Interview by Robert Eberhardt
Vatican, October 2019
Eberhardt: Your Eminence, I would like to speak with you about your memories, about your life, about your views on Europe. I wish to start by asking you a few personal questions. When you think back to your childhood, what do you remember and what in particular do you remember of your grandparents, whose lives stretched back well into the 19th century?
Brandmüller: My memories begin after my grandparents. For me, the start of the Second World War, when I was 10 years old, was a defining experience. My father entered the army service as a member of the 17th infantry division in Nuremberg and I remember very well when, in late August 1939, an army truck picked him up from our house and he said his goodbyes. He was rather proud and confidently declared, “Now we can show them what we have built these last years.” Only after a few years had passed, my father became muted. He had experienced things in Poland and Russia that made him so. That really marks the beginning of my active memory.
Eberhardt: When you think back to something like that, some 80 years ago, is it a vivid memory or is it something abstract, like a story, the way we know other things about history?
Brandmüller: No, this is a truly vivid memory. I conjure in great detail the scene of my father saying goodbye in front of our house.
Eberhardt: Do you still possess an object from your childhood, which connects you back to that very different time in provincial Bavaria?
Brandmüller: I still have a silver spoon, which a friend of my mother gave to me as a gift when I was baptised.
Eberhardt: And when you think back to your youth, during the Third Reich – What were the “visions for the future”, as we would say today, of your childhood and adolescence? There was, of course, the “German promise” that Germany would rule Europe, that Hitler would win. But were there other ideas of the future that young people yearned for in this period?
Brandmüller: That is difficult to say. I had a very ambivalent experience of the phenomenon of the “Third Reich”. I recall being taken to a Reichsparteitag in Nuremberg and shuddering when Hitler passed by us as he arrived at the rally. I remember that quite precisely.
Eberhardt: And were your parents religious during this period? Were they devout and practicing? After all many Germans turned their backs on the Church during this time, as it wasn’t the intention of the Nazis to strengthen people’s faith in God.
Brandmüller: My mother remained a believing Protestant and my father was, shall we say, “religiously unmusical”.
Eberhardt: How did you then experience the war itself? You already mentioned that your father was drafted into the army. Did you experience the war firsthand in any other ways?
Brandmüller: Yes, I virtually grew up fatherless between 1939 and 1948. The few months during which my father was home to recover from illness or was given time off, were not enough to build a solid father-son relationship.
Eberhardt: When you think back to that time, do you recall being scared? Was there a great uncertainty?
Brandmüller: It was war. And given that at the time the memories of the First World War and its consequences were still very much present amongst the grown-up generation, we children and adolescents too saw the war unfolding as an unimaginable catastrophe. I personally never had any illusions of a triumphant victory.
Eberhardt: But surely you were communicated a clear idea of who the enemy was and other such things? We now live in harmonious friendship with our European neighbours, we have “Erasmus”, there are millions of students completing exchanges and travelling throughout the continent. That was not necessarily the case at the time – there was no Franco-German friendship, right?
Brandmüller: No, I must say that there was no antagonism towards the opposing nations in the war in the way that you describe.
Eberhardt: When did you first travel abroad and physically cross a border? When did the Bavarian first leave Bavaria?
Brandmüller: Well, leaving Bavaria for the first time…well, actually, it wasn’t until I was a young pastor, when after my four years as Chaplain, I returned to university and through my doctoral studies, naturally, was drawn to Italy and ended up conducting research in the Vatican archives.
Eberhardt: Do you recall your feelings when you crossed the border, crossed the Alps?.
Brandmüller: It was fascinating! The journey itself, via train, was a memorable experience.
Eberhardt: And after this first journey you probably returned frequently to Italy?
Brandmüller: Yes, regularly. I began my habilitation upon completing my PhD and this led to longer stays in Italy, in Rome specifically.
Eberhardt: Did you have a favourite book during this time, the 50s?
Brandmüller: Ah, I didn’t really have a favourite book. One simply read from time to time something other than the required academic literature.
Eberhardt: And how did you recognise your calling, the fact that you wanted to enter the clergy? Perhaps you could outline how it is that you came to the decision throughout the 40s and 50s?
Brandmüller: Well! I wanted to become a veterinarian. That was connected to the fact that I rode horses until the age of 12 and was very fascinated by these creatures, in fact I am to this day. That is what I wanted to become, yes. And then it all turned out very differently. Back then, during the Third Reich, I was engaged in a clandestine catholic youth group [During the time of national socialism catholic youth organisations as independent organisations were forbidden after 1938 and only operated informally]. When those restrictions fell away after 1945, I joined the official “Bund der deutschen katholischen Jugend” [umbrella of Catholic youth organisations in Germany, founded in 1947]. And it was then, during a seminar of youth leaders of the Bund – Fuehrer-Seminar” – as they were called then -, on All Saints’ Day, that lightning struck.
