Christians and the Temptations of Nationalism

“When in the 1950s I asked my (then orthodox and rigidly catechized) American Catholic students: ‘Are you an American who happens to be a Catholic, or are you a Catholic who happens to be an American?’ all of them chose the former.”

“When Germany invaded Russia, Hitler ex­pected Catholics to support his ‘crusade’ against atheistic Bolshevism. No matter how wrong the ideas and the practices of Commu­nism, Jaegerstaetter said, this was but another invasion wrought upon innocent people. There was nothing in the practices and doctrines of Nazism that was preferable to those of Communism.”

The following article is very relevant to our times even though it was written in 1992. It is reposted with the kind permission of the folks at the New Oxford Review — D.F.


The “God and Country” Trap

Christians and the Temptations of Nationalism

By John Lukacs
November 1992

John Lukacs is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The Duel, 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler.

This article is adapted with permission of Ticknor & Fields from his book The End of the Twentieth Century, forthcoming in early 1993.

The decline of religion, and of the influ­ence of the churches, became more and more evident during the 18th century, at the end of which it seemed as if that decline were irre­versible. (In 2,000 years of history, the prestige of the papacy was never as low as in 1799.) Then there came an unexpected Catholic and ultramontane revival; but the decline, by and large, went on during the 19th century, and continued during the 20th. Even some atheists and agnostics regretted this on occasion: Orwell once wrote that the greatest loss for Western civilization was the vanishing of the belief in the immortality of the soul. That is a difficult subject, because it is not as ascertain­able how men and women (how, rather than how much) believed in the immortality of the soul 250 years ago. But Orwell was right when he wrote that faith and credulity are different things.

Most people (including intellectuals, theo­logians, ecclesiastical historians) think that the decline of religious belief has been due to the rise of the belief in science. That may have been true in the 19th century, but even then the evidence is not clear. The decline of re­ligious belief did not necessarily correspond to the rise of belief in science. Samuel Butler’s vehement rejection of Darwin did not lead to the recovery of his religion. Henry Adams’s discovery of the Virgin did not lead to his re­jection of his own mechanistic-deterministic view of history. Now, at the end of the 20th century, many people respect religion as well as science, together; but respect for the former is faint. This has something to do with the fact that we have declined to a stage lower than hypocrisy, the problem being no longer the difference between what people say and what they believe; now the difference seems to be between what people think they believe and what they really believe.

Actually, the great threat to religious faith in our time — more precisely, to the quality and meaning of faith — is nationalism. The democratization of the churches has led to that; but that is only secondary to the demo­cratization of entire societies. The primary element is that the religion of the nation, the sentimental symbols of the nation, are more powerful than religious faith, especially when they are commingled. Nationalism, I repeat, is the only popular religio (religion: binding be­lief) in our times. That won’t last forever; but there it is.

When in 1870 Jakob Burckhardt gave his great historical lectures to the citizens of Basel, he spoke of the grave and long relationships of churches and states. But he did not yet speak much of the then already rising problem, the relationship of churches to the nation, rather than to the state. When in the 1950s I asked my (then orthodox and rigidly catechized) American Catholic students: “Are you an American who happens to be a Catholic, or are you a Catholic who happens to be an American?” all of them chose the former. Burckhardt would have instantly understood — as he would have understood that this means something else than the problematic relationship of churches to states.

The decline of state churches in Protestant countries does not negate this phenomenon. To the contrary: There the web of loyalties to state and church (e.g., to “Throne and Altar” in England) led to the crumbling of religious faith, especially after World War I. In the U.S. just about all of the fundamentalist Protestant churches are populist and nationalist. So are the rising Islamic movements, from Afghani­stan to Morocco. Among Jews, too, the revived assertion of their Judaism, beginning about 30 years ago, was inseparable from — indeed, it was stimulated by — their newly found pride and loyalty to the cause of the state of Israel. And (corruptio optimi pessima) populist national­ism has not only entered the bloodstream but it has often eaten into the marrow of the su­pranational Holy Roman Catholic and Apostol­ic Church, if not at the expense of the supranationality of its message, then surely at the expense of what ought to attract people to it — its spiritual message.

