War’s Challenge to the Christian Conscience

November 1989By William D. Miller

William D. Miller, Emeritus Professor of History at Marquette University, resides in Lloyd, Flori­da. He is author of A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement and Dorothy Day: A Biography (widely regarded as the definitive biography of Dorothy Day). His most recent book is All is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day.

German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control.  By Gordon C. Zahn. University of Notre Dame Press. 232 pages. $12.95.



This book, first published by Sheed and Ward in 1962, is a republica­tion, to which the author has added nine pages of prefatory reflections on how his work was first received., what it accomplished, and what he hopes for it now, its second time around.

In his “Bibliographical Note” Zahn says that his most important source materials were the official journals and newspapers of dioceses in Germany. Him­self of Milwaukee German background, he apparently was fluent enough in German to avoid the time and distortion problems that go with a laborious transla­tion. Engaged in this work, he spent what must have been a lengthy time in Germany, arising in the morning at a modest pen­sion, eating a hearty breakfast of coffee, hard rolls, and cold cuts so as to save on lunch, and then going to a diocesan office or library for research. Sometimes he would see on the wall of one of these family guest houses a picture of a uniformed young man who had been killed in the war.

Back in America, Zahn had his manuscript written and accepted for publication by 1959, but because of protests from Germany and at home, the prospective publisher decided he would like to think about the matter indefinitely. The manuscript eventually reached Frank Sheed, who decided the work should be printed. Rightfully remembered as a great man in the field of Catholic journalism, Sheed saw clearly set forth in Zahn’s manuscript one crucial and increasingly in­sistent question faced by any person who wanted to lead an authentic Catholic life: to what extent can a political or value system “have its way” when confronted by an informed and resolute Catho­lic conscience?

In Zahn’s manuscript the question was raised as it concerned German Catholics during Hitler’s wars. In his Preface Zahn introduces another remarkable Catholic of the 1950s, George N. Shuster. He quotes Shuster, who, in a few lines, gives the substance of the book: “Dr. Zahn’s thesis appears to be that Catholics are forbid­den to support an unjust war, and that therefore it was the duty of the German bishops and the diocesan press under their control to proclaim clearly that the conflict unleashed by the Nazis was morally indefensi­ble. He thereupon finds that they failed to do so.”

Well, where do we go from here? What else in the book elicits comment, since, on the face of it, one cannot argue with Zahn’s thesis?

The German bishops were not so simpleminded as to be unaware of pagan and barbaric elements in the Nazi phenomenon. Zahn recog­nizes this: “Many an issue of the Catholic periodicals was officially confiscated because its contents were offensive to the regime; many such periodicals found their publication rights suspended or withdrawn altogether for daring to report and justify the Church’s counterattack in those areas of opposition. And many a Catholic priest found his way into a Nazi concentration camp under charges of ‘misuse of the pulpit because he dared to reply to these challenges or protest the assaults upon the Church.” And, as Zahn further recognizes, there were bishops like Clement August von Galen and Michael Cardinal Faulhaber who staunchly opposed Nazi paganism.

Part I of the book is a rather prolix statement of method cast in sociological terms, inasmuch as sociology was the field in which Zahn, after the war, had undertaken graduate work. In the 1950s sociology was a subject chosen by a good many young people who were bent on making a new and better world, and who thought that sociology was just the academic vehicle they needed to launch their crusade. One of the concerns of the sociological theoreti­cians of the time was that their subject not be reduced to an enthusiasm, but that it remain an “ology” where no loose words would be ban­died about, where terms would be precise and bear the weight of a lot of count­ing and sorting. So Zahn provides 45 pages on “social control dimension” and “value selection judgment.”

Toward the end of this methodological essay Zahn offers an aside. He asks: what should be the attitude of the Catholic scholar, such as he, when confronted by evidence that appears to reflect poorly on the visible Church? The answer “by the Catholic scholar who would remain true to his profes­sional responsibilities has to be that mistakes and weak­nesses — even evils and abuses — must be exposed wherever and whenever they are discovered.”

