop vs. the Nazis,” February 2008) is highly welcome. So many lies have gained currency about the relationship between Nazism and the Catholic Church that it is high time to unveil undeniable historical facts.

Relying upon my husband’s [Dietrich von Hildebrand] unpublished memoirs, I would like to add the following information.

That very few Germans (and not only Germans) perceived the poison contained in Nazi philosophy from the very beginning cannot be contested. Only those who, fully rooted in truth, were granted the gift of intellectual and spiritual vision detected the evil that was the very core of its doctrine. I am proud to state that my husband was the very first (even though he might not have been the only first), to have denounced its viciousness.

Let us face it: It is hard for people to have the courage to oppose a powerful historical movement: It is so tempting to close one’s eyes ;and endorse slogans such as: things had to change; Hitler’s doctrine has some good points; it is not all bad; he is a great patriot. Just as it is hard for parents to acknowledge that their son has fallen into grave sin, it is also hard for citizens to acknowledge that their country has fallen into the hands of a criminal. The general tendency is to close one’s eyes and fight prophets of doom. One needs courage to face certain truths. Most men choose to wear blinders.

Moreover, Catholics (a minority in Germany) suffered from a deep-seated “patriotic inferiority complex.” Vatican City is a state. Deeply committed Protestants escaped this criticism—Protestantism has no pope. German patriots who happened to be Catholics were anxious to prove that they too had a deep love for their country. In her article, Joanna Bogle makes a point of mentioning that Bishop von Galen, “although courteous to the incoming troops, made clear that he did not relish having foreign rulers in charge of Germany.” Nobody enjoys having foreigners on one’s soil, But at that particular moment, the “foreign” troops were liberating Germany from the clutches of a man who proved to be its worst conceivable enemy. The harm that Hitler did to the German people can hardly be measured. But von Galen’s conduct was clearly intending to show to the German people that his opposition to the Fuehrer was fully compatible with his deep love for his country.

Up to January 30, 1933, the German Bishops had put the sentence of excommunication upon anyone belonging to the Nazi party. This excommunication was lifted as soon as Hitler came to power. One can imagine Dietrich von Hildebrand’s grief. That was a first Nazi victory.

When Hitler grabbed power, the Church was clearly concerned to protect the rights of Catholics in Nazi Germany. This is why Pope Pius XI made a contract with Hitler. When the pope was criticized for signing this concordat, he is supposed to have said “I would sign a contract with the devil himself, if thereby I could help save a single immortal soul.” Franz von Papen (a Nazi in Catholic garb) was sent to Rome to conclude this pact. My husband—while understanding the underlying motives of this decision—deplored it: Given people’s unwillingness to face a fearful truth, the signing of a purely legal document (that is all a concordat is) nurtured the wishful thinking of many German Catholics. A bon mot soon gained currency: Papen papam fefellit: “von Papen tripped the Pope.” Dietrich von Hildebrand feared that this accord would mislead Catholics, and unfortunately he was right.

His grief was boundless. He had freely chosen exile, abandoning everything that he possessed because he refused to live in a country “headed by a criminal.” He knew that the Church’s mission was to denounce evil—independently of whether the victims were Roman Catholics or Jews or anyone else. So he was shattered upon finding that at the German Bishops’ Conference in Fulda in 1933, most German bishops—betraying their God-given mission—were either slumbering (like the apostles in Gethsemane), plainly cowards, or infected by the Nazi virus. History repeats itself. In the City of God, St. Augustine laments the conduct of bishops who did not protect their sheep.

The first shocking thing about this deplorable meeting was, that, against all tradition, the bishops made an explicit reference to the Nazi state, praising its “spirit of authority” and its devotion to the German nation. Not only was this a absolutely unusual procedure, but it obviously was water on the mill of the Nazis. No such praise had been given when the Weimar Republik was in power. Moreover, the words “authority” and “nation” were used in an ambiguous sense. When Hitler said “authority,” he meant totalitarianism: a radical denial of the rights of the individual person. When he praised the nation, it clearly meant “statolatry.” This is something that any bishop worthy of this name could have known. At this fateful meeting, two bishops’ conduct was particularly deplorable: Bishop Berning of Osnabrueck and Bishop Groeber of Freiburg. Two other bishops stood out for their courage: Bishop Bares and Bishop Preysing. Thanks to the latter, a condemnation of racism was added to the minutes. But because most bishops were slumbering, this condemnation was a bit of a footnote.

When the concordat was signed, Dietrich von Hildebrand declared that this document had less worth than the piece of paper on which it was written. He was right. Soon, as expected, it was trampled upon. My husband’s great grief was that several bishops “woke up” only after the Church was persecuted. He wrote these magnificent lines: “Crimes offend God quite independently of whether the victim is a Jew, a socialist or a bishop. The spilling of innocent blood cries to heaven.” Those in authoritative positions in the Church have the obligation to protest when evil is done, wherever or whenever it is done. The great moment for Bishop von Galen had come: He courageously started opposing Hitler. This was beautifully highlighted by Joanna Bogle.

— Alice von Hildebrand
New Rochelle, New York

Secularism and Democracy

In an otherwise outstanding article, “Can Europe Be Saved?” (February 2008), Russell Shaw exhibits a flawed perception of the role of Christianity in a democracy.

Citing a concern about “instrumentalizing Christianity,” Shaw implicitly defends a national secular constitution versus a constitution grounded in Christian principles. But this doesn’t wash. It’s becoming clear that secular democracies are programmed to moral decay and decline. We need to affirm that Western Europe and America need Christian-principled constitutions so that a public morality based on the natural law can flourish.

Indeed, we need to affirm the views of Pope Benedict XVI on the importance of a Christian-based government.

— George Koenig
Saint Francis, Wisconsin

Russell Shaw replies: I largely agree with what the writer says about the desirability of a constitution grounded in Christian principles, although that’s a larger and more complex question than he acknowledges and, unfortunately, it also bears a superficial resemblance to the Muslim argument that
shari’a law should be the ruling legal system in society. Be that as it may, however, this is really not what I was talking about in criticizing the instrumentalization of Christianity for political purposes, and I think that is clear enough in the context of the article I wrote.


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