On Monday, August 23, the European Union will mark its second annual “Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism,” honoring those who suffered or lost their lives under the totalitarian regimes. Millions of Catholics, along with those of the Eastern Orthodox churches and Protestant denominations, are among the victims to be remembered.
Dozens of victims of both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes have been beatified or canonized by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both of whom personally experienced life under totalitarian governments.
A cardinal archbishop of the Polish church, Augustine Hlond, described the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939: "The Cathedral has been turned into a garage at Pelplin; the Bishop's palace into a restaurant; the chapel into a ballroom. Hundreds of churches have been closed. The whole patrimony of the Church has been confiscated, and the most eminent Catholics executed."
Terese Schwartz, a Jewish researcher, estimates that three million Polish Catholics died at the hands of the Nazi regime. Heinrich Himmler, who oversaw the Nazi SS during World War II, had called for the “elimination of all Polish people.” His strategy explicitly targeted the country's leaders and central institutions, including the Catholic Church.
The author and publisher Thomas Craughwell, in a 1998 article on non-Jewish victims of Nazism titled “The Gentile Holocaust,” described the concentration camp at Dachau as “the Calvary of at least 2,600 Catholic priests from 24 nations.” A full reckoning of Catholic suffering at Dachau, he said, “would fill volumes.” Priests, in particular, were starved and worked to death, and singled out as the victims of medical experiments.
The recently inaugurated European holiday's implicit comparison of the Soviet Union with the Third Reich provoked controversy in contemporary Russia last year, according to AFP reports. Nevertheless, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 20 million Russians and other citizens of the Soviet empire died in government detention or through famine and executions under the regime of Joseph Stalin. During his leadership of the Soviet Union, 14 million people were confined to the system of work camps known as the Gulag.
Catholics living in Soviet territories were singled out for persecution by authorities, because of their faith and the Church's consistent stance against atheistic Communism. Fr. Christopher Zugger, a Byzantine Catholic priest who has written extensively about Catholics under Communism, described how prisoners in the Gulag “were interrogated, tortured, put into solitary confinement, experimented on, and sent to work in factories.”
Pope John Paul II, addressing members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1999, said that the martyrs and confessors of the 20th century “knew the truth, and the truth set them free.”
“Christians in Europe and throughout the world,” he said, “pausing in prayer before the concentration camps and prisons, should be grateful for the light which they gave: it was the light of Christ, which they caused to shine in the darkness. For long years the darkness seemed in the eyes of the world to prevail, but it was not able to extinguish that light, which was the light of God and the light of man, wounded but not laid low.”