Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass hosts lecture on Nazi Influence and European Espionage in WWII-era Boston

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(Katherine Mayo / Daily Collegian)

On Tuesday, Charles Gallagher, S.J., assistant professor of history at Boston College, was invited to speak as part of a lecture series hosted by the University of Massachusetts Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. In his lecture “The Nazis of Copley Square: Antisemitism and Espionage in Wartime Boston, 1939-1945,” Gallagher talked about his recent research on the anti-Semitic rhetoric and coinciding activities in Boston shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

Gallagher is the 2017 William J. Lowenberg Memorial Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Skolnik, an associate professor of German and IHGMS board member and interim director, said that the fellowship was what inspired him to invite Gallagher to speak on campus.

“It’s a fascinating topic, and it’s important to consider in the current climate where armed group and racist demonstrations are topical,” Skolnik said.

Until Gallagher’s research, the extent of ties between Boston anti-Semitism and the Nazi government was unclear. Herbert Scholz, Germany’s consul in Boston, SS officer, friend of Heinrich Himmler and an architect of the Holocaust, had hung a swastika flag outside his office on Beacon Hill. However, Gallagher was able to uncover that Scholz worked with Francis P. Moran, the leader of the Christian Front, a nationalist anti-Semitic and anti-communist group, to fund and direct anti-Semitic campaigns.

“The Christian Front leaders in New York were arrested by FBI in 1940 and charged with sedition,” Gallagher said, as he described their collection of weapons, bomb construction and active target practice. Moran kept the Christian Front operating in Boston for five years after the organization was thought to have been shut down. This shifted the operation’s focus: “the idea now is not terrorism, but propaganda,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher went on to explain that as the New York operation disbanded as a terror cell, the FBI and other national agencies were less attentive to a threat of rising fascism. Alarmed that the Christian Front would continue to operate in Boston, the British intelligence M16 created a group, called the Irish American Defense Association to pressure Boston’s Police Commissioner and the Massachusetts Attorney General to clamp down on the Christian Front.

Gallagher pointed out how secrecy was necessary to this plan.

“Essentially, this was a British operation to spy on American citizens on American soil, and couldn’t be known,” Gallagher said.

Reporters, like Frances Sweeney, an editor at the Boston City Reporter, were recruited to partake in protests and write letters to the editor, urging action against the Christian Front. Eventually, the Christian Front was deactivated in the region due mostly to British intervention.

Kendall Brinson, an intern at the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies and a sophomore history major, thought it was interesting to “see how this is lost history.”

“It’s important to go back and evaluate what was happening, because it could still be happening today,” Brinson said.

The Christian Front thrived in the context of 1930’s religious beliefs. The current Catholic Church is the result of many reforms that took place in the mid 1960’s, according to Gallagher. In contrast, the 1930’s was a time where more controversial interpretations of biblical theology rationalized the actions of groups like the Christian Front.

In the lecture, it was also noted that Boston College’s Rev. Michael J. Ahern made a New England-wide radio broadcast telling Catholics that it was permissible to join the Catholic Front despite their Anti-Semitism, because they would be supporting Anti-Communism.

“When the Catholic church is injured in Madrid, it is injured in other parts of the globe….when these Christian Front guys say that they are doing Catholic Action, this is why,” Gallagher said. “At the end of the day, these people who were ordinary Catholics, didn’t see themselves as a threat to national security. They saw themselves as an authentic religious group.”

It was under these conditions, the Christian Front broadcasted Nazi propaganda films to audiences of over 500 people, obtained offices in the Copley Square Hotel and had over 30,000 members throughout New England.

The importance of understanding the history of fascism in Boston was summarized by Father Gallagher.

“I think that for so long, fascism connected to Boston has been dormant, but a rally held on the Boston Common a few months ago, you had people showing up using terms like ‘fascist’ or ‘anti-fascist.’ The question of what these words mean in Boston hasn’t been part of public discourse since the 1930’s. This history helps contextualize what we are facing now.”

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected]

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