I have been dipping into the writings and speeches of a Hungarian bishop in the early quarter of this century, a very intelligent churchman touched with greatness. They are troubling and very typical of certain political, religious, and ideological currents of his peri­od. Unfortunately, they constitute more than a period piece.

Ottokar Prohaszka was a social-minded, modern, and in many ways “progressive” figure. He did not belong to the 19th century, even though he was born then and began his career during its last, transitional, decade (he died in 1926). Prohaszka disdained and reject­ed the older — aristocratic and nobilitarian — character of the hierarchy of the Church in the Habsburg monarchy. Of the French Revolution he wrote that it had been inevitable because of the corruptions of the old royal and aristocratic order. He was ahead of his time in his social-mindedness, in his concern for the lower classes, and for the education of their youth. He was an anti-aristocratic democrat, critical of socialism as well as of liberalism, and of untrammeled capitalism. (That was not alto­gether out of line with Catholic teaching at the end of the 19th century, partly exemplified by Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum; elsewhere, too, bishops who were opposed to liberal politics were proponents of social justice.) When Pro­haszka became Bishop of Szekesfehervar he made a bella figura by refusing to enter his see in the customary horse-drawn and crystal-parted episcopal carriage; he walked to his palace from the railway station, carrying an umbrella.

Prohaszka was a nationalist of a very pro­nounced kind. He was born a Slovak, when Slovakia belonged to Hungary; he spoke Slo­vak and German before he learned Hungarian.

Then he became desirous of identifying him­self as a Hungarian, of associating himself with Hungarian nationalism, implicitly critical of the ruling classes and explicitly critical of Hungar­ian Jews. Within the fiery excoriation of a godless liberal and capitalist materialism that burned through Bishop Prohaszka’s speeches, letters, and writings were traces of his con­tempt for Jews — and sometimes a chortling sarcasm directed at them. He manifested the self-assurance of a nationalist demagogue rath­er than the anguished rhetoric of a Demosthe­nes of the Church. Prohaszka was pro-Ger­man, as were indeed many other central and eastern European nationalists, well before the time of Hitler. In one of his essays about the characteristics of different European peoples, Prohaszka wrote that the most valuable asset in their various biological and spiritual compo­nents was the Germanic, not the Latin, racial and cultural element.

There is a saving grace in Prohaszka’s words and in his character. He belonged, after all, to a supranational church, and he knew that. Had he lived into the 1930s, I believe he would have condemned Hitlerism, and not only because of the Nazis’ sporadic attacks on the Church. His nationalism was not exclusionary: He wanted to see the unity of a “Christian” nation, but not at the expense of subject peoples. But that saving grace may not have been enough. Of course only God knows this bishop’s heart, the matter of His ultimate judgment. What we can tell is that the bish­op’s contempt for what he saw as his political and national opponents may have compro­mised the goodness of his heart, his impulse for Catholic charity. The mix (and that was a frequent mix) of his nationalism and his Christianity was a dangerous one, fraught with re­grettable consequences. He did not see this, I think; he believed in their complementarity, in the identity of being a good Hungarian and a good Christian. He found all kinds of allies and followers, rejoicing in his nationalism, but it is doubtful that he made them into better Christians. As Chesterton once said, it is hate, not love, that unites people.

There were many churchmen such as Prohaszka before and during World War II. (In some ways he was a central European fore­runner of Father Coughlin.) There are many of them even today, when nationalism is still only popular faith with a popular rhetoric. The temptations of Communism are gone, while the temptations of nationalism still exist, be­cause of its respectability — especially for be­lieving Christians. Hence the tendency toward national churches and national religions, even when and where, as in the case of elements in the Roman Catholic Church, those tendencies are not wholly conscious.

