Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

1988-10-20 German speaking bishops - Accepting The Burden Of History

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Accepting The Burden Of History


1. Historical Review


"Those inconceivable sufferings, sorrows and tears are before my eyes and they have impressed themselves deeply on my soul. Indeed, only the one you know, you can love."
It was with these words that Pope John Paul II remembered the events of fifty years ago, during a meeting on June 24th 1988 with the representatives of the Jewish communities.1 At that time, during the night of the 9th-10th November, 1938, and the following day, everywhere in the Grossdeutschen Reich, of which Austria had become a part since the Anschluss, synagogues were set on fire or destroyed, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and countless Jewish shops and homes were demolished and looted. Many Jews were murdered in these pogroms, instigated by the N.S. (National Socialist) leadership, and countless Jews were maltreated. Tens of thousands were deported for days or weeks to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Most of them left this place of their humiliation and affliction seriously hurt in body and soul. There was the added insult and mockery that those who were wronged had to pay a "compensation" of one thousand million Reichsmark.
The N.S. press presented these riots as "spontaneous" actions of revenge of an infuriated populace; soon the word Kristallnacht, made to sound inoffensive, was passed round. But everybody knew that in reality the November pogroms had been street terror of the vilest dimensions, ordered from above, but organized on the spot. That is why there could be found in the population, besides active participation, demonstrative staying away; besides malicious joy, also shame; besides indifference, also inner horror, and besides a timid looking away, also a readiness to help. But nowhere could be found rallies of protest.
Today many complain that at that time even the Christian churches did not speak a public word of condemnation. Sure enough, many priests and lay people were disciplined by the N.S. authorities because of their public criticism of the anti-Jewish outrages. We know of the witness of the Berlin Canon Bernhard Lichtenberg, who later went to his death for his brave actions. However, our predecessors in the episcopate did not raise a common protest from the pulpit.
Their silence also raises questions, because there could be no doubt as to an uncompromising "no" of the Church towards Hitler's race politics. In his encyclical letter Mitbrennender Sorge, on March 14th 1937, Pope Pius XI declared that whoever exalted race, people or nation to the highest norm, falsified "the divinely created and divinely ordained order of things".2 A year later, on April 13th 1938, the same Pope appealed to all Catholic universities and Catholic theological faculties to fight antisemitism in word and writing. In September 1938, he said, "Antisemitism is a revolting movement, of which we Christians cannot be part. Antisemitism cannot be justified. Spiritually we are semites."3
The German bishops decided - before November 9th, 1938 - on Guidelines for the clergy concerning N.S. ethnology. In these they declared: "... In the Church there is fundamentally no difference between people and people, race and race." This, certainly, was no direct intervention on behalf of the Jews, but from the point of view of the dictators, it was absolutely clear and therefore provocative. For, through permanently questioning the racist ideology, the Church was shaking the ideological foundations of the regime. In a basic statement of Cologne's Cardinal Schulte, it was pointed out that the main aim of all pastoral care ought to be "to deepen and strengthen the life of faith in as many Catholics as possible to such a degree that they were able to withstand the trials of the time, even if the ultimate witness to their faith was demanded of them." This statement caused the Church to become, in the eyes of the National Socialists, the main opponent to their ideology. Shortly after the November pogroms, an official government opinion poll stated, "It is only those circles influenced by the Church that still stand aloof from the 'Jewish question'".4
But was this enough: the education of conscience and ideological immunisation, in the face of burning synagogues and thousands of abused Jewish fellow-citizens? These questions we ask ourselves, looking back after fifty years. Would not public protest, a clearly recognizable gesture of humaneness and sympathy, have been the duty demanded from the Church's office as guardian?
These questions depress us all the more, as we, - in contrast to those of that era- ask them, with our knowledge of "Auschwitz". But it is difficult to find a clear, unambiguous answer to these questions. We do not know the reasons of the episcopate; moreover, we lack the sources as to the attitudes and expectations of the laity. But one thing is certain: the bishops' caution can only be understood against the background of the National Socialist fight against the Church, which was a question of life or death for the Church.
At the beginning of October, 1938, this battle against the Church in Austria had reached its first climax with the destruction of the Archbishop's Palace in Vienna. In Munich, simultaneously with the November pogroms, under the slogan, "Against world Jewry and its black and red cronies", the residence of Cardinal Faulhaber was stormed.5 A few weeks prior to this, Bishop Sproll of Rottenburg had been expelled from his diocese after staged riots. Therefore, a great part of the population saw the anti-Jewish outrages as a rehearsal for future attacks on the Catholic (and Protestant) Church. This, too, was the bishops' fear. In their common pastoral letter, of August 19th 1938, they described as the aim of the N.S. Church Politics, "The destruction of the Catholic Church among our people, yes, even the annihilation of Christianity". So, to all appearances, the bishops tried everything not to provoke a further escalation of this fight against the Church. But in the following years they intensified their practical, but non-spectacular charitable efforts in favour of the persecuted. The Raphael's Society, the Caritas and the aid organizations of Bishop Preysing (Berlin), Archbishop Groeber (Freiburg) and Cardinal Innitzer (Vienna) were, for many, the last chance of rescue before deportations to the death camps of the East started in 1942.
But apart from all these considerations of expediency, we ask if in November 1938 yet other expressions of brotherly solidarity would not have been possible and expected; for example, a common prayer for the innocently persecuted, or a demonstrative, renewed intensification of the Christian law of love. That this was neglected, saddens us today when we perceive the defense of basic human rights as a duty that goes beyond denominations, classes and races.
One has to consider, though, that many an attitude, which we consider self-evident today grew only as a result of a tough confrontation with the N.S. regime. The readiness to champion other people's human rights, beyond the interests of one's own Church, is just as much part of it as the rejection of any special law against individual groups of society. It has long been Catholic tradition to examine state laws and state activities in the light of norms of natural rights, which are not at the disposal of dictators. The bishops and the faithful had to learn - just like others -painful lessons in the face of N.S. injustice that mocked human dignity and human rights. This was accompanied by enormous tensions, which brought the Fulder Bishops' Conference to the brink of breaking apart.
We know that with this historical review and with a presentation of the circumstances of the time not everything can be explained and certainly not excused. Among us Catholics, too, there has been failure and guilt. In August 1945, the Fulder Bishops' Conference declared: "Many Germans, also from our ranks, allowed themselves to be deluded by the false teachings of National Socialism. They remained indifferent in the face of crimes against human freedom and human dignity; many supported these crimes through their attitude; many became criminals themselves. A heavy responsibility weighs on those who, because of their rank, were in a position to know what was happening among us; who could have prevented such crimes by their influence and did not do it; who even made these crimes possible and so placed themselves in solidarity with the criminals."
The bishops in the Federal Republic of Germany took this up, when they said in a statement in 1980, "Integral to the duty of Christian charity towards the Jews is also the continuous prayer for the millions of Jews murdered in the course of history, and the continuous plea to God for forgiveness of the many failures and omissions of which Christians have been guilty in their attitude towards the Jews. In Germany we have a special reason to ask for forgiveness of God and our Jewish brothers." Thus we repeat the psalmist's cry, "If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? but with you is found forgiveness; for this we revere you." (Ps 130:3f.)
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