Historical Investigation to understand a troubling photograph

October 7, 2010

Investigation of Question 5: swastika-blessings in Germany

Filed under: — admin @ 8:11 pm

The Catholic bishops of Germany had long withstood Nazi efforts to secure Church blessings of the swastika flag. A detailed analysis of this subject is currently in process of review for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Thus far, no record has been found of any German bishop blessing a swastika flag in the years before Copello’s swastika-blessing.  To the contrary, evidence has been found in German language sources of a consistent policy of German bishops from 1923 onward, rejecting proposals for Church blessings of the swastika.  Key data points:

  • In 1924, the Catholic bishops conference of Bavaria adopted a decree prohibiting the consecration of political party flags, in the wake of Nazi requests for Church blessings of the Nazi party’s swastika flag.  See “Minutes of the Conference of the Bavarian Episcopate,” Sept. 9-10, 1924, Ludwig Volk, ed., Akten Kardinal von Faulhabers, vol. 1 (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1975), 346.

  • The previous year, the Diocese of Regensburg in Bavaria had publicly rejected a Nazi request for Church blessing of a swastika flag, on grounds that the swastika was a political symbol and the Nazi party was anti-Christian in nature.  See Kevin P. Spicer, Hitler’s Priests (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), 47, citing Völkischer Beobachter (the official Nazi newspaper),  June 12, 1923.
  • In the months following the Nazi party’s first nationwide electoral success in September 1930 (by which they became the second-largest party in the German parliament, the Reichstag), several regional conferences of German bishops condemned Nazi ideology and forbade Catholics to join the Nazi party.  The bishops of the Paderborn province denounced the swastika as “the battle standard against the cross of Christ,” and the Bavarian bishops expressly barred Nazi flags from churches.  See “Proclamation of the Bishops of the Paderborn Church Province,” March 17, 1931, Hans Müller, ed., Katholische Kirche und Nationalsozialismus (Munich: Nymphenburger, 1963), 28;  “Pastoral Instruction of the Bavarian Episcopate,” Feb. 10, 1931, Bernhard Stasiewski, ed., Akten Deutscher Bischöfe über die Lage der Kirche 1933-1945, vol. 1 (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald Verlag,  1968), 807-808.
  • Even during the temporary euphoria that greeted the signing of the Vatican-Germany Concordat in July 1933, the German bishops conference and the Bavarian bishops conference declined to authorize the consecration or blessing of the swastika flag, decreeing instead that the prior diocesan regulations remained in force.  “Minutes of the Plenary Conference of the German Episcopate,” Aug. 29-31, 1933, Stasiewski, op. cit., vol. 1, 337; “Minutes of the Conference of the Bavarian Bishops in Fulda on 30 August 1933,” Report No. 4277 from Archbishop Vassallo di Torregrossa to Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, Sept. 23, 1933, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Selected Records from the Vatican Archives 1865-1939,” Record Group 76.001, Reel 1, Pos. 171, Fasc. 20 (discussing accommodation of the swastika flag but “without the rite of consecration” – German: ohne Weiheritus).
  • One instance has been found thus far of a Catholic cleric blessing a swastika flag: Abbot Albanus Schachleiter blessed Nazi flags in Bavaria in 1923.  See Kevin P. Spicer, Hitler’s Priests (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), 47.  Schachleiter, however, was notoriously the most pro-Nazi cleric in Germany, repeatedly at odds with archdiocesan officials from 1922 onwards for his support of Nazism.  Ibid., 47, 52-56, 80-92.   As mentioned above, the Bavarian bishops as a group repudiated political flag blessings across-the-board in 1924.  Thus, Schachleiter’s swastika-blessing had neither the reality nor the appearance of an ecclesiastical blessing in the name of the Church.

In light of the evidence viewed as a whole, it appears that Copello’s photographed ceremony contravened a long-standing policy of the Catholic bishops in the country most directly concerned, namely Germany.  Copello’s swastika-blessing intruded into a controversial church-state issue, treading heavily on the toes of his brother bishops and fellow Catholics in Germany.

Did Catholics disproportionately vote for Hitler and the Nazi Party?

According to Protestant historian Klaus Scholder, Catholics voted for Nazi party candidates proportionately far less than did non-Catholic voters.  This pattern changed only in 1933, when the German bishops withdrew their prohibitions on Catholics joining the Nazi party, and the Vatican entered into the Concordat with Germany.  After the August 1934 plebiscite confirming Hitler as the successor to President Hindenburg (combining the President and Chancellor positions in one person, the “Führer”), the Vatican’s nuncio, or ambassador, in Berlin reported that Catholics voted for Hitler in approximately the same proportions as non-Catholics.

As concerns the value of the Copello swastika-blessing to the Nazis, the major point is that German Catholics responded to the leadership of bishops.  For a high-ranking prelate to break ranks at an important international Catholic event and bless a swastika was a serious step with potentially significant impact in Germany.

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