The Catholic Church in Germany has admitted making itself ‘complicit in the war’ by not opposing the Nazi regime, a new report reveals.
For decades the Catholic Church has been accused of staying silent over the crimes of the Nazis and even acting to ‘bolster’ the Third Reich.
In response, the Church has long defended World War II’s Pope Pius XII and avoided saying the ecclesiastical institutions failed.
But a new report from the council of Catholic bishops in Germany describes how bishops ‘made themselves complicit in the war’ by not clearly opposing Adolf Hitler.
It also says that bishops did not share the Fuhrer’s racial ideology, but they still helped support ‘both soldiers and the regime’.
The report into the role of bishops between 1939 and 1945 states hundreds of priests accompanied the Wehrmacht on the front-lines to offer spiritual guidance, according to The Times.
It also says thousands of church properties were converted into military hospitals, and tens of thousands of nuns carried out their ‘duty to the fatherland’ by working as nurses.
The 23-page document does not address the period before the Second World War and Hitler’s rise to power when he was appointed chancellor in January 1933.
It states: ‘Inasmuch as the bishops did not oppose the war with a clear ”no”, and most of them bolstered the [German nation’s] will to endure, they made themselves complicit in the war.
‘The bishops may not have shared the Nazis’ justification for the war on the grounds of racial ideology, but their words and their images gave succour both to soldiers and the regime prosecuting the war, as they lent the war an additional sense of purpose.’
Some Jewish groups and historians have said Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, did not denounce Hitler during the Holocaust and did not do enough to save lives.
He has been accused of doing little to help those facing persecution by Nazi Germany and failing to speak out forcefully against the Holocaust, in which around six million Jews were killed.
His defenders at the Vatican and beyond say he used quiet diplomacy and encouraged convents and other religious institutes to hide Jews.
On March 2 the Vatican opened up its archives on the wartime pontiff to allow scholars to probe the accusations he turned a blind eye.
When Pope Francis announced the opening of the archives last year, he said the Church was ‘not afraid of history’.
But this new report, released days before the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, was described by one prelate as a ‘confession of guilt’.
It states that when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, bishops were ‘faced with the question of how they would conduct themselves in the war’, with all but one calling for their followers to do their patriotic duty.
Monsignor Cesare Orsenigo, the Vatican ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, ‘was frankly jubilant’ over his election, according to some historians.
Orsenigo said Hitler saw Christianity as essential to private life and the German state and saw the co-operation of the Nazis as essential for the German Church to defeat Bolshevism, which had persecuted the religion in Russia.
On July 20, 1933, the Vatican signed an agreement with Nazi Germany that set the parameters of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the newly formed government.
The Concordat was Hitler’s first international agreement and it vastly enhanced his respectability in Germany and around the world.
The new report argues many were motivated by nationalism and anti-communist sentiment and sought to preserve the Church by avoiding a confrontation with the state.
Right Rev Heiner Wilmer, bishop of Hildesheim and head of the conference’s foreign affairs committee, said: ‘For all its ”inner distance” from Nazism and its sometimes open opposition, the Catholic church in Germany was part of a society at war.
‘Even if we can perceive that the bishops’ perspective on events shifted over the course of the war, they did not pay enough attention to the suffering of others.’
Three months after VE Day, the bishops issued a statement acknowledging that ‘many Germans, including from our ranks, let themselves be beguiled by the false lessons of Nazism’.
But the Church also denounced the Nuremberg trials against leading Nazis in 1946 as an un-Christian act of revenge.
And on Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939, churches flew swastika flags and prayed for the ‘Fosterer and Protector of the Reich’.
Pope Benedict XVI, who himself served in the Hitler Youth as a boy in Nazi Germany and is a defender of Pope Pius, accelerated the process to open the archives ahead of schedule so that researchers could have their say.
But he also moved Pius one step closer to possible sainthood in December 2009, when he confirmed that Pius lived a life of ‘heroic’ Christian virtue. All that is needed now is for the Vatican to determine a ‘miracle’ occurred.
Pope Francis said in 2014 that the miracle had not been identified, suggesting that the process would remain on hold, at least for now.
Father Norbert Hofmann, the top Vatican official in charge of religious relations with Jews, said in March: ‘I don’t think you will find a smoking gun. Pius XII was a diplomat and he was a very shy character and a very, very cautious man.’
Officials warned that the process of studying the millions of pages of documents from six different archives will be measured in years, not days, weeks or months, and will require patience.
The documentation includes the archives from the Pius secretariat of state – the main organ of church governance, which includes the Vatican´s foreign relations with other countries – as well as those of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, and the Vatican office responsible for mission territories.
The CDF documents, for example, include case files of priests disciplined for pro-Nazi political activity, said Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Giménez, archivist at the doctrine office.
Studying of the papal documents was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak when Italy went into lockdown on February 21.