The differences between the churches in eastern and western Europe are less liturgical and perhaps even less theological than they are historical and national. Among many peo­ples in eastern Europe the designation “Chris­tian” refers not only to religion but also to nationality; indeed, among some people the two designations do not merely overlap, they are identical. In Russian the word “Christian” is the near equivalent of the noun “peasant.” Because of the national Eastern churches in the Balkans, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Rus­sia, “Christian” often means something exclu­sive: Russian, Greek, Romanian, etc. The root of this is Constantinism. The unity of church and state was the fatal bane of Russia, where the Orthodox Church was neither supranation­al nor independent. It was not an intermediary institution, limiting absolutism; it was an instrument created, governed, and protected by the central state itself. So it was under Peter the Great, who resurrected its powers; so it was, in a different way, under Stalin.

Christopher Dawson wrote,

In every religion the religious aim of a culture is determined by the mission and the inspiration of its prophets and by the vision and spiritual experience of its mystics. Where these vital or­gans fail, religion becomes secularized and is absorbed in the cultural [I would say “national”] tradition to a point at which it becomes identified with it, until it finally becomes noth­ing more than a form of social activity, perhaps even a servant or accomplice of the powers of this world.

In Hungary Mihaly Babits, a great Catholic poet, wrote in 1939: “a national church is a great peril to our soul.”

In the 20th century the West has not been immune to such dangers. The eastern usage of “Christian” had not taken root in the West: But around 1890, with the rise of nationalism in central Europe, “Christian” began to acquire a new meaning: non-Jewish, nonliberal, nonso­cialist, noncosmopolitan — the transformation of “Christian” into something negative. It was adopted and employed by many people who were not churchgoers, and hardly religious at all. In a different way, Constantinism, the identification of the cause of the church with the state and the nation, has been apparent in the U.S. too, including in the supranational Catholic Church (consider the “Pledge of Al­legiance,” often repeated in our Catholic churches, the placing of the Stars and Stripes next to the altar, the ideal of the Fighting Marine Chaplain, etc.). When Church and people are both oppressed by alien powers, the Church may be an admirable ally of the people and their national existence — consider Poland or Ireland at crucial periods of their recent histories. Yet Catholicism should be conscious of its independence, not only from the state but from populist nationalism. Too often it is not. The Catholic Church has per­formed its greatest spiritual tasks in times of its suppression and persecution. But its great spiritual challenges have always occurred in times of its unquestioned popularity and support by the state — and, in the democratic age, in times of its unquestioned and unques­tionable nationalist respectability.

The respectability of nationalism — allied, in Germany, with a deeply embedded tradi­tion of obedience to the state — was a pow­erful element from which Hitler knew how to profit. He rose to power because of that respectability. He knew how to use the argu­ment of the dangers of Communism. During World War II, Pius XII, that often and unjustly maligned Pope, was not immune to that ar­gument (in part because of his experiences in Munich in 1919). Pius XII, in many ways a saintly man, was not a nationalist, not a Nazi or a Fascist sympathizer. He did have a deep sympathy for Germany and things German (his favorite music was Wagner). Poetically, he saw the existence of Germany as a bulwark against Communism. More important was his great affection for German Catholics. His record in not wishing to suggest even the slightest approval of Hitlerism was unexcep­tionable. He could have, perhaps, done more by speaking out against it; but when he refrained from doing so, at least directly, that restraint was due to his prudence. What is not arguable is that Pius XII overestimated the danger of Communism while underestimating the perhaps less obvious and more insidious dangers of nationalism.

