Review of 'German Catholicism at War' by Thomas Brodie

Review of Thomas Brodie, German Catholicism at War 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), History. The Journal of the Historical Association 107, Issue 374, January 2022, pp. 184-6.

Thomas Brodie’s engaging and eminently readable study of German Catholicism during the Second World War represents both a tour de force of highly original and meticulous scholarship, and an exceptional work of Alltagsgeschichte. Brodie provides his readers with a fully nuanced account of Catholic reactions to war and genocide, focusing on the heartlands of German Catholicism in the Rhineland and Westphalia. In so doing, he skilfully combines and interweaves a multiplicity of carefully-chosen sources which tellingly illuminate the attitudes of different sectors of the population within the overarching ‘Catholic milieu’ – focusing not only on the episcopate and higher clergy, but also exploring the experiences of parish priests and the laity. From this perspective, Brodie is concerned above all to highlight the immense complexity and contingency of ‘Catholic opinion’; this, then, was no unified milieu, but rather a multifaceted and contested sphere riven with differing attitudes, often determined by one’s urban or rural location, generation, or social station.

One of the book’s key aims is self-avowedly to call into question the convenient myth, created as a post-war political expedient in West Germany (and still prevalent in current Catholic historiography), that all German Catholics were victims of the National Socialist regime, and that Catholicism was utterly incompatible with Nazism. As the author points out, ‘the lived experience of Catholics in Aachen… suggests otherwise, with over 60 per cent of the city’s NSDAP members also belonging to the Church’ (p. 235). For instance, in Chapter 2, ‘Confrontation and its Limits’, Brodie sheds fresh light on the contemporary reception of Bishop von Galen’s notorious sermons from 1941, which criticised the regime and, most famously, the T4 euthanasia programme. The evidence suggests that, for all those Catholics who were roused to outrage, criticising the Nazi authorities, or refusing to perform the ‘German Greeting’ – one worker in Münster even publicly responded to the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute with the quip ‘What, the murderer!’ (p. 77) – there were many others who saw Galen’s protests as a form of ‘stab in the back’, treacherously weakening and destabilising the home front. Meanwhile, many younger clergymen also appear to have been keen to promote a more nationalistic, völkisch ‘reform’ agenda for Catholic theology, hoping to ‘“clean up”’ and ‘“send the grey and aged gentlemen [i.e. the older Bishops]… into retirement”’ (p. 123).

Brodie is equally sensitive to the ramifications of the ‘Hitler myth’ among the Catholic population. According to clerical informers employed by the Security Services, members of the clergy apparently discussed at great length rumours which had surfaced about the ‘“allegedly Christian behaviour of the Führer”’ – for instance, ‘that Hitler had, prior to the seizure of power, always taken time on Wednesdays to pray with his closest followers in a small room near Munich furnished with Catholic iconography’ (p. 103). And, while known anti-clerical figures among the Nazi elite, such as Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and the arch-ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, might be feared and slandered, National Socialist grandees who were widely supposed to have some sympathy for Christianity, such as Hermann Göring, who had married in church in 1935, found greater favour; indeed, they were often perceived as providing a potential bulwark against the regime’s anti-clerical excesses.

The structure of Brodie’s monograph follows a broadly chronological narrative, beginning with a pre-war prologue which delineates German Catholics’ mixed feelings of suspicion and admiration following the Nazi regime’s swift and unassailable rise to power. Chapter 1, ‘The Years of Victory, 1939-40’ then depicts Catholic attitudes to the outbreak of war and Germany’s early ‘successes’. While priests and bishops might on occasion attempt to minister to those Polish prisoners-of-war and forced labourers whom they encountered on German soil, they had few qualms about the persecution and mass slaughter of their co-religionists which took place during the invasion of Poland in 1939. Meanwhile, biblical warriors and saints were reinvented as role models for Catholic Wehrmacht soldiers, and the mobilisation of the Catholic welfare organisation Caritas, which employed 80 per cent of staff in the caring professions in Rhineland-Westphalia, was also crucial to the success of the National Socialist war effort.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 then move on to explore Catholic everyday life on the home front in greater detail, including the dissolution of clerical control and the experiences of dislocation engendered by the chaos of mass evacuation. Brodie convincingly debunks the post-war triumphalist narrative which claimed that wartime adversities had strengthened German Catholics’ faith, as well as reinforcing clerical influence. Rather, the boundaries of confessional identity were often eroded not only by mixed marriages, but also by the fact that evacuees in Protestant areas might begin to frequent Protestant churches if they were closer to hand, claiming that ‘“the sermon is just as nice” and “we all have the same God”’ (p. 188). Priests bemoaned the fragmentation of their flocks, and the ever-increasing difficulty of ministering to their far-flung parishioners effectively, complaining that ‘“only a few are up to the challenge of the diaspora”’ (p. 194). Many bemoaned the fact that their congregations appeared to prefer indulging worldly pleasures to performing their religious duty on a Sunday; for instance, evacuees from Cologne billeted near Wehlen ‘were only too willing to undertake a journey consisting of ten train stations to go to the cinema or the hairdressers in Dresden, while ignoring various opportunities to attend a Catholic service which was easier to reach’ (p. 195).

The final chapter, ‘Of Collapses and Rebirths’, which bisects traditional caesuras, focuses on the war’s end and aftermath, sketching the Church’s role in post-war politics, and its canny rehabilitation of whole swathes of the Catholic population. Elsewhere, Brodie also concludes that ‘wartime religious life reflected the on-going influence of sociological patterns established before 1939, with demographics within the Church milieu traditionally associated with high levels of devotion continuing to display this fidelity to the Church, but with the war also doing relatively little to consistently reconnect the clergy with laypeople who had previously displayed low levels of religious commitment’ (p. 160).

To conclude, then, German Catholicism at War is a highly accomplished, well-researched, and tautly-structured study of an unexpectedly unexplored aspect of the social and cultural history of the Third Reich. Not only is Brodie able to expose the failings of the Church leadership during this turbulent period without ever falling into the trap of sententious moralising; in this monograph, he has also managed to achieve for the Rhineland-Westphalian Catholic milieu what Kershaw and Broszat once achieved for Bavaria – a pioneering and above all rich depiction of the texture of everyday life – as well as a fully humanising exploration of the contradictions of maintaining religious belief during a time of genocidal dictatorship and total war.