German bishops have condemned their predecessors during the Second World War for refusing to clearly oppose the atrocities of the Nazi era, describing their effective compliance as “particularly shameful”.
Their remarks came at the end of an in-depth study of the behaviour of their predecessors under the Nazi regime undertaken ahead of the seventy-fifth anniversary last week of the ending of the war in Europe.
The German bishops’ conference had been encouraged to undertake the study by repeated complaints that the Catholic bishops in Hitler’s Germany had left German Catholic soldiers alone to cope with the moral dilemma they were in at the time. T
he bishops came to the conclusion that despite individual opposition to Hitler on the part of one or two bishops, the Catholic Church remained part of society during the war. Its patriotic willingness to mobilise the Church’s material, personal and mental resources for the war effort remained unbroken until the very end, they say.
The German bishops never protested openly against the Nazi war effort , the bishops pointed out.
“And hardly a voice was raised against the monstrous crimes committed against people who were persecuted because they belonged to an ‘alien race’, especially the Jews.”
Individual bishops did protest, for instance against euthanasia, but Catholic soldiers who were confronted with the regime’s rampant violence at the various fronts and sought spiritual help could not turn to their bishops.
The present bishops come to the conclusion that as their predecessors did not clearly oppose the Nazi regime, they bore part of the blame, and they find this “particularly shameful”.
The president of Poland’s bishops’ conference praised the German bishops for reaffirming the guilt of their country and Church for Nazi wartime atrocities. “This is an exceptionally courageous unilateral act of guilt admission,” said Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki.
“Its bravery can be seen particularly where the German bishops speak of how much their Church formed an inseparable part of wartime society, and confess that it was thus entangled in the war.”
In a commentary for the Polish Church’s information agency, KAI, the archbishop said that he was aware the declaration had been “received with mixed feelings, but mostly silence” by German church groups.
However, he added that the German Church’s pastoral work had been directed at “serving the war”, with virtually no open protests against the Nazi euthanasia programme and extermination of Jews and Roma. Poland lost a third of its national wealth and a fifth of its population under the six-year Nazi occupation, including 90 per cent of its three million Jews and a fifth of its Catholic clergy.
However, in his KAI statement, the archbishop defended Pope Pius XII’s decision to stay silent during the Holocaust, saying: “Pius XII’s stance has proved more good can be done through helping victims than through expressing opposition – the only effect of which would have been to intensify the persecution.”