Anti-Papal Catholicism & the Rise of Hitler
ANNE BARBEAU GARDINER
Derek Hastings says he wrote Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Idenitity and National Socialism [Oxford University Press, 2009] because “the earliest years of the Nazi movement in Munich have received startlingly little direct treatment.” His book focuses on the “prehistory” of Nazism, the years 1919 to 1923, when Hitler first rose to prominence in Catholic Munich. On September 12, 1919, Hitler became the 55th member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), the political wing of the anti-Semitic völkisch movement spreading across Germany. In February 1920 he was still a minor figure who couldn’t attract a large crowd on his own, but within a year he was addressing a mass meeting of students and workers in Munich and creating a “veritable orgy of völkisch unity.” Shortly thereafter, he resigned and rejoined the party on condition of wielding “sole power.”
Nearly all the Catholics discussed in this book abandoned Hitler after the Beerhall Putsch of November 1923. Hastings admits there is a “sharp discrepancy” between the Nazis discussed here and the Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s: “The young NSDAP was a far cry from the totalitarian anti-Catholic entity it would become once in power.” Indeed, he adds, “there is little doubt that Hitler was a staunch opponent of Christianity throughout the duration of the Third Reich.” And yet, Hastings wants to prove that Catholics gave Nazism its start.
Even the title Hastings has chosen is misleading. It would have been more accurate to call the book Anti-Papal Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism because the Catholics whom Hastings discusses rejected the pope and used religion to promote eugenics. Rather than referring to Nazi Catholics as “anti-papal,” Hastings calls them “anti-ultramontane,” “religious,” and “Reform” Catholics. These three adjectives were the euphemisms German Catholics used in that era to hide their hostility to Rome. Employing the same terms today obfuscates the truth, which is that these were disloyal Catholics.
Hastings admits that these Catholics were disciples of Johann Döllinger, a Munich theologian excommunicated in 1871 for refusing to accept Vatican I’s dogma of papal infallibility, and that they followed him in regarding loyalty to the pope as “anti-German” and in believing that Germans had to reinterpret Catholic theology for the modern age. In one respect they didn’t follow Döllinger: They saw that “a nationalistic reform of the church could best be brought about by remaining explicitly inside the church,” and hence they avoided excommunication “at all costs.”
Like certain of today’s politicians, these anti-papal Catholics professed their “religious loyalty” to the Church as a “broader spiritual community spanning the centuries.” Yet, through periodicals like the Beobachter they distanced their movement from the larger “anti-Christian” völkisch movement. Both the Jesuit Augustin Bea and Bavarian Minister of the Interior Franz Schweyer warned them about the anti-Christian “pathology” inherent in Nazism.
The terms Hastings uses to refer to Catholics who remained loyal to the pope — “ultramontane” or “political” Catholics — are not well understood today. Their use creates needless obscurity, such as when Hastings writes that Hans Huber’s “emphatic embrace of religious Catholicism, which was combined with a corresponding abhorrence of political Catholicism, was perhaps his most notable characteristic…. This translates to: “Huber’s contempt for papal authority was his chief characteristic.” So when Hastings speaks of an “initial Catholic-Nazi synthesis” in Munich, what he means is an “initial synthesis of anti-papal Catholics and Nazis.” Why doesn’t he say this? It seems he wants to implicate all Catholics in Munich, whether loyal or disloyal to Rome.
Those loyal to Rome tended to be members of the moderate Bayerische Volkspartei (BVP) and were accused by the anti-papal gang of consorting with Jews and atheists. Thus, in the early 1920s, there was a clear line of demarcation between the two kinds of Catholics in Munich. Hastings admits that only the anti-papal gang joined the Nazis, but his rhetoric draws a veil over this fact. He wants to prove that the “secular messianism and pseudo-sacral pageantry” that characterized Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s had its roots in the party’s early “Catholic” period. This claim is hardly convincing. We need only look back to the 1530s, when the English threw off papal authority in divine matters, to see how anti-papal “Catholicism” results in a pseudo-sacral pageantry intended to prop up the new political religion.
There is another problem with this book: Hastings tells us there is no “easily quantifiable source base” for the “religious identity” of the early Nazis in Munich, no early list providing “data on religious affiliation.” So his book focuses perforce on a few dozen individual Catholics among the Munich Nazis of 1919-1923. He concedes that other scholars, such as Björn Mensing and Guenter Lewy, have claimed that Protestants in Munich formed the majority of the NSDAP members. He never confutes them, yet he implies the exact opposite, that Catholics formed the majority. Besides this, he keeps repeating the term “numerous” for the priests who were members of the NSDAP. One waits in vain for even a ballpark figure.
Although Munich had a population of 600,000, the NSDAP had only 3,000 members in early fall 1922. At that point the party launched a membership drive in which Hitler was portrayed in “almost messianic terms.” By February 1923 membership reached 20,000, and by the fall 55,000. This increase, Hastings says, is usually attributed to “nationalist outrage over the French occupation of the Ruhr and growing despair over the inflationary crisis,” but he insists it was linked to the “Catholic-oriented” membership drive. It is true that on April 12, 1922, Hitler spoke at a mass meeting in Munich “about the impact of his own personal Catholic faith on his political activism, noting that it was his religious convictions in particular that compelled him to be a ruthless anti-Semite.” The NSDAP distributed this speech in great quantities. But only a year later, during the membership drive in question, Hitler was in the grip of what his follower Dietrich Eckart called a “messiah complex” and grew obsessed with the idea of forcing his way to power like Mussolini. To gain strength, he agreed in September 1923 to join a broad völkisch coalition directed by the “rabidly anti-Catholic” Erich Ludendorff and to relegate his “religious identity explicitly to the private sphere.” How expedient.
