Victor Dillard, SJ, Spiritual Resister & Apostle to the STO Slave Laborers in Germany

Martyred at Dachau

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Philippe Verrier
Translator(s): 
Theodore P. Fraser
  • Milwaukee, WI: 
    Marquette University Press
    , May
     2017.
     212 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626000520.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

One of the most moving scenes in film history is in the French film Au Revoir les Enfants, directed by Louis Malle, based on actual events in 1944. The scene depicts the arrest by the Gestapo and deportation to the Mauthausen concentration camp of a Carmelite priest for having secretly housed a Jewish student in the boarding school he founded and directed. It is a poignant tale of the mixture of courage and cowardice. A similar mixture is found in a new short book, Victor Dillard, SJ: Spiritual Resister and Apostle to the STO Slave Laborers in Germany: Martyred at Dachau, written by Monsignor Philippe Verrier, which portrays the courage of a spiritual adviser, faults and all, in a time when France was ruled by the infamous Vichy regime headed by Marshall Philippe Petain. 

Other publications have dealt with Dillard's bravery  and indeed self sacrifice in aiding the French slave workers. Verrier provides a fresh and full picture of Dillard's other activities and accomplishments, and the full extent of his spiritual resistance, especially but not only against Nazi Germany. Verrier also casts light on the dilemma for many in the early part of the Vichy regime on whether to believe in and lend support to Marshall Petain.  All interested in those dark war time years in France will benefit from this analysis.

The book uses previously unpublished testimonials and commentaries to tell the story of an unusual life. Dillard, from his childhood in Blois, was a successful student, skilled musician, doctorate in political economy, law student, author of works on international affairs, and soldier in two World Wars. As a brave officer, Dillard took part in the Battle of Verdun in the summer of 1916 and was wounded in another battle. In World War II he rejoined the army, was captured, became a prisoner of war, and escaped. 

On November 10, 1919, Dillard entered the novitiate, deciding to enter the Society of Jesus. Over the years he wrote articles not only on theological issues but also on political affairs and political economy, the theories of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, unemployment in Britain, the Franco-German relationship, the skillful propaganda of the Nazis in 1932, and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.

Dillard became the spiritual mentor of a number of people who later became prominent, including Maurice Schumann, a Jewish journalist who had converted to Catholicism, and was later a spokesman for Free France and Charles de Gaulle in London, a politician, and a minister. Dillard was a stimulating teacher, though somewhat authoritarian. During a year spent in the US, he had dinner a number of times at the White House, visited WPA work sites, CCC projects, and agricultural centers, spoke on the situation of Blacks in the South, saw Walt Disney in his California studio, and apparently appreciated jazz and contemporary American art forms.

As a result of a controversial lecture in 1937 on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, he was sent to work with the office of Action Populaire. This office had been instituted by French Jesuits to support the social doctrines of Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical of 1891. 

Yet Dillard remains controversial because he spent some time in Vichy as a spiritual consultant. At first, he was supportive, if not enthusiastic, about the supposed Vichy program for national reconstruction and spiritual renewal, but he was soon disillusioned by collaborating with Marshall Petain who wanted only specialists dealing with specific issues. Dillard’s role was different. Promoting the message of Christ and maintaining the purity of Christian doctrine was more important to him than promoting any kind of propaganda. In January 1943, he was critical of Vichy for virtually abandoning its program of national revolution. Only a cult of personality around Petain remained. 

Dillard was never a blind supporter of Petain, and did oppose some Vichy measures, but was criticized for being active in Vichy. There he spoke on the deleterious effect that materialism, fascism, and communism were having on the life of Christians. But he reminded listeners that behind national socialism is the threat of communism.

Dillard is best known as the French Jesuit priest who joined the young French workers forced to go to Germany as slave laborers. This was the result of the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire) Law of February 1943, the objective of which was to send young Frenchmen to replace German factory workers who would then be sent to the Eastern front. Some 700,000 were sent, and the Nazis forbade any spiritual help for them. However, the French Catholic leadership set up a program that would send priests clandestinely with false names and identity cards to live among the workers. Among the two hundred priests who were sent was Dillard, the oldest at age forty-seven. He pretended to be an electrician and father of five and worked in a ball bearings factory in Wuppertal from November to April 1945. In the camp, he experienced the moral torpor of French workers. He worked closely with these workers, though he was pained by their lack of any spiritual life and by their moral decadence. He was arrested by the Gestapo for his defense of fellow workers and sent to prison in Barmen and then to Dachau where he died after six weeks on January 12, 1945.

The STO created a major crisis of conscience for Catholics—become a draft dodger or submit to the official law. After uncertainty, Dillard finally agreed that Frenchmen should go and that moral and spiritual support should accompany them. Again, this was controversial. Dillard did not go to assist the German war effort (though of course he in fact did that), but to determine how best to announce the gospel to workers who were in sordid conditions in the camps, in danger spiritually and morally, and subjected to every form of propaganda. In a curious argument, Dillard held that going on STO would maintain the qualifications needed later to avoid class warfare in postwar France. 

On October 6, 2017, the French post issued a new stamp honoring Dillard. It honored a strong-willed, committed Christian, living in the dark years of Vichy and occupation, who said in an unusual statement that he was offering his life for the church and the working class.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Curtis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor since 2014.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Monsignor Philippe Verrier was Vicar General of the Diocese of Blois from 1999-2011. He is Professor Emeritus of the École Notre-Dame des Aydes at Blois, pastor of the Cathedral Church of Chambord, and Administrator of the Musée de la Résistance at Blois. Among his publications are: Soeur et Servante Marie-Virginie Vaslin, Fondatrice des Franciscaines Servantes de Marie, Paris, Saint François, 2002; English translation: Sister and Servant, Chennai, India, 2002; and Charles Verrier au service de la France, Éditions de la Résistance, Blois, France, 2015. He is an Officier de l’ Ordre des Palmes Académiques and Chevalier de l’ Ordre National du Mérite.

Theodore P. Fraser is professor emeritus of French and studies in European literature, College of the Holy Cross. His previous books include: The French Essay, The Moralist Tradition in France, The Modern Catholic Novel in Europe, and he is translator of Mission in Thuringia in the Time of Nazism, by Paul Beschet, SJ.

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