Catholic Heroism and Villainy in Wartime

Arthur Cardinal Hinsley, Archbishop of Westminster, was such a strong voice against the Axis that when he died in 1943, King George VI expressed frustration that protocol prevented his attendance at the Requiem. When King George V and Queen Mary had attended the Requiem for the exiled Empress Eugenie at the Benedictine abbey in Farnborough in 1920, a stately remonstrance was sent from the Church of Scotland.  On the other hand, royal protocols could loosen canonical strictures, and thus Catholic Eugenie was godmother at the Scottish Presbyterian baptism of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and King Edward VII’s niece, Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg who in 1906 became a Catholic before marrying King Alfonso of Spain.  Her logic was not complex:  “If Uncle Eddie can be head of a Church, why can’t the Pope?”  Queen Victoria, protectress of Anglicanism, had been godmother for the son of Napoleon III and Eugenie, her proxy at the baptism in Notre Dame cathedral being the Queen of Sweden, daughter of the adopted son of Napoleon I, Eugene de Beauharnais.

The Prince Imperial, Eugenie’s only child, died in South Africa in 1879 fighting under the British flag in the Battle of Ulundi, stabbed seventeen times by Zulu spears. He was wielding the sword Napoleon I carried at the Battle of Austerlitz.  The Zulu Hlabanatunga disemboweled him to prevent his soul from seeking revenge.  When the body of Prince Napoleon was brought back to England, Queen Victoria donated his tomb to the Catholic abbey. By an odd quirk, one of Cardinal Hinsley’s episcopal consecrators had been Merry del Val, son of the secretary of the Spanish legation in London and a close friend of the Empress Eugenie. Hinsley had also been Apostolic Visitor to British Africa, including Zululand.  Churchill, innocent of ecclesiology, had so admired the cardinal that during World War II he wanted him be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Over a couple of years I occasionally wrote for Crisis magazine about compelling people, particularly Catholic figures well known like Cardinal Hinsley, and others more obscure, who played their parts in World War II, from 1942 to 1943.  Later I expanded this research and the result has just been published as a book called Principalities and Powers.  My point all along was that the world’s most worldwide war, begun for mixed reasons and fought on many fronts, can only be understood in its essential dynamic as a spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil.  It had not only heroes and cowards, but saints and sinners, and as it unfolded, the Church’s governing and prophetic and priestly duties were on full display.  The French editor of a Protestant newspaper wrote: “The militant Catholics in our country have taken a place which is important and, we do not fear to say, preponderant, at the head of the movement of resistance in which, very often, they have taken the initiative, and of which they remain the inspiration.”

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I would list a sampling of the things I learned in writing the book. For example, on the Vigil of the Assumption in 1942, the Salesians announced that 120 members of their Order had been executed by the Gestapo in Poland.  It was the first anniversary of the death of Father Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz, by an injection of carbolic acid.  A month later, Father Jan Piwowarczk received a new class of seminarians in Krakow, including Karol Wojtyla.  As pope, he would canonize Kolbe and beatify the 31-year-old Salesian Father Joseph Kowalski who was killed for refusing to trample on a rosary.

The 81-year-old auxiliary bishop of Paris, Emanuele-Anatole-Raphael Chaptal de Chanteloupe wore a Star of David in protest again the deportation of Jews, and soon was buried wearing it. The collaborationist Vichy radio mocked Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons for hiding Jews and resistance fighters: he was “an ex-lawyer who late in life became an archbishop thanks more to the omnipotent grace of the House of Rothschild than to the laws of Holy Mother Church.”  When German officials ordered the Jews of Beauvais to register at the municipal headquarters, Bishop Felix Roeder claimed a distant Jewish antecedent and was the first to register, processing through the street in full pontifical vestments, and preceded by an acolyte carrying the Cross.

In the Pacific Islands, the Japanese killed the Vicar Apostolic of New Guinea and a group of his missionaries. Other Catholic missionaries, including an American, Father Arthur Duhamel, were bayoneted on Guadalcanal.  Pope Pius XII’s message on the Vatican radio on the Feast of the Transfiguration, broadcast in German, said: “God’s ship is destined to reach port safely. She will not sink, for Christ is the helmsman and the gates of hell, the onslaught of the wildest waves and of the spiritual U-boat action (“Geistige U-boot Arbeit”) of godless neo-paganism will not harm her… For while paganism cannot build up, still less can neo-paganism, which lacks even that nobility of mind and true humanity which was found in the old pagans.”