He was not alone in this. In 1933 the Zen­trum, the German Catholic Party, voted to give Hitler the powers he wanted in the Enabling Act. The party leaders’ main reason was to avoid the impression that they were not sufficiently nationalist. Of all major churches in the Third Reich, the record of the Catholic Church was the least compromised; but — save for its lonely martyrs and heroes — overall that record was not inspiring. One stirring example was the sermon the aristocrat­ic Bishop von Galen preached in his cathedral in August 1941. He openly attacked the Nazi practice of euthanasia, the programmatic kill­ing of tens of thousands of mentally damaged people in special institutions, including early types of gas chambers. Yet at the same time the Bishop welcomed and praised the German invasion of Soviet Russia, the war of the Fatherland against atheistic Communism. Hit­ler chose not to move against von Galen. At the same time Hitler ordered a Gauleiter in Bavaria to restore the crucifixes in the school­rooms. He understood how religion and na­tionalism existed side by side (if not altogether commingled) in the hearts and minds of the German Catholic masses. He knew how to rely on (and profit from) their nationalism. He and many leading figures of the Third Reich were ex-Catholics, but there were, too, practicing Catholics even among generals of the SS. He did not want to affect the loyalty of German Catholics, surely not in time of war.

In April 1938 only five out of 3,600 people voted against Hitler in the Austrian Catholic town of Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace. Twenty miles to the south, in the small village of St. Radegund, only one man voted against him: Franz Jaegerstaetter, a Catholic peasant and father of a young family. More than 50 years later, few people in Braunau wish to remember Hitler. Few among them know anything about Jaegerstaetter. But the number of those who know about him seems to grow every year. Hitler was a revolutionary, but Jaeger­staetter was a revolutionary too — in the prophetic sense in which the great French Catholic poet and visionary Charles Peguy wrote before World War I: “the true revolutionaries of the twentieth century will be the fathers of Christian families.” In this sense the revolutionary was Jaegerstaetter, not Hitler.

The village of St. Radegund is on the ledge of a low hill, away from the road running from Braunau to Salzburg. I drove there on a cold spring day. When the clouds tore away from the sun, the fields glistened in the acid green colors of a northern spring. Except for a small tractor here and there and the shapes of modern factories toward the horizon, the scene was reminiscent of a Europe 50 or more years ago. I saw a few women working in the fields, some of them (this is very rare in Europe now) in their traditional peasant clothes. Because of an enforced detour at Ostermiething, where a crew was laying pipes, St. Radegund was not easy to find. Half an hour later I felt the errant motorist’s customary sensation of relief as I saw the road sign for St. Radegund — below which I was pleased to see another marker: GRAB JAEGERSTAETTER — Jaegerstaetter’s grave.

St. Radegund was empty. There was silence everywhere. From somewhere I heard the lowing of an energetic cow. After a few hapless minutes, I espied a man who showed me the way to the little church against the outside wall of which lies Jaegerstaetter’s grave. He was guillotined in Brandenburg Prison on August 9, 1943.

He had refused to serve in the Germany Army, not because he was a pacifist, not because he was an Austrian patriot, but because of his Catholic convictions. The war, Hitler, and Nazism were causes of evil: He said as much to the military court, and in what he wrote both before and during his imprison­ment. That was the last station in the pilgrim­age of his otherwise unremarkable life.

Franz Jaegerstaetter was the son of a servant girl who could not marry his father. Both were too poor for that — the unwritten law among the Upper Austrian peasantry at that time. His grandmother cared for the boy. Two years later a better situated peasant mar­ried his mother. He adopted Franz, giving him his name, Jaegerstaetter. That was near the end of World War I. Franz grew up in a poverty-stricken land. He was a hard worker, respected in the village where he was the first to acquire a motorcycle, a handsome young peasant, rambunctious and tough, with a taste for merrymaking. At the age of 26 he sired an illegitimate daughter. Three years later he married another young woman. They had three daughters. It was a happy marriage. But trouble came between them in the spring of 1938, when he said that he would not vote for the Anschluss. Afraid of the consequences, his wife turned against him. He was deeply hurt. In time she learned not to question his convic­tions again.

