1942: Lonely Voices

On November 17, 1942, when Operation Torch had secured the Allied occupation of French North Africa, Winston Churchill sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt:

Very deep currents of feeling are stirred by the arrangements with Darlan. . . . We must not overlook the serious political injury which may be done to our cause, not only in France, but throughout Europe by the feeling that we are ready to make terms with local Quislings. Darlan has an odious record. It is he who inculcated in the French Navy its malignant disposition by promoting his creatures to command. It is but yesterday that French sailors were sent to their deaths against our line of battle off Casablanca, and now for the sake of power and office, Darlan plays turncoat. A permanent arrangement with Darlan, or the formation of a Darlan government in French North Africa would not be understood by the great masses of ordinary people whose simple loyalties are our strength.

Jean-François Darlan, of Huguenot background, was in all but name the functioning head of the Vichy government as minister for the interior, defense, and foreign affairs. Cashing in on a long-nursed animus against the British, he easily cast his lot with the Germans when he calculated that Britain would be defeated. The Germans, doubting his trustworthiness, made him surrender his offices to Pierre Laval while allowing him to continue as commander of the French Armed Forces. Darlan boasted that his great-grandfather had been on the warship Redoutable, which had fired the shot that killed Lord Nelson. One can imagine Churchill watching his favorite film, That Hamilton Woman, with Vivien Leigh in the title role and Laurence Olivier as Nelson dying at Trafalgar, and loathing Darlan’s fabricated title, Admiral of the Fleet. Body English is English, after all, and Churchill wanted to take on Darlan in the name of Trafalgar.

When Darlan went to Algiers to visit his son who had contracted polio, he was captured by French resistance forces backed by General Mark Clark. Churchill was appalled, and Charles de Gaulle even more outraged, that, after the putsch of the French resistance on November 8, Roosevelt allowed General Dwight Eisenhower to recognize Darlan as High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa. An opportunist in the eyes of both the Allies and Axis, Darlan’s pomposity greased his slide to ignominy when he stretched the patience even of irenic Eisenhower by requesting that 200 Coldstream and Grenadier Guards accompany him in celebration of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. On Christmas Eve, the young French monarchist Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle shot Darlan and was himself executed by firing squad the day after Christmas. It was widely believed that La Chapelle had been helped by British Intelligence.


Laval was positioning himself as successor to Philippe Pétain and wanted to strengthen the collaborationist net over all of France by moving the Vichy government to Versailles. The occasion for the shift was supposed to be the re-interment of the remains of the Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon, to the Pantheon. In 1940, Hitler had brought all but the heart and intestines of the young King of Rome from Vienna to Les Invalides, as a “gift to the French people.” A collection of Hitler’s “Little Flowers” would make a slim volume, and this would have been one of its few pages. With perception belying any excuse of senility, Pétain saw through the subterfuge but could not prevent Laval from assuming plenary powers, while Darlan claimed with plausibility to represent the true will of the Marshall.

In occupied Belgium, the Germans’ principal propaganda organizations were the Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond, for the Flemish population, and the Rexists who focused on the Walloons. Both planned to weaken the Church by posing as “more Catholic than the Catholics.” While Catholics called their staunch Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey the “Iron Bishop,” Nazis called the cardinal a “rhinoceros” whose opposition to the Germans represented a “political Catholicism” unworthy of St. Rombaut and traditional Belgium Catholicism. “Political Catholicism” might mean a pastoral letter on the rights of the Church, or even a Requiem Mass for executed Belgian patriots. Nonetheless, such letters were issued and such Masses were offered, after which the congregations would sing the Brabanconne and shout “Vive le Roi.”  The previous December, Time magazine had quoted van Roey: “With Germany we step many degrees downward and reach the lowest possible depths. . . . Reason and good sense both direct us towards confidence, towards resistance.”

Most Catholic organizations were suppressed, along with Catholic newspapers (whose editors were deported to Germany), but the cardinal once again invoked Pope Pius XII’s 1941 Christmas message in a published pamphlet that the Germans seized, arresting the priests who had printed it, though they refrained from arresting the cardinal himself. In this broadcast letter, the pope had condemned the “moral devastation” of the war. The New York Times had said: “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas. The Pope reiterates what he has said before . . . . [H]e left no doubt that the Nazi aims are also irreconcilable with his own conception of a Christian peace.” A few weeks after Cardinal van Roey’s invocation of the 1941 papal message, the New York Times once again editorialized on the pope’s 1942 amplification of it: “This Christmas more than ever [Pius XII] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

With the support of Pius XII, Cardinal van Roey declared that Belgium still existed. The Germans replied that the existence of Belgium was “still under consideration.” As Christmas approached, many priests were imprisoned in the Huy Citadel, and people painted on the walls: “Give us back our clergy.” Cardinal van Roey had been a close friend of Blessed Columba Marmion and assisted the ecumenical initiatives of the World War I hero, Cardinal Mercier, at his Malines Conference. He would live to vote in the conclave that elected Pope John XXIII.

On behalf of the people of Yugoslavia, Monsignor Giuseppe Srebrenic, Bishop of Krk, an island in the northern Adriatic, sent a plaintive letter to the Cardinal Secretary of State, Luigi Maglione, about atrocities committed by the Italian Army against the Croat and Slovene people of Fiume and Kupa following their annexation to the Kingdom of Italy. The Italians had slaughtered women, children, and old people in Kastvo and Cavle. In Bistrica, 76 people were killed on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

It is true that such happenings also take place among the German Nazis, but they profess pagan and materialist religious principles, whereas the Italian people is wholly Catholic and the Italian Army is wholly Catholic, accompanied everywhere by a large number of Italian priests — military chaplains. Precisely in this fact lies the gravity of the situation, which is leading the Croat and Slovene peoples, in their despair, to the conclusion that Catholicism permits all the above-mentioned and similar cruelties, and has neither the will nor the power to resist them and to condemn them. Moved by such thoughts, and exposed also the suggestion of agitators, the people are, alas, more and more losing trust in the Catholic Church and loyalty to the Holy Father; while on the other hand they are being thrown into the arms of Communism, in which they are beginning to see the only element which will defend them in the forests against the cruelty of the Italians.

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); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).

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