May 18, 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most memorable addresses by a clergyman in American history, the so-called “Paperhanger” speech of Cardinal George Mundelein (1872-1939), Archbishop of Chicago, during which Mundelein on May 18, 1937 in Quigley Seminary chapel called Hitler “an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that.” Many American GIs and citizens referred to Hitler as a “paperhanger” during World War II as a result.
Several years ago, I composed an entry on the Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary Wikipedia page describing the significance of this speech, and the virulent reaction that followed from the Nazis in Germany, in which hundreds of German Catholic newspapers were closed.
Mundelein spoke out against the persecution of Catholics in Germany, and against the show trials of Catholic religious on trumped-up sexual immorality charges (sound familiar?), that Mundelein stated were designed to seize control of German Catholic schools, which at the time educated two million children. Mundelein said:
The fight is to take the children away from us. If we show no interest in this matter now, if we shrug our shoulders and mutter, ‘Maybe there is some truth in it, or maybe it is not our fight;’ if we don’t back up our Holy Father (Pope Pius XI) when we have a chance, well when our turn comes we, too, will be fighting alone. . . . Perhaps you will ask how it is that a nation of sixty million people, intelligent people, will submit in fear to an alien, an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that I am told, and a few associates like Goebbels and Göring who dictate every move of the people’s lives.. (“Mundelein rips into Hitler for Church attacks,” Chicago Tribune, 5/19/1937, pg. 7)
Please refer to the Quigley Seminary Wikipedia Page for more details on the aftermath in Germany and America to Mundelein’s address.
While Mundelein’s speech put German Catholics at risk in Germany, it helped German Americans to break away from Hitler and to develop a distinct identity as Americans putting the public cloud for German national acts during World War I behind them.
Mundelein was unsparing in his remarks, and noted that the Nazis held power by “making every second person a spy,” “destroying civil liberties,” and by “forcing candidates for the religious life into work and military camps.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, Mundelein said:
“During and after the World War [I] the German government complained bitterly of the propaganda aimed at it by the Allies concerning atrocities perpetuated by German troops . . . Now the present German government is making use of this same kind of propaganda against the Catholic Church and is giving out through its crooked minister of propaganda [Joseph Goebbels] stories of wholesale immorality in religious institutions in comparison to which the wartime propaganda is almost like bedtime stories for children.”
Mundelein’s 5/18/37 speech followed by a few weeks the 3/14/37 encyclical of Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, which attacked the racist Nazi ideology, and which was being rabidly suppressed at the time of Mundelein’s address. According to the Chicago Tribune on 5/22/37, the Nazi secret police were then on high alert in response to the distribution of 20 million copies of the encyclical, leading to seizure of eighteen German Catholic printing plants and to daily Nazi accusations of sexual scandal against the Church. Catholic priests were being attacked in the streets by even children, according to the Tribune, if they appeared in some quarters in clerical garb.
Mundelein’s “Paperhanger” speech was part of a concerted effort by the Catholic Church to defend religious freedom and human rights at the height of an anti-Catholic propaganda war by the Nazis, more than a year in advance of the Kristallnacht attack on German Jews.
I wonder if today’s Commonweal Magazine and America Magazine editors were around in 1937 whether they wouldn’t criticize Mundelein for meddling in politics or for being too “partisan.”
© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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