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On Hitler, the Holy See and the Jews (Part 1)

Interview With Historian Father Giovanni Sale

ROME, JUNE 13, 2004 (Zenit) - The Holy See was farsighted in understanding the dangers inherent in Nazism long before World War II, says a new book.

The book, "Hitler, la Santa Sede e gli Ebrei" (Hitler, the Holy See, and the Jews), Jaca Book publishers, is written by Father Giovanni Sale. In it, the Gregorian University professor analyzes the relations between the Third Reich and the Vatican during 1933-1945.

The book refers to unpublished archive documentation, in particular that of the Vatican Secret Archives relating to the nunciatures of Monaco and Berlin, and that of the review Civiltŗ Cattolica.

In this interview, Father Sale discusses the findings published in the book. Part 2 of this interview appears Monday.

Q: Historiography has neglected what the Catholic clergy did to oppose Hitler and National Socialism from coming to power in Germany. Can you explain how the Catholic Church conducted itself?

Father Sale: With the recent opening of the Vatican Archives relating to the nunciatures of Monaco and Berlin, 1922-39, we now have the possibility to better assess how that prophetic political change of January 30, 1933, was commented upon and judged by the highest authorities of the Catholic Church at the time.

A series of reports, written by Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, the apostolic nuncio in Berlin, gives us the possibility to better assess those events.

The first German bishop to take action against National Socialism was the archbishop of Mainz, who already in September 1930 published some norms with the objective of impeding Catholics from being contaminated by the National Socialist epidemic. However, not all the German bishops approved them, considering them too harsh in content and, in any event, they judged the episcopal document premature, as Hitlerís movement was still in the process of formation.

Moreover, some bishops were of the opinion that it was not necessary to give too much credit to theoretical constructs of some intellectuals of the Hitlerís movement, such as the anti-Christian ideologist Rosenberg, while, instead, it was necessary to consider that the National Socialist Party was the only one that opposed with determination the advance of Bolshevism in Europe.

With the passing of time, however, the whole German episcopate associated itself with the line of conduct of the ordinary of Mainz -- "driven," nuncio Orsenigo wrote, "by the persistent irreligious attitude of some leaders of National Socialism."

In the Prussian bishops' conference meeting in Fulda from August 17-19, 1932, it was decided, "keeping in mind the danger that the National Socialist Movement might constitute for souls," to issue dispositions that would prohibit Catholics from belonging to Hitlerís party. The document was approved unanimously.

It was on the occasion of the electoral campaign for political elections of March 5, 1933, that the opposition between National Socialism and the Catholic world came into focus for the first time.

In a dispatch of February 16, 1933, sent to the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Orsenigo talked about the gravity of the situation and the harshness of the political clash under way between the parties, and about the orientation of Catholics in the political realm and the manipulation of religion for party ends.

"The electoral struggle in Germany," the nuncio wrote, "has now entered its acute stage. [...] Unfortunately, even the Catholic religion is often used by one or the other parties for electoral purposes. The Center Party naturally has almost total support from the clergy and Catholics and, yet to have a momentary victory, it acts without being overly concerned with the painful consequences, which might ensue for Catholicism, should the adversary gain a full victory."

In fact, during the electoral campaign, the religious element was seriously exploited for reasons of political propaganda both by the governing parties and the Zentrum [the Catholic Center Party].

The latter, considered by many as a "confessional party," appealed to Christian values to condemn and combat the principles of National Socialism; National Socialism, instead, appealed to the struggle against Communism to mobilize the Catholic forces against the common enemy. And we also know that many men of the Church were not at all insensitive to such an appeal.

In general, the control exercised by the German Catholic hierarchy during the whole period of the electoral campaign was marked by great prudence and a sense of responsibility. In general, it did everything possible not to fuel, with partisan or improvised statements, the existing conflict between National Socialism and the Zentrum.

The Holy See did as much as well. From the ...

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