The Cross And The Third Reich – Catholic Resistance In The Nazi Era” by Dr.John Frain
by David Alton
“The Cross And The Third Reich – Catholic Resistance In The Nazi Era”by Dr.John Frain
In his concluding remarks at the end of this admirable book (published by Family Publications), John Frain tells us that he is neither a historian or a theologian – just a layman who wants to truthfully and honestly describe the role played by the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany. He has no need to be modest or apologetic for this is a significant contribution to understanding that fateful era and the reaction of Christians to Hitler’s murderous ideology.
Disturbed by the repetition of claims of Catholic collaboration and indifference, Dr.Frain decided to revisit the sources, test the arguments, and examine the charges. He does so in carefully authenticated detail, painstakingly assembling the facts, bringing back to life extraordinary men and women.
This account of what happened in Germany some seventy years ago is given contemporary edge and is enriched by his personal accounts of visits he made to the concentration camps and by speaking to some of the remaining survivors.
What emerges is a rich text of great scholarship, both refuting baseless and headline grabbing caricatures while reminding us of the great bravery and faith of those who did stand in Hitler’s way. He rightly reminds us that all human beings err and does not gloss over institutional failings and errors of judgement – such as the role of Austria’s Archbishop, Theodore Innitzer (or the Vatican’s immediate rebuke) . He also faithfully examines the narrow range of options open to individual laymen, pastors, bishops and the papacy, and the ease with which retrospective decisions based on hind-sight, and which cost nothing, can be made. This is a labour of love and a labour of truth.
Although those who hate the Church may find its scholarship inconvenient, any fair-minded person who believes that we should never appease secular ideologies when they threaten humanity will learn from these accounts and, indeed, be inspired by them.
History is a great teacher and the wise man will have regard to the past if he wishes to predict what will occur in the future.
History has a habit of repeating itself – “Never Again” too often happens all over again.
This book hold may clues for those who are interested in averting such calamities in the future.
How we reacted to the great tyrannies of the twentieth century can be instructive in shaping our response to the continuing genocides and crimes against humanity that erupt from Cambodia to Rwanda, from the Balkans to Burma, from the Congo to Darfur, from the Middle East to the Caucuses.
As I read the accounts of the torture and misery inflicted on those who opposed Nazism my own mind travelled back to a visit I made in 2004 to the genocide sites of Rwanda. One site, Murambi, had been a technical college where men, women and children took refuge. 50,000 people were murdered there.
Murambi is now a memorial. Some of the mass graves have been excavated. The classrooms are filled with human remains. In some cases the corpses have been preserved in quicklime and retain tufts of hair and recognisable features. Now in the classrooms lie thousands of white skeletons, sometimes frozen in the positions they fell. It is as if a man-made Pompeii had swept over the hill and through the buildings. Some still clutch their rosaries. Some of the women were clearly pregnant. Skulls bear the marks of the machetes used to hack them down.
It’s because of places like Murambi that we need to constantly remind ourselves of the importance of taking a stand. “Never Again” must not be allowed to casually occur all over again.
While I was reading John Frain’s text Pope Benedict XVI was making his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to the Holy Land.
Just as history can repeat itself in new outrages of genocide, so can attempts to rewrite history and to traduce reputation and character.
During Benedict’s visit we heard echoes of the false charge laid against Pius XII that he was “Hitler’s Pope” and the repetition of the lie that Catholics seek to deny the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict’s visit to Yad Vashem, the Jewish memorial to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, was bound to be a profoundly sensitive and poignant moment – because of the Pope’s own German origins and because, like other young Germans, his name was included in the membership of the Hitler Youth. In his autobiography the then Cardinal Ratzinger speaks of his brief and enforced membership. He never played any part in its activities and has been opposed to Nazism all his life and is horrified by the crimes committed by his countrymen. At Yad Vashem he said: “May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill be vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this.”
Pope Benedict’s insistence that the despicable denial of the Holocaust – such as that enunciated by Richard Williamson (a formerly excommunicated follower of Marcel Lefebvre who gave him Episcopal rank) – can have no place in the Catholic Church may disappoint those who want to caricature the Catholic Church as a cat’s cradle of Anti-Semitism, but it is utterly consistent with the stand taken by the men and women whose lives are described in this book.
