Dr. Robert Hickson 8 September 2019
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
“I was…thinking…about the nights in the city when the sirens had wailed so horribly to say: The foreign airplanes are coming!….That was eight years ago, and the [1939-1945] war has been over for a long time. I am not a little child now; I am a big boy—twelve years old soon. Yet even today, Mommy never talks to me about airplanes—I know she wishes I would forget all about the sirens and the airplanes. But I cannot forget them, although my thoughts always go only up to the edge of the memory—when I try to think of the most terrible moments, then suddenly there is a big hole, as dark as the cellar where we were sitting then, and there is such a terrible droning noise that I can no longer think about anything. Then all I hear is Mommy’s voice, loud and clear as a shout through all the other shouting: ‘Mary, take my child into your arms!’….
“When I began to think and see again, I thought at first that it really was the Virgin Mary holding me in her arms because Mommy’s face was as black as the picture of Our Lady of Altötting that hung in her room. But soon I noticed that it was Mommy’s face, covered with smoke and soot, completely frozen with fear and terror….” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents” (7-46) in The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019—first published in 1960 in German and entitled “Die Unschuldigen”), see now pages 7-8 for the above-cited passage.)
“Several days later the Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents, to whom the castle chapel is dedicated….The priest said that the [Psalm 124:7] verse expresses the voice of the Holy Innocents.
“Suddenly one of the refugee women began to whimper audibly. ‘But the children did not escape at all; they froze! They lay motionless and stiff on the ice when we fled across the lagoon [as was our coming from East Prussia]. They threw them into the water like dead fish!’ She moaned so loudly that the priest had to interrupt his sermon until they had led the woman out.
“Later when we left the chapel, Mommy was standing on the stairs holding in her arms the woman who had whimpered before. She had nestled her head on Mommy’s bosom and wept very gently and quietly. Later Grandmama told Mommy that she would like to explain to the woman [refugee] the psalm verse she had misunderstood. But Mommy just shook her head.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 28-29—my emphasis added)
“Mommy [Melanie, Heini’s mother] never goes with Grandmama to church in Niederasslau. Since she lost her rosary, she does not go to Mass anymore, either—she does not even go to the castle chapel when one is said there. But Mommy cannot stand the castle chapel at all because it is dedicated to the Holy Innocents. On the chapel wall to the right of the altar is a painting of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” page 18)
“I think that Grandmama was much fonder of Uncle Eberhard than of my father [Karl], who was also her son, after all….But there is something else that Grandmama has against my father.
“’You hold Karl’s death [by suicide] against him, Mother,’ Mommy recently said to her—Karl was my father–‘and yet it was a noble, heroic death,’
“’But not for a Christian,’ Grandmama replied. ‘A Christian must find another way out.’ Grandmama, I think, is very pious….
“But then she [Mommy] told me honestly and decisively, ‘No, Heini, your father shot himself, but his death was nevertheless a noble one. Your father preferred to die rather than to kill the innocent.’” Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 15-16 and 33—my emphasis added)
“’Karl [my officer husband] did not fear certain death,’ Mommy insisted. ‘He feared God, and you claim to be a pious woman.’
“’But you are unwilling to be one,’ Grandmama replied, ‘and that is at bottom the reason for all your trouble and unrest. God permitted this terrible event [a massacre in 1944 France at Oradour]; if you could believe in Him, you would soon find peace.’
“’No, on the contrary, then I most certainly would not find peace,’ Mommy said stubbornly, ‘because if God existed, He would have to be as indignant as I. But there cannot be a God, because the whole world is full of the suffering of the innocent!‘
“’That is precisely how the world was redeemed,’ Grandmama said calmly. ‘The guilty merely get their just punishment, but the sight of innocent people suffering softens hearts—Christ suffered, too, although He was innocent. Until you accept that, you cannot be a Christian woman.’
