Saturday, December 2, 2017

Post-WWII Debates over the Roman Catholic Church in Nazi Germany

Earlier this week the NYT reported a story about the sentencing of twenty-nine former officials from Argentina who were convicted of murdering civilians by throwing them from aircraft. These crimes took place during the military dictatorship there from the mid-'70s to the early '80s. Part of the story is the apparent complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the junta’s crimes. According to the Times, while "no member of the clergy was accused in the trial, ...prosecutors alleged that church officials were complicit in hiding detainees from international human rights inspectors." For more on this story, go to:

In the same week, Pope Francis was criticized by human rights officials for not referring by name to the Rohingya people during his visit to Myanmar. It was widely thought that the pope needed to tread carefully regarding what he said about Myanmar's persecuted Muslim minority while in that country, at least partly out of concern for his own Catholic flock there. Only yesterday, on the eve of his departure from Bangladesh to Rome, did he publicly state, "The presence of God today is also called Rohingya."

These stories brought to mind a recently published book by Mark Ruff, a professor of history at St. Louis University. His 394-page book, The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany 1945-1980 (Cambridge, 2017), explores the public post-war debates in Germany about the Roman Catholic Church's actions during the Nazi regime. Ruff's well-written and carefully researched study sheds a light on the very acrimonious exchanges in the German media during those years when Roman Church critics and Roman Church defenders waged their struggles against each other. To explain the intensity of these conflicts Ruff reconstructs the political, ecclesiastical, and intellectual networks in which this particular "culture war" occurred. These networks "controlled levers of funding, regulated access to historical documents and served as a gateway to the international media at a time when most documents lay under lock and key and a modern scholarly infrastructure with its ubiquitous conferences and research centers was in its infancy."

Ruff shows that the range of participants in these public arguments crossed national boundaries and German political parties and included professors, public intellectuals, international journalists, Communist propagandists, and leaders from multiple religions (including Vatican officials and also Pope Paul VI). The book opens a window to many of these personalities. In the end, the reader will have a better understanding of the less savory aspects of these public disputes--the involvement of the East German government, the actions of Vatican officials against church critics at Catholic universities and religious institutions, the course of lawsuits (and "the court of public opinion" about them), efforts at press censorship in Germany and other countries. Still, the book also provides a very insightful investigation into intellectual history, with aspects of political, social, and cultural history serving as the larger framework.

I definitely plan to assign portions of the book near the end of my undergraduate course on Christians in Nazi Germany, when we examine how Christians and others in the post-war period sought to come to grips with what Christians had done (and not done) during the Third Reich.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to mention that Mark Ruff is a dear friend. I have known many members of his extended family since 1986, when I lived in the home of one of his great aunts, Dorothy Ruff, who was a member of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Lancaster, Ohio, where I did my year-long pastoral internship (vicarage). Later, for nearly a decade, Mark and I were close colleagues at Concordia University, Portland, where he taught history. (Mark is also an excellent organist. He played the organ at my father's funeral.) My wife played matchmaker for Mark and his future bride, Lynnae. I was best man in their wedding. Mark's father, a retired LCMS pastor, is also a good friend, as are another aunt and uncle. (They recently participated in my Reformation tour to Germany.)

Still, I think I'm a fair judge of quality scholarship when I see it, and Mark's book is certainly of very high quality! I learned a lot from reading it.

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