He had not been very religious in his early youth. But after 1933 the meaning of his faith became a growing concern in his mind. The evidence is in some of his letters to his godson and in some of his own notes from his reading of the Gospels, recently published by his biographer. They are extraordinary because of their simplicity, purity, and insight. They are untouched by the neo-baroque language and otherworldly spirituality of much of the Aus­trian religious literature of his time. They con­cern the responsibilities of a believing Catholic in this world. For Jaegerstaetter these respon­sibilities included his recognition of the dan­gers of Nazism, and the consequent duty to oppose it.

This was not easy for him. In an impor­tant sense he was alone among his people. In 1933 an entry in the parish chronicle of Ostermiething reads: “Our people are devoured [ganz durchfressen] by their enthusiasm for Na­tional Socialism, their inspiration for Austria about zero.” In 1935 Braunau declared Adolf Hitler its honorary citizen, which was then countermanded by the government of Austria.

His loneliness weighed upon him in an­other important way. The guidance he received from his Church was often neither clear nor strong. But he could draw sustenance from certain things: Until 1938 the Austrian hier­archy supported the Catholic Dollfuss and Schuschnigg governments against the Nazis; there was Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge condemning Nazi racism, which Jaegerstaetter would often reread and cite; and the bishop of his diocese, Msgr. Gfoellner of Linz, was an old traditionalist who said that a Catholic could not be a Nazi and that was that. But on March 27, 1938, a pastoral letter issued by the entire Austrian hierarchy, and read at every Mass, welcomed the union with Germany, praised National Socialism, and told the Catholic people of Austria that it was their duty to vote for Hit­ler. There were Austrian bishops (not Gfoellner) who had been sympathetic to the nation­alist-folkish persuasion; there were many others who were unwilling to stand in the way of enthusiastic popular sentiment; and perhaps especially significant, in retrospect, are those passages of that pastoral letter which declared the bishops’ trust in the compatibility of Ca­tholicism with National Socialism: “We joyfully recognize what the National Socialist move­ment has achieved…[and] that through the National Socialist movement the danger of destructive and godless Bolshevism is being defeated.” Jaegerstaetter came back to this pastoral often. “The Church in Austria allowed itself to become a prisoner,” he noted. Nor could he have gained sustenance from the allocutions of the bishops of Germany. In 1939 Cardinal Bertram of Breslau said: “Heil Hitler: that is valid for this world. Praised be Jesus Christ: that is the tie between earth and heaven.” No neater formula could be imag­ined.

Jaegerstaetter was not completely alone. For example, in St. Radegund Father Karobath, Jaegerstaetter’s close friend, was arrested briefly in 1940. Several of the priests of the Ostermiething parish were taken away by the Gestapo. In the Innviertel, indeed in Upper Austria, more priests were imprisoned or ex­ecuted during the war than in any of the other provinces of Austria.

When Germany invaded Russia, Hitler ex­pected Catholics to support his “crusade” against atheistic Bolshevism. No matter how wrong the ideas and the practices of Commu­nism, Jaegerstaetter said, this was but another invasion wrought upon innocent people. There was nothing in the practices and doctrines of Nazism that was preferable to those of Communism.

He wrote down his thoughts in copybooks at home, and, when the occasion arose, spoke about them among his family and friends. It is to the credit of the St. Radegunders that he was never denounced to the police. Yet many of his neighbors were of two minds about him. The village men were doing their duty to the fatherland, serving in the army; Jaegerstaetter was not and said that he would not do so. His wife no longer questioned his convictions and his choice. His mother did, and was bitter against her daughter-in-law for failing to support her. He asked for an audience with the new bishop of Linz, Msgr. Fliesser (Gfoell­ner died in 1941), who tried to dissuade him, saying it would be better for everyone con­cerned if he would serve in the army.

In March 1943 Jaegerstaetter was called up. He went to the provincial military center and stated his refusal to serve. He knew where this would lead in the end. But in the prison in Linz doubts beset him. There was his responsibility to his family, to his wife — even though she did not ask him not to follow his conscience. There was the temptation to convince himself that what he was doing amounted to a choice of suicide, a mortal sin for a Catholic. By the time he was moved to a military prison in Berlin these tormenting thoughts had left him. He wrote: “whoever is ashamed of his faith shows that he knows not Jesus Christ.”

