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The Swastika and the Cross

Seventy-one years ago, in September of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thereby precipitating the outbreak of WW II. The National Socialist ideology is often presented as an ideology of the “extreme right.” Not infrequently it is even claimed that Hitler’s Nazi program grew out of the cultural heritage of Christianity to which the charge of anti-Semitism is all too reflexively imputed. Such claims are an obfuscation, lacking historical grounds. In reality, National Socialism, like its leftist bedfellow, Communism, was an archenemy of Christianity; its hostility meant martyrs’ deaths for millions of Christians as well as Jews.

Hitler–godless from his youth

All of Hitler’s biographers agree that, though born into a Catholic family, the future leader of the Third Reich had already estranged himself from the Church when he ceased to practice the faith as a schoolboy. An Austrian researcher of the future dictator’s (pre-1914) Vienna years observes that while living in the Austro-Hungarian capital, Hitler never went to church; nor did he have any sacramental life. As the leader of the Third Reich openly admitted in 1942: “By the age of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, I no longer believed in anything. None of my school friends believed in so-called communion except for a handful of dullards! Only I was of the opinion then that the whole thing ought to be blown to smithereens.” A friend of Hitler in his youth recalled that as early as 1908 the future author of Mein Kampf declared: “All these world churches are foreign to the soul of the nation. Church devotion is also alien from the racial point of view. Why, the people do not even understand its language! Everything is permeated with mysticism….The Church wants to rule the world….To free the German nation from this yoke is one of the cultural tasks of the future.”

On the other hand, the young Hitler was fascinated by neo-pagan “Aryan” ideologies, whose exaltation of the “German master race” went hand in hand with an undisguised hostility toward Catholicism. According to these ideologies, it was not only the Jews who stood in the way of Aryan purity but also the “cosmopolitan” Catholic Church (including those “implacable foes of all things German” — the Jesuits). “Belief in God — Hitler used to say — must be shed like milk teeth.”

Anti-Catholicism remained a characteristic facet of Hitler’s thought to the end of his life. After gaining power in 1933, he did not hide his conviction that the Church was one of his principal enemies. Herman Rauschning, a one-time close collaborator of Hitler, kept notes of the latter’s private reflections. In one of his conversations, the leader of the Third Reich criticized Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. The Iron Chancellor’s biggest mistake, in his opinion, was in trying to deal with Catholicism through “statutory articles and Prussian sergeants.” “To really get at the monks — the Fuehrer confided to his colleagues — you have to use ridicule and scorn and direct them at the “people and youth.”

It is significant that the anti-Catholicism of Hitler’s elite was closely linked to a fascination with the occult. Heinrich Himmler, for example, immersed himself in astrology. The leader of the SS also had a keen interest in the Far Eastern religions, including Buddhism. (He even dispatched a special expedition to Tibet where it was to make contact with the incumbent Dalai Lama.) An American researcher of Hitler’s private library (it was seized by the Americans in 1945) has discovered that the collection includes a large number of occult publications, including books containing photographs of “spirits” summoned up with the aid of “spinning stools.”

“A new German Church”

Alfred Rosenberg, National Socialism’s chief ideologue after Hitler, also exhibited a strong hostility to Christianity. Together with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, his book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, was required reading for all members of the NSDAP. After 1933, it became one of the ideological compendiums of the “Thousand-Year Reich.”

In the pages of his work, Rosenberg writes: “The churches of all denominations proclaim, ‘faith shapes the man.’ (…) But the Nordic-European Religion proclaims, consciously or not, ‘man shapes his faith’ or, more precisely, man determines the content and the kind of faith he avows.” The chief ideologue of National Socialism also advocated the creation in Germany of a “People’s Church” (Volkskirche), whose main task would be to guard “national honor” and “German Christianity.”

National Socialism rejected the core belief confessed by the Church at every Mass: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come in glory.” According to Rosenberg: “Jesus appears to us today as a self-aware Master….What is important to the German people is His life, and not His death as glorified by the Alpine and Mediterranean races.”

The author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century was quite explicit in his rejection of the redemptive sacrifice of the Son of God (of which Christ’s death on the cross was an essential part). Quite simply, he rejected the Sacrifice of the Cross: “In the churches that will be handed down to it, the German Church (die Deutsche Kirche) will gradually replace the crucifix with an image of a hero in his highest manifestation.”

