1943: Night Falls over Europe

German success in the Third Battle of Kharkov exasperated the Russians, although no one could foretell that it would be the last significant local German victory of the war. That was March 16, 1943, and the next day Stalin virtually demanded that the United States and Britain form a second European front to relieve the Red Army, which had been carrying the weight of the entire Eastern Front.  Starting that same day, and through the 19th of March, the Allies lost 21 merchant ships in attacks from nearly 40 U-boats. The Germans’ recovery of breaches made by the Eighth Army in Tunisia tempered any Allied overconfidence. A week earlier, Churchill had warned that planning for a post-war Europe would have to take second place to the goal of victory itself.

In his tribute to the late Arthur Cardinal Hinsley, Rev. Jean Olphe-Galliard, chaplain to the Fighting French Forces, quoted from a speech of Charles de Gaulle in London in 1941:

For the feast of St. Joan of Arc which we spent in England, on the morrow of one of the worst of the air raids, and after the presentation of the Colours to units of the Fighting French Forces, under a sky glowing with the heat of the fires and gray with clouds of ash, the Archbishop received our Colours in his cathedral and blessed them.

On the 18th of March, the new leader of the Free French, Gen. Henri Giraud, in a Lincolnesque gesture (albeit symbolic at the time), restored full property and full citizenship to French Jews. Prospects for Vichy France continued to fade when French Guiana renounced ties with Vichy and allied itself with the Free French.

On March 22, the Vatican radio, broadcasting in German, repudiated Nazi claims that Cardinal Hinsley had prayed for Bolshevism on Red Army Day: “The Church does not condemn in any way the peoples of the Soviet Union in their entirety, for we bear them the most sincere and fatherly love. We only accuse the system.” The message continued: “This high Prelate of the Church energetically took the part of those persecuted and deprived of their rights because of their nationality or origin. He thus acted as an advocate and defender of the rights of man so little respected today.”

An assassination attempt on Hitler failed on March 20. Col. Rudolf von Gersdorff, chief of intelligence for Gen. Gunther von Kluge, had planned to blow himself up along with Hitler by detonating a bomb with acid in the Zeughaus exhibit hall. Hitler left the hall too quickly, and Gersdorff repaired to the men’s lavatory where he flushed the fuse down a toilet. On that same day, the Nazis opened Crematorium IV at Auschwitz. This was a streamlined death machine with an underground gas chamber from which an elevator transported the corpses into the furnace.


The Belgian Ministry of Information issued a statement from London, where the Belgian government was in exile from 1940 to 1944, saying that the Germans had forged the statement supposedly written by Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, in which he purportedly approves of the Germans’ “crusade” against Communism. This had rained criticism on the cardinal from many quarters, including the BBC. It had been broadcast only in Holland, and not in Cardinal van Roey’s Belgium, in an effort to influence the Dutch clergy. The communiqué of the Minister of Information, Antoine Delfosse, stated:

In the highest Belgian quarters in London it is declared that the document referred to by the Hilversum Broadcasting Station is manifestly a gross forgery on the part of the enemy propagandists, designed to foment confusion in the minds of the public and to place the Archbishop in a delicate position, particularly in relation to a neighboring country, where the falseness of the supposed document cannot immediately be discovered.

In Belgium itself, the collaborationist journal Cassandre was outraged that in the diocese of Liege, February 8 had been designated a day of Prayer for the Jews. A parish magazine, L’Appel des Cloches, told the faithful: “In praying and going to Communion on that Sunday for the persecuted Jewish people, once the chosen people of Christ, we shall be acting in conformity with the instructions of our Right Reverend Bishop.” The Belgian bishops prepared a second pastoral letter to be read in all the churches on the Second Sunday of Lent, saying that King Leopold, then a prisoner, and the Holy See joined them in condemning forced labor and deportations.

Priests in the French diocese of Mende, in Languedoc, were ordered by the diocesan chancellor not to give out information about church property, sacred vessels, or organizations. This was a precaution, given Nazi confiscation of church properties in Austria. In January of 1943, the historic Gottweig monastery near Krems had been turned into a National Political Education Institute; and the Benedictine monastery of Echternach in Luxembourg, founded in 698 by St. Willibrord, was converted into schools of commerce and agriculture. From the Basilica in Fourvière in Lyons, Pierre-Marie Cardinal Gerlier preached a sermon in late February that began to circulate in Britain weeks later: “The worst of all catastrophes would be that the world, ravaged by what the Pope calls its ‘progressive de-Christianization,’ should continue to sink into paganism, which in several quarters, certain persons dream of substituting for the Christian ideal.”


