The Heart of Darkness: How Visceral Hatred of Catholicism Turns Into Genocide

May 2004By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendée .  By Michael Davies. The Remnant Press. 100 pages. $20.

A French Genocide: The Vendée.  By Reynald Secher. University of Notre Dame Press. 305 pages. $40.



Given the growth of militant anti-Catholicism in the West, these two books are highly recommended. The authors prepare us for what lies ahead if this juggernaut proceeds unchecked. In western France in the 1790s a similar state of affairs led to the persecution of the Church under color of law, and then when Catholic peasants in Vendée dared to resist this persecution, the ruling atheists ordered the entire population of that region to be exterminated — men, women, and children. They sent out the army in “infernal columns” to “depopulate the Vendée.” Secher says the minimum number of casualties is around 118,000, while Davies thinks the number is closer to 250,000. The genocide of the Vendeans is not well known outside of France, but it truly deserves to be. It teaches a valuable lesson, that visceral hatred of Catholicism, left unchecked, can turn to genocide.

Eerily enough, those who carried out the genocide in Vendée gave glimpses of that perverse mentality later found among the Nazis. They cast women and children into ovens, made use of human skin for clothing, and burned women to collect their fat. The gruesome details of these atrocities are attested facts. Indeed, the atrocities were often recorded by agents of the government.

The suffering and death of the Catholics in Vendée was not in vain. They achieved a glorious victory. In the end, because of their heroic example, the anti-Catholic persecution of the 1790s was a failure. The Church in France was supposed to have been eradicated. Instead, she rose to new life. As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In 1801, when Napoleon granted freedom of worship to all the Catholics of France, it was seen as the victory of the Vendée.

These two books by Michael Davies and Reynald Secher complement each other. Davies’s For Altar and Throne is an introduction to the epic story, an overview. It is a page-turning, gripping account of the brave Catholic resistance in 1793 and the ensuing genocide. Davies takes a wide-angle perspective and draws his evidence from solid, well-documented histories published in French and English. Secher’s A French Genocide is a detailed, close-up view of events, drawn from the “unsuspected riches” lying in national, departmental, and communal archives of France. Secher quotes from the accounts of Catholic peasants and the reports of the officers in charge of the genocide; he provides maps and tables to show how many died and how much property was destroyed in each locality.

The impact of these two works together is overwhelming. Historians have sidelined or minimized this genocide, sometimes (as with Michelet) even blaming the victims. Why? Because it does not fit the atheist myth — that Catholics are the persecutors, while atheists are liberal and tolerant. The story of the Vendean genocide is also a much-needed corrective to the endless hurrahs offered to the French Revolution since its bicentenary in 1989. There was a hideous underside to the Revolution, a heart of darkness.

Davies shows how, step by step, the persecution of Catholic priests led to the tumult in Vendée. This persecution was not supposed to happen because, under Article X of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), no one was to be penalized for his religious beliefs, if those beliefs did not disturb the public order. But the ruling atheists quickly began to oppress the priests and the Church. First they nationalized Church property, including schools and hospitals. Next they suppressed monasteries and convents. Then they eliminated all forms of revenue and reduced Catholic priests to dependence on a government salary. By the end of 1790 priests were forced either to take a new oath to the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” or lose their job and salary. Early in 1791, 134 French bishops condemned this “Civil Constitution” and Pope Pius VI declared it heretical. The anti-Catholics in Paris ignored this and kept turning the screw: In August 1792 a new law made those priests who still refused the oath liable to deportation, and in May 1793 another law condemned to death those priests liable to deportation who were still in France. Thus the law was turned into a weapon to destroy the holy order of priesthood and the Catholic Church.

