As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, Roman Catholic bishops in Germany have admitted the church’s complicity by not opposing the Nazis.
In a 23 page document, they say that they have decided to respond to critical questions about the role of the church in the war. They have adopted the role of judge over their predecessors saying no generation is free from time-based judgments and prejudices. But they say it is important to learn from history, for the present and the future.
On page 15 there is an unequivocal conclusion: “By the bishops not opposing the war with a clear “no”, but rather strengthening the will to hold on to it, they were complicit in the war.”
Bishop Dr Georg Batzing, President of the German bishops’ conference, presented the report in a video conference. In a statement, he warned: “We must not sit back, but carry the legacy into the future. This is all the more true given that Europe does not seem to be in a good state at the moment. The old spirit of divisiveness, the nationalism, ethnic (völkischen) thinking and authoritarian rule rise up in many places – including here in Germany. Those who have learned from history must face these tendencies with great determination. This also applies without ifs and buts for the Church committed to the gospel of peace and justice.”
He referred to a joint declaration from his predecessor, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, and the president of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) Council Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (January 27, 2020). They spoke of the behavior of Christians and churches during the Nazi era and the persecution of Jews:
“Occasionally, as in other parts of the German population, there was real heroism. We respect those who stand up against the racial madness and the system of misanthropy – sometimes even at the price of martyrdom. However, we must not overlook the fact that many Christians collaborated with the National Socialist regime, kept silent about the persecution of the Jews, or even encouraged it. Church leaders and representatives also often stood with their backs to the victims. There is no doubt: The churches in Germany must acknowledge this history of guilt. ”
In March this year, the Vatican allowed access to documents relating to Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church between 1939 and 1958, and has been criticised for silence and neutrality in the face of the holocaust, though the Vatican has always maintained that he worked quietly behind the scenes to save lives.
Professor Paul Weller from the Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations at the University of Coventry, a city at the heart of Anglo-German reconciliation. In 1940 more than 500 people died in a German bombing raid on Coventry which saw the destruction of the city’s Anglican cathedral. The city is now twinned with Dresden, where in February 1945, around 25,000 people died in a combined British and American raid.
“The Bishops’ statement marks another important milestone on the long road travelled by German Christians and ecclesial bodies in coming to terms with what was unleashed by the Second World War and in recognising the general failure of the Christian churches in Germany at a time of great challenge to their integrity. In confirming the failure of the German Catholic bishops in the past, it is arguably significant for all Christians of the present that the President of the German Episcopal Conference warned of the need to learn from that past in order to oppose the old demons of division, nationalism, “ethnic” thinking and authoritarian rule that was coming to the fore again in Europe.”