Francis Phillips expected the show to be oversimplified and inaccurate. She wasn't disappointed.
Channel 5 is designed to entertain rather than to inform; thus, when I watched “Supernatural Nazis” on this channel at 8pm last Saturday evening, I did not have many illusions about a subject that, as its title implies, lends itself to sensationalism. I was not disappointed.
First, to give the programme its due – and leaving aside the constant subliminal images and footage of marching soldiers, Pius XII being carried aloft on the papal sedia gestatoria and a monstrance being displayed at Benediction – it did not attempt to repeat the infamous slur of Pius XII being “Hitler’s Pope.” At the start it quoted the then Cardinal Pacelli’s verdict on Hitler: “This man is capable of trampling on corpses.” Also, its treatment of the Concordat between the Vatican and Germany in 1933 to protect (if possible) the status of German Catholics was, if confusing, not unfair. It agreed that the Pope, for the sake of German Catholics, could not “openly oppose Hitler” and that he knew he was taking “a calculated risk.”
There was also a reference – again thrown in somewhat confusingly – to Josef Muller, the brave and devout Bavarian Catholic who became the link between the Vatican and those members of the German military who wanted to overthrow Hitler. The trouble was that, wedded to its breathless pace and imagery, deliberately designed to bombard the viewer and keep him enthralled by the melodramatic aspects of the topic, Channel 5 quickly abandoned any attempt at a sober historical presentation.
Thus we were informed that Pius XII, through his go-between, Josef Muller, actually sanctioned tyrranicide. This myth has been demolished by Mark Riebling’s book, Church of Spies, where the author concludes that the Pope, careful to protect Vatican City’s diplomatic neutrality was never a direct accessory to any assassination attempt and that he did not bless Hitler’s would-be assassins or indeed know their plans.
There was also a fleeting piece of pure nonsense: the suggestion that Catholic priests had actually helped run a concentration camp. I suspect that Channel 5 was actually referring to the camp at Dachau, where a huge number of priest were confined in three barracks and where, at the end of 1940 as a result of Vatican pressure, they were allowed by make a chapel in Block 26 and to celebrate Mass. Needless to say these priests were given the same inhuman treatment as the other prisoners and were also used in appalling guinea pig medical experiments. Hundreds died. All this has been documented in The Priest Barracks by Guillaume Zeller.
The complex subject of the “supernatural” aspects of Nazism was, again, over-simplified; suggesting that in their concentrated attack on Christianity the Nazis declared that “Jesus was actually a German.” In fact, this was only a marginal aspect of the wilder, more improbable features of the Nazi “theology” which, as Eric Kurlander shows in his book Hitler’s Monster’s, was much more heavily invested in occultism, paganism and New Age crankiness.
The only time I felt the programme made a point that was hard to refute was when a lady historian compared the German Catholic populace’s response to Nazism to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is well documented that the few thousand German JW’s behaved with exemplary heroism. She argued that if 20million German Catholics had behaved as heroically, Hitler could never have carried the country along with him. There is some truth in this criticism: accustomed to conform to authority, seeing Communism as the worse evil and, as Dietrich von Hildebrand correctly forecast in his My Battle against Hitler, mistakenly believing that the Concordat of 1933 allowed for a compromise with the State, the majority of German Catholics – with the notable exception of some courageous individuals and members of the hierarchy – remained passive.
Apparently, this programme is the first in a series. So far, and marking it along the new school exam grading system, I give Channel 5 a grade 4.