In the best that has been thought and said about the twentieth century, its Christian martyrs have hardly been mentioned. This should come as no surprise. From our vantage point at the beginning of a new millennium, it seems a little far-fetched that someone would be killed because he is Christian, at least in our society. (Since when have Christians been a serious threat to anyone?) In the usual histories about the usual suspects, the people of faith whom the twentieth-century revolutions killed are generally ignored. And in a culture that tells us religion is a private matter, the very public witness of martyrdom can be somewhat embarrassing. Add to this the often saccharine depiction of martyrs in Christian art and legend, and one has a situation in which martyrdom is seen as a pious, quaint idea from an earlier age. But today in countries all over the world Christians are still dying for their faith. At the end of the bloodiest era in human history, in which the very belief that was meant to be exterminated turned out to be far more durable than its enemies, martyrdom is more than ever a sign of contradiction.
It is estimated that two-thirds of all the martyrs in Christian history died in the twentieth century. Of that century’s millions of witnesses to the faith (precise numbers are not yet known, and perhaps never will be), we are really familiar with only a few—Maximilian Kolbe, Charles de Foucauld, Miguel Agustín Pro—and even those are hardly known outside Catholic circles. The rest have languished almost entirely unknown, whether because the records of their lives have been lost, because the countries in which they died have been literally inaccessible, or because the governments under which they were persecuted have been less than cooperative with attempts to make known the circumstances of their deaths. It is no exaggeration to say that we will not know the full history of the twentieth century until we know the stories of its martyrs.
In his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II urged the faithful, both in local churches and at the highest levels of the hierarchy, to make a serious effort to recover those stories. The Jubilee Year 2000, he wrote, marked the end of a millennium in which, as in its first centuries, “the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs.” In conjunction with the Jubilee, the Pope established a Commission on New Martyrs, which for the last five years has been collecting testimonies from around the world. Last winter, the Commission published a catalogue containing the names of more than thirteen thousand Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant witnesses of the faith, and the project continues.
In The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Robert Royal begins the work of disseminating to a general audience the information that has begun to be gathered. Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, describes this book as “a comprehensive world history” of twentieth-century martyrs. It can certainly be said to cover the world—from Mexico to Albania, from Korea to Ukraine, from the African slaughterhouse to the Spanish Civil War, and many places in between. The names—Slipyi, Jägerstätter, Zanelli, Sudunaite, Ford, Kiggundu, Van—come tumbling off the page in a rush of languages, and the long lists of those who have names but little in the way of documented stories reveal how staggeringly many these witnesses really are.
Most are not martyrs in the strictly canonical sense. Given the sheer numbers of Christian dead and the number of ways they were killed, it is difficult to determine whether they fit the canonical criteria of dying in odium fidei (at the hands of enemies of the faith) or for refusing to apostatize under specific pressure to do so. Instead, they are known as “new martyrs,” Christians who have suffered for their faith not necessarily as individuals but rather in whole groups, whole communities, whole generations of believers. Some of the stories Royal tells—of Kolbe and of Edith Stein, for instance—are familiar in their general outlines, but many have never been heard before. It is hard to imagine them told with a more sobering clarity.
Simone Weil once wrote that while imaginary evil is romantic and exciting, real evil is “gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Hannah Arendt called it banal. For all the perverse ingenuity of their methods of destruction, there is a terrifying sameness to the regimes Royal describes; indeed, he warns that “it is just as difficult to retain a sense of the realities behind these repetitive litanies of horror as it is to see real human beings behind pious descriptions.”
This book does not shrink from those realities. Page after page recounts interrogations, torture, brainwashing, deception, and killing sprees—all aimed at wiping out faith in anything other than the State, and especially faith in a God who transcended the State. On July 24, 1936, near the start of the Spanish Civil War, Republican militiamen in Madrid shot three Carmelite nuns in the middle of a street. “One died instantly,” Royal writes, “another was at first refused transport to a hospital by a bus driver who wanted to ‘finish her off,’ a third wandered around dazed until another band of militiamen executed her.” By July 31, in Madrid and Barcelona alone, 321 priests had been murdered. Between 1950 and 1953 in Communist North Korea, “50 percent of the hierarchy, one-third of the clergy, and at least fifteen thousand lay persons perished”; many more died in the notorious Death March to the Yalu River.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholics were murdered in Mexico from the 1920s on. Priests, nuns, and lay people were tortured in Soviet labor camps and in Nazi-occupied Poland. Sadistic brainwashing techniques were developed against Romanian Catholics, who nonetheless kept attending Mass at a rate of almost 80 percent. “Accidents” befell priests in Lithuania. “Reeducation centers” were established by the North Vietnamese. Missionaries in Angola and the Trappist monks at Tibhirine were murdered for their faith. In Albania, Catholics—the only religious group that refused to cede power to that Communist state (though they were later forced to sign an agreement in which they submitted to state control)—were tortured, their bishops “forced to clean the streets and public bathrooms wearing clown outfits with paper signs across their chests saying, ‘I have sinned against the people.’” In 1967 the Albanian government outlawed religion altogether, and declared the traditional family to be “reactionary.” Over two thousand religious buildings were closed or destroyed, and almost all the clergy were imprisoned. Pope John Paul II has said that “history has never seen before what happened in Albania.” Under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was “the largest suppressed group of believers in the world.”
