1943: The Diplomats’ Battle

As Foreign Minister, and Viceroy of India before that, Lord Edward Halifax was the preferred choice of the Conservative Party and the King to succeed Chamberlain as Prime Minister, but he knew he was no match for Churchill and did not press his case. In this he showed an altruism which was commonly admired, notwithstanding his naïveté as an appeaser in the years building up to the war. His father, the 2nd Viscount Halifax, had been a leading Anglo-Catholic layman, famous for his ecumenical conversations with Cardinal Mercier of Belgium. He embraced his father’s ardent piety, along with a stamina that made him a fox-hunter and shooter to be reckoned with despite a withered arm and missing hand. A few months into office, Churchill had him appointed ambassador to Washington, and quickly upstaged him by his personal diplomacy with Roosevelt. Lord and Lady Halifax spent themselves on morale-boosting tours of the United States and Canada after their middle son was killed in action.

He was Chancellor of Oxford and remained so until his death in 1959. The University of Laval in Quebec conferred an honorary degree on the Viscount (later the 1st Earl of Halifax) on May 29, 1943. The acceptance speech, broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, hymned what he had inherited from the High Church ideals of the Oxford Movement. “There has never yet been a movement to destroy Christianity, which, sooner or later, has not found itself obliged to face the necessity of trying to find something to replace it….wherever we find a false idea about men, its origin lies in a false idea of God.” He quoted the 1942 Christmas pastoral letter of the bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing Lichtenegg-Moss: “The moment mankind, whether as individuals, as larger communities, or as nations – no longer feels bound by an immutable, eternal law, the results can only be strife and discord, hatred and disunion, disorder and chaos.”

Queen Victoria chartered the University of Laval in 1852, the year John Henry Newman published The Idea of a University, which Halifax invoked as a prophecy for 1943:

Acutely aware of that peril to Western civilization which accompanied the rapid increase and consequent specialization of knowledge, he foresaw that the human mind would be plunged in chaos if it was unhappily deprived of some general principle of interpretation. This, he insisted, theology alone could give. And he argued that theology, so far from restricting knowledge or limiting our horizon, was the true inspiration of all our learning. Now, with slow and halting steps, the world returns to the wisdom of Newman – that ‘religious truth is not only a presentation, but a condition of general knowledge…’

Dr. Edvard Benes was in Canada at the same time, lecturing on the importance of post-war accommodation with the Soviet Union. The exiled president of Czechoslovakia, with headquarters in London and residence in a country house in Buckinghamshire, had recently been in New York where he spoke in Carnegie Hall: “It was a cardinal mistake (after the last war) to imagine that we could devise a permanent peace settlement in Paris when no Russian representative were invited to the peace table.” Innocent in his own way about the Communists as Halifax had been in the late 1930s about the Nazis, Benes certainly was no Communist himself. After the war, he became president of a coalition Czechoslovakian government, but refused to sign a Communist constitution in 1948 and died three months later, succeeded by his Communist prime minister, Clement Gottwald.

In the United States, money was collected for the relief of Poles in Russia. Out of an estimated million Polish children in the U.S.S.R., 40 percent had died, according to Mgr. Jozef Gawlina, bishop of the Military Ordinariate of Poland with special responsibilities for Polish refugees. The Soviets maintained that everyone living in territory occupied by the Red Armies in 1939 became a Soviet national, and that preference in the distribution of foreign assistance should not be given to Poles.

On May 26 the Vatican radio crackled with indignation in German- and French-language response to the Nazi puppet Radio Paris, which had slandered the late Pope Pius XI three days before:

Achtung! Attention! On the evening of May 23rd Radio Paris broadcast an attack on the attitude of the Holy See at the present time…To this our reply is, briefly, that the attitude of the Catholic Church to National-Socialism as a philosophy is known, in the first place, through the encyclical ‘Mit brennender Sorge.’ All the world knows the facts about the fate of the Catholic Church in Germany. Radio Paris’s allegations therefore need no further refutation; we can only guess that they were made for propaganda purposes. All the same, it is impossible to see how that sort of thing can be useful, even as propaganda. One thing is certain: it was not the Vatican which declared this war, and it was not the Catholic Church in Germany which brought this, her fate, upon herself. All the world knows this.

Surprisingly, on May 30, the Radio Paris spokesman, “Dr. Friedrich, ” apologized. He was Dr. Friedrich Sieburg, one-time Paris correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung and a protégé of Goebbels. “Dr. Friedrich” said that the transmission had been done by an “imposter” and that he had been surprised to hear it from his hospital bed: “Thanks to the perfect freedom of speech and expression which I am granted by Radio Paris, this talk, wrongly bearing my name, was broadcast by someone else, my illness preventing me from intervening.”

