On July 20, 1933, at a formal ceremony in Rome, only six months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) on behalf of Pope Pius XI, signed the Reich Concordat between Nazi Germany and the Vatican, making it the first treaty between the new regime and a sovereign state. At the time, approximately thirty thousand people were interned in German concentration camps. In the photo above, Vice-Chancellor Franz Von Papen, who signed on behalf of Hitler, is to the right of Pacelli, seated in the middle, with Reich minister Rudolf Buttmann to the left. Von Papen, also a Roman Catholic, assured Cardinal Pacelli that the rights of the Church in the Third Reich would be respected. Although Pius XI and Pacelli were skeptical of that assurance, believing that Hitler might violate certain provisions of the Concordat, they hoped the agreement, on balance, would stabilize the Church’s position in Germany, restoring it to the more favorable status it enjoyed before the onset of WWI, particularly from 1878 to 1890. During the ensuing 12 years of the Third Reich, Hitler did, in fact, flagrantly violate the Concordat, confirming Pius IX and Pacelli’s skepticism.
The Reich Concordat, patterned after the Lateran Treaty of 1929 between the Vatican and Fascist Italy, granted freedom of religious practice to German Catholics; and granted to the German Catholic Church, among other rights, freedom to operate parochial schools, religious associations, and a Catholic press without state interference. In return, the Church agreed not to interfere in secular matters, which, in effect, banned organized Catholic political activity in the Third Reich. Pius XII’s critics contend that by entering the Concordat, the Church essentially granted German Catholics its imprimatur to cooperate with the new regime, and even to join the Nazi party. It should be noted that relatively few Catholics voted for Nazi party candidates during parliamentary elections between 1930 and 1933, and even fewer joined the Nazi party.
One unfortunate consequence of the Concordat, at Hitler’s insistence, was the disbanding of the Catholic Center Party, formed in 1870 when Bismarck was chancellor of newly unified Germany. In 1919 the Center Party, one of the major parties of the Weimar Republic, polled 6M votes, second only to the Social Democrats. Occupying the contested middle ground of post-WWI Germany’s political spectrum during the escalating social and economic chaos of the period, it provided five chancellors in the ten governments from 1919 to 1933 and served as a democratic counterbalance to more extreme parties on the left and right . The Center Party, among other things, opposed legislation targeting Jews, and its leaders consistently rejected the gutter anti-Semitism that increasingly infected public discourse as the German economy soured.
Hitler, an astute politician, was well aware of the Reich Concordat’s symbolic value. In a letter dated July 23, 1933, he wrote: “The fact that the Vatican is concluding a treaty with the new Germany means the acknowledgement of the National Socialist state by the Catholic Church. This treaty shows the whole world clearly and unequivocally that the assertion that National Socialism is hostile to religion is a lie.”
John Cornwell, in his book “Hitler’s Pope,The Secret History of Pius XII” relates that at a meeting with his ministers after its signing, Hitler listed the advantages of the Concordat and emphasized, in particular, Vatican recognition of the one nationalist German state, and banning Catholics from membership in political organizations. Hitler, moreover, opined that the Concordat had created an atmosphere of confidence that would be “especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry.”
According to Cornwell, Pacelli’s primary interest in negotiating the Concordat was to advance the Church’s institutional interests, in general, and to enhance papal power, in particular, but, tragically and, in retrospect predictably, making a pact with the devil resulted in negative consequences. Cornwell describes the Concordat’s effect:
“…Seeking a concordat between the Reich and the Vatican, Pacelli betrayed the millions of Catholic supporters of the Catholic Center Party by signing an agreement with Hitler that resulted in a ban on political activity by members of the church. It was the only democratic party left in Germany and with its disbanding, Hitler became the supreme leader of the country. Nothing stood in his way; the Vatican had even become the first state to recognize his odious regime, giving it tacit approval by its Reich Concordat…”
James Carroll, author of “Constantine’s Sword, the Church and the Jews,” charges that in negotiating and signing the Concordat, the future Pius XII, in effect, capitulated to Hitler, thereby enabling Nazism to rise unopposed by “the most powerful Catholic community in the world.” Clearly, Hitler prized the Vatican’s endorsement because it established the Third Reich’s legitimacy at home and abroad. Carroll writes:
“…In these early months of 1933, Catholic leaders went from being Hitler’s staunch opponents to his latest allies. This transformation was dramatically symbolized by the fact that in 1932, the Fulda Episcopal Conference, representing the Catholic hierarchy of Germany, banned membership in the Nazi Party and forbade priests from offering communion to anyone wearing the swastika; then, on March 28, 1933, two weeks after Pacelli offered his overture to Hitler, the same Fulda conferees voted to lift the ban on Catholic membership in the Nazi Party. The bishops expressed, as they put it, ‘a certain confidence in the new government, subject to reservations concerning some religious and moral lapses’…”
Carroll, who termed the Concordat a “foundation stone of the holocaust,” maintains that Pacelli elevated Catholic institutional self-interest above Catholic conscience, acting more like a politician than a prophet. As a consequence, Catholic opposition to future Nazi excesses was blunted, if not, neutered.
In his New Year’s message on January 1, 1934, Hitler declared:
“While we destroyed the (Catholic) Center Party, we have not only brought thousands of priests back into the Church, but to millions of respectable people we have restored their faith in their religion and in their priests. The union of the (Protestant) Evangelical Church in a single Church for the whole Reich (the Deutsche Christen Church), the Concordat with the Catholic Church, these are but milestones on the road which leads to the establishment of a useful relation and a useful co-operation between the Reich and the two Confessions.”
“I know that here and there the objection has been raised: Yes, but you have deserted Christianity. No, it is not that we have deserted Christianity; it is those who came before us who deserted Christianity. We have only carried through a clear division between politics, which have to do with terrestrial things, and religion, which must concern itself with the celestial sphere. There has been no interference with the doctrine of the Confessions or with their religious freedom, nor will there be any such interference. On the contrary the State protects religion, though always on the one condition that religion will not be used as a cover for political ends.”
“There may have been a time when even parties founded on the ecclesiastical basis were a necessity. At that time Liberalism was opposed to the Church, while Marxism was anti-religious. But that time is past. National Socialism neither opposes the church, nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary, it stands on the ground of a real Christianity.”
Pius XII’s critics, John Cornwell and James Carroll among them, speculate that if the liberal Catholic Center Party had continued to exist in Germany, and if the Pope, as Vicar of Christ, had functioned as a beacon of morality and justice, Hitler’s rise to absolute power might have been delayed or, perhaps, even prevented. Instead, according to Cornwell, the Reich Concordat ensured that whatever Catholic resistance to Nazism arose would be “isolated and impotent;” and thus the way was clearer for the Nazi regime to pursue, unfettered, its racist policies and virtual conquest of Europe. The Concordat for Hitler, in short, was an early, much needed, diplomatic and strategic victory which made him, in the colorful language of the German term, “salonfahig” (“fit for association with decent people”).