In Syria, the Nationalist Socialist Party hailed Hitler as “Abu Ali” and the Young Egypt Party called him “Muhammed Haidar.”  The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini visited Hitler, secured the deportation of 5,000 Jewish children to death camps, and obtained a promise from Hitler to liquidate the Jews of Palestine after a Nazi victory. In Belgium, the university of Louvain was purged of its Catholic faculty and Mass was forbidden. The Italian Fascist propagandist Roberto Farinacci blamed Allied bombings in Italy on a conspiracy of Myron Taylor, Winston Churchill, British Catholics, the Church of England, and the Vatican. When Christmas came in 1942, The New York Times said that Pope Pius XII “is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

Almost at the same time, the Bishop of Berlin, Johan Konrad von Preysing, persuaded that Germany had “fallen into the hand of criminals and fools,” wrote in a pastoral letter that the world’s present miseries were  “the result of human contempt for natural and divine law.”  His secretary, Father Bernard Lichtenberg, died en route to Dachau which had an entire wing meant for priests. Among the inmates was Father Titus Brandsma, a scholar of Nijmegen, who gave his rosary to the Allgemeine SS doctor who administered his poison injection.  Two months later, a twenty-one year old priest Father Alois Andritzki, of Dresden, spoke out against the eugenics policies in the Saxonian sanitarium in Pima. By the end of the war, some 16,000 patients, disabled or mentally ill, were killed there as “life unworthy of life.” In Dachau, Father Alois asked for Communion and the guard injected him with acid. By decree of Benedict XVI,  he was beatified as a martyr on June 13, 2011 in Dresden cathedral.

Typical of the “greatest generation” who defied all reason save virtue to fight the good fight, was the RAF’s Flying-Officer Charles Robert Cecil Augustus Allberry, killed in action in Holland at the age of 32.  The vice-master of his Cambridge college called him “daring and merry as well as kind” and noted that he had already attained, at the age of 27, front rank as a Coptic scholar by his edition of a Manichaean psalter.  He was received into the Catholic Church a little more than a year before his death.  No less dashing was the Crown Prince of Saxony who relinquished all claims to the royal succession in order to become a Jesuit. This Father Georg was found drowned in Berlin under suspicious circumstances.  Brendan Eamon Ferus “Paddy” Finucane, died at 21, the youngest Wing-Commander in the history of the RAF, having shot down 32 German flyers, 26 single handedly.  A friend remembered: “A casual onlooker might be pardoned for thinking him a dare-devil type… I shall like to think of him as I saw him the Sunday before he met his death—kneeling down at Mass, saying his beads with complete simplicity.”

One hesitates to single out a few, if that neglects the thousands, perhaps millions, who attained virtue on an heroic scale.  It is easier to let the villains haunt memory, like the Vichy collaborationist Pierre Laval whose cruelty, while calling himself a Catholic, amazed even many Nazis: “Cardinals and bishops have intervened, but everyone is a master of his own trade. They handle religion. I handle government.”  It is a sentiment with echoes in the halls of governments in our own time and it thrived on the cooperation of those who compromised their religious conscience.  A priest, Monsignor Josef Tiso, as puppet president of the Slovak State, paid the Germans to deport 60,000 Slovak Jews for extermination in Auschwitz, making Slovakia the only country to subsidize such deportations. When he was hanged for war crimes in 1947, he went to the gallows in his clerical clothes. Pro-Ustase Archbishop Saric of Sarevejo penned an ode to the Croatian dictator Ante Pavelic.  Croatia had the highest rate of genocide in proportion to population, of any European country. After the war he fled to Spain, while Pavelic was hid by Jesuits near Naples and eventually settled in Argentina. In Yugoslavia, Bishop Alojzije Mišić of Mostar expressed horror at the massacres of Serbs with the complicity of Herzegovinian Franciscans headquartered at Široki Brijeg near Medjugorje. Bishop Mišić described hundreds of women and children and elderly men thrown alive into ravines at Surmanci. Eugene Cardinal Tisserant grimaced: the Franciscans behaved “abominably.”

If truisms become truisms because they are true, then we may indulge the truism that human nature never changes. Only the presumptuous are sure that had they been alive in another time, they would have been good rather than bad or indifferent. We can only examine our conduct in the generation given to us, mindful of the Apostle whose words seem to have been much on the mind of Pope Francis when he recently consecrated the Vatican City State in our perilous times to St. Michael the Archangel:

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in high places.  (Ephesians 6:12)

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Cardinal Hinsley at Archbishop’s House, Westminster, on his return to London after receiving the red hat from Pius XI in 1937. He was 70 years old when appointed to the see in 1935.


  • 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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