1942: Complicated Loyalties


On November 17, 1942, the Catholic publisher
Wilfred Meynell celebrated his 90th birthday in Greatham, southwest of London. He would live another six years and, with the noise of RAF fighter planes a familiar sound daily, he could boast that he was born the year the Duke of Wellington died. Henry Edward Cardinal Manning fostered his literary career, and Meynell wrote lives of him and other contemporaries, including John Henry Cardinal Newman and Pope Leo XIII. His wife, Alice, who died exactly 20 years earlier, was the poet who had encouraged her fellow poet Francis Thompson in his struggle with opium addiction. Coincident with Meynell’s birthday was the death of the Catholic convert F. W. Speaight, at the age of 74. The civil architect had designed the decorations for the funeral procession of King Edward VII in 1910 and five years earlier had renovated the Marble Arch.
In the Slipper Chapel of the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham, a novena was planned before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for the intention of Allied victory. Eastward, the Orthodox Churches were struggling with disorder. The Soviet Union had broadcast a message from the metropolitan of Moscow and de facto patriarch, Sergius, congratulating Joseph Stalin on the 25th anniversary of the October Revolution. Immediately after this, the Romanian Patriarch Nicodemus resigned. Just a few days later, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung in Zurich reported the resignation of the interim patriarch Nicholas Balan, metropolitan of Sibiu. The metropolitan of Bessarabia had resigned some months before that.

Romania was the only predominantly Orthodox country officially at war with the Soviet Union. While Sergius was recognized by the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, German propaganda enjoyed publicity of him as a cooperative agent of the Bolsheviks in controlling the Romanian church. Shortly before his resignation, Nicodemus had offended the Soviets by reorganizing the Romanian province of Transnistria in Russian Ukraine. In an instance of thief catching thief, the Nazis quickly detected a work of cynicism and even a gesture of desperation in the Soviet pretense of reviving religion. Stalin was restoring church properties and granting concessions to Sergius, but at the price of his compliance.
By November, the Germans were on the defensive both in North Africa and around Stalingrad. A year before, Adolf Hitler had pledged that Moscow would be taken by the end of 1942. He and Nazi foreign affairs minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had predicted the fall of Stalingrad around the same time. They were not as prophetic as Charles de Gaulle, who had said that the Battle for Africa would change the whole complexion of the war. As portents seemed more favorable, many ambiguous Frenchmen began to rally to the side of the Fighting French headquartered in London, calling to mind the parable of the laborers who came into the vineyard at the eleventh hour. If Adm. François Darlan had deployed the French fleet in favor of the Allies, Gen. Archibald Wavell could have secured all of North Africa as early as 1940. But Darlan pleaded — falsely, in the estimation of the Allied forces — that he had been afforded no alternative.
Complicating loyalties was Gen. Maxime Weygand, himself a conflicted man whose uncertain parentage was alternately said to have involved the Empress Carlota of Mexico and King Leopold II of the Belgians. His rarified Catholicism found early expression in opposition to the Dreyfussards and obsession with cabals of Protestants, Freemasons, and Jews. A credentialed foe of the Germans until 1940, he conveniently shifted sides and became a Pétainist and a chief Jew-baiter of the Vichy regime. Unrepentant, he died in 1965, nearly 100 years old, professing the Catholicism he had tried to modify when it seemed unsympathetic to the throne-and-altar Catholicism of Action Française. That exotic cultural flower, urged by Maurice Pujo and Henri Vaugeois, actually envisioned the restoration of the monarchy with the Duc de Guise as king.
In 1942, the movement’s apologist, Charles Maurras, himself vague in religious belief, collected statements of 39 French bishops supportive of Phillipe Pétain, but these were less than half of the entire French episcopate. Despite the condemnation of Action Française by Pope Pius XI, Maurras would influence extreme movements especially in Latin America. The rector of the French College in Rome, Rev. Henri Le Floch, who was greatly admired by his student Marcel Lefebvre, was removed from his office because of his sympathies for Maurras. Revanchism found a publicist in Jacques Marcy, who strongly resented how every Catholic family in Lyons sheltered a Jew. In Toulouse, Jewish children were hidden in Catholic schools. Another Action Française apologist, Marcel Deat, warned that the resistance of Catholics to the totalitarian spirit of “the New Europe” would result in a “terrible adventure.”
Benito Mussolini was beginning to reap the whirlwind of having assisted the Germans in bombing England in 1940. While officials in the Italian government, and even some Catholic prelates, claimed that retaliatory raids by the Allies were unjustified, many of the Italian parochial clergy did not respond well to Fascist attempts to stir up hatred for the Allies. A parish priest of Monte di Nese near Bergamo, not unrepresentative of his fraternity, used his pulpit to excoriate the local military commander for pasting up posters reading, “Hate the British!”
On the more remote shores of the United States, the Administrative Board of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, over the signature of Edward Cardinal Mooney of Detroit, expressed concern about the neglect of children by mothers called up for work in war industries, and he went on to deplore the murderous assault upon Poland, “utterly devoid of any semblance of humanity.” The bishops expressed a deep sense of revulsion against “the cruel indignities heaped upon the Jews in conquered countries” and declared solidarity with “our brother bishops in subjugated France.” The French bishops themselves were divided about the nature and portent of such subjugation.

