Saturday, July 28, 2012

Trapped in the Garden of Beasts

In between work work working and run run running I've gotten a little reading in.  After several strike outs from various $1 bins I snagged a copy of Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts from the local used book shop.

The book follows U.S. ambassador William Dodd - a mild mannered history professor who became ambassador in 1933 basically because he was the only one who didn't turn Roosevelt down - to a Germany in which Adolph Hitler was just coming to power but which still presented a face of beauty and culture to the world.  Appointed Chancellor in  January 1933 by President Hindenburg, Hitler wasted no time in moving to consolidate power.  Yet, throughout those early years when the oppression, the propaganda, and the violence grew, the thought remained that Hitler would not last.  He couldn't possibly succeed.  It all was just too obviously insane.

Dodd, initially taken with Hitler's seemingly sincere desire for peace, held out hope for a while.  But in the end, he stopped meeting with Hitler, seeing him for what he was, but like so many others, still holding onto hope that he couldn't possibly last long.

Ambassador William Dodd in Berlin, 1933

The U.S. already had its hands full with the Great Depression - getting mixed up with conflict with Germany was the last thing Roosevelt wanted.  Dodd's position required that he handle Nazi thug attacks on Americans, watch the regime carefully, and try to convey to others the horror he saw coming - a horror that was descending not just on Jews but on any group that the Nazi party viewed as "other" and as dissidents.

Dodd also had a wild daughter, prone to love affairs and scandal, which made his job doubly hard.  

It's a good read - I highly recommend it. 

Dodd watched the position of Jews in Germany deteriorate into the evil we know as "The Final Solution", but Hitler and his minions weren't picky about who they unleashed hell on.

The post World War I Catholic Church in Germany claimed 20 million members and 20,000 priests.  Its political interests were represented by the Catholic Center Party, which had been launched in 1870 in opposition to Bismark's Kulturkampf.  There was an active Catholic press, Catholic labor unions, and a Catholic Youth Organization with 1.5 million members.  Initially, like so many others, some Catholics viewed Nazism as a potential ally against the spread of Communism.  But by 1931 various regional bishops were condemning the Nazi Party.

Hitler moved swiftly after his appointment.  By March 1933, the "Enabling Act" had given him virtually dictatorial powers, and his Gestapo, SS, and SD used terror and brutality to remove opposition.  Dachau was opened in March 1933 and thousands disappeared into it.  In July 1933 Germany officially became a one-party state.  As dissidents were jailed and killed, the Christian trade unions were dissolved.  Constant pressure was applied by the Gestapo, who rounded up hundreds of priest for speaking out against anti-democratic changes and against the persecution of Jews. Thousands of members of the Catholic Center Party were jailed and sent to concentration camps.  In the face of that, some bishops agreed to permit church members to join the Nazi party.

Dachau, 1933
Wanting a formal document establishing the legal status of Catholics in Nazi Germany, Pope Pius XI signed a concordat with Hitler on July 20, 1933.  As with all agreements he signed, Hitler then ignored it and the persecution went on.  Any who opposed the Nazis were arrested and executed for "crimes against the state."

On June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives was unleashed.  It was a bloody purging of political opposition, including the leadership of the Brown Shirts, whose thugs were no longer useful to Hitler.  Among those who died that night was the president of Catholic Action in Germany, Eric Klausener.  He had delivered a speech against the regime to the Catholic Congress in Berlin earlier in the month.  Klausener was shot in the back in his office and his entire staff was sent to concentration camps.

The "Editor's Law" of December 1933 required all editors to joint the Literary Chamber of the Third Reich.  Rather than print Nazi propaganda on issues such as forced sterilization and euthanasia, Catholic newspapers and publications closed.  At the start of 1933 there were more than 400 daily Catholic newspapers.  By 1935 there were none.  In 1941 the government shut down the remaining diocesan weekly papers and Catholic journals.

The Hitler Youth became mandatory for all German boys and girls in 1936 - all other youth organizations were abolished.  Parents who sent their children to Catholic schools were required to appear before authorities and publicly declare why they were betraying the regime.  By 1939, more than 10,000 Catholic schools had closed.

Yet still Catholic voices spoke out.  Pius XI led with his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge ("With Burning Concern"), condemning the elevation of race above all.  Catholic bishops delivered sermons that condemned Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda:  from the cathedrals of Munich, Munster, Berlin, Breslau, and Cologne the Nazis were attacked.  The Nazi response was to arrest hundreds of German priests, lay-brothers, and women religious for show trials.

Martin Bormann made the Nazi position on churches clear in a decree for regional party leaders in 1941:
"More and more the people must be separated from the churches and their organs the pastors...  Just as the deleterious influences of astrologers, seers and other fakers are eliminated and suppressed by the State, so must the possibility of church influence also be totally removed...Not until this has happened, does the state leadership have influence on the individual citizens."
The need for Nazi separation of the people from their churches was demonstrated in the Netherlands in 1941 when Catholics took part in strikes and protests against the Nazi treatment of the Jews.  The Nazis declared that all Jewish converts and Jews married to Gentiles would be exempted from deportation if the opposition stopped.  The Archbishop of Utrecht refused.  In response, all Catholics of Jewish blood were deported.

Dachau alone housed 2,579 Catholic priests, along with unnumbered seminarians and lay brothers.  1,034 priests died in the camp.  The Nazi hatred of Poland and its ruthless destruction and enslavement of its people sent nearly 5,000 Polish priests into concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Mathausen, and Buchenwald.  Thousands of nuns were also sent to camps  or killed along the way.

Written by a survivor of Dachau's "Priestblock"

And in a tiny nation-state less than a half kilometer square in Italy, Catholics worked to protect those against whom the Nazis had turned their most vicious hatred.  But that's a blog for another day.


  1. Nice find. I added this one to my reading list. So often the Hitler's actions towards Catholics is ignored, or denied.

    1. I realized after I posted - the book itself is just about Dodd and family and the insanity he saw develop. I took up the thread on the status of the Catholic Church in Germany from my own culling. For exactly the reason that it's easy to say the Church was complicit without actually reading the history of the time.

    2. Ah, that was my misread. Thank you for taking time to research and post the truth.

  2. Good post and both good points! Thanks for the history lesson!

    Posted from my iPhone.

    1. Thanks. Ironic thing I notice when reading about Hitler: I can't tell the difference between him and Stalin. And we gave half of Europe to Stalin after the war.

  3. Really great post PH. "Of course", nothing like that could ever happen here, could it...

    1. Thanks. There's a phrase "the banality of evil". In reading some of the accounts you think "how could people go along with this?" Then you read "Inside the Third Reich" and you see some people diving in with enthusiasm, some just slipping into it without really seeming to realize what they are doing.