All for the Führer
Two books raise troubling questions about the Nazis' support from Germany's populace and priests.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


By Ian Kershaw

Yale Univ. 394 pp. $32.50


Catholic Clergy and National Socialism

By Kevin P. Spicer

Northern Illinois Univ.

369 pp. $34.95

"What is the vox populi?"

asked Viktor Klemperer in his

diary as he struggled to sort out

the ways his fellow Germans

treated him in wartime Dresden. Who spoke for the German people? Was it those who shook their fists and cursed him when they saw the yellow star he was compelled to wear? Or those who offered furtive signs of comfort and support? Or those who looked away and hurried on about their business? Klemperer's question continues to fascinate and frustrate historians of the Third Reich.

Ian Kershaw, professor of history at the University of Sheffield and the author of a magisterial two-volume biography of Hitler, has spent the last quarter-century trying to explain Nazism's origins and appeals. By bringing together 14 essays written mostly for academic conferences or scholarly journals between 1983 and 2006, Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution provides a splendid summary of his accomplishments. In a characteristically candid and thoughtful introduction, Kershaw reflects on how his views have changed in response to new scholarly challenges and opportunities.

Two sets of issues have dominated Kershaw's work. The first concerns Hitler's personal role in the Nazi political system and especially in the origins and execution of the Holocaust. Was Hitler, as was once widely assumed, an all-powerful dictator or, as some historians have recently claimed, did his irregular working habits and disdain for detail leave key decisions to his ambitious subordinates? Kershaw has crafted a subtle and convincing position between these two extremes. He demonstrates that Hitler was at the center of the Nazi state; nothing important -- and certainly not the Holocaust -- happened without his knowledge and approval. But Hitler's influence was frequently indirect, exerted through those who, in Kershaw's telling phrase, "worked towards the Führer," anticipating what they assumed were his goals and desires.

The second of Kershaw's preoccupations has been with assessing popular opinion in Nazi Germany, again focusing on the Holocaust. Here, too, he charts a course between two extremes. Most Germans, he argues, were neither rabid anti-Semites nor innocent bystanders. They knew, or could have known, what was happening to Europe's Jews. Few actively opposed their government's murderous policies. Nevertheless, while the "Jewish question" was of paramount importance to Hitler and those around him, for a majority of Germans it was not an important issue. "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate," Kershaw wrote in 1983, "but paved with indifference."

In the past decade, Kershaw has somewhat revised his views about the intensity of the public's anti-Semitism, but he remains convinced that ordinary Germans were what he calls "morally indifferent" to the mass murder being carried out in their name.

Indifference does not describe the attitudes of the Roman Catholic priests in Kevin P. Spicer's deeply researched and deeply disturbing book, Hitler's Priests. A priest and member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Spicer has an insider's grasp of the church's organization and governance. He has combed through an impressive number of diocesan and government archives to assemble a list of 138 "brown priests," who were either members of the Nazi party or at least active supporters of its program. His book is devoted to a detailed account of the radical nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism that led these men to believe they could be followers of both Hitler and Christ.

Spicer's treatment of "Hitler's priests" is absolutely convincing. He is less successful in illuminating the issue promised by his subtitle, the relationship between the Catholic clergy in general and National Socialism. Spicer's sample represents a tiny minority of Germany's 34,000 Catholic priests (in 1932, there were more that 21,000 diocesan clergy and an additional 13,000 members of various religious communities). Moreover, as Spicer himself shows, the brown priests frequently had serious problems with their superiors, sometimes because of their opinions, more often because they disobeyed instructions to avoid political agitation.

Spicer cites copious evidence demonstrating the enormous amount of time and energy that diocesan authorities spent trying to control these priests. Abbot Albanus Schachleiter, for instance, who is pictured on the cover of Spicer's book wearing his Benedictine habit and giving the Nazi salute, caused his bishop endless trouble before he was finally exiled to a remote village. A friend of Hitler's, the abbot was honored with a state funeral when he died in 1937, but by then he had lost all ecclesiastical influence and authority.

Twenty of Spicer's 138 left the priesthood altogether, including Albert Hartl, who married a leading member of the League of German Girls and occupied an important position in Himmler's SS. The question of how representative these brown priests were haunts Spicer's book, raising without resolving the complex and painful questions about Catholicism's relationship to Nazism.

As for ordinary Germans, Kershaw, after a quarter century of scholarship, is skeptical that we will ever know for sure what they thought about Nazism. But one thing remains depressingly clear: However we calculate the relative weight of conviction, hostility and indifference among the German public, the regime was able to carry out its policies of foreign aggression and racial murder without serious internal resistance. It was military defeat, not domestic opposition, that finally brought the nightmare of Nazism to an end. ·

James J. Sheehan teaches history at Stanford University. His most recent book is "Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe."

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