Leonard Roth at the dedication of a cornerstone for a memorial in the former Dachau concentration camp, Sept. 1956
Catholics in Dachau,
The Memorial Chapel, 1960
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Biography (back to top)
Leonhard Roth (1904-1960) was a Dominican priest imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. The camp adminstration gave him the "black triangle" badge of the "asocials" because he was accused of homosexual conduct as well as anti-Nazi activity. He was one of the few priests imprisoned in the Dachau KZ to survive the work caring for inmates dying of highly infectious typhus at the end of the war. Roth remained in Dachau as a priest for the SS men interned there by the US Army after July 1945. When that internment camp was dissolved and the Bavarian government converted the camp to housing for German refugees from Czechoslovakia in 1948, Roth remained as their "curate" (he had been demoted from priest status). A stern but well-liked pastor, he worked tirelessly to better the living conditions of the refugees. Around 1957 he joined the Dachau camp survivors' organization as a representative of the priests who had been imprisoned in the camp. By 1960 (see the narrative below) he was in heated conflict with the Catholic hierarchy in Bavaria. Relieved of his post in the refugee settlement, he took his own life.
The text passages below are excerpts from the manuscript of my book (they may differ slightly from the final published version):
Sources of information (back to top)
What are my sources? I have not included the full footnotes from my text, but here are some of the more important notes from the sections published below, which show where I obtained my information:
The KZ Barracks Chapel
and the Postwar SS Church (back to top)
One of the distinguishing features of the Dachau concentration camp was that all priests imprisoned in the Nazi Reich were relocated there after 1940. A total of 2000 clerics passed through the camp by 1945. They lived together in barracks 26 and 28. Additionally, a substantial number of the Italian and French political prisoners were devout Catholics. The German priests had been allowed to set up a chapel in their barrack (no. 26), where they regularly celebrated mass, clandestinely ministered to the religious needs of the other inmates, and even secretly ordained a priest. Thus there was an authentic religious site with an active Catholic community within the camp. However, Catholic groups and institutions in Bavaria showed little interest in preserving (or reconstructing) these authentic sites in the camp. Instead, they erected religious monuments at especially prominent places.
After liberation Catholics were the first survivors to erect commemorative markers in the camp. Photographs taken shortly after liberation show a high cross at the center of the roll call square (ill. 7). Polish Catholics and German-descended Czechs who did not wish to return to their home countries erected another memorial in front of the crematorium building for All Saints' Day (31 October) 1945 (ill. *). It consisted of a catafalque (a symbolic coffin) on a raised platform crowned by a cross. This altar-like monument remained in front of the crematorium for at least a year.
Also in the fall of 1945, a Catholic church was built by the former SS men interned in the camp (ills. 3, 42 and map 2). It stood on one side of the roll-call square, between the entry gate and the canteen barrack. Dachau survivor Leonhard Roth, a priest who had been imprisoned in the concentration camp for two years, initiated the project. Roth had remained in the camp after liberation at the request of the Munich Cardinal Faulhaber in order to minister to the religious needs of the internees. Roth needed a church because the chapel in the priests' barrack, number 26, had been dismantled by the Americans when they converted the concentration camp into an internment camp. Construction on this new "Church to the Holy Cross" began in November 1945 and was completed in early 1946, when it was dedicated by Cardinal Faulhaber. This new postwar church was built by SS internees out of an unused barrack. It had a masonry tower, could seat 1500, and featured an organ made of US army "k-ration" cans.
The church's location near the entrance to the inner compound of the internment camp gave it a checkered history. When the US Army turned the internment camp over to Bavarian authorities in October 1947, the church was part of the transferred inventory. At that time all concerned parties were of the opinion that it belonged to the Catholic Archbishopric. When the German internment camp administration fenced off its offices at the south end of the camp a short time later, the church also became off limits to the internees, except on Sundays. That situation was rectified with a special fence in Spring 1948. The church was repainted and its roof repaired in August, shortly before the internment camp was closed and converted into a refugee settlement. It did not remain part of the refugee settlement for long, however. Because of its proximity to the US military complex, the US Army confiscated it again in December 1949 as part of an annex within the former prisoners compound.