Resistance to this persecution erupted in August 1792 when 600 Vendean peasants brandishing farm tools tried to stop the National Guard from evicting nuns from a convent. Most of the peasants died for this chivalrous deed. Now, these men had actually welcomed the Revolution in 1789, that is, until they realized that a visceral anti-Catholicism was the driving passion of the ruling atheists. Michael Davies raises the question of why the resistance started in Vendée, why the most fervent Catholics resided in this part of France — a region of 12,000 square kilometers that included parts of Anjou, Brittany, and Poitou. He answers that this is where St. Louis de Montfort had evangelized and established his religious order. It is telling that Vendean troops wore on their chests the red badge of the Sacred Heart introduced by St. Louis de Montfort. Their foes called them, in contempt, “soldiers of Jesus.”

When the National Assembly replaced those heroic priests who had refused the oath with “constitutional priests,” the Vendean peasants flatly refused to go to church. Parents of newborn babies had to be marched at gunpoint to the baptismal fonts. Secher relates a touching anecdote that reveals the depth of the peasants’ attachment to their true pastors. At Saint-Hilaire-de-Mortagne one Sunday, a sergeant found the parishioners kneeling in silence in the cemetery, their church having been closed. The sergeant asked an old peasant what they were doing there, and the peasant explained, “When our curé left, he promised us that every Sunday at this very hour he would say Mass for us wherever he might be.” The sergeant reacted with scorn: “Superstitious imbeciles! They believe they hear Mass from the place where it is said.” The old man answered meekly: “Prayer travels more than a hundred leagues, since it ascends from earth to Heaven.”

Many of the Vendean priests who had refused the oath returned to their native towns and lived in hiding among their relatives and friends. They would say Mass in barns, attics, or cellars. They had a price on their heads, but they trusted in the protection of the peasants. Under a law passed in August 1792, 50 livres was offered as a reward for the capture of an outlawed priest. Local councils could increase the reward to 100 livres.

What finally triggered a widespread resistance among the Catholic peasants in Vendée was the National Assembly’s order early in 1793 for some 300,000 men to be conscripted into the national army. This was the last straw — to be obliged to join the troops that were hunting down their priests.

The Vendean army was called at times “The Army of the Sacred Heart.” The nobility of Vendée had virtually disappeared by 1793, so the peasants summoned mostly former officers and career soldiers to lead them into battle. These colorful characters include Charette, a veteran officer of the American Revolution, and the Marquis de Bonchamps, a former officer in India. Such experienced soldiers knew they faced impossible odds, yet they gallantly answered the peasants’ summons. At one point, they led some 35,000 Catholic peasants into battle, many of them poorly equipped. At its peak in 1793, the Catholic army defeated the Mayençais, a force of 20,000 veterans that had never retreated before an army in Europe.

Thomas Brennan’s illustrations for Davies’s book convey some of the bravura and panache of the Catholic leaders. They were knightly men. The Marquis de Bonchamps, for example, made a last request as he lay dying at age 33, asking that the lives of the captured government soldiers be spared. So 5,000 prisoners were released, but meanwhile, on the government side, 29 cartloads of Catholic prisoners were drowned in the reservoir at Vihiers. It was hard for the Catholic army to abide by a code of decency in the face of the unremitting atrocities of their foes. The prisoners released by Bonchamps went on to devastate La Chapelle, where the inhabitants at the time were old men, women, and children.

Among the many atrocities carried out against the Vendean Catholics was the massacre at a hospital near Yzernay, where 2,000 wounded soldiers, old men, women, and children were slaughtered. A Chapel of the Martyrs now stands at the spot. There was also the massacre of 6,000 Catholic prisoners, many of them women, after the battle of Savenay. In addition, there were the Martyrs of Avrillé, half of them women — recently beatified by John Paul II — who were marched out of town in batches of some 400, lined up 50 at a time against a ditch, and shot by fusillade. Then there was the drowning of 5,000 in the Loire River at Nantes — priests, old men, women, and children. And 3,000 Catholic women killed by drowning at Pont-au-Baux. Drownings became a form of entertainment for the soldiers. Comic names were given to the drownings: They were called “republican marriages” when young Catholic men and women were tied naked in pairs and cast into the water. They were also called “vertical deportation in the national bathtub” and “patriotic baptism.”

