The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938–1945
by guillaume zeller
ignatius press, 280 pages, $16.95
“We are the joyous Hitler Youth. We need no stinkin’ Christian virtue. Our Führer is our savior and future. The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone. We wish to be pagans once again.” It’s a safe bet that few have heard this line from the Hitler Youth’s anthem; far more have heard that Pope Pius XII was callously indifferent to the victims of Nazi Germany. Indeed, the Third Reich’s persecution of the Catholic Church is one of the most overlooked threads in the otherwise widely documented history of Nazism. It is to be hoped that French journalist Guillaume Zeller’s The Priest Barracks, now available in English, will increase awareness of Hitler’s hatred of the Catholic faith.
A decade ago, “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens topped the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, with their accounts of the evils of religion. Among Christianity’s numerous sins, they listed its alleged collusion with Nazi Germany. Dawkins frequently noted that Hitler was a baptized Catholic, and in The God Delusion he condemned “Pope Pius XII’s persistent refusal to take a stand against the Nazis—a subject of considerable embarrassment to the modern Church.”
The historical record, however, is more complex. Hitler was a lapsed Catholic and had only a civil wedding with Eva Braun. In fact, the Nazi leadership was more inspired by pagan Germanic mythology and the traditional religions of the Far East (the swastika, after all, is a Sanskrit symbol). And though Pius XII’s record was far from perfect, he personally hid thousands of Jews in the Vatican and in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, and he appealed to convents across Italy to hide Jews during the deportations.
Then there was the Nazi campaign against the Church. This topic has not been sufficiently studied, but Zeller provides much important material. Avoiding simplistic apologetics, he acknowledges that not all Catholic clerics acted decently (for instance, Cardinal Theodore Innitzer of Vienna supported Hitler publicly and enthusiastically after the Anschluss, though he retracted his support later). Zeller also describes the Reich’s brutal suppression of all Catholic public activity: newspapers, civic organizations, youth movements, and so on.
Against this backdrop, Zeller introduces the priest barracks at Dachau. He provides a helpful overview of the camp’s history. Opened in 1933 outside Munich as the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau was the site of the murder of at least 32,000 prisoners. Dachau’s purpose was to isolate and kill the Reich’s political opponents; a crematorium sped up the disposal of dead bodies.
Dachau’s prisoners included 2,720 priests from across Europe, more than a third (1,034) of whom perished. Many were Poles, victims of Hitler’s brutal anti-Polish campaign; others were guilty of helping Jews or supporting the anti-Nazi resistance in their respective countries. Two or three blocks for clergy operated at a given time. Zeller notes that though Protestant and Orthodox priests were among the inmates (as were two Albanian imams), 95 percent of clergy in the barracks were Catholic priests.
Zeller graphically details the horrors these priests underwent. Like Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Natzwiller, Dachau was among the Nazi concentration camps where prisoners were subject to often deadly medical experiments. These human guinea pigs included many priests. Others died of typhus or dysentery, from overwork or starvation, or from beatings by camp guards and kapos (prisoners who oversaw their fellow inmates’ labor).
Yet despite these grim conditions in the camp and the anti-Catholic taunts of the guards and kapos, Dachau’s priest-inmates clung to their faith. Vatican diplomats negotiated the establishment of a chapel in the camp. The priests’ devotion to the Eucharist was truly inspiring; with just a few exceptions, they maintained their sense of solidarity with their fellow prisoners in spite of the demoralizing conditions. One is reminded of Christians today in the Middle East and Africa, who refuse to abandon their faith despite the prospect of being beheaded or shot by ISIS or Boko Haram.
Equally relevant is Zeller’s description of the close relationships Dachau’s Catholic priests forged with their Orthodox and Protestant clergy inmates. Their solidarity evokes Pope Francis’s frequent talk of an “ecumenism of the blood,” occurring today in the Middle East.
Zeller’s book also sheds light on another overlooked aspect of Nazi terror: that of the Third Reich’s campaign against the Polish nation. Poles made up 65 percent of priests interred at Dachau and almost 84 percent of those killed. The death rates for other nationalities were lower. Zeller provides an overview of Nazi Germany’s campaign against the Polish nation, especially in the Warthegau, the areas of Western Poland directly annexed and colonized by Germany. Poles were expelled from the Warthegau en masse, and it became the site of Kulmhof, the first extermination camp in which gas fumes were used to kill Jews. Most priests in the Warthegau were murdered, and Church property was confiscated. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide,” considered the Nazi campaign against the Polish Church an example of “religious genocide.” Though Jews and non-Jewish Poles were unequal victims of Nazi Germany—the former were slated for extermination, whereas the latter were marked for extermination or slave labor—the tragic murder of 2-3 million Polish Gentiles by the Third Reich is insufficiently known outside of Poland. Zeller deserves praise for shedding light on it.
The twentieth century saw the greatest persecutions of Christians since Nero. The horrors inflicted upon Christians by communists across the world and by Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War are widely known. Other episodes, such as the Mexican Cristeros or Nazi Germany’s war against the Catholic Church, are still relatively obscure. Zeller has written a short yet comprehensive, depressing yet readable account of the Dachau Golgotha. We may hope that it will clear up misconceptions about the relationship between Nazism and Christianity.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.