- Wehrmacht Priests: Catholicism and the Nazi War of Annihilation by Lauren Faulkner Rossi
Wehrmacht Priests explores the intersection of Roman Catholic faith and German national identity in the crucible of the Second World War. How was it possible, Faulkner Rossi asks, for some 17,000 German priests and seminarians to serve in Hitler’s army when Catholic ideology and National Socialism seem to have been so incompatible? In particular, how were these men able to wear the uniform, serving Hitler’s murderous regime in various capacities, while remaining committed to serving their Catholic communities? Faulkner Rossi seeks to understand why these men decided to serve, how they tried to harmonize their purported role in the military with actual wartime experiences, and how, after the war had ended, these same men justified their service.
Faulkner Rossi begins her examination of young Catholic German priests with the watershed events of 1919. Anxiety for the position of the Catholic Church in the new Weimar Republic soon surfaced: What would the new republic allow in regard to Catholic education and Catholic youth organizations? Many Church leaders began warning of a new Kulturkampf, referencing a time when Roman Catholics had been persecuted by Bismarck’s government in the 1870s and 1880s. Now, in the Weimar era, Catholic Church leaders made a conscious decision to protest when they believed that the government was infringing on Catholics’ religious rights and freedoms; however, they also decided that they would not push so hard as to end up leaving parishes with no clergy. This strategy of accommodation with the state would continue throughout the Weimar period and into the Nazi era.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Catholic Church leaders not only vehemently protested infringements of Catholic religious rights, but also inveighed against socialism and communism. Through vibrant youth movements, they encouraged young Catholics to engage in combating the evils of Bolshevism. With the rise of the Nazi Party, Church leaders also had to address the often anti-Catholic actions of Hitler’s followers, causing some of the leaders to see in Nazism a threat almost as grave as that of Bolshevism. Once Hitler had seized power, however, his pronouncements endorsing “positive Christianity,” combined with the signing of a concordat with the Vatican in 1933, led many Catholics to the erroneous conclusion that they could work with the Nazi regime and that a new Kulturkampf had been avoided. [End Page 139]
By the time war erupted in 1939, the German Catholic Church hierarchy had witnessed seemingly endless violations of the Concordat: the Nazi press lambasted priests and nuns, and the Catholic youth organizations were dissolved. Hundreds of Polish Catholic priests were murdered in 1939. Even so, with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, many Church leaders rallied to support the military action because it meant fighting against the spread of “atheistic Bolshevism.” Many Church leaders, and many young men studying to become priests, remained loyal and obedient to the Nazi regime despite its continued anti-Catholic rhetoric and actions. Once they found themselves conscripted into Hitler’s army they came under the leadership of Reich Catholic Field Bishop Franz Justus Rarkowski and his field vicar-general, Georg Werthmann.
Faulkner Rossi points out that these men saw their work as essential to providing pastoral care and administering the sacraments to Catholic souls in the German armed forces. They were therefore willing to work within the parameters set by the Nazi and military authorities. By most accounts, Rarkowski was extremely nationalistic, easily swayed by cheap flattery, and more than willing to please his superiors. Werthmann, by contrast, emerged as the true leader of Catholic military pastoral care, as he was willing to negotiate, or even fight, with Party members and military superiors to protect priests, seminarians, and chaplains in uniform. Yet Werthmann did not question the Nazi regime’s larger goals, or its treatment of Jews or Soviet POWs (p. 81); he saw compromise with the Nazi regime as a necessary means to protecting Catholic souls from damnation and...