Shaken by Germany’s military defeat in War World I, the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty, and the social and economic turbulence of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, most Germans yearned for better days, including restoration of their nation’s dignity and power. In this context Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party, with its promise of strong central leadership, a better way of life, and Germany’s reascendance to its rightful place of prominence on the world stage, attracted many supporters. Among the most zealous were Catholic clergymen.
According to Kevin P. Spicer, author of “Hitler’s Priests, Catholic Clergy and National Socialism” there were, at least, 138 priests — 109 diocesan priests from Germany, nineteen ordained members of religious orders and ten priests from dioceses outside Germany —who actively promoted National Socialism. Known as “brown priests” (brown being the color of the Nazi movement) some of them joined the Nazi party and fully embraced Hitler’s policies. Many of them saw no contradiction between Jesus’ Gospel of Love and their devotion to Hitler. Fr. Richard Kleine, one of the brown priests, for example, wrote:
“Since I was a child a burning love for my German Volk (“People”) and fatherland has been part of me… the relationship between the Church and Germany has been especially important to me. I am one of those who firmly believed that the National Socialist movement stood for the national and social future of my Volk and was altogether the superior alternative to the Communist-Bolshevist ideology. I trusted… that Christian presence and cooperation in this movement could enhance Christian thought.”
Some brown priests, particularly war veterans, advocated National Socialism, according to Spicer, because it appealed to their sense of patriotism. Others had less laudatory motives: disaffection with clerical life, conflicts with church superiors, or ambition for personal power and fame. Whatever their individual motives, they used their skills as orators, writers, and teachers to advance Nazism. Especially during the early 1930s, when the Church forbade membership in the Nazi party, these priests strove to prove that Catholicism was compatible with National Socialism. Father Dr. Philipp Haeuser, a scholar and pastor, went so far as to promote anti-Semitism while seemingly deifying Adolf Hitler. The Fuehrer’s anti-Semitism, Spicer argues, did not deter clergymen such as Haeuser because, although the Church officially opposed Nazism’s extreme racism, its 1900 plus year doctrine of anti-Judaism actually encouraged hostility toward Jews.
Spicer cites another cleric, Abbot Albanus Schachleiter, who, to the end of life, continued to regard himself as both a pious Catholic and as a devoted supporter of National Socialism, including its virulent brand of anti-Semitism. Schachleiter, the author relates, felt a genuine spiritual distress when his bishop temporarily withdrew his priestly faculties and denied him Holy Communion. This contrasts with Fr. Josef Roth, who abandoned the priesthood, joined the Nazi bureaucracy, and vehemently attacked his former Church as effeminate and Jewish. To him, Christian good works were “weakness,” and his Christ was a “heroic strongman.”
While most German clerics were not enthusiastic supporters of Hitler’s regime and some heroically opposed it, the vast majority fell somewhere along the continuum between the two positions.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of “A Moral Awakening, The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair,” speculates about what role Catholic clergy could have played in Nazi Germany:
“If Pius XI and Pius XII, church leaders and lower clergy had used their pulpits and their enormous number of newspapers and diocesan publications with their huge, faithful readerships in Germany and around Europe to declare anti-Semitism a vicious delusion and to denounce the persecution of the Jews as a grievous crime and sin, then the political history of Europe would have been different, and the fate of the Jews much better.”
Anti-Semitism among Catholic clergy, however, was by no mean exclusive to Germany, as a 1939 editorial in the Hungarian fascist party newspaper “Arrow Cross” demonstrates. In the editorial, an unnamed Hungarian priest wrote:
“In places where priests are murdered, the educated are slaughtered, and churches are burnt; that is where the Jew is to be found. Even if no Jew is actually there in a physical sense, his presence is represented there by his venomous literary works. Like naked spirits they drift all over the world, and by means of their filthy moral concepts, their distorted philosophy, and their base artistic schools, they spread their revolting ideas. Their sullied views corrupt the world.”
In June, 1944 as Hungarian Jews were being rounded up and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, an article appeared in the Arrow Cross newspaper in the town of Veszprem announcing an upcoming thanksgiving prayer service. It read:
“With the help of Divine Providence our ancient city and province have been liberated from that Judaism which sullied our nation. In our thousand years, this is not the first time we have been freed from some scourge which had befallen us. However no previous event can compare in its importance to this event, for no previous foe threatening us, whether by force or by a political takeover, had ever succeeded in overcoming us to the extent that the Jews have succeeded, with the aid of their poisoned roots which penetrated our national body and took hold of it. We are following in the footsteps of our fathers in coming to express our thanks to our God who saves us whenever we are in distress. Come and gather for the thanksgiving service which will take place on June 25 at 11:30 AM at the Franciscan Church.”
Another unnamed Hungarian priest, at the height of the 1944 killing frenzy in Hungary, wrote: “Ever since the Jews crucified Jesus, they have been the foes of Christianity. May the Jews be expelled from Hungary, and then the Church, too, will be able to breathe more freely”
In May, 1941, an article written by a Croatian priest entitled “Why Are the Jews Persecuted?” appeared in the diocesan newspaper of his bishop Ivan Saric. It stated:
“The descendants of those who hated Jesus, persecuted him to death, crucified him and persecuted his disciples, are guilty of sins greater than (those of) their forebears. Jewish greed increases. The Jews have led Europe and the world towards disaster—moral and economic disaster. Their appetite grows till only domination of the world will satisfy it…Satan aided them in the invention of Socialism and Communism. There is a limit to love. The movement of liberation of the world from the Jews is a movement for the renewal of human dignity. Omniscient and omnipotent God stands behind this movement.” (Emphasis mine)
A priest in Kowel (Ukraine), preached a homily in May, 1942, in which he excused Catholics from performing Corporal Works of Mercy for Jews. He stated:“Dear merciful people, I beg you and warn you, do not give a piece of bread to a Jew…No trace of a Jew is to remain. We should erase them from the face of the earth. When the last Jew disappears from the face of the earth, we shall win the war.”