Jaegerstaetter was very far from being a re­ligious fanatic. It is natural for a true believer, and especially for a man condemned to death, to direct his thoughts to the world to come. Jaegerstaetter believed in and hoped for the world to come; but he also believed in a Chris­tian’s duties in this world. (Many of his state­ments remind me of another of Hitler’s martyrs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.) Jaegerstaetter was beheaded on August 9. That night the prison chaplain told two Austrian nuns that they must be proud of their countryman. “For the only time in my life I had met a saint,” he said.

One year after the war Franziska Jaeger­staetter brought her husband’s ashes back to St. Radegund. Some of the villagers did not know what to make of his story. Many of their husbands and sons had fallen in faraway Russia; many of them returned wounded or maimed. Centuries of tradition and custom had made them obey the call of their country’s rulers. Why was Jaegerstaetter a special case? For some time the Austrian government reject­ed Franziska Jaegerstaetter’s application for the standard pension of war widows: Some bureaucrat declared that her husband had not been a soldier. For many years the widow and Father Karobath were criticized by veterans and their relatives for honoring a man who had “abandoned” his fellow Austrians. Some of them said Jaegerstaetter had “betrayed” his people. Sometime in the 1960s there came a gradual change. It had much to do with the growing up of a younger generation, to whom the memories of comradeship in the war meant nothing, but also with the respect of the St. Radegunders for the widow who brought up her three orphaned daughters and man­aged their family farm in an exemplary way.

An important part in the recognition of Jaegerstaetter was taken by an American. I first read about Jaegerstaetter more than 30 years ago, in an article by Gordon Zahn. He had read something about Jaegerstaetter and chose to follow it up. The result was a fine book, In Solitary Witness, originally published in 1966 — for a long time the only book about Jaeger­staetter. Many more documents and details have come to light since then; yet Zahn’s book has stood the test of time very well — as Jaegerstaetter’s biographer, Erna Putz, told me. I found her in Ostermiething, in the parish house (where she is the pastor’s helper, busy, among other things, with bringing up two small children of Vietnamese boat people) an hour or so after my visit to St. Radegund.

The little white church of St. Radegund is very lovely. I walked to it on an alley of cobblestones. The church (founded in 1422) was open but empty. Against the outside wall lies Franz Jaegerstaetter’s grave. There is no marker except for the crucifix above the grave. But there is a single bronze tablet set in the church wall to the left of it. I translate its words from the German:


I felt a sense of pride being an American.

I went back into the church. At the en­trance there was a guest book of sorts. It was filled with the handwriting of people from far away: Irish, English, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, and many, many Germans. I cop­ied only one of them. “I was a German sol­dier. I know now that Franz Jaegerstaetter was the one who did his duty to our people.” That afternoon in Ostermiething Erna Putz told me that all kinds of people come to St. Radegund every ninth of August, the anniversary of the martyrdom. On that day there is a pilgrimage walk from St. Radegund to the church in Ostermiething. This has become, she said, a kind of local tradition now — a century after Adolf Hitler was born. I thought of the few flowers on Hitler’s parents’ grave in Leonding and of the somber fact that, alone among the historical figures of this century, Hitler has no grave. On that cold March day in St. Rade­gund, Franz Jaegerstaetter’s grave was covered with fresh flowers.

We still live in a time when the most powerful political force in the world is nation­alism. We must keep in mind that Jaegerstaet­ter’s Calvary was not only due to his rejection by the state; he was even, at least for a time, rejected by his Volk. Hitler was one of those who breathed a new spirit into nationalism, inflating it into a populist nationalism that is strong enough to inspire people even today. But Jaegerstaetter’s witness was more than the martyrdom of an opponent of a tyrant. It was the living proof that religious faith and that kind of nationalism are incompatible.

This article originally appeared in the November 1992 issue of the New Oxford Review, and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1992 New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.,