George A. Sprecace M.D.,
J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New
Catholics and the Nazis
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
Catholics and the Nazis
Religion's Role in the Third Reich
ROME, DEC. 5, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Church is often criticized for not
having done enough to oppose Hitler. In his recent trip to England and
Scotland, Benedict XVI took the opportunity to present the other side
of the situation, reminding people of the anti-religious nature of the
"I also recall the regime's attitude to Christian pastors and religious
who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that
opposition with their lives," he told the Queen Elizabeth II and others
at the state reception in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Pope's depiction of the Nazis as being atheistic and wanting to
eradicate God from society was not accepted by all. In a Sept. 16 press
release Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Society,
denied that it was the atheism of the Nazis that led to their extreme
A book published earlier this year sheds some light on the question of
religion and the Nazis. In "Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism"
(Oxford University Press), Derek Hastings shows how in the early years
there was indeed a strong Catholic element in the Nazi movement. He
also affirms that there was a sharp discrepancy between the nature of
the Nazi regime in power in the 1930s and 1940s and the early movement
in Munich in the years following World War I.
"Despite the occasional maintenance of a conciliatory facade, there is
little question that the Nazi party exhibited a broad antipathy toward
the Catholic Church -- and, in many ways, toward Christianity more
generally -- for most of the duration of the Third Reich," commented
He noted that numerous historians have argued compellingly that after
the Nazis assumed power in 1933 the party should best be viewed as a
sort of political religion and as a rival form of secular devotion that
strove to supplant Catholic or Christian identity.
The Nazi party was founded in 1919, in Munich. In the period from 1919
to the failed Beer Hall Putsch (overthrow) in Munich in 1923, the Nazis
openly courted Catholics. Their openness to Catholicism enabled the
Nazis to gain supporters and to stand out from other popular movements.
In the aftermath of the 1923 failure, which saw Hitler briefly
imprisoned, the Nazi movement was re-founded in 1925 in a way that left
little room for its earlier Catholic orientation.
Hastings explained that this Catholic link to the Nazis during the
first years was due to some local factors not typical for the rest of
Germany. Support for the Bavarian People's Party (BVP) was much lower
in Munich and the surrounding region of upper Bavaria than in any other
Catholic area in the country. Instead they tended to support folk-based
movements with a more nationalistic streak.
Another distinguishing feature among Catholics in Munich and the
surrounding areas was their hostility to what they saw as an excessive
ultramontanism by the BVP and the bishops of the Church. The
ultramontane movement, Hastings explained, came about in the 18th and
19th centuries as Catholics in Europe increasingly looked to the Pope
who resided "over the mountains" (ultra montes).
In the decade before World War I there was a Catholic Reform movement
in region around Munich consisting in a push for a new form of
religious identity that was loyal to the Catholic Church in a spiritual
sense, but more open to a radically nationalistic political and
cultural course, Hastings observed. The Nazis were able to take
advantage of these local tendencies, combined with the general
disillusionment following World War I, to appeal to Catholics in the
initial stages of their development.
By 1923, the Nazis had obtained the support of many thousands of
Catholics in and around Munich, Hastings noted. At first, the BVP
ignored the new party, probably motivated by a desire not to give it
greater publicity. By late 1922, seeing the growing numbers of
adherents to the Nazi party, the BVP decided to embark on a campaign to
make Bavarians aware of the dangerous nature of the Nazis.
This did not deter the Nazis from courting Catholics and, according to
Hastings, 1923 was the high point of their efforts. That year they set
off on a membership drive designed to draw Catholics into their party.
Their efforts were successful, even to the point where numerous
Catholic priests became involved.
In speeches at the time, Hitler openly referred to his Catholic faith
and the influence it had had on his political activism. In 1923, the
Nazi newspaper, the Beobachter, even started publishing Sunday Mass
times and exhorted its readers to fulfill their religious obligations.
This closeness between Catholics and the Nazi party came to a sudden
end, however, with the the Beer Hall Putsch in November of that year.
Hitler's attempt to seize control of the Bavarian state ended in rapid
failure and the Nazi movement entered a period of division and decline,
This coincided with an upsurge in anti-Catholicism in the other folk
movements in Munich that also affected part of the Nazi party.
According to Hastings, in this period many Catholics left the Nazi
party, and those who remained did so by sacrificing their Catholic
identity. The Catholic priests who had joined the party also left. In
fact, in the fall of 1923 the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising had
forbidden them from attending meetings of the Nazi party.
Once re-founded, the previous Catholic orientation was reversed and in
large part replaced Christianity with its own set of martyr figures
drawn from the failed putsch. From that time too Hitler no longer
portrayed himself as a believing Catholic or even as an advocate of
Christianity, Hastings affirmed.
With time the Nazi movement became more and more overtly anti-Catholic
to the point where the Nazis strongly opposed the establishment of a
concordat between Bavaria and the Vatican. They were also openly
critical of the papal nuncio Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the future
Pope Pius XII. The German bishops were frequently attacked in Nazi
publications, particularly Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, who just
prior to the 1923 putsch had spoken out in defense of the Jews.
On the issue of Nazi anti-Semitism and the influence of Catholics,
Hastings noted that in the early years the Nazi movement drew on New
Testament imagery -- such as Christ's driving the money-changers out of
the Temple -- in their propaganda. At this stage, however, the Nazi
ideology was still not fully defined, and as it took more definitive
shape in later years it became a much purer and overtly secular form of
By the early 1930s, especially after the official ecclesiastical
condemnations, Hastings argued that the mutual exclusivity of the
Catholic and Nazi worldviews came into clearer focus.
In conclusion, Hastings said that while it is necessary to recognize
the very real role played by Catholic clergy and laypeople in the early
Nazi movement, at the same time there are not grounds for an indictment
of Catholicism as an institution or set of ideas.
Moreover, the cohabitation between Nazi and Catholic identities
disappeared in what Hastings termed, "the flood of anti-Catholic
invective that washed over the fractured movement in the wake of the
This cohabitation became an early victim of Hitler's increasingly
messianic political ambition, Hastings related. What does become clear,
both from Hastings and other accounts, is that the horrible excesses of
the Nazi regime were in spite of, and not because of, any Catholic