1942: Ending a Year with No End in Sight

If the Third Reich did not style itself after the Babe of Bethlehem, Dr. Goebbels proposed some fugitive cheer in a radio broadcast on Christmas Day by changing the subject of the feast. He hailed the Japanese for being free of the remnants of Christianity that he regretted in his Fatherland:

It is our national misfortune that we could never muster sufficient strength to find an ever-fitting and never-failing agreement between what we call national consciousness and that which we regard as national feeling. The practical import of such unity is demonstrated by the Japanese nation. There being devout means at the same time being Japanese. From the correspondence between national and religious thought and feeling derives a patriotic force of tremendous dynamism. The best among us struggle towards this ultimate synthesis. Unfortunately we are not yet pledged in this religious way to our fallen heroes. Our historical tradition encumbers us with a thousand spiritual and mental inhibitions.

Would that the Fuhrer might be hailed as a god, chief among the deified dead who died for a nation that, instead having the soul of a church (like the United States, in Chesterton’s estimation), would be the Church. The 44 year old Reich Minister of Propaganda was a poor Santa Claus: “Wandering through the mist, we feel in us and around us the hallowing and guiding force of our dead soldiers. With a thousand hands they draw us out of the anxiety of darkness and lead us towards the light of the coming day which awaits us.”

There were enough dead to think about in the persistent Christmas season. The Russians began to take revenge on the Germans for the atrocities against civilians, executing many POWs and starving or overworking others. Of the more than three million prisoners taken by the Soviets, nearly half a million died in captivity. J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to start a file on Charlie Chaplin’s efforts to persuade the Allies of the goodwill of Stalin and the Soviet system. Nine days before Christmas, Hitler ordered the extermination of all Gypsies, and anyone with a trace of Gypsy blood was destined for “resettlement camps” — which, more often than not, meant Auschwitz. On the same day, an envoy of Mussolini urged upon Hitler an accommodation, even a peace agreement, with the Russians, for the Duce had decided that a double-front war could not be won. Soviet troops had overwhelmed the Italian forces 100 miles north of Stalingrad. Hitler had forbidden any retreat by German soldiers, but they were spread thin with little reserves along the southern front in Russia.

While Goebbels celebrated the assassination of Admiral François Darlan in North Africa, after the Vichy admiral had declared that French ships in Mediterranean ports would be at the disposal of the Allies, Enrico Fermi and his team had initiated a self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago. Three days after Christmas, Franklin Roosevelt forbade the Los Alamos scientists to share atomic secrets with the British, while he kept closely informed of the British advance into Burma to drive out the Japanese, begun on December 21.


Vatican Radio competed with Goebbels, and the Monday-morning quarterbacks of history continue to debate the probity of the pope’s strategy in denying the Nazi propagandist a case for labeling the Holy See a propaganda machine by not mentioning specific nations or national leaders. Mindful of the failed strategies of Pope Leo X with the German princes, and Pope Pius V with Elizabeth I, but more cognizant of the retaliatory strategies by the Nazis on an horrific modern scale, Pope Pius XII condemned evil in terms as generic as the Ten Commandments. A condensed version of the 7,0000-word Opus Justitiae Pax took the Holy Father 40 minutes to broadcast on Christmas Eve. The title (from Isaiah 32:17) was his personal motto, which he had taken from a wall inscription in the piazza of Santa Maria della Pace where he had played as a child. The New York Times editorial on Christmas day passed its pro-life judgment on the pope, whose divisions were not contained by time and space:

This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent. Pope Pius expresses as passionately as any leader on our side the war aims of the struggle for freedom when he says that those who aim at building a new world must fight for free choice of government and religious order. They must refuse that the state should make of individuals a herd of whom the state disposes as if they were lifeless things.

The pope’s critique of statism was clear without even having to read between the lines:

After the fatal economy of the past decades, during which the lives of all citizens were subordinated to the stimulus of gain, there now succeeds another and no less fateful policy, which, while it considers everybody and everything with reference to the State, excludes all thought of ethics or religion. This is a fatal error. It is calculated to bring about incalculable consequences for social life, which is never nearer to losing its noblest prerogatives than when it thinks it can deny or forget with impunity the eternal Source of its own dignity, which is God.

