1943: A Flight from Reality

In mid-April, the Polish government in exile requested that the International Red Cross investigate the failure of the Soviet government to explain the fate of 8,300 Polish officers “taken prisoner” by the Red Army in the autumn of 1939. The Germans had just announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. Secretly, the Polish officers had been taken to Russia and executed by command of Lavrentiy Beria, signed on March 5, 1940, under orders from Josef Stalin to eliminate “by shooting” the entire Polish Officers Corps. Added to the military victims were Polish civic leaders, physicians, professors, priests, and policemen — a total of 21,768, according to a report given to Nikita Khruschev in 1959.

But at the time of the April exhumations, the Soviets blamed the Nazis, and most of the West preferred to believe them. President Franklin Roosevelt dismissed the news from Katyn as “German propaganda and a German plot.” The Soviet Union flamboyantly broke off diplomatic relations with the exiled Polish government for raising the subject. The final judgment came in November 2010, when the Russian State Duma acknowledged the massacre as the work of Stalin and the Soviet Politburo. When the discovery was made in 1943, the archbishop of Krakow sent a priest by special train to Katyn to give a Christian burial to the murdered Poles. At this time, the same Archbishop Adam Sapieha was providing secret instruction to seminarians — including Karol Wojtyla, who was also working as a boiler operator in the Solvay chemical plant.

In another instance, the Soviets did correctly assign blame to the Germans for the massacres of Latvians — 80,000 in Riga and thousands more in Lepaya, Elava, and Rezekne. But here the pot called the kettle black, for the Russians had orchestrated mass deportations of “anti-Soviet” elements in Latvia after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.


Allied air raids against German U-boats intensified, and on April 18, in a ten-minute dogfight, the Allies lost just nine planes while downing 69 Luftwaffe planes en route to Tunisia. On the same day, the commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, was shot down and killed by an American P-38 Lightning piloted by 1st Lt. Rex Barber over the Solomon Islands. The next day, Admiral Yamamoto’s body, which had been thrown clear of the wreckage, was found in a jungle upright in his seat, still wearing white gloves and gripping the hilt of his ceremonial katana sword. His flight path had been discovered by breaking the Japanese flight code, and he had been targeted by order of President Roosevelt through Naval Secretary Frank Knox, to Admiral Chester Nimitz, and then to Admiral William Halsey. Roosevelt and Yamamoto had attended the same university in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


In more placid environs, neutral Ireland occupied itself with a debate over state control of schools. The School Attendance Bill would have required parents to send children only to government-approved schools. The Supreme Court found the bill unconstitutional. The Constitution of Eire acknowledged the right of parents to educate their children as they wish. The proposed legislation was taken as a step toward what the bishops warned would become a framework of the Servile State.

The full text of the previously reported Lenten Pastoral Letter of the Belgian bishops on slave workers reached England in mid-April, with its introductory protest against the confiscation of church bells by the Germans: “We solemnly declare that we will exert all our Episcopal authority to oppose a measure the sole object of which is to convert our bells into weapons of war and instruments of death.” The seizure of the bells violated Articles 46, 52, and 56 of the Hague Convention, and to remain silent about the silencing of the bells “would be cowardly and treacherous.”  Then the bishops, led by Jozef-Ernest Cardinal Van Roey, addressed forced labor:

The requisitioning of human beings is utterly inexcusable; it is a violation of natural rights, of International Law, and of Christian ethics. . . . Moreover, the Christian faith teaches us that the Almighty, the Supreme Judge of conscience, sees everything, and that before His judgment-seat all human actions, without exception, will be judged according to the eternal laws.

According to the Courier de Geneve, a gathering of 7,000 French youth in Lille on March 21 had heard a fierce speech of Achille Cardinal Liénart decrying Nazi propaganda, which had twisted his words about the use of French workers in Germany:

I protest to you with all my strength against the use which was made of my words in the Press, because it was known that I could not publish any denial. . . . It was not my object to proclaim compulsory labour as a patriotic duty against the “Bolshevik peril,” and I did not cite the example of Jeanne d’Arc in order “to galvanize national sentiment against the English.” I also deny the right of the Press to interpret in its own manner the thoughts and intentions of the Holy Father.

The bishop of Le Puy, Msgr. Joseph-Marie-Eugene Martin, reiterated the cardinal’s denunciation in the Basilica of St. Joseph at Le Puy during a service of intercession for French prisoners of war. The German-controlled radio called the bishop a Gaullist cipher.

He may be entitled to his own opinion as a private person, but when he speaks from his pulpit he violates the precept that all the representatives of religion and all the congregations should support the Government of France. . . . Last Sunday [April 4] in his message to the nation, the Marshall [Pétain] himself answered the Bishop, in order to confound him and to incite him to be less frivolous.

Both Cardinal Liénart and Bishop Martin would live to attend the Second Vatican Council: Liénart, who had ordained Rev. Marcel Lefebvre to the priesthood in 1929 and episcopate in 1947, would be a prominent liberal voice at the council, while Martin would caution against the risk of schism if a vernacular liturgy were permitted.


