After years of silence, the German Catholic Church has finally admitted complicity in the actions of the Nazi regime. A damning new report by Germany's council of Catholic bishops confirmed that many senior clergymen did little to oppose Hitler and refused to challenge the Nazi regime's barbaric actions.
The report, which looks at the role of German's Catholic bishops between 1939 and 1945, reads: "Inasmuch as the bishops did not oppose the war with a clear 'no,' and most of them bolstered the [German nation's] will to endure, they made themselves complicit in the war."
In addition, the council lamented the fact that the Catholic Church not only refused to object to Hitler's rule but actually engaged in shows of support for their murderous leader. For example, on Hitler's 50th birthday in 1939, churches flew Nazi flags and prayed for protection of the "Fuhrer and the Reich." The Church also converted churches into field hospitals where nuns nursed Nazi soldiers back to health. Priests were also sent onto the frontlines to offer spiritual support to Germany's military personnel.
The report continued: "The bishops may not have shared the Nazis' justification for the war on the grounds of racial ideology, but their words and their images gave succour both to soldiers and the regime prosecuting the war, as they lent the war an additional sense of purpose."
In many ways, the report added, leaders in the German Catholic Church turned a blind eye to the sufferings of those targeted by the regime out of fear for themselves and their positions.
"Even if we can perceive that the bishops' perspective on events shifted over the course of the war, they did not pay enough attention to the suffering of others," said Heiner Wilmer, Bishop of Hildesheim and head of the conference's foreign affairs committee, adding that the Church saw itself as "part of a society at war."
The new report suggests that the cowardliness of many religious leaders was driven by an imbibed nationalism and anti-communist sentiment, and a desire to protect the Church by avoiding a confrontation with the Nazi state.
While atheistic in outlook, Hitler saw the Church as an essential tool in the development of a subservient German population. Indeed, shortly after he became chancellor in 1933, Hitler arranged a deal with the Vatican outlining the Nazi state's future relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has come under increased scrutiny over its role in World War II in recent weeks after a newly opened Vatican archive shed some light on the inaction of Pope Pius XII, who served as Holy See from 1939 to 1958.
Shortly after the archive was opened on 2nd March, historian Hubert Wolf discovered that Pius had personally read a 1942 American report that documented the mass murder of some 100,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. Allegedly, the pope refused to do anything about it.
In contrast, supporters of Pius at the Vatican argue that he did his utmost to help those persecuted by the Nazis by using quiet diplomacy and encouraging convents and other religious institutes to hide Jews. In March, Father Norbert Hofmann, the top Vatican official in charge of religious relations with Jews, had said: "I don't think you will find a smoking gun. Pius XII was a diplomat and he was a very shy character and a very, very cautious man."
The historical archive was open for just a week before being shut down due to coronavirus. When opening up a series of archives last year to probe the question of whether Pope Pius was complicit in the Nazi regime, Pope Francis said the church was "not afraid of history."
Experts have urged caution at drawing snap conclusions from the archives, which are comprised of millions of documents; they insist that a full and in-depth analysis will take several years to complete.