Victor Dillard S.J., Spiritual Resister and Apostle to the STO Slave Laborers in Germany, Martyred at Dachau
Marquette University Press
Victor Dillard is chiefly remembered today for his valiant role as spiritual apostle among the slave laborers in Germany, sent there by the notorious STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire) law drafted by the Vichy government, which forced some 700,000 Frenchmen to work in German industrial centers in order to aid and abet the Third Reich's war effort. Encountering an absolute refusal by the Nazi authorities to allow chaplains to be sent to assist these mostly young men abandoned and subjected to wretched and demoralizing working conditions, the French Hierarchy circumvented this interdiction by slipping priests and religious clandestinely into Germany as “volunteer workmen.” At that time as a very well-known Jesuit priest, Victor Dillard offered to participate in this effort; so in October 1943, at the age of 47 (and the oldest in his group), he crossed the border disguised as a workman and bearing false papers identifying himself as an electrician and head of a family of five. Assigned to a factory at Wuppertal, 40 kilometers north of Cologne, and enduring a work schedule sometimes as long as 72 hours a week, he nevertheless was able to reach out to all the conscripts in his area and pursued a religious and social ministry on many levels. Denounced to the Gestapo for his “anti-German” activities, he was jailed as a foreign agent and sentenced to hard labor at Dachau where he succumbed after six weeks to abysmal living conditions and sadistic treatment.
In his recent and timely biography, Philippe Verrier insists on the need to provide a holistic study of Victor Dillard beyond his heroic deportation and martyrdom. Writing with evident admiration for the Jesuit priest yet objectively and without hagiographical intent, he explores chronologically the many phases of DIllard's remarkably rich life and various careers: from his early family life and education; his valiant military involvement in two world wars; formation as a Jesuit and teacher; entry onto the international stage as a respected and much published political economist; sojourn at Vichy as a spiritual adviser where from the pulpit he soon became an outspoken critic of the Pétain regime and preached against the Nazi ideology; to his mission as worker priest and death and martyrdom at Dachau.
Verrier's biography fills an important lacuna in the history of the spiritual resistance by providing a central and unifying figure to describe its activities and intent which diverge from the perhaps too rigidly drawn popular conception of the Resistance, usually depicted as primarily a patriotic and para-military operation. Armed only with his Christian faith and humanistic ideals, Dillard employed spiritual and moral means to engage in the battle against the pernicious ideology of Nazism; and he offered up his own life to shield a younger generation lying prostrate under the Nazi boot from the vicious attempts of their jailers to Nazify their hearts and minds.