80 Years Since The Catholic University Of America Vocalized Opposition To The Nazis

Nov 17, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On November 9, 1938, German paramilitary forces began a wave of violence against Jews - murdering Jewish people, ransacking their businesses and synagogues, breaking windows. It was called Kristallnacht. Historians point to it as the beginning of the Holocaust. Six days later 80 years ago last night, the CBS and NBC radio networks collaborated for this broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Various groups and leaders of the Catholic Church have sought permission to raise their voices, not in mad hysteria but in from indignation against the atrocities visited upon the Jews in Germany.

SIMON: That broadcast was organized by the Catholic University of America, and it was a rare move. The Catholic Church was not known at that point for vocal opposition to the Nazis. But as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, church leaders had another motive for the broadcast.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: That motive was a priest named Father Charles Coughlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES COUGHLIN: And by no means do I intend to retreat from this fight of driving the money changers from the temple.

LIMBONG: Coughlin was a hugely popular broadcaster, one of the founding fathers of broadcast evangelism. He railed against President Roosevelt, communism, banks and bankers.

MARIA MAZZENGA: At the time, Coughlin was so massively popular, he had up to 30 million people listening to him every week. And the Catholic Church really didn't know what to do about him.

LIMBONG: That's Maria Mazzenga, the archivist at The Catholic University of America who pushed to get the recording of the broadcast preserved and digitized. She says by the 1930s, Coughlin was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic and not just on the radio.

MAZZENGA: By 1938, he's publishing a publication called Social Justice. Despite its name, it was actually an anti-Semitic publication. It really called for people to get out into the streets and, you know, fight communism, but that was code for fighting Jews.

LIMBONG: But she says church leaders were too scared to address Coughlin directly.

MAZZENGA: Coughlin, at the drop of a hat, could provoke massive violence throughout the United States, so the church was very intimidated by that.

LIMBONG: Some of its parishioners, however, were not. Mazzenga showed me letters sent to the head of The Catholic University at the time decrying Coughlin. One was directed at Coughlin himself.

MAZZENGA: How Mephisto Hitler must be laughing at you. I can almost see the fiend rubbing his hands in delight over the 30 million...

LIMBONG: So after the news of the atrocities of Kristallnacht, Catholic leaders, as well as Al Smith - hot off a presidential run - decided to broadcast support for the Jewish people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN M. GANNON: The Jewish people must turn to God in their hour of sorrow.

LIMBONG: Bishop John M. Gannon from Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the six voices in the broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GANNON: Comfort and strength are found in prayer and the sympathy and respect and support of their fellow citizens.

LIMBONG: The broadcast offered support for Jewish people and asked for empathy from Catholics, but they were stepping lightly. Coughlin isn't named at all throughout the entire half hour. Even the word Nazi is used sparingly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: On the tombstone of Naziism will be inscribed surfeited with power and with loot (ph).

LIMBONG: The broadcast did not work. A year later, Coughlin was still popular in the U.S. and, if anything, ramped up his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Overseas in the Vatican, there was a new pope, one who made it a point to not speak out against the Nazis. What eventually stopped Coughlin was wartime.

MAZZENGA: The attorney general, Francis Biddle, goes to Coughlin's superior and he says, this is sedition. Social justice is sedition. It's undermining the American effort to win the war.

LIMBONG: Maria Mazzenga says Coughlin stopped broadcasting. He stopped printing Social Justice. He did remain a priest at his parish until 1966. Even if the broadcast didn't stop Father Coughlin, it let Jewish people in the U.S. know that some Catholics had their back. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "24 HOUR CHARLESTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.