The relations between Pope Pius XI and Germany were marked by increasing tensions with the new National-Socialist regime surrounding the status of the Catholic Church in the German society of the 1930s. Although Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was Pius XI's chief diplomat who conducted most of the Holy See's negotiations on behalf of the Pope, Pius XI did adopt his own positions and did speak out against gross human rights violations that were occurring in Germany at the time.


File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R24391, Konkordatsunterzeichnung in Rom.jpg

On 20 July 1933, the Vatican signed an agreement with Germany, the Reichskonkordat, partly in an effort to stop Nazi persecution of Catholic institutions.[1][2]

The Bavarian region, the Rhineland and Westphalia as well as parts in southwest Germany were predominantly Catholic, and the church had previously enjoyed a degree of privilege there. North Germany was heavily Protestant, and Catholics had suffered some discrimination. In the late 1800s, Bismarck's Kulturkampf had been an attempt to almost eliminate Catholic institutions in Germany, or at least their strong connections outside of Germany. With this background, Catholic officials wanted a concordat strongly guaranteeing the church's freedoms. Once Hitler came to power, and started enacting laws restricting movement of funds (making it impossible for German Catholics to send money to missionaries, for instance), restricting religious institutions and education, and mandating attendance at Hitler Youth functions (held on Sunday mornings to interfere with Church attendance), the need for a concordat seemed even more urgent to church officials.

The revolution of 1918 and the Weimar constitution of 1919 had thoroughly reformed the former relationship between state and churches. Therefore, the Holy See—represented in Germany by Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, made unsuccessful attempts to obtain German agreement for such a treaty, and between 1930 and 1933 he attempted to initiate negotiations with representatives of successive German governments.[3] Catholic politicians from the Centre Party repeatedly pushed for a concordat with the new German Republic. In February 1930 Pacelli became the Vatican's Secretary of State, and thus responsible for the Church's foreign policy, and in this position continued to work towards this 'great goal'.[3][4]

Pius XI was eager to negotiate concordats with any country that was willing to do so, thinking that written treaties were the best way to protect the Church's rights against governments increasingly inclined to interfere in such matters. Twelve concordats were signed during his reign with various types of governments, including some German state governments, and with Austria.

On the level of the states, concordats were achieved with Bavaria (1924), Prussia (1929) and Baden (1932). On the national level, however, negotiations failed for several reasons: the fragility of the national government; opposition from Socialist and Protestant deputies in the Reichstag; and discord among the German bishops and between them and the Holy See. In particular the questions of denominational schools and pastoral work in the armed forces prevented any agreement on the national level, despite talks in the winter of 1932.

When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933 and asked for a concordat, Pius XI accepted. Negotiations were conducted on his behalf by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII (1939 – 1958). The Reichskonkordat was signed by Pacelli and by the German government in June 1933, and included guarantees of liberty for the Church, independence for Catholic organisations and youth groups, and religious teaching in schools.

Negotiations with HitlerEdit

On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. On 23 March 1933, his government was given dictatorial powers through an Enabling Act passed by all parties in the Reichstag except the Social Democrats and Communists (whose deputies had already been arrested). Hitler had obtained the votes of the Centre Party, led by Prelate Ludwig Kaas, by issuing oral guarantees of the party's continued existence and the autonomy of the Church and her educational institutions. He also promised good relations with the Holy See, which some interpret as a hint to a future concordat.

Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber wrote to Cardinal Pacelli on April 10, 1933 advising that defending the Jews would be wrong “because that would transform the attack on the Jews into an attack on the Church; and because the Jews are able to look after themselves”.[5]

Hitler met the representative of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Wilhelm Berning of Osnabrück, on April 26. At the meeting, Hitler declared:

“I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church, and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.”
The notes of the meeting do not record any response by Bishop Berning. In the opinion of Martin Rhonheimer "This is hardly surprising: for a Catholic Bishop in 1933 there was really nothing terribly objectionable in this historically correct reminder. And on this occasion, as always, Hitler was concealing his true intentions."[5] In April, Hitler sent his vice chancellor Franz von Papen, a Catholic nobleman and former member of the Centre Party, to Rome to offer negotiations about a Reichskonkordat. On behalf of Cardinal Pacelli, Ludwig Kaas, the out-going chairman of the Centre Party, negotiated the draft of the terms with Papen. One of Hitler's key conditions for agreeing to the concordat, in violation to earlier promises, had been the dissolution of the Centre Party, which occurred on July 5.[3][6]

Shortly before signing the Reichskonkordat on 20 July, Germany signed similar agreements with the major Protestant churches in Germany. The concordat was finally signed, by Pacelli for the Vatican and von Papen for Germany, on 20 July. The Reichskonkordat was ratified on September 10 1933.

