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) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • Pammie

    I noticed quite a few years ago how our own societies seemed to have incorporated many of the early “smaller” evils of the Nazis. For example, Goebels (sp?) was the first person that I am aware of who deliberately used mass media, particularly cinema, to radically change the thoughts and morals of the common people. He would produce short clips to be shown in the theatres presenting in a calm , scientific way the idea of destroying (painlessly) the mental and physically handicapped people for “their own good” and that of the nation. Lighting and music added to the effect he was trying to achieve. All very reasonable, humane , progressive and seductive.

    These little films were shown over and over and soon enough most of the populace were fine with euthanising the less than perfect. Our Holy Father lost a relation in just this way. It was the thin end of the wedge as we all now know. I think most of us can see many examples of incremental, progressive evil we have come to accept in our own culture influenced by the same use of media we have experienced throughout the years.

    We can see the birth of our modern world and the way it thinks and how it came to be by looking back at this age which occurred not so long ago. And we may yet heed its lessons if we choose to do so.

  • AT

    It’s easy to point finger at these horrible Nazis (because they were truly horrible), but how about looking at little examined events during this time. Perhaps there is a reason why these stories are omitted:
    – US and Britain’s deliberate decision not to bomb the rail lines to Nazi extermination camps, even after these governments received detailed intelligence of the Holocaust (something not depicted in revisionist, heroic Hollywood movies).
    -The massive slaughters in Byelorussia by Germans after 1941, first of all of its Jews, rounded up in Ghettos (massive in situ extermination, by firing squad), then of a significant fraction for the total population (by torching entire villages with its inhabitants), the true epicenter of WW2 horror.
    -French police round up of Jewish families and children in the vel’ d’ hiv’ episode.
    -Vichy government’s official policy to send Jews that were not born in France, to their death in concentration camps, transportation courtesy of the SNCF. The deafening silence of the French Catholic Church and the future “deep French left intellectuals”. The later were waxing eloquently with German occupying counterparts in Parisian cafes.
    -How the “French liberation” army entering valiantly Paris ahead of the Americans was composed of recruits from Africa.
    -The unexplained silence, to this day, of American Jews during that period (as courageously depicted in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, and Polanksi’s the Pianist).
    -The extermination of millions of East Europeans prisoners of war in Stalin’s gulags, with those that survived often returning home only in the mid 1950’s.
    – Polish army veterans forbidden to mach on Victory Day in London, as not to upset Uncle Stalin.
    – In the last 3-5 years, the 20 millions that died under Stalin are now conveniently explained as casualties of WW2 by Russian officials, and no one in the West questions this.

  • Dan Deeny

    Superb article. Gives the reader an urgent, you-are-there feeling. I especially appreciate mention of the priests who died in camps.

  • Ryan Haber


    Your point is very well made. Actually, it was not all the early “smaller” evils of the Nazis that triumphed, but the very greatest evils. In fact, National Socialism, in its bare bones, has become the dominant ideology of the West.


    That’s a pretty huge assertion. Bear with me. Antisemitism isn’t essential to National Socialism as a philosophy. The Italian Fascists and the Japanese Imperialists show this nicely. Their systems were for all the world every bit as national-socialist as the Germans’, yet the Germans deplored the Italians’ lack of antisemitism and the Japanese couldn’t even make an issue of the Jews because so few had ever set foot on those islands. What is needed is:

    (1) A nation-state;
    (2) An enemy to exclude from within;
    (3) An foreign enemy to resist or overcome from without;
    (4) Economic control by a state-industrialist alliance;
    (5) Political control by the state using fear tactics and propaganda;
    (6) Philosophical presupposition that the collective is more important than the individual or the family;
    (7) Acceptance of a particularly aggressive utilitarianism and fades into outright relativism – again, with the collective’s supposed well-being as the moral pole around which moral calculations are carried out.

    All these things, taken together, show one fact immediately and another with further reflection. The first fact is that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were enemies for their own internal reasons, and not because their moral systems actually varied in any meaningful way. Their aspirations conflicted, but not their worldviews.

    The second fact is that Western countries have been drifting into a “soft” national socialism for some time. Having gained power, and desiring to complete the national socialist revolution, the Nazis waged a war against traditional morals, especially seeing sexuality as the key to unhinging them. The Stalinists did the same thing. So they legalized abortion (except for groups they wanted to see reproducing faster – note the lack of concern about the morality of abortion per se), unleashed prostitution, and encouraged coeducation and abolished gender boundaries as much as possible. Euthanasia became legalized and state-sponsored for economic reasons.

