How many people know that at the Nazi death camp Dachau, three barracks out of thirty were permanently occupied by clergy from 1938 to 1945? Some 2,579 priests, monks and Catholic seminarians from all over Europe were imprisoned there. The story of these men is unrecognized, submerged in the overall history of the concentration camps.
From all countries and of all ages, the priests were gathered behind the barbed wire of Dachau according to an agreement wrested from the Reich by Vatican diplomacy. For eight years, both tragedies and magnificent gestures punctuated the journey of the clergy at Dachau, from the terrifying forced march of "Holy Week" in 1942 to the heroic voluntary confinement of priests in the barracks of those dying of typhoid, to the moving clandestine ordination of a young German deacon by a French bishop. Never in the course of history have so many priests, monks and seminarians been murdered in such a small area: 1,034 lost their lives.
Beyond the personal journeys of which it is composed, the history of the priests at Dachau sheds new light on Hitler's system of concentration camps, on the intrinsic anti-Christian animus of Nazism and, beyond the strictly historical perspective, on faith and spiritual commitment. This book deals with many questions about the priest barracks, including:
How does the experience of the priests at Dachau compare to those who were laymen? What were their privileges and what were their particular sufferings? Did the Nazi persecution against the clergy have ideological or political underpinnings? Did the faith and religious commitment of the priests reinforce them against the methodical dehumanization in the camps? Were their moral convictions, forged by the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, able to resist the perversion of values imposed by the SS? Did the sufferings endured by the priests at Dachau bear fruit within the ecclesiastical institution and also outside, at the peripheries of the Church?
In Guillaume Zeller's recounting of this strange story, this fragment of the tragedy of the concentration camps allows us to learn answers to these and other intriguing questions.
Guillaume Zeller is a journalist and editor in chief of iTELE, a French news TV channel. He is also the author of A Priest at War, about a French paratrooper chaplain.