The stories are overwhelming, all the more so because they all tell the same tale. In every part of the world, throughout the twentieth century, Christians were being slaughtered on the altar of the atheist state. This book is as much a history of godless political power as it is a remembrance of God-fearing witnesses. Organized religion was a primary target of every one of the twentieth century’s regimes of terror. But as is evident in Nazi and Communist terrors alike, organized irreligion (to put it in Royal’s sharp formulation) has proved far more dangerous than organized religion ever was.
The importance of this study in exposing how totalitarian regimes actually conducted their purges of religion cannot be overestimated. But its importance is not only political.
In his many exhortations on the subject, John Paul II has emphasized that more than anything else the martyrs are a sign of unity in Christ. In a homily during the Ecumenical Commemoration of the Twentieth-Century Witnesses of the Faith, held at the Roman Colosseum last spring, the Pope said that “the precious heritage that these courageous witnesses have passed down to us is a patrimony shared by all the churches and ecclesial communities. It is a heritage that speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division. The ecumenism of the martyrs and of the witnesses to the faith is the most convincing of all; to the Christians of the twentieth century it shows the path to unity.” In the passion of the martyrs all Christians can see the universal Christian vocation, the call to love the Lord they met in baptism even unto death. As Royal puts it, “Martyrdom is in a deep sense the paradigm for the Christian life.”
Because there are so few testaments to Christian unity as powerful as martyrdom, a question might be raised about the almost exclusively Catholic focus of Royal’s book, especially since the catalogue from the Commission on New Martyrs (from which some of his research derives) did include Protestant and Orthodox witnesses to the faith. In Royal’s defense, it can be said that, according to most estimates, more of the twentieth-century martyrs were Catholic than were Protestant or Orthodox. Moreover, in many of the places where persecution has been most vicious the Catholic Church has been the most visible presence of Christianity. Wherever Catholics were present, they were a stubbornly conspicuous sign of that which was to be stamped out. Royal mentions in brief such Protestant and Orthodox martyrs as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Russian Patriarch Tikhon. But if his book were to be truly comprehensive it would have to take much more fully into account the witness of those described in, for instance, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. As it is, the book is more an inspiration to further research than a complete history of Christian witness in the twentieth century.
More in the spirit of the catalogue of new martyrs is Royal’s conceptual focus on John Paul II’s understanding of martyrdom as a witness to Christ rather than to a particular church. As they suffered together in the gulags and concentration camps, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox found themselves united in their common Christianity, sharing the passion and the promises of the crucified and risen Lord. The most moving passages in Royal’s book have to do not with torture but with prayer. “We were never so happy,” said Father Alexandru Ratiu, who spent sixteen years in Romanian prisons. “We never felt the presence of God so intimately; and we never prayed more seriously, confidently, and successfully than in those prison barracks.” Royal writes that “many people in . . . many different countries, even under differing regimes like Nazism and communism, have reported similar experiences.” The Christian church may be divided, but the Christian faithful are united whenever they confess that Jesus is Lord—and there is no confession more radical than the confession of martyrs.
Perhaps the most important witness the new martyrs gave in their heroic fidelity—inexplicable apart from their simple love and trust in God—is the witness to the truth that the politics of power is not all there is. They demonstrated that human beings are not what the totalitarian project said they were: merely machines to be manipulated, for whom faith was an opiate and scientific materialism would be liberation. That human dignity could be preserved by the death of human beings is a paradox of the highest order. It is also, not coincidentally, a paradox at the heart of the Christian religion.
In Royal’s landmark book, a crucially important part of the history of the twentieth century is finally being told. As the persecution of Christians continues in Sudan and East Timor and elsewhere—as people of faith continue to testify to the gospel of love and the truth about the human person—the continuing story of the martyrs will have to be told in the twenty-first century as well.
Alicia Mosier is a former Managing Editor of First Things.