Conscience versus Totalitarian Regimes – An Edith Stein’s little known document
Edith Stein, born in a devoted Jewish family, was a philosopher, writer and activist who converted to Catholicism and became a contemplative nun. She was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz (on August 9, 1942) and was canonized by John Paul II in 1998 and declared one of the patron saints of Europe. Stein is considered by many among the greatest women of our times.
Her fascinating and tragic story deserves an essay totally devoted to her, something that I would like to do in the near future.
A courageous woman writes to the pope…
In this article, I limit myself to quoting some passages of a highly inspiring and dramatic letter that she wrote in 1933 to pope Pius XI. This exceptional document has been released by the Vatican only in 2003, and it is therefore still little known. In 1933 the Nazi government had already started its discriminatory policies against Jews, but the practices of deportation and extermination were a long way to come. Yet, Stein had clearly foreseen what was about to happen. She planned to make a trip to Rome to ask the pope to write an encyclical on the Jewish question. Such a visit was impossible at that time, and she presented her request in writing, imploring the pope to break the wall of silence.
As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christendom (…). For years, the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers, among them proven criminal elements, this seed of hatred has germinated. (…) Within the last week, there were five cases of suicide as a consequence of these hostilities. I am convinced that this is a general condition, which will claim many more victims. (…) The responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.
Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself “Christian.” For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. […] Isn’t the effort to destroy Jewish blood an abuse of the holiest humanity of our Savior, of the most blessed Virgin and the apostles? Is not all this diametrically opposed to the conduct of our Lord and Savior, who, even on the cross, still prayed for his persecutors?
We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer. We are convinced that this silence will not be able in the long run to purchase peace with the present German government. For the time being, the fight against Catholicism will be conducted quietly and less brutally than against Jewry, but no less systematically. It won’t take long before no Catholic will be able to hold office in Germany unless he dedicates himself unconditionally to the new course of action.
At the feet of Your Holiness, requesting your apostolic blessing,
Dr. Edith Stein, Munster in Westphalia, Collegium Marianum.
“I wondered if the letter had ever come back to his mind…”
This document is quite remarkable indeed: a woman, a layperson (she was not yet a nun), a convert and a Jew, had the courage to write to the pope, with respect certainly, but also without the curial and devotional style typical of the ecclesiastics and of the bigot people. She is not interested in telling the pope what he wants to hear, but the situation she experiences every day. She has been able to see what was to happen as she looked at the reality “with open eyes.”
What was the answer from the pope? According to a Vatican document, Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli instructed the nuncio to Germany to assure Stein that the letter was duly presented to the Holy Father (see below).
The letter went answered on the matter it raised. Quite the opposite: on 20 July 1933 the Holy See (the Vatican) signed the Concordat with German government led by Adolf Hitler. This most controversial pact inevitably gave some sort of moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime and restricted the political activity of German clergy. Many were the Catholic intellectuals contrary to Hitler’s ideology, but after the Concordat only few raised vocal criticism of Nazism (cardinal Clemens August Von Galen, now beatified, being one of them). Rome might have thought that the Concordat would prevent greater evils for German Catholics. But it proved to be an illusion, as the Nazis breached the agreement almost as soon as it had been signed. And not greater evil was avoided: it is difficult to imagine a tragedy bigger than 70 million of deaths for a world war started by Hitler; the Jews’ Holocaust of six million; and the destruction of Germany (nearly nine million of Germans died because of the war; not mentioning the carpet bombing of German cities).
Edith Stein must have felt very deluded realizing that the pope not only did not break his silence, but even approved the pact with Hitler. Expert diplomats such as Pacelli and even the pope himself did not see what Stein saw quite clearly: “this silence will not be able in the long run to purchase peace with the present German government.”
Later, in her autobiography, she affirmed: “I know that the sealed letter was given to the Holy Father. Shortly after I received his blessing for me and my relatives. Nothing else. I’ve often wondered if, from time to time, the letter had ever come back to his mind: in later years things took place exactly in the way I had foreseen.”
Edith did not lose her faith and paid the ultimate price of martyrdom, sharing the tragic fate befallen on the Jews. Her last words, before being taken to Auschwitz with her sister, were: “Come Rosa. Let us go for our people.”
Christian conscience versus totalitarian regimes
I thought about Edith Stein’s letter when reading the interesting article The Church in Dark Times by Martin Chung on the Sunday Examiner of August 3th. Reflecting upon the politically motivated dismissal of Eric Sautedé by St Joseph University in Macau, Chung raised a comparison between academic freedom in illiberal regimes with the reaction of German Catholic intelligentsia to Hitler’s raising to power. The dismissal of political analyst Sautedé has caused concern in many quarters, and Hong Kong media such as South China Morning Post and Sunday Examiner have reported the debate. In this article I do not wish to discuss Pius XII supposed ‘silence’ during the Second Warld War, but rather to reflect on the impact of totalitarian powers on intellectuals’ conscience and on Church academic institutions. Of course history never repeats itself in exactly the same way, however as historians we are called to reflect on the meaning of past events. Otherwise historiography would be a matter of curiosity or chronicle only.
In November 1933 a number of Christian intellectuals and clerics, both Protestant and Catholic, made a confession of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Earlier in the same year, Nazi government had already put in place discriminatory policies on numerous academics, on the base of the Jewish origin or their political opinions. Edith Stein was one of those affected, and her teaching career at a Catholic school in Münster was terminated in April 1933.
How could the professors who signed the allegiance to Hitler, including Martin Heidegger, have overlooked such an injustice on their colleagues? Most Christian professors who did so were neither anti-Nazi, nor pro-Nazi. They were concerned about the preservation of the Church in those difficult times. Confessional Church leader Martin Niemöller admitted that numerous Church leaders allowed their conducts to be determined more by Nazi impositions than by the plight of their victims. He is the author of a famous poem in which the ‘culture of silence’ is utterly rejected:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Not all Lutherans supported Nazi policies. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one the 20th century most influential theologians, was executed in the concentration camp of Flossenbürg. He is the most well known among the Protestant opponents to Hitler.
To remain in the academicals context, I would like to recall “The White Rose”, the Munich University’s group lead by brothers Hans and Sophie Scholl. These heroic young men and women, together with their philosophy professor, were imprisoned and executed for their no-violent opposition to Hitler, inspired by their Christian faith. The minutes of their trial is a moving and exceptional tribute to the pre-eminence of conscience (inspired, let’s state that again, by Christian faith) over political and nationalistic ideologies.
Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz acknowledged that the compliance with totalitarian powers in the name of a un-political interpretation of Christianity has led, paradoxically, to its uncritical politicization.
Martin Chung suggests that the paradox denounced by Metz occurred in Macau as well, affirming that silencing is, in fact, a political act. Edith Stein, herself expelled from a Catholic school, who is today venerated as a saint, a martyr and a patroness, did not believe that silencing was good policy: “The responsibility must fall, after all, on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings. We faithful children of the Church see with open eyes and fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer. We are convinced that this silence will not be able in the long run to obtain peace.”
Hong Kong August 9, 2014, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)