Arts & Books

Book Review: The spiritual war that ripped Europe apart

A Katyń memorial: a priest was sent to the area to give the dead a Christian burial (AP)

Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943
by George William Rutler, St Augustine, £10

Buy Here

Fr Rutler, a parish priest in New York, takes his title from the famous quotation in St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. This is partly because he wishes to show the larger forces at work during World War Two, and also because a fellow priest had bequeathed to him a pile of newspapers, journals and radio transcripts from 1942 to 1943. He felt these papers emphasised the stark and supernatural outlines of the conflict. The war, he says, “can rightly be understood and probably only fully appreciated as a holy war fought for multiple and mixed motives, but in its deepest meaning as a campaign against evil by defenders, consciously or obliviously, of the good”. Churchill – not a conventional believer but someone with a deep sense of what civilisation signified – would have agreed.

The Tablet, then edited by Douglas Woodruff and renowned for the gifted Catholic writers it attracted under its editorial banner of vigorous orthodoxy, is often cited, as is L’Osservatore Romano and, interestingly, the Jewish Chronicle. Running through the whole account and forming the thread that unites it are the words and speeches of the wartime pope, Pius XII. Occasionally he is criticised for sounding too diplomatic at the expense of being prophetic. More often his is indeed a prophetic voice, quoted by the Jewish Chronicle as a defender of their own persecuted people in Nazi-occupied Europe. The newspaper says that Catholic priests in France were playing a leading part in hiding hunted Jews “and sheltering the children of those under arrest”. This supports the verifiable records of Pius XII ordering his hierarchies around Europe to do everything they could to save Jews. In this delicate policy he “marshalled prudence to save lives when impetuousness could have cost more”.

Rutler is fascinated by the way large historical events interweave with humbler but no less significant spiritual occurrences, relating that on the day of the British defeat in the first battle of El Alamein, Fr Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite, died in Dachau after giving his rosary to the SS functionary who gave him a lethal injection. L’Osservatore Romano reported the death of Fr Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz and that his Franciscan habit had been returned to his Polish monastery by the punctilious Germans.

Rutler is also alive to the mordant comedy the war occasioned. Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, threatened with a firing squad by the Germans, reminded them of the lynching of Patriarch Gregory of Constantinople by the Turks in 1821: “According to the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions.” Cardinal Hinsley of Westminster, who died on March 17, 1943, and who had been outspoken against “all forms of totalitarianism”, gets a good press. Amusingly, Churchill had wanted him to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, indicating “both his regard for Cardinal Hinsley and his own vague ecclesiology”.

In April 1943 the mass graves of Polish army officers were discovered in Katyń Forest. The Archbishop of Kraków, Adam Sapieha, who included among his secret seminarians the young Karol Wojtyła, later John Paul II, sent a priest to Katyń to give Christian burial rites to the thousands of murdered men.

Rutler concludes this eclectic survey with the sober reflection that although the war was won, “there is no end to such a war, for it began in Eden and will contend until the world itself returns to the eternity from which it was made”.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (12/6/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!