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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 45-66

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La Croix and the Swastika:
The Ambiguities of Catholic Responses to the Fall of France

Richard Francis Crane

Studies of Catholic identification with the authoritarian Vichy regime's professed mission of national moral renewal have devoted little attention to how the so-called "Marshal's pious parishioners"1 viewed the1940 fall of France.2 Emphasizing political factors above all else, historians have situated the defeat as a catalyst that activated French Catholicism's nascent Right-wing tendencies,3 or less typically as the beginning of an épreuve that galvanized the faithful to resist Nazism (which they had always found abhorrent) through a steadfast "presence" in the form of parish-level solidarity.4 These historiographical approaches forgo a close look at what Etienne Fouilloux has referred toas "the history of religious mentalités,"5 and in so doing they arguably narrow our appreciation of the full import of the 1940 collapse. Revisiting the fall of France from the perspective of religious discourse raisesthe question of how Catholics viewed the Nazi victory within [End Page 45] the framework of a Christian belief in an omnipotent and righteous deity.

Theologians refer to questions of divine justice as theodicy, and historically theodicy has usually centered on reconciling the claims of religious belief with the agonies of "natural evil" (e.g., the 1755 Lisbon earthquake) or "moral evil" (e.g., the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks).6 Throughout the summer of 1940 Catholic discourse on the spiritual meanings of the defeat reveals itself most prominently in the pages of La Croix, a daily newspaper described by W.D. Halls as "the semi-official organ of [French] Catholicism."7 A close reading of La Croix's editorials, articles, reprinted homilies, and pastoral letters illustrates how political helplessness provokes religious questioning. The titles of some of these pieces question cataclysmic events in hope of invoking religious assurance: "Punishment?... or Sacrifice?," "Has God Punished France?," and even "The Passion of France."8 Quite often their tentative answers blame the perceived decadence of the prewar years, encapsulated in interlocking themes such as secular education (laïcité) and population decline (dénatalité).

Yet a rejection of democracy does not materialize in La Croix, even as its writers emphasize Marshal Philippe Pétain's potential to reconcilefinally the ideas of liberty and authority and bring about France's rebirth as a Christian nation, hopes already entertained by La Croix's writers while the Third Republic still lived. Accordingly La Croix's response [End Page 46] to the unfolding disaster avoids a mere religious reiteration of what Charles Maurras (no believer he) called the "divine surprise"9 of 1940. Rather, La Croix's pages reflect the lamenting of a shattered France, and a Catholic newspaper literally following the trajectory of defeat, its staff fleeing Paris first for Bordeaux, and then for Limoges in the Unoccupied Zone,10 where it would harmonize with the chorus of praise for the Marshal, at least for a time.


La Croix of 1940 had traveled some historical distance from its notoriously anti-Semitic and anti-Republican stance during the fin-de-siècle Dreyfus Affair.11 Run by the Assumptionist order, since December, 1927, the paper had as its chief editor Father Léon Merklen, whose appointment had been decreed rather atypically ("selon une procédure insolite") by Pope Pius XI himself as a means of underscoring the papal condemnation of the Action française.12 Merklen's "liberal Catholic" credentials put him on a sort of Action française enemies' list,13 and [End Page 47] made for a difficult transition during his first years at the helm of a journal previously sympathetic to Maurras. Nevertheless, while at least one historian writes of the "ambivalent ralliement of La Croix,"14 the paper had by World War II undergone a fundamental reorientation toward supporting—though not uncritically—French democracy.According to René Rémond, based on a consistent attempt to follow the papal lead after 1927, "the influence...


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