Because in the 1930s European Catholic Action movements and the “shirt movements” occupied some of the same “political space,” Catholic Action was seen as a threat to fascist movements, which heavily relied on different forms of mob action and intimidation to rule over public life until their leaders seized full control of the government and the military.
Fascist governments used the “shirt movements,” the blackshirts in Italy and the SA or brownshirts in Germany, to consolidate power. Hitler’s goal was actually to finalize his control over the military and the government, and his strategic turning upon his previous supporters, the leadership of the brownshirts during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 was merely a means to an end: the acquiescence of the military and political elites to his leadership. To Hitler, the shirt movements were merely a path to power, not the enduring exercise of it.
Authoritarian governments in Latin America have also used turba, or mob action to silence the opposition from the public square. Similar mini-turba are seen on college campuses from time to time, where they suppress public opinions which differ from theirs.
Today Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez leads a red-shirted throng, and Thailand witnesses street violence between red-shirted and yellow-shirted mobs. These “red shirts” have an ominous predecessor movement, the infamous and murderous anti-Catholic “Red Shirts” of Mexico in the 1930s.
Hitler’s 1934 purge of the SA, like the Jacobean purge after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in England, was expanded to include members of the current or even potential opposition, not just the brownshirts–ostensibly to protect the government in the name of civil society–but through the means of select summary execution, followed by show trials. Tyrants have been using this same playbook for centuries.
One of the very first victims of Hitler’s 1934 purge was Erich Klausener,
the leader of Catholic Action in Germany, shot at his desk, whose crime against Hitler was to co-author the Marburg Speech by German Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, which criticized the violence and mob rule of the Nazis.
Erich Klausener is considered one of the first Catholic martyrs against Hitler, and is memorialized as such in a Berlin church, Maria Regina Martyrum.
Those who criticize the “silence” of the Catholic Church in Germany during the 1930s conveniently forget that this silence had an external cause: the martyrdom of the likes of Klausener, the Nazi’s systematic closing of the Catholic schools, the shutting down of the Catholic press, and the arrest and deportation of the Catholic clergy–after a long campaign by Joseph Goebbels against–Guess what?–clerical sexual misconduct.
Today in the US, we do not have Catholic Action as it was known from the 1920s through the early 1960s. The Knights of Columbus, under attack from several quarters, are sometimes likened to Catholic Action, but they have deeper roots in the 1800s as a fraternal organization.
While the anti-tax Tea Party movement has witnessed scuffles with today’s closest approximation of a North American shirt movement, the “purple ocean” of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, large-scale 1930s-style street-fighting has been rare during 2010 in the US.
Let’s hope that the US gets nowhere close to a true “shirt movement.” Unlike certain Latin American or European countries of the past or present, we have nothing close to a Catholic Action movement in the US to oppose the consolidation of political power by such mob action.
© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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