    America is a nation ever at war. I am not sure exactly what it means, but it strikes me as significant that our nation no longer solves problems, but rather, we go to war with them: we have wars against drugs, illegal immigration, global warming, terror, even obesity. What does it say about our nation that we refuse to believe that we have problems, and yet are always at wars with “the other” to solve them? It is an attitude very far removed from that of G. K. Chesterton who, asked what’s wrong with the world, quipped, “I am.” It is a great tragedy that we have drifted so far from the Christian mind. As it was put in A Man For All Seasons:

    Richard Rich: I was lamenting. I’ve lost my innocence.
    Thomas Cromwell: Some time ago. Have you only just noticed?

    Not sure where I am going exactly, only that I am convinced that we got off track some time ago.

  • Steve T.

    “- US and Britain’s deliberate decision not to bomb the rail lines to Nazi extermination camps, even after these governments received detailed intelligence of the Holocaust (something not depicted in revisionist, heroic Hollywood movies).”

    Bombing rail lines sounds great, but in practice, rail lines were (and by the way, still are) both hellishly difficult to destroy and trivially easy to fix. With the bomb sights of the time, heavy bombers couldn’t reliably hit a 4 ft 8 1?2 in wide rail line (the Stephenson gauge). Fighter-bombers coming close in had a better change, but even then, not a good one, and low-level attacks put the pilots in serious danger. Of course, that is what military pilots are there for, BUT their lives should not be thrown away on useless missions. And that’s what bombing rail lines would be, useless missions: even when Allied pilots scored direct hits on rail lines, fixing them was trivial. How to do it? Well, get a lot of cheap labor, such as concentration camp inmates; have them fill the hole, even if they have to dig other holes to get the matter to fill the hole under the rail line; have them tamp it down; have them put down some wooden ties, then spike the rail to the ties. Rails are pretty plentiful. Spikes are pretty plentiful. Wooden ties are pretty plentiful, and they can be made easily. Labor is pretty plentiful, especially if you’re rounding up free laborers by the millions.

    What the US and Britain deliberately decided to do, which was the right decision, was to concentrate on destroying the rolling stock under German command. Blowing up the complex machines that run on the rails, rather than dumb chunks of iron and wood, was far more promising. What they did not count on was the Germans’ single-minded mania for murder: the German High Command actually starved their own troops of supplies to ensure that the Jews (and others) kept arriving, by allocating scarce rolling stock to deportations over resupply of troops in the field. And believe me, Eisenhower and Spaatz drove the USAAC to destroy every piece of transportation equipment they could find, through either strategic or tactical bombing.

    Now go ahead, hit me with the shibboleth that ‘US and Britain’s deliberate decision not to bomb the crematoria/gas chambers of Nazi extermination camps’ led to millions of deaths. Go ahead, so I can take that one apart as well. That’s even easier.

  • Lee

    evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.”

    What happened in Germany did not happen overnight. As I watch the Progressives here in America(their current choice of name) repeat the methods used in 1930’s Germany I can’t help but have a sense of foreboding.

  • pammie

    I really can’t add much to your comments because I tend to agree with them and your conclusions. Hillaire Belloc wrote “The future is not decided by a public vote; it is decided by the growth of ideas.” How true! When a government uses its considerable resources to convince its citizens of the rightness and desirability of any idea (and is successful), then it will determine the type of society that will come to be.

    And we are arrogant and mistaken if we think we are somehow different from the German citizenry or the Russians peasants of those days. We have allowed and encouraged our own government to infiltrate our personal lives, destroy our families, murder our children in the wombs of their mothers, denigrate the public practice of our Faith. We have slowly become Materialists and practical Atheists. We differ from these other cultures only in the details of who we destroy and why. I feel it is necessary to read Fr. Rutler’s essays on those days because it is a forecast of our future if we do not turn back to the practice and love of our Faith and acknowledge the Kingship of Christ in both our public and private lives.

  • AT

    Steve T. on the contrary, thanks for the perpective. But this was mentioned as a fault by one of the polish spies that reported to US and British officials.

  • AT

    In regards to the decision not to bomb rail lines, this spy mentioned that this was at the time a calculated decision, as not to distract from the principal goals of the bombing campaign, and not risk pilot lives further. Now I am not an expert of WW2 bombing, but this person, who had first hand inside knowledge, was of the opinion that including these rail lines in the bombing would have made a difference (perhaps bombing of bridges, etc..). There may be a serious study out there that examined both side of this issue, I have not seen one. But for now I will side with the person with first hand knowledge, versus a comboxer with a lap top that uses the word “stupid” to win arguments.