Anti-Semitism is not merely a historical phenomenon. In one recent year official figures reveal 547 Anti-Semitic attacks in Britain (the second worst figure on record). There is only one place of religious worship in Britain where believers are advised not to linger outside after services: the synagogue. Even in places like leafy Surrey there have been reports of swastikas being daubed on vehicles, pavements and signposts.
All forms of hatred against people – whether on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality or outlook – are an unqualified and unmitigated evil. For those of us who call ourselves European, the Holocaust means that Anti-Semitism holds a unique and special horror. It is a horror that had its origins in 2000 years of hatred directed at Jewish people. Blood libel and caricature has mutated into new forms of hatred, sometimes masquerading on the internet under the guise of free speech, sometimes originating as part of new virulent ideologies from heads of state.
The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has famously denied the Holocaust, has described the Jewish people as“filthy bacteria”,and said he would like to use nuclear capability to wipe Israel off the map: “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury… Israel is a rotten, dried tree that will be annihilated in one storm…They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets. The Zionists avail themselves of the fairy tale of Holocaust as blackmail and justification for killing children and women and making innocent people homeless.”
Jewish people often try to put a brave face on all of this and make light of such systematic hatred – like the rabbi who quipped that a telegram was sent by a relative to his family: “Start worrying, details to follow.”
Well, we know precisely what details have invariably followed.
We also know that Anti-Semitism never stops with the Jews – its tentacles extend and embrace every other form of intolerance too. In this dangerous world it is more vital than ever that we understand one another’s stories and stand alongside each other – a sentiment brilliantly expressed in “The Home We Build Together” by our British Chief Rabbi, Dr. Sir Jonathan Sacks.
So much for the contemporary reasons to worry but when the industrial killing at Auschwitz and the other death camps was being orchestrated how did the international institutions, including the Catholic Church react?
Dr.Frain carefully documents the Church’s repeated denunciation of Anti-Semitism and Nazism from 1928 onwards. In that year the Vatican issued a “binding condemnation” of “that hate which is now called Anti-Semitism”.
He also details the year by year condemnations issued by the German bishops: beginning in 1929 with Bishop Johannes Gfollner of Linz warning against “the false prophets” of Nazism and telling the Catholic faithful: “Close your ears and do not join their associations, close your doors and do not let their newspapers into your homes, close your hands and do not support their endeavours in elections.”
In 1930 the Bishop of Mainz declared Nazism and Catholicism to be irreconcilable; in 1933 the bishops of Cologne, Upper Rhine and Paderborn said they would deny the sacraments to anyone involved in parties hostile to Christianity; and the bishops of Bavaria condemned Nazi racism and their eugenic ideology with its scorn for the sanctity of life of the unborn and its belief in euthanasia.
Even before the Second World War began the Reich had compulsorily sterilised 350,000 people and begun the elimination of what it called “useless eaters”, people possessing “life unworthy of life” – which the Vatican condemned in 1933 as government degenerating into cattle breeding laboratories and in 1940 as “contrary to both the natural and the divine positive law.”
In 1937 Pope Pius XI condemned events in Germany stating: “Seldom has there been a persecution so heavy, so terrifying, so grievous and lamentable in its far-reaching effects. It is a persecution that spares neither force, nor oppression, nor threats, nor even subterfuge of intrigue and the fabrication of false facts.” In 1938 he said that no Christian could be Anti-Semitic because “spiritually, we are all Semites.”
Above all others, the story of Bishop von Galen – the Lion of Munster – is one of immense courage and bravery – with Martin Bormann demanding his execution; and Dr. Frain is right to record the details of von Galen’s heroic stand.
Bishop von Galen described the National Socialists as “the hammer” and “we are the anvil” and “the anvil is harder than the hammer.” He resolutely lived up to his family motto: Nec laudibus nec timore (Neither men’s praise nor fear of men shall move me).
In many ways “The Third Reich and The Cross” is at its very best when it animates us with the spirit of those who gave their lives speaking for truth.
