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U.S. Catholics and Kristallnacht

The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archivesannounces a new website: "American Catholics and Nazi Antisemitism:Father Maurice Sheehy, Father Charles Coughlin, and the 1938 CatholicUniversity Kristallnacht Broadcast." The site can be found at thefollowing url: http://libraries.cua.edu/achrcua/kristallnacht/index.htmlOur newest primary source materials website features digitized primarydocuments and audio from the American Catholic History Center andUniversity Archives related to U.S. Catholic responses to the Naziregime in 1930s Germany. The materials on the site suggest that AmericanCatholics responded to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany duringthe anti-Jewish pogrom known today as Kristallnacht in ways distinctfrom Catholics outside of the United States. Users will find, forexample, a recently discovered November 16, 1938 broadcast featuring agroup of 5 American Catholic clerical leaders and one laypersoncondemning the Nazi violence against Jews. The broadcast was made underthe auspices of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.and received considerable media attention as it presented an instance,unusual at the time, of Catholic priests and bishops voicing support fora religious group other than their own on a national level. In contrast,another prominent Catholic clerical leader with millions of devotedfans, Father Charles Coughlin, responded to Kristallnacht with aNovember 20, 1938 broadcast that justified the Nazi atrocities as anatural defense against a Jewish-dominated global communist movement. Atranscript of that Coughlin broadcast is reproduced here. In addition tothe CUA broadcast audio and the Coughlin transcript this site features aphoto gallery of participants in the CUA broadcast and relatedcorrespondence and press materials that help contextualize thebroadcasts.

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In 1942 a young Polish Catholic resistance fighter reported to President Roosevelt the activities of the Nazis against the Jews. He had courageously gone into the Warsaw ghetto and a concentration camp holding camp to see first hand what the Nazis were doing. Roosevelt did not believe him. He reported to many other powerfully placed Americans, but they generally did not believe him or thought he exaggerated or thought he was bringing only propaganda. Justice Frankfurter, himself a Jew, told Karski, "I cannot believe you." Among those to whom he reported was Cardinal Stritch. I wonder if the C. U. archives -- and/or the Cardinal's personal papers have information about that meeting. He published the best=selling "Story of a Secret State" in 1942. I read it when I was 12 and have never gotten over it. For 40 years he was a professor at Georgetown. He was greatly honored by Israel and later would call himself "a Christian Jew". Educated by the Jesuits, he was a devout Catholic -- and not a liberal one, or so I've read.I'm amazed that there hasn't been a movie made of his life.Conservative Catholic heroes aren't the favorites of liberal Hollywood, no doubt.Check out The Times biography at: http://www.mishalov.com/Karski.html)Note: it isn't entirely accurate == it gives the wrong name for Tarski's best-seller.)

oops--and I misspelled his name. It's Jan Karski

Thank you for this, Joe. Here is history we can study. With Finn's reference to a battle between Muslims and Christians, we see how many Catholics are demonizing Muslims today. The American bishops, today, as a whole are seeking to reign in the fanatics who seem larger because of their inflammatory rhetoric.Lots of lessons to be learned.

I remember Karski's powerful interview in Shoah, a film I want to purchase and pass on to my children, along with a number of documentaries. I watched all its segments when broadcast years ago on PBS. Yes, there should be a film about Karski or anyone like him, regardless of theological perspective.One of my memories of the film is the interview done with Polish residents outside a church in Chelmno (even the name lingers in my mind), where Jews were gathered before being transported to their deaths. The older residents there at the time spoke of the Holocaust in the most crass and insensitive way, even with a reference to the slaughter being God's will. There is no plaque or memorial of any kind of what happened there.I also saw the write-up on the Kristallnacht broadcast in the CUA alum magazine. It is very heartening to see something of the like, but disheartening to learn that it was more exception than practice. What if the pope and bishops all over Europe and America had reacted similarly and continuously? I note Karski attended a gathering in Wannsee in later years. I saw a reenactment of the original based on careful notes taken at the time. When an attendee warned of possible concerted opposition by Catholic hierarchy to the Final Solution, the majoritys response was, no need to worry. Indeed there wasnt. What would I have done if I lived there in that time? Thats the question

That's quite a speech by Father Coughlin! Where were his superiors when he was spewing such anti-Semitism?I second Carolyn's praise of Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah," one of the most disturbing, haunting, and intensely powerful film experiences I've ever had. I say experiences because it is 9 or 10 hours long. My wife and I saw it over two days at a local art cinema, and it left a lasting impact on both of us. It's not really a documentary with film clips, etc. Instead, it's a series of interviews with Holocaust survivors, Nazi SS commanders and guards, and others with direct knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto, the extermination camps, and the mechanics of the Final Solution. The banality of evil is perfectly captured in interviews with German soldiers who 30 years after the war's end can still describe with clinical detachment the kill ratios of Zyklon B and other chemicals used in the gas chambers. Chilling stuff, but Lanzmann's masterpiece needs to be passed along from generation to generation.

Thats quite a speech by Father Coughlin! Where were his superiors when he was spewing such anti-Semitism?According to Wikipedia

Boyea (1995) shows that the Roman Catholic Church did not approve of Coughlin. The Vatican, the Apostolic Delegation in Washington, D.C., and the archbishop of Cincinnati all wanted him silenced. They recognized that only Coughlin's superior, Detroit Bishop Michael Gallagher, had the canonical authority to curb him, but Gallagher supported the "Radio Priest". Due to Gallagher's autonomy and the prospect of Coughlin leading a schism, the Roman Catholic leadership did nothing.

Question: Is a bishop totally autonomous? If the Vatican had really wanted something done, couldn't they have done it?

David, of course the Vatican could have done something if it really wanted to. Wasn't a valuable teaching moment lost? Better to protect the institution than respond on principle. It is instructive to watch where it acts and where it does not. Plus ca change...

Yes, and I suspect the Vatican had bigger fish to fry closer to home at that point. This is a good example of why we should be alarmed when a bishop asserts his autonomy from fellow bishops -- a culture of fraternal cooperation and correction would have been a big help in this case. Based on the way things are now, I'm betting all those other bishops who "wanted Coughlin silenced" didn't say too much about it in public. Wouldn't want to cause a scandal, after all.(P.S. If you'll consult your back issues, you'll find the reaction to Coughlin's speech in The Commonweal was -- well, what you'd expect, I hope!)

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.