On Sunday 24 November 2013, pope Francis led a mass on Saint Peter’s square to conclude the Year of Faith. My friend and I were there. The Eucharist started at 10:30 AM, but those who wanted to have a good spot had to show up in the Vatican by 7:30 AM. That was too early for us, so we arrived at the square in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica around 11:30 and found a large crowd gathered there. Celebration of the holy mass was already under way. As part of the ceremony, the pope showed the “bones of Saint Peter” to the audience. The fact that these bones had been found and could be shown to an enthusiastic crowd by the 2013 TIME person of the year can indirectly be seen as someone else’s merit: the 1938 TIME person of the year. Yes, Adolf Hitler.
In the 1930s, the Nazis took control of the German state in a way which can hardly be considered democratic. After the Reichstag Fire, they expected to win an absolute majority in the 1933 elections. They failed. The Nazis now needed the support of other political parties for the adoption of the notorious Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act), an Act of Parliament that delegated legislative powers to the government and allowed it to deviate from the Constitution. Such support was all the more necessary, as this Act required a two-thirds majority to be adopted. Hitler and his partisans could never hope to reach this supermajority just by themselves. They had ‘only’ won 43,9% of the votes in the election. Communists and socialists in parliament would never support the Ermächtigungsgesetz, so the Nazis turned to the parties on the right side of the political spectrum and in the centre.
Hitler and his national socialists found a crucial ally in the Deutsche Zentrumspartei, ZENTRUM for short. ZENTRUM was led by a Catholic priest named Ludwig Kaas (1881-1952). It was by no means a marginal party and in the years before Hitler’s takeover, the Reichskanzler – Chancellor of the Weimar Republic – had frequently come from the ranks of ZENTRUM. Among them was the famous German politician Franz von Papen (1879-1969). In the 1933 elections, ZENTRUM won 73 out of 647 seats in the Reichstag. Kaas persuaded his fellow members of parliament to vote in favour of the Ermächtigungsgesetz. To return the favour, Hitler promised not to interfere with the Catholic church and Catholic education in Germany. On 23 March 1933, the Ermächtigungsgesetz was passed with the required qualified majority. It has never become clear whether monseigneur Kaas ever regretted his decisive role in the adoption of this infamous law.
Not much later, ZENTRUM was disbanded as a result of the so-called Reichskonkordat between Germany and the Vatican. The latter was willing to conclude this agreement out of fear of the ever growing power of communism, which was principally atheistic by nature. The Vatican believed that national socialism, though itself quite dangerous as well, could play an important role to curb the much greater danger of the Bolsheviks. In the process that led to the conclusion of this concordat, Ludwig Kaas’ efforts were – again – pivotal. The agreement granted certain privileges to the Catholic clergy and Catholic schools in Germany. In return, the Catholic church withdrew from German political life, thus spelling the end for ZENTRUM. Kaas had already laid down his position as party leader. He was no longer a relevant political factor.
Ludwig Kaas’ future lay in Rome, where his good friend Eugenio Pacelli was a cardinal. Pacelli had been sent to Germany as the papal nuntius in the 1920s and had signed the Reichskonkordat in 1933 on behalf of pope Pius XI (Franz von Papen, mentioned above, signed for Germany). At the beginning of 1939, Pacelli was elected pope Pius XII. The new pope charged his friend Kaas with the excavations beneath Saint Peter’s basilica. Old Saint Peter’s basilica had been built in the 320s by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. The emperor had not shown any respect for the cemetery that had been on the Vatican hill for centuries, and that contained both pagan and Christian tombs. These were simply levelled to make room for the new basilica. The roofs were torn off the tombs and these were filled with earth, so that they would quite literally become the foundations of the church. Such foundations are of course an archaeologist’s dream and the excavations ordered by the pope started under Kaas’ supervision.
At Christmas 1950, the pope was able to inform the world that the tomb of Saint Peter had probably been found. It is not quite clear who actually unearthed the bones, alleged to be Saint Peter’s. We could give Ludwig Kaas credit for this, but perhaps we should attribute the find to Margherita Guarducci, who was Kaas’ successor. Of course the mere fact that bones have been found under Saint Peter’s basilica does not actually prove that these once belonged to Saint Peter, nor does it prove that Saint Peter really was the first Bishop of Rome and founding father of the Catholic church. However, by showing these bones to the public, pope Francis has at the very least made his flock share in the firm belief that all these claims are true.