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from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

The german resistance to Hitler

The bishops and the coup

What did the German ecclesiastical hierarchy know about the attempted coup d’état on 20 July 1944? Were they in direct contact with the dissidents and aware of the conspirators’ plot against Hitler? A document until now unknown to historians makes it clear that…

by Stefania Falasca

Above, Hitler and Mussolini inspecting the Führer’s headquarters in Rastenburg destroyed in the bomb attempt of 20 July 1944; down, Pius XII with the cardinal of Munich Michael von Faulhaber

Above, Hitler and Mussolini inspecting the Führer’s headquarters in Rastenburg destroyed in the bomb attempt of 20 July 1944; down, Pius XII with the cardinal of Munich Michael von Faulhaber

«Coûte que coûte… cost what it may, the coup goes through». Henning von Tresckow, the most resolute of the opponents of the regime in the upper hierarchy of the Nazi state, thus spoke of the necessity of «a last and decisive gesture» to put an end to the swastika barbarity. At 12.00 a.m. on that 20 July 1944, in Rastenburg, the aristocratic Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg spent a few minutes in prayer before going into the “Wolf’s den” to set the bomb that would blow it apart. But that day, once again, Adolf Hitler came out unharmed from an appointment with death. The coup d’état that might have saved the lives of millions of people and at least wiped clean the honor of Germany failed. The rest is history.
That same evening von Stauffenberg and the other soldiers in the plot were shot. Hitler declared to the German people that the attempt to eliminate him had been nothing but the work of «a narrow clique of ambitious and irresponsible officers», against whom he would act «as we National Socialists have become used to doing»: «I want them to be hanged, hung like beef from meat hooks»1. To «expedite the matter» he appointed the bloodthirsty president of the Volksgerichtshof, the People’s Tribunal, Roland Freisler. On 8 August came the first hangings. The international press did not miss what was going on in Germany. The New York Times said that the attempt on Hitler made one think more «of the atmosphere of a dank criminal world than what one would expect from a normal body of officers of a civilian state». The Herald Tribune played the same tune: «Americans won’t be sorry that the bomb has spared Hitler and that now he personally is getting rid of his generals. In any case Americans have nothing to share with aristocrats, especially those that go in for backstabbing». The British premier Winston Churchill had knowledge of a great many things, including the attempts of the German resistance at the end of the ’thirties to overturn the regime. Yet in his message to the House of Commons on 2 August 1944, he dismissed the attempt in the “Wolf’s den” «as a power struggle among generals of the Third Reich»2.
The manhunt by agents of the Volksgerichtshof began the very evening of the attempt, and in the course of a few weeks led to the arrest of six hundred people. By mid August the number had risen to five thousand. By mid September, when it was thought that all those most responsible had been executed, the investigators discovered secret documents containing the plans for a coup that had been plotted towards the end of the ’thirties. Shocked by the ramification of the dissent, Hitler himself, who had initially thought of setting up show-trials, with the hearings filmed and broadcast, had to reject the idea and in the end not even the press reported the executions as they happened.
Even if historians of Nazism have for many years been almost unanimous in claiming that during the dictatorship there was no form of opposition to Hitler’s regime, and the heaping together of the Nazi party and the German people has covered the deaths of these people in silence, it has been shown for some time that the resistance that led to the attack of 20 July was not an attempt by a handful of officers with nothing behind them, but rather a real attempt at a coup d’état, planned with care and with a vast and ramified backing in which diverse milieu of the military and civilian dissent came together. Among the numerous exemplary testimonies given in court during the trials in the People’s Tribune, that of the burgormaster of Leipzig, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, leader of civilian dissent, stands out. With firmness and courage he defended the activity conducted for years by the civilian and military resistance. «As he saw it,» his biographer writes, «20 July was not simply a coup d’état but was about the uprising of a whole people represented by the best and noblest spirits from all classes, from the whole spectrum of the parties from right to left and from both the Christian Churches» 3.
The core of civilian dissent to Nazism was constituted in Berlin by the members of what was known as the Kreisau Circle which gathered around such figures of high moral and religious standing as Graf Helmuth James von Moltke and Graf Peter Yorck von Wartenburg. Various intellectuals, socialists, theologians and members of the Lutheran Church and some Jesuits belonged to the Circle, such as Father Alfred Delp, editor of the magazine Stimmen der Zeit, Father Augustinus Rösch, the provincial of Bavaria, with his secretary Father Lothar König, along with former trade-unionists and former members of Zentrum, the old center party of Christian inspiration. For religious reasons many members of the Kreisau Circle were against the killing of the dictator. But from 1942 onwards, driven by events in Poland and knowledge of the gas chambers reserved for Jews and dissidents, some advocated the theory of the lesser evil they believed more consistent with Christian doctrine4. Almost all the members of the Circle and those in sympathy with it were arrested, tortured and executed. The first was Graf Peter Yorck. Hanged from a meat-hook on 8 August 1944. It was the turn of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer on 9 April 1945. Father Alfred Delp was gibbeted on 23 January of that year, together with the Graf von Moltke.
A letter from the archbishop of Frieburg, Konrad Gröber, sent in those days to the nuncio in Berlin, provides information on the happenings: «If I write to Your Excellence this time it is to ask you to inform the Holy See that currently many people, once belonging to the Zentrum, were arrested yesterday morning… Here in Freiburg alone they come to around fifty men and women, Catholics of the best sort, stricken by this fate. … I have done what was in my power until now. I retained it my duty, however, to concern Your Excellence also, given that these are people known both to the Holy Father and to you personally. I add that this wave of arrests has not touched churchmen» 5.

