Fr Rutler, a parish priest in Manhattan, New York and a well-known essayist, has taken his title from the famous quotation in St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. This is in part because of he wishes to show the larger forces at work during WWII and also because an old friend and fellow priest had bequeathed to him a pile of newspapers, journals and radio transcripts for this particular year. Growing up after the war, Rutler sees his book as “a feeble act of thanks from my generation” for the previous one that had endured so many sacrifices on behalf of future ones.

The papers, read long after the events they describe, emphasised for the author the stark and supernatural outlines of the conflict. He puts it thus: WWII “can rightly be understood and probably only fully appreciated as a holy war fought for multiple and mixed motives, but in its deepest meaning as a campaign against evil by defenders, consciously or obliviously, of the good.” Doubtless, secular historians such as Andrew Roberts or Sir Max Hastings, who has researched the “multiple and mixed motives” of the war in detail in his own books, would not demur from this conclusion. Certainly Churchill, not a conventional Christian believer but with a deep sense of what a Christian civilization signified, would have agreed with it.

The Tablet, the Catholic weekly journal, then edited by Douglas Woodruff and renowned for the gifted Catholic writers it attracted under its editorial banner of intelligent and vigorous orthodoxy, is often cited in these pages, as is L’Osservatore Romano and, interestingly, the Jewish Chronicle. Running through the whole account and forming the thread that unites it are the words and speeches of the wartime Pope, Pius XII. Occasionally he is criticised by one group or another for sounding too diplomatic at the expense of being prophetic; more often his is indeed a prophetic voice, quoted by the Jewish Chronicle as a defender of their own persecuted people in Nazi-occupied Europe. Among other reports the newspaper says that Catholic priests in France were playing a leading part in hiding hunted Jews “and sheltering the children of those under arrest.” Bishop Paul Remond of Nice is mentioned as playing a large part in this mission. This supports the verifiable records of Pius XII ordering his hierarchies around Europe to do everything they could to save Jews from arrest and transportation. In this policy Rutler believes he “marshalled prudence to save lives when impetuousness could have cost more.”

The newspaper cuttings make it clear that not all members of the hierarchy imitated the Pope’s charitable outreach to the Jews of Europe. The Archbishop of Salzburg, Mgr Sigismund Waitz, referred to the Jews as “an alien people” and Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna was reprimanded by Pius XI and his Secretary of State for “naively welcoming the Anschluss.” Cardinal Alfredo Schuster of Milan had at first been impressed by Mussolini, but by 1938 had turned against him in response to the anti-Jewish laws of the Fascist dictator. Rutler records that he was beatified by John Paul II in 1996, remarking that “Some saints have made mistakes in politics…Their sanctity is based on heroic virtue and the state of their souls at death.”

Rutler is fascinated by the way large historical events interweave with humbler but no less significant spiritual occurrences, relating that on the day of the British defeat in the first battle of El Alamein, Fr Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite, died in Dachau after giving his Rosary to the SS functionary who gave him a lethal injection. L’Osservatore Romano reported the death of Fr Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz (in August 1941) and that his Franciscan habit had been returned to his Polish monastery by the punctilious Germans.

Rutler is also alive to the mordant comedy the war occasioned; for instance, when Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, threatened with a firing squad by the Germans, reminded them of the lynching of Patriarch Gregory of Constantinople by the Turks in 1821: “According to the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions.”

Cardinal Hinsley of Westminster, who died on 17 March 1943 and who had been outspoken against “all forms of totalitarianism” gets a good press. Amusingly, Churchill had wanted him to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, indicating “both his regard for Cardinal Hinsley and his own vague ecclesiology” (since the Reformation Archbishops of Canterbury have always been Anglican). King George VI was frustrated that protocol made it impossible for him to attend the Cardinal’s funeral. In contrast, Rutler makes several veiled ironic comments about the future Cardinal Spellman of New York, then going on junkets and jaunts around the world, and quotes the mischievous words of Cardinal William O’Connor of Boston: “[Spellman] is what you get when you teach a bookkeeper to read.”

Always alert to the twists of circumstances that link one era to the next, the author points out that Zyklon-B gas, notoriously used in the gas chambers of the extermination camps, was manufactured by IG Farben. After the war the company was broken into units, including Hoechst AG. In 1997 Hoechst AG bought Roussel Uclaf SA which had developed the RU-486 abortion pill.

Other clippings mention that in March 1943 the Nazis opened Crematorium IV at Auschwitz, “a streamlined death machine”. In April 1943 the mass graves of Polish army officers were discovered in Katyn Forest and the Archbishop of Krakow, Adam Sapieha, who included among his secret seminarians the young Karol Wojtyla, later a canonised Pope, sent a priest to Katyn to give Christian burial rites to the thousands of murdered men. In May 1943 an item mentions that a young doctor, Josef Mengele, had arrived at Auschwitz to assist the chief physician.

Rutler concludes this personal, thoughtful  and eclectic survey with the sober reflection that although the war was won “there is no end to such a war, for it began in Eden and will contend until the world itself returns to the eternity from which it was made.”

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.