Eberhardt: So, lightning struck, you became a pastor, you achieved, short of pope, the highest rung on the ecclesiastical ladder. You sit in the Vatican. Perhaps this is therefore a rather idle question: But what are you most proud of in your “career”? Theologically as well as academically. It might be important to know that you wrote an exhaustive history of the Church’s councils. You are a priest, a Cardinal, but also a great historian.
Brandmüller: I must honestly say that the feeling of pride has always been very alien to me. I always viewed these matters very soberly. What can I say!
Eberhardt: Nevertheless, do you feel content and fulfilled when you look out of this window, across the rooftops of the “eternal city”, knowing that God led you here and that you yourself did much in your own right to be here?
Brandmüller: Oh no. What I concern myself with here are larger issues [than myself]. Grand, uplifting emotions are not to be expected from a sober historian.
Eberhardt: What would you have done differently in your life? Are there points at which you would retrospectively say, “I made the wrong decision”? Do you have moments of regret?
Brandmüller: Well, first of all, I need to say that my path was rather straight and free of large crises, setbacks or problems. I always had the calming sense that everything was providential. I can recognize no coincidences in all these years.
Eberhardt: And to young people, who today may wish to become priests – what would you say to them? How should they seek to engage in the Church and wider world?
Brandmüller: Well to begin with, I wish for mature young men, who, on a serious intellectual level, are leading a life of faith, of prayer and are mindful of their mission to help their fellow brothers and sisters achieve the eternal life. That requires the ability to recognize things as they are out of an internal distance.
Eberhardt: I would like to ask you about your political consciousness. Were you interested in political discourse as a young priest?. Do you recall there being such all-defining issues, such as the debate on climate now, and if so, what were they?
Brandmüller: First of all, the defining event, the spark which lit my political interest to begin with, was the end of the war. Suddenly, under the occupation of the Americans, different political parties sprang into existence, and they each printed their own news publications, often in a very small format. And I have to say, I read them with great interest and slowly began to shape my own political opinion.
Another defining moment was when in the early 50s the so called “four-way coalition” was formed in Bavaria, which led to the CSU (Christian Social Union) losing office. Under the impression of this sudden sea-change, I spontaneously declared my entry into the CSU, even though this never materialized in any serious party engagement. But my political interest continues until the present day. My actual core political agenda is the notion of natural law and its implementation into concrete political principles, laws, reality. That is for me of the utmost importance. In which particular party this is to be found or not, is to be decided on a case by case basis.
Eberhardt: In which relationship do faith, religion and politics stand to one another? You joined a party. Surely there are positions you do not endorse? If I am not mistaken, CSU politicians were amongst those you voted for same-sex-marriage.
Brandmüller: In the years we are now discussing, such concerns were not acute. The CSU in those years matched the standards I had.
Eberhardt: You give interviews in large news publications, publish books. Nevertheless, I would like to ask you: Is the opinion of a Cardinal still heard or has it lost weight as people have increasingly paid attention to other things?
Brandmüller: I would differentiate: There exists the world of faith, and the other world, in which religion and faith are of secondary importance. In the former, I do believe my voice is still being heard.
Eberhardt: Do you feel European? And if so, when did you first have this feeling? Do you have a multi-faceted identity that you say “I am Bavarian, I am German, I am European.”?
Brandmüller: Absolutely! Absolutely. In orders of magnitude. In Bavaria, I am Franconian. Outside of Bavaria, I am Bavarian. And then I am German. And European. If you bear in mind that my research has led me into the great libraries of this continent, central, western and southern, then you can imagine that I feel at home in Europe.
Eberhardt: Europe is a collective narrative, a shared story. At the same time, Europe is today frequently defined by its official institutions. How do you view these institutions?
Brandmüller: I view what is happening in Strasbourg and Brussels with great skepticism. Because it is evident that these institutions are dominated by forces that are hostile towards the ideal of a Christian, if not Catholic, society. My ideal of Europe concurs with the vision of a “Europe of the Fatherlands” put forward by Charles de Gaulle. A Europe, in which the preservation of individual cultural heritage and identity is the very basis for our unity.