Contacts at risk
But what did the upper levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchies know about the attempt? Were the German prelates aware of the plan made by the conspirators? And what was their attitude?
The Gestapo in Cologne, in a report sent to Berlin, noted «that many people were amazed by the absence of comments from the bishops» and that «the best part of the clergy regret in their hearts that the attempt on Hitler failed». The reservation engaged in by the Catholic Church towards the attempt was described as follows by a ranking Nazi: «It is typical of the clergy that not even one priest, including the bishops, has found a word of scorn for the attempt of the traitors against the Führer or shown pleasure in his survival» 6.
Of the apostolic nuncio to the Reich, Cesare Orsenigo, as the Jesuit Giovanni Sale, historian and writer for Civiltà Cattolica has amply argued, it is thought «that he was kept completely in the dark by the conspirators about the preparations of the attempt on Hitler on 20 July». «The unfolding of events that he sets out in the form of an informative note to the Vatican Secretariat of State a year after the failed attempt,» affirms Sale, «shows that the version he accepted was that of the alleged political plot» and that he in any case «on the day after the attempt accepted as true, as did all the European chancelleries, the version of the facts given out by Hitler» 7.
It has instead emerged that in the years 1942-43 the Vatican was not totally in the dark about the attempt to overturn Hitler. The Holy See had other channels of information through which the Pius XII himself kept in contact with the German resistance. And not only through the secret information brought by the lawyer, a practicing Catholic, Josef Müller, «the link between the secret services of the Abwehr and the Vatican». From a report of the American secret services (OSS), dated 20 August 1944 and based on a conversation of the agent H. Stuart Hughes with the Bavarian Jesuit Georg Leiber, who had been Pacelli’s secretary at the time of his nunciature in Germany and was in contact with Pius XII, it emerges that the Jesuit Leiber’s sources were among the dissidents who included some members of the Kreisau Circle, General Hans Oster, leader of the resistance in military counterespionage, Hans von Dohnanyi, and also the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer8. After their arrest and that of Müller, the go-between of the dissidents and the Vatican became Hans Bernd Gisevius, Abwehr delegate in Switzerland, who on 20 July was among the plotters present in the building on the Bendlerstrasse where von Stauffenberg and the other high officers were shot. It is no mystery, besides, that von Stauffenberg, himself a practising Catholic, was a friend of some members of the Kreisau Circle, as well as of some influential Jesuits and numerous German prelates.
One wonders at this point whether some of these prelates may not have encouraged with their advice or their tacit approval the attempt on the dictator; an attempt that some plotters considered, using the conceptual categories proper to Catholic ethics, as simple tyrannicide.
The written source from which emerge the elements that prove the contacts and the exchanges in the circles of active civilian military dissent and the upper German ecclesiastical hierarchy is the diary and letters of the Graf von Moltke, founder of the Kreisau Circle.
Above Graf Helmuth von Moltke, founder of the Kreisau Circle, before the People’s Tribunal; 
down, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (second from left)

Above Graf Helmuth von Moltke, founder of the Kreisau Circle, before the People’s Tribunal; down, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (second from left)

