THE Roman Catholic bishops of Germany have confessed the complicity of their predecessors in the Second World War, in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender. The document “German Bishops in the World War”, presented in a video press conference from Bonn, lists failures by the bishops of the Nazi era to oppose tyranny and give protection to those who needed it.
“By not opposing the war with a clear ‘No’, but by strengthening the will to persevere, most of the bishops made themselves complicit in the war,” the 23-page declaration of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference states.
Introducing the document, the new chairman of the Conference, the Bishop of Limburg, Dr Georg Bätzing, said: “What did the Catholic bishops think about the war? In this respect, there is — so many say — a ‘memory gap’, probably also a ‘confessional gap’.
“They had allowed themselves to become too involved in the war and left many Catholic soldiers alone in their misery. We — today’s bishops — want to deal with this accusation,” he said; but it was not easy for today’s bishops to judge their predecessors.
The Bishop of Hildersheim, Dr Heiner Wilmer, who chairs the German Justitia et Pax Commission, explained that from the multitude of “undisputed historical facts” about the Bishops’ attitude towards the war “a picture of entanglement” emerged.
“Despite all their inner distance from National Socialism, and, at times, also open opposition, the Catholic Church in Germany was part of the wartime society,” he concluded. He said that the focus of the new evaluation was the sufferings of their own people, and admitted that “the suffering of others was not sufficiently considered.”
The research was conducted by the Commission for Contemporary History, on behalf of the Justitia et Pax Commission. They also consulted the Polish and French Bishops’ Conferences, whose countries particularly suffered under Nazi occupation.
An investigation into the behaviour of the German bishops in the 1930s and ’40s had been called for repeatedly over the years, most recently in a letter that the German RC theologian Professor Heinrich Missalla addressed to the Bishops’ Conference shortly before his death in 2018. He demanded on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the war “an open and honest confession of the problematic behaviour of the bishops of that time towards Hitler’s war”. The RC movements Pax Christi and We Are Church supported this call.
Dr Bätzing warned that, 75 years on, Europe was not in a good state, and the Church had a mission. “The old monster of division, nationalism, ‘ethnic’ thinking, and authoritarian rule is raising its head in many places, including here in Germany. Those who have learned from history must counter these tendencies with great determination. This applies without ifs and buts also to the Church, which is committed to the gospel of peace and justice.”