1943: Night Falls over Europe

German success in the Third Battle of Kharkov exasperated the Russians, although no one could foretell that it would be the last significant local German victory of the war. That was March 16, 1943, and the next day Stalin virtually demanded that the United States and Britain form a second European front to relieve the Red Army, which had been carrying the weight of the entire Eastern Front.  Starting that same day, and through the 19th of March, the Allies lost 21 merchant ships in attacks from nearly 40 U-boats. The Germans’ recovery of breaches made by the Eighth Army in Tunisia tempered any Allied overconfidence. A week earlier, Churchill had warned that planning for a post-war Europe would have to take second place to the goal of victory itself.

In his tribute to the late Arthur Cardinal Hinsley, Rev. Jean Olphe-Galliard, chaplain to the Fighting French Forces, quoted from a speech of Charles de Gaulle in London in 1941:

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For the feast of St. Joan of Arc which we spent in England, on the morrow of one of the worst of the air raids, and after the presentation of the Colours to units of the Fighting French Forces, under a sky glowing with the heat of the fires and gray with clouds of ash, the Archbishop received our Colours in his cathedral and blessed them.

On the 18th of March, the new leader of the Free French, Gen. Henri Giraud, in a Lincolnesque gesture (albeit symbolic at the time), restored full property and full citizenship to French Jews. Prospects for Vichy France continued to fade when French Guiana renounced ties with Vichy and allied itself with the Free French.

On March 22, the Vatican radio, broadcasting in German, repudiated Nazi claims that Cardinal Hinsley had prayed for Bolshevism on Red Army Day: “The Church does not condemn in any way the peoples of the Soviet Union in their entirety, for we bear them the most sincere and fatherly love. We only accuse the system.” The message continued: “This high Prelate of the Church energetically took the part of those persecuted and deprived of their rights because of their nationality or origin. He thus acted as an advocate and defender of the rights of man so little respected today.”

An assassination attempt on Hitler failed on March 20. Col. Rudolf von Gersdorff, chief of intelligence for Gen. Gunther von Kluge, had planned to blow himself up along with Hitler by detonating a bomb with acid in the Zeughaus exhibit hall. Hitler left the hall too quickly, and Gersdorff repaired to the men’s lavatory where he flushed the fuse down a toilet. On that same day, the Nazis opened Crematorium IV at Auschwitz. This was a streamlined death machine with an underground gas chamber from which an elevator transported the corpses into the furnace.


The Belgian Ministry of Information issued a statement from London, where the Belgian government was in exile from 1940 to 1944, saying that the Germans had forged the statement supposedly written by Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, in which he purportedly approves of the Germans’ “crusade” against Communism. This had rained criticism on the cardinal from many quarters, including the BBC. It had been broadcast only in Holland, and not in Cardinal van Roey’s Belgium, in an effort to influence the Dutch clergy. The communiqué of the Minister of Information, Antoine Delfosse, stated:

In the highest Belgian quarters in London it is declared that the document referred to by the Hilversum Broadcasting Station is manifestly a gross forgery on the part of the enemy propagandists, designed to foment confusion in the minds of the public and to place the Archbishop in a delicate position, particularly in relation to a neighboring country, where the falseness of the supposed document cannot immediately be discovered.

In Belgium itself, the collaborationist journal Cassandre was outraged that in the diocese of Liege, February 8 had been designated a day of Prayer for the Jews. A parish magazine, L’Appel des Cloches, told the faithful: “In praying and going to Communion on that Sunday for the persecuted Jewish people, once the chosen people of Christ, we shall be acting in conformity with the instructions of our Right Reverend Bishop.” The Belgian bishops prepared a second pastoral letter to be read in all the churches on the Second Sunday of Lent, saying that King Leopold, then a prisoner, and the Holy See joined them in condemning forced labor and deportations.

Priests in the French diocese of Mende, in Languedoc, were ordered by the diocesan chancellor not to give out information about church property, sacred vessels, or organizations. This was a precaution, given Nazi confiscation of church properties in Austria. In January of 1943, the historic Gottweig monastery near Krems had been turned into a National Political Education Institute; and the Benedictine monastery of Echternach in Luxembourg, founded in 698 by St. Willibrord, was converted into schools of commerce and agriculture. From the Basilica in Fourvière in Lyons, Pierre-Marie Cardinal Gerlier preached a sermon in late February that began to circulate in Britain weeks later: “The worst of all catastrophes would be that the world, ravaged by what the Pope calls its ‘progressive de-Christianization,’ should continue to sink into paganism, which in several quarters, certain persons dream of substituting for the Christian ideal.”


