Inside the Church during WWII The French Catholic Church from 1940 to 1945

As seen in last week’s article, the Church in France was particularly badly placed to provide a unified response to the challenges posed by the Nazi occupation of their country. Liberal and conservative groups within the Church had amalgamated with political factions within France’s body politic, making the notion of a ‘Catholic experience’ in war-time France almost nonsensical. In addition, there were, for most of the war, two ‘Frances’: the north and west which was occupied by Germany, and the south-east, where the right-wing Vichy regime held sway until its downfall in 1942.

In the occupied half of France, most of the country fell under the military, commanded at first by General Otto von Stülpnagel, and from March 1942 by his cousin, General Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, who was murdered by the Nazis in July 1944 for his role in the plot to kill Hitler. Alsace and Lorraine were reintegrated with Germany, and large areas in the east and north closed to refugees and readied for ‘Germanic’ settlement. Finally, the Italians occupied small regions in the south, the island of Corsica and some Alpine passes.

The collapse of France in May and June 1940 was swift and surprising: the nation that had stood in the trenches and had almost been bled dry on battlefields like Verdun simply succumbed to the Nazis. Outfought, outwitted and unwilling to spill soldiers’ blood again, and confounded by internal divisions, the Republic simply imploded. Loyalties were divided after the collapse, too. In London, the Free French Movement under General de Gaulle continued the war. In Vichy, Marshall Pétain, hero of the First World War, established a state approved by the Action Française, willing to work with the Nazis, but attempting to preserve some sense of French national identity. Others went further still, and co-operated fully with the Nazi invaders, frequently, but not invariably, on grounds of ideology.

For the Christian community in France, Catholic and Protestant alike, the decision on which camp to join in 1940 was very much determined by Faith.

If Faith had been adhered to in accordance with the Magisterium of the Church, the options would have been limited. The guidelines coming from the Vatican were unequivocal where Nazi ideology was concerned: racism and Social Darwinism were off-limits for the faithful. Yet as we have seen all too frequently in this series, the teachings from the Vatican were often ignored, and France formed no exception to this.

Of course, faithful adherence to the Magisterium would not necessarily have led Catholics to the resistance. Initially at least, resistance in France was rather limited. For most, the shock of defeat had been overwhelming, and Pétain was certainly regarded as a great hope. That this was the case in the German-occupied zone is somewhat startling. The loss of the Alsace and the demarcation of swathes of the country for future ‘Germanic’ settlement ought to have worried Frenchmen, whether they were Catholic or not. Yet General De Gaulle had little appeal in those early days of the occupation.

The reaction of Paris’s two Cardinals illustrates the journey taken by the Church in France particularly well. Alfred-Henri-Maria Cardinal Baudrillart is frequently described as a collaborator. Like so many, he did welcome the collapse of the Third Republic. Baudrillart belonged to the French aristocratic world that lived in permanent enmity with the Republic. He distrusted its democratic principles, disliked its insistence on freedom of religion, and hated its laicism. The latter is perhaps most easily understood: the anti-clerical laws of 1903, expulsion of the orders and confiscation of Catholic schools were still a recent memory.

When Pétain restored what Baudrillart would have regarded as the natural order, with Church and state wedded together, he welcomed the Marshall’s rule and offered open support, even though he lived in the occupied zone. In 1941, he went a step further. He publicly supported the French volunteers who joined the Wehrmacht and SS in the campaign against the Soviet Union. In the first two years of the war, the Cardinal could even write that there was no contradiction between Nazism and Christianity, in flagrant contradiction of the Vatican. Anti-Semitism was rife in the circles in which Cardinal Baudrillart moved, although the Magisterium told him this was wrong. Baudrillart died in May 1942, when the tide was turning and resistance against the Nazis was becoming more popular.

His fellow Cardinal and superior in Paris, Archbishop Emmanuel Suhard, would protest openly against the Anti-Semitism of the Vichy regime. Suhard was the opposite of Baudrillart, much less cosmopolitan and deeply concerned with the laboring poor of France. From the outset he proved to be a thorn in the Nazi’s side. Appointed a couple of days after the invasion started, he was suspected by the Germans to be Pius XII’s placeman in France. They were right, for Cardinal Suhard was the conduit through which Vatican denouncements of the Nazis reached France. Yet he, too, initially supported the Vichy regime, and for much the same reason as Baudrillart.

When, in the spring of 1942, Anti-Semitic laws were passed by the Vichy government, Suhard protested vehemently and publicly. This gave the start-shot for the massive movement amongst Catholic religious orders and in Catholic schools to conceal the Jews from their persecutors. It did not have that effect on all of France’s Catholics, but rescued large numbers of Jews from the camps, a fact which Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial organization, has recognized. It was only the Cardinal’s great popularity amongst the poor Parisians that prevented his deportation to Dachau: the Nazis feared an uprising. Yet such were the divisions in France, that General de Gaulle refused to meet Cardinal Suhard when he entered Paris in 1944!

The two Parisian Cardinals represent two strands of action in France: outright collaboration and a move from compromise towards opposition. Yet some in France were resisting the new order from the outset. In the vanguard of the Resistance stood the Jesuits, often in close collaboration with Protestant pastors. These men were theologically far removed from their fellow clergy in Paris, or, indeed, in much of France. As liberals, their thinking was to influence the outcome of the Second Vatican Council profoundly, particularly in the new attitude towards the Jews and their rejection of the close association between Church and state. It was exactly this line of thinking that proved abhorrent to Archbishop Lefebvre and caused the schism with the SSPX some decades later.

The leaders of the Jesuit resistance movement were Fr. Pierre Chaillet and Henri de Lubac, professor of theology at the University of Lyons. De Lubac would be raised to the purple by Bl. John Paul II. Together, they founded Les Cahiers du Témoignage in which they outlined a principled, theological opposition against Nazism, much along the lines of Pius XII’s own thinking. Chaillet was a particularly strong supporter of General de Gaulle, almost from the day that the leader of the Free French made his famous radio broadcast from London. In the Cahiers, he would write: “As the French and as Christians we oppose Hitler and fight the fight”. Many of those involved in the Cahiers paid with their lives, often caught and executed by fellow French Catholics who passionately believed that Vichy France was true to Catholic teaching, just as the Jesuits in Lyons passionately believed that neo-pagan Nazism was an affront to Catholicism.

As in all the countries that we have examined to date, French Catholicism reacted in a variety of ways to the Nazis. Some allowed their hatred of the Third Republic and their love for a French Church to overcome the scruples of the Gospels; others were so scared of Communism that they were blind to the dangers of Nazism. Others again stayed close to Christ’s message, and loyal to the Ultramontane tradition that had dominated sections of French Catholic life for a century. All these motives were grafted on the bitter experiences and divisions of Catholic France in the century-and-a-half since the Revolution.  

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