We know from von Moltke’s diary that some authoritative bishops were close to the resistance. The diary gives the names of the two prelates who were among the most decided opponents of Nazism: Konrad von Preysing, bishop of Berlin, and Clemens August von Galen, bishop of Münster; to these are added the bishop of Fulda, Johannes Dietz, president of the Episcopal Conference, and the cardinal of Munich Michael von Faulhaber. Bishop von Preysing is even among the list of «time-to-time frequenters» of the meetings of the Circle that took place in Berlin, usually at the home of Peter Yorck. Von Moltke met the bishop in September 1941 and from that date meetings between the two became frequent: «The afternoon spent yesterday with Preysing», von Moltke notes in his diary, «was very satisfactory. He, too, seemed to me glad… He immediately asked me to come back and it’s what I shall do at regular intervals of about three weeks» 9. On 13 November the Graf again visited the bishop. The meeting was confidential. The bishop spoke to him among other things of the elderly archpriest of the cathedral, Bernhard Lichtenberg, arrested on the charge of «anti-Nazi attitude» for having prayed together with Jews, and he read out to him the report of the interrogation sent him that same day by the Gestapo10. The bond between “the soul” of the Kreisau Circle and the bishop of Berlin, as shown by several other diary entries, became intense.
On 1 August 1942 von Moltke wrote: «In the evening Father Delp and Father König arrived from Münich who, passing through Fulda, had met with the bishop of that city. […] I believe that amongst these people the basis of the trust necessary for going ahead has been laid, so much the more since, something even more important, Delp, who had come by the wish of bishops Faulhaber, Preysing and Dietz, delivered to Karl Miriendorff and myself the invitation to a meeting…» 11. In the January of 1943 von Moltke, passing through Münich (where he met his Jesuit friends Rösch, König, Delp and the lawyer Josef Müller), was able to meet Cardinal von Faulhaber and told of the plans being made. «After listening», the Graf noted in his diary, «the cardinal insisted on the stipulation of a concordat between the Vatican and the new German state» 12, one that would have been set up following the coup d’état.
It is furthermore certain that shortly prior to 20 July, von Stauffenberg, the architect of the attempt, had met with Bishop von Preysing. The prelate, even after the war, never wanted to reveal the subject of that conversation. Nor did he speak about his direct contacts with members of the dissent. Nevertheless we know, as the German Jesuit Peter Gumpel records, that the bishop of Berlin was the target of enquiries by the Peoples’ Tribunal, but von Preysing was saved from the claws of the notorious Roland Freisler by the latter’s death in an air raid in February 1945.

November 1943
Goerdeler meets von Galen
Up till now this was everything that was known about the dense and significant network of relations between some prelates in the German episcopate and the various milieu of the active resistance that led to the attempt of 20 July and which historians for a long time neglected to consider. Nevertheless the documentation, scarce and patchy due to the inevitable fact that under a dictatorship it is an unbreakable rule to set nothing down in writing, does not permit a full reconstruction of the intensity and the influence of those relations. As it also does not permit the formulation of certainties about the effective and particular knowledge the bishops had of the shape taken by that «last and decisive gesture».
But now another element emerges that throws light on those links. Substantial links that show once again how even the upper members of ecclesiastical hierarchy were not only close to the military and civilian dissent, but may even have been aware of the plans to overturn the regime of Nazi terror and backed them. And in this perspective the document that we print here for the first time takes on remarkable importance: the testimony of Hermann Josef Pünder, former Secretary of State in the chancellery of the Reich, sent to concentration camp following the 20 July attempt on Hitler, and a personal friend of the bishop of Münster Clemens August von Galen.
The bishop of Berlin Konrad von Preysing

The bishop of Berlin Konrad von Preysing

The document is contained in the Positio super virtutibus regarding the German prelate. Pünder’s letter, dated 26 June 1946, was addressed to the biographer and former secretary of von Galen, Heinrich Portmann, and is attached to his deposition at the canonical process 13. In the letter Pünder relates that he was the go-between for the secret meeting, in November of 1943 in Münster, between Bishop von Galen and the outstanding figure in the civilian resistance: the former burgomaster of Leipzig Carl Friedrich Goerdeler. We should remember that Goerdeler, a prominent national-conservative politician, had worked towards the close of the ’thirties to induce the foreign powers to take a more intransigent line toward Hitler and, having become the center of attraction for the various civilian and military dissenters, was the man designated for the role of chancellor of the state in the plans for a future political order in Germany, once Hitler was deposed14.
The meeting between von Galen and Goerdeler, at the end of 1943, occurred at a crucial phase in the work of the opposition. After the allied powers announced the formula of «unconditional surrender» for Germany in the January of that year, Goerdeler, like others dissidents who had tried to start negotiations for a separate peace with the western powers, was deeply disappointed. So at the end of July, after the arrest of Müller and other members of the resistance by the military counterespionage, von Stauffenberg and the other dissident officers decided on the “Walküren” plan to overturn the regime. And when in October von Stauffenberg became Chief-of-Staff in the department of the general affairs of the army, the possibility of swift action became concrete. Pünder does not report the contents of the conversation between Goerdeler and von Galen but states «that the two were very content with the acquaintance made» and that Goerdeler was happy «to have found in the bishop of Münster a person warmly sympathetic to the resistance movement he had led». In the letter he attests that the name of von Galen appeared in the Gestapo reports of the people visited by Goerdeler in the period preparatory to the coup d’état. He also recalls that, meeting him after the collapse of the regime and going back over the facts of that November 1943, «known by now only to us two», von Galen «deplored the violent death of Goerdeler whom he had known as a righteous German and a truly Christian man».
A further sign of how men of conscience had undertaken with courage, suffering the extreme consequences, the attempt «to save Germany from a nameless wretchedness»15 and to redeem themselves and Germany from the unacceptable barbarity of those «“little men” who had thought themselves almighty as God» and with whom, the bishop of Münster had openly said, «we cannot share nationhood».

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