The best books on the Catholic churches in Hitler’s Germany

Kevin P. Spicer and Rebecca Carter-Chand Author Of Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars
By Kevin P. Spicer and Rebecca Carter-Chand

Who are we?

We are historians of twentieth-century Germany who investigate the relationship between church and state from 1918-1945. We are fascinated by the choices of Christian leaders during this time as they negotiated the challenges of living and leading under National Socialism. In our writing, we seek to understand the connections between Christian antisemitism and National Socialists’ racial-based exclusionary ethnonationalism and antisemitism and seek to understand how religious communities navigate ethical and practical challenges of living through political upheaval and fascism.

We edited...

Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars

By Kevin P. Spicer and Rebecca Carter-Chand (editor),

Book cover of Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars

What is our book about?

Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars places the interaction between religion and ethnonationalism – a particular articulation of nationalism based upon an imagined ethnic community – at the centre of its analysis, offering a new lens through which to analyze how nationalism, ethnicity, and race became markers of inclusion and exclusion. Those who did not embrace the same ethnonationalist vision faced ostracization and persecution, with Jews experiencing pervasive exclusion and violence as centuries of antisemitic Christian rhetoric intertwined with right-wing nationalist extremism. The thread of antisemitism as a manifestation of ethnonationalism is woven through each of the essays, along with the ways in which individuals sought to critique religious ethnonationalism and the violence it inspired.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of The Polish Catholic Church Under German Occupation: The Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939-1945

Why did I love this book?

Huener has produced a definitive study of the Catholic Church in western Poland under German occupation. Identified by the Germans as the Reichsgau (district) Wartheland or Warthegau, it encompassed 45,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire) with a “population of more than 4.9 million, including approximately 4.2 million Poles, 400,000 Jews, and 325,000 Germans.” Of this demographic, 3.8 million were Catholic and ninety percent were ethnic Poles. The German Reich incorporated the territory even though its borders remained guarded and not easily crossed. It included 1,023 parishes, served by 1,829 diocesan priests, 277 male religious, and 2,666 women religious.

Before World War II ended, the German occupiers would close more than ninety-seven percent of the churches, dissolve all Catholic organizations, deport, or imprison most women religious, and arrest more than 1,500 priests, of whom 815 they murdered directly or indirectly. In eighteen succinct and exceptionally well-written chapters, Huener uncovers the history of the church in the Warthegau, masterfully contextualizing it in the politics of the Nazi occupation. It is the first English language study on this topic, extensively based upon sources from both church and state archives.

By Jonathan Huener,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Polish Catholic Church Under German Occupation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it aimed to destroy Polish national consciousness. As a symbol of Polish national identity and the religious faith of approximately two-thirds of Poland's population, the Roman Catholic Church was an obvious target of the Nazi regime's policies of ethnic, racial, and cultural Germanization.

Jonathan Huener reveals in The Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation that the persecution of the church was most severe in the Reichsgau Wartheland, a region of Poland annexed to Nazi Germany. Here Catholics witnessed the execution of priests, the incarceration of hundreds of clergymen and nuns in prisons and…

Soldier of Christ

By Robert A. Ventresca,

Book cover of Soldier of Christ

Why did I love this book?

The leading expert on the Holy See during World War II, Ventresca offers us an immensely readable and authoritative biography of the elusive Eugenio Pacelli. In many ways, it surpasses all previous biographies in its comprehensive and convincing analysis of its central subject, Pope Pius XII. Ventresca adeptly bores through the polemical and problematic arguments that encompass the decades-long “Pius Wars” and offers us a balanced portrait of Pacelli, who is neither a condemned reprobate nor an exalted saint. Rather, Ventresca shows that Pacelli was a man of his time, burdened with nearly insurmountable challenges, who nevertheless consistently preferred to address them through a diplomatic path of prudence and caution that always placed the needs of the institutional Church before all other concerns.  

By Robert A. Ventresca,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Soldier of Christ as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Debates over the legacy of Pope Pius XII and his canonization are so heated they are known as the "Pius wars." Soldier of Christ moves beyond competing caricatures and considers Pius XII as Eugenio Pacelli, a flawed and gifted man. While offering insight into the pope's response to Nazism, Robert A. Ventresca argues that it was the Cold War and Pius XII's manner of engaging with the modern world that defined his pontificate.

Laying the groundwork for the pope's controversial, contradictory actions from 1939 to 1958, Ventresca begins with the story of Pacelli's Roman upbringing, his intellectual formation in Rome's…

Book cover of The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany, 1945-1980

Why did I love this book?

