We almost never put personal faces on the atheist holocaust. Today a news item did just that, though of course it failed to remind people that there was an atheist holocaust during World War II and it was the result of careful planning and execution by the Roman Catholic Church, including Pope Pius XII (real name: Eugenio Maria Pacelli).
The face of the holocaust today is Viktor V. Putin, younger brother of Vladimir V. Putin, currently Prime Minister of Russia. Viktor was born in 1940, in Leningrad (now going by its prior name of St. Petersburg). In 1942 during the Battle of Leningrad, Victor Putin died, probably of starvation or disease caused by starvation. On January 28th, yesterday, Mr. Putin laid a wreath at Piskaroyvskoye Cemetery, which is a mass grave of about 470,000 civilians and soldiers who died in the battle or from the results of the siege. They were not all: the plaque there says over 640,000 people died of starvation between 1941 and 1944, when the Red Army finally got the upper hand and started rolling back the invaders.
The Atheist Holocaust was the idea of Pope Pius XII along with his predecessor Pius XI. It was executed by the fascist, Roman Catholic leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, with some help from other Catholic fascists, notably General Francisco Franco of Spain and Benito Mussolini of Italy. The Atheist Holocaust engulfed some 20 million people. Its most terrible phase began with the Germany occupation of the Eastern U.S.S.R. in 1941.
Of course we cannot be certain that Viktor V. Putin would have grown up to be an atheist. We unconsciously grant 2 year olds the religious status of their parents. His mother, Maria Ivanovna, was so starved that she was mistaken for dead and nearly buried before someone heard her moaning. His father was wounded and hospitalized in the war. Vladimir Putin is their only surviving child, having been born well after the war, in 1952.
Adolf Hitler saw himself as a new Holy Roman Emperor, who should be able to choose Popes and dictate to them. Pius XII saw himself, and the papacy, as the supreme leader of the entire world, to whom men like Hitler should subordinate themselves. They were united in a hatred of non-Catholics, socialists, communists, and even anyone advocating democratic or republican forms of government. Their plan was to conquer the world and impost a single state with a single religion upon it, the same ancient plan of "Saint" Constantine the Great [3rd - 4th centuries A.D.]
Most people are familiar with the fact that about 6 million jews died in their Holocaust. Most people don't know that most of those Jews were not religiously observant. They were modern jews, often socialists, and just as fairly described as agnostics or atheists. Add in the atheists killed by General Franco in Spain and you have a lot of dead atheists. But the really big numbers come from the invasion of the U.S.S.R. Some of the soldiers and civilians murdered in that invasion would have been Russian Orthodox, but the vast majority were atheists.
Why don't we know this, at least in the United States? American capitalists were happy to see Soviet soldiers chew up Hitler's armies. America emerged from the war as the only intact industrial power and proceeded to grab (in an economic sense, not by actual colonization) pretty much the entire world outside of the Soviet sphere. Americans were taught to hate communism. Critically, the U.S. had a large contingent of Roman Catholic voters who provided the balance of power for the Democratic Party over the Republican Party.
As a result, for education and propaganda, there was an instant re-branding of what happened in World War II. Hitler, a Catholic, was called a pagan. Franco was made into an ally even as he continued to execute people for the offense of not being Roman Catholic. Soviet casualties went without mentioning, and the term atheist was never used to describe them. Pius XII suddenly switched from being Hitler's ally against communism to being America's ally against communism.
The American people need to know this story, whether they want to hear it or not. An honest appraisal of World War II would probably have prevented the Vietnam War, which resulted from a Catholic U.S. president, John Kennedy, supporting an unpopular, minority Roman Catholic regime in South Vietnam against a nationalist, non-Catholic popular revolt.
The Roman Catholic Church continues to deny what it has done. It is a package of lies born from Constantine's anti-pagan reign of terror. Millions of Protestant Christians were murdered by the Catholic Church in Europe from the middle ages until the 18th century.
We need to remind American (and global) Protestants that while they might agree with the Pope on certain issues, he is a dangerous bedfellow. Atheists and Protestants are traditional allies on at least one issue: freedom of religion. We may argue with some Protestants about how the concept of freedom of religion is applied in public places, including public schools. That should not separate us on the basic idea of freedom on conscience and religious choice.
We must also keep in mind that any sufficiently large group of people will be complex when we look at its individuals. History has seen intolerant Protestant sects at times, and too often atheist dictators have treated religious belief or practice as criminal. Many modern Catholics do not want to force their religion on others. Those of us who believe in religious tolerance must stick together on that issue. On the other hand, we must not excuse the complicity of churches, or non-religious institutions, in crimes against humanity.
See also: At Event, a Rare Look at Putin's Life [Ellen Barry, New York Times]