The intention was clear: the ultimate goal of National Socialism was the elimination in Germany of the Catholic faith and Christianity in general. In their place would arise a Nordic religion avowed by the people — a “German Church.” Thus, its founder was to be man, and not a divine Savior, who — according to Rosenberg — represented nothing more than a “self-aware Master.”

Anthropocentrism lies at the root of the Nazi ideology. Man is deified — but Man of “pure race” according to the criteria set by the National Socialists. Alluding to Christ’s words spoken at the Last Supper and repeated by the Church at the consecration of the wine (“Let us proclaim the mystery of faith!”), Rosenberg writes in The Myth of the Twentieth Century: “A new faith (eine neue Glaube) is arising: a ‘myth’ of blood; a belief that the divine nature of man will become manifest through blood; a belief based on the clear knowledge that it is Nordic blood that represents the Mystery, which has triumphed over the old sacraments and superseded them.”

The Catholic Church says “No!”

In 1934 Rosenberg’s book found itself on Rome’s Index, a list of forbidden books, which the Apostolic See deemed dangerous to the faith and morals of Catholics. We will have more to say on the Holy See’s reaction to Nazi ideology later. But first let us consider the response of the Church in Germany.

Is it possible that the Catholic Church in Germany failed to perceive the danger of National Socialism? Did she perhaps see the Nazi movement as a conservative movement that gave hope to the idea of Germany’s moral rebirth?

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even before Hitler’s accession to power, the German Church had no illusions as to the real character of National Socialism — i.e., its hostility to Christianity. In Bavaria especially — the birthplace of Hitlerism and where Hitler’s failed putsch took place in Munich in 1923) — the Church entertained no doubts in this regard. On February 11, 1931, the Bavarian episcopate directed a pastoral letter to the faithful in which we read: “There are heresies in the cultural program of National Socialism, for it either rejects or wrongly interprets central doctrinal tenets of the Catholic faith. What is more, as its leaders themselves declare, it seeks to replace the Christian faith with a new concept of the world. The leadership of National Socialism puts race above religion. It rejects the revelation of the Old Testament and even the Decalogue of Moses…. Article 24 of the National Socialist program holds that Christian moral law, which is eternally true, should be adapted to the moral sentiment of the German race….On the basis of the public statements of the [Nazi] party and its leaders we can clearly assert that what National Socialism calls Christianity is not the Christianity that comes to us from Christ.”

A year after Hitler’s accession to power, the entire German episcopate addressed the faithful in their letter of June 1934. The letter categorically deplored the National Socialist policy of isolating the Church from the social life of the Germans. At the same time it pointed to the pagan roots of the Hitlerite movement. Referring to the Nazi idea of a “German Christianity” or “German religion,” the Church in Germany warned her faithful: “It is a rebellion against Christ, the Savior of the world, when modern pagans demand another, national, German Church with its own teaching and morality; when in the place of the holy liturgy of the One Universal Church they seek to introduce ancient, artificially resuscitated folk rites.”

Correctly understanding the message of this pastoral letter of the German bishops, the Nazi authorities immediately responded by banning its publication. The Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Faulhaber, publically protested against this censorship of church documents in the Third Reich. The German bishops submitted their next joint pastoral letter on August 20, 1936. In it, they stated that, “the scope of operation of Christianity and the Church is constantly narrowing, to the point that [the Church] is being enclosed within the walls of its own places of worship.”

 Individual German bishops also condemned the Third Reich’s organized campaign against the Church. Thus, in the pastoral letter of Bishop Gröber of Freiburg im Breizgau dated December 31, 1936, we read: “With great anguish and deep distress we have been forced to observe in recent months that the taunts directed against the Church and Christianity are greatly increasing in strength and animus. A few conciliatory words and incidents cannot change this irrefutable fact, for we can clearly see the direction of the struggle waged by our adversaries, and we must consider the odd day of calm as but a pause in the struggle, a temporary truce–not a cessation of hostilities and an onset of a happy state of peace.”

The Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen, also took an unyielding stand against Hitlerism. For his public uncompromising criticism of Hitler’s genocidal policies during WW II, he was styled the “Lion of Münster.” Yet even prior to 1939, this courageous prelate ran afoul of the National Socialist authorities when he opposed a planned visit to his Episcopal seat by the Third Reich’s chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg. In retaliation, Nazi storm troopers attacked Bishop von Galen’s residence.

