There are many books about the Second World War, perhaps too many. Each year, a new batch descends upon a public that still appears to have an endless fascination with that conflict. Nevertheless, Fr. George Rutler’s Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine Press) is different from all those others. Its focus is not simply a political or military analysis of what took place; instead, it offers a view of events that includes the spiritual, the supernatural, with the result being something more than simply history.
The book opens with how the author came to write it. Left to him was a stash of papers that detailed one year of that global conflict from June 1942 to June 1943. This proved to be a crucial period in the war. It was a time of decisive battles at El Alamein in North Africa and of Midway in the Pacific, as well as the hidden executions of Sophie Schall and her friends, and, on the eve of Passover, the public obliteration of the Warsaw Ghetto to a cry of ‘Heil Hitler’ as the final charge was detonated. While past the smouldering ruins of once civilized cities, long lines were seen moving towards Trebinka and other death camps. In one such a camp 2579 Polish priests were then being held with most never seeing freedom again. These were also the last days of the siege of Stalingrad; a battle that was pivotal in deciding the course of events in the East. It was also a sign to the whole world that the Wehrmacht was not invincible, even if it was as much a victory for the harsh Russian weather as for any army. It was, by contrast, a time of stalemate in the West. Europe struggled with Nazi domination. Its control of all aspects of life no better exemplified than in France. In that now occupied land it was a time of great heroism and of great betrayal, of conquerors and conquered, of Vichy and the Resistance. Similar acts of selflessness and of treachery were to be replicated throughout Occupied Europe. It is easy to judge those concerned from the distance of time; the author never does. One feels that it is Fr. Rutler’s knowledge of human weakness, born of his years in ministry, that prevent him from so doing. The book is stronger as a result.
In these pages there is a degree of detail that, at first reading, appears odd. As we delve deeper into the minutiae, however, we start to realise that this is, in fact, the ‘stuff’ of which this global conflict consisted. Reading it is something akin to mountain climbing. The rocks and footholds on the ascent unnoticed, however, when the summit is reached they are seen to have all had a part to play. So it is with this text. In the piecing together of seemingly random events a truth begins to emerge.
And what is that ‘truth’? The Second World War, Fr. Rutler contends, was always more than simply a clash of authoritarian regimes opposed to democratic ones. It was a confrontation of forces motivated by malign influences and those motivated by better ones. Perhaps more than any other war, the World War that engulfed the planet between 1939 and 1945 was between forces of darkness and light, of those seemingly driven by evil and those opposed to that evil. This is not to say that all on one side were ‘evil’ and the other ‘good’ – far from it. Driving the Axis thirst for war was, however, a force not just godless but blatantly anti-Christian. During these years, there was enough on display to conclude that there was more to this than merely nationalistic militarism.
It is with this understanding that Fr. Rutler picks through his material. And like all the best historians, the author has an eye for the personal and the particular thrown into relief against the world events then taking place. His story telling ability is admirably on display in these pages; at times, that story could rightly be described as incredible, yet, these are documented historical facts. The characters here, or indeed the tremendous events in which they are caught up, are not fantasy conjured by a novelist. Examples of bravery and moral courage are set alongside acts of petty meanness and downright depravity.
There is the French bishop who, on hearing of the latest Nazi edict ordering anyone with Jewish ancestry to register at the municipal town hall, proceeded there, on account of a distant Jewish ancestor, robed in full Pontifical vestments led by an acolyte bearing a cross. This story is set alongside some shocking examples of a different sort. The case of Monsignor Josef Tiso is one. A priest who appeared to lose all sense of his vocation in return for an ideology and the power it gave; he became ultimately the head of the Slovak puppet state. The war crimes he carried out there, despite pleas from the Vatican to desist, earned him a place on the gallows in 1947. He went to his death still dressed in clerical clothes. Then there is the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Schuster. At first a supporter of Mussolini and the order he brought to Italy, Schuster slowly began to perceive the ideology that lay behind this new order and especially its growing links with Nazi Germany. As the first racial laws were enacted, he publicly opposed the Fascists from 1938 onwards. Thereafter, he preached openly against the regime and its racism, something he saw as a fundamental attack upon the Church: ‘a new form of heresy’. The government denounced him; the Vatican praised him and told him ‘to uphold Catholic doctrine courageously’. Even as late as April 1945, Schuster was to meet with Mussolini, still trying to reconcile him to God. On that occasion, the dictator left as he had arrived, and three days later was dead, his corpse hanging upside down before an angry mob. In contrast, the Cardinal’s body was exhumed in 1985 and found to be incorrupt; eleven years later, he was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II. These are but a few of the characters and their stories that appear in these pages. What they, and the others, demonstrate is that war can produce great saints or great sinners, and, furthermore, that it was in the everyday choices taken along the way that any final choice was forged. Like the author, rather than judging anyone in this book we would do well to heed its warning.
This is history viewed through the prism of faith. Today, there are few writing history from that vantage point. Fewer still are those able to decipher the spiritual dimension alongside the military, and the political, the economic and the social. This is a shame for one could argue that this is the truest sense of what is really taking place. One can only hope that Fr.Rutler will someday feel inclined to return to this field of study, and once again bring to readers such more multi-faceted histories.
The writing style, erudite and engaging, is worthy of note making a subject matter that could have been difficult, dry, or perhaps even depressing, anything but that. Instead, reading this work, it feels like sitting by a glowing fire on a winter’s night with a companion as learned as he is affecting in the tale he tells. The depth of original source material gives a documentary feel to the whole experience of reading. At times, it is akin to watching original newsreels from that era. As the 12 months go by, from June 1942 to June 1943, the pace never slackens. In fact, there are so many events and people alluded to that Principalities and Powers becomes a rich source book for any further exploration of that period and its themes.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover. In this case, I would make an exception. The book’s cover shows a group of American soldiers attending Holy Mass in the bombed out ruins of a church. They kneel in its rubble, some still clutching rifles, whilst, as light falls through a shattered stain glass window, the priest bows at an altar. This image speaks volumes, encapsulating as it does the central truth contained within these pages. Here was the then world, torn asunder by war and the forces and hatreds that fuelled it. Nevertheless, in the end, aligned in the debris, there remained those that knelt in worship as the Sacrifice, one that invisibly holds this world together, was offered still, and, with heads bowed, as some makeshift bell rang out at the consecration, so too echoed the ancient promise of Him who shall return and make all things new.
Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943
By George William Rutler
St. Augustine Press; 2013, Pages 172