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There are many ways that a story comes about. Author Kieran Donaghue relates the imagined intersections of the Church, family and personal histories that became his novel German Lessons.

Church History

While Germany is the home of the Protestant Reformation, a substantial proportion of the German population has since the time of Martin Luther remained adherents of the Church of Rome. At the time of the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, almost one third of the German population was Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church therefore had a vital and direct interest in National Socialist Germany.

In the minds of many historians, the Church egregiously failed the test which National Socialism represented. The most common focus of criticism is the purportedly weak response of Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) to the systematic murder of European Jews during the Second World War. Defenders of Pacelli point to evidence of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives saved through the Church’s actions, but critics maintain that he could and should have done much more to prevent the Holocaust. The current Pope has reacted to the ongoing controversy by announcing that the Vatican Archives on the Pontificate of Pius XII will be opened on 2 March 2020, eight years ahead of schedule.

The Vatican’s response to the Holocaust understandably stands at the centre of the criticism of its stance towards National Socialism. But the Church’s actions leading up to and immediately following the Nazis’ accession to power in 1933 are also of significant interest. It is this early period of Church-Nazi relations that forms the historical background to German Lessons.

Prior to March 1933 the Catholic Church was a vigorous opponent of National Socialism. Hitler feared this opposition, and once in office made overcoming it one of his highest priorities. He raised the prospect of a concordat (a legal agreement specifying the rights of the Church in Germany), something he knew the Vatican was keen to achieve. In return Hitler sought a withdrawal of Catholic opposition to his regime, from both the Catholic political parties (the Centre Party and the Bavarian People’s Party) and the Church hierarchy. 

The Nazis were strikingly successful in defusing Catholic opposition. On 23 March 1933 the votes of the Catholic political parties were crucial in passing the Enabling Act, which empowered Hitler to govern for the following four years without recourse to parliament. On 29 March 1933 the German bishops published a statement formally withdrawing their opposition to National Socialism, paving the way for Germany’s Catholics to support the new regime with a ‘clear conscience’. A concordat between the Vatican and the German Reich was signed on 20 July and ratified on 10 September 1933.

A large proportion of Germany’s Catholics reacted with relief to the Church’s accommodating position on National Socialism, willingly embracing the ‘new Germany’. But many Catholics reacted with dismay, unable to reconcile the Church’s teaching on faith and morals with the words and deeds of the Nazis.

The history sketched here is largely settled, although there remains some debate about how central the prospect of a concordat was in influencing the Church to moderate its opposition to the Nazis. German Lessonsdoes not take a position on this question. Its task is rather to depict how a small number of ordinary Catholics, German and foreign, laypeople and clergy, perceived and responded to the events that were to have such disastrous consequences for Germany and for the world.

Family history

As a young man in the 1930s my father studied to be a priest. He went straight from school to the seminary, first in Australia and then to Genoa in Italy. He returned home in the mid-1930s and rejoined life outside the seminary.

In Genoa one of my father’s fellow seminarians was a German, Ludwig Lohmer. Ludwig had difficulties with Italian. He taught my father some German, and they became firm friends.

When I started to learn German in high school my father told me a little about Ludwig. He said that they had lost contact, but he was planning a trip to Europe and would try to locate his old friend. But my father died before be could make this trip.

After my mother’s death several years later I found among her papers two letters written in German and addressed to my father. One of the letters was from Ludwig; four pages of closely written but quite legible handwriting. The letter describes his life since his ordination to the priesthood in 1937: a difficult period in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland before the war, an easier period (primarily due to the lack of language difficulties) in eastern Germany during the war, flight from the Soviet army in 1945, and a fulfilling if demanding job as a priest ministering to displaced German Catholics in south Germany after the war. Ludwig thanked my father for a care package already received, but stressed the difficult material conditions he continued to face two and a half years after the war (‘our ration cards give us too little to live and too much to die’). He respectfully asked if my father or other ‘good Australian Catholics’ could provide additional help.

The second letter was from a woman who worked for the Catholic charity Caritas in Stuttgart. She had also received a care package from my father, and thanked him in moving terms for his thoughtfulness. She also gave details of her life: the death of her father in the First World War, the loss of her mother in the interwar years, and the death of her last remaining family member, a brother, in an air raid in the last days of the Second World War. She thanked my father for ‘building a bridge’ to a defeated country and its despised people.

It was through Caritas that my father and Ludwig Lohmer resumed contact after the war.

In German Lessons I make use of the relationship between my father and Ludwig to establish the fictional rationale for the protagonist’s (Frank Hannaford’s) trip from Australia to Germany and to help establish the social context of Frank’s life in Germany. But beyond this there is no relationship between the fictional Father Klein, particularly his relationship to National Socialism, and any information available to me about Father Lohmer.

Many thanks for sharing the story behind the story, Kieran. I wish you great success with German Lessons.

German Lessons by Kieran Donaghue ~~ A novel in which the events take place during the period Autumn 1932 – Spring 1933. Frank Hannaford, a young Australian from a sheltered Catholic background, is searching for a deeper version of himself in 1930s Germany. At the university and in an organisation of young Catholic men he finds friendship and a new confidence in his own resources. A German identity begins to form, surprising and delighting him. But he also struggles with the unexpected possibilities of love, and with political events and commitments he does not fully understand. The Nazis come to power, previously strong opposition from the Catholic Church evaporates, and Frank is left floundering, at odds both with himself and with the young woman whose friendship he most values.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.