1943: Progressive Evil

The Judgment of the Nations was a work published in 1942 by the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, but it started to get significant attention only in the early months of 1943. “The old landmarks of good and evil and truth and falsehood have been swept away and civilization is driving before the storm of destruction like a dismasted and helmless ship.” Dawson saw around him countless proofs that “evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” Things spiritual had been invaded by the secular state, with a resulting fragmentation of Christendom that, “while it is not the end of Christianity, is in point of fact the fruit of Christianity.” A secular substitute for the unifying power of Christendom had been attempted in the League of Nations, but it was “a juridical skeleton of international order and no more.” In the vacuum rose the totalitarian state, which imposed “total control of all human activities and all human energies, spiritual as well as physical . . . and their direction to whatever ends are dictated by its interests, or rather the interests of the ruling party or clique.”


On the same day that the Battle of Stalingrad ended, February 2, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel continued his retreat into Tunisia, and within a few days the Allies had full control of Libya and simultaneously began a four-month lone attack on the Ruhr industrial region. The British, under General Orde Wingate, advanced into Burma on February 8 and the Americans secured Guadalcanal the next day, as Munich, Vienna, and Berlin were being bombed. General Dwight Eisenhower was given command of the Allied armies in Europe on February 11, and two days later Rommel took Sidi bou Zid and Gafsa in western Tunisia and began the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. Newly arrived American troops were forced into retreat, sending shock waves across the United States, where the costs of war were taking their toll on the most basic levels: Even shoes began to be rationed.

Far more dire were the consequences of deprivation in Europe. The Belgian Ministry of Economic Affairs announced that tuberculosis had increased more than 20 percent in just six months, due to undernourishment. Ten million French people were suffering from hunger, having lost an estimated 200 million kilograms in weight since the start of the war. Expectant mothers were receiving just one-half their normal food rations. In Paris, cases of scabies increased by 70 percent, and the German authorities requisitioned as many as 3,000 available hospital beds for their own use, while virtually eliminating all ambulances. The birth rate had declined to 600,000 from 780,000 ten years earlier, and it was predicted that if such a rate of decline continued, the population of France by 1992 would be only 30 million. (The decline did not continue, and in 1992 the population was about 57 million, increasing to 65 million in 2010, but this was significantly inflated by immigrants.)

Medical authorities in Greece feared the loss of a whole generation of youth, and in Norway people were fainting in the food queues and factories due to undernourishment. One health report anticipated the death of ten percent of the population by the end of the winter of 1943. By contrast, Dr. Leonardo Conti, the Reich Medical Leader, boasted in the Berliner Boersen Zeitung that “the German people are very healthy.” He was embarrassed by statistics in the Reichgesunheitsblatt showing regular and dramatic increases in rates of diphtheria and virtually all other ailments. In pre-war Germany, there was one doctor for about every 2,000 Germans, but by 1943 there was one doctor for every 15,000.


February saw the English publication of the full text of the December 12, 1942, pastoral letter of the bishop of Berlin, Johann Konrad Maria Augustin Felix Graf von Preysing Lichtenegg-Moos. When the Nazis had first come into power, he said, “We have fallen into the hands of criminals and fools.” Bishop von Preysing’s Advent message was not an uncertain trumpet: “Every departure from right and justice will sooner or later be broken against these foundations of God’s Dominion.” The world’s present miseries were the result of human contempt for natural and divine law: “Resistance to God’s sovereign rule was a product largely of the eighteenth century — the century which proclaimed the primacy of human intelligence, the individual as an autonomous being and as his own sole judge, and which declared that all right was to be derived from this intelligence independently of God’s law.” The state had imposed itself as the very incarnation of God, replacing justice and right with power and profit. There followed an obvious citation of Nietzsche:

A certain German philosopher who has been guiding the minds of a great many people, has exerted a harmful influence over the German nation by proclaiming that as far as specially endowed individual and highly gifted nations are concerned, there can be no good or evil, no right or wrong; and that these are dispensed from respecting any questions of right or morality; that it is their privilege to deprive weaker nations or peoples of lower cultural level than themselves, or races which really or seemingly do not enjoy as any advantages, of every right.

The bishop’s appeal was stark: “My dear Brethren: ‘Repent,’ and change your mode of thinking. This is my appeal to you.” The bishop’s assistant, Rev. Bernard Lichtenberg, died en route to Dachau. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1996.

