Churchill’s cardinal: why Arthur Hinsley deserves to be better known

Cardinal Arthur Hinsley of Westminster (Getty Images)

The highly acclaimed film The Darkest Hour portrays the grim situation inherited by Winston Churchill when he became Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s forces were sweeping through Western Europe and allied soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk. Invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Among those who rallied to support Churchill was the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley.

In the film, Churchill becomes increasingly desperate as the politicians around him lose their will to continue the fight. They plot to replace him, and to open negotiations with the enemy. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Hinsley wrote a private letter to Churchill encouraging him to carry on. Churchill minuted approvingly: “The Cardinal is vigorous and tough”. He suggested that Hinsley make it “absolutely clear” to French Catholics that “whatever happens, we are going to the end”.

British leaders realised that the war included a global struggle for hearts and minds. German propagandists were active in Latin America. Traditionally Catholic countries like Italy and Spain were under Fascist control. In this situation, the influence of British Catholics was highly regarded, and Cardinal Hinsley was willing to help. He became the voice of English-speaking Catholics on the BBC.

He had to tread warily. Pope Pius XII was immured in the Vatican surrounded by a belligerent nation. Millions of Catholics were serving in the Axis forces. Yet Hinsley was clear that Europe faced something new and sinister in Nazism. When Italy entered the war in June 1940, he issued a statement saying that Italian Fascism had now been taken over by Nazism, and had broken with the Christian civilisation which built Europe. An allied victory would not only free occupied nations but would also end ‘the Nazi system of religious and racial persecution’. The reference to race is significant: few grasped at this time that the Nazi system was built on a spurious assumption of racial supremacy. Hinsley’s awareness alerted him to the plight of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. He also had good contacts with the Polish government in exile in London.

By mid-1942 the world was slowly becoming aware of the genocide taking place. In July 1942 Hinsley broadcast a message on the European division of the BBC. He spoke frankly of ‘the murderous work of the Nazis in Poland’. He told his listeners that already 700,000 Jews had been massacred, and he appealed to German Christians not to collude with ‘black deeds of shame’.

In December 1942, Hinsley was even more outspoken in a broadcast on the Home Programme and to the Forces. He condemned the German decapitation of Polish leadership. Then in a prescient phrase, he said, “Poland has witnessed acts of such savage hatred that it appears fiendishly planned to be turned into a vast cemetery of the Jewish population of Europe.” At this time many people found it difficult to believe the reports of mass slaughter of the Jews. Cardinal Hinsley left his listeners in no doubt.

There was more than patriotism at work here. Hinsley knew well that there were Christians on both sides, and that the Pope was scrupulously neutral. But he had the wisdom and insight to grasp that the Nazi emphasis on racial supremacy threatened the future of civilisation itself.

We view the Second World War with the clarity of hindsight, but The Darkest Hour reminds us that when Churchill became Prime Minister, things were opaque. It took vision and courage to continue the struggle. Hinsley, who died on 17 March 1943, played his own part in this and rallied Catholics to the cause. His contribution deserves to be better known.