On July 20, 1933, the Vatican and Germany signed an agreement that set the parameters of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the newly formed Nazi government.
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The Reichskonkordat, signed by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, and German Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, made no mention of the Jews. Nor did it constitute any sort of papal green light for any plans of genocide Hitler may have had at the time.
What it did was bring to an end something of a cold war in relations between the Church and the German state, which had been going on since the time of Bismarck. To Hitler’s dictatorship, it offered much desired recognition from a foreign state, and hence legitimacy. For the Church, it seemed to promise that it could carry out its spiritual mission in Germany without government harassment.
Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor between 1871 and 1890, had instituted what he called a Kulturkampf (culture struggle) with the Catholic Church, in an effort to curb the pope’s influence over German politics, and to weaken Catholic institutions in a country one-third of whose citizens belonged to the Church. In particular, he was vexed by the establishment of the German Center Party, which was intended to represent the country’s Catholics.
Bismarck’s campaign largely backfired: He did not succeed in enlisting other European states in taking steps against the Church, and within Germany, the Center Party was only strengthened by the attempts to sideline it. By 1872, he had declared a unilateral cease-fire in his efforts.
In early 1930, the Vatican named Cardinal Pacelli as secretary of state – its chief diplomat – under Pope Pius XI. One of his assignments was to pursue treaties between the Church and as many states as possible.
In 1924 and 1929 Pacelli, who, following the death of Pius XI in February 1939, would himself become Pope Pius XII, had negotiated concordats with the German states of Prussia and Bavaria , and in 1929, he also reached two treaties with Italy that guaranteed sovereignty to the Vatican in return for recognition of the Kingdom of Italy. In 1932, after his appointment as secretary of state, he also achieved accord with the German state of Baden.
Following Hitler's rise in January 1933, it was in the interests of both him and the Church to quickly negotiate a modus vivendi. Their antipathy was mutual: In fact, German Catholics were prohibited from joining the Nazi Party, and priests refused to give communion to people who were wearing a swastika.
Pacelli wanted to end the growing wave of harassment of Catholic clergy under the new regime, and also, he shared Hitler’s strong antipathy to Communism. He was more than willing to end the involvement of German churchmen in local political affairs if in return, the government would agree yield to the centralized control of Rome in Church affairs in Germany.
Even before formal talks got under way, in April 1933, the ban on Catholics joining the Nazi party had been lifted, and on July 5, the Center Party, having been made to understand that the Holy See did not have a stake in its continued existence, dissolved itself, just as all other German parties apart from the National Socialists had done – if they hadn’t already been banned.
As journalist and scholar John Cornwell noted, in his book “Hitler’s Pope,” the discussions “were conducted exclusively by Pacelli on behalf of the Pope over the heads of the faithful, the clergy and the German bishops.”
As James Carroll wrote in “Constantine’s Sword,” his 2001 study of the Church’s relationship with the Jews, “The Reichskonkordat effectively removed the German Catholic Church from any continued role of opposition to Hitler. More than that, as Hitler told his cabinet on July 14, it established a context that would be ‘especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry.’”
The Reichskonkordat was signed on July 20, and was ratified by the Vatican on September 10, 1933. The Church began to protest German violations of the treaty almost immediately, to no avail.
The concordat remains in effect to this day.