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December 2009


Book Review

THE CROSS AND THE THIRD REICH by Dr John Frain, Family Publications, Oxford, 2009.
ISBN: 9781871217957,
Price: £19.95. Available from www.familypublications.co.uk.
Tel: 0845 0500879 Fax: 01865 321325.

SIMON FITZGERALD

Nothing in the history of the world has been as cataclysmic as World War II. It was a truly global disaster, which not only saw the killing and maiming of countless millions of people, but a despoliation of the culture of Europe from which the continent has never recovered.

It was a war utterly different from any previous combat, both in its scale and for the devastation caused to cities and civilian populations. Moreover, it was an event which mysteriously continues to haunt people, more than 60 years after the cessation of hostilities. An indicator of the war’s continuing legacy on our psyche has been the constant stream of books published on every conceivable aspect of those six fateful years. Even now there is no sign of the flow of books abating. The market for this genre appears to be insatiable. What is new however, is the virulently anti-Catholic bias which has gained prominence in books of this nature.

That there are publications which take such a distorted stance should surprise no one, for they sell in vast numbers and are generally given wide coverage by the media, which are only too happy to promote the lies that these books peddle. In many cases such anti-Catholic accounts of history are nothing less than works of pure fiction, having more to do with the writer’s vivid imagination and his hatred for the Catholic Church, than any desire to give an accurate and unbiased picture of what took place.

Thrilling vindication
Against this grim background, John Frain’s The Cross and The Third Reich is more than an excellent and authoritative read (the bibliography runs to no less than five pages).  It is a thrilling work, which demonstrates that the Church did all it could to oppose the Nazis. Indeed, it very often went way beyond what might have been expected of a world-wide organisation, which had the responsibility to care for a billion Catholics, yet possessed no military weapons other than the halberds of the Vatican Swiss Guard.

In his foreword to the book, Lord Alton explains that in the years immediately following the war, far from being critical of the Pope and the Catholic Church the consensus, even among Jews, was that Pius XII and the Vatican had been heroic.
Pinchas Lapide, an historian and Israeli Consul, argues that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000 but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” In the context of the 6 million who perished, he contrasts this record with the abject failure of others to save the Jews.

Most telling of all are the recorded comments of the Jews who were contemporaries of Pius XII. After the war the Pontiff was thanked by many of the survivors of the Holocaust and tributes included one from Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann and Issac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took the Pope’s name as a tribute to him and what he had achieved during the Nazi period.

At the time of the death of Pius XII, Golda Meir said: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.” Recorded the Jewish Chronicle: “Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion.... Many hundreds of fugitive Jews found sanctuary in the Vatican when hunted by the Nazis. Such actions will always be remembered.”

Sadly, the Jewish Chronicle’s optimism that the Pope’s courage would never be forgotten is now seen to be wildly optimistic, for a cottage industry has grown up churning out “bestsellers made out of bad history,” to quote the words of Rabbi David Dalin.

Frain reflects at the end of his book:

There are secularists and revisionists who advance the view that the response of the Catholic Church to the rise of the Nazis was generally spineless and even subservient. This has to be revealed as the gross calumny it is. For my three years’ research into the issue has led me to precisely the opposite conclusion ... I have tried at all times to provide evidence for what I have written. This has not always been a distinguishing characteristic of the Church’s detractors. At the end of the task, my reward has been a significant strengthening of my faith, because, far from being defensive about the Church’s record in those despotic and capricious times, I find it a great strain not to be triumphalist.

The Communist threat
One gets an early taste of John Frain’s gifted style in his analysis of the threat posed by Communism in the 1920’s and 30’s. Some modern writers have argued that both Pius XI and Pius XII had a paranoid fixation with Communism which was, if not totally without foundation, wildly exaggerated. Dr. Frain sets the record straight in his depiction of the menace posed by the “terrible triangle” of Russia, Mexico and Spain and their anti-clerical atrocities.

The Cross and the Third Reich carries full details of how the Church suffered in these three countries. To cite just a few Spanish statistics which are all too often forgotten today: nearly seven thousand clerics were murdered in Republican-held areas; comprised of more than 4,000 diocesan priests, 13 bishops, 2,365 male regulars and 283 nuns. In Barcelona the massacre of diocesan clergy was as high as 88%.

Many Germans quite rightly perceived that they were surrounded by countries that had fallen to the Communists. They were horrified by the reports coming from Republican Spain to the West, and the annihilation of the Orthodox Church, in what had once been Holy Mother Russia, to the East, where 200,000 priests and monks had been either murdered, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia. In this context, we can understand more easily why many Germans had a ‘wait and see’ approach to the arrival of the Nazis. After all they were patriotic citizens and did not want Communism to take power as Germany’s Weimar Republic teetered on the brink of collapse.

Catholic foresight and courage
However, the Vatican was very far from taking this attitude to Herr Hitler and his Party. Frain carefully documents the Church’s repeated denunciation of anti-Semitism and Nazism from 1928 onwards. He also details the year-by-year condemnations issued by German Bishops, beginning in 1929 with Bishop Johannes Gfollner of Linz warning against “the false prophets” of Nazism and telling the Catholic faithful: “Close your ears and do not join their associations, close your doors and do not let their newspapers into your homes, close your hands and do not support their endeavours in the elections.”

In 1930 the Bishop of Mainz declared Nazism and Catholicism to be irreconcilable, while in 1933 the Bishops of Cologne, Upper Rhine and Paderborn said they would deny the sacraments to anyone involved in parties hostile to Christianity. And so the list goes on.

