The relationship between the Catholic Church and the hierarchy in Nazi Germany was fraught with difficulties. It had seemingly started well after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January 1933. However, the breakdown started in 1936 and ended with many Catholic priests being imprisoned.
In July 1933, just six months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the Catholic Church signed the Concordat with Hitler. As a result of this agreement, the Catholic Church agreed not to oppose the political and social aims of the Nazi Party. Pope Pius XI hoped that the Concordat would allow the Catholic Church in Germany to operate free from any interference. He was soon to be disappointed.
Children were pressured into joining the Hitler Youth movement rather than stay in Catholic youth associations. An attempt was made to ban the crucifix in schools. From 1936 on, parents were pressured to withdraw their children from Catholic schools and place them in Nazi-approved schools. By 1939, most Catholic-based schools had disappeared in Nazi Germany.
In 1937, Pius XI was so concerned about the anti-Catholic activities of the Nazi regime that he wrote ‘With burning anxiety’ (Mit brennender Sorge) that was issued by the Vatican on March 14th 1937. It was read out to congregations in Catholic churches on March 21st 1937. ‘With burning anxiety’ criticised the Nazi government’s persecution of the Catholic Church. Pius XI criticised the state for putting ideological beliefs before Christian ones. Priests in Germany were warned not to criticise Hitler or the Nazi regime. However, individual priests did make a stand against the government and between 1939 and 1943, 693 Catholic priests were arrested and tried for “oppositional activity”.
In April 1940, the Pope received a communication from a Papal messenger in Berlin that priests were being openly hostile to the Nazi government:
“Some of the clergy have adopted an almost openly hostile attitude towards Germany at war, to the extent of wanting a complete defeat. This attitude arouses not only the displeasure of the Government but gradually that of the whole people, as they are almost all enthusiastic about their leader, which makes me afraid that a painful reaction will one day follow which will divide the clergy and even the Church from the people.”
The Papal messenger, Cesare Orsenigo, was known to be pro-fascist, but in April 1940, he would not have been guilty of exaggeration as the public was “almost all” enthusiastic about Hitler as Nazi Germany had been militarily very successful up to this point and the sustained bombing campaign against German cities had yet to start – total war had yet to hit Nazi Germany.
On August 3rd 1941 the Catholic Church in Germany made clear its stand against euthanasia. On this day the Bishop of Münster, Cardinal Count von Galen, stated very clearly where he believed all true Catholics stood on the issue:
“There are sacred obligations of conscience from which no one has the power to release us and which we must fulfil even if it costs us our lives. Never under any circumstances may a human being kill an innocent person apart from in war and legitimate self-defence.”
Galen then went on to highlight his suspicions regarding a major increase in deaths of mentally ill people who were in the care of the government. He also attempted to bring a lawsuit against those he deemed responsible under statute 139 of the penal code. Galen called on all German Catholics to give “immediate protection” to the mentally ill to save them from their fate. He condemned the authorities for labelling these people as “unproductive national comrades”.
“If you establish the principle that you can kill “unproductive” fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail. Then none of our lives will be safe anymore.”
Galen also stated in his sermon:
“Woe to Mankind! Woe to our German nation if God’s holy commandment, ‘thou shalt not kill’, inscribed in the conscience of mankind from the very beginning, is not only broken but this transgression is actually tolerated and unpunished.”
If this had been publicly stated before World War Two, Galen should have been considered a very brave man. However, Galen must have known that to make such a speech during the war would have been extremely provocative. Walter Tiessler who worked in the propaganda section of the Reich Chancellery, called on Martin Bormann to order Galen’s execution. In fact, Goebbels effectively saved Galen as he stated that only Hitler could order such an outcome. Goebbels also stated that Galen’s execution would offend and anger far too many people to make it of use to the Nazi hierarchy. He called on those angered by Galen’s sermon not to seek immediate revenge. “In politics one should know how to wait.”
On August 24th 1941, Hitler ordered the end of the euthanasia programme. However, it may be the case that it still continued but more covertly as the department created to carry it out continued after August 24th.