Mit brennender SorgeEdit

When Nazi violations of the Reichskonkordat escalated to include physical violence, Pope Pius XI issued the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge.[1][7][8][9] Drafted by the future Pope Pius XII[10] and read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches, it criticized Hitler,[9][11][12][13] and condemned Nazi persecution[9][11][12][13] and ideology[9][11][12][13][14][15] and has been characterized by scholars as the "first great official public document to dare to confront and criticize Nazism" and "one of the greatest such condemnations ever issued by the Vatican."[11][12][14][16]

Impact and consequencesEdit

According to Eamon Duffy, "The impact of the encyclical was immense"[16] and the "infuriated" Nazis increased their persecution of Catholics and the Church[17] by initiating a "long series" of persecution of clergy and other measures.[11][15][16]

Gerald Fogarty asserts that "in the end, the encyclical had little positive effect, and if anything only exacerbated the crisis."[18] The American ambassador reported that it “had helped the Catholic Church in Germany very little but on the contrary has provoked the Nazi continue its oblique assault upon Catholic institutions.”

Frank J. Coppa asserts that the encyclical was viewed by the Nazis as "a call to battle against the Reich" and that Hitler was furious and "vowed revenge against the Church".[19]

The German police confiscated as many copies as they could and called it “high treason.”

According to John Vidmar, Nazi reprisals against the Church in Germany followed thereafter, including "staged prosecutions of monks for homosexuality, with the maximum of publicity".[20]

According to Thomas Bokenkotter, "the Nazis were infuriated, and in retaliation closed and sealed all the presses that had printed it and took numerous vindictive measures against the Church, including staging a long series of immorality trials of the Catholic clergy."[11]

According to Eamon Duffy "The impact of the encyclical was immense, and it dispelled at once all suspicion of a Fascist Pope."[16]

According to Owen Chadwick, the "infuriated" Nazis increased their persecution of Catholics and the Church.[21]

Stance of the Catholic Church towards antisemitismEdit

While numerous German Catholics, who participated in the secret printing and distribution of Mit brennender Sorge, went to jail and concentration camps, the reaction in the Western democracies remained silent, which Pope Pius XI labeled bitterly as "a conspiracy of silence".[22]

As the extreme nature of Nazi racial antisemitism became obvious, and as Mussolini in the late 1930s began imitating Hitler's anti-Jewish race laws in Italy, Pius XI continued to make his position clear, both in Mit brennender Sorge and in a public address in the Vatican to Belgian pilgrims in 1938: "Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we [Christians] are all Semites"[23] These comments were subsequently published worldwide but had little resonance at the time in the secular media.[22]

When Dutch bishops protested against the wartime deportation of Jews, the Nazis responded by increasing deportations[11] rounding up 92 converts including Edith Stein who were then deported and murdered.[24] "The brutality of the retaliation made an enormous impression on Pius XII."[24][25] In Poland, the Nazis murdered over 2,500 monks and priests and even more were imprisoned.[21]

Opposition to the HolocaustEdit

The Catholic Church officially condemned the Nazi theory of racism in Germany in 1937 with the Encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge", signed by Pope Pius XI, and Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber led the Catholic opposition, preaching against racism. However, there was not enough organized resistance by Christian groups to prevent the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies.

Many Catholic clergy and laypeople of all denominations had to pay for their opposition with their life, including:

By the 1940s fewer Christians were willing to oppose Nazi policy publicly, but many secretly helped save the lives of Jews. There are many sections of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Museum, Yad Vashem, dedicated to honoring these "Righteous Among the Nations".


Peter Kent writes:

"By the time of his death ... Pius XI had managed to orchestrate a swelling chorus of Church protests against the racial legislation and the ties that bound Italy to Germany. He had single-mindedly continued to denounce the evils of the nazi regime at every possible opportunity and feared above all else the re-opening of the rift between Church and State in his beloved Italy. He had, however, few tangible successes. There had been little improvement in the position of the Church in Germany and there was growing hostility to the Church in Italy on the part of the fascist regime. Almost the only positive result of the last years of his pontificate was a closer relationship with the liberal democracies and yet, even this was seen by many as representing a highly partisan stance on the part of the Pope. In the age of appeasement, the pugnacious obstinancy of Pius XI was held to be contributing more to the polarization of Europe than to its pacification."[26]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Coppa, p. 132-7
  2. Rhodes, p. 182-183 quote "His contention seemed confirmed in a speech by Staatsminister Wagner in Munich on the 31st March 1934, only nine months after the signature of the Concordat. Wagner said if the Church had not signed a concordat with Germany, the National Socialist government would have abolished the Catholic Youth organisations altogether, and placed them in the same 'anti-state' category as the Marxist groups. ... If the maintenance of Catholic education and of the Catholic Youth associations was, as we have seen often enough before, the principal aim of Papal diplomacy, then his phrase, 'the Concordat prevented greater evils' seems justified. ... "The German episcopate considered that neither the Concordats up to then negotiated with individual German States (Lander), nor the Weimar Constitution gave adequate guarantees or assurance to the faithful of respect for their convictions, rights or liberty of action. In such conditions the guarantees could not be secured except through a settlement having the solemn form of a concordat with the central government of the Reich, I would add that since it was the German government which made the proposal, the responsibility for all the regrettable consequences would have fallen on the Holy See if it had refused the proposed Concordat. Although the Church had few illusions about National Socialism, it must be recognized that the Concordat in the years that followed brought some advantages, or at least prevented worse evils. In fact, in spite of all the violations to which it was subjected, it gave German Catholics a juridical basis for their defence, a stronghold behind which to shield themselves in their oppositions to the ever-growing campaign of religious persecution."
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Ludwig Volk Das Reichskonkordat vom 20. Juli 1933.
  4. Klaus Scholder "The Churches and the Third Reich".
  5. 5.0 5.1 "The Holocaust: What Was Not Said", Martin Rhonheimer, First Things Magazine, November 2003, retrieved 5 July 2009[1]
  6. Toland & Atkin.Template:Clarify
  7. Rhodes, p. 197 quote "Violence had been used against a Catholic leader as early as June 1934, in the 'Night of the Long Knives' ... by the end of 1936 physical violence was being used openly and blatantly against the Catholic Church. The real issue was not, as the Nazis contended, a struggle with 'political Catholicism', but that the regime would tolerate the Church only if it adapted its religious and moral teaching to the materialist dogma of blood and race - that is, if it ceased to be Christian."
  8. Shirer, p. 235 quote "On July 25, five days after the ratification of the concordat, the German government promulgated a sterilization law, which particularly offended the Catholic Church. Five days later the first steps were taken to dissolve the Catholic Youth League. During the next years, thousands of Catholic priests, nuns and lay leaders were arrested, many of them on trumped-up charges of 'immorality' or 'smuggling foreign currency'. Erich Klausener, leader of Catholic Action, was, as we have seen, murdered in the June 30, 1934, purge. Scores of Catholic publications were suppressed, and even the sanctity of the confessional was violated by Gestapo agents. By the spring of 1937, the Catholic hierarchy, in Germany, which, like most of the Protestant clergy, had tried to co-operate with the new regime, was thoroughly disillusioned.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 McGonigle, p. 172 quote "Hitler, of course flagrantly violated the rights of Catholics and others whenever it pleased him. Catholic Action groups were attacked by Hitler's police and Catholic schools were closed. Priests were persecuted and sent to concentration camps. ... On Palm Sunday, March 21 1937, the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge was read in Catholic Churches in Germany. In effect it taught that the racial ideas of the leader (fuhrer) and totalitarianism stood in opposition to the Catholic faith. The letter let the world, and especially German Catholics, know clearly that the Church was harassed and persecuted, and that it clearly opposed the doctrines of Nazism."
  10. Pham, p. 45, quote: "When Pius XI was complimented on the publication, in 1937, of his encyclical denouncing Nazism, Mit Brennender Sorge, his response was to point to his Secretary of State and say bluntly, 'The credit is his.'"
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 Bokenkotter, pp. 389–392, quote "And when Hitler showed increasing belligerence toward the Church, Pius met the challenge with a decisiveness that astonished the world. His encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge was the 'first great official public document to dare to confront and criticize Nazism' and 'one of the greatest such condemnations ever issued by the Vatican.' Smuggled into Germany, it was read from all the Catholic pulpits on Palm Sunday in March 1937. It denounced the Nazi "myth of blood and soil" and decried its neopaganism, its war of annihilation against the Church, and even described the Fuhrer himself as a 'mad prophet possessed of repulsive arrogance'. The Nazis were infuriated, and in retaliation closed and sealed all the presses that had printed it and took numerous vindictive measures against the Church, including staging a long series of immorality trials of Catholic clergy."
