From Enemy to Brother I: German Catholics and Nazis

This post will be the first in a three-part review of John Connelly’s book, From Enemy to Brother. The book is as controversial as it is enlightening, and I have no doubt that many Catholic scholars present a very different view of the history Connelly treats. I’d be grateful for reader comments and references to any relevant literature.

Connelly’s focus is Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council concerning relations with non-Catholic and non-Christian religions. The bulk of this text is dedicated to the Church’s view of the Jewish people, and its central messages are as follows:

  • Acknowledgement of the Church’s spiritual descendancy from “the stock of Abraham”
  • Attention to the words of St. Paul in Romans about God’s abiding love for the Jews and fulfillment of His promises to them
  • Insistence that the Jews as a people cannot be held responsible for the death of Christ, nor considered to be under a curse due to their role in His crucifixion
  • Condemnation of anti-Semitism
  • Hope for a day when “all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’”

Both in letter and in spirit, Connelly is keen to point out, Nostra Aetate stands in sharp contrast with the behavior and de facto teaching of the Catholic Church in the 1930s and 1940s. He paints a distressing picture of Nazi-era German Catholicism. Even while Nazis persecuted Catholics because of the Church’s treatment of humanity as universal and equal, Catholic leaders in German-speaking lands failed to articulate a stance against Nazi anti-Semitism and racism.

Indeed, many did just the opposite.  Connelly’s book abounds with examples of German Catholic support for the Nazi agenda. For example, the Jesuit Muckermann was an advocate and professor of eugenics, preaching the superiority of the “Nordic race.” Yet he was called upon by the Vatican to help the Church formulate teaching with regard to “race science.” Karl Adam, a widely read and popular Catholic theologian, advocated for a church as “a community that was alive and vital,” not stifled by hierarchy, and sought ties between German Catholic and Protestant communities. At the same time, he “portrayed Nazi-orchestrated boycotts of Jewish business as the fulfillment of Christian charity, acts of ‘Christian-German self-assertion’ aimed at stemming the ‘Jewish deluge.’”

These examples, Connelly argues, stemmed from an unholy alliance between Catholic and Nazi interests.  He writes:

Historians have long recognized an overlap of German Catholicism and Nazi racism that was grounded in joint concerns: anti-Marxism, anti-liberalism, anti-individualism, and the resulting attraction to a communitarian ethos.

These ideas inspired the large German Catholic youth movement, its communal life, and its push for liturgical reform. Furthermore,

The most seductive element of the racist syndrome that took root in German Catholicism, the word Volk, evoked blood kinship dating back to time immemorial, and took on particular resonance during World War I; as the hold of throne and monarchy on the German people waned, Volk became a new locus of political legitimacy. It grew especially dear to German Catholics who for decades were accused of loyalties divided between the Vatican and Berlin…. Volk stirred the Catholic imagination by mixing religious, ethnic, political, and cultural connotations in a radically new way.

At the forefront of this new German Catholic spirit was the idea of Church as a mystical body – a single, unified, sensual body that became identified with nationhood, and the German nation in particular. This focus on the body of the nation led to a peculiar understanding of Christian love. Connelly writes about the prominent Jesuit Provincial Georg Bichlmair:

According to Bichlmair, Christ had presented self-love as love’s highest form, and that was also true for ethnic groups. When Germans started thinking of themselves first, they would see that the Jewish question was a ‘question of right’ – their right…

It’s worth noting that Bichlmair was not, relatively speaking, a serious anti-Semite. Indeed he was persecuted by the Gestapo for assisting Jewish converts to Christianity. Similar views were expressed by other Catholic writers, such as the Swiss Jesuit Mario von Galli, and received little to no criticism from the reading public.

Connelly is clear that, while the Vatican did not propagate such teachings, it did little to disavow them or silence the speakers. He identifies two primary reasons for this. The first was that, in the early decades of the 20th century, racism and eugenics was widely regarded as a science, not only in Germany, but in much of the Western world – including the USA, where the eugenics movement was gaining influence. (Modern-day treatment of contraception and abortion as scientifically-based “health care” “comes to mind as an easy parallel.) The Church had had its run-ins with science a few centuries prior, Connelly points out, and did not wish once again to be so clumsy. Moreover, the Church’s own scientists, such as Muckermann, promoted the racist view, moderating it just enough to steer clear of the Church’s condemnation of forced sterilization and similar practices.

The second reason for the Vatican’s silence, Connelly argues, was a lack of appropriate language. The Nostra Aetate statement explicitly condemns the centuries-old understandings of the Jews as accursed murderers of Christ. This disavowal was necessary, and controversial: prior to Vatican II, the Church had not spoken about the Jews in any other way. Indeed, an encyclical prepared by Pius XI as late as 1938 (never released) included lines such as this: “Jewry… has frivolously sacrificed its exalted historical calling once and for all… lost the enveloping communal life in race by turning against its own precious blood and calling it in vengeance against itself and its children.”

This negative theology of the Jews was exacerbated by the German language itself. As Connelly points out, the German word Erbsünde, signifying original sin, “literally means ‘hereditary sin,’ passed from generation to generation.” The effects of this interpretation of original sin are evident in the case of Dr. Albert Niedermeyer, a leading German Catholic gynecologist. Both in his writing and in his medical practice, Nidermeyer staunchly opposed eugenic practices grounded in racism, which ultimately landed him in a concentration camp. Connelly writes:

Niedermeyer’s engagement with “the problem of racial hygiene” has led to a serious examination of the most central elements of Christian morality. In contrast to Karl Adam, Niedermeyer read the Thomist principle of grace presupposing nature in a way that permitted grace some independent power. Even those who were “severely retarded” could prevail over illness with the help of grace. […]

But when it comes to the Jews, Nidermeyer’s tune is rather different:

A Christian had to place Christ at the center of any thoughts on the Jews… If one really believed that Christ was God, then the magnitude of Jewish guilt for his crucifixion was “beyond imagining”… “The sign of Cain marks the awful treachery of this once noble people that is now despised among the peoples… even the most honest efforts cannot deny the basic fact that Jews have become repugnant, indeed frightening and sinister for other peoples.”


Niedermeyer condemned Jews who tried to escape punishment for killing Christ by “dishonestly” becoming Christians, and he demanded special scrutiny for converts. It was a delusion to think that baptism could suddenly erase Jews’ guilt for killing Christ.

The view that conversion to Christianity did not wash away the hereditary sin of killing Christ, Connelly emphasizes, was far from unique to Niedermeyer. Even the Jesuit Bichlmair, who was active in Catholic ministry to Jews and Jewish converts, held to it.

This belief in the Jewish curse, Connelly also points out, prevented Catholics –laymen, priests, and Vatican clerics alike – from taking a stance against Nazi anti-Semitic violence. If the misfortunes of the Jews are visited upon them by God, it cannot be the place of the Church to intervene – apparently, even when God’s will is being embodied by the Nazis, enemies of Catholicism.

How, then, did the Church’s thinking about the Jews change – too late, perhaps, but so significantly? Who changed it, how, and why? More on that in the next installment of this book review.

About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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2 Responses to From Enemy to Brother I: German Catholics and Nazis

  1. Doron says:

    Reuchlin’s “Recommendation whether to Confiscate,Destroy and Burn All Jewish Books”
    is highly recommended reading;both as a classic treatise against anti-Semitism and in and of itself,
    as an historical document of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany.
    A Hearty KolKadoshah Tovah! (15th Aug)

  2. Pingback: From Enemy to Brother II: The Converts | The Groom's Family

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