- Wehrmacht Priests: Catholicism and the Nazi War of Annihilation by Lauren Faulkner Rossi
Military chaplains serve two masters: God and the state. Not infrequently conflicts arise between the loyalties demanded by each, especially in times of war. This was particularly the case in Nazi Germany, whose rulers launched a criminal onslaught that brought devastation and death to millions of victims, especially in Eastern Europe. Lauren Faulkner Rossi’s scholarly analysis of the experience of the Catholic priests who were conscripted to serve in the German army or Wehrmacht is highly illuminating of the dilemmas they faced and the compromises they made. This examination of the role of the Catholic clergy in the German armed forces is a pioneering study, which takes us beyond the earlier account by Kevin Spicer, Hitler’s Priests (DeKalb, IL, 2008), which was concerned only with the handful of bigoted and fractious clerical devotees to National Socialism. Rossi, by contrast, seeks to study the behavior of the several thousand Catholic priests or future [End Page 950] priests, who were recruited from the diocesan clergy, the seminarians, and even the older students of Catholic theological schools. This is the first comprehensive study in English and is marked by a determined commitment not to follow the defensive and apologetic stance adopted by so many Catholic historians in Germany over the past seven decades.
When Hitler took power in 1933 he supported the re-established military chaplaincy for three reasons: first, because religion to him was a critical element in cultivating loyalty and motivating soldiers; second, the chaplaincy was a means of control over the troops, and third, it was a vehicle for imputing nationalistic loyalties for the sake of enhancing Germany’s historic civilization. The Vatican was also intensely interested in the future of the Catholic military chaplaincy. The Reich Concordat between the Holy See and the new Nazi government that was signed in July 1933 contained explicit directions for the future governance of this chaplaincy. It made this service directly responsible to the pope and gave the chaplains independence from any guidance or authority from the local German bishops. It also included a secret clause for the possible reintroduction of military conscription whereby Catholic clergy would be directed to the pastoral care of the troops or else drafted into the army’s medical service.
This agreement cleared the way for the appointment of the Catholic field bishop, Franz Justus Rarkowski who, although not a Nazi Party member, was known as an ardent supporter of the chief planks of Nazi ideology—particularly the restoration of Germany’s greatness, the strident opposition to Bolshevism, and the drive to enhance German racial purity that included its antisemitic component. Rarkowski’s appointment was, however, opposed by several of the diocesan German bishops who felt he lacked the necessary academic qualifications for episcopal rank. He was never invited to the regular meetings of the German Catholic hierarchy and in fact proved to be an ineffectual leader, unable to take a strong stand in defense of his agency. He was rated to be weak and easily controlled, and suffered from bouts of ill health that led to his retirement in early 1945. Georg Werthmann, his deputy or field vicar-general, was a much stauncher character. Fortunately, he survived the 1945 disaster and took refuge in a Bavarian monastery. During his internment there, he drafted a large series of notes about the chaplaincy, which were to be used for a future book. These extensive notes have survived and have provided Rossi with a “treasure trove” that she has lucidly and skillfully exploited.
These sources give us a clear indication of the numbers involved, which were astonishingly miniscule. The total number of Catholic priests in the chaplaincy was only 545, including those who were taken prisoner or were dismissed. The highest number in the field at any one time was only 390 in summer 1941. Given the fact that millions of young Germans, many of them Catholics, were conscripted, this...