Here are the stories of Erich Klausner, the General Secretary of Germany’s Catholic Action, who was shot dead; Adelbert Prost, Director of the Catholic Youth Sports Association, also murdered; Fritz Gerlich, a Catholic journalist murdered at Dachau (known as “the priest’s camp” because 2,670 priests from around 20 countries were held there: 600 died at Dachau and another 325 died during “transport of invalids”.
We are reminded of the arrest of Catholic politicians, the suppression of Catholic political activity, the confiscation of church property and the suppression of over 200 Catholic publications.
Some stories – those of Blessed Titus Brandsma, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St.Edith Stein are quite well known. Others, such as Fr.Jacques Bunel, Blessed Marcel Callo, Fr.Alfred Delp S.J., Blessed Nikolaus Gross (a miner and Catholic trades unionist), Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian farmer beheaded by the Nazis, Blessed Restituta Kafka, guillotined on Bormann’s orders, Blessed Karl Leisner, Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg (declared “Righteous Among The Nations” at Yad Vashem), Blessed Rupert Mayer S.J., Fr.Max Metzger, Fr.Franz Reinisch, are less well known.
Dr.Frain is also right to recall the role of the Protestant members of the Confessing Church, particularly Dietrich Bonheoffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller; and the Catholic and Protestant members of the White Rose student resistance movement led by Hans and Sophie Scholl.
In 1931 there were around 21,000 Catholic priests in Germany and over 8,000 of them, one third, clashed with the Reich and several hundred were eliminated by the Reich.
Fr.Maximilian Kolbe who died giving up his life in the place of another prisoner at Auschwitz, said “No one in the world can change truth, and beyond the hecatombs of the extermination camps, of what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves”: words that sum up the spirit of all the men and women cited by John Frain, who rightly asks “how can any of these facts ever be made t sound like complicity?”
Page after page of this book refutes the libel that German bishops were docile or indifferent when confronted with Nazism.
Perhaps the greatest calumny of all concerns the role of Pope Pius XII. Dr.Frain describes “the cottage industry” of detractors and their failure to objectively examine the facts. He cites Rabbi David Dalin who describes such books as “Best sellers made out of bad history”.
Rabbi Dalin says that “The truth about Pius XII must be restored. This hijacking of the Holocaust must be repudiated.”
Dalin cites Pinchas Lapide, an historian and Israeli consul, who said that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” In the context of the 6 million who perished he contrasts this record with the abject failure of others to save the Jews.
In his forensic analysis of the facts Dr.Frain details what the Nazis themselves said about Pius – “he has always been hostile to National Socialism”; “Pacelli was the live spirit which stood behind all the anti-German activities of Rome’s policy.” The Nazis described Pius XII as “Jew loving.”
Most telling of all are the recorded comments of the Jews who were contemporaries of Pius XII.
After the War he was thanked by survivors of the Holocaust and tributes included one from Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann and Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took the Pope’s name as a tribute to him.
At the time of his death, in 1958, Golda Meir said “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.” The Jewish Chronicle recorded: “Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion…many hundreds of fugitive Jews found sanctuary in the Vatican by the Nazis. Such actions will always be remembered.”
There is no doubt that the recent attempts to rewrite this history has placed a barrier between closer Catholic-Jewish relations. This is something which has motivated a New York Jew, Gary Krupp, to found the Pave The Way organisation. He says that a proper understanding of the history of this period, and the role of Pius XII is crucial because “Pius XII, in just one day, hid 7,000 Jews, from the Nazis”. Krupp says he “grew up hating Pius.” Having carefully researched the facts Krupp has come to the conclusion that “he was the greatest hero of World War Two. We can prove it. We have something on our side – documented proof – where the revisionists haven’t a scrap of paper to support their theories.”
One of the most telling refutations of Vatican indifference to the rise of Nazism and the appalling events of the Holocaust came from Albert Einstein who had escaped from Nazi Germany. In 1940 he said: “only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth…I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Those who read this excellent book may not be able to bring themselves to Einstein’s conclusion – and perhaps we should all be wary of every extolling or praising anyone or anything unreservedly – but John Frain has surely done us a great service in reminding us of the truth of something else that Einstein said. “The world” he insisted “is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil. But because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
This book is a chance to both celebrate the memory of those who did do something about it and to be challenged in our own lives and our own times to confront the new evils that confront us.