Opposition to this oppression by the secular state was to be a crusade, with the “Deus le veult!” cry of Godfrey of Bouillon:

It is for the best and most distinguished members of the Christian family, filled with the enthusiasm of crusaders, to unite in a spirit of truth, justice and love to the cause. God wills it! Ready to serve, to sacrifice themselves, like the crusaders of old! If the issue was then the liberation of a land hallowed by the life of the incarnate Word of God, the call today is, if We may so express Ourselves, to traverse the sea of errors of our day, and to march on to free the holy land of the spirit which is destined to sustain in its foundation the unchangeable norms and laws on which would arise a social construction of sound internal consistency.

The crusade for human dignity would entail a defense of the indissolubility of marriage and the primacy of the family in educating children:

The bond of trust and mutual help should be re-established between the family and the public school; that bond which in other times gave such happy results, but which now has been replaced by mistrust where the school, influenced and controlled by the spirit of materialism, corrupts and destroys what the parents have instilled into the minds of the children.

The pope detailed how the subversion of marriage and the family went in tandem with the manipulation of the juridical order. “The juridical sense of today is often altered and overturned by the expression and the practice of a positivism and utilitarianism which are subjected and bound to the service of determined groups; classes and movements whose programs direct and determine the course of legislation and the practices of the courts.” The integrity of law required “clear juridical norms which may not be overturned by unwarranted appeals to the supposed popular sentiment, or by merely utilitarian considerations.” Belgian magistrates understood this as an endorsement of their stop-work protest against the imposition of Nazi law on their courts. They had declared illegal the decrees of Gerard Romsée, a quisling secretary-general of the Ministry of the Interior who had used the murder of the Rexist burgomaster of Charleroi as an excuse to create a civil police force under the Office of the Interior, removed from the jurisdiction of the public prosecutor. Among other consequences, this expedited the deportation of Belgian Jews.


It was for the local bishops to apply the guidelines of the pope’s social analysis to their immediate circumstances. Anticipating the Allied landings in French North Africa, Archbishop Charles-Albert Gounot did just that when he denounced the persecution of the Jews by the Vichy government. The archbishop of Carthage — in the venerable tradition of the first bishop of Carthage, Epaentus, a convert of Achaia, and the sixth bishop, St. Cyprian, martyred in the Valerian persecution in 258 — had already earned his credentials as an opponent of Vichy attempts virtually to suborn the bishops. Archbishop Gounot also indicted the pro-Mussolini Italian residents of Tunisia who “foment discord.”

French Catholicism was not totally absorbed in the political agonies of the day. At least there was sober gratitude for the final authentication of a miracle at Lourdes: that of Mlle. Joséphine Chabon, who, during a 1941 pilgrimage, had been saved from the amputation of a shattered foot, which had been instantaneously healed. And in other realms of the Spirit, the Holy See announced plans to beatify Marie-Clotilde of Savoy, daughter of Victor-Emmanuel II. She had suffered a miserable marriage to the son of King Jerome, cousin of Napoleon III, and evidenced heroic virtue in the Third Order of St. Dominic, which she joined in 1871 with the name of Marie-Catherine of the Sacred Heart. The cause of Mother Frances Cabrini was advancing. The foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart had died in 1917. The Holy See also encouraged those promoting the cause of Charles de Foucauld. His works among the Tuaregs of the Sahara were considered of timely significance for the events unfolding in North Africa. Ironically, his martyrdom in 1916 outside his compound in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria by marauders connected with the Senussi Bedouins would delay honors of the altar out of post-war concerns for Muslim relations. He would be beatified in 2005, seven months after the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

The Axis powers had organized a Youth Congress in September in Vienna. The Vatican took note that only the Spanish delegation sang Catholic songs “in an atmosphere charged with Nationalist-Socialist neo-paganism.” Receiving the credentials of the new Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, Señor Domingo de las Bárcenas y Lopez-Mollinedo, before Christmas, the pope said, “At this culminating point in the history of the world, Spain has beyond doubt a lofty mission to fulfill: she will be worthy of it if she succeeds in finding herself again completely with her traditional Christian spirit, and with the unity which can only be built upon the spirit.”

When the Atlantic Ocean was not yet a pond, 5,000 semi-hysterical bobby-soxers in New York City attended another kind of youth rally at the New Year’s Eve debut of Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theater. He was introduced by Jack Benny as an “extra added attraction.” Some in the crowd began to faint, and the deafening screams frightened the official star, Benny Goodman, who turned to the audience and said, “What the hell is that?” But the ocean was not that vast, and in due time some of those in the audience would be receiving telegrams on behalf of the Secretary of War with names of fathers and brothers.


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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