Friday, October 7, 2011

BREAKING NEWS -- New Evidence on the Catholic Church's Uneasy Relationship with Nazi Germany: The Swastika Blessing

Well, I suppose that depends on what you consider "news" and "breaking," since we're talking about a historical event here.   This article reports on information that was posted just a few hours ago (as of late Friday night, October 7), at  Here's what it's all about:

Several months ago I was privileged to report an amazing discovery made by my Yale roommate, Steve Galebach.  You can find the earlier report here: "Was the the Vatican Soft on Nazism?"   It has lots of background you won't find here, so you may want to check it out.  In short:   In doing some archival research for a client, Steve found this photograph in Der Stürmer, a violently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper (in fact, not a newspaper -- a wildly polemical propaganda rag) that was widely disseminated and influential in Germany.

Caption:  "An archbishop blesses the Nazi banner."
[Click on photo to enlarge.]
It reportedly shows Archbishop Santiago Luis Copello of Buenos Aires blessing the Nazi flag (not yet the German national flag) at the worldwide Eucharistic Congress held there in 1934.  Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933.

Is this a big deal?  Yes.  How big remains uncertain.

(1)  There are no other reports that anyone has been able to find that any senior Catholic priest ever blessed a swastika flag.  This photograph has never been noticed or reported on in any of the vast scholarship on the relationship between the Nazis and the Roman Catholic Church.   The RCC forbade blessing the Nazi symbol. 

So Steve's discovery is historic.   Future historians of Nazi-Roman Catholic relations will be required to account for it.

(2)  Second, the Vatican's emissary to the Eucharistic Congress, guest of Archbishop Copello, and the senior Catholic official present (not at this ceremony) was one Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State.  Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in 1939.   There is a lively historiography as to Pacelli's attitude toward Nazi Germany.  While there is considerable evidence of Pacelli's disapproval of Nazism, there is enough uncertainty over what he knew and when he knew about the Holocaust to prompt one author to call him "Hitler's Pope."  (John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope, 1999; and there was also Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy which was also highly critical of Pius XII on this score, later made into a movie called "Amen" by Costa-Gavras.)  Despite the controversy that continues regarding his attitude toward European Jewry, the Vatican is currently proceeding with the steps required to declare Pius XII a saint.

(3)  Copello himself was elevated to Cardinal months later, in 1935.

Archbishop, later Cardinal, Copello

(4)  The world -- including Argentina, and including in particular Catholics in Argentina -- knew quite a lot about Nazism in 1934.  Mein Kampf was widely known, as was the violent antisemitism of the Nazi Party.  The incredibly savage purge of the SA (Sturmabteilung), the Nazis' military arm, in which scores and probably hundreds were murdered (including some extremely prominent Germans outside of the military), received worldwide press and was heavily covered in Argentina.  (This "Night of the Long Knives" is one of the centerpiece events of of a current popular history by Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts.)  That slaughter took place in June 1934.  The swastika blessing was in October.  The Nazis' methods and motives were already viewed with alarm -- World War II, after all, was only five years off.   In the months before the blessing, official Catholic publications in Argentina condemned the Nazis for their anti-Catholic actions, among other things.  Could Copello possibly have been merely naive or uninformed?  And if he was not, does his decision to proceed reflect in any way on his superiors from Rome?

When I originally reported on this a year ago, Galebach, a staunch Roman Catholic, wasn't quite sure what to make of all this. 

Neither was I.  My initial concern was that Steve did not have any confirmation that the photograph was authentic.  It appeared nowhere (apparently) besides one of the least credible publications in history.  I had other questions, and still do, but that one was fundamental.

Well, there are two pieces of news hot off the Internet:

First, the authenticity of the photograph is no longer in doubt.  In searching through issues of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa from 1934 earlier this year, Steve's wife Diane Galebach found a report of this ceremony and an explicit mention that among the flags Archbishop Copello blessed was the Nazi party flag.  Present were the German ambassador and a group of Catholic pilgrims from Germany visiting the Eucharistic Congress.  Although  not as dramatic as the photograph, this brief passage is every bit as significant -- more so, in fact, because it was not found in a scurrilous Nazi broadsheet like the photo but in a contemporaneous news account from the Eucharistic Congress itself in a legitimate newspaper.  In fact, the newspaper reported that the ceremony was a "consecration" -- a greater Catholic honor than a "blessing."  Thus, a Catholic archbishop blessed, or consecrated, a swastika on the eve of the visit to the Eucharistic Congress by the future Pius XII.  It happened.

Second, Steve and Diane have begun to publish their findings in an online book called The Swastika Blessing.  (  You may download and read a free introduction that is pretty complete in itself, and for $12 you can download Volume 1, which contains much more detailed information and some fascinating background relating to the relationship between Roman Catholicism and National Socialism.  Three more volumes relating to Vatican policy towards Nazi Germany in 1934 and 1935, and additional "causes and context" research are scheduled for release before the end of the year.  For your $12 now, you get a 111-page PDF in a Power-Point-type format with lots of text and many photographs and documents, complete with translations.  Extremely interesting and clearly presented. 

[NOTE:  I reviewed and provided extensive comments and suggestions on early drafts of Steve's work on this, before Diane became more involved.  Steve's and Diane's project changed considerably in scope and presentation thereafter; I reviewed one early and very different draft of the present format, and the present incarnation not at all.  I am mentioned in their acknowledgements.]

