December 1927, a key date for The cross. Almost ten years after the armistice, the French are living again. They want to hope that the Great War is just a bad memory. The Saar has just been evacuated by our troops, and the Third Republic, firmly established in France, has regained peaceful relations with the Church.
In December of this year, however, it was a kind of mini “coup d’etat”, or rather “coup de pape”, which took place on rue Bayard, in the offices of La Bonne Presse. Pius XI abruptly dismisses the editor-in-chief of The cross, the Assumptionist Father Bertoye, who signs under the pseudonym of Father Franc. He replaced him with another religious from the Assumption who enjoyed his full confidence: Father Merklen. Would we see Pope Francis today brutally dismissing the editorial director of The cross ? Impossible, obviously… Even for the time, it was an act of rare severity, which denoted a serious divergence between Rome and the Good Press.
The new editor-in-chief will drive a profound change of course. The daily renounced “integral nationalism”, a nationalism of a Christian order supported at the time by Charles Maurras’ Action française contre la République, and abandoned anti-Semitism. And even more: thanks to the “bringing in step” of Pius XI, The cross becomes the newspaper it has been since, with a new way for a Catholic daily to deal with current events. Is it a coincidence that this “aggiornamento” goes through a change of outlook on the Jews? No, and that’s what this whole investigation shows.
The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”
Why this stroke of blood from Pius XI? It is because the Catholicism of France, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, gives him a hard time. Worried about his reactionary and political drift, he will profoundly transform him. And The cross is in a way its “first victim”. At the heart of the conflict, Action Française. Charles Maurras is however not a Catholic, but the monarchist, who created this nationalist movement in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, exerts a considerable influence on The crossand more broadly on all Catholics.
“The editorial staff does not hide its intellectual fascination for ‘the Master'”
Martin Dumont, historian at the University of Paris 4, has studied this period well (1). He tells : ” In The cross of the 1920s, the editorial staff did not hide its intellectual fascination for “the Master”, as the far-right writer was called. His desire to restore a Christian monarchy, to recover the supposed greatness of the France of the Ancien Régime, his anti-Semitic nationalism, all this resonates pleasantly in the ears of the Catholic daily. »
The writing of La Croix in 1927, under the direction of Father Bertoye (in the center in the background standing) / Archives La Bonne Presse
It’s true’anti-Semitism, even less visible, remains in the fundamentals of The cross. Thus, I also discover with amazement, in the recent works of Nina Valbousquet on the international anti-Semitic networks of the inter-war period (2), that the Good Press became the propagandist in the 1920s of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a vulgar forgery, made by the Tsar’s secret services, suggesting a Jewish conspiracy. The text circulates throughout Europe and The Catholic Documentation, led by Father Salvien, an Assumptionist obsessed with the Jewish peril, publishes an “official version”, without worrying about its veracity. Yet the Time English quickly dismantled the fake news.
The damage is done, Protocols continue to live their lives of fakes, and spread hatred of the Jews: even today, they are regularly picked up on anti-Semitic social networks… Father Franc, who directs The crossalso makes himself the apologist of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and does not hide his fascination for French Action, advocating the same anti-Semitism. The Jewish people remain this accursed people, “this race, he writes, which has no fatherland, striving to destroy, among peoples, the devotion and attachment to their country”.
Break with Action Française
For or against French Action? The subject is tearing the Catholic world apart. In 1926, on December 20, Pius XI uses the hard way. He orders the Catholics to break with Action Française. AT The crossFather Franc stands up, pretends not to understand, the newspaper does not repeat the words of the pope, and even gives the floor to Charles Maurras! The cross chose his side.
Charles Maurras, in 1930 or 1931, in his office. / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
But as at the time of the Dreyfus affair, I wonder if this support is not above all pragmatic. The editors of The cross are sensitive to the attraction of Action Française for their readers. With contempt, Francisque Gay, Christian Social Democrat, and who founded The life in 1924, echoes this: “We understood and all too well that the postmen were depositing the flood of unsubscribe letters in your newsrooms. » Pius XI, himself, exasperated, in December 1927, therefore imposed Father Merklen on the editor-in-chief, with the mission of transforming The cross.