On April 19, more than 2,000 S.S. men under General Jurgen Stroop, acting under a directive of Heinrich Himmler to disperse the Warsaw ghetto, were amazed to find themselves resisted and actually repulsed by the Jews, who were lightly armed. Four days later, personal orders came from Hitler to use “utmost severity.” On that same Feast of St. George, patron of soldiers, British Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan assumed command of a headquarters in London for planning what would become the Normandy invasion.

Simultaneously, the Swedish Svenska Dagbladet printed a letter from the archbishop of Zagreb, Msgr. Aloysius Stepinac, to the Italian ambassador to the Croatian puppet state. The Italians had been exploiting conflicts between Croats and Serbs to make them seem ideological rather than ethnic:

I must protest energetically against the incredible atrocities committed by Italian troops against the defenceless populations in the districts of Krasic, Vidovina and Brovac, where several villages have been burnt down. . . . Even if some Communists should have succeeded in taking refuge there, I can vouch that there were not, and are not now, any Communists among the village population.

After the war, Archbishop Stepinac would be a victim of the new Communist government, imprisoned after a show trial. Pope Pius XII created him a cardinal in 1952, and he died in 1960, having most certainly been poisoned by Communist agents. A Mass was offered for him in Rome by Pope John XXIII, with whom he had collaborated in wartime to save Croatian Jews. On October 3, 1998, outside Zagreb in Marija Bistrica, half a million Croats watched Pope John Paul II beatify him as a martyr.

In the grim April days, Vatican Radio announced that the German government had shut down the few remaining Catholic diocesan journals (kirchliche Bistumblatter). Adolf Cardinal Bertram, archbishop of Breslau and dean of the German Catholic hierarchy, had long been outspoken in the pulpit and press against the Nazis. In 1940 he had called their Lebensborn eugenics program a form of “institutionalized adultery.” Without any print media, Cardinal Bertram urged the people to pay ever closer attention to what was preached in sermons.

And many did, for a Stockholm correspondent reported to the Brooklyn Tablet that an issue of Goebbels’ DieWeltliteratur a few months past was increasingly perplexed by “the flight of the German masses from reality.” The complaint was against the “interior emigration” from National Socialism caused by “the superstition of religion, which is taking hold among all classes, both educated and uneducated. The influence of religion on the life of the German people is becoming extraordinary. It is a growing danger for Nazism.” The article pointed out a lecturer in the University of Leipzig, Ernst Wiechert, who had once been a staunch Nazi, but lately “almost openly contradicted” it. Worse was a writer who had just published a book with a religious theme: “It is incredible! . . . A German dares to praise the Old Testament!”

Sisley Huddleston was rather more obtuse in his own flight from reality. The English journalist and ardent Francophile had lived a long while in Paris after World War I, writing for both the Times back in London and the Christian Science Monitor. In April of 1943, he became a French citizen, spent time interviewing Pétain, and chose Good Friday to broadcast on Vichy radio that he had done so in the interest of European unity.  All European virtue came from the Greek and Romans (mostly the Greeks), and the Bolsheviks were about to destroy all that. From London, the Tablet astringently commented: “But he had no word to say about Germany, wherein the Mediterranean winds blew late and incompletely, and whence through Hegel and Feuerbach and Marx the ideology of Soviet Russia came.”

Huddleston was an impatient and unrepresentative disciple of the brilliant pioneer of pan-Europeanism, the Austro-Hungarian Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi who, in 1943, was a professor at New York University. The character Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca was based on him. The Count, whom Hitler loathed as “everybody’s bastard,” had been admired by Archduke Otto von Habsburg, Aristide Briand, Albert Einstein, Horace Mann, Sigmund Freud, and later by Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle; he was an anti-Nazi and foe of anti-Semitism (like his Catholic father, who annually walked out of Good Friday services at the mention of the “perfidious Jews”). For all his pan-Europeanism, Coudenhove-Kalergi’s mother was Japanese.  In comparison with him, Huddleston’s intellect was decidedly derivative and unmeasured. In 1944, he was arrested by the Free French as a collaborator and went on to write books about the horrors of the liberation of France, the patriotism of Pétain, and the virginity of Queen Elizabeth I.

In England, the slogans still were of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” sort. In a discussion of Easter eggs during the food shortage, one correspondent commented that the crocodile’s egg, when boiled, tastes almost like that of the domestic hen, though he neglected to explain where crocodiles were to be found in Sussex. As for meat rationing, it was remembered that the Roman statesman and aesthete Mycaenas cooked donkeys, and the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (218-222) served his dinner guests camels’ feet, but “he degraded the imperial office to the lowest point by most shameful vices, which had their origin in certain rites of oriental naturalistic religion.” On a more sober note, word came from Cambridge University that, due to the shortage of proper material, mortarboards would be optional dress for the duration.


This article is part of a series on World War II from 1942 to 1943.

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).

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)