Marking the anniversary of the election of the pope on March 2, the Vatican radio broadcast a special message in German:

Night has fallen over Europe. The demon of war has been unleashed and brings untold misery to peoples and nations, to States and families. Its presence is regarded as a licence for all imaginable cruelties. The persecution of religion, the suppression of monasteries and religious houses, the closing of churches and schools, an unexampled disregard of the dignities and rights of the human personality, an unprecedented enslavement of human freedom, the deportation of thousands for forced labour, the killing of innocent and guilty alike, the extermination of cultural values hundreds of years old, the thwarting of the humanities (Verkuemmerung der Geitswissenschaften), an unpardonable commandeering of human beings, especially of school and university youth, for the aims of a State that reigns supreme and has lost contact with the laws of God. . . . The Pope sees all this and raises his warning voice of protest. Above all he suffers with the tortured people. His pains, however, are not of a depressing kind. They are the pains of one who is full of hope. The Pope is an optimist, not of the reactionary type, waiting for the return of past ages. He says: “The watchword of the hour is not to bewail but to act.”

Michael Cardinal von Felhauber marked the papal anniversary preaching in the Munich cathedral:

The State, as an institution built by God, can establish its laws, and its subjects are under the obligation to obey them, for the sake of their conscience. The State has the right to levy taxes and to demand sacrifices of property and life in the defence of the Fatherland. The State, however, has no right to make laws which are incompatible with Divine Law and the Natural Law. . . . Thus, the meaning of family life does not lie exclusively in the building up of national strength.

With unusual candor, the Gauleiter of the Office for Racial Policy, Kreisleiter Schneider, admitted that the German government’s attempts to increase the birth rate of the Herrenvolk had failed, though he did not connect this with the Nazi hostility to the institution of the family. Marriages contracted between 1933 and 1939 had produced an average of less than two children, and 1942 had seen a more precipitous decline especially in the 63 largest towns: 342,000 births in 1942, in contrast to 395,600 in 1941. The Polish birth rate in 1942, to German dismay, in urban areas “incorporated into the Reich” was 18.7 per thousand, as against 13.9 for Germans. The Polish figure had declined from 20.5 in 1940 largely due to German attempts at population control, but this was still unsatisfactory, and Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau, was determined that more drastic steps had to be taken.

The British 1st Armored Division was approaching Tebaga Gap in Tunisia as night fell on March 25, causing the German and Italian infantry to withdraw from the Mareth Line. Earlier that day, the British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Richard Law, told the House of Commons of attempts by Bulgaria to de-Hellenize Western Thrace just as the Germans had tried to destroy Poland and Slovenia. Law, married to a woman from Rochester, New York, and later 1st Baron Coleraine, would write a sort of riposte to Thomas More in 1950, in a book arguing that the very idea of Utopia is evil, as it necessarily abolishes freedom and individual choice.

For the moment, his immediate concern was Greece, since that Feast of the Annunciation was also Greek Independence Day. The King of the Hellenes, George II, exiled in Cairo, sent a message of hope to his people, and shortly afterward it was announced that the Greek government would establish itself for the duration in the Middle East, save for a few departments remaining in London. The plan was to increase the number of guerrillas in Northern Greece by parachuting them in from Egypt, in preparation for an Allied invasion of the Balkans. As King Peter of Yugoslavia predicted that decisive battles would be fought in Europe in the next few months, the Greek Premier, Emmanouil Tsouderos, broadcast from Egypt to his homeland: “The trumpet call which shall announce the salvation of the enslaved peoples of Europe will sound, as I have every reason to believe, in the course of this year. All the omens show that our country is celebrating its national day in chains and bondage for the last time.” Tsouderos had succeeded Alexandros Koryzis, who committed suicide in 1941 as the Germans marched on Athens. He would survive the war, serving his government in various capacities, dying in Genoa in 1956.

Quartered not far from Tsouderos in Cairo, the Very Rev. Arthur Hughes, Chargé d’Affaires of the Apostolic Delegation in Egypt, published a letter in a local newspaper, La Bourse Egyptienne:

I have just received from Cardinal Maglione, Secretary of State to His Holiness, the assurance that the Holy See has worked and is still working for the protection of Jewish communities in the occupied countries, and that, despite the want of success of so many precious endeavours, the Holy Father does not cease to do everything that is possible. Only recently the Vatican has been strongly criticized by certain sections of the Central European Press for its defence of persecuted Jews, and for its articles in the “Osservatore Romano.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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