The Priest Barracks
By Guillaume Zeller
Ignatius Press, 2017
280 pages, $15.25
On July 20, 1933, six months after Hitler rose to power, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, and the German vice chancellor, Franz von Papen, signed a concordat — a sort of peace treaty between the six-month-old Nazi regime and the Roman Catholic Church.
To those sympathetic to Rome, it was seen as a way of making sure the Church and its 20 million members in Germany would remain safeguarded from the new pagan regime.
For critics, though, it appeared as if the Roman Catholic Church was lending credibility to the Nazis and their racist policies. It is said that Hitler took the pact as tacit approval of his regime.
Under the deal was the odious requirement that new bishops had to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler and the Nazi state.
At the time the concordat was signed, the Nazis had just begun their sterilization program to prevent those they deemed unfit to procreate. It was later followed by state-sanctioned euthanasia. Both things violated Catholic teaching.
As is noted in The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945 by Guillaume Zeller, the Church was soon at loggerheads with the government. And the response of the state was brutal.
“Fifteen thousand [Church] establishments were closed,” writes Zeller. “Religious associations were gradually repressed. While Catholic youth associations were compelled to disband because of repeated harassment, enrollment in the Hitler Youth was made obligatory.”
For those clergy who showed any resistance to the regime — everything from failing to give the Hitler salute to aiding political dissidents, protecting Jews or speaking out against euthanasia — it meant a trip to Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp near Munich.
It is this experience that is the focus of The Priest Barracks, a story less widely known, given it took place while millions upon millions of Jews and Slavs and others were being fed into industrial killing centers.
Zeller honors those 2,579 Church clergy who suffered terribly between 1938 and 1945, the year the war ended.
They came from all over Germany and those countries that were annexed by the Reich.
“Never in the course of history, even in the worst hours of the French Reign of Terror or communist persecution, have so many priests, monks and seminarians been murdered in such a small area: 1,034 gave up their lives,” writes Zeller.
These men of Dachau endured beatings, the taunts and kicks of sadistic guards, backbreaking labor and murder. The most unfortunate underwent insane medical experiments. The sick were often shipped off to their deaths.
The Nazis made every effort to destroy the will of these unfortunate men. Each step of the initial camp registration was meant to dehumanize the individual. Each had to give up all those things that defined him as a priest, from vestments to rosaries to missals and religious medals. They were each painted with cresol, a disinfectant that burned the skin. Before they were dressed in rags, they were made to take scalding-hot or freezing-cold showers.
The work many of the men were required to do, Zeller notes, such as “unloading some potatoes, digging flower beds or gathering bulbs,” does not seem on the surface that harsh. It was the same work many free men did willingly.
“What made this daily routine unbearable, however, and often deadly, besides the sporadic acts of violence committed by the SS and the kapos [prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp who were assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks], was the hunger and absolute exhaustion that resulted from it.”
It was also imperative never to be seen to be taking a rest or catching one’s breath. Constant movement was required to avoid the swift kicks of guards or the slamming of rifle butts against already weakened flesh.
The most grotesque experiences these shepherds suffered were the medical experiments. They included infecting inmates with typhus and malaria in order to find vaccines. The antidotes often ended up killing these poor men.
“Most of those who were contaminated testified: It was not the disease in itself that proved to be the most painful, but the treatments that followed. Besides injections of quinine and doses taken internally … the sick men might be plunged into scalding baths and then dried under piles of blankets, which caused temperature spikes and weakened the heart.”
All of it was meant to keep the men in a constant state of fear that would result in complete submission to their “masters.”
Some camp officials perfected the art of raising hopes and then crushing them. They would at times offer small humane gestures, only to pull them back, bit by bit, for the sake of exerting control.
After difficult negotiations between the apostolic nuncio and the German secretary of state, the priests were allowed at last to construct a small chapel to celebrate Mass. A tabernacle was constructed, and the elements for conducting Mass were received. But right away the hand that gave began to pull this gift back. First, laymen were forbidden to attend, which “devastated the clergy, for whom the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments was an essential part of their ministry.”
Then the camp administrators said Mass could only be said and attended by those of German heritage.
This description of what it meant for those clergy not allowed to attend is heartbreaking. Many of those excluded crowded as close as they could to the blacked-out window of the chapel “to hear some bits of the liturgy filter through.”
Not surprising, given the strength of the Catholic faith, many never lost hope. The men kept their spirits up with games and discussions. There were also bittersweet signs of true Catholic life amid the worst circumstances.
“Thanks to a combination of circumstances and to a benevolent conspiracy, a young seminarian became a priest behind the barbed wire of the camp,” writes Zeller. “The ordination of Blessed Karl Leisner was one of the most memorable episodes in the history of the priests of Dachau.”
Leisner was supposed to have been ordained in 1939, but tuberculosis sent him to a sanatorium. There, he was denounced for anti-Nazi activities and sent to Dachau.
His ordination was only made possible by the arrival of Gabriel Piguet, a French bishop, who was arrested in 1944 for hiding Jewish children and his involvement in the resistance.
One priest told Bishop Piguet that the ordination would be “a sign of victory of the priesthood over Nazism.”
The ordination was conducted in secret. A Jewish violinist played outside to distract the guards.
Zeller quotes from Bishop Piguet’s memoir:
“Nothing was omitted, not the least detail of the prescribed rites. The recollection, the fervor, the emotion of everyone was at its peak. It was as though I were in my cathedral. … Nothing, absolutely nothing, was lacking in the religious grandeur of such an ordination, which is probably unique in the annals of history.”
Now-Blessed Karl Leisner, weakened by tuberculosis and the rigors of camp life, died in August 1945, a few days after liberation. He was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope St. John Paul II June 23, 1996.
Like Christ himself, he won the final victory over evil.
Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.