Eberhardt: Do you equate fatherland with the concept of nation in what you say? One could argue that the concept of “nationhood” is a rather recent invention of the 19th century. It is a notion that has led to armament races, to world wars. So: Which role does the Nation play in European history? Could it contradict the universal belief that is central to the Catholic faith?
Brandmüller: First of all it is true that one needs to adopt a universal view. On the other hand, we have the “nation”. Or let us leave aside this specific term. We have the “fatherland”, an entity, a format as we would say today, which is the result of a people living for a long period of time in a particular territory. And the idiosyncrasies, which make a Sicilian different from a Lombardian, a Basque from an Andalusian, are realities which shape us as individuals.
Eberhardt: When did you first see or speak to a “foreigner” – someone from a different country? I can imagine that in your case – as in the case of my grandparents – it were the soldiers that came to Germany as part of the American occupation after the war?
Brandmüller: Exactly right!
Eberhardt: Can one ask what does not belong to Europe? As a Christian one may say Notre-Dame is part of Europe, the cultural history, the language, the cuisine, but it might be interesting to ask: “What does not belong to Europe?”.
Brandmüller: I believe the borders of Europe…are in the mind of the individual.
Eberhardt: Sure, the continent will always remain a continent. However: Christianity could disappear as well… Would it then still be Europe?
Brandmüller: No, no, no, in no way. In no way at all.
Eberhardt: If a non-Christian Europe would no longer be “Europe”, how can somewhere like Saxony-Anhalt be Europe, where only a quarter of the population is a member of the Church?
Brandmüller: It is not as easy as that. But one has to say that the 80%, who do not belong to the Church, live on Christian soil, nourished by centuries of Christian belief and practice.
Eberhardt: I would like to speak with you about the term “Freedom”, a central term for my generation. Is freedom finite? How do you, as a member of the clergy, define this term?
Brandmüller: For me freedom is in the first instance, the freedom from coercion.
Eberhardt: And what about practical matters? The freedom to travel, for instance? Nowadays we can drive a car from Oslo to Palermo…
Brandmüller: Wonderful, wonderful.
Eberhardt: So, you don’t see a problem in that? The fact that borders have largely dissolved within Europe, that there is free trade, exchange and largely integrated labour market?
Brandmüller: It is great!
Eberhardt: Have you ever restricted or curtailed another person’s freedom?
Brandmüller: I wouldn’t know how I could possibly have done that.
Eberhardt: In the Church there are hierarchies. There are some below oneself…did you ever have your freedom taken? Of speech? Of thought? Is there something like Church dogma?
Brandmüller: If that were the case, it would still not hinder me from reflecting these thoughts and expressing them.
Eberhardt: Did you ever experience moments of danger in your life?
Brandmüller: I was threatened by American bombs. And it was then that I faced true danger, life-threatening danger.
Eberhardt: You became a university professor in 1969. We all know what the Zeitgeist of that time was like: the Pill, mini-skirts, tremendous societal change. Did you feel attacked as a conservative professor and priest by these developments? I can’t imagine that you simply sat happily, unperturbed by students in the university canteen?
Brandmüller: There was no university canteen. And here I have to say: As a private lecturer I happened to be of no interest to these people. They jumped on the most prominent names.
Eberhardt: Were you proud of our continent, of Europe?
Brandmüller: Pride, I must repeat, is an emotion that is alien to me.
Eberhardt: And did you ever feel ashamed of Europe?
Brandmüller: Shame before whom?
Eberhardt: Before God perhaps?
Brandmüller: Well, one feels that on a daily basis.
Eberhardt: We spoke about borders. Does Europe have a responsibility for other parts of the world as a result of colonisation?
Brandmüller: I believe this needs to be said: The Christian mission, which sprang from its origins in Palestine, is European. Yet atheism originated in Europe as well. Remember that the elites of the so called “New World”- even if Asia is not so new -, and of America and Africa studied at European universities. And it was there that they imbibed philosophies that are diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. One should not be surprised that on these bases atheistic, dictatorial regimes have established themselves in the so called “New World”. The roots of these developments lie in European lecture halls. Thus, Europe does not have much to beat its chest over. Certainly not if one considers all the suffering, in ideological, political and societal terms, that is of European origin. Yet these roots do not reach very deep, certainly not further than the second half of the 18th century. The Enlightenment, that is today praised so highly, was basis for all this ill. The French Revolution was not the triumph of freedom, equality and fraternity, but the opposite.
Eberhardt: Do you feel that contemporary Europe finds itself in a moment of weakness? Is Europe’s internal conflict the danger or are you more concerned about external threats? What is the great danger: The inner state of Europe or what is happening beyond?