Fr. George W. Rutler


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 books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • Bob G

    So the French bishops were divided ion 1942 over the nature and value of Petain-ism. Now doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s tough when you can’t know the winner in advance. It will be interesting to see who in the American church will be scrambling for cover in another ten years. Except that by 1945 the good guys had won. No assurances this time.

    What’s impressive about Fr. Rutler’s series is the sheer quiddity of the material–matters that would never appear in a standard text about those times. By now WWII has been reduced to a cliche

  • Austin

    Marshall Henri Philippe Petain was a tragic figure. The hero of Verdun, one of France’s great heroes of the Great War, in his old age became the chief collaborator and a traitor. Truly a pity that he was not killed in action in November 1918, so that he would have remained a hero of France.

    In late 1942, it was still uncerain who would win the war. Curiously enough, Spanish Fascist Dictator Francisco Franco, the most successful Fascist of all, hedged his bets and started to put distance between himself and Hitler. Franco did send assistance to Hitler, but refused to allow German troops on Spanish soil and avoided the fate of Hitler’s other allies, such as Mussolini. The Spanish Fascists were much smarter than the French Fascists and Italian Fascists. They avoided the catastrophe of defeat and occupation. Franco was no fool;, Petain was.

  • Ryan Haber

    Fr. Rutler does an excellent job making the reader feel the wager of history.

  • Daniel Latinus

    The main reason that Franco stayed out of World War II was that he was advised by his old friend, German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to stay out.

    During World War I, Canaris had been a German spy in Spain, and had gotten to know Franco during that time. In WWII, Canaris was the head of German military intelligence (Abwehr), and had been involved in plots to overthrow Hitler from the beginning of Hitler’s regime. Canaris was eventually ousted from the Abwehr, arrested in the aftermath of the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, and hanged at Flossenburg in the final months of the war. Incidentally, Admiral Canaris was a Catholic.

    In one of his recent “1942” articles, Fr. Rutler mentioned the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by British-assisted Czech commandos. Historians have wondered why the British allowed this mission, which had no apparent military justification, and which was destined to result in reprisals against innocent civilians. Canaris’s activities may provide a clue.

    Heydrich was SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s right hand man. Heydrich seems to have been aware of Canaris’s anti-Nazi activities, and tried to persuade Himmler to arrest Canaris. Canaris apparently was in a position to blackmail Himmler, and Himmler balked. Heydrich continued to monitor Canaris’s activites. The speculation is that Canaris was providing intelligence to the Allies, that the British were aware of the threat Heydrich posed to their source, and that this is why the assassination of Heydrich was given the go-ahead by the British.

  • Austin

    Daniel, thank you for that gem of info, I did not know this. Canaris developed a distaste for the Nazis early on. Yes, I understand that he advised Franco to refuse Hitler’s request to allow German troops to attack Gibralter through Spain. Franco seemed to be able to play Hitler like a violin and it would make sense that Canaris was partly responsible for this.

    Actually Franco was a lukewarm fascist and really more of a right wing Catholic. Franco was suspicious of all that Nazi pagan nonsense, Valhalla, etc. Franco and the Spanish Catholic Church got along reasonably well, without the Church really embracing him, so the comparisions between Hitler and Franco are not really accurate.

    Franco may have been a bare knuckle dictator, but to give the devil his due, he treated the Catholic Church in Spain reasonably well, and kept Spain out of WWII, thus sparing his people the agony of war. In addition, he was an ally of the United States for many years in our struggle vs the Communists. History is complicated, and not just black or white. Franco resides in those shades of gray. A flawed man, but a man who kept his country out of ruinous war, and who generally did right by the Church.

  • Charles Morris

    Praise be Jesus Christ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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