As I mentioned in a previous post, the historian Derek Hastings has investigated the religious roots of Nazism, not in a broad civilizational sense, but specifically the Catholic groups in Munich from which the early Nazis came. Hastings is the only historian to have done this. I have just read his Catholicism and the Roots if Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism (2010)
What he has found is extremely interesting. Although Germany had a Catholic Center party which was ultramontane (pro-papal), it also had a group of reform Catholics who saw Germany’s roles as opposing the papal version of Catholicism and spreading the German version of Catholicism (and there are many Catholicisms in the world).
The theologian Döllinger, who was excommunicated for his opposition to the Syllabus of Errors and the proclamation of papal infallibility, was the most famous. But inspired by him was a loose group of Reform Catholics who opposed ultramontane Catholicism, One was Gerhard Himmler, tutor to the royal Bavarian family, who was the father of the initially pious Heinrich Himmler.
Many of these Reform Catholics were anticapitalist and anti-Semitic and were also eugenicists.
Some drifted away from Nazism after the refoundation of the party in 1925; others became brown priests and were on the outs with the hierarchy which had to deal with an more andore anti-Catholic and antichristian Nazi party. One initial Catholic Nazi (pre-1923) was the Catholic editor and writer Franz Schrönghamer. He very early on, in 1918, wrote an anti-Semitic book about the affinity of Catholicism and Nazism. The Nazis ignored it after they came to power. When Schrönghamer was tried in denazification proceedings his defense was that he left the party in 1923 and in any case couldn’t possibly be associated with the destructive parts of Nazism, because he was so such an active Catholic and so honored by the church. The court believed him and he lived a peaceful life as a popular Catholic writer.
Schrönghamer lived out the rest of his days as a local Catholic celebrity … until his death Catholic writer; he was never forced to confront his role in the early Nazi movement. Coincidentally, at the time of Schrönghamer’s death in September 1962, preparations were in full swing for the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, which convened in October 1962 and was infused in many ways by the same reform impulses that had shaped the prewar Reform Catholic movement in Munich. While it would be inaccurate to draw any sort of direct relationship between the irenic theological openness of the 1960s and the religious Catholicism espoused by early Nazis – such an examination would in any case vastly exceed the boundaries of the present study – it is nonetheless interesting to note the extent to which the discarding of the Nazis’ early Catholic orientation allowed the trajectory of prewar reformist Catholicism to emerge almost miraculously unblemished after 1945, its exculpatory narrative having been largely written and disseminated by the (anti-Catholic) Nazi mythologizers themselves.
That is, as the Nazis became more antichristian, they attacked Catholicism in general, and did not want to discuss their roots in anti-Roman, anti-Semitic, racist, eugenicist Catholic circles. Therefore German Catholic reformers never had to confront the uncomfortable association with Nazism that some of their members had. It is the usual story of German history.
What does this mean for the modern Church? I am not sure; but it should at last be a cautionary tale. Simply because Catholic circles oppose the Vatican in the name of modern ideas does not mean that they are correct. Racism, eugenicism, and anti-capitalism/anti-Semiticism were all modern, ideas which a group of reform Catholics in German espoused. Reform is not a magic word; it needs to be scrutinized carefully. A deeper problem is who is to say what the correct form of Catholicism is? The Reform Catholics rejected Roman authority; they thought they were just as good, indeed better Catholics than Pio Nono. Ultramontane Catholics had their own share of anti-Semitism. Perhaps Catholics, like Protestants, are ultimately driven to rely of private judgment in the light of the Gospel and of prayer – the Church must always be judged by the Gospel, since the Church, or at least sections of it, is quite capable of deforming the Gospel. I have no easy answer to this conundrum.