Brandmüller: A Europe, firmly rooted in the philosophical and religious roots of Christianity, is capable of fending off such external threats. If this internal stability is not given, one can fear for the continued existence of Europe.
Eberhardt: Several years ago, there was a discussion about a European constitution, and about whether an explicit reference to God should be included. One saw then, that it was by no means given that this continent and its political system ought to be defined in Christian terms…
Brandmüller: The Europe that Robert Schumann, Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer sought to build was a Europe with Jerusalem, Athens and Rome as its central pillars, with the cultural heritage of those ancient cities as its substance. That would be my Europe!
Eberhardt: Why is it that Christianity has lost so much power, so many believers, so many “souls”, as you would say, over the last years?
Brandmüller: I would put it a different way. It is not religion that has lost, but rather the people who have lost their religion. And when you ask me such a question, I invariably must point to the diffuse but powerful spirits, which I regard as the “realm of darkness”. Sin and intellectual fallacy come not from the Creator, but from those who refute him.
Eberhardt: We have today a widespread sense of equality: Patagonia is as valuable as Bavaria, a person in New Zealand has the same human rights as one residing in Canada. But from a Christian perspective, are there certain things that are closely intertwined with specific locations. What is the connection between God and Europe?
Brandmüller: You must ask him that question.
Eberhardt: One could, based on ecclesiastical history, make the point that the Apostles were not sent to the Far East, but in fact to Rome. That God’s earthly representative, Pope Francis, resides a few meters from where we are sitting. Is God pursuing a clear plan in this respect, or are such matters beyond human comprehension? For example, there exists the old notion of transaltio imperii, according to which Germans, and specifically Franconians, had a particular responsibility to spread the word of the Gospel.
Brandmüller: One might very well view it that way. However, that does not mean Europe, in its present state, has any special mission.
Eberhardt: One of the main issues on today’s political agenda is migration. In terms of lifestyle, some migrants are considered more conservative than the local population in Europe, more conservative than CSU members. Does therein lie a chance for conservatives: That through the arrival of these more conservative practices regarding marriage, family and so forth, old conservative values in Europe that seemed lost might be revived?
Brandmüller: I cannot see an extra-European model of the ideal family worth emulating. If there are similar structures, then their reason for being and actual practice is different. What Europe can expect from migration… You must only think of Greece or the Balkans under Ottoman rule, or what came of Egypt under Muslim rule. Then you can adjudicate the impact.
Eberhardt: Since when do you believe in God?
Brandmüller: Gosh! Since I could walk as a child.
Eberhardt: And was there ever a moment when you did not believe, even for a moment?
Brandmüller: No, no, no. Thank God not. Thank God not. When you grow up in the Alpine foothills and see from your window the sun striking the mountain tops, or on rainy days no more than a might grey wall, then you never doubt that something greater exists beyond.
Eberhardt: You have consciously experienced 80 years of your total 90-year lifespan. Did you have an idea of the future 50 years ago, when you were 40 years old? Maybe you thought about this as a forty-year-old: What will Europe look like in 50 years? It was the time of Europe’s division, of the Iron Curtain, of the ideological confrontation between the Superpowers? Did you ever think all that would be overcome?
Brandmüller: I mean 40 or 50 years ago one was still happy to have overcome the Third Reich and experienced the post-war reconstruction. In essence, the Federal Republic was then still a country strongly influenced by Christianity, albeit anti-Christian forces such as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) were at work. That such a rapid deterioration of faith would occur, was not foreseeable then. It was the revolution of ’68 that marked the height of this development, which still burdens Europe today.
Eberhardt: Did you actively and emotionally follow the major milestones of this period, such as the Treaties of Rome, the strengthening of the European Union, or was that less relevant for you as a Bavarian and theologian?
Brandmüller: No, I did not regard such developments as irrelevant. But neither were they articles of faith.
Eberhardt: And how did you experience the fall of the Berlin Wall, when two halves became whole again, and a Pope was said to have made a significant contribution? How do you judge the fact that a divided Europe no longer exists? The fact that for someone like me, who was born in 1987 in what was then the GDR, was it a huge stroke of luck to be born into this era of peace?
Brandmüller: For a theologian like me it was always clear that such earthly structures were not eternal. Against this background, the developments in the East were a welcome surprise, but not a complete upheaval for me. My concern at that time was how the Church would deal with 17 or let us say 15 million unbaptized atheists. The fact that it has still failed to solve this problem is a great tragedy for Germany. To this day I do not understand why the German Bishops’ Conference has undertaken such little effort spread the Catholic faith in the former Eastern states.