The Holy See’s attitude toward Nazi ideology was equally as uncompromising. In May of 1935, during an audience with German pilgrims, Pope Pius XI observed: “Everything is being done to destroy Christian and Catholic life in Germany….So-called ‘positive Christianity’ is seeking to de-Christianize Germany and plunge her back into barbaric paganism.” Three months later, in August of 1935, the Holy Father spoke to pilgrims from Trier about the “war against God — against Jesus Christ” then taking place in Germany. He characterized it as “a struggle in the name of a new paganism.”

“A cross hostile to the cross of Christ”

When, in May of 1938, Hitler made an official visit to Rome to see his political crony Benito Mussolini, Pius XI purposely left the Eternal City for the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. He did this to avoid the necessity of meeting the leader of the Third Reich. Yet from his summer residence Pius XI did not pass up the opportunity to respond to Hitler’s sojourn on the Tiber and the attendant celebrations organized by the Italian Fascist authorities. (The entire city of Rome was decorated with flags bearing the Nazi swastika.) “Among these sad things,” Pius XI observed, “there is yet another: without any need at all, they have hoisted the sign of another cross throughout Rome — a cross that is not the cross of Christ. This is enough to be able to understand how much we need to pray, pray, and pray.” During his last Christmas message to the world (December 24, 1938), Pius XI spoke of a “cross hostile to the cross of Christ” (un croce nemica della Croce di Cristo).

Even before National Socialism came to power in Germany, the Holy See reminded the world of the Church’s traditional teaching by condemning all manner of hatred motivated by race, including anti-Semitism. Since racially motivated anti-Semitism was one of the pillars of Nazi ideology, such pronouncements carried a special significance. On March 25, 1928, Rome issued a decree from the Holy Office (the most important Vatican dicastery responsible for the purity of Catholic doctrine). Among other things it stated that, “it has been custom of the Catholic Church always to pray for the Jewish people as the guardian of God’s promises until the coming of Jesus Christ, despite their later blindness — or rather because of it. Moved by this spirit of love, the Holy See has defended this people against unjust oppression, and even as we reject all manner of strife and hostility between nations, so especially do we condemn hatred against a nation formerly chosen by God — a hatred that today goes by the name of anti-Semitism.”

Ten years later, on April 13, 1938, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Seminaries and Universities dispatched a letter to the rectors of all Catholic universities. It detailed a list of modern philosophical and anthropological errors that were to be especially avoided at Catholic places of learning. Among these, racism held a prominent place.

Pope XI frequently spoke about the sin of anti-Semitism. On September 6, 1938, for example, at an audience with Belgian Catholic radio workers, he commented on the words of the canon of the Holy Mass referring to the sacrifice of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek. “Notice,” he observed, “that Abraham is called our patriarch, our ancestor. Anti-Semitism is at odds with the thought and sublime reality expressed in this text. It is a loathsome movement, a movement in which we Christians may not take any part….No; it is not possible for Christians to participate in anti-Semitism. We recognize a people’s right to defend itself, to seek means of defending itself against anything that threatens its lawful interests. But anti-Semitism is impermissible. Spiritually we are all Semites.”

Pius XI’s “deep anguish”

Pope Pius XI’s most comprehensive condemnation of National Socialist ideology found its expression in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, which he directed to the Church in Germany in 1937. As with every encyclical, it clearly bore the authority of the universal Magisterium. Once again, the Holy Father rejected racism. He also made reference to the so-called Führerprinzip — that almost divine cult accorded to the Fuehrer. “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community — however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things–whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds” (MBS, 8).

The encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge also rejected the principle of “legal positivism” — that is, the principle of state law overriding the eternal norms of natural law; and hence the principle, which in the National Socialist conditions of the Third Reich, led to such travesties as the so-called Nuremberg Laws. Laws legally ratified by the German parliament, yet trampling the natural law and the inalienable dignity of the human person! We read in Pius XI’s encyclical: “As God’s sun shines on every human face so His law knows neither privilege nor exception….From the fullness of the Creator’s right there naturally arises the fullness of His right to be obeyed by individuals and communities, whoever they are. This obedience permeates all branches of activity in which moral values claim harmony with the law of God, and pervades all integration of the ever-changing laws of man into the immutable laws of God” (MBS, 10).

Elsewhere, rejecting the notion that what is good for the “Thousand-Year Reich” was morally right, the Pope observed: “‘Nothing can be useful, if it is not at the same time morally good.’ […] Emancipated from this oral rule, the principle would in international law carry a perpetual state of war between nations; for it ignores in national life, by confusion of right and utility, the basic fact that man as a person possesses rights he holds from God, and which any collectivity must protect against denial, suppression or neglect” (MBS, 30).

The Nazi authorities responded by banning the publication of Mit Brennender Sorge. Printing houses and Catholic newspapers ignoring the ban were summarily closed (twelve publishing houses in the Maintz diocese alone). In one of their reports on the publication of the encyclical, the Gestapo stated outright: “There can now be no peace between the National Socialist state and the Catholic Church. The totalitarian character [sic!) of the Church’s claims constitutes a direct challenge to the State authorities.”

The Third Reich: old and new methods of struggle with the Church

If we are to believe Hermann Rauschning’s memoir of the Nazi leader’s private reflections, Adolf Hitler criticized Bismarck for not taking the bull by the horns in dealing with the Catholic Church. “Ridicule and scorn” directed at the “people and youth” was the course he advocated.

But before consolidating his power in Germany and ridding himself of his rivals within the ranks of the NSDAP (the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” of June 30, 1934), Hitler needed an understanding with the Church. In July of 1934 he signed his concordat with the Holy See. In signing this accord, the Vatican earnestly hoped that it the Church in Germany would be spared further attacks by the National Socialist press and that Catholicism would not be subjected to official State policy.

A year later, when Hitler’s political position in Germany and the NSDAP was totally assured, it became apparent that the Church’s hopes had been in vain. Already in 1933, the Nazi authorities began systematically to isolate the Church from public life — exactly as Hitler had stated in his private conversations — above all in the areas of education and information. Catholic Action and other German Catholic associations and political parties (notably “Centrum”) were suppressed. By the decree of September 1, 1936, all German youth organizations fell within the virtual control of the Nazi state. All young Germans were forced to join the Hitlerjugend. In February of 1939, all remaining Catholic youth organizations were dissolved by decree. Young Germans in the Hitler Youth were forced to sing songs, which included this one: “We are the happy Hitler Youth./ We have no need of Christian virtue,/ For our leader is Adolf Hitler/ And he is our Savior and Mediator.”

The Third Reich permitted nothing but state or ideologically correct teaching. In 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, the Nazi authorities ordered the closing of all church-run schools and educational facilities (both Catholic and Evangelical). In 1933 there had been around fifteen thousand of such facilities throughout Germany.

Repression also visited the German Catholic press. When Hitler came to power in January of 1933, there were 400 functioning Catholic press titles in Germany (by comparison, the Nazis had only 120). In April of 1935, the Nazi authorities forbade daily newspapers from running articles with religious content. This amounted to the liquidation of Catholic dailies; meanwhile, those Catholic periodicals that remained on the market were subjected to constant harassment and repression. In the years 1934-1939, their number in Germany fell from 435 to 124 (74 publications were closed by the authorities, over 170 were denied their allotment of paper, which also amounted to closure).

Yet another of the Fuehrer’s guiding principles was put into practice. On his collaborators Hitler had enjoined “ridicule and scorn” of the Church. Beginning in 1935, and especially after the publication of the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, the Nazi press mounted tireless smear campaigns against the Catholic clergy. Vulgar anti-Semitism joined hands with an equally brutal anti-Catholicism. Priests were charged with every misdemeanor imaginable: from debauchery to trading in foreign currencies. Such a role was played in Bolshevik Russia by the publication The Atheist. Its counterpart in the Third Reich was Der Stürmer, which featured vulgar caricatures of Jews and Catholic priests.

Others were no worse. After Germany’s Anschluss of Austria in March of 1938, Der Schwarze Korps, the press organ of the SS, ran lurid revelations about moral improprieties rampant in the Benedictine abbeys of Styria, Austria: “The cleric, who is anti-national, uninterested in the fate of the people, morally depraved, inimical to the state, and criminal, is neither desirable, nor worthy of administering goods that ought to belong to the German people. To deprive the cleric of these goods is not to deprive him of anything that rightfully belongs to him. Moreover, he received this fortune from his princes to administer them in the interests of his people, and certainly not to live an un-Christian life in luxury and debauchery.” (To be continued)

Grzegorz Kucharczyk

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in August 2016.

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