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The Catholic Response

LAURENCE REES: I’m struck by your treatment of Bishop Galen in your book, the priest who protests at the whole euthanasia policy. Something which raises the question as to why there wasn’t a similar protest when the Jews were being expelled?

RICHARD EVANS: Well the catholic church - particularly through Bishop Galen- also the protestants, did raise a major protest in July and August 1941 against the mass murder of the inmates of mental hospitals and mental asylums. Up to then about 70,000 had been killed, mostly by gassing, in mental hospitals across the Reich from September 1939. Galen delivered this sermon, which he had printed and distributed and read out from pulpits everywhere, creating a major furor. Hitler stopped the programme. Privately they were all furious but they recognised that to try and arrest Galen was going to maybe lose the catholic support for the war, which was a large proportion of the German population. That was, I think, articulating a far wider protest by the relatives and friends of the people who had been killed. You can see this kind of underneath the surface in the way they phrased the death notices in the newspapers- “unexpectedly taken from us”, “to our great surprise”. Union protest letters were sent and they went to their priest or their pastor to complain. The victims of this so called euthanasia campaign are bound into the German community in many different ways so that they find in the church, just one of the only two independent organisations left in Nazi Germany, alongside the army, a spokesperson, a mouthpiece and that’s what rendered the protest effective.

But the church was not interested in non-Christians. It did try and protect Jews who had converted to Christianity, or Jews who were labeled as racial Jews by the Nazis but as Christian by the churches, but the Jews were a very small minority in Germany itself- 1% in 1933 and just 0.5% by 1940/41. They’d been deliberately removed from the German community by the Nazis and had been marginalised in many ways. They’d been dispossessed; they’d been taken out of the economy, taken out of culture and banned from interacting with non-Jewish Germans, at almost every level. They were being forced increasingly to live in separate Jewish houses, so they were taken away from the population.

The catholic church and the protestant church were both extremely nervous about arousing the regime’s hostility any further than they’d already done in 1941, and the catholic church was under orders from the Pope to keep quiet because the Pope was extremely anxious about the advancing Red Armies from the beginning of 1943 and he saw Germany as a defence against Godless communism. After all the churches still existed in Nazi Germany and people still went to church, which was not the case in Russia. He saw the catholic church, particularly in the neutral status of the Vatican, as a means of trying to broker an end to the Second World War. This was quite unrealistic I think, but in order to do it you mustn’t annoy the Nazi regime. So there are a whole bundle of reasons why the churches did not raise their voices.

LAURENCE REES: Isn’t it strange though when you read the speech of Galen - so much about the nature of humanity - and yet a few months later the Jews are being marched out and he doesn’t utter a word?

RICHARD EVANS: Yes, Galen did not do anything or say anything to try and rescue the Jews. On the other hand if you look at secret Nazi surveillance reports of the behaviour of the crowds who gather in German towns and cities to watch the Jews being deported you find a lot of muttering, almost under their breaths, that 'this is wrong… these are people just like us… God will have his vengeance…' for example. So there’s a sense of guilt there I think almost straightaway. I think one shouldn’t underestimate the element of fear. Although it’s downplayed somewhat now by some historians, this was a dictatorship in which you could get sentenced to death for telling jokes about Hitler and in which any kind of open criticism, Galen being a great exception here because of who he was, would be met with imprisonment or death. Indeed there were scores of priests who were carted off to concentration camps for raising their voices in protest, so I think people were simply afraid.

LAURENCE REES: Except then it makes the experience of the Danes all the more extraordinary doesn’t it? They moved to save their Jews, didn't they?

RICHARD EVANS: Well there were very few Jews in Denmark. In Denmark they were mostly in Copenhagen by this time. I think it's certainly true to say that there is a sort of low or middling level of anti-Semitism through many sets of German society, you don’t find the same in Denmark. At the same time of course there is quite widespread and increasingly violent and vocal resistance in Denmark. That is one reason why the SS boss in Denmark, Werner Best, decides in the end that because the news that the Jews will be arrested and deported will create even more resistance, why not just tip off the Danes and then they will secretly ship them off to Sweden. They did this and got rid of the problem and there’s no more resistance, so it kept the resistance down. So I think there are a number of very special circumstances in the Danish case and you don’t find this in the Dutch or the Belgian cases.