“’And I do not want to be one,’ Mommy protested, again looking quite desperate.’…I thought, ‘What Grandmama just said really sounded beautiful and mysterious. Why, then, will Mommy not accept it?’ But then I recalled what Herr Unger recently said to her: ‘But what could be the reason why people today no longer believe the piety of pious people?‘ (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 30-31—my emphasis)
“’But why, then, did Grandmama weep so bitterly at my bedside [after again Heini’s having been wounded by the fall of the tower-bell, but not a bomb]? I never knew she [in her poised dignity] could still weep like that! And why did she then tell you that she can now understand why you no longer want to pray?‘….
“’Well, does Uncle Eberhard not want to marry you anymore?’
“’No, my poor child rescued me from that.’
“’Oh, then I am glad, Mommy. But why are you kneeling down all of a sudden? Can you pray again now? And why are you praying downstairs in the chapel? Is there another Mass today for the Holy Innocents?‘
“’It is the domestics and the refugees, darling [and all the “children of Oradour” in France (46)]. I think they are praying for you.’….
“’So, now I want to go to the children—but suddenly I can no longer stand up—someone has to carry me. Ah, Mommy if you can pray again [as on page 8], then please say once again: Mary, take my child in your arms…’
“’Mary, take my child…‘” (45-46—my emphasis added) [Finis]
Introducing Gertrud von Le Fort’s 1960 poignant and at times very disturbing novella, “The Innocents,” has seemed a fitting way to speak of Allied strategic bombing in World War II, as well as of the later 24 January 1943 Allied demand for unconditional surrender. It may also lead us to wonder what Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church first specifically thought and then did about these two major moral decisions and the consequential actions. (Pope Pius XII, who knew German well, died on 9 October 1958, not long before Gertrud von Le Fort published “The Innocents,” which was dedicated to the lost children: “In memory of the children who died in World War II.”1 )
Moreover, Gertrud von Le Fort—by her vivid fiction—has intimately depicted some of the deep and longstanding effects of the promiscuous and often cynical aerial bombing, to include the ill fruits of revenge that such bombing so often incited and aggressively reciprocated, especially after the innocent were deliberately or negligently slaughtered. Culpable ignorance and culpable negligence were frequently present, as it appears—and as I have been told by pilots and naval aviators.
In this short reflection, I therefore propose to discuss, without any apparatus of learning, some of what I have learned over the years, to include oral history, beginning with my time as an eager cadet at West Point from 1960-1964.
The theorists of strategic bombing all essentially claimed that such a method would shorten the war, and avoid the stalemate-situation and moral horror of the Trenches of World War I, especially in Western Europe.
But, a declaration of unconditional surrender would—and did—protract the war, especially in light of the earlier vengeful “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles (and the related stark Trianon Treaty and such). The enemy would also become more resolute as well as much more distrusting and deceptively mistrustful. That is to say, an already betrayed enemy was all too likely to “hunker down” intransigently and try to endure.
The strategic air power theorists had a set of presuppositions—fundamental premises—on which to base their confidence and their practices: the “industrial web theory” (about a vulnerable interdependent society of modernity); the belief that the bombers could get though to their targets without a fighter escort; their confidence that they could find, and in a timely way, the most important long-range strategic targets (such as the key nodes and choke points in the infrastructure of Romanian oil fields, so indispensable for sustained logistics); the reliable and continuous employment and precision of the new Radar); and their pilots’ ability to handle safely unexpended ordnance after an incomplete bombing mission over Germany, for example. But, almost all these assumptions were false. (My former father-in-law, a combatant bomber pilot in the 8th Air Force, told me calmly that, of course, he, like the other crews, often just dumped unused bombs anywhere he could—on cities or on the countrysides—before he returned to England and safely landed without any active munitions. He also landed in the Soviet Union twice, both times because of near emergencies, but, he reported, it was not a welcoming place or “ally” to be visiting, even briefly.)