The pro-Nazi newspaper Vooruit of Ghent rued the pastoral letter of Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, who opposed forced labor. At the same time, the primate of Hungary, Jusztinian Cardinal Seredi, told representatives of the Hungarian Catholic press that “all States have equal sovereignty” and so “the Hungarian nation has a birthright to claim — freedom, autonomy, and national independence.” The Vatican put to rest rumors that Benedetto Croce had been reconciled to the Church. In an article in his review for La Critica, Croce had spoken of the imperishable values of Christianity and the importance of the Church for human civilization, but had also maintained his view that the Church “had cramped the spirit by her dogmas.”

In Poland, the Germans suppressed all patriotic hymns, litanies, and prayers and took particular umbrage at the practice of hailing the Virgin Mary as “Queen of the Crown of Poland.” Dr. Mutz, Chief of the Department of Internal Administration, abolished all mentions of the Polish State, “which no longer exists.” May 3 would no longer be celebrated as the day of the Beatae Mariae Virginis Patronae Rei Publicae Poloniae. The August 15 “Actio gratiarum pro Victoria super Bolshevicos 1920″ was forbidden, along with the thanksgiving for the victory at Chocim on October 10 and all services on November 11 commemorating the rebirth of the Polish Republic.

Rev. R. H. W. Regout, S.J., professor of international law at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, died at the age of 46 in Dachau, where he and three other professors had been sent shortly after the occupation of the Netherlands. The “priest block” in that concentration camp held 2,579 priests over the war years, 1,785 of them Polish, more than a thousand of whom perished there. By February, 34 Italian chaplains had been killed in active service. The archbishop of Reggio di Calabria, Msgr. Enrico Montalbetti, and his chancellor, Msgr. Tarpini, were killed during an air raid at Melito Portosalvo. Luigi Cardinal Lavitrano, archbishop of Palermo, which General George Patton called the most conquered city in history, was injured, and the Badia della Magione was destroyed. It had been built in the twelfth century for the Cistercians and was later used by the Teutonic knights. Cardinal Lavitrano was not unaccustomed to calamity: As a boy in 1883, his entire family had been killed in an earthquake on the island of Ischia. He was respected by Pope Pius XII for trying to renew the piety of his people. In 1940, he had regretted that only 66 percent of the Catholics of Palermo attended Mass on holy days, and only 12 percent of the men made their Easter duties. The pope did not consider the situation in his own diocese of Rome much better. In 1945, Cardinal Lavitrano became Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and died in 1950.


As increasing appeals were being made to the pope for help and advocacy in the war’s distress, L’Osservatore Romano published an article on the history of papal diplomatic prerogatives by Gen. Francois de Castelnau, president of the French Federation National Catholique. He pointed to the irony by which the European powers in the 19th century had treated to exclude the pope from their deliberations, while turning to him in crises. Seemingly debilitated by the loss of the papal states in 1870, the papacy ironically took on a new prestige when its loss of temporal power gave it a grander kind of neutrality. In 1885, Bismarck, only ten years removed from the Kulturkampf, had asked the pope to arbitrate between two nations, Spain and Germany, for the first time in three centuries. In 1890, the pope was asked to mediate between Great Britain and Portugal a matter of navigation on the Zambesi. That same year, President Grover Cleveland desired a papal arbitration between Venezuela and Great Britain to define the frontier between Venezuela and Guiana, and five years later he asked Pope Leo XIII to do the same for Haiti and Santo Domingo. In 1898, the pope actually accepted an invitation from the czar to attend the Peace Conference in the Hague. When the Italian government blocked this, the pope wrote to Queen Wilhelmina that he had hoped to perform a work “for which, whether through the Divine Founder of the Church, whether in virtue of age-old traditions, he had a kind of special vocation, that of mediator of peace.”

With the emergence of virtually atheistic totalitarianism and its contempt for the appeal to neutrality, this role of the pontiff was more constrained. In February, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1921 to 1936), Dr. Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, published a statement saying that he had appealed to the pope to intervene with the combatant powers on behalf of European Jewry. The Holy See had replied that “the Pope is doing everything in his power on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe.” Rabbi Herzog remained as Chief Rabbi until 1959, and his son, Chaim Herzog, would become President of Israel. When World War II ended, Rabbi Herzog said, “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world.”

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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