Between God and Hitler: Military Chaplains in Nazi Germany

  • By Doris L. Bergen
  • Cambridge University Press
  • 334 pp.

Did men of the cloth have blood on their hands?

Between God and Hitler: Military Chaplains in Nazi Germany

Doris L. Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, has written in Between God and Hitler a monumental, unique volume focusing on the difficulties military chaplains attached to the Nazi regime faced both during World War II and in peacetime.

There has been much debate among Holocaust historians and religious authorities about the moral and physical behavior of such chaplains. The big picture includes, on the Catholic side, the ongoing debate about the papacy’s complicity in, if not committing genocidal acts, then in remaining silent in the face of such acts being committed. Brown University historian David I. Kertzer, in The Pope at War and The Pope and Mussolini, chronicles the research showing that Pope Pius XII, who’d been a cardinal in Germany in the early 1930s, refused to publicly call out the atrocities of the Holocaust for fear of tarnishing the Vatican’s reputation as being staunchly anti-Communism. The pope’s supporters claim he worked behind the scenes to stop the bloodshed, but events — including the 1943 deportation of Rome’s Jews to Auschwitz — indicate otherwise.

The history of military chaplains in Nazi Germany is even more complicated by the fact that Hitler, although born and baptized Roman Catholic, was largely irreligious. Although somewhat neutral to Protestant clergymen, he was unsympathetic to any type of Catholic protest — from the church or elsewhere — against his plan to rid Europe of its Jewish population.

Many of the Third Reich’s WWII battlefield clergy had also been chaplains in World War I and justified the Wehrmacht’s treatment of Jews as being no different or more barbaric than the Soviets’ treatment of Jews or even their own prisoners of war. Bergen uses chaplains’ private letters to great effect in illustrating their various responses to the unholy slaughter happening around them. While some men of the cloth were sympathetic to the Jews’ plight — and risked their own lives to hide or otherwise aid them — most appear to have embraced the ideology that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, had his blood on their hands, and deserved no solace.

This sobering reality makes the few pastors’ small acts of resistance both more poignant and more futile, such as this example from Vichy France. When a Wehrmacht general asked a German chaplain what he thought of the general’s role in shipping Jews east to certain death in concentration camps, the chaplain replied, “You are only doing your job.” Angrily, the general then said, “You know what I mean,” to which the chaplain responded, “It could not be justified.” In this moment, anyway, the chastisement was enough to make the general leave his role filling trains with human cargo in favor of serving the Führer from a more remote outpost.          

Another section of Bergen’s book focuses on how the Reich’s surviving chaplains were treated in Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s postwar Germany. In general — and in keeping with the fractured country’s lack of appetite for additional Nuremberg-like prosecutions and punishments — members of the clergy weren’t interrogated (or even really questioned) about their actions during the war.

Kertzer’s books, like others concerned with the Vatican’s role in World War II, makes it abundantly clear that, from 1933 to 1945, the Catholic Church saw its remit as ministering to its flock while remaining officially neutral in an attempt to protect clergy and parishioners alike from the rise of Hitler’s fascism. Significantly, Pope Pius XI had been disturbed enough about unfolding events to write a damning encyclical against Kristallnacht and other Nazi abuses but died before he could release it. His successor, Pius XII, likely read but pocketed it for fear of the possible backlash against German Catholics.

Whether that pontiff’s silence amounted to complicity will be for readers — aided by Bergen’s deeply researched, diligently documented case histories — to decide.

Andrew M. Mayer is professor emeritus of humanities and history at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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