Marking the anniversary of the election of the pope on March 2, the Vatican radio broadcast a special message in German:

Night has fallen over Europe. The demon of war has been unleashed and brings untold misery to peoples and nations, to States and families. Its presence is regarded as a licence for all imaginable cruelties. The persecution of religion, the suppression of monasteries and religious houses, the closing of churches and schools, an unexampled disregard of the dignities and rights of the human personality, an unprecedented enslavement of human freedom, the deportation of thousands for forced labour, the killing of innocent and guilty alike, the extermination of cultural values hundreds of years old, the thwarting of the humanities (Verkuemmerung der Geitswissenschaften), an unpardonable commandeering of human beings, especially of school and university youth, for the aims of a State that reigns supreme and has lost contact with the laws of God. . . . The Pope sees all this and raises his warning voice of protest. Above all he suffers with the tortured people. His pains, however, are not of a depressing kind. They are the pains of one who is full of hope. The Pope is an optimist, not of the reactionary type, waiting for the return of past ages. He says: “The watchword of the hour is not to bewail but to act.”

Michael Cardinal von Felhauber marked the papal anniversary preaching in the Munich cathedral:

The State, as an institution built by God, can establish its laws, and its subjects are under the obligation to obey them, for the sake of their conscience. The State has the right to levy taxes and to demand sacrifices of property and life in the defence of the Fatherland. The State, however, has no right to make laws which are incompatible with Divine Law and the Natural Law. . . . Thus, the meaning of family life does not lie exclusively in the building up of national strength.

With unusual candor, the Gauleiter of the Office for Racial Policy, Kreisleiter Schneider, admitted that the German government’s attempts to increase the birth rate of the Herrenvolk had failed, though he did not connect this with the Nazi hostility to the institution of the family. Marriages contracted between 1933 and 1939 had produced an average of less than two children, and 1942 had seen a more precipitous decline especially in the 63 largest towns: 342,000 births in 1942, in contrast to 395,600 in 1941. The Polish birth rate in 1942, to German dismay, in urban areas “incorporated into the Reich” was 18.7 per thousand, as against 13.9 for Germans. The Polish figure had declined from 20.5 in 1940 largely due to German attempts at population control, but this was still unsatisfactory, and Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau, was determined that more drastic steps had to be taken.

The British 1st Armored Division was approaching Tebaga Gap in Tunisia as night fell on March 25, causing the German and Italian infantry to withdraw from the Mareth Line. Earlier that day, the British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Richard Law, told the House of Commons of attempts by Bulgaria to de-Hellenize Western Thrace just as the Germans had tried to destroy Poland and Slovenia. Law, married to a woman from Rochester, New York, and later 1st Baron Coleraine, would write a sort of riposte to Thomas More in 1950, in a book arguing that the very idea of Utopia is evil, as it necessarily abolishes freedom and individual choice.

For the moment, his immediate concern was Greece, since that Feast of the Annunciation was also Greek Independence Day. The King of the Hellenes, George II, exiled in Cairo, sent a message of hope to his people, and shortly afterward it was announced that the Greek government would establish itself for the duration in the Middle East, save for a few departments remaining in London. The plan was to increase the number of guerrillas in Northern Greece by parachuting them in from Egypt, in preparation for an Allied invasion of the Balkans. As King Peter of Yugoslavia predicted that decisive battles would be fought in Europe in the next few months, the Greek Premier, Emmanouil Tsouderos, broadcast from Egypt to his homeland: “The trumpet call which shall announce the salvation of the enslaved peoples of Europe will sound, as I have every reason to believe, in the course of this year. All the omens show that our country is celebrating its national day in chains and bondage for the last time.” Tsouderos had succeeded Alexandros Koryzis, who committed suicide in 1941 as the Germans marched on Athens. He would survive the war, serving his government in various capacities, dying in Genoa in 1956.

Quartered not far from Tsouderos in Cairo, the Very Rev. Arthur Hughes, Chargé d’Affaires of the Apostolic Delegation in Egypt, published a letter in a local newspaper, La Bourse Egyptienne:

I have just received from Cardinal Maglione, Secretary of State to His Holiness, the assurance that the Holy See has worked and is still working for the protection of Jewish communities in the occupied countries, and that, despite the want of success of so many precious endeavours, the Holy Father does not cease to do everything that is possible. Only recently the Vatican has been strongly criticized by certain sections of the Central European Press for its defence of persecuted Jews, and for its articles in the “Osservatore Romano.”

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).

  • digdigby

    The Nazis weren’t THAT bad, just ask Mr. Buchanan. And as for hiding Jews in monasteries, didn’t Pius XII know that it is a SIN to tell the Gestapo a lie? To do evil that good may come of it? If only Paddy were there to instruct the Holy Father. The Holy Father! Telling Religious to lie???? Quick, mah smelling salts, I got the vapors!.

  • TommyAquinas

    I didn’t see a single thing about lying to the Gestapo in the article. The closest thing was “Priests in the French diocese of Mende, in Languedoc, were ordered by the diocesan chancellor not to give out information about church property, sacred vessels, or organizations.” There’s a difference between “not giving out information” and lying. Don’t try to bring in a debate regarding and issue to an article that is not about it.