  • Steve T.

    Your irenic response to my diatribe shamed me. I apologize for my spleen. My only excuse, which is a palid one, is that as a (former) military historian, I have been afflicted all my life by people who think that history is a matter of opinion. I have been subjected to idiot after idiot playing the “What about the Crusades?” card, with an air of triumph, time after time. And the Holocaust? Just because they’ve seen “Schindler’s List,” several acquaintances have fancied themselves authorities on the subject and have attempted to overawe me with their encyclopedic knowledge. I apologize again, and thank you for your forebearance.

    Oh, but the Polish spies didn’t know what they were talking about, in that case. smilies/wink.gif

  • Steve T.

    AT, I am assuming, and proceeding under the assumption, that you wrote your second post before I wrote my second post. I was a jerk, and I recognize that, and I apologize, again. But I will make the minor correction to your statement that I used the word “stupid” to win arguments. I didn’t; I used it to deride one of your arguments. I shouldn’t have. But I use facts and references to “win” arguments (not that anyone’s winning here).

    Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a not-too-shabby posting on the issue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A…ing_debate

    As it states, Churchill was in favor of bombing, and the Air Ministry concluded it was impractical. One point that tends to escape most people: the sheer number of the camps. “It is estimated that the Nazis established 15,000 camps in the occupied countries.” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrar…clist.html Which to cut off? Would bombing have punished the inmates more than the killers? If errant bombs struck the camp itself and killed inmates, would we present a propoganda victory to the Reich? Would diverting air resources from supporting the military effort against the Reich lengthened the time the ground troops could reach the camps? By even one day? Would it be worth it? Only ground troops could actually stop the killing, and only ground troops could succor the suvivors.

    As for the speed and ease of repairing railroads, this site, dedicated to the German Army of WWII, gives some useful details about the German’s ability to repair Polish and Soviet rail lines, in combat conditions, in the Russian winter: http://www.feldgrau.com/dreichsbahn.html Just factor that with near-unlimited slave labor, not generally available to the front line.

    Here’s a link to the The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report (European War). Please read the section “The Attack on the Railways and Waterways”, which points out that the Allied air forces, from September 1944 to December 1944, reduced the Reich’s rolling stock from 900,000 cars to 550,000 cars, and down to 214,000 car by March 3rd 1945.
    http://www.anesi.com/ussbs02.htm#taotraw A 39% reduction in 4 months, and a 76% reduction in a little over 5 months; yet the camps kept being fed. And please note the report’s list of targets: “marshalling yards, bridges, lines, and on train movements

    I will point out one flaw in your logic: you state that “But for now I will side with the person with first hand knowledge” rather than a comboxer. Fair enough; you don’t know me from Adam. I am published in works about military history, including about D-Day, but I don’t intend on revealing myself on the internet. However, please ask yourself: how would a Polish spy have first-hand knowledge of the strategic decisions of the U.S. and British high commands?

    I hope you can forgive my “stupid” remark. Please mark it down to passion and irascibility. And please note, I didn’t quibble with another of your statements.

  • AT

    Steve, I appreciate the response. This particular spy had access to top level command on both sides of the Atlantic, from what I recall. For the life of me, his name escapes me now, but he was on the lecture circuit about 15-20 years ago, and yes, he was Polish. I guess this issue can be debated, but I think you will agree how little people know to what extent Allied forces were aware of the camps, and did make these kind of calculated decisions. The Catholic Church and the Vatican often come under criticism for inaction during the war. But one thing that always puzzles me is the taboo on why American Jews were not more vocal. This was certainly not malicious, but is worth understanding. Was it because they were finally living the American Dream and gaining acceptance in society? Where they afraid that by speaking out, problems in Europe would spill over in the US? I don

  • AT
  • Steve T.

    AT, must disagree on this one: “

  • Steve T.

    By the way, I don’t use Wikipedia myself. I only pointed to it in our discussion as a surprisingly even-handed intro discussion that was freely available and linkable. But generally, I consider it bumf (look it up).

  • Steve T.


    There was considerable U.S. Jewish protest and demand for action during the Holocaust. Please just remember their position: a small minority, not well-liked, often hated. And many did accept the basic U.S. position that the quickest way to stop the Holocaust was to drive tanks through the fences and over Hitler’s body.

  • AT

    Now that I look at it, I must agree that there may have been justified concerns by both Jewish and non Jewish leaders that too much protest by the Jewish community could have had an opposite effect, with the war effort being labeled a