Stalin first said that he wanted the capitalistic Western societies to fight each other and thereby to deplete each other, and then he would arrive into their own dissolution and take charge. Later, he did not want his putative Western allies to come up through Northern Italy into Austria. He even made some suggestions that, if the West did that, he just might have to make a Separate Peace with Germany, instead, another Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty (on 3 March 1918, late in World War I). But, this time, he said, to the advantage of the Soviet-Russians and not to the Germans. Stalin slyly wanted his Western allies to attack as far west as possible, instead, for example starting in western France so that the Soviet Army could more easily advance into eastern and central Europe (like the Mongols, but even further). Here was the country who had made an August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, and then invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, after losing to the Poles the decisive August 1920 Battle of Warsaw,2 which occurred only two years after Brest-Litovsk Surrender (in March of 1918). To appease their new Soviet ally (soon after 22 June 1941), England, on 6 December 1941, even declared war on heroic, anti-Bolshevist Finland, opening the way to the Soviet conquest of the three Baltic Republics.
From all things I have read down the years—and from all the searching questions I have asked—I have never discovered that Pope Pius XII ever even mentioned his warning or cautious assessment of “Strategic Bombing” and of the moral and immoral effects of effectively unlimited “Unconditional Surrender,” which Stalin himself hesitated to accept and to proclaim openly and then also to apply.
If anyone could give me evidence of Pope Pius XII’s analysis and resistance to Strategic Bombing and Unconditional Surrender taken together, and mercilessly applied, I would be very grateful—and even consoled.
Father John Anthony Hardon, S.J. once tested me orally by asking: “Is evil within the Divine Providence?” I said “Yes” but that didn’t get me very far, nor help my understanding very much. But Father then slyly said: “If you had said ‘No,’ however, we would have a problem!”
Then we spoke about the Mystery of the Permissive Will of God. For, Father said that God allows certain evils to avoid a greater evil or sometimes to enable a greater good to come forth and to abide. Then I said: “Papal Diplomacy certainly is a Test of your larger and manifold insights about the Providence of God.” What Pope Pius XII did or did not do—nor mention—during World War II is another Test about the purposes and allowances of the Divine Providence. No matter what, World War II was not—is not—“the Good War.” Gertrud von Le Fort has helped us to realize and to spread this true fact with empathy and with compassion.
© 2019 Robert D. Hickson
1Gertrud von Le Fort, The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), page 7 for her Dedication. All further references to “The Innocents” will be to this recent edition, and will be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of this brief essay.
2For the conduct and the strategic implications of this battle and victory against the great Soviet Marshal Toukhatchevsky, see the excellent book by Viscount Edgar Vincent D’Abernon (d. 1941), entitled The Eighteenth Decisive Battle in the World: Warsaw, 1920 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931—or its later 1977 Reprint by Hyperion Press in Westport, Connecticut.)
2 thoughts on “Strategic Bombing and the Innocents: Considering Gertrud von Le Fort and Pope Pius XII in Response to World War II”
A very interesting essay on the horrors of strategic bombing. All it does is harden the resolve of the victims. As to why Pius XII did not condemn it is an open question. I too have wondered about it. Perhaps as it was a new phenomena brought about by World War II technology, or as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church his only concern was supernatural, safeguarding the purity of Faith and defence against the enemies thereof both within ad without the fold. (Mystici Corporiis – Humanum Genus) While the wanton destruction of innocent life is horrific the goal of the Church is the salvation of souls. I know it sounds callous, but the words of our Lord, “Leave the dead to burry the dead.” come to mind. It is an interesting topic. We must discuss this some time.
If this question, that is, whether Pope Pius XII spoke, wrote or even cogitated, moral qualms concerning strategic bombing and unconditional surrender, causes you to question the validity of his pontificate, I encourage and congratulate your insight. Several years ago, a Washington Post reporter, Peter Eisner, wrote “The Pope’s Last Crusade”, about a proposed encyclical on Anti-Semitism during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI. Pius XI died under mysterious circumstances just prior to a major speech he was to deliver condemning Nazism. Both Eisner and I believe Pacelli may have had something to do with his death. The history of Pacelli’s pontificate and that of Pius XI has not been written.