On Dark Nights in Dark Times: Catholic Inner Exile Writing in Hitler's Germany

By Tomko, Helena M. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

On Dark Nights in Dark Times: Catholic Inner Exile Writing in Hitler's Germany


Tomko, Helena M., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


DURING POPE BENEDICT XVI's 2011 apostolic visit to Germany, he gave a much-publicized address to the Bundestag on the foundations of a free state of law. He spoke as bishop of Rome but also as a compatriot "who for all his life has been conscious of close links to his origins." The address has been remembered for its surprising praise for the "emergence of the ecological movement" in the 1970s and the ensuing proposal that "there is also an ecology of man," as vulnerable to manipulation as the environment: "[Man] is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself." Drawing on 1 Kings 3:9, in which King Solomon delights God with his request for nothing other than a "listening heart" with which to govern and to distinguish good from evil, Benedict describes nature and reason as the "true sources of law" that anchor the human capacity to grasp reality. This rational principle has provided a lifeline to justice in times when "power became divorced from right." At the podium of Germany's reestablished democracy, Benedict named the Third Reich as the epitome of a state that became "an instrument for destroying right... capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss." In such abysmal times, "the majority principle is not enough: those in responsibility must personally seek out the criteria" of law and justice. Quoting Origen on how Christians can function when compelled to live under laws "contrary to the divine law," he connects "what motivated resistance movements to act against the Nazi regime and other totalitarian regimes" with the efforts of those who, throughout history, "for the sake of the true law... would rightly form associations with like-minded people contrary to the laws of the [prevailing regime]." Even in a postrational or irrational age, the human capacity for obedient listening can remain "open to the language of being." (1)

Benedict offers the insights of a German Catholic who grew up during the Third Reich. This current article takes seriously the particular intellectual and biographical sensitivity of Pope Benedict as an access point to considering what it might mean to have had a "listening heart" in National Socialist Germany. (2) What Benedict states as self-evident about resistance in the Third Reich and other totalitarian regimes--that it comprised attentive individuals who, in order to "personally seek out the criteria" of justice in a time of injustice, sought out nonconformist communities of "like-minded people"--is a distinct vision of the relationship between person and society under dictatorship that has been highly contested in postwar histories. What can "listening hearts" hear within a noisy, propagandizing dictatorship? What constituted resistance to National Socialism? Does resistance always mean protest, sabotage, uprising, revolution? Do intellectual, artistic, even spiritual endeavors to counter injustice amount to resistance? Is public dissemination of such efforts necessary for them to "count"? When does an individual "listening heart" in consort with other "like-minded people" contribute to effective action? These questions hover over any study of life in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

This article highlights three individuals who sought to remain attentive to the "listening heart" in the Third Reich. I will describe how the writings of the philosopher Theodor Haecker, the novelist Reinhold Schneider, and the Carmelite philosopher St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) occupied a certain sphere of "like mindedness," as each of these intellectuals sought to remain "open to the language of being" within the dark daily nightmare of National Socialism. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross's murder in Auschwitz was a great crime and has been recognized by the Church as a great witness. My goal, however, is not to collapse the stories of these three listening hearts into a single heroizing narrative but rather to show kinship in their intellectual projects after 1933. …

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