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John P. GalvinDecember 13, 2004
Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germanyby By Robert A. KriegContinuum. 234p $24.95

Robert Krieg, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of several studies of 20th-century German Catholic theologians. In the work under review, he examines the widely varying stances taken toward Nazism by selected Catholic theologians in Hitler’s Germany. His secondary goal is to analyze the policies of the German episcopate toward Nazism in light of the bishops’ conceptions of the church’s mission. Krieg’s project is particularly welcome, since Klaus Scholder’s studies of the churches and the Third Reich devote little space to individual theologians, and Robert Ericksen’s Theologians Under Hitler examines only Protestant authors.

An opening chapter discusses the bishops’ early condemnations of National Socialism and the softening of that opposition after Hitler came to power. Krieg then turns his attention to five theologians who, unlike most of their colleagues, addressed Nazism directly in their writing and lectures. Successive chapters study Karl Eschweiler, Joseph Lortz, Karl Adam, Romano Guardini and Engelbert Krebs. Eschweiler, Lortz and Adam were (in varying degrees and for varying lengths of time) favorably disposed toward Hitler, while Guardini and Krebs were consistently opposed. A final chapter summarizes this material, with the argument that differing theological assessments of modernity and alternative visions of the nature and mission of the church strongly influenced the political decisions of Catholic bishops and theologians.

Karl Eschweiler (1886-1936), author of an important study of 19th-century German Catholic theology, was professor of dogmatic theology at Braunsberg. Eschweiler, the dean, supported collaboration of the church with the Nazi state, joined the party in 1933 and publicly defended the law authorizing involuntary sterilization. Though he retracted his position on sterilization after being suspended from the priesthood and deprived of his canonical mission to teach theology, he remained an advocate of authoritarian government and was buried in his Nazi uniform.

Joseph Lortz (1887-1975) was a prominent church historian, best known for his History of the Church and his writings on the Reformation. A colleague of Eschweiler’s at Braunsberg from 1929 to 1933, he replaced a professor removed by the Nazis at Münster from 1933 to 1945. Dismissed after the war, he later taught at Mainz. Though a pioneer in ecumenism, Lortz was hostile to modernity, welcomed the rise of National Socialism, and joined the party along with Eschweiler. But he had second thoughts in the mid-1930’s. After speaking of the basic kinship between National Socialism and Catholicism in a pamphlet published in 1933 and summarized in an appendix to the 1934 edition of his History of the Church, he modified the appendix in 1936 and eliminated it in 1937.

Karl Adam (1876-1966) was professor of dogmatics in Tübingen. An internationally popular author, he advocated a romantic view of history that made some aspects of Nazism attractive. Adam’s record with regard to Nazism is mixed. An essay in 1933 welcomed Hitler in messianic terms and defended the newly enacted racial legislation. Adam supported the invasion of Poland and published an appallingly anti-Semitic theological essay in 1943. Yet he also criticized neo-pagan tendencies in Nazism as early as 1934. As a result, his lectures were disrupted and he was temporarily suspended from teaching.

The final two theologians present more attractive portraits. The best-known, the Italian-born Romano Guardini (1885-1968), a man of immense religious and cultural breadth, taught the Catholic worldview at the University of Berlin, where the theological faculty was Protestant. Guardini’s complex views of European culture were at variance with Nazi ideology. His professorship was abolished in 1939, but after the war he held similar chairs in Tübingen and Munich.

The strongest opponent of Nazi ideology was Engelbert Krebs (1881-1950), professor of dogmatic theology at Freiburg and director of Guardini’s dissertation. Known for his respect for post-Enlightenment thought, Krebs published between 1926 and 1933 three articles and pamphlets strongly condemning anti-Semitism. He defended the autonomy of the university against government interference, and was suspended from teaching in 1936 and forced into retirement the following year. Reinstated in 1945, he retired soon thereafter for medical reasons.

In a final chapter, Krieg distinguishes three models of the church that informed the decisions of theologians and bishops: an institutional approach, which envisioned the church as a self-sufficient perfect society; an approach that saw the church as the Mystical Body of Christ; and an approach that understood the church as a moral advocate and servant of truth and justice. Each model had strengths and limitations. The institutional conception strengthened cohesion among Catholics but fostered policies concerned primarily with institutional survival. The second model promoted a more organic sense of the church but was vulnerable to nationalistic distortions. The final model encouraged opposition to injustice, but lacked clarity on the ultimate goals of the church’s mission. In Krieg’s judgment, one-sided conceptions of the church contributed greatly to the inadequate Catholic response to the evils of Nazism.

Drawing on a wide variety of German and English sources, Krieg has written an informative book on an important and neglected topic. His evaluations of individuals are balanced and nuanced, with due attention to their historical context. But there are some weaknesses. An account of the status of ecclesiastically recognized faculties of Catholic theology at Central European public universities would have helped American readers to understand a theological setting quite different from our own. In the chapters on the five theologians, frequent digressions interrupt the flow of thought. There are numerous factual errors, particularly on geographical matters.

Nonetheless, Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germany makes an important contribution toward a better understanding of an important period of Catholic theology.

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