Ruff has produced a tour de force examination of the behind-the-scenes historiography of the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany. A deeply and richly researched study, it enables both specialists and non-specialists alike to comprehend the complex and tempestuous writing of the history of the Catholic Church’s choices during Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s years in power. In particular, Ruff delves into the storm over Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial play, The Deputy, to help us understand the current controversies over the choices of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.  

By Mark Edward Ruff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany, 1945-1980 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Were Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church in Germany unduly singled out after 1945 for their conduct during the National Socialist era? Mark Edward Ruff explores the bitter controversies that broke out in the Federal Republic of Germany from 1945 to 1980 over the Catholic Church's relationship to the Nazis. He explores why these cultural wars consumed such energy, dominated headlines, triggered lawsuits and required the intervention of foreign ministries. He argues that the controversies over the church's relationship to National Socialism were frequently surrogates for conflicts over how the church was to position itself in modern society -…

Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich

By Hubert Wolf, Kenneth Kronenberg (translator),

Book cover of Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich

Why did I love this book?

Wolf argues that many conclusions that historians have made about Eugenio Pacelli’s conduct during the 1920s and 30s are valid, having confirmed this in his own investigation of the records released by the Vatican Secret Archive from Pius XI’s pontificate. At the same time, Wolf provides much-needed contextualization to trace the debates within the Vatican around central decisions taken by the Church’s hierarchy in the face of authoritarian regimes. Primarily utilizing four archival record groups from the Nunciatures of Munich and Berlin, Papal Secretariat of State, the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Wolf reconstructs Rome’s view of Germany from 1917-1939. He shows clear patterns in the choices that Eugenio Pacelli made as Nuncio in Munich and Berlin and as the Holy See’s Cardinal Secretary of State. Wolf’s writing style – made available in this fine translation – makes this complex history accessible and uncovers the mystery surrounding Vatican archival sources.

By Hubert Wolf, Kenneth Kronenberg (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pope and Devil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Vatican's dealings with the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich have long been swathed in myth and speculation. After almost seventy years, the crucial records for the years leading up to 1939 were finally opened to the public, revealing the bitter conflicts that raged behind the walls of the Holy See. Anti-Semites and philo-Semites, adroit diplomats and dogmatic fundamentalists, influential bishops and powerful cardinals argued passionately over the best way to contend with the intellectual and political currents of the modern age: liberalism, communism, fascism, and National Socialism. Hubert Wolf explains why a philo-Semitic association was dissolved even as…

Book cover of From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965

Why did I love this book?

In From Enemy to Brother, John Connelly, observes, “If there was a neighbor needing a Good Samaritan in the 1930s it was the Jew, yet the day’s moral theology placed Jews on the lowest rung of the ‘hierarchy of love’: after family, after other Catholics, and after members of one’s nation and race.” Jews who converted to Christianity failed to advance much higher. As Connelly shows, at least in Central and Eastern Europe, some Catholic theologians taught that conversion did not immediately free Jews of their Jewish heritage. It could take generations before Christianity completely took hold. Catholic anti-Judaic deicide teaching, fueled by centuries of Christian antisemitism, bore and nourished such a negative outlook toward Jews. In the 1930s, Catholic theologians only had to take one step further to link their primitive view of Jews and Jewish converts to the prevailing National Socialist racial teaching. The result produced an annihilative theological worldview that undergirded state-mandated racism – a racism that led to the exclusion and murder of Jews.

Therefore, one cannot, like the Vatican, separate the legacy of Christian antisemitism from the Holocaust. As Connelly succinctly argues, “Clearly the Holocaust was unthinkable without the ancient Christian legacy of deicide as well as the related idea that Jews were cut off from divine grace, destined to wander the earth until they turned to Christ.” Connelly’s masterful book sheds light on the progression of this negative teaching under National Socialism and shows how a small but vigilant group of Catholics, mostly converts from Judaism and Protestantism, challenged prevailing Catholic antisemitism and, after the war, ultimately changed the way the Church views Jews. 

By John Connelly,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Enemy to Brother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that God loves the Jews. Before that, the Church had taught for centuries that Jews were cursed by God and, in the 1940s, mostly kept silent as Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. How did an institution whose wisdom is said to be unchanging undertake one of the most enormous, yet undiscussed, ideological swings in modern history?

The radical shift of Vatican II grew out of a buried history, a theological struggle in Central Europe in the years just before the Holocaust, when a small group of Catholic converts (especially former Jew Johannes…

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