  • Bob G

    What makes this series so interesting is the particularity: so and so said or did such and such. It gives a good sense of the moral and psychological atmosphere of the times.

    Several military historians say the Germans were much better soldiers than either the allies or the Russians, partly because they were professionals. They regularly held off or defeated much larger or better equipped armies. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Russians outnumbered them sometimes 20 to 1, and the Germans had Hitler as their sole strategist. The Russians would just send wave after wave of troops through minefields to clear them. After a while the Germans ran out of ammo.

    The German birth rate must have been falling because so many potential German fathers were being shot on the eastern front, or incinerated in the ovens. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

  • Dan Deeny

    Excellent article. I particularly liked the quote from a speech by De Gaulle, very simple, elegant, and moving.

  • Brian English

    Has any thought been given to compiling Fr. Rutler’s articles on World War II into a book format? I would buy it.

  • Daniel Latinus

    Marriages contracted between 1933 and 1939 had produced an average of less than two children,…

    This information about Germany’s pre-war family size is very interesting. It can’t be placed entirely at the doorstep of the National Socialist regime, or to the war. It’s too easy to just blame the Nazis, and not to look at issues in German society that may have been more a cause than an effect.

    A friend of mine whose parents came of age in Germany during this period, once told me that in her family, at least two women had abortions after the war.

  • Bob

    Daniel- that is probably due to the uncalculable rapes committed by the Allies when they invaded Germany. The Russians were especially guilty of this but the wetsern allies also were responsible. If you will read the actual history of the invasion of Berlin and Dresden you will easily realize the Allies were also guilty of war crimes and atrocities.

    Just as a note: It was very good the Nazis were defeated but a tragedy and shameful that our country allowed and participated in such despicable acts upon civilians and prisoners and no war/ vengeance does not justify them. It is also shameful that they were covered up and not reported here. Instead all we heard was the propaganda of how noble we were.

    Of course abortion is always wrong and gravely sinful but those women (as were many during that time period in Germany) traumatized by the rapes. It is horrible what was done and it was done on a very large scale.

  • John

    Please can we have some information about the photograph at the top. Where was it taken? Who are the people in the photo, especially the man on the far right?

  • Margaret C

    Hi, John — The image is of Col. von Gersdorff (mentioned in Father Rutler’s piece) and others around 1939; you can see the full caption and information here, but unfortunately it’s in German, so I’m not sure how much else you’ll be able to learn: http://goo.gl/epSxN. Judging from other images, though, I believe the officer on the far right is August von Mackensen: http://goo.gl/OZ0Z6

  • Kurt

    The the Church was nothing less than heroic during the period of the rise of fascism. Not only did she reject the false Red-baiting claims that support for the allies was aiding Communism but before Hitler rose to power, the Catholic Party allied itself with the Socialists and Liberals to block the Nazis from a majority in the Reichstag. Had the Conservative party joined with the Catholic-Socialist-Liberal alliance, Hitler might have never come to power.

    In many ways, the Catholic Church was a model “premature anti-fascist.” ( a sad term)

  • Daniel Latinus

    Daniel- that is probably due to the uncalculable rapes committed by the Allies when they invaded Germany. The Russians were especially guilty of this but the wetsern allies also were responsible. If you will read the actual history of the invasion of Berlin and Dresden you will easily realize the Allies were also guilty of war crimes and atrocities.

    I don’t doubt that what you say about atrocities against the defeated Germans is true, but in the particular cases I mentioned, neither of the pregnancies were the result of rape. In at least one case, the pregnancy interfered with a couple’s long-term plans.

    What I’m getting at is that the attitudes and mindset that make this sort of thing possible were already poisoning German society before Hitler, and perhaps deserve to be studied. Unfortunately, the pathologies of pre-Nazi Germany are overshadowed by the horrors that followed.

    And what I fear is those same toxins are at work in American society today.

  • John

    Thanks Margaret C.
    Here’s the German and my transalation. Hopefully my translation is not too far off.

    Der 90. Geburtstag des Generalfeldmarschall von Mackensen
    Generalfeldmarschall von Mackensen feierte am 6. Dezember auf seinem Gut Br

  • Chrysostom

    “1943 Night Falls Over Europe”.

    It was pretty dark in 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942. Writing from England, I must respectfully point out that the Second World War started in September 1939. At the defeat of France in 1940, only Britain and its empire was resisting Hitler, together with the magnificent Dominions – Canada, Austarlia, New Zealand, South Africa and the others.
    No one but a fool would underestimate the contributions of the USSR and the USA to the defeat of Hitler – when they eventually entered the war. Neither of these great powers voluntarily chose to resist Hitler – they came into the war when they were attacked. Hitler declared war on them. Britain declared war on Hitler in 1939. London had the odd bomb dropped on it. When I was born in 1940, the first noise I heard after the words of my most loving mother was that of an air-raid siren. I cannot remember 1941, but my parents told me that it was pretty dark.