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"The Plan Concerning the Catholics in Nazi Germany"

Book Essay on: Guenther Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany
(New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), 416 pages.
UCSB: BX1536L4C.2

by Ismael Ulloa
March 15, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
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About Ismael Ulloa

I am a second-year senior History major. I have always been fascinated by history. I come from a Catholic upbringing. I have studied the German language since the summer of 2005. I spent four months in Potsdam, Germany (near Berlin) as part of a UC-wide Education Abroad Program in the summer of 2006 and studied German at Potsdam Universität. I chose to write on this topic because of my interest in Catholic history, especially in Nazi Germany.

Abstract (back to top)

In an authoritarian government there is no room for another source of authority. Any second source of authority is a risk to the loyalty shown by the people under the government. This is how Hitler saw the presence of the Catholic Church in Germany. Even though Catholics were a minority overall in Germany, they still posed a powerful threat. Hitler knew that he could not destroy the Catholic Church in Germany, because it was too important to have a religious base that he could use to cement the Germans' loyalty. It was up to Hitler to figure out a way to weaken the Catholic Church, so as to have control over it and not completely destroy it. Through various actions, Hitler was able to weaken the Catholic Church. But were these actions intentional? Did Hitler have a well-thought-out plan to deal with the Catholics? I do not believe he did.

Essay (back to top)

The intentionalist interpretation of Hitler’s time in power is that there was a goal to which he was building -- not just that he had a goal, but an implementation plan to go with it. Hitler’s overall goal for the Jews was extermination in his infamous concentration camps. It is my belief that Hitler had a goal with no plan in mind for Germany. This paper is not going to make an argument for or against intentionalist theory concerning the Jews, but concerning the Catholic Church at the time. Evidence of both sides will be presented on the matter; using material taken from Guenther Lewy’s book, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. Before delving into this argument, we must first examine who the two major players were and what their relationship was like.

To have a totalitarian government function properly, there must be only one source of authority; a strong organization with one man calling the shots. Hitler needed total control of and loyalty from the German people; “[Hitler] wanted the undivided allegiance of everyone, their uttermost loyalties, irrespective of and unhampered by religious ties” (Lewy, p. 54). Even a cursory examination of Nazi Germany seems to confirm that he achieved this, but Hitler himself was not sure. There was one organization in Nazi Germany that caused these doubts, the Catholic Church. Not just the Catholic Church, but also the Center Party and other organizations that represented Catholics in Germany. Hitler saw the Catholic Church as “just another anti-Communist authoritarian regime” (Lewy, p.54), in other words, competition.

One might expect that Hitler would have no problem with the Catholics in Germany since they were a minority (Even with Bavaria being overwhelmingly Catholic, it still represented a minority in the whole of Germany), but this would be a false perception. The Center Party and thus the Catholic Church grew in power during the second German Empire (This began with the unification of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck), starting with its creation in 1870. Since then its political influence had grown, even under the oppressive May Laws in 1873, instituted under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, (The presence of Catholics was also felt very strongly in the media; with the number of Catholic periodicals growing in this era.) The Catholic political presence in the government became so strong that Bismarck began to repeal the May Laws in order to appease them (Approximately only one-third of the May Laws were repealed, still leaving: compulsory civil marriage, state-appointed school inspections and the ban on the Jesuit order.) Hitler must have known that he too would eventually have to deal with the Catholic presence in Germany.

It is easier to understand why Hitler would deal with the Catholic presence in Germany, to obtain complete power, but why would the Catholic Church deal with Adolf Hitler? Guenther Lewy’s book The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964) tries to answer that very question. In fact, Lewy gives multiple answers, ranging from structural similarities to simple self-preservation. Lewy points out that both Hitler and the Catholic Church demanded unconditional loyalty from their followers; a similarity that brought Hitler and the Catholic Church into conflict. How could a person be ruled by two sources of authority not only demanding loyalty, but telling that person how as she/he should live and die?