” The cross sums up, in its evolution, that of French Catholicism more broadly
Finding the first editorials of Merklen, I note how much the tone changes. “Total union between Catholics exists only on the Creed, he writes. But to concretely incarnate the faith in the midst of men, there must be a frank acceptance of the diversity of temporal options. » Everyday life opens up to the world. Readers are invited to love their time, to practice a policy of presence in society, to turn their backs on the past. Proximity to Action Française, The cross moves on to Catholic Action: these movements dear to Pius XI and which, from the Christian Workers’ Youth to the Catholic Action of independent circles, will structure the commitment of Catholics for half a century.
Once again, I am surprised at how many The cross sums up, in its evolution, that of French Catholicism more broadly. Pius XI continues this “clean hands” operation and profoundly transforms the face of the Church of France, by appointing a certain number of bishops favorable to its orientations. We will find this generation, that of the Saliège, Gerlier, Théas, Liénart, at the time of crucial choices, during the Second World War.
A characteristic position of the Catholics of the time
In 1927, The cross therefore abandon conspiratorial anti-Semitism. Does this mean that all forms of mistrust against Jews have ceased? The answer is more nuanced. Let’s listen to Olivier Rota, teacher at the Catholic University of Lille, specialist in relations between Jews and Christians: “There is no more declared anti-Semitism, he comments, but there remains the “Jewish question”, which is the subject of debate, in terms which seem inaudible to us today: are the Jews not responsible for their situation of exclusion? Shouldn’t we “treat them separately”? »
In 1937, with the encyclical With burning concern, Pius XI affirms the uniqueness of the human race. But there remains a distrust, and this feeling “that they have taken up too much space, too much influence”. Thus, on September 1, 1938, in a long editorial titled “The Jewish Problem and the Universality of Redemption”, Father Merklen clumsily defends a position characteristic of the Catholics of the time. Jews, he argues, have always been revengeful troublemakers. He blames them “their pride”, “their materialistic conception of life”.
Father Léon Merklen, Director-editor-in-chief of La Croix from 1927 to 1948. / La Bonne Presse archives.
If the Church pities them when “she sees them universally despised, odiously persecuted”, it recognizes fairness in taking numerus clausus measures. And at the same time Christ came “destroy the watertight partitions separating races and nations, the Church condemns racism”and yes “The prayer of the Church has as its end the conversion of the Jews, it recognizes in them sons of Abraham”.
The cross was therefore not prophetic. On the other hand, thanks to the reversal of 1927, it was able to make Catholics reflect on the dangers of Nazism. This is the thesis defended by René Rémond for whom the newspaper contributed to the “spiritual resistance” under the Occupation. But what do we know about the influence of a newspaper on its readers? Huge question. It is necessary to read the defense in 1947 at his trial of the Catholic Xavier Vallat who was the first commissioner for Jewish affairs, from 1941 to 1942. An outstanding speaker, the man still uttered before his judges, in 1947, an assumed, almost sickly anti-Semitism , and clears himself by invoking his Catholic readings: if you condemn me, he says in substance, you must condemn Pilgrim et The cross, who nourished my Catholic education (3).
The year 1942
Be that as it may, when the armistice sounded in 1940, The crosslike the entire Catholic hierarchy, is favorable to Marshal Pétain, who can save France annihilated by “years of decadence” under the Third Republic. The newspaper reproduces, without saying a word, the first Jewish status drawn up by the Vichy government. Olivier Rota again: “Pétain’s first anti-Jewish measures only applied what they thought. The exclusion of the Jews from the nation was a way of resolving this famous “Jewish question”, which they had been debating for years. »
Photo taken in 1942 showing Jewish deportees in the Drancy transit camp, their last stop before the German concentration camps. /AFP
No more than others, the drafting of The cross understood that to put the Jews aside was to lead them to death. The real choice is played out in 1942. When bishops were moved by the sight of convoys of Jewish families taken to Drancy and then to Germany, The cross reproduced their protests. Some Catholics will hide Jews. Others, like Xavier Vallat, will collaborate with the Nazi camp. Others finally, a majority, will be silent. “The spiritual resistance and concrete action of some Christians was not what one would have expected from disciples of Christ”, will see, much later, John Paul II.
(1) The Holy See and the political organization of French Catholics in the aftermath of the Ralliement 1890-1902 (Honoré Champion)
(2) Catholic and anti-Semitic. The network of Bishop Benigni, 1918-1934CNRS Editions, 336 p., €25.
(3) read “Xavier Vallat (1891-1972): From Christian Nationalism to State Anti-Semitism by Laurent Joly » Grasset
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