IN 1930 and 1931 the Catholic bishops of Germany issued warnings against the rising National Socialist Party. The essence of what they said was that the party program placed a Germanic feeling of race above religion. Different bishops published these warnings in different terms of sharpness -- a few omitted them altogether. The influence of these episcopal admonitions must not be exaggerated. In August 1932, for instance, they did not prevent the Center Party (which, without being confessional, was recognized by the bishops as representing the Church) from trying to make a deal with the National Socialists for a coalition against the Chancellorship of von Papen.

In January 1933 the Center declined to participate in a Hitler government, and in the following electoral struggle took an active part against the National Socialists. Nevertheless, on March 23 the Center deputies in the Reichstag consented to the legislation which established Hitler's unrestricted dictatorship. This step was taken at the instance of the President of the Center Party, Monsignor Kaas, and against the opposition of a minority led by former Chancellor Bruening. In his program Hitler uttered some amiable though in reality uncompromising words about the significance of the Christian religion to the state and nation. A few days later the bishops withdrew their warnings of 1930 and 1931 as being no longer relevant.

In Rome, meanwhile, negotiations were begun between Vice-Chancellor von Papen and Cardinal Pacelli, Papal Secretary of State. Shortly before they reached any conclusion the Center and its sister organization, the Bavarian People's Party, decided to dissolve -- with the more or less gentle assistance of the Government. Once the Concordat with the Reich had been signed, the premises of the Catholic associations, until then occupied by the police, were evacuated and permission was given for them to resume their activities. In the view of many leading Catholics, it only remained to determine the legal status of the associations in negotiations between the Government and the German bishops. The relationship of Church and State would then -- possibly after a few regrettable incidents -- be as friendly as in Italy.

What actually happened was something very different. Immediately after the publication of the Concordat, the sterilization law was issued in direct opposition to the doctrine expressed by Pius XI in his Encyclical on marriage. The Catholic press of Germany was compelled to print an article dissenting sharply from the interpretation of the Concordat which appeared in the Osservatore Romano. Cardinal Faulhaber's Advent sermons in 1933, defending the Old Testament, were grossly attacked. The authorities took steps to place the Catholic youth associations in a special category. They were forbidden to wear distinctive badges, to conduct walking tours and sporting events, etc.

This policy came to a head in 1934. On January 24 of that year Hitler charged Rosenberg, author of the anti-Catholic "Myth of the Twentieth Century," with the duty of giving philosophical instruction to the Party and to organizations coordinated by it. A few days later the Osservatore Romano officially stated that Rosenberg's book had been placed on the Index. Negotiations regarding the fate of the Catholic associations dragged along very slowly. A provisional agreement was reached on June 30, the famous day on which several Catholic leaders, along with many dissident Nazis, were shot without trial. But the entire German Episcopate, in accord with the Vatican, rejected the agreement, and it did not come into force. A few days later the police forbade the publication of a joint pastoral letter by the German bishops; but this fact escaped public attention because the bishops themselves voluntarily renounced the idea of reading their letter in the churches. The press was "deconfessionalized," signifying the end of those Catholic papers recommended by the bishops. In Munich and Nuremburg parents were asked by the National Socialist Party to vote against the continuance of religious schools, though the Concordat had specifically guaranteed that they might be continued.

In 1935 the predominantly Catholic Saar was restored to the Reich. This done, the signal was given for the anti-religious agitation to be pushed even further. Reich Minister Frick openly declared that the objective was the "deconfessionalization" of every branch of public life. Negotiations relating to the fate of the Catholic associations continued to drag along without result. Goering called for a resolute struggle against so-called political Catholicism. He perfidiously pretended that, unlike the bishops, the lower clergy continued to strive for political power.

The first legal offensive against representatives of the Church began in May and took the form of accusing members of Catholic orders, episcopal vicars-general and the higher clergy, of violating the exchange laws. Although the only bishop who was accused, Legge von Meissen, was merely fined, the trial served as material for a systematic propaganda against all leaders of the Church. Monsignor Bannasch of Berlin was arrested on the charge of high treason: he had given information to the Papal Nuncio -- the representative of a foreign Power! -- concerning the religious situation in the Third Reich. Wolker, President-General of the Catholic Youth, was accused of having knowingly participated in a Catholic-Communist conspiracy. Both were quietly released from prison a few weeks later, but the cases had meanwhile been given much publicity.

