Historical Investigation to understand a troubling photograph

October 7, 2010

Investigation of Question 3: Who Was Copello?

Filed under: — admin @ 8:00 pm

Santiago Luis Copello was archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1932 until 1959. He also headed the military ordinariate of Argentina, exercising authority over Catholics and Catholic chaplains throughout the Argentine armed forces.

Nov. 5, 2010 addendum: Several reviewers familiar with Argentine history have questioned whether Archbishop Copello was likely to bless a Nazi flag in 1934 on his own independent initiative.  They question whether his conduct prior to October 1934 indicated sympathy with Nazism, and one of the reviewers has argued that Copello later in the 1930′s took an expressly anti-Nazi position.  Investigation of this question is ongoing.

What Type of Bishop Would Bless a Swastika? While histories of Argentina pay scant attention to Archbishop Copello, he was a central figure during a critical time in that country’s history. The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the transformation of Argentina into a programatically antisemitic country ruled by military men who wrapped themselves in a mantle of militant Catholicism and, after World War II, gave refuge to Nazi collaborators and war criminals fleeing Europe.   Archbishop Copello does not appear to have made any antisemitic or pro-Nazi pronouncements. This probably explains why historians have not shone a spotlight on him. Upon close examination, however, Copello’s record as archbishop calls for serious historical reckoning.

Antisemitism. Catholic publications in Copello’s archdiocese regularly trafficked in the worst forms of “modern” antisemitism that mushroomed in Europe from the late 1800s onward — branding “the Jews” as a dangerous enemy of western civilization, an alien race controlling major sectors of the economy and media, conspiring with freemasons and communists to dominate the world.  Books by priests and prominent Catholic laymen, Catholic journals, parish bulletins, even the Buenos Aires archdiocesan catechism for children, instilled fear and hatred of Jews.

This campaign had become so pronounced by 1936 that a leading Catholic author in Argentina sounded an alarm. Manuel Gálvez, a regular contributor to the erudite conservative Catholic journal Criterio in Buenos Aires, wrote:

I will always insist that antisemitism is an error and a danger for everyone. To provoke antisemitic sentiments is equivalent – we know it, and the Jews know from many centuries of experience! – to inciting the people to kill Jews. A true Catholic, a man who loves Christ, cannot, in any way, approve persecution against the Jews.

M. Gálvez, “Comentarios a una Carta,” Criterio, no. 429 (1936), 61. Thanks to David Ross for his assistance in translating the Spanish.  Details of the antisemitic propaganda in Catholic publications of Copello’s Argentina can be reviewed online in pages 41-58, 64-76, and 132-146 of Dr. Graciela Ben-Dror’s recent work, The Catholic Church and the Jews: Argentina 1933-1945 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

While the individual elements of the Catholic antisemitic campaign did not bear Copello’s personal stamp, such an extensive and virulent pattern, centered in Buenos Aires, could not persist without some measure of approval from the archbishop. Copello was not shy about enforcing obedience to his version of faith and morals.  During World War II he ruled that Catholic clergy could no longer participate in Acción Argentina, a movement promoting the cause of the Allies.  (Ben-Dror, 169)  In 1944 he ruled that Orden Cristiano, a Buenos Aires biweekly that was orthodox in its Catholicism, Christian Democrat in its politics, and strongly critical of antisemitism and Nazism, could no longer call itself a Catholic journal.  (Ben-Dror, 218-222, 236)

Promoting Peron. Copello played an important role in the rise of Argentine ruler Juan Perón. Perón was one among several leading officers in the Argentine military coup of June 1943, a revolt against legitimate authority that garnered immediate praise from the Catholic daily El Pueblo in Buenos Aires as well as the weekly Criterio.

It was this military regime that instituted antisemitic government policies for the first time in modern Argentine history — including removal of Jews from government posts and teaching positions. Two and a half years later, when Perón was campaigning in a presidential election set up by the military government, Copello effectively instructed Argentine Catholics not to vote for Perón’s opponents — by issuing a pastoral letter that forbade Catholics to vote for candidates who favored separation of church and state, secularized public education, or legalized divorce.

In short, Copello was an important political player in Argentina.  The discovery of his swastika-blessing ceremony calls for more scrutiny of his record than has been done to date in the English language.  Any pointers to in-depth treatments of Copello in Spanish would be appreciated.

Comments from Reviewers:

1.  A historian with expertise on Argentina has commented that Archbishop Copello did not develop a pro-Nazi Catholic Church in Argentina, and that he distanced himself from pro-Nazi Argentines in the years after 1934.

2.  Two persons, long-time residents of Argentina, have questioned whether the Argentine people are/were uniquely antisemitic.


1.  Comment 1 raises an important issue.  Upon investigation, it turns out that Copello did distance himself from pro-Nazi influences, especially after Pope Pius XI issued the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge in March 1937.  As noted above, there is no record of pro-Nazi statements by Copello.  Even his decree during World War II forbidding clergy to take part in a pro-Allied movement could be viewed benignly, as a step consistent with the Vatican’s policy of neutrality during the War.  Copello appears to have a record of consistently following Vatican diplomatic policy, as one would expect from the first Argentine bishop to be made a cardinal.  To be sure, Copello tolerated antisemitism and promoted authoritarianism, but that is not the same as endorsing Nazi ideology.

Was the swastika-blessing, then, out of character for Copello?  If so, was the swastika-blessing driven by someone other than Copello?

2.  Concerning antisemitism in Argentina, Encyclopedia Judaica records that Argentina experienced a large number of antisemitic incidents during the decades following WWII, indeed more incidents during the 1960s than any other country.  But this may have been the doing of organized groups not representative of the population at large.  How important was the antisemitic propaganda campaign during the 1930s in creating militant antisemitic activists?

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