The most compelling of Lewy’s arguments is that of self-preservation. The Vatican could not condemn a country in which it found its own followers. The Catholic Church’s optimum plan of attack was neutrality. Neutrality stemming from the Vatican to individual episcopates striving to adapt and integrate themselves into whatever current government structure was present in that country. The only concern of the clergy in these areas was to avoid persecution of themselves and their followers. Sometimes even the violence visited upon Catholic followers was not enough for the clergy to make a united stand against the established government; the clergy in Germany was no exception. In fact, to quote Lewy, even though violence continued against Catholics in Germany, “the bishops had admonished the faithful to be obedient” and “active resistance to Hitler’s state was discouraged by the bishops” (Lewy, p.44). Did Hitler know what reaction his actions against the Catholics in Germany would have? Was he really the master strategist that many believed he was? Or was he just gambling with each decision he made concerning the Catholic presence in Germany?

There is evidence that Hitler did have a plan after all when it came to the Catholic Church in Germany. Hitler was well aware of the consequences of the Kulturkampf started by Bismarck and even criticized the chancellor for it, saying in 1941 that “[Bismarck] had been stupid in starting the Kulturkampf: this only made martyrs of the clergy” (Lewy, p. 26). Hitler also knew he needed the Catholic Church. He believed that religious belief could be the “anchor” to which loyalty to the state could be tied. There was no need to destroy the Catholic Church, just to cow it into submission. Hitler seemed to understand that the Catholic Church had one very large and exploitable weakness, its greed. As long as concessions were made and protections of its material “advantages” were maintained, then the Church would be willing (do anything in its power) to please the government.

Hitler’s first big step towards buying the Catholic Church’s confidence was through the Concordat of 1933; a treaty of sorts establishing the rights of the church and the power (with respect to the Catholic Church) of the Nazi regime under the new government. The Catholic Church jumped at the opportunity to establish its place under Nazi rule as the Concordat of 1928 had done with the clergy in Fascist Italy. Three points were of great importance for the satisfaction of the Catholic Church: 1) no penalty for the priests who conducted church marriages without there being a prior civil marriage (in case of a “moral emergency”), 2) financing from the government to the church would not be cut off without agreeing with the Vatican first, and 3) concerned the rights of confessional schools and religious instruction in state schools (Lewy, p. 59). In effect, this neutralized some of the laws left over from the May Laws; negotiations ended in July of 1933.

The Catholics came away from the negotiating table with a sense of satisfaction. They had negotiated for a revision of the matrimonial law (making more exceptions on not having a civil before a church wedding) and the protection of their clergy, property and confessional schools. Everything that the church received through the Concordat had its limitations; everything was dependant on the approval or law of the government. For instance, the selection of new bishops and Army bishops had to meet the approval of the government, not just the Catholic Church. If there was any dissatisfaction in the Vatican or among the clergy in Germany, then it was not widely expressed. More than likely this had to do with the Hitler’s assurances that any shortcomings in the Concordat would be dealt with swiftly after “the foreign policy situation was better” (Lewy, p. 78). Unfortunately for the clergy, no such time was ever to come. Even if it had, it is very unlikely that anything would have been done; Hitler had a history of making assurances of action and then not following through. Hitler seemed to understand how to deal with the Catholic Church and did so when it was necessary.

It is entirely possible that Hitler only used the Concordat of 1933 as a delay tactic while the Nazi regime tightened its hold on the population of Germany, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and dealt with other more pressing international matters. The Concordat could have also bought him time to figure out what else to do against the Catholics. The Concordat of 1933 was not a new concept, as pointed out above; there was already one in existence in Italy when Hitler came to power. The German government and Catholic Church had been trying to hammer out a concordat since 1920, but with little success (it was started under Papal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli). So it is possible that Hitler just took something already in the works and accelerated it in hopes that would satisfy the Catholics enough to keep them under control.

The Concordat of 1933 did not stop all attacks on the Catholics in Germany. Lewy points out that Cardinal Bertram was made aware of attacks in different areas in Germany before or after the ratification of the Concordat (Lewy, pp. 88-89). Violence was even used by Goebbels and other anti-Clerical Nazi members, in hopes of sabotaging the finalization of the Concordat. These attacks were not centered only on Catholic individuals, but on any organizations that might express an opinion counter to that of the current regime; such organizations included the media, the Center Party, and any quasi-political groups.