The "exchange trials" gradually died down, to give way in 1936 to the first "morality trials." The purpose of these was to establish the general immorality of the Catholic clergy and the Catholic orders. Whole groups were accused of moral offenses; only during the 1936 Olympics were the trials kept discreetly in the background. In their pastoral letter of the fall of 1936, the Catholic bishops again declared their willingness to support Hitler in his war against Bolshevism, even though they had to admit that he had never answered their 1935 memorandum regarding the position of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich. Despite conciliatory moves of this sort, the Hitler Youth was officially declared a compulsory organization for all young Germans, which meant that the Catholic Youth associations had no future.

The attack on the confessional character of public schools now became more acute. In various districts, Württemberg for example, the question was disposed of by so-called parents' elections. In advance of these elections all propaganda on behalf of the confessional schools was forbidden and in the elections themselves it proved practically impossible to vote other than one way. This led to sharp protests from the bishops, particularly Cardinal Faulhaber.

It was this conflict over the schools which, added to the reports of the German bishops who had visited Rome, caused Pope Pius to publish his Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in the spring of 1937. He took up therein the systematic violations of the Concordat by the Government of Chancellor Hitler. The faithful were warned against: (1), the Third Reich's constant use of the Race-God-myth as a concept of Deity; (2), the National Socialist concept of justice as defined in the sentence "Right is that which is useful to the nation"; (3), the misuse of sacred terms for National Socialist purposes; and (4) a National-Racial "religion." This Encyclical was read from the pulpits. But Catholic printers who dared to publish it at the request of the bishops were put out of business.

The reply of the National Socialists to all this was the institution of proceedings against Chaplain Rossaint and several colleagues for alleged, but unproven, political collaboration with the Communists. They were condemned to long years of imprisonment. At the same time, the tempo of the morality trials was accelerated. Hitler himself, in a speech on May 1, 1937, referred to the low state of morals in the Church and rejected the Encyclical as an interference in the political life of the German people. A protest by the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein, was seized on as a pretext by Propaganda Minister Goebbels for a bitter attack on the clergy's morals. An authoritative counterstatement by the German episcopacy could not be published. Simultaneously the Reich Government announced that the refusal of the Vatican formally to disassociate itself from the speech of the American cardinal had put an end to all "normal relations between the Roman Curia and the German State."

In the summer of 1937 further steps were taken against the Church. Priests were removed as religious teachers in the public schools. Several bishops were called as witnesses at trials, with the obvious intention of making them appear lax in their attitude towards moral offenses. The Bishop of Speyer was accused of having sent an anti-German report to the Vatican; he was confronted with photostats of his correspondence with Cardinal Pacelli, which had been secretly opened.

Despite all these occurrences, despite the suppression of numerous pastoral letters, despite the throttling of purely religious periodicals and secret measures taken against Catholic publishers, despite the arrest of distinguished clergymen, no final and open break occurred between the Catholic Church and the National Socialist State. Even as late as October 1937 negotiations were still going on between the Nuncio and the Foreign Office. In a message of condolence on the death of the Bishop of Aachen in September, Hitler sought to give the impression that he did not wish to break with the Church. Similarly, the Nuncio ostentatiously remained in Berlin after the speech of Goebbels referred to above, in order to further the belief that the Vatican also did not contemplate a break.

Such, briefly, are the historical facts of the case "Hitler versus the Catholic Church." How are they to be interpreted? What picture should they convey of the relative strength of the two camps and of their real objectives?


The broad lines of the National Socialist Party's religious policy are easily discernible. As Hitler observed in 1933 during a remarkable conversation with Rauschning, then President of the Danzig Senate, the Führer is a born Catholic who knows the Catholic mentality, and as such has no desire to repeat Bismarck's psychological error of the Kulturkampf. He knows that frontal attacks, such as the arrest of bishops and interference with religious services, can only help the Church. For this reason he uses indirect methods. One of his purposes is the complete subordination of the Church (even in its official statements) to the National State and its racial tenets. He vaguely entertains the idea of creating a more or less National-Racial Church embracing all creeds, including the Catholics. In 1936 it became known in Catholic circles that Statthalter Wagner of Baden, after his return from a conference with Hitler, had used the expression: "No martyrs, just criminals." This indicates the fashion in which the Church is gradually to be robbed of its moral standing and compelled to capitulate to the National Socialist philosophy. Measures are taken against the Church on the theory that it must be attacked in its political capacity, a field in which it is denied to have any rights. The Center Party is cited as an example of the sort of political Catholicism which unlawfully introduces clerical influences into German national life.

