An Eroding Milieu? Catholic Youth, Church Authority, and Popular Behavior in Northwest Germany during the Third Reich, 1933-1938

By O'Sullivan, Michael E. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

An Eroding Milieu? Catholic Youth, Church Authority, and Popular Behavior in Northwest Germany during the Third Reich, 1933-1938


O'Sullivan, Michael E., The Catholic Historical Review


I cannot make homesick feelings go away. I miss the community life greatly. I am happy to be a part of the congregation here, but I cannot participate in the evenings because I am 3/4 of an hour from the city. How is it going? Are the Heimabende still nice? Do you attend Marianum on Wednesday evenings? It is too bad that I could not have continued the training longer.1

A young woman conscripted into the Labor Service wrote this anxious letter to a fellow Catholic youth member, Christel Beilmann, in March, 1938. On the eve of World War II, she was one of many young people uprooted from her home religious milieu through the Labor Service, Land Year, and Land Service. The Catholic youth separated from their home diocese by Nazi policies were known as the "Wandering Church," and this letter demonstrates how the phenomenon affected the lives of everyday worshipers. This young woman's religiosity demonstrated the continuing authority of the Church over its youth. However, it is unclear whether her feelings were typical of the hundreds of thousands of Catholic adolescents removed from their religious milieu for state service and Nazi indoctrination. While current scholarship remains entrenched in debates about church hierarchy, prominent dissenters, and the decline of the Catholic milieu, it ignores such issues surrounding the intersection of religion and everyday life.

Two strands of scholarship dominate the current historiography of the Catholic Church during the Third Reich. On the one hand, numerous books and articles form a fiery and long-standing debate about the complicity of Catholicism in the Third Reich. Postwar Catholic scholars constructed a narrative portraying the Church as an institution of persecuted resisters, emphasizing areas of conflict between Nazis and Catholics, such as "euthanasia," the dissolution of youth groups and religious schools, and the imprisonment of clergy,2 and exceptional protesters, such as Bishop Clemens August Count von Galen from Munster.3 A fierce challenge to the one-sided church interpretation began in the 1960's and continues into the present. Scholars consistently criticize the bishops for their failure to speak in favor of the Jews and their nationalistic support for Nazi policies4 and challenge the legacies of revered church figures, such as von Galen.5 Although these critical historians provide corrections to the Church's mythical narrative, they belittle conflicts as "single issue" opposition6 and underestimate Nazi destruction of Catholic institutions. In the search for martyrs and villains, scholars on both sides ignore the ambiguous interactions between Catholic leaders and their followers under a regime hostile to the public practice of Catholicism.

Alternatively, a handful of more recent studies focus on the social history of Catholicism by examining the state of the so-called Catholic milieu during the 1920's and 1930's. Many historians describe modern German politics and society in terms of Catholic, socialist, bourgeois-Protestant, and aristocratic "socio-moral milieus,"7 each of which shared distinctive values, leaders, and organizations. In theory, a Catholic milieu organized all aspects of its followers' lives around their religious beliefs through Catholic schools, professional associations, youth groups, and religious activities. These recent studies portray a weakening German Catholic milieu, arguing that associational life and church attendance declined. These conclusions, however, are debatable because of the lack of attention to the social history of religious practice during the 1930's.8 New historical methods developed by social historians, such as David Blackbourn, Jonathan Sperber, and Werner Blessing, help illuminate such questions.9 They study rituals, pilgrimages, and popular religiosity to gauge Catholic sentiment during the nineteenth century, but few historians apply these methods to Catholicism during the 1930's.10

Using methodologies pioneered by historians of the nineteenth century, this essay examines three case studies of Catholic Youth in north-western Germany between 1933 and 1938. …

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