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Pius XI, Petain and the Rise of Fascist Vichy France

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by William P. Meyers

Pope Pius XI became pope on February 6, 1922 and died February 10, 1939. I consider him to be one of the principle architects of the modern totalitarian state. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno he criticized socialism, communism and free-market capitalism while recommending a fascist social system. When he died France was still a free nation, but Pius XI and his Catholic followers were preparing create a fascist government. On May, 1940, Germany invaded France. By that time Pius XI's second in command had become Pius XII, who would work tirelessly to promote a fascist victory.

This essay will focus on the rise of fascism in France from 1920 to 1940 and its relationship to Roman Catholic Church organizations. For information on the fascist French regime during World War II, usually referred to as Vichy France, headed by Philippe Petain (French: Pétain), See Philippe Petain and Fascism in Vichy France.

France, to the extent that it has had a religious population, has been associated with the Roman Catholic Church since towards the end of the Roman Empire. By 1920 certain trends and cycles were well established. A substantial number of French citizens were devote Catholics. A larger number were nominal Catholics; they identified as Catholics, but did not attend Mass on a regular basis or feel they always had to obey the Pope of the church hierarchy. There were relatively few Protestant christians in France. Substantial portions of the population rejected formal religion or were athiests. However, various events sometimes caused shifts in the proportions of the population that fell into one of these categories.

The Catholic hierarchy, headed by Pope Pius XI, wanted to establish governments that would use force to return the Church to the monolithic religious role it had in Europe during the Middle Ages. The early success of the Church working with Benito Mussolini in Italy laid the basis for its promotion of Catholic, fascist strongmen in other European nations. In France, however, the opposition to fascism remained strong during the 1920's and 1930's. Fascists were not able to seize power until after the military victory by Hitler's armies. However, this was not for want of trying.

Philippe Petain emerged as a hero of World War I. His strategy of playing defense in a war where offenses just led to the attackers being slaughtered made him popular. He was a devote Catholic and conservative. Like many French army leaders, he was not fond of democratic institutions and hated socialism and communism, both of which had many adherents in France.

The position of the Catholic Church in France before World War I was relatively weak. The Church tended to prosper under French monarchs and dictators, but without state backing it had little popular support during periods of republican (or democratic) governance. However, as part of punishing Germany for losing World War I France took over Alsace-Lorraine, which had a high proportion of devote Catholics. There was a great deal of political turmoil in Europe in the first years following the war due to the communist revolution in Russia and economic distress. In the words of Avro Manhattan: "The Vatican undertook to keep the Alsatian rebels in check by ordering the local [Church] Hierarchy and the Catholic organizations to follow a certain course. In return the French Government was to cease its hostility to the church, to resume diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and to grant any other privileges that might be possible. The deal was effected ... to complete the bargain the canonization of Joan of Arc was proclaimed." [Manhattan, The Vatican in World Politics, p 300.]

Yet for the most part secular politicians ran France, somewhat depending on individual elections. The Church backed anti-socialist, anti-communist political candidates, who were happy to have assistance from the church. Perhaps that is fair play in a democracy, but beginning around 1930 a number of violent, Catholic, essentially fascist organizations emerged. Action Française, an older organization, aimed to establish a Catholic Monarchy and had many priests among its membership. The Vatican turned against it in 1926, since its actions were making it hard for the Church to work with the French government [it would restore its blessing in 1939]. But it continued to operate and other organizations emerged, including League d'Action Française, Jeunesse Patriote, Le Croix de Feu and Les Cagoulards.

Pope Pius XI, in addition to encouraging French Catholics to be religiously intolerant and support political groups with the same agenda, also played at organizing a fascist state from within the upper echelons of the French government, with varying degrees of success. The publication of Quadragesimo Anno, in which Pius made support for a fascist corporate state official church doctrine, pushed Catholics in the highest ranks of the French military to begin maneuvering. General Petain was fired up by the success of Hitler and Mussolini, and allowed his associates to publish the pamphlet We Want Petain, which called for an authoritarian fascist regime. They prepared for civil war, if necessary, but hoped to maneuver into power as Hitler had done in Germany. [Manhattan, p. 307]

Although France at that time had a socialist government, to keep the peace with the right wing parties, France remained neutral during the Spanish Civil war. Petain got himself appointed French Ambassador to Spain. There he developed contacts with General Franco's Spanish fascists, with Mussolini, and Hitler. Adolf Hitler hoped that if Petain could gain power in France, Germany would be free to attack and destroy Communist Russia. "Pope Pius XI and his Secretary of State [later Pius XII] had given their benediction to the entire project." [Manhattan, p 308] On the eve of the German invasion of France in May 1940 the government offered Petain the post of Vice-Premier. In retrospect this seems like a mistake, but at the time this probably was an attempt to form a national unity government for the war effort. Instead Petain and his military friends put their efforts into keeping the French army in a defensive posture, and indeed demanded that France surrendor. A letter from Marshal Petain to the Prime Minister stated, "The gravity of the situation convinces me that hostilities must immediately be brought to an end. This is the only step which can save the country." [Manhattan p. 314]

On June 17, 1940 Petain became Premier when Reynaud resigned. The fight with Gemany was over. Petain and associates would concentrate on building a Catholic France, which would include legal and extra-legal action against Protestants, Jews, democrats, socialists and communists.

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