Those who carried out these atrocities were obviously fanatics in their hatred of Catholicism, and yet they turned around and accused Catholics of “fanaticism.” To be guilty of this supposed “crime” of fanaticism, a Catholic need only hide a priest, attend Mass in secret, or say the Rosary. When the guillotines could not keep up with the numbers of condemned “fanatics,” the ruling atheists sought out efficient methods for killing crowds of people. They deliberated about poisoning wells with arsenic and devising a “poisonous smoke.” It was only lack of technology, not for lack of will, that an Auschwitz did not rise in the 1790s. As it was, the terror unleashed in 1794-1796, Davies observes, was “unparalleled until the advent of Stalin and Hitler.” General Westermann, the butcher of Vendée, informed the Committee of Public Safety after the battle of Savenay in December 1793: “Following the orders you gave to me, I crushed the children beneath the horses’ hooves, massacred the women…. I have not a single prisoner…. I exterminated them all….” Note his words: following the orders you gave to me.

The genocide of the Vendean Catholics cannot be palmed off as the deed of an army run amok. It was a program of annihilation ordered from the top by dogmatic atheists. The National Convention coolly came to the decision that the Vendean Catholics “must be exterminated from the face of the earth.” They ordered the nation’s troops to divide into several columns and march through that region of western France destroying everyone and everything — the old, women, children, even the “patriots” (this was the name given by the revolutionary government to those in Vendée who supported them) who still imagined they were safe with their certificates of loyalty from the government. The region was to be turned into the national cemetery to teach Catholics everywhere in France a lesson. No person, no property was to be spared. Even the forest was to be burned down. And it would have been, had it not been for the unceasing rain.

No one who reads the gruesome details Secher gives of the genocide in Vendée can ever deny Original Sin. Here we face the heart of darkness in man. A police officer named Gannet wrote of seeing women and children thrown into an oven and of their cries giving “so much amusement for Turreau’s soldiers” that they wanted “to continue with these pleasures” even when they ran out of Catholic victims. So they proceeded to throw 23 of the wives of “true patriots” into the fire. Other such monstrous amusements included throwing women out of windows onto bayonets, crushing pregnant women under winepresses, tossing infants from bayonet to bayonet. In Angers the skins of 32 victims were tanned to make riding breeches for the officers, and in Meudon, a comparison was made between the tanned skins of men and women in terms of suppleness.

A few years ago, at a conference of the 18th-Century Society, I heard a woman give a plenary address in which she cited with hearty approval this maxim of an 18th-century French philosophe: “Men will at last be free when the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the last prince.” In the question period, I asked her why she had cited this saying with approval, when it was obviously a piece of anti-Catholic bigotry. She denied flatly that it was bigotry. Instead, she insisted that it was a legitimate response to Catholic tyranny. Moreover, she was impervious to further argument. This is an example, if any were needed, of the dogmatic anti-Catholicism that prevails in universities today. Since there are no princes to provide entrails for the entertainment of dogmatic atheists, that leaves only Catholic priests to be strangled — by other means.

The story of Vendée should be a beacon for Catholics today. These heroic peasants summon us to rise and protect Holy Mother Church from those determined to destroy her under color of law. The glory of Vendée is the glory of Calvary — self-sacrifice giving life to the Church.



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Many will say that this cannot happen in America today. Yet look at the activities of the ACLU, Atheists trying to take God out of the public sphere and the democratic party that is so closely associated with these types of anti-Catholic mindset. Does anyone seriously think that if they are successful in taking God out of the public sphere, they will stop there? Posted by: wunsch
July 05, 2007 05:17 PM EDT
I can't help but think that in today's Church the only horror at what happened in the Vendee would be the horror of the peasants' failure to utilize ecumenical dialogue. Posted by: bd555
July 05, 2007 11:59 PM EDT
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