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1937: Quiet Before the Storm
 pg. 111 
    On January 1, 1937, a 25-year-old German doctor began his research assistantship at the University of Frankfurt's prestigious Institute of Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene. Soon he joined the Nazi Party and the SS. Six years later, on May 30, 1943, his career in the service of Nazi Germany's "racial purity" would reach its climax by taking him to Auschwitz and placing him at the center of the "Final Solution." Specifically, during his 20 months at Auschwitz, this Nazi doctor would conduct notorious medical experiments and preside at "selections" that would determine who would be gassed. His name was Josef Mengele.

Mengele identified himself as a Catholic. It is worth noting, therefore, that as Mengele began his research at the University of Frankfurt, Achille Ratti, 79--who had earned a triple doctorate in philosophy, theology, and law--was working in Rome. Ratti would die before World War II began, but in the relative quiet before that genocidal storm, he faced important decisions about his relationship to Nazi Germany. Ratti was better known as Pope Pius XI, leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pius XI and Josef Mengele never met. Nevertheless, the Pontiff knew about Mengele's Nazi masters and their devotion to "racial hygiene." From the beginning of Adolf Hitler's power, Pius XI had recognized two other realities as well. First, he understood that Nazism jeopardized the Catholic Church's authority. Second, he knew that Germany's Jews were besieged with difficulties. Pius XI's feelings about those matters coincided with the description that Winston Churchill offered on April 14, 1937: "We seem to be moving," Churchill said, "toward some hideous catastrophe."

Hitler realized that official Vatican recognition of his authority could be politically valuable at home and abroad. He sensed correctly that the Papacy would consider it wise to safeguard the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. In the spring of 1933 Nazi inquiries were favorably received by the Vatican's secretary of state, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, a former papal diplomat to Berlin. During an elaborate ceremony on July 20, 1933, a concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich was officially signed and sealed by Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen and Cardinal Pacelli. It affirmed legal status and protection for the Catholic Church and its organizations in Germany if--but only if--they were dedicated to purely religious activities

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A clergyman is among the prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Photo: Lorenz Schmuhl/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive

1937: Quiet Before the Storm
 pg. 111 
The Holocaust Chronicle
© 2009 Publications International, Ltd.