With the blackouts and bleak uncertainty about the fortunes of war, the days before Christmas were dark. The death of Rev. Vladimir Ledochowski, the “Black Pope,” on December 13 somberly marked a period of tremendous growth for the Society of Jesus, whose general he had been since 1915. Monuments to his service included new buildings for the Curia Generalis on Borgo Santo Spirito and the Gregorian University on the Piazza Pilotta, along with the Oriental Institute, the Russian College, and the Biblicum. His uncle, the Cardinal Archbishop of Gniezno, had been deposed one month after taking office in the Kulturkampf of April 1874, imprisoned for two years, and lived from then on in Roman exile. One of Father Ledochowski’s sisters would be beatified by Pope Paul VI, and another canonized by Pope John Paul II. The Father General was small in stature and frail in appearance: “In later years, his face had a certain ageless transparent look; and he walked with a noticeable limp.”
Father Ledochowski had supervised the Latin translation of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Humani Generis Unitas, which Eugene Cardinal Tisserant attested was on the pope’s desk the day he died on February 10, 1939. Under Father Ledochowski’s guidance, three Jesuits had drafted the document in Paris: the American Rev. John LaFarge, Rev. Gustav Gundlach, and Rev. Gustave Desbuquois. While the encyclical began with a general condemnation of modernist assumptions, it moved into a specific attack on racism. Father LaFarge’s hand was evident in the condemnation of American racial segregation, but the burden was anti-Semitism and Nazi eugenics. As it was never published, it has been called “The Hidden Encyclical,” with the implication that Pope Pius XII found it too strong. Now we know that Pius XII, in his own inaugural encyclical Summi Pontificatus, took up the theme of race mythology but excised the glaringly anti-Jewish commentary that accompanied the broad condemnations of genocide in the text Father Ledochowski had presented to Pius XI. Like Harry Truman, who had not been informed of the Yalta texts, Pius XII apparently had not previously seen the text of Humani Generis Unitas. Contrary to the claims of some later historians, Pius XII preserved the essential critique of anti-Semitism, while excising stereotypical descriptions of Jews that would have been exploited by the Nazis: “Blinded by a vision of material domination and gain,” and “this unhappy people, destroyers of their own nation.”
On December 21, Msgr. Jan Sramek, Prime Minister of the Czechoslovak Republic, celebrated the golden anniversary of his priestly ordination. Years before, he had combined political activity with his pastoral work as a parish priest and, in the Czech opposition to Hapsburg rule, he had opposed and later befriended Jan Masaryk. Largely through his witness, millions of Czech Catholics remained loyal to the Holy See when tempted to schism in the nationalist spirit of the young republic. In the 1920s, he had secured the Church’s properties and canonical freedom and organized the Eucharistic Congress at Prague in 1935. In the 1939 Nazi invasion, at the age of 70, Monsignor Sramek refused to surrender and chose exile. He became prime minister when the Allies recognized the Czechoslovak National Committee as the government in exile. After the war, he maintained leadership of the People’s Party, but he would be deposed by the Communists in 1948, dying in 1956, ever the patriot and priest.
On December 12, the former liner S.S. President Coolidge, appropriated by the War Shipping Administration for the U.S. Army, was sunk in the South Pacific with most of its crew saved; the Battle of Stalingrad was in full force; and Operation Winter Storm (Unternehmen Wintergewitter) was launched during the Batlle of Stalingrad, in which the German Fourth Panzer Army attempted to relieve encircled Axis forces. On that same day, beset with severe food rationing, in a sandbagged Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, an honorary degree was conferred on Arthur Cardinal Hinsley. The Deputy Public Orator began, “Principes illustrissimos vel civitatis vel Ecclesiae ornare semper nos gavisi sumus, sed nullos, opinor, libentius ornavimus quam qui in altissimo dignitatis gradu collocati res magnas et excelsas non modo videre sed etiam aliis monstrare numquam desierunt“:
The bestowal of honours on the most illustrious leaders both of Church and State has always been a joy to us. But on none, I think have we bestowed them more gladly than on those who, holding the highest place in dignity, have never ceased both to keep their own gaze fixed on the greatest and noblest realities and to make these known to others.
