Vatican Rep Gets Rapped

Book cover
The Holocaust and Catholic Conscienceby Suzanne Brown-Fleming

Univ. of Notre Dame Press. 240p $45


The study of the Catholic response to the Holocaust goes beyond the event itself, as demonstrated in this work by Suzanne Brown-Fleming, a historian with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In The Holocaust and Catholic Conscience she probes the career of Aloisius Muench, one of the most controversial figures of the postwar period.

Muench was the Bishop of Fargo, N.D., when he was appointed apostolic visitor to a defeated and divided Germany by Pius XII in 1946. In 1951 the pope named him nuncio to the new West German state, where he remained until he was made a cardinal by John XXIII in 1959. At the same time as his initial appointment, he was also selected by the American government as liaison representative between the Catholic Church authorities and the Office of Military Government in the United States Zone.

Coming from a largely German-American, upper-Midwestern diocese in North Dakota, Muench appeared as a godsend to defeated German Catholics. He sympathized with their plight, especially the suffering of Germans at the hands of the Allied authorities, accepted and agreed with their notion that Germans should not bear collective responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era and argued that Nazi criminals were a small proportion of the German people. In 1946, before he was appointed to his German positions, he issued a pastoral letter, One World, to his Fargo flock that argued all these points. It did not downplay German atrocities, including what was known of the Holocaust at that time. It also decried Soviet atrocities in the takeover of Eastern Europe and the bombing of civilians during the war, including the Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities. Muench emphasized the forced displacement of ethnic Germans. Excerpts from the pastoral, without the mention of the Holocaust, were reprinted in Germany without Muench’s permission.

The result was that Muench became a focal point for German resentment toward Allied policies, and he received thousands of letters asking for some intervention, either