The next day, the Vatican radio broadcast again in German a personal message Pope Pius XII had sent in October 1942 to the German bishops. The message anticipated the annual celebration by the bishops of June 5, the feast of St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany. The Pope had spent nearly half his episcopal years in Germany and took this occasion to deplore the way “many people strive to do away with that ancient glory which hitherto we have so deeply admired, to destroy what the Christian religion gave Germany through so many centuries.” The Pope expressed his gratitude to the German bishops who, with Rome, “are doing everything in their power to erect a bastion against those wretched people who harbour so hostile and unjustified an aversion to Christianity.” The Pope invoked the early Christian martyrs as forerunners, and prayed that the bishops might be given a particular energy (Tatkraft) to fight the foe so that “the remotest times to come will give you thanks and will bless your memory in undying love.” The words were blunt about the cost of discipleship “Our profound solicitude is rightly due to the priests, Brothers and Sisters in professions, who are prepared rather to suffer the worst than to abandon the holy teaching of Christ. It is due to their saintly conduct that the Church In Germany shines in a new and marvelous splendour. We confess that this gives Us comfort and confidence, since the Lord is wont to grant His crown to the steadfast. You are all fighting for the glory of the Gospel, for which to die is Life, to live without which is living death.”

Air raids in Germany took their toll in Mainz, Cologne and Lubeck. Severe damage was done to St. Hedwig’s cathedral in Berlin, the early Gothic church of St. Stephen at Mainz, the tenth century Minster at Essen with its frescoes and reliquaries, the thirteenth century Marienkirche of Lubeck along with that city’s cathedral and Petrikirche.

There was some confusion among the German propagandists, who simultaneously banned the scientific works of the priest Copernicus as “of Polish origin” while claiming him as a German for the centennial commemoration of his death on May 24, 1543. Gauleiter Forster donated a statue of Copernicus to Thorn while Reichsminister Rust used the debt of Galileo the Italian to Copernicus the “German” as a metaphor for the Rome-Berlin Axis. In a speech at Konigsberg, Rust said: “Germany today the standard-bearer of the civilized nations of Europe in the struggle for life and freedom of her people and the values of a culture going back over three thousand years, regards Copernicus with sentiments of pride and indebtedness as one of the great ones who have embodied the German character and the German spirit most successfully. But the traitors to the life and civilization of Europe who, evil and false as never before in history, commit any act of murder and treason disguised in priest’s garb and with prayers on their lips — these only remain true to themselves if they, the abettors of Katyn Wood, today celebrate Copernicus as ‘the Pole.'”

May 27 saw the death in Spain at San Sebastian of the Marquis de Merry del Val, holder of the Grand Cross of the Victorian Order and brother of the late Cardinal Merry De Val, Pope St. Pius X’s secretary of state. Born in London 79 years before, the Marquis had been Spanish ambassador to the Court of Saint James, his father having been secretary to the Spanish legation in London. He had resigned on the proclamation of the Spanish republic and was grieved at what he considered to be the failure of Britain and the United States to deplore the fall of the monarchy.

On May 24, Pope Pius XII received in farewell audience the German Ambassador to the Holy See, Dr. Carl-Ludwig Diego von Bergen. As the son of a German diplomat and a Spanish mother, he was born in Siam and early in his own diplomatic career had served in the German legation in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Outwardly a staunch Nazi, he had raised eyebrows at the obsequies for Pope Pius XI when, speaking as dean of the Vatican diplomatic corps by virtue of his seniority, he bade the cardinals to elect a pope who would work with the Fascist governments to build “ a new world upon the ruins of a past that in many things has no longer any reason to exist.” But he was considered rather soft by Hitler and his retirement age, after 23 years in the Vatican, made it convenient to replace him with Baron Ernst von Weizacker.

The new ambassador was a pragmatist who had opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia because it would start a war that he did not think Germany could win. When the “Final Solution” was made known, he called it a “devilish campaign.” From the Vatican, his correspondence to the home office in Berlin described Pius XII as overly-subtle, indecisive and disposed toward Germany, but one of his staff, Albrecht von Kessel, later said that this was a deliberate calculation to evoke sympathy for Germany among the Italians. Weizacker was convinced that Hitler intended to occupy the Vatican, which he thought would be disastrous, especially if the Pope were shot “fleeing while avoiding arrest.” After the war, he remained in the Vatican as a guest of the Pope until 1946. In 1949 he was sentenced to seven years for war crimes, and later granted amnesty. Churchill believed him to have been anti-Nazi and called the conviction a travesty. One son, Carl, was an atomic physicist and philosopher, and a younger son, Richard, who had been a legal counsel to his father at the trial, became the first president of a united Germany, honored by many nations including Israel.

The 38-year-old missionary to the Norwegians, Father Hugo van der Vlugt, whose disappearance was announced in January, died in a German concentration camp. Forty five years older, Mgr. Emanuel-Anatole-Raphael Chaptal de Chanteloup, auxiliary bishop of Paris, died on May 27, still wearing the star of David in protest against the persecution of the Jews.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).

  • Bill Russell

    Breathtaking history. May all this be etched in stone. The Holy Spirit was so splendidly at work in WW II in spiritual combat against the Prince of Lies. All this is a lesson for our present struggles. Never forget.

  • sarto

    Pope Pius XII was a timid man when we needed St. Paul.

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