Father Roth, who remained in Dachau to serve as the refugees' priest after the internment camp was closed, was thus forced to set up another church in refugee barrack 32 at the northeast side of the camp-it had formerly been concentration camp barrack 27 for the "punishment detail," opposite the clerics' barrack 28. The SS church on the roll-call square was presumably unused until it was relinquished by the Americans in 1956. As part of the expansion of the refugee settlement, a Protestant "Golgotha" church was built on the roll-call square near the former infirmary barrack in 1951. When the CID and the Bavarian government began planning a new memorial site in 1956, they decided to tear down all buildings constructed within the camp after the war. Roth, however, persuaded them to preserve the two churches on the roll-call square. Although the CID incorporated the preservation of the churches in its official list of demands, some members may still have hoped to remove them sooner or later, as internal documents from 1958 show. In any case, late in 1959 the organization of surviving concentration camp priests joined the proponents of the demolition of the old internees' church. Instead of the rickety old SS barrack church, they were planning to erect a large new stone chapel at the far end of the central camp street. The dedication of the towering new chapel was to provide a focal point for a Catholic World Congress the next summer. When Roth committed suicide in 1960 the only outspoken advocate of the church's preservation disappeared from the scene. In 1962 the plan to demolish the "temporary church" (Notkirche), as Catholic officials began to call it, was confirmed by all groups involved in the planning of the new memorial site. The actual demolition took place late in 1964.
The KZ priests' approval of the demolition of the postwar church does not mean that they were opposed to preserving all historical remnants. In March 1959 they drew up a petition calling for the recreation of the KZ chapel in block 26 as part of the memorial site. Later that same year, when it was clear that it would be very costly to preserve all of the camp barracks, the KZ priests still called for the preservation of the two priests' blocks (barracks 26 and 28) and the end walls of the other barracks along the central the camp street. Soon, however, this plan was dropped as well. It was easier to remove those traces of life and history in the camp which did not fit into the message that the memorial site was to convey.
Both the KZ barrack chapel in block 26 and the 1945 SS church would have been discordant remains in a memorial site documenting the brutality of concentration camp life. The KZ chapel-especially if it were the only barrack in the vicinity left standing-would have overemphasized the presence of clerics in the concentration camp. The SS church would have conveyed the impression that the interned Nazis had been hard-working, religious men, and it would have been a reminder of the drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring them to justice after the war. The Dachau survivors conceived of the camp as a place to commemorate and learn about the victims; why should they preserve a relic casting the victimizers in a favorable light? What could its role have been in the memorial site? In the 1950s the likelihood was great that many Germans would have seen the SS church as evidence of their own "victimization."
Thus it was logical that, in the 1950s, when even the preservation of remains of the Nazi-era camp was hotly contested, little thought was given to documenting its postwar uses. Only the SS church's initiator, priest-survivor Leonhard Roth, advocted its preservation. After his suicide in 1960 it was demolished unopposed. Even in the 1990s, when memorial site museums are being expanded to include exhibitions on the postwar uses of the camps, the desire to streamline memorial sites to focus on the Nazi era would probably ensure the demolition of such postwar relics. In contrast, I would argue that future generations, whose primary interest is to learn about how they inherited the conditions that made the camps possible, would benefit from concrete evidence of that process. Perhaps someday the foundations will be marked, or even a building constructed to exhibit documents of the German internees.
The Chapel of Christ's
Mortal Fear, 1960: A Turning Point
Although Bishop Neuhäusler never admitted it, the planning of the Italian chapel on the Leiten was probably one of the events that finally prompted him, in 1959, to take up a suggestion made at the KZ priests' meetings in September 1950 and September 1955 and initiate the construction of a Catholic chapel in the camp itself. In a pre-Christmas editorial in the Dachau newspaper in 1958, Leonhard Roth responded to the criticism that had been leveled at the Italian chapel with the observation:
This reproachful article was reprinted in the March 1959 issue of the KZ Priests' newsletter, where it was sure to have drawn Neuhäusler's attention, if he had not already seen it in the local press. By April 1960, when Neuhäusler publicly explained what prompted him to initiate the memorial church, Roth's outspokenness had alienated him from Neuhäusler and the church establishment. This manifested itself most concretely in a November 1959 prohibition forbidding Roth to publish articles or grant interviews.
