1943: The Soul Means Nothing

Benedetto Croce died in 1952, the same year in which Albert Einstein had to protest to his friend Maurice Solovine, “lest you think that weakened by age I have fallen into the hands of priests.” In 1943, Croce had to do something similar, as his essays on philosophic idealism increasingly gave the impression that he would be a Christian:

The truth is that although the whole of past history converges upon us, and we are the children of history as a whole, the ethics and religion of antiquity were vanquished and resolved in the Christian idea of conscience and moral inspiration, and in the new idea of God in Whom we live and move and have our being, and Who cannot be either Zeus or Jahwe, nor even (in the spirit of the adulation of which he has in our day been made the object) the Germanic Woden; and specifically, therefore, in our moral life and thought, we fell ourselves to be the direct descendants of Christianity.

The tumult of the war seemed to vindicate his concept of history, nurtured by Vico, as “philosophy in motion,” and he was certain that National Socialism was bad philosophy. In his idealism and expressed anti-Fascism, Christianity was an effort at expressing truth, rather than truth itself, but it was increasingly being vindicated as a sublime contradiction of lies against truth:

It is easy to see that, in our present age, we are by no means outside the limits set by Christianity, and that we, like the first Christians, are still struggling to reconcile the ever renewed, sharp and terrible contrasts between immanence and transcendence, between the morality of the conscience and that of precept and the laws, between ethicism and utilitarianism, between liberty and authority, between the earthly and the heavenly denseness which exist in man, and success in reconciling them in one or other of their individual forms fills us with joy and internal tranquility….

Croce was constantly hounded by Benito Mussolini, his library ransacked, and in 1944 he would flee Sorrento for Capri to thwart a Fascist attempt to kidnap him and deposit him in a German U-boat.

As Croce was ruminating, the British First Army captured Tunis and the Americans seized Bizerte. More than 250,000 Axis soldiers were captured in North Africa on May 13 when the German Afrika Korps and Italian troops surrendered, the Allies having lost about three thousand men in the Tunis area. The scale of victory was redolent of Agincourt, and the Allies did not fail to take heart from it. On May 19, the Allies bombed Sardinia and Siciiy as prelude to the invasion of Italy. Bloodier was the Japanese massacre of 30,000 Chinese civilians and rape of thousands of women in Changiiao, Hunan, on May 11.


In the United States, Winston Churchill was meeting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, preparing for the invasion of France. Five states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York — were crucial in the calculus of the next year’s presidential election, with Catholics considered the swing votes. A Gallup poll showed that less than half of the Americans thought Russia could be trusted when the war ended. This was despite the pro-Stalin propaganda efforts of Joseph E. Davies, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. At the behest of Roosevelt, his Soviet-friendly book Mission to Moscow was made into a film, with Walter Huston as Davies and Ann Harding as Mrs. Davies, the heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. When he was ambassador, Davies had whitewashed Stalin’s show trials and told his wife that the gunshots that could be heard at night in Moscow as political prisoners were being killed were just workers using construction drills. Even the film’s own producer, Robert Buckner, admitted, “I did not fully respect Mr. Davies’ integrity, both before, during and after the film. I knew that FDR had brainwashed him….”

Charles Bohlin, future ambassador to the Soviet Union (1953-1957), whose funeral I performed in 1974, was fluent in Russian, unlike Davies, on whose staff in Moscow he had served. Bohlin later wrote of Davies: “I can only guess at the motivation for his reporting. He ardently desired to make a success of a pro-Soviet line and was probably reflecting the views of some of Roosevelt’s advisers to enhance his political standing at home.” In May of 1943, as the film was appearing in American theaters, Roosevelt sent Davies back to Moscow to arrange a private meeting with Stalin in Fairbanks, Alaska, which never came to pass. Chip Bohlin became Roosevelt’s interpreter at Teheran and Yalta.

In May, the new bishop of Hertogenbosch (Bois le Duc) in southern Holland, Msgr. Willem Pieter Mustsaerts, appointed Msgr. F. N. J. Henriks as his vicar general. It was a symbolic act, since Bishop Henriks had been sent to a German concentration camp in 1942 and had not been heard from since. Holland was placed under martial law, as the Germans feared an Allied landing. Deportations to Germany of Dutch reservists and N.C.O.s, begun in 1942, increased to about half a million men, affecting nearly every family in Holland. Students in the Dutch universities attempted protests against Nazi revision of their academic syllabus, as did students at the Sorbonne and the Paris Grandes Écoles, who sent a public letter directly to Marshal Philippe Pétain:

For more than two years, forgetting their rowdy traditions, the students of the University of Paris have abstained from demonstrations. But our silence has never implied an acceptance of events of which we were the distressed spectators. Above all, the brutal deportation of thousands of French workers has provoked our indignation.