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Rhodes, p. 204-205 quote "Mit brennender Sorge did not prevaricate. Although it began mildly enough with an account of the broad aims of the Church, it went on to become one of the greatest condemnations of a national regime ever pronounced by the Vatican. Its vigorous language is in sharp contrast to the involved style in which encyclicals were normally written. The education question was fully and critically examined, and a long section devoted to disproving the Nazi theory of Blood and Soil (Blut und Boden) and the Nazi claim that faith in Germany was equivalent to faith in God. There were scathing references to Rosenberg's Myth of the Twentieth Century and its neo-paganism. The pressure exercised by the Nazi party on Catholic officials to betray their faith was lambasted as 'base, illegal and inhuman'. The document spoke of "a condition of spiritual oppression in Germany such as has never been seen before", of 'the open fight against the Confessional schools and the suppression of liberty of choice for those who desire a Catholic education'. 'With pressure veiled and open,' it went on, 'with intimidation, with promises of economic, professional, civil, and other advantages, the attachment of Catholics to the Faith, particularly those in government employment, is exposed to a violence as illegal as it is inhuman.' 'The calvary of the Church': 'The war of annihilation against the Catholic Faith'; 'The cult of idols'. The fulminations thundered down from the pulpits to the delighted congregations. Nor was the Fuhrer himself spared, for his 'aspirations to divinity', 'placing himself on the same level as Christ': 'a mad prophet possessed of repulsive arrogance' (widerliche Hochmut)."
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Vidmar, p. 327 quote "Pius XI's greatest coup was in writing the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge ("With Burning Desire") in 1936, and having it distributed secretly and ingeniously by an army of motorcyclists, and read from the pulpit on Palm Sunday before the Nazis obtained a single copy. It stated (in German and not in the traditional Latin) that the Concordat with the Nazis was agreed to despite serious misgivings about Nazi integrity. It then went on to condemn the persecution of the church, the neopaganism of the Nazi ideology-especially its theory of racial superiority-and Hitler himself, calling him 'a mad prophet possessed of repulsive arrogance.'"
  14. 14.0 14.1 Norman, p. 167 quote "But violations began almost at once by Nazi Party officials, and in 1937 the papacy issued a Letter to the German bishops to be read in the churches. Mit Brennender Sorge ... denounced the violations as contrary to Natural Law and to the term of the Concordat. The Letter, in fact, amounted to a condemnation of Nazi ideology: 'In political life within the state, since it confuses considerations of utility with those of right, it mistakes the basic fact than man as a person posesses God-given rights which must be preserved from all attacks aimed at denying, suppressing, or disregarding them.' The Letter also rejected absolutely the concept of a German National Church."
  15. 15.0 15.1 Courtois, p. 29 quote "... Pope Pius XI condemned Nazism and Communism respectively in the encyclicals Mit Brennender Sorge ... and Divini redemptoris ... ."
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Duffy, (paperback edition) p. 343 quote "In a triumphant security operation, the encyclical was smuggled into Germany, locally printed, and read from Catholic pulpits on Palm Sunday 1937. Mit Brennender Sorge ('With Burning Anxiety') denounced both specific government actions against the Church in breach of the concordat and Nazi racial theory more generally. There was a striking and deliberate emphasis on the permanent validity of the Jewish scriptures, and the Pope denounced the 'idolatrous cult' which replaced belief in the true God with a 'national religion' and the 'myth of race and blood'. He contrasted this perverted ideology with the teaching of the Church in which there was a home 'for all peoples and all nations'. The impact of the encyclical was immense, and it dispelled at once all suspicion of a Fascist Pope. While the world was still reacting, however, Pius issued five days later another encyclical, Divini Redemptoris denouncing Communism, declaring its principles 'intrinsically hostile to religion in any form whatever', detailing the attacks on the Church which had followed the establishment of Communist regimes in Russia, Mexico and Spain, and calling for the implementation of Catholic social teaching to offset both Communism and 'amoral liberalism'. The language of Divini Redemptoris was stronger than that of Mit Brennender Sorge, its condemnation of Communism even more absolute than the attack on Nazism. The difference in tone undoubtedly reflected the Pope's own loathing of Communism as the ultimate enemy. The last year of his life, however, left no one any doubt of his total repudiation of the right-wing tyrannies in Germany and, despite his instinctive sympathy with some aspects of Fascism, increasingly in Italy also. His speeches and conversations were blunt, filled with phrases like 'stupid racialism', 'barbaric Hitlerism'."
  17. Chadwick, Owen p. 254 quote "The encyclical was smuggled into Germany and read from the pulpits on Palm Sunday. It made the repression far worse; but it too was necessary to Christian honour."
  18. Template:Cite journal
  19. Frank J. Coppa
  20. Vidmar, p. 254.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Chadwick, Owen pp. 254–255.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Franzen, 395
  23. Marchione 1997, p. 53.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Vidmar, p. 331.
  25. Duffy, (paperback edition) p. 348 quote "It is clear from Maglione's intervention that Papa Pacelli cared about and sought to avert the deportation of the Roman Jews. but he did not denounce: a denunciation, the Pope believed, would do nothing to help the Jews, and would only extend Nazi persecution to yet more Catholics. It was the Church as well as the Jews in Germany, Poland and the rest of occupied Europe who would pay the price for any papal gesture. There was some weight in this argument: when the Dutch Catholic hierarchy denounced measures against Jews there, the German authorities retaliated by extending the persecution to baptized Jews who had formerly been protected by their Catholicism."
  26. Peter Kent, p. 601

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