In April 1960 Neuhäusler claimed that a September 1959 visit to Dachau by Captain Ryder Cheshire, the British observer of the bombing of Nagasaki, and 30 priests and lay persons on the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the war made clear to him that the former concentration camp would need to be put in a more dignified condition if it were not to be perceived as an international disgrace during the Eucharistic World Congress in 1960. Neuhäusler's belated insight was confirmed often enough in the following months. In November 1959 the youth groups of the Bavarian Youth Ring criticized the older generation for its neglect of the site. And early in 1960, after the wave of antisemitic vandalism had focused foreign attention on Germany, newspapers from as far away as Australia criticized the "carnival atmosphere" in the camp cum refugee settlement. Shortly before the dedication ceremony, in July 1960, Neuhäusler mentioned two incidents preceding Ryder Cheshire's visit which supposedly prompted him to take action. In 1959 the widow of a Dachau KZ inmate came to Dachau and found no suitable place to pray for her husband. She later wrote Neuhäusler a letter with a donation, requesting that he help to build a dignified memorial site. Neuhäusler also said that he had received DM 5000 from an Italian count because he, Neuhäusler, had been confined to his cell for a week after having been caught hearing the man's confession.
All of these anecdotal causes should not obscure the fact that pressure from outside Germany was the primary, if not sole motivating force behind the construction of the Catholic Dachau chapel. As Neuhäusler put it in the closing words of his call for donations in May 1960: "The world is positively waiting for the right words to be found [by us Germans] about the past and present, about guilt and atonement, freedom and peace, conscience, obedience, God's commandments and human dignity. The world will watch what we create, listen to what we say, interpret what we do."
Within this context of moral supervision from outside, Neuhäusler's chapel-building initiative significantly modified the local and regional German discourse about the Dachau concentration camps.
Throughout the 1950s criticism of the condition of the former KZ Dachau in foreign newspapers had triggered outrage and defensive reactions in the local press. We have already seen how the removal of the Dachau exhibition in 1953 had been prompted by an article in 1951, and how the popular 1955 initiative to tear down the crematorium had been thwarted by foreign attention and intervention. In January 1960 local feelings about the memorial site were especially bitter because a British journalist had reported Mayor Hans Zauner's derogatory remarks about the camp inmates. He said they had been mostly homosexuals-a very dirty word in those days-and common criminals, and that even the political prisoners had behaved illegally. A bitter battle ensued between Zauner and Leonard Roth, the priest-survivor living in the refugee settlement.
Leonhard Roth (1904-1960), a Catholic priest who had been imprisoned in Dachau with the black triangle badge of the "asocials." Roth is an extremely interesting figure who played an important role in the postwar history of the Dachau camp. His case illustrates the complex relationship between individual biography and memory, and public recollection.
After studying German literature and philosophy in Berlin, Roth decided to become a priest. In 1931, at the age of 27, he was ordained as a Dominican monk in a monastery near Cologne. Probably because of sexually improper behavior towards boys under his tutelage (since Roth's homosexuality is still a tabu subject, most biographies claim that he was arrested because of the anti-Nazi orientation of his sermons), the Gestapo issued a warrant for his arrest in January 1937, but he was able to flee to Switzerland. He was captured by Swiss police in March 1941 and extradited to Germany, where he served a two year prison sentence. At the end of his term in 1943 the Gestapo committed him to the Dachau concentration camp instead of releasing him. He was the only known priest in the camp who was forced to wear the black triangle of the "asocials," as opposed to the red triangle of the political prisoners.
Roth's self-sacrifice in helping his fellow prisoners bordered on masochism, and he soon won recognition for his almost superhuman altruism. In November 1944 he was among 14 priests who volunteered to care for the prisoners afflicted by a typhus epidemic. At liberation six months later, he was one of only two priest-caregivers who had survived that ordeal. Roth was still caring for convalescent survivors when the US Army converted the Dachau KZ into an internment camp in July 1944. At Roth's own request, Munich Cardinal Faulhaber appointed him priest for the SS internees. From 1945 to 1947 Roth found a large following among his former tormentors, and with them he built a church on the Dachau roll-call square in November 1945. In his sermons Roth tried to lead his SS "flock" back to Christianity by leaving out references to the atrocities in their past, and by showing understanding for some aspects of Hitler's world view.
That strategy proved to be his undoing, however. In October 1947 the press reported on Roth's use of elements of Nazi ideology in a sermon he delivered in a Nuremberg internment camp. The Bavarian ministry responsible for administering internal affairs in the US internment camps promptly prohibited Roth from speaking in public. Finally in January 1948, at his own request, Roth was relieved of his duties in the Dachau internment camp. However, when the former concentration camp was converted to a refugee settlement in 1948-49, Roth became the priest for the new parish. After several years service in which he was an active leader in the refugee community and an outspoken lobbyist for the settlement's needs, Roth, naming the continual strain of his work, requested a transfer to a different position. His appeals to the archbishop in 1953, 1955, and 1957 were, however, all denied. Even when he was accused of having a homosexual relationship with an orphaned tenant who worked with him, the affair was hushed up and Roth continued his work in the refugee settlement. In 1956 he began working with the newly established international organization of Dachau survivors, which was lobbying to relocate the refugee settlement and preserve the former concentration camp as a memorial site. That created another plane of friction between him and Bavarian authorities.
