Historical Investigation to understand a troubling photograph

October 23, 2010

Possible Mitigating Factor: Early 1930s

Filed under: — admin @ 1:29 pm

Several reviewers have pointed out that in the first half of the 1930s people had not yet fully recognized the dangers of Nazi ideology.  This is an important point to consider in detail.  It is essential that we assess the actions of Archbishop Copello and others in light of what was known of the Nazis at that time,  rather than judging anachronistically based on what we know today.

Investigation of this point yields a surprising result.  To be sure, the full scope of Nazi evil was not yet apparent.  Hitler had signaled his intent to restore German greatness and unite the German-speaking peoples, thus posing a severe danger of aggressive war, but not yet the full danger of world-wide domination.  The Nazis had started persecuting  the Jews of Germany beginning in April 1933, so that a large-scale assault on human dignity was well underway, but it was not yet the full evil of mass extermination.

On the other hand, the evil of Nazi ideology was sufficiently apparent in the early 1930s  that some people did recognize a grave danger.  In fact, the people who most clearly and prominently warned of the dangers of Nazi ideology were the Catholic bishops of Germany. This is particularly significant when we are assessing the conduct of a Catholic archbishop — and of prelates in the Vatican who participated in elevating him to cardinal — all of whom had reason to be on notice of the position of their brother bishops on one of the most contentious and well-publicized matters of Church-State relations in the early 1930s.

How clear were the German bishops on this point?  Very clear.  By mid-1931, the majority of German bishops had publicly condemned Nazi ideology and had forbidden Catholics to join the Nazi party.  In 1932, the entire German bishops conference joined in this condemnation and prohibition.  The original German-language condemnations in pastoral letters of bishops have been reviewed in the course of this investigation.

How well publicized were the bishops’ warnings?  In September 1931 the bishops’ condemnation of Nazism became a major nationwide issue.  A Nazi gauleiter named Peter Gemeinder, the regional party boss for the province of Hesse, had died suddenly of a heart attack at the end of August.  He was a church-going Catholic, his wife was a member of the Catholic mothers’ guild, and his sons had been altar servers.  But his diocese, the Diocese of Mainz, denied him a Catholic funeral and Christian burial, because he had violated the public ban on Catholics joining the Nazi party.  The resulting imbroglio filled the pages of the Nazi press, the Catholic press, and the mainstream press across Germany.  Many of the articles were sent to the Vatican by its ambassador, or nuncio, in Berlin.

From 1931 to 1933, the Vatican and the German bishops were involved in deciding how firmly to apply the episcopal condemnations of Nazism, and specifically whether to deny the sacraments to Nazi party members.

The issue has striking similarity to the controversy that arose recently  in Catholic Church in the United States, when bishops discussed whether to deny the sacraments to supporters of legalized abortion.  The denial of a Catholic funeral for gauleiter Peter Gemeinder created the same type of public debate in Germany that one would expect to see in America had a Catholic funeral been denied to Edward Kennedy.  A headline in the Nazi party’s lead newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, proclaimed: “Impact of Mainz: Severe Conflict of Conscience for Catholic National Socialists.”  Another Nazi headline cried, “Spiritual Terror in Mainz.”  In the leading Catholic Center Party newspaper, Germania, appeared a piece one can easily imagine appearing in American Catholic journals, mutatis mutandis, today.  Under the headline “Konsequenzen,” Germania explained that Gemeinder had joined an organization whose policies were antithetical to the Christian faith and the Catholic Church, violating a clear policy announced previously by his diocese, which applied equally to small and great alike; thus his family and Nazi comrades were merely experiencing the consequences of his decisions. “In questions of principle” such as this, Germania editorialized, “the Catholic Church knows no compromise.”

How strong was the German bishops’ position against Nazism in the early 1930s?  At least as strong as, and probably stronger than, the American bishops’ position half a century later against abortion.  Even when the German bishops withdrew their prohibition on Catholics joining the Nazi party in March 1933, they expressly kept in place their warnings against Nazi ideology.

To be sure, events in 1933 — including withdrawal of prohibitions on Catholics joining the Nazi party, and the July 1933 signing of the Vatican-Germany Concordat — led to hopes in some quarters that the Nazis would moderate their ways, or that they could be kept within some bounds by means of legal restrictions such as those represented by the Concordat.

But such hopes were largely dashed by mid-1934, as the Nazis violated the Concordat, threw opponents into concentration camps, suppressed Catholic associations, and acted nationwide with brutal thuggishness.

Hitler’s lawless, brutal totalitarianism was fully displayed on June 30, 1934, the infamous “Night of the Long Knives,” when his henchmen in the SS and Gestapo killed hundreds of people whom Hitler viewed as rivals or threats to his power.

In light of the historical context of the time, including the German bishops’ 12-year consistent history of prohibiting blessings of the swastika flag, for an Argentine bishop to bless a swastika at an International Eucharistic Congress in 1934 was equivalent, for Americans today, to a foreign bishop blessing the  emblem of the National Abortion Rights Action League at a World Youth Day.

What is the chance that such a bishop would be elevated to cardinal?  Which brings us back to the question under investigation: how and why was Archbishop Copello elevated to cardinal five months after his swastika-blessing was published in the most widely-seen and vicious newspaper in Germany?

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