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Resisting the Third Reich: The Catholic Clergy in Hitler's Berlin.

Resisting the Third Reich: The Catholic Clergy in Hitler's Berlin. By Kevin R. Spicer. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004. xi + 253 pp. $36.00 cloth.

This well-documented study describes the relationship between the Berlin Catholic clergy and National Socialism from Hitler's accession to power in 1933 to the end of World War II in 1945.

Although Nazi ideology in many ways ran contrary to Catholic teaching, the author argues that the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church was unable to launch concerted resistance to Nazism for a number of reasons. The Concordat between the Vatican and Germany signed in June 1933, six months after the Nazi takeover, protected the prerogatives of the Church. But therein lay the problem: the Church considered itself complete in itself, so it could not critique, much less resist, the overwhelming power of the state. Besides, the Concordat specifically forbade Catholic clergy from participating in politics.

The fear of Bolshevism was another reason for Catholic complicity with National Socialism. After all, the Nazi party program had declared that it stood for "positive Christianity," and however that was defined or perceived, it certainly was to be preferred to "godless Communism." Also, church leaders accepted an intellectual inheritance that was politically conservative and heavily nationalistic. This nationalism, dating back to the nineteenth century and exacerbated by the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, played a great part in the unwillingness of the Church to speak a critical word to the regime. Associated with this nationalism was racism, targeted specifically at the Jews.

In the early days of the Third Reich, in light of the Nazi affirmation of the Christian foundation of the party and the promise of protection and noninterference in church affairs, resistance seemed to be unnecessary. After Hitler consolidated his power, after each segment of German society was "incorporated" into the Nazi program, and after various provisions of the Concordat were disregarded by the state--which occasioned Pius XI's encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge--Catholic churchmen began to consider some form of resistance. But this resistance was not communal and was by and large confined to a few church leaders. It centered mostly on Nazi encroachments on the Church's turf. Some clergy decried the Nazi euthanasia program, and this was effective, but few spoke out against the persecution of the Jews, and at no time did the Church seek to overthrow the regime.

Tracing the Catholic leadership, Spicer notes its inconsistency. The first Berlin bishop when Hitler came to power, Bishop Christian Schreiber, hesitated to condemn the Nazi world view; as did Msgr. Paul Steinmann, who was interim leader of the diocese after Schreiber's death; as did Bishop Nicholas Bares, who succeeded Schreiber. Only Bishop Konrad Preysing, who came to Berlin in 1935, tried to encourage the Berlin priests to offer some kind of resistance when the state tried to interfere in church affairs, or when it was engaged in patently immoral actions. Unfortunately, the Fulda bishops' conference, which included all the German hierarchy, gave Preysing little or no support. The head of the conference, Adolf Cardinal Bertram, was especially weak in speaking against Nazi ideology. Nor did Pope Pius XI and Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican secretary of state and later Pope Pins XII, provide guidance and guidelines. In effect, each priest had to work out his own modus vivendi of being faithful in the face of Nazi ideology. Spicer devotes a chapter to one such priest, Bernhard Lichtenberg, who publicly countered anti-Semitism, prayed for Jews, and eventually was executed by the state for his heroic stand.

The author maintains that the existence of the Church "constituted a formidable pattern of resistance against the state." This he sees in the clergy providing pastoral ministry, and their "social presence also acted as an interior countermeasure to the pervasive hegemony of Nazi doctrines" (185). I do not quite know what that means unless he is saying that, like the evangelical (Protestant) churches, the Catholic Church refused to be incorporated into the Nazi state in the same way that the German universities and schools, the German legal profession, German business, the German theater and German art, the German army or the German trade unions were.

The author makes little mention of the evangelical churches in his story of church resistance, although he notes that Bishop Schreiber at one point called on Protestants and even Jews to fight the godlessness of Bolshevism. Nevertheless, Catholics and Protestants were rivals, and in this climate of competition each thought the other would complete the Reformation or the Counter Reformation through Hitler. So both confessions courted him. It would seem that the so-called Confessing Church, the church of Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would deserve some mention.

An extensive bibliography, covering eighteen pages, including archival sources, personal interviews, newspaper and journal articles and published works, as well as several pages of photographs of church leaders and church activities, are included.

Resisting the Third Reich is a valuable contribution to the literature of the struggle of the Catholic Church to maintain its faithfulness in the face of a powerful totalitarian state.

Arthur A. Preisinger

Texas Lutheran University
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Author:Preisinger, Arthur A.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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