These tactics imply that an open break with the Vatican is to be avoided in order to keep the Catholic population in a state of confusion and uncertainty as long as possible, and even to create the impression that the Vatican is afraid to try to protect its flock in Germany. National Socialists have frequently pointed out that the clergy receive salaries from the state, that Christianity has been saved from Bolshevism by the Nazis, and that it might be a very serious thing for the Church if National Socialism were to launch a widespread anti-clerical propaganda campaign rather than, as at present, merely to try to restrict the Church's authority.

But matters have now reached a point where such obscurantist tactics can be discarded. More and more frequently and more and more candidly the Nazis say that National Socialism is also a religion. In 1937, Goebbels consecrated places of National Socialist worship. The Schwarze Korps, weekly organ of the head of the German police and of the Schutzstaffel, publishes articles not only against "immoral Catholicism" but about the manner in which the Pope allegedly favors Bolshevism and the Popular Front. It demands that the anti-Communist pledge be used also against Catholicism. The paper has furthermore speculated as to the necessity of creating a religion corresponding to the nature of the German people, since (as Rosenberg also maintains) existing Christian groups do not embody the racial beliefs of our time.

Nevertheless, the National Socialist Government even today wishes to avoid an open diplomatic break with the Vatican, for it would merely make more difficult the methods adopted by National Socialist propaganda. And, strange as it may seem, certain Catholic circles still continue, despite all disappointments, to pin their hopes on National Socialism. They regard it as an instrument for the destruction of such anti-Christian forces as Bolshevism and Free Masonry, and they expect -- or at any rate hope -- that the anti-Church campaign which has now been under way for over four years will cease before long. Reinforcing this tendency is the success which has attended National Socialism's effort to press Catholic propagandists into its service. It must be noted that certain Catholic associations depend on state subsidies. This explains the strange campaign which has been waged by the Association of German Catholics Abroad under the leadership of its General Secretary, Dr. Scherer, and by Father Groesser of the Raphael Society among American and English Catholics. Its object is to propagate the view that there is no persecution of the Church in the Third Reich and that foreign Catholics should in any event refrain from criticizing the National Socialist régime in the interests of German Catholicism itself. Many of those taking part in this campaign honestly believe National Socialist promises and imagine that for them to defend National Socialism abroad would improve the situation of Catholics in Germany. The fact remains that the campaign has merely facilitated the anti-Church policy of the National Socialist Government.


Those familiar with German Catholicism in all its aspects know that under the Republic the Catholic elements opposed to the Weimar Constitution and to the Center Party's alliance with the Social Democrats were much more powerful than outside observers ever realized.

Thus in Bavaria these elements were able to bring about a break between the Center and the Bavarian People's Party. And it was the refusal of the latter to join a coalition with the Social Democrats which made possible in 1925 the election of Hindenburg instead of Marx, the Center Party leader. There were other influential Catholic circles in Germany more or less opposed to the entire concept of political Catholicism, to allowing a political party to represent Church interests. Others, again, suspicious of the influence of the Catholic associations built up with the help of the Center Party, preferred to strengthen the local influence of the bishops; and many of these, in turn, felt that their activities were obstructed by the general secretaries and presidents of the associations. The Catholic aristocracy, influential in some circles, opposed the Center, which had been allied with the Social Democrats in upholding the parliamentary system. Many other important Catholics remained with the Center but, like von Papen, worked against a coalition with the Left and in favor of an authoritarian régime. Dissimilar as many of these elements were, they were alike in inclining to regard National Socialism as a kind of conservative movement. They realized the unreliability of its leadership, but they hoped it might nevertheless facilitate the restoration of a Christian authoritarian régime. Still other Catholics regarded the Center as too unintellectual and felt that personal political interests too often played a part in its struggles. They declined to participate in that struggle, though gladly profiting from it.

All of the Catholic elements here described were quite prepared to recognize the National Socialist Revolution of 1933. This of course weakened the chances that a strong Center opposition party might develop, especially as von Papen, the exponent of national Catholicism, became Vice-Chancellor in Hitler's cabinet. It must also be remembered that even the Center itself looked upon National Socialism from a purely tactical point of view, regarding it as just one party among others. The Center leader, Monsignor Kaas (a friend of Cardinal Pacelli, Papal Nuncio in Berlin for many years), interested himself in events from the point of view of Church politics almost exclusively. The consequence was that he was satisfied with those of Hitler's statements which sounded advantageous to the Church and neglected the others. In particular, he was favorably impressed by the rapid rate at which negotiations for the Concordat proceeded. One more fact is to be recorded. Many Center Party deputies, having lost the will to fight, developed one desire only -- not to be liquidated by the new political order. Indeed, after the dissolution of the Party many of them hurriedly applied for admission to the National Socialist ranks. Their applications for the most part were refused or left unanswered.

