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Pius XI and the Rise of Adolf Hitler
Roman Catholic Popes series by William P. Meyers

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Pope Pius XI was born on May 31, 1857 in Desio, Italy as Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti. He became Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on February 6, 1922 and died February 10, 1939. His reign as Pope coincided with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party to political power in Germany. This essay examines the relationship between the rise of Hitler and the Vatican.

The Catholic Church and it Popes had long opposed democracy as a method of government, preferring monarchies or dictatorships, especially those that were in favor of making Catholicism the exclusive legal religion. Until World War I the main enemy of the church was the combination of democracy and secularism (the idea that governments should not force any particular religion on their subjects), both of which were becoming stronger during the 19th century in Protestant nations. Atheism, anarchism and socialism were also feared, but until World War I there was no government controlled by socialists.

The triumph of the Leninist version of Marxism in the Russian Revolution by 1922 had brought a new enemy of the Church to the forefront. Pius XI set out to destroy the atheist state in the Soviet Union and to prevent atheism, communism or even socialism and democracy spreading to other nations around the world. However, the Catholic Church itself was probably weaker than at any time since it became the sole legal religion of the Roman Empire.

The Church's cooperation with the fascist regime in Italy showed a path forward. Pope Pius XI sought to place authoritarian, pro-Catholic regimes in every nation. Germany was a particularly important nation in the Pope's plan. It was an industrial power and it was well-situated geographically to lead a crusade against Russian and other communist nations within the Soviet Union.

When Pius XI became Pope in 1922 the German National Socialist Party, or Nazi Party, was an insignificant political force inside Germany. Although Hitler was born Catholic, he was above all a Germany nationalist who probably saw the Pope, and potentially the Catholic Church in Germany, as an international institution that would only help Germany if a German Pope, a creature of Hitler, were appointed. At the same time Hitler had a certain admiration for Mussolini and the Italian fascists, who came to power for practical purposes when Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister on October 28, 1922.

Before Pius XI decided to hitch the Catholic Church's fortunes to Hitler, he supported the rise of other authoritarian Catholic politicians in Germany. These actions set the conditions that eventually allowed Pius XI to help propel Adolf Hitler to dictatorial control of Germany. Pius XI's representative in Germany (Papal Nuncio) all through the period being discussed was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would later become Pius XII.

Germany at the time had a population that was more Protestant than Catholic, but religious observance in general was declining. Those with church affiliations tended to be Catholic in southern German provinces, and Protestant in northern ones. There was no strict correlation between right-wing parties and particular religions, but the Catholic Church hierarchy tended strongly to the right. A Catholic Centre Party, existed, but it posed problems for the Church hierarchy because, as a participant in a Democratic system, its membership sometimes saw its role as building a good democracy, rather than as an instrument for the destruction of democracy. The leader of the democratic wing of this Catholic Party, Matthias Erzberger, was assassinated in 1921 by a right-wing Catholic paramilitary organization. A Dr. Marx became head of the Catholic Party. In 1924 the Catholic Party entered a coalition with the German National Peoples Party, the party of rich industrialists and the army. Dr. Marx became Chancellor, but the parliamentary democracy system continued to function.

The 1928 elections made the Social Democratic Party the dominant party in the Reichstag and the Catholic Party vote shrank dramatically. Wishing to retain some power, the Catholic Party made a coalition with the Social Democrats with Hermann Mueller as Chancellor. About the same time Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli concluded that, while they favored a dictatorship, the Catholic Party might not be the best instrument for that. It had too little support among the German people. They needed a party that could whip up the German people for a crusade to crush atheism in Germany and then attack the USSR. At first their preferred instrument would be the German National Peoples Party, even though it was not an exclusively Catholic party.