A few days before Christmas, having received more evidence of the systematic killing of European Jews, the entire British House of Commons rose to its feet in solemn protest. The Jewish historian Cecil Roth compared this with the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 when King Edward I acted “with scrupulous fairness and almost humanity” with “public proclamations made in every county that no person should ‘injure, harm, damage, or grieve the Jews’ in the time which must lapse until their departure.” The Board of Management of the Christian Council for Refugees from Germany and Central Europe expressed “its readiness to co-operate in every way within its power in any appropriate steps which may be taken to relieve any victims of this persecution who may succeed in making their escape.”
The Axis powers, exploiting the shortage of food shipments from Marseilles to stir up anti-colonial sentiment, were surprised that the Muslims of North Africa were reluctant to cooperate with them. One reason was German discrimination against Arab prisoners of war, though the main reason was said to be a theological opposition to the incoherence of Nazi atheist mythology. In Morocco, King Muhammed V was especially opposed to Nazism, quietly assisting Jews. Most of the 14 million Muslims in French North Africa, however, identified with Vichy and only helped the Allied cause through the influence of Admiral Francois Darlan.
The situation was different in Syria, where Hitler was hailed as “Abu Ali” by the National Socialist Party. In Egypt, Hitler was “Muhammed Haidar” to the Young Egypt Party, one of whose members was Gamal Abdul Nasser. Theological complaints with National Socialism did not overwhelm the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who eventually made his way to Berlin where he frequently consulted Hitler; visited Auschwitz to encourage the guards to work faster; secured the deportation of 5,000 Jewish children to death camps, having blocked Adolf Eichmann’s proposed exchange of them for British-held German POWs; and obtained a promise from Hitler to liquidate the Jews of Palestine after a Nazi victory. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Albanians, whose king was in exile in England, were told both by Mr. Eden for Britain and Mr. Cordell Hull for the United States that their governments wanted “to see Albania freed from the Italian yoke and restored to independence.”
General Franco replied to Hitler’s greeting on his birthday: “I send you my wishes for a triumph of German arms in the glorious enterprise of liberating Europe from the Bolshevik terror.” Some analysts thought it significant that Franco limited his reference to the Russian campaign. Il Caudillo removed his brother-in-law, Serrano Súñer, from the Foreign Secretaryship when he expressed hopes for Axis success in Europe. The new foreign minister, Count Francisco Gomez-Jordana, helped to make Spain a haven for Eastern European Jews, especially Sephardic Jews from Hungary. Spanish Communists Isidora Ibarruru (“La Pasionaria”) and Jesus Hernandez had taken refuge in Moscow, where they broadcast Marxist propaganda to Spain. While Spain remained officially neutral, Romania in 1940 ceded most of her western territory to Hungary and, under Marshal Ion Antonescu, gave German troops entry into Romania “for the purpose of instructing the Rumanian Army.” Between the signing of the Vienna Diktat in 1940 and Christmas 1942, the total casualties in the Romanian army killed and wounded on the Eastern Front after “instruction” by the Germans was more than 350,000, a figure the Germans suppressed. King Carol had fled the country and Antonescu became the Nazi’s puppet leader.
In Belgium, Louvain ceased to be a Catholic university, and students of the Katholiek Vlaamsch Hoofstudentenverbond were forbidden to begin the academic year with a Mass. In Hungary, Jusztinian Cardinal Seredi published extracts from the Joint Pastorals of the German bishops in his journal Magyar Sion and told members of the Stephan Academy in Budapest that “the most valuable fight is human liberty, for which it has always paid to fight.”
The Italian Fascist propagandist blamed Allied bombings in Italy on a conspiracy of Myron Taylor, Winston Churchill, British Catholics, the Church of England, and the Vatican, which L’Osservatore Romano denied. Undeterred, Mussolini’s spokesman said:
The Chair of St. Peter, which guides men to the kingdom of God and does not concern itself with temporal matters, is one thing; quite another thing is the Vatican State, which can engage in politics in the same way as Chiang Kai-shek, Haile Selassie, Church, and so on. And in politics there exists no infallibility.
So Christmas came, Emmanuel once made flesh abided “in agony until the end of the world.” In the London papers, the confectioner De Bry de Paris, located at 64 New Oxford Street, ran an advertisement saying that their supply of chocolates had dwindled: “Therefore the many, who in the past delighted in the enjoyment of the De Bry quality, must of necessity be reduced to the fortunate few who can obtain them.”