Nor were the Catholic associations prepared for a serious struggle with National Socialism. One leader who previously had opposed Hitler's doctrines, immediately after the Nazi electoral victory of 1933 wrote an article entitled, "The Two Adolfs, Saviors of the German People." One Adolf was Adolf Kolping, the founder of his association; the other was Adolf Hitler. As a well-informed Jesuit, Father Delattre, pointed out in the May 1937 number of the Nouvelle Revue Théologique, even the bishops held diverse opinions of the National Socialist Government. Thus Archbishop Groeber of Freiburg and Bishop Berning of Osnabruck (who had been appointed Prussian Counsellor of State by Goering) attracted attention in 1933 by statements friendly to the Hitler régime. The latter gave expression to a sentiment widespread in upper Catholic circles when he said in the spring of that year: "We must not once again misunderstand a powerful national movement as we did at the time of the Reformation; we must accept the facts while there is yet time."

It was not the Vatican, therefore, that was responsible for the startling agreement with the new régime represented by the Concordat. Even if it is true, as George N. Shuster declares,[i] that the Nuncio in Berlin, Monsignor Orsenigo, was very favorably disposed towards the National Socialist régime and believed in the sincerity of Hitler's pro-Church statements, his advice alone was not decisive at the Vatican. Large numbers of German Catholic intellectuals, civil servants, and officials of Catholic associations would not have understood the policy of the Vatican if it had ignored the possibility of concluding a Concordat. True, this seemed a reflection on the Center Party. But the latter was already discredited. And the Concordat did seem to guarantee the existence of the Catholic associations, of confessional schools, and of freedom of religious worship. Nor was Monsignor Kaas the only person under the impression that the National Socialist régime would soon collapse. A Concordat might therefore be signed with Hitler safely, and it would be useful under whatever régime ensued as a legal basis for determining the Church's position. A Concordat with the Reich, favorable to the Church, would be in existence, and it would serve as the starting point for all future negotiations.

At that time comparisons with the Italian situation were popular. In Church circles it was recalled that the Italian Concordat had ensured relations which seemed outwardly satisfactory to the Church, though less stress was laid on the fact that this result had been attained only after several painful incidents, the product of which was the Encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno (published only outside Italy) attacking the Fascist concept of education and of the State. Finally, if we are to believe the statements of von Papen, the theory that Hitler had conquered Bolshevism played a certain part even with Pope Pius XI himself.

But the most important factor of all was the determination of the Vatican and of Catholicism in general not to appear unfriendly to Germany. Here is the inner explanation of the signing of the Concordat and the generally cautious attitude of the Church towards National Socialism, the inclination to wait carefully as long as possible, the effort to avoid an open break. The Catholic hierarchy did not wish to give the slightest pretext for the charge that the Church is an international organization lacking in sympathy for the special problems of the German people.

I have spoken of the astonishing hope that National Socialism might gradually develop into a conservative, authoritarian government which would create conditions entirely acceptable to the Church. A volume published in 1936 by the Austrian Bishop Hudal, Rector of the German foundation Anima in Rome, is a case in point. His work, "Die Grundlagen des National-sozialismus," tries to draw a sharp distinction between the conservative tendencies of National Socialism represented by Hitler himself, and the radical, anti-Christian, revolutionary variety represented by Rosenberg. Although not inspired by the Vatican, the book must be regarded as a kind of trial balloon sent up by influential churchmen.

In 1937, however, the tactics were altered. The Pope decided to make a public gesture with his Encyclical, while the German bishops ceased attributing anti-Christian measures and propaganda to Hitler's underlings and blamed them on the Nazi system itself. This change in tactics corresponded to an inner change that had taken place in German Catholicism and in the German people. The German Catholics who started out by regarding the year 1933 as a "Holy Year for the Church and the German people" have been bitterly disappointed. The anti-Center Catholics who in 1933 received good jobs have since been put out (e.g. the Chief President of the Rhineland, von Lueninck, who in 1933 made a sensational speech accusing the Center of having sinned against the Holy Ghost by its alliance with atheistic Social Democrats), or have been relegated to unimportant posts (like Vice-Chancellor von Papen, whose chief business it now is to maintain the impression in Vienna that one can simultaneously be a Catholic and a National Socialist).

