'Historical Burden' for Germany's Catholics Church Employed 6,000 Forced Laborers

Germany's Catholic Church employed almost 6,000 forced laborers during World War II, according to new research commissioned by the church. The report highlights the church's ambivalent relationship with the Nazis.


Cardinal Karl Lehmann presenting a book commissioned by the Catholic Church on its use of forced labor under the Nazis.
REUTERS

Cardinal Karl Lehmann presenting a book commissioned by the Catholic Church on its use of forced labor under the Nazis.

The German Catholic church made no secret of the fact that it employed forced labor under the Nazis and commissioned research into its history in 2000. That research was published on Tuesday, providing detailed figures on the numbers of forced laborers used and underscoring the church's "historical burden," according to Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the bishop of Mainz.

Records collected from the Catholic dioceses over the last seven years showed a total of 4,829 civilian laborers and 1,075 prisoners of war worked in 776 Catholic institutions such as hospitals, homes and monasteries, on church-owned farms or gardens during World War II. They came mainly eastern territories overrun by the Nazis such as Poland, Ukraine and the Soviet Union.

"The comparatively small number of laborers, many of whom spent barely a year working in Catholic institutions, doesn't even amount to a thousandth of the estimated total of 13 million forced laborers employed throughout the Reich," Lehmann said in a statement. "But it remains a historical burden which will continue to challenge our church in the future. There is no collective guilt, but as Christians and as a church we are aware of the responsibility that results from the burden of the past."

Lehmann was speaking at the presentation of the 700-page history titled "Forced Labor in the Catholic Church 1939-1945."

"We shouldn't hide the fact that the memory of the Catholic church was blind for too long to the fate and the suffering of the men, women, young people and children dragged to Germany from all over Europe to be put to forced labor," Lehmann said.

Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches pledged in 2000 to compensate forced laborers that had worked for them during World War II. The Protestants contributed to the compensation fund set up by the German government and industry while the Catholics opted to compensate laborers separately.

The church set up a fund in 2000 to pay a symbolic compensation of 5,000 German marks (€2,558 or $4,019) to former laborers. It traced and paid 587 laborers until it stopped searching at the end of 2004. It has also set up a "reconciliation fund" which has spent €2.71 million on projects such as education programs and school exchanges.

"Cooperative Antagonism"

Cooperating with the Nazis was a matter of survival for the church, said Karl-Joseph Hummel, one of the authors of the book. He said the relationship between the church and the Nazis could best be described as "cooperative antagonism" rather than straight collaboration or resistance.

He pointed out that more than 300 monasteries and Catholic institutions were seized by the Nazis without compensation between 1940 and 1942. More than 10,000 clerics were evicted from their homes and a total of 2,720 clerics -- 1,780 from Poland and 447 from Germany -- were interned in Dachau concentration camp until the end of the war.

"An impression arose that National Socialism and the Catholic church were at least partly supporting each other, because the regime's plan to destroy the church wasn't started during the war years," said Hummel in a statement. Hitler had decided to shelve his fight with the church until after the war.

But the church did not do enough to distance itself from the Nazis, said Hummel. Its calls for love of fatherland, loyalty and sacrifice helped a government that was waging a racially motivated war of destruction, he said.

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