Biskupska on Huener, 'The Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation: The Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939-1945'

Jonathan Huener
Jadwiga Biskupska

Jonathan Huener. The Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation: The Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939-1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021. Illustrations. 374 pp. $41.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-253-05406-7; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-05402-9; $42.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-05404-3.

Reviewed by Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-Poland (March, 2022) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

Jonathan Huener’s careful examination of the fate of the Catholic Church in western Poland—the Nazi German “Warthegau”—during World War II triangulates an impressive variety of sources in German and Polish to assess Nazi religious policy and the experience of Polish Catholics victimized by it. It models a reasoned, evidence-based argument and raises questions about the goals of Nazi empire on the Polish-German frontier. The book gracefully introduces the reader to the scope of Catholic belief, ritual, and personnel to make sense of its vulnerability and room for maneuver under occupation in neat, narrative chapters.

The spine of Huener’s book articulates Nazi Kirchenpolitik, its goals, and its limitations. Because this policy was not static, its background is laid out in the first three chapters, and then various policy shifts are detailed in chapters 10, 14, and 18. What is at stake is whether and when Nazi Germany was attempting to comprehensively destroy the Roman Catholic Church in western Poland, and whether its final failure to do so resulted from a lack of means or a lack of will. Huener revises a common supposition, echoed in the Polish “martyrological literature” on wartime suffering: that the “ultimate goal” of Nazi policy was “the destruction of the Polish church in the Wartheland” (p. 5). In Huener’s assessment, this was not strictly the case: the German civilian administration, Wehrmacht, and SS personnel nearly destroyed the institutional Catholic Church, murdering clergy and shuttering services, but not quite. Huener’s chapters on the imprisonment of priests, profanation of church property, and mistreatment of nuns support the notion that church destruction was possible. Huener nevertheless thinks the distinction between complete and near-complete destruction is important: inconsistent persecution raises questions and offers answers about ultimate Nazi goals. As it turned out, international outcry, the perceived good of Germans (especially German Catholics), changing wartime labor needs, and Polish obstinacy all softened Nazi policy late in the war.

Of course, parsing whether Polish Catholicism was mostly or totally destroyed centers German intention. For Polish Catholics, including those who lived far from the few open parishes, the distinction was trivial: their religious life collapsed. Both German and Polish behavior need consideration, and Huener weighs them, contrasting victim and perpetrator perspectives from different levels of power and authority. Following Brian Porter-Szücs’s pioneering work on Polish Catholicism and national identity in Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (2011), Huener considers religion from the bottom up and top down. He demands a multifaceted understanding of Catholic religiosity: a strength here are chapters “Kult” and “Profanacja,” which consider how Catholicism functioned in people’s lives. In Huener’s hands, the church is never merely the distant Vatican nor the local bishop but also its priests and its faithful, who were not always in one accord. Not ignoring the hierarchy, Huener dismisses Pope Pius XII’s “quiet” support of European Catholics as ineffective. Priests, arrested and free, are some of the protagonists and provide the main Polish source base. “Ordinary” churchgoers and their faith, in contrast, are hard to pinpoint. Huener follows them where sources allow, noting huge crowds for Sunday Masses and group baptisms that indicate continuing religiosity among the non-elite in the “Parafia” chapter.

The persecution of the Catholic Church in the Warthegau targeted above all its property and clergy, though “ordinary” churchgoers were deeply affected. The vast majority of regional clergy were arrested, most spent time in concentration camps (mainly Dachau), and over 800 of 2,100 were killed (p. 308). Clergy arrests spiked in fall 1941. Auxiliary bishop Michał Kozal retained influence over fellow priests even after his imprisonment in Dachau until his death there. Huener dedicates a fascinating chapter to the targeting of nuns, “Nonnenlager,” on the Bojanowo camp for female religious. Though nuns were killed in lower numbers than priests, they outnumbered male religious in western Poland by many times and their fate needs more attention than it has received. The seizure of convents and cloisters sent 400 to a dedicated camp where Nazi guards attempted to extract nuns’ labor without provoking international outcry. Nuns turned out to be complex and dangerous prisoners to a regime uncertain how far it was willing to torment Catholics. Along with convents, most churches were closed, which provoked quasi-pilgrimages to still-open parishes. Closed churches were profaned by their secular use as warehouses and stables, and possessions stolen—especially from the region’s Jews—were stored on seized church property.

Persecution provoked resistance, but unevenly. Catholicism served as a “locus of identity, solidarity, and defiance” and, most practically, “the only location outside the workplace where Poles could gather legally in large numbers” (pp. 312, 239). Despite the international character of their faith, Polish Catholics understood persecution as anti-Polish. The physical locations of churches and their regular worship schedule provided times and places for gatherings that could evolve into protests. Clergy were caught between the occupation and their parishioners, supervised intensely by Germans who wanted to use their authority to control Poles. Those who spoke out against German policy (which was rare) were arrested. Huener intertwines the question of effective resistance with that of the developing Holocaust, one of Nazi Germany’s main policies regionally, and one that shifted treatment of Catholics as their labor increased in value to Berlin. One resistance opportunity of Polish Catholics therefore became aiding local Jews, though this rescue and aid behavior was less common than in the adjacent General Government—as was resistance more generally. Catholics nonetheless had connections to larger resistance organizations like the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and provided information about the persecution of Catholics and Jews for transmission to the Western Allies.

Despite a growing literature on Nazi empire, occupation, and wartime violence in eastern Europe, Huener’s study fills a remaining gap on matters of religion: Nazi religious policy vis-à-vis Poles was complex and changing and needed this thoughtful unpacking. This study reinforces Mark Mazower’s assertion that Nazi empire was inconsistent, characterized by a “constant revision of rules and norms” in the service of wide-scale destruction; here is the Warthegau, proving that point again.[1] Readers may have lingering questions about the developing Holocaust, urban-rural differences in persecution, and the activity of local Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans), though those matters are covered in other studies. Huener’s Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation showcases the enormous complexity of Catholicism and its human and material resources and the way they functioned under duress. Nazi treatment of the Catholic Church and its Polish faithful in the Warthegau was nightmarish but volatile. Catholic life hung by a thread. Nazi administrators killed, arrested, and stole but ultimately tempered religious persecution in the face of opposition from Poles and, most important, German Catholics “at home.” What emerges is a deft portrait of a brutal, anti-religious, but pragmatic Nazi administration that decimated Catholic life in western Poland, leaving fragments behind. This is essential reading for those interested in Nazi empire, Polish nationalism, or the history of the Catholic Church.


[1]. Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 6, 11.

Citation: Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Huener, Jonathan, The Polish Catholic Church under German Occupation: The Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939-1945. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. March, 2022. URL:

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