The 1960 conflict between Roth and Zauner climaxed in a public meeting in Dachau on 18 March 1960, to which Roth and German survivor Otto Kohlhofer had invited the mayor (who, by the way, did not attend.) After the meeting, before the Monday paper was published, Roth wrote elatedly to his friend and KZ comrade Oskar Müller that the meeting had gone "beautifully." But the local paper came down heavily in favor of Zauner. After several days of massive criticism of Roth in the Dachau News, the dejected priest sent Müller a letter with the bitter conclusion: "The protest meeting on 18 March in Dachau broke my neck. The entire hate of the Dachau citizenry has turned against me. They demanded my dismissal, which was granted by the bishop's office." Because of continuing criticism of his own position, however, the aging Zauner also felt compelled to resign as mayor, which he did on 1 May.
In the battle to silence Roth, Bishop Neuhäusler sent a "secret" letter to Catholic institutions around the state. In it he used information from Roth's Gestapo file to imply that Roth had a criminal background. In June 1960, alienated by his isolation from the Church and the Dachau mainstream, Roth took his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills on an isolated mountainside in Austria. He is still remembered and revered by many of his former Dachau parishioners.
In the midst of this acrimonious battle the town of Dachau began to respond positively towards the memory of the camp. City council announced that Dachau would participate in a program in which communities collected money to pay for the transportation of a particular delegate to the Eucharistic World Congress. At a well-attended town gathering city priest Johann Jäger suggested that Dachau invite a KZ priest, and Adam Kozlowiecki, a Jesuit who had become bishop in North Rhodesia (since 1963 Zambia/Malawi), was selected. It was decided that Kozlowiecki would stay in Dachau as an official guest of the city during the entire congress.
Dachau officials then began to apply their energies to the construction of the Catholic chapel in the camp and the preparations for the commemorative ceremony in the former KZ during the World Congress. A commission consisting of County Governor Schwalber, Mayor Böck (Zauner resigned on 1 May), and city priest Jäger was formed to oversee the fundraising. Individual donations poured in from all corners of the city. When a British reporter (this time from a different paper) interviewed Zauner in late May, it was again reported in local news. The British article itself was no less critical than the January report, since the journalist noted the "official apathy and local obstruction" of the efforts to create a memorial site. He wrote that he had been "shocked" by the neglected condition of the camp and the lack of information available to visitors, and "appalled" by the ignorance and apathy towards the camp that he had encountered in thetown. He quoted survivor Alfred Haag as having said that "the Dachau Town council has shown as much concern about the concentration camp as the kitchenmaid of the Australian Prime Minister!" This time the Dachau News did not reprint the article, however, but noted only that the report's "agreeable ... objectivity" (!) set it apart from previous articles in the foreign press.
As the date of the World Congress celebration in Dachau on 5 August neared, the local press published glowing reports about the chapel and the contributions to its construction with increasing frequency. Drivers-in-training from the West German Army transported 700 truckloads of stones more than 200 miles from the Isar river to Dachau; Munich City Council voted to donate DM 50,000 to the fund; the West German cement industry donated 150 tons of its product, which the national railroad transported for free. A pre-climax was reached with the announcement on 23 July that DM 15,000 had been collected in Dachau city and county, above and beyond the DM 5,000 appropriated by city council. When the architect of the 1945 Leitenberg temple donated his model to the county governor, the Dachau News printed a picture of it as evidence that "already in 1945 the city made a serious effort to establish a dignified monument to the victims of National Socialism."
This sudden (and temporary) change in local opinion about the concentration camp memorial site was possible because in Catholic recollection religious elements predominate over historical references. Only among the KZ priests was tension between the religious and historical poles manifest. The content and organization of the commemorative speeches at the Dachau ceremony during the Eucharistic World Congress exemplify this. On 5 August 1960 an estimated 30,000-60,000 people came to the former Dachau concentration camp to attend the dedication of the new Catholic chapel in an official ceremony during the World Congress (see ill. *). That number was thus probably greater than the ca. 30,000 prisoners in the camp at liberation. Two specially chartered trains from Munich brought some of the visitors directly into the camp on the railroad tracks where the "death train" with 2000 corpses had stood at liberation. The most prominent Catholic Dachau survivors spoke the introductory words (Canon Reinhold Friedrichs), gave the keynote speeches (President of the Austrian National Council Leopold Figl, Bishop Kozlowiecki, and French Minister of Justice Edmond Michelet), and held the concluding sermon (Bishop Franz Hengsbach).