Context and distinctions
The NSDAP arose at a time of apocalyptic crisis. As Hastings explains, in spring 1919 there was a “brief but brutal Soviet experiment in Munich, in which Russian Jewish émigrés played an important part,” and in which hostages were murdered in the Luitpoldgymnasium. Many feared that a socialist government would be foisted on Munich “by a perceived cabal of Jews and atheists” in Kurt Eisner’s revolutionary socialist government. When Eisner proposed making religious instruction “optional,” Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, called on Catholics to rise up and oppose him. At this time even the members of the BVP sounded anti-Semitic, but a few months later they started making a “distinction between full-fledged racial hatred” and a Christian form of “anti-Jewish critique.” Their moderation led to the defection of the anti-papal Catholics from their ranks.
One such was Franz Schrönghamer, who contended that Jesus was not a Jew, thundered about the “coming epic battle” against “Jewish-Marxist forces of darkness,” and conceived of an interconfessional Germany using “race-based eugenic measures” to eliminate “non-Aryan influences.” Four others were Josef Müller, who emphasized the “common ground” between Christian religions and deplored “ultramontane political Catholicism” (i.e., loyalty to the pope); Herman Schell, who called for an opening up of the Church to modern culture, deplored ultramontanism, and demanded a more nationalistic, masculine type of Catholic identity (he has been dubbed the Hans Küng of his era); Dietrich Eckart, a journalist “uncompromising in opposition to the Jews” but “open to interconfessional cooperation”; and Franz Meisl, a priest demoted in his diocese in 1920 for his extreme anti-Semitism.
The saddest part of this book deals with priests like Alban Schachleiter, “a flamingly nationalistic Benedictine monk,” and Lorenz Pieper, a Reform (i.e., anti-papal) Catholic who gave speeches almost daily in 1923, foolishly convinced of “the fundamentally loyal Catholic identity of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, portraying them as heroic Christian warriors,” though the BVP kept insisting that Nazism was “at heart a pagan-oriented movement” attuned to the “openly anti-Christian völkisch movements elsewhere in Germany.” Some of the NSDAP priests whose sermons intertwined religion and nationalism had been soldiers or chaplains in World War I. Perhaps that was why they had no qualms about presiding over flag consecrations and militaristic commemorations of “fallen warriors.” Some priests even celebrated “paramilitary Masses” to the “choreographed rising and falling” of flags. Worst of all, in 1923 the priest Josef Roth, in the pages of the Beobachter, called for “a radical all-encompassing crusade that would, he admitted, likely victimize even pious and apparently law-abiding Jews, since Jewish immorality was ultimately ‘hereditary’.”
Fortunately, there was a mass exodus of Catholics from the NSDAP after the failure of the Beerhall Putsch of 1923. Catholics of all stripes — papal and anti-papal — were immediately labeled as traitors in the ensuing wave of anti-Catholic propaganda. Cardinal Faulhaber’s residence was vandalized and the priests who had engaged in Nazi activities were now reviled as “actors.” In their place, Protestant pastors like Martin Weigel emerged to bless Nazi flags with biblical phrases. Spokesmen for army-general-turned-politician Erich Ludendorff declared that peace with the Catholic Church was “as unthinkable as peace with France,” and that Hitler’s putsch had failed only because he had trusted Catholics. Soon the Nazis were holding up Martin Luther as “the quintessential national and spiritual hero” for his attacks on Rome. By 1926 Hitler himself was conducting flag-consecrations, and the Beobachter was gushing over the “personal sacramental touch” of his hand.
After 1923 the centre of the NSDAP moved from Munich to Protestant Franconia. The Catholics who followed Hitler from this point on apostatized: “There is evidence that those early Munich Catholics who chose to remain often felt compelled to abandon their Catholic convictions as a result.” For instance, Alfred Miller morphed from anti-papal Catholicism to “a mystical form of distinctly non-Christian Nordic religiosity.” Heinrich Himmler stopped attending Mass and became an “ardent” foe of Christianity. From 1925 on, “Nazi publicity turned increasingly against the Catholic Church,” targeting bishops and the papal nuncio Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII).
In conclusion, Hastings wants us to recognize “the important and very real role played by Nazi Catholic clergy and laypeople who, acting as Catholics and in pursuit of what they perceived to be a legitimate form of Catholic identity, were indeed central to the stabilization and spread of the early Nazi movement.” What? He wants us to agree that anti-papal Catholicism is a “legitimate form of Catholic identity”? No way. Papal authority since Vatican I is a dogma.
There’s an echo of 1920s Munich in contemporary America. The anti-papal Catholics in Munich of the early 1920s embraced eugenics, a movement aimed at eradicating Jews and other supposedly “inferior” races. Likewise, many anti-papal Catholics today embrace eugenics in the form of abortion “rights,” a movement aimed chiefly at eradicating preborn African-American babies and those who have disabilities or will be born into poverty. These modern-day anti-papal Catholics have been complicit in the deaths of some fifty million babies killed in American abortuaries since 1973, yet they pretend to the name of “Catholic.”
Someday, a future Derek Hastings may write a book called Catholicism and the Roots of Abortionism and implicate both loyal and anti-papal Catholics in the abortion holocaust. He will argue that the Ted Kennedys, Joe Bidens, and Nancy Pelosis of our era acted “as Catholics in pursuit of what they perceived to be a legitimate form of Catholic identity.” After all, he’ll argue, they were not publicly excommunicated.
Reprinted with the permission of New Oxford Review (July-August 2011). Sub-headings ours.