- J.S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45 (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1968), 255-259.
From the beginning of 1941 such new and stringent measures were taken against the churches by the Nazi authorities that more damage, it was said, was done ‘physically and morally by the land raids of the Gestapo than by the air raids of the RAF’.
The number of expropriated church properties rose rapidly. In a secret circular addressed to the Gauleiters on 20 March, Bormann wrote:
Many valuable church properties have had to be sequestred lately, especially in Austria; according to reports from the Gauleiters to the Führer, these sequestrations were frequently caused by offences against ordinances relating to the war economy (e.g. hoarding of food-stuffs of various kinds, textiles, leather goods, etc.). In other cases they were caused by offences against the law relating to malicious attacks against the State [Heimtϋckegesetz], and in others because of prohibited possession of firearms. Obviously, no compensation is to be paid to the Churches for sequestrations made because of the above-mentioned reasons. . . .
The reasons given for the seizures were the need for auxiliary hospitals or resettlement centres for refugees and evacuated children, or, alternatively, acts of hostility to the State perpetrated by members of the religious orders, particularly the Jesuits. If an individual member of a monastic community was adjudged guilty of an offence, it was seized upon as a pretext for the closure of the whole institution. In actual fact, the Churches’ properties were expropriated solely for the Nazis’ own ends, each of the Nazi leaders making a bid for what he considered their most appropriate use. Dr Ley in June 1940 argued in favour of using monasteries as homes for the Aged or for the Kraft durch Freude. In April 1941 Bormann suggested that Church orphanages should be taken over for the housing of evacuees, a move to which Hitler agreed. In a circular issued from Hitler’s headquarters in May 1941, Bormann decreed that
the Nazi State and movement cannot permit children to be brought up in denominational kindergartens according to Church principles, or along the lines of denominational divisions. Today this question can be finally cleaned up by withdrawing permission from the organizers of Church-sponsored institutions for children. In justification, the special role of the Party in this area should be stressed.
The requisite orders were accordingly issued, and by 31 July all Church kindergartens had been seized by the Gestapo and transferred to the sponsorship of the Nazi Welfare organization.
The requisitioning of monastic properties had first been adumbrated by Himmler, in December 1939, when, in his capacity as Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of the German People’s Community (Reichskommissar far die Festigung deutschen Volkstums), he had ordered the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in Berlin to take over `suitable accommodation which could be used for the housing of returning Volksdeutsche’. When, eleven months later, Cardinal Bertram protested that the decree had been used to requisition entire monasteries and convents and to evacuate their inhabitants, his protest was ignored. In January 1941 Himmler ordered the complete evacuation of all such Church properties without compensation. War-time necessity, the Cardinal was informed, was a sufficient justification for the measure, and the question of compensation, could be settled after the end of the war. In December 1940 the Gauleiter of Alsace ordered all Church organizations to be dissolved and their property confiscated. In Innsbruck, Gauleiter Hofer coerced the Premonstratensian Order into ‘selling’ their monastery at Wilten to the provincial government of Tyrol. In Silesia no less than 60 monasteries and church institutions were seized. In Luxembourg, 400 priests were expelled on Hitler’s personal orders; all the institutions run by members of Catholic Orders were confiscated and their inhabitants were transported across the border into the diocese of Trier; all hospitals in the territory were declared secular institutions. In Lorraine, the Warthegau, Lower Austria and South Germany where the measures were particularly severe, the Church authorities estimated that by the beginning of May no less than 13o monasteries and Church institutions had been confiscated.
This was only the beginning. A letter from the Party headquarters for Mainfranken on 24 April 1941 informed the local Party organizers that :
By order of the Gauleiter, I request from you an immediate report on the situation of all monasteries and convents in your area. A short description of each building should include its size, its place in the countryside, and its activities or participation in agricultural work. Very important is an account of the transportation facilties, since the rural setting of many monasteries makes them very suitable for the needs of the Kraft .lurch Freude (Hotels, Rest houses, holiday and sports resorts). Furthermore your report should include the view of the County Party leader on the future use of these buildings. Since the matter is being treated as very urgent on the national level, I am asking for an immediate reply by return of post, in an express and registered letter.
The German bishops and the Roman Curia itself immediately launched a protest. For some time past the Papal Nuncio had almost monthly complained either verbally, by letter, or with a Verbal Note to State Secretary Weizsäcker about similar sequestrations, some of them involving considerable properties. In May 1941 he again protested against the abruptness with which the confiscations had been carried out without prior warning either to himself or to the Church authorities. Weizsäcker’s reply was a curt statement to the effect that the war-time need for housing was so great that further requisitions could be expected. Rome could draw only one conclusion. In a letter to the German Embassy dated January 1942, the Curia protested that because of
the increasing difficulties put in the way of the religious Orders and Congregations in the spiritual, cultural and social field, and above all the suppression of abbeys, monasteries, convents, and religious houses in such great numbers, one is led to infer a deliberate intention of rendering impossible the very existence of the Orders and Congregations in Germany.
In June 1941 Cardinal Bertram again bitterly complained that, ‘at a time when the whole German people were united in a decisive struggle for the future of our country’, the rights of Catholics were disregarded and overridden throughout the land. In the regions of Trier, Kassel, Saxony, Thuringia, Cologne, Aachen, and Silesia, he stated, church kindergartens had been expropriated, such Catholic insignia as crucifixes and religious paintings had been removed, and teachers and nuns had been expelled. Catholic parents, he averred, were alarmed by these events, which contravened the provisions of the Concordat and served to strengthen the impression ‘that a systematic campaign for the destruction of all that was Christian was now in process’.
Despite the Nazis’ oft-repeated desire not to exacerbate tension between Church and State, restrictions on Church work continued to multiply. On I June 1941, the Church press was totally suppressed for the duration of the war in contrast to the press of the German Faith Movement and the anti-clerical pamphlets of the Ludendorff Publishing House, which continued to be published though on a reduced scale. In April, new regulations for the pastoral care of patients in hospitals were promulgated, whereby priests were prohibited from entering the hospitals unless specifically requested by patients and with the approval of the medical authorities, and Church welfare agencies were replaced by the National Socialist Welfare organization and the Winter Aid Programme. In the same month religious education in Saxony was abolished altogether; the Ministry of Education in Berlin prohibited the use of prayers at school assemblies; and the gradual removal of crucifixes and religious paintings from every school was ordered by the Bavarian Ministry of Education.
On Bormann’s instructions, every pastor who resigned his office and, preferably withdrew from the Church, was to be offered a government job; and Hitler himself ordered that any Jesuits serving in the Army were to be declared unfit for service and released. Anti-clerical propaganda was stepped up in an attempt to alienate the sympathy of the laity from their clerical leaders, and anti-church literature denigrating the sacraments was handed out free of charge. On 12 June the Gauleiter of Baden, Robert Wagner, announced to an enthusiastic audience of Party followers in the Festival Hall in Karlsruhe that
when our foreign foes lie at our feet, then we will tackle the foes at home; there are still some running around the country in purple and ermine.