A French priest wrote to the Catholic press in the United States about living conditions among the clergy. The Bishop of Tulle, Msgr. Aimable Chassaigne, had been forced to reduce the living wage of his priests to 4,000 francs, which was barely survival level. The bishop of Mende, Msgr. Francois-Louis Auvity, appealed to the populace to give potatoes, beans, and chestnuts to the clergy. He closed his seminary and sent the students home because he could no longer feed them.


The apostolic administrator of Estonia, the Most Rev. Edward Profittlich, S.J., was found alive in a prison camp in the Urals, not having been heard of since the Russians arrested him 1941. With the increasing prospect of invasion, penitential processions began in Italy, starting with one on Good Friday in Milan from the cathedral to the shrine of the Madonna of San Celso. The procession was led by the great crucifix with which St. Charles Borromeo had led similar processions to ward off famine, pestilence, and war. In Bologna, the body of St. Dominic was removed to a specially constructed bomb-proof chapel. In Turin, the Holy Shroud was taken from the chapel in the royal palace to a secret location known only to its three guardians: the king, Prince Umberto, and the cardinal archbishop.

On May 5, the Secretary of State for the Holy See wrote to the Slovakian Legation condemning “the forcible removal of persons belonging to the Jewish race….The Holy See would fail in its Divine mandate if it did not deplore these measures, which gravely damage man in is natural right, merely for the reason that these people belong to a certain race.” On the same day, the secretariate prepared a memorandum:

The Jews. A dreadful situation. There were approximately four and a half million of them in Poland before the war; today the estimate is that not even a hundred thousand remain there, including those who have come from other countries under German occupation…. There are special death camps near Lublin and Brest-Litovsk. It is said that by the hundreds they are shut up in chambers where they are gassed to death and then transported in tightly sealed cattle trucks with lime on their floors.

A few days later in Bulgaria, the secretary of the Jewish Agency for Palestine personally asked Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, “to thank the Holy See for the happy outcome of the steps taken on behalf of the Israelites in Slovakia.”

Vatican Radio was broadcasting to Russia, but not with much success. A Russian listener described his Orwellian world:

All private sets in Russia were confiscated at the outbreak of the war, and were replaced by loudspeakers fed from reception sets in so-called “radio junctions” in factories, Army units, collective farm offices and other Government-controlled institutions. Thus the only potential and not very reliable listeners whom non-Soviet stations broadcasting in Russian may hope to address are the State-employed radio operators, who, in their spare time (and with their sets carefully disconnected from the loudspeakers), may indulge in the universal pastime of “twiddling the knobs.” These will be mostly young people, the great majority of them grown up since the Revolution, and therefore without even the most elementary religious education. The three first Vatican broadcasts in Russian have used a far too involved theological terminology to be comprehensible to people who, as regards religions, could be approached only in the language used by missionaries bringing the Cross to a race of a comparatively low standard of civilization.

The bishop of Annecy, Msgr. Auguste-Leon-Alexis Cesbron, wrote an Easter pastoral letter that was translated and circulated among English-speaking Catholics at the beginning of May. Its conclusion challenged the budding season of spring:

But the trouble of these times, with the prolonged privations, the insecurity which is so painful to us, the nervousness created by our misfortunes, the anguish which we fell about our future, known or unknown — all these form an inextricable confusion, in which is hidden secretly manoeuvring and scarcely perceptible, the often mortal enemies of the souls of our youth. You hear it said that it is intended to form a strong and healthy youth, and through it to rediscover the soul of France. But what one too often sees leads one to believe that, for many people, the soul means nothing.

In 1950, the same bishop would consecrate a new church in the French Alps parish of Assy. It was a showpiece of modern ecclesiastical art, with windows by Rouault, tapestries by Lurcat, a Leger mosaic, and drawings by Matisse. Bishop Cesbron kept his thoughts to himself about the success of it all, but he ordered the removal of a large green bronze crucifix by Germain Richter. It had no cross. The corpus had no discernible features. Richter explained that “the cross has been taken with the suffering into the flesh, and its outlines can just be made out coming from the undersides of the arms. There is no face because God is the spirit, and faceless.” A Paris journal protested its removal and called its critics “partisans of mediocrity.” A local woodcutter, a survivor of the war, sided with his bishop and said that the faceless figure was “evil.”


This article is part of a series on World War II from 1942 to 1943. Image: Italian tank on the Tunisian Front, National Archives


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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