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The Church and the New Barbarism
In both The Third Reich and Sacred Causes,3 Burleigh emphasizes the widely unknown or deliberately ignored fact that the strongest opposition to Nazi ideology and criminality came from conservative “men of God.” This is no accident.
While left-wing critics of Nazism wrongly saw in it only a virulent version of either “late capitalism” or German nationalism, its conservative Christian opponents were far more sensitive to the movement’s profoundly antitraditional character. The more discerning among them saw in Nazism nothing less than a “revolution of nihilism.” And not a few of them courageously rose to the challenge of resisting the new barbarism.
In addition to Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, the “lion of Münster,” who in a series of famous sermons in 1941 denounced the murderous Nazi euthanasia campaign, some of the Austrian and German bishops did not shrink from attacking the “racist madness” of Nazism. In his great encyclical Mit brennender sorge (1938), written pointedly in German and clandestinely smuggled into Germany, Pope Pius XI attacked modern racialism, the cynical Nazi appropriation of Christian symbolism, nationalist idolatry, and a false cult of human greatness.
Likewise, in the first encyclical of his pontificate, Summi pontificis, released in the fall of 1939, Pius XII affirmed the “fundamental unity” of the human race and expressed his profound sympathy for the plight of Poland. The whole world had no doubt at the time whom the same pontiff had in mind in his 1942 Christmas message when he spoke of “the hundreds of thousands of innocent people put to death or doomed to slow extinction, sometimes merely because of their race or descent.”
This prudent, perhaps too prudent, diplomat- pope, despising National Socialism but solicitous of putting an end to a suicidal total war, helped inspire the heroic witness of groups like Témoignage chrétien in France (whose anti-Nazi pamphleteers included such eminent philosophers and theologians as Gaston Fessard and Henri de Lubac) as well as the Italian Catholics who saved tens of thousands of Jews in the fall of 1944 when the Nazis unleashed full scale war against the Jews in occupied Italy.
The rewriting of history to suggest that the Christian West was somehow culpable in the murderous agenda of the National Socialists is one of the greatest intellectual distortions of our time. Burleigh has done a great service by recovering an appreciation for the impregnable wall that separated the Christian religion—with its affirmation of the fundamental unity of the human race and of conscience informed by right reason—from both the “horrors of applied rationality” (communism) and the National Socialist religion of the absolutized human will. This project of historical and moral restoration achieves something like its finished form in his magisterial two-volume history of political religion, Earthly Powers4 and Sacred Causes.
Last Updated on Friday, 09 October 2009 13:00