The question before the house is:  Should this photograph -- rather, should the event it portrays -- provoke a re-examination of RCC-Nazi relations in the years leading up to World War II?  And, of more urgent current interest, should it provoke a re-examination of the attitude toward National Socialism of Cardinal Pacelli -- Pope Pius XII -- as the RCC moves ever closer to elevating him to sainthood?

Cardinal Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII
The latter is the question that exercises the Galebachs.  Both are devout Catholics.  They have chosen a somewhat unorthodox method of presenting what they've found, their book taking the form of a presentation of evidence both damaging and exculpatory to the hierarchy of the RCC in alternating sections presented by an "investigator" and "defense counsel."   I did not find this unusual approach distracting, and it has the merit of making room for a great deal of background information.   The free Introduction has quite a bit of information in summary form, it's much more than a tease.  Chapter I is a detailed overview of events at the Eucharistic Congress, including the blessing, the relationship between the major players (Pius XI, Pacelli/Pius XII, and Copello), and what was known about the Nazis' ideology and practices in Argentina in 1934.

Despite their scrupulousness in presenting evidence favorable to Pacelli/Pius XII, the overall impression the Galebachs leave is one of skepticism as to whether Pacelli's robes are entirely clean.  As a result, the reader is left with the further impression that the Galebachs believe that the episode may well be material to the ongoing beatification process for Pius XII -- and, presumably, adverse to the sainthood partisans -- although they are careful not to come right out and say it.  (Although their subheading promises "an "investigation into a photograph that changes history.") 

That's quite an impression to derive from one photograph and a confirmatory newspaper item.  I hope I am not being unfair in attributing it to them.   Is it justified?

It should be noted that no one took special note of this event at the time.  The photo appeared nowhere until it popped up some months later in Der Stürmer, but the contemporary newspaper account explicitly stated that the Archbishop had blessed the swastika flag -- it used the phrase "cruz gamada," which translates as "swastika."   Whatever this might mean to us now, it did not provoke any notice at the time that the Galebachs have been able to find.  (To my knowledge -- no idea what goodies they have in store for us in later installments.)   If, as the Galebachs have shown, the Nazis' virulent anti-Catholicism and violent suppression of religious freedom were known to Catholic officials, why not? 

The Galebachs have found themselves at the center of quite a mystery.

In the absence of direct evidence of either (1) Pacelli's complicity, or (2) Copello's intentions in blessing the Nazi banner, the Galebachs proceed in the only way available to them:  By examining the overall context of Nazi/Vatican relations in the mid-Thirties, in Argentina and Rome.  What they have produced so far, as investigators with a large family to care for and other jobs to do, is nothing short of astounding.   I don't know everything they've come up with or where their own thinking has settled, but I am looking forward to the remaining three installments.

Here's that link again:

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  1. When is a saint not a saint? We are all sinners with feet of clay. I doubt the twisted cross carried the same connotations in 1934 as today, or even in 1944. Didn't Henry Ford and the British Royal family all show support for Nazism in the 1930's? Wasn't it for a while just another "ism" - communism, socialism, fascism - that, like socialized medicine today, was going to solve all the problems of capitalism, which the world (wrongly) blamed forthe Great Depression?

    Your friends may or may not be on to something, and I have not read their treatise, but we judge the past through the prism if today with some inherent risk of distortion.

  2. Quite astute, Apple. No one could have predicted the horrors in store in 1934 -- unless, of course, they had taken Mein Kampf literally, which few did. But the Great War was still a fresh horror in everyone's minds only 15 years later. No one was interested in a preeptive war against Hitler in the Thirties. However, the RCC, based in Rome and with an enormous constituency in Germany, was very aware of the nature of Nazism. Whether that flowed across the Atlantic, I dunno. But I certainly agree that one cannot judge the motives of these clerics based on post-Holocaust, post-WW II sensibilities.

  3. Well Steve, fascinating. Mental aggressions are an old hat. Fear causing hate is common, and I have had a letter from one son, who told me of his sadness not having been able to stop my hate of his mother?? I wrote back asking him to stop being a moron. Explaining to him how we only have capacity to hate what we fear. Asking him why or how I could fear his mother? Fear and hate were inherited from way back, had not to be invented by any person or group/party or organization. (9/11 was an example, of how people can by driven to hate, and fear by terrifying news. The Pope too was in favor of exterminating the Jews. You can not hope to eliminate the fear/hate problem in people, except by killing them off. Does that include you and me? Also, the Gypsies were included in hate/ fear crimes for thousands of years. If you are interested look at Zarathustra religion reaching back 8.000 years, and its results? I as a child read the Stürmer and since it was not approved by my parents I feared they may be spying for the British. I carefully kept my mouth shut, so they would not get into trouble, like my Hungarian uncle Latzi who was jailed, for saying Hitler was an idiot, in presence of his maid. He survived the war alive despite a death sentence, and had a pension paid to him, by the German government, to the day he died in Munich. I talked to him a couple of times when I was visiting Munich and got the whole story of his incarceration, and playing piano in jail for assembled Nazi people there for a concert. What he assumed saved him from execution, was that he was a Hungarian Jew, which placed him outside the German judiciary of that time. He at age 70 was the greatest womanizer I have ever met. His girl friend was barely twenty when I visited him after the war and met her too.