Michael Phayer, "The Catholic Resistance Circle in Berlin: German Catholic Bishops during the Holocaust," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 7:2 (1993) 216-229

Abstract by Jerry Darring


Phayer's article focuses on the activities of Margerete Sommer, who worked with a Catholic resistance group in Berlin and became the principal adviser to the German bishops on Jewish affairs. She worked closely with her bishop, Konrad Preysing, helping Jews emigrate and face deportation, and eventually engaging in outright resistance by hiding Jews and trying to organize institutional opposition to Hitler.

Phayer "takes exception to the current view of Catholic German historians that church leaders could not speak out because of a lack of accurate information about the Holocaust" (p. 217). He shows how the Berlin circle of Catholics received regular intelligence about the Holocaust, and this information was available to the German bishops. Some of them declined to receive the information (and then after the war claimed that they were silent because they had no reliable information). The bishops debated the issue of speaking out, and Phayer feels that they would have if the right signals had come from Rome. Sommer submitted a "Draft for a Petition Favoring the Jews," which was defeated because the titular head of the bishops, Cardinal Adolf Bertram, refused his endorsement "on the grounds that there was insufficient proof of the conditions which it sought to redress" (p. 224). Bishop Preysing of Berlin prophesied dejectedly that "we will stand guilty before God and man if we are silent," and Phayer says that the prophecy has proven correct: "even contemporary German bishops have deplored their predecessors' silence" (p. 224).

Phayer describes the three phases of Margerete Sommer's work: her facilitation of Jewish emigration between 1938 and 1941, her efforts in 1942 and 1943 to get the Catholic Church to speak out, and her assistance to Jews being deported furing the last years of the war as well as her hiding of other Jews. Phayer concludes that "precisely because the response of the churches to the Holocaust was disappointing, it is important for us to know that (Sommer and the Berlin circle of Catholics) crossed over the line of civil disobedience and resisted National Socialism" (p. 226).