During the Third Reich several Roman Catholic prelates were known as “Brown Bishops” (brown being the official color of the Nazi movement), because of their enthusiastic support of Nazism, including Konrad Gröber of Freiburg, Adolf Bertram of Breslau (photo above), Michael Buchberger of Regensburg, Antonius Hilfrich of Limburg and Military Bishop Franz Josef Rarkowski . Clearly, their conduct contributed to the Church’s complicity in the Holocaust.
Konrad Gröber of Freiburg was a sponsoring member of the SS who blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, and asserted, early on, that the fate of Jews under National Socialism was not only justified but a “self-imposed curse.” “No German bishop,” he declared, “would want to bring harm to the ‘beloved Volk and Vaterland.’” In 1943, while the killing camps were at maximum operation, Grober urged his fellow bishops to remain loyal to the Reich. After the war, however, he claimed to have been such an opponent of the Nazis that they planned to “crucify him on the door of Freiburg Cathedral.”
In 1935, Bishop Gröber wrote a book, “Kirche, Vaterland und Vaterlandsliebe,” in which he reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching on just war, a reaffirmation which included an explicit rejection of pacifism (Jesus was a pacifist) and a willingness to surrender the final determination of a war’s justice or injustice to the secular ruler. He wrote:
“In her almost two thousand years of existence, the Church has never yet absolved her members from military duty, as have several (heretical) sects — for instance, the Manichaeans and the followers of Wycliffe. She has, on the contrary, rejected the extreme and helpless pacifism which sees war as something forbidden and unchristian and thereby surrenders power to the unjust…Catholic theologians have always distinguished between the just and unjust war and have never left it to the judgment of the individual, with all his shortsightedness and emotionalism, to decide the justice of any given war. Instead, the final decision has been left to the legitimate authority.”
Willingness to surrender the determination of a war’s justice or injustice to an evil secular leader, most enlightened and sane people would agree, led to catastrophic consequences in the case of Adolf Hitler and WWII.
Adolf Bertram of Breslau, like Bishop Gröber denied knowledge of the existence of death camps. To lend credence to his claimed ignorance, Bertram cut off contact with members of the Jewish community in his diocese. The Church during the Third Reich, in his view, needed to exercise restraint in order to avoid jeopardizing national unity and to fulfill its central role of administering the sacraments. When in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht, (“the Night of Broken Glass”), Bertram addressed the Catholics of his diocese, he invoked Scripture to urge support of the Reich, saying: “There is no need to urge you to give respect and obedience to the new authorities of the German state. You all know the words of the apostle: ‘Let every man be subject to the powers placed over him. (Romans 13:1)’” In September 1939, the month WWII began, he ordered church celebrations to commemorate the unprovoked invasion of Poland and when news was received of the Nazi capture of Warsaw, he ordered church bells be rung across Germany. Gröber termed war with Poland a “holy war,” fought to enforce God’s will that Germany regain its land lost after WWI.
In April, 1940, as Jews were being transported en mass to concentration camps, Bishop Bertram sent a birthday letter to Hitler, assuring him of the sincere good wishes of his Catholic subjects. In April, 1945, after Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, Bertram presided at a solemn requiem Mass in commemoration of the Fuhrer’s life. Like Pius XII, Bishop Bertram did not, however, preside at a solemn requiem Mass for the many millions of the Fuhrer’s victims.
Michael Buchberger of Regensburg, among other things, claimed that Nazi racism directed at Jews was “justified self-defense” in the face of “overly powerful Jewish capital.”
Antonius Hilfrich of Limburg, opined that the true Christian religion “made its way not from the Jews but in spite of them.” He wrote in a 1939 pastoral letter: “The Jewish people were guilty of the murder of God and have been under a curse since the day of the crucifixion.”
Gordon C. Zahn, author of “German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars,” charged that official German Catholic support for the war reached its peak of dedication and enthusiasm in Catholic Military Bishop, Franz Josef Rarkowski. “Here,” Zahn wrote, “we find all the ultra-nationalist cliches and symbols that constitute the ‘myths men kill by’ in their fullest expression.” For example, at the beginning of the war, Bishop Rarkowski, in words filled with nationalistic fervor, declared:
“Comrades! In this serious hour when our German Volk (“People”) must undergo the trials of a test by fire in a struggle for its natural and God-given right to live…I turn to you soldiers who stand ready at the front and who bear the great and honorable responsibility of guarding and defending with the sword the life of the German nation.
“…Each of you knows what is at stake for our Volk in these stormy days; and, in whatever is asked of you, each sees before him the shining example of a true warrior, our Fuhrer and Supreme Commander, the first and most valiant soldier of the Greater German Reich, who is even now with you at the battlefront. We will never forget that first day of September when he issued his formal call to arms to the entire Volk. You, too, were somewhere out there – on the borders of the Reich or in the barracks or already marching forward on that memorable morning. Your ears and hearts were witness to that historic moment when the Fuhrer stepped before the whole Volk in his old military cloak of army gray. You heard his words and sensed in them that your Supreme Commander’s love and concern — though devoted as always to the entire Volk — is in a special sense with you soldiers of the German army in these trying hours. Thus the example of the Fuhrer stands before you in brilliant glory.”
Bishop Rarkowski’s rabid nationalism infused with religiosity was still evident during Lent of 1944, even as Germany’s defeat on the battlefield appeared more and more likely. He wrote:
“One must be clear about what this phrase means ‘to serve God.’ It would be completely wrong to interpret it as a turning away from the world. In order to serve God and to be able to do everything for God, there is certainly no need to flee from the world. Service to God is performed there, wherever one stands, wherever one has his job to do. It is a matter of seeing God’s will and a God-given task in whatever burden is placed upon one and the mastering of that task. In that all of us today, on the battlefront and in the Heimat (“love and attachment to the homeland”), do our very best in this hour of critical need in the service of our Volk; that each of us serving his Vaterland (“Fatherland”) dedicates his heart, his thoughts, his every power to the service of his Volk; that the soldier loyally and bravely follows the path set before him — therein lies the realization of the principle: ‘I wish to serve God.’”