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 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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