The book gives an equally professional treatment to all the other issues of conflict between the Church and Germany during the Nazi era, exploding one myth after another in the process.

Almost half the book is dedicated to stories of individual heroic virtue by men and women who were either victims of the regime or were prepared to suffer and lay down their lives rather than conform to the evil demands of the Nazis.

Some of these characters are relatively well known, such as Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma. Most, however, are not. Their inspiring lives are an incredible testimony to what can be achieved by an ordinary human being where, with God’s grace, he or she is given the courage of a saint.

Father Jacques of Jesus
No doubt each reader will find a character that particularly inspires them, I was profoundly impressed by the life of Servant of God Father Jacques Bunel, who was born in 1900 to a poor, hard-working and devoutly Catholic family in the suburbs of Rouen. While still an infant, Lucien (his baptismal name) was pronounced incurably ill. Though his mother was five months pregnant with her next child, his parents took him to the Shrine of St. Germanes in Normandy. From that moment on he began to recover. Later, Lucien felt that he had been spared by God so as to fulfil some specific purpose and it was this which inspired him to become a priest.

After his ordination, Lucien distinguished himself as a teacher, preacher and youth leader. On 14th September, Feast of the Exaltation of The Holy Cross, he took the brown habit of the Carmelite Order, choosing Father Jacques of Jesus as his religious name. In September 1934 the Carmelites established a new boarding school at Avon near Fontainebleau and Fr. Jacques was appointed headmaster. His aim at Avon was to provide a happy schooling experience that would foster “Freedom, initiative and responsibility.”

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, the school was closed and its premises transformed into a Red Cross hospital.  However, after a brief spell in the army and then in a prisoner-of-war camp, he returned to the re-opened school in Avon in January 1941. With the German occupation came the persecution of the Jews. Fr. Jacques abhorred this anti-Semitism and instilled in his pupils that as a sign of respect to Jews they were to take off their hats when they saw anyone wearing the yellow star. Soon he gained permission from his Superior to help Jews and those men who had been ordered to Germany for forced labour.

He immediately began to employ Jews and found places in the school for Jewish pupils. But on 19th January 1944 he had a premonition that danger threatened and wrote to his brother Rene: “Quite possibly something serious is about to happen to me. If I am shot, you must all be happy for me, because I will have fulfilled my ambition: to give my life to those who suffer.”
Two days later the Gestapo arrived and arrested Fr. Jacques and took away the Jewish pupils and workers. That same day the school was closed down. Although Father Philippe, the Provincial, did all he could to get Fr. Jacques released, the holy priest was quite detached about his fate, telling his Superior: “You have no idea how badly priests are needed in the prisons.”

On 6th March 1944, Fr. Jacques was taken in chains to the transit camp at Compiegne. The regime there was relatively relaxed and he was able to celebrate Holy Mass every day and offer spiritual comfort to his fellow prisoners, particularly those who were near to despair. His apostolate did not last long. On 28th March he was among a group detailed for transportation and subsequently arrived at Neue Breme, a transit camp near Sarrebruck in Germany.

Conditions here were appalling. The prisoners were frequently beaten and provided with no more than a starvation diet. Of the 50 prisoners who arrived with Fr. Jacques only seven were alive three weeks later. The man in the Carmelite habit was made to carry a heavy wooden beam on his back and for hours was forced to walk or run along a narrow wall which separated two pits full of water. During this inhumane treatment his uppermost thought was of Christ carrying His Cross. Now there was no prospect of saying Mass or offering spiritual support as he was forbidden to converse with his fellows. His request to look after the sick resulted in a savage beating. Yet in the end his persistence won through and the first task he gave himself was to wash down the filthy interior of the so-called ‘infirmary.’ Then he washed the sick and their clothes. His ministrations also included the making of bandages from whatever clean rags were to hand and the daily begging of scraps from the kitchen for his beloved sick.

On 20th April, Fr. Jacques was moved on to the Mauthausen concentration camp where his habit was taken away and was replaced by the striped rags of the camp prisoner. He would spend his days here moving everywhere amongst the prisoners so that he could give priestly support, sustain the morale of those around him and, through prayer, help others to associate themselves with Christ’s sufferings. As his presence meant so much to the prisoners, they succeeded in getting him moved from heavy construction work to lighter tasks, checking the output of the camp’s armaments factory. Other prisoners went to this place, if only for a fleeting visit, so he could talk to them and hear their confessions.

When Mauthausen was finally liberated on 5th May, Fr. Jacques  weighed  barely five-and-a-half stone. It was clear he would never survive the journey back to France, so he was taken to St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Linz and was cared for by the Franciscan Sisters there until he died on 2nd June. As he had suffered imprisonment and death for sheltering Jews, Fr. Jacques was accorded the title of “Righteous among the Gentiles” at a special ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem.  The cause for his beatification and canonisation was opened in 1997.

Indispensable volume
The Cross and the Third Reich is a most welcome rebuttal to the scandalous calumnies against the Church and in particular Pope Pius XII. At least one copy of this book should be purchased for every Catholic senior school.  Accurate knowledge of the bravery of their forebears is a Catholic child’s birthright.  For too long the Church has been absurdly defensive about her record during the Nazi era. Now at last, we have collected together in one volume, the facts and figures to back up a position whereby Catholics can be proud of what the Vatican achieved in those dark and difficult days.

 

 

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