However Paul von Hindenburg, President of Germany, and his allies were actively looking for a way to create a military dictatorship. They believed Article 48 of the German ("Weimar") Constitution could be used for that purpose. In 1930 Hindenburg dismissed Mueller and picked Dr. Heinrich Bruening (or Brüning) of the Catholic Party to do the dirty work. On April 1, 1930, Chancellor Bruening became the effective dictator of Germany. However, he was placed in power by others, and would not be able to hold onto power. Note that the global economic Great Depression had begun by this point.

Bruening tried to exercise power under Article 48, but there was resistance, so he called for new elections. It was in the September 1930 elections that the Nazi's program of national socialism - jobs and bread for all - caught the electorate's mood. The Nazis had 107 deputies elected to the Reichstag, the Social Democrats 142. The communists took 77 seats, The Catholic Centre Party elected only 68 and the German National Peoples Party only 41. [See complete 1930 German election results]

It was clear to Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli that neither the Catholic Party nor the Nationalist Party had enough popular support to form the basis of a fascist-style dictatorship. They had not ignored Hitler, but now they began to court him. The potential combination of the Communists and Social Democrats (which never occurred) particularly terrified the Pontiff.

The Social Democrats remained in their coalition with the Catholic Party, and Bruening remained Chancellor. As the economic situation became worse, the Nazis were able to lay the blame on the ruling coalition (just as in the U.S. the Democrats blamed Herbert Hoover and the Republicans). Bruening made the mistake (probably influenced by Cardinal Pacelli) of seeing Hitler as an ally against Communism rather than a serious rival for power. In late 1930 Chancellor Bruening agreed to give some cabinet posts to the Nazis, but the negotiations broke down when Hitler demanded more posts than Bruening was willing to give up. One of Hitler's financial supporters was the Catholic industrialist Thyssen, also a supporter of Bruening, arranged for Hitler to meet with President Hindenburg. A deal was made where Bruening would continue in office for one year, Hindenburg would be supported by Hitler in another term as President, and Nazis would then be given key positions in the cabinet. But again the deal broke down before it was implemented.

Bruening was very unpopular, as was his pet plan to restore the monarchy. On May 30, 1932 the re-elected Hindenburg dismissed Chancellor Bruening. The generals thought they were in charge; a cabinet was formed headed by General von Schleicher. Strangely, by this time the Vatican was backing Hitler. The generals, still uncertain of Hitler, decided on a compromise Catholic Chancellor, Franz von Papen. When another election was held in July 1932 [See Germany July 1932 election], the results were a further weakening of the Catholic Centre Party and a strengthening of the Nazis, who became the largest party, and Communists.

Hitler had to win over many people to come to power. Any of a number of individuals or groups might have blocked him at one point or another: German capitalists, the military, Pius XI, and the electorate, for instance. I would not argue that Pius XI simply put Hitler in power. Rather, he used the influence of the Church to promote a series of Catholic would be dictators, of whom Hitler was simply the last and most formidable.

Franz von Papen owned the largest Catholic newspaper corporation in Germany. He had the support of many highly influential German Catholics, but not of Pius XI or Cardinal Pacelli (who at this point was Vatican Secretary of State). Pius XI wanted the Catholic Centre Party dissolved in favor of the Nazis. There were many in the Party who wanted to keep the Catholic Party alive and rule through a coalition with the National Socialists and German National Peoples Party; they supported von Papen.

Intrigues rather than elections shaped Germany from this point forward. Von Papen was replaced by yet another Catholic Chancellor, General Kurt von Schleicher. Von Papen, aggrieved, is given credit for persuading Hindenburg to dump Schleicher in favor of Hitler. Von Papen promised the support of Pius XI to Hitler in return for Hitler's promise to destroy Communism and make the Catholic Church the official German church.

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.

See also:

Franz von Papen, Hitler, and Two Popes
Pius XI and the Rise of Benito Mussolini
Notes and Comments on Hitler and the Vatican by Peter Godman
Franz Von Papen detailed analysis at the Jewish Virtual Library

Further reading:

The Vatican in World Politics by Avro Manhattan, published in the U.S. by Gaer Associates, 1949.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer