Alex Constantine - April 8, 2008
Nearly 6,000 workers exploited during World War II, new church report says
BERLIN - Germany's Roman Catholic Church exploited nearly 6,000 forced laborers in the Nazi era, it said in a report Tuesday detailing a dark chapter in its history.
The church had in 2000 acknowledged its use of forced labor under Hitler and has paid 1.5 million euros in compensation to foreign workers, but the report "Forced Labor and the Catholic Church 1939-1945" is the most thorough look at the issue so far.
The 703-page official report documents the fate of 1,075 prisoners of war and 4,829 civilians who were forced to work for the Nazis in nearly 800 Catholic institutions — mainly hospitals, homes and monastery gardens to boost the war effort.
The church, which has financed over 200 "reconciliation" projects, said final numbers will never be known.
"It should not be concealed that the Catholic Church was blind for too long to the fate and suffering of men, women and children from the whole of Europe who were carted off to Germany as forced laborers," Karl Lehmann, the country's top Catholic prelate until mid-February, said at the book's presentation.
Catholics and Protestants were subject to oppression under the Nazis but aside from some notable figures from both churches who voiced opposition, they broadly went along with the regime.
Hitler's feared SS expropriated more than 300 monasteries and Catholic institutions between 1940 and 1942 and thousands of Catholics were sent to concentration camps, said Karl-Joseph Hummel, co-author of the book.
He told a televised news conference in the western city of Mainz the term "cooperative antagonism" summed up the church's strategy at the time.
The report said a large proportion of the workers — mostly from Poland, Ukraine and the then-Soviet Union — were forced to help the Nazi war effort in military hospitals which would not have kept going without their labor.
Forced labor was an important tool for the Nazi regime during World War II.
Nazis shipped millions of people from conquered territories, especially in Eastern Europe, to toil for the war economy in poor conditions. Toward the end of the war, forced labor is estimated to have made up about a quarter of the work force.
Lehmann noted that the number of forced laborers for the church was a fraction of the estimated total of 13 million victims compelled to work for the Nazis.
And the conditions were not as bad as at some other organizations, noted Hummel. A program of "annihilation through work", for example, was not used, he said.
The revelations from the Catholic Church are the latest in a series of reports commissioned by firms, including Deutsche Bank, Volkswagen and Siemens, to expose their past.
The Protestant Church, roughly equal in size to the Catholic Church, has also acknowledged it used forced labor.
However, the church stressed that the new book did not draw a line under the grim period.
"This documentation, which scientifically works through this forgotten chapter of church history ... can and should not be understood as a final balance sheet," Lehmann said.