Yes, yes, and yes, again. “Evils and abuses” should be exposed, but now, a quarter-century later, a corollary to Zahn’s prescription is required. Neither should the Catholic scholar allow the Catholic vision of the heights to which humankind is called be lowered by “facts” and the “most recent study” to an existential plane of process only.

But this, thank goodness, is certainly not a problem with Zahn. Zahn, one suspects, has lived and done his work in the light of this vision with a fidelity that many of us find difficult to sustain. Such was his dedication to it that during World War II he chose not to fight but to work with re­tarded children at the Rosewood Training School at Owings Mills, Maryland. One frequently met him in those days in the pages of The Catholic Worker. In the spring of 1944, when the government released infor­mation about Japanese atroci­ties, he wrote a response to these revelations, saying that such things were the almost inevitable consequence of the calculated organization of hate that war was.

After Zahn’s lengthy methodological essay he offers a hundred pages on “German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars.” This part is actually a collection of es­says, each on one of the several bishops who headed the Church in Germany during the war. In general, the bishops were not advo­cates of Hitler or of his wars, but on the other hand, they did not try to answer the question of whether the war was “just” or “unjust” — something a Catholic is permitted to do. That they did not declare it an “un­just” war is Zahn’s com­plaint.

On the face of it, the complaint may be justified. The bishops had seen enough of Hitler’s inhumanity and insanity to say that the war was not being waged for noble ends. On the other hand, what they most frequently invoked to justify their support of the war, once Hitler had driven their country into it, was history combined with a peculiarly German disposi­tion found in the terms Volk, Vaterland, and Heimat. Zahn says that these words cannot be literally translated, which is true. They do, however, bespeak a mystic sense of community feeling that Germans have historically possessed — a feeling one hears in Wagner, for exam­ple, and which, in another form, is found in the tend­ency of Germans in general to make a uniform an object of adoration and to endow the military with a quality that is practically sacrosanct. The defeat of Germany in World War I and the humili­ations and injustices the country suffered from the “peace” not only embittered Germans but intensified their longing for that state which reaches its final point in a timeless unity. The great tragedy associated with this feeling was that German Catholicism could not give Volk and Heimat a universal sense. If German Catholicism has been at fault on this point, so has the Catholicism of most Western nations.

But the evil of achieving “community” through war is not the greatest problem facing bishops today. The world seems to be racing toward some final apocalypse where all calls to community are overcome by the auton­omy of the “I” in its quest for imperial power, and where mass killing, in the interest of the “I” at the expense of life, continues quietly and aseptically under rationalizations as phony and murderous as any the Nazis used. Humankind needs a powerful restatement and demonstration of the ideal of human unity that one dis­cerns in the life of the early Christians. Authentic life is found in creativity, not in killing; it is found in community and not in the and not in the “I.”

Zahn’s book can, per­haps, be criticized on the point of spending too much time on a laborious sociologizing and on the point of its assuming that the German bishops should have pro­nounced on the war as if the Second Coming were at hand. Even so, there is a passion in his work, as if the Second Coming were indeed at hand. He would have the Church become the instru­ment of a “fundamentalist” radicalism, not only in its opposition to Hitler’s war but to all of the other wars of our time that make for the deification of the “I” and the destruction of community. In a conclusion called “sociotheological implications,” he suggests that what is needed is “a greater willing­ness to accept and even welcome martyrdom,” for martyrdom should “be regarded as the always possible, often probable, price one has to pay for being a part of the Christian community.”

In Munich in 1944 two university students, Sophie and Hans Scholl, brother and sister, while not Catholic, seemed to recognize in the spirit of the Church a vision of community completed. To them the war became an atrocity of such proportions that they and a few friends began clandestinely to circulate denunciations of the war. They were quickly found out and beheaded.

One thinks that Zahn wanted his book republished so as, somehow, to fan into a fire the vision that seized Hans and Sophie Scholl.



DOSSIER: Just War



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