The media was the most powerful arm of the Catholics in Germany and was thus the most dangerous to a regime that did not want to be questioned. Catholic dailies outnumbered Nazi dailies by at least 3:1 (Lewy, p.133). The Catholic newspaper Der Gerade Weg did not help the situation any when on 11 September 1932 it said that “Hitler represents the incarnation of evil.” (Lewy, p. 21). The Nazi attack on the media appears to have been systematic. At first, the Nazis used the power to ban the publication of certain papers. Then came the pressure on Catholics to pick up subscriptions to Nazi dailies instead of the Catholic dailies that they had been subscribing to. Such interruptions in publication and decline in circulation caused most Catholic dailies to fold; other Catholic dailies began to be strictly pro-Nazi (Lewy, p. 134). Religious content became forbidden in newspapers (ordinance was introduced on 24 April 1935), effectively killing all of the remaining Catholic newspapers in Germany (Lewy, p. 135). Weekly periodicals, those that survived, were later taken under tightly the control of the Nazis.

As mentioned above, actions taken against Catholics also extended to the clergy and Catholic organizations that might threaten the Nazis. Already the Concordat was created to help the Nazis bring the Catholic presence in Germany under control. The wording of the entire Concordat was later interpreted to give the Nazis carte blanche, with regard to their weakening of the remaining Catholic outlets, but the master stroke was the combined power of Articles 31 and 32. Together, these articles gave the Nazis the power to weaken their enemies at the pulpit and in organizations. Lewy describes the two articles as “removing the clergy from politics”, since they “regulated the activity of various Catholic organizations” and had the Vatican issue “regulations excluding membership in political parties for all members [of the clergy] and the people belonging to orders.” (Lewy, p. 75).These articles were mainly used to remove any clergy from political parties and to discourage and political speeches from the pulpit. The educated clergy were seen as the most dangerous of their Catholic opponents because of their education and their role in Catholic society. This was a master stroke, but was it intentional? These two articles, like the rest of the Concordat of 1933, can be seen as one giant loophole. A loophole to be used as needed, if needed, in the future against any trouble from the Catholic sector of the population. Or it can be seen as an opening shot which allowed other more devastating attacks to follow.

So, did Hitler have a plan in deal with the Catholics in Germany when he came into power? There is enough cursory evidence that can be speculated to argue either side. In my opinion it is easier believe that he did not. Adolf Hitler knew how to talk to the masses. He understood mass psychology. He convinced a nation to believe that his violent regime was the best thing needed to re-establish itself on the world stage. This shows that Hitler was adaptable. Perhaps his own ego convinced him that he did not need a plan, because he would be able to adapt to any situation. Intentional or not, I do not believe that Adolf Hitler had a plan with dealing with anyone, let alone the Catholics; the Concordat and other attacks seem to bear that out.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)

Book Reviews

  • Herman, S.W. “Review,” Church History 34, no. 1 (Mar., 1965), 108-109. (JSTOR)
    Herman believes that Lewy did well in correcting the historical legend concerning resistance of the Catholic Church against Hitler’s state. Herman is disappointed that the Protestant Church is left out of his book; he believes that addition would have given a richer background.
  • Schwarz, Henry F. “Review,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5, no. 3 (Autumn, 1966), 475-476 (JSTOR)
    Schwarz commends Lewy on his research and the evidence presented in his book. Schwarz does not believe that the evidence presented justifies the conclusion that, had the Catholic Church done more to resist, then maybe the "Final Solution" might have been avoided or at least lessened.

Books and Articles

  • Copa, Frank J. Controversial Concordats: The Vatican’s relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler. Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 1999.
    Gives a breakdown of the events concerning each respective concordat. It also explains the consequences of these concordats.
  • Godman, Peter. Hitler and the Vatican: Inside the Secret Archives that Reveal the New Story of the Nazis and the Church. New York: Free Press, 2004.
    Another book that looks into the relationship between the Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. This book concerns itself more with the inner workings at the Vatican than with the clergy present in Germany at the time.


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Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/27/07; last updated: 4/8/07
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