Eberhardt: Do you think about what things will be like in 50 years, or are you not interested in matters that lie beyond your own lifespan?
Brandmüller: There is interest, yes. But I am a historian, not a futurologist. As a result, I leave the future as the object of the forces that lie between heaven and earth.
Eberhardt: Of course, one can make predictions for the future based on historical knowledge. Could you make such a prediction for Germany, Europe and the Vatican? Perhaps we do not need to look 50 years ahead, but simply 10?
Brandmüller: No, no, no.
Eberhardt: Will Europe perhaps become predominantly Muslim, as some novels have predicted? Will Notre-Dame become a Mosque?
Brandmüller: Ah you’re thinking of Houellebecq?
Brandmüller: It cannot be excluded. The great tragedy is the disappearance of faith in Europe and, sadly, in the Church itself.
Eberhardt: So, if I understand correctly, you do not see the challenges for my generation in technical details, and not even in political questions, but rather in the reaffirmation and further development of the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Europe.
Brandmüller: Absolutely! Absolutely!
Eberhardt: It is not about optimizing things, such as a tax law for instance.
Eberhardt: Or even if the UK stays or leaves.
Brandmüller: That’s all incidental and of secondary importance. I do not know if you’re familiar with my essay “The Role of the Church in Europe’s Future”?
Eberhardt: No, I do not. Perhaps you could summarize it?
Brandmüller: Based on its mission, the Church is in the position to repair the foundations of our society by underscoring the natural law, the moral law, and emphasizing the importance of truth. And finally, by emphasizing, or shall we say by pointing to the world beyond, which is the basis for everything. If these steps are taken, and they would have to be taken by the Church, then the Church would have a future.
Eberhardt: Our hour here in the Vatican is drawing to a close. Throughout this archive project, we are speaking in a tone directed at the generations to come. We place hope in those listening to us now, in 2030, 2050 or perhaps 2100 – in times that are unimaginable for us. Do you wish to say something, with your voice here in the Vatican, to those yet unborn? What is at stake? What is Europe? What should one make of one’s life?
Brandmüller: (Silence) Humans are, speaking mathematically, not lines or straights. Rather, they are beams. They have a beginning, but no end. In knowing that, the confrontation with the moment, when the beam breaks through the empirical world, is of essential importance. It is then that revelation comes, and the messages of the Gospel are heard.
Eberhardt: Thank you. When I have heard your answers, it becomes clear to me what Europe is. I think that between the lines and in the direct answers you gave throughout the interview, it became very clear what a euro-Christian frame of mind is and what European thought is for you . You are in a way the last of your kind, at least when one views the current state of the Catholic church and the intellectual-spiritual landscape in Europe. Do you already view yourself as a fossil or are there others who will follow in your steps?
Brandmüller: If I leave aside the generation of those 40 and older and look only at the youth currently growing up, particularly the intellectual-theological youth of today, I see that there certainly is something like a seed sprouting through the sheet of ice, as Ida Friederike Görres Geb. Gräfin Coudenhove-Kalerghi once said. I observe that here in Rome and elsewhere in the Church. Also, in this respect, the Church is not at an end. By no means. It will be, to speak in predictive terms, not a Church with a widespread apparatus, but rather one consisting of active cells and hubs, from which the message of the Gospel, which after all is the source of salvation for the world, will spread.
Eberhardt: Perhaps one final question for the historian with a profound knowledge of centuries past: Does history consist of repeated reflections, of similar constellations from which lessons, prognostications, can be drawn? Concretely: What we are now experiencing, the deterioration of faith, different new things, confusion, are these things that have happened before in Christian times? Are there parallels?
Brandmüller: Well let’s put it this way: The desert and fields of rubble left by the French Revolution shortly thereafter became the nourishment for new life throughout Europe. The Christianity, which regained a foothold across Europe after the first third of the 19th Century, arose out of the ashes of revolution which had claimed many martyrs. One cannot overlook that.
Eberhardt: So, you believe in a kind of cyclical up and down of faith…because if we look out here across Rome’s rooftops, we can also see ruins. Things really did eventually reach an end and the Greek gods no longer populate the heavens.
Brandmüller: Yes, yes, yes. Let us leave that to the Master of History and let him decide how we wishes to lead his Church and people, and hope he will spare us catastrophe.
Eberhardt: Your Eminence, I thank you for your words, this interview and send with this recording a final heartfelt greeting into the future.