Gradually, too, a lack of confidence threatened to arise between the people and the bishops -- for all the bishops did not speak out so clearly as the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich. In strictly Catholic circles the silence of the bishops has come in for criticism as never it did in the early Nazi days. A great impression also was made by the uncompromising attitude taken up by the ordinary clergy. Another factor was that whereas in 1933 open criticism of the régime by the Vatican might have been regarded by Protestants as anti-German, by 1937 the Protestants themselves, on exclusively religious grounds, had come to take a position of bitter opposition to the régime as a result of its treatment of many ministers and its attempts to set up a "coördinated" and "racial" Church.

The time had come, in other words, when further hesitation on the part of the Pope would have been inopportune. The long-awaited Encyclical against National Socialist church policy was published. It produced a profound impression. Yet even after this act the Papal Curia would still like to avoid a complete break.

The following seem to be the considerations which have determined this attitude. For one thing, certain provisions in the Concordat with the Reich actually are being carried out. The financial obligations of the State toward the Church are being fulfilled, even though the contributions are being constantly reduced (in Bavaria, for example), apparently in order to put pressure on the Church and force it into line. The more important Catholic associations have not yet been prohibited, though their activities must be private and they are threatened with gradual extinction through lack of prospective members. Furthermore, it is still hoped that the example of Fascist Italy may be followed, that at long last the Third Reich will attempt, like Italy, to reach a practical working agreement with the Church. There are those who think, too, that the existing good relations between Mussolini and Hitler will perhaps lead to a more carefully considered Church policy in Germany. It is also believed that a declaration of war by the Vatican against the Third Reich would simply make the position of the German Catholics worse. Cancellation of the Concordat would furthermore be contrary to all the Church's traditions; and the only possibility after that would be to repeat more clearly and forcefully the accusation previously raised in the Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge.

Nor is it a negligible fact that many persons who once were not particularly friendly to the Church, who for example did not protest against Church persecutions in Russia and Mexico, now remonstrate against Hitler's persecution of the Church. This arouses suspicion in many Church circles, where no trust is placed in anything coming from the Left. It may safely be said that the Vatican wishes to avoid anything that might seem like participation in an anti-Fascist front. A similar factor -- and not the least -- is the resolve not to give indirect support to atheistic Bolshevism by taking active measures against Hitler.

We may therefore say that the relations between the Catholic Church and National Socialism are now defined. Though there has been no legal declaration of war, a war is nevertheless going on. In this war the attacking party -- the National Socialist Government -- constantly asserts that it is the one which is being assaulted, and that the measures it takes are merely a defense of the German people's right to live. There exists a treaty of peace. The war proceeds because the provisions of that treaty are evaded. Thus the Concordat concluded by the Church with the National Socialist Government is used by the latter as a means of fettering and oppressing the Church.


The fate of the Concordat, the first important agreement made by Hitler, which was intended to prove him a reliable partner and one capable of observing a contract, is an object lesson in the methods of National Socialist policy. By that method National Socialism claims the right to regard agreements as binding on the other party but not on itself, except insofar as to do so serves its purposes at the moment. The conflict between the Church and National Socialism arises from the latter's claim to control every phase of life. Religion and morals must become instruments of National Socialist policy. If Christianity is not openly attacked, that is merely for reasons of propagandist psychology, in order to save face in the presence of those harmless souls who accept the National Socialist terminology at its face value. A visible legal break has not been reached. But the abyss separating National Socialism from the Catholic Church grows deeper and wider. Those who saw in National Socialism a new bulwark for "authority" are finding their hopes illusions. Instead, National Socialism is emerging more and more clearly as a new "religion," as the deification of the power politics of a group which pretends to represent the entire people. For this reason, the Church is constantly being driven from discussions of purely Church politics into a fundamental criticism of the entire National Socialist system. True, the course of events proceeds slowly, the Vatican paying due consideration to the situation of the Church in Italy and also having regard for the danger of Bolshevism, stated by Pope Pius XI to be imminent. But a settlement is not to be postponed indefinitely.

The National Socialists are conducting their war on the Church not so much by means of a frontal attack as by the process of elimination. Such methods demand a new attitude on the part of the faithful. That is why one must conclude that the future of the Catholic Church in Germany depends above all upon the unknown believers who defend themselves against the totalitarian claims and obscurantist tactics of the National Socialist state. On the success of their attitude depends the answer to a question of the utmost importance, the question whether there will ever again be a humane culture in Germany, one in which the rights of free individuals are fully recognized.

[i] "Like a Mighty Army." New York: Appleton-Century, 1935.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WALDEMAR GURIAN, now lecturing at the University of Notre Dame; author of "Bolshevism: Theory and Practice," "Hitler and the Christians" and other works
  • More By Waldemar Gurian