While the historical references in some of these addresses-especially Friedrichs' and Kozlowiecki's-make them some of the most imposing recollective speeches ever held in Dachau, others barely refer to the concentration camp at all. Additionally, the speeches were interleaved with readings from the Passion of Christ. The local press predictably abstained from reporting the contents of the historical speeches. Under the back-slapping headline "10,000 More Cars Could Have Parked / KZ Memorial Service Superbly Organized-'Dachauers Are Friendly People,'" the Dachau News reported that: "Everywhere people think that with the construction of the chapel and the museum something fundamental in the way of a memorial site was created, and that thereby the defamation of Dachau's populace in the entire world will finally have to stop."
In accordance with the official Catholic conception of the construction of the chapel as an act of expiation, in the local press it was persistently referred to as the "Chapel of Atonement" (Sühnekapelle), even though Cardinal Wendel had selected the official name "Mortal Agony of Christ" in May. Local articles called the dedication ceremony an "act of expiation and consecration" ("Sühne- und Weiheakt"). This conception of freeing oneself of guilt, reminiscent of the sale of indulgences, explains not only the enthusiasm with which the Dachau natives supported the construction of the chapel, but also their renewed resentment when criticism of the relationship between the city and the camp did not desist after the dedication.
The oscillation of Catholic memory between the unpleasant push of historical experience and the reconciliatory pull of religious zeal created at least one stridently discordant note at the dedication ceremony during the World Congress, the participation of Hjalmar Schacht (1877-1970). Schacht had been president of the Reich bank from 1923-30, and again from 1933 to 1939-after the candidate he supported assumed the office of Reich chancellor. As Reich Minister of Finance he masterminded the financing of the German armaments program, but was dismissed from Hitler's cabinet in January 1939 because he disagreed with Hitler's war aims. After the July 1944 putsch attempt he was arrested and imprisoned in Dachau as a "special prisoner" in the separate tract with Neuhäusler and others. After liberation he was interned by the Allies, but released in 1946 when he had been found innocent of the charges at the first Nuremberg trial. In the 1950s Schacht became an influential figure in the reconstruction of West Germany, serving on the boards of directors of several large firms. In May of 1960 he made headlines by speaking out against school classes visiting the KZ Dachau memorial site at a parent-teacher meeting.
Neuhäusler personally invited the 83-year-old to attend the dedication of the chapel as an honored guest. Schacht sat in the front row, where he was the only one wearing an irreverent light-colored suit among the black-suited VIPs. Criticism of Schacht's attendance was noted in some (but by no means all) of the press reports, but after Schacht's indignant response to a critical letter to the editor in the Süddeutsche Zeitung was published on 19 August, Bavarian Minister of Agriculture Hundhammer and Federal Minister of Justice Fritz Schäffer joined the critics of Schacht's attendance. Neuhäusler, however, true to the Christian doctrine of forgiveness that had motivated him to work so hard to obtain pardons for the worst of the convicted brown-collar criminals in the early 1950s, justified his invitation of Schacht as if the latter had distanced himself from his former crucial support of Hitler. Neuhäusler, who refused to admit that Schacht's attendance had been inappropriate, defended Schacht with a quote after the poet Friedrich Rückert: "They are wise who travel to truth through error / They who persist in error are fools." As far as Neuhäusler was concerned, the brown-collar crimes had been an "error," and now it was time to adopt a new position and move on.
The chapel itself, whose name translates literally as "Christ's Mortal Fear" (Todesangst Christi; officially translated as "Mortal Agony of Christ"), also illustrates the predominance of religious symbolism over historical references. It stands at the north end of the central camp axis as a striking counterpoint to the international memorial on the roll-call square, which was dedicated eight years later. The 14 meter high cylindrical chapel, with a wide full height opening on the side facing the camp, is also 14 meters in diameter (ill. *). The building was financed by donations and built within a span of about four months, so that narrow limits were set on the types of material which could be used. In the final design a thin wall of reinforced concrete was covered on both sides with a layer of rounded stones from the Isar river (instead of costly rough-hewn basalt, as originally planned), which were cemented in a herringbone pattern.
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In 1999-2000 I received several
inquiries from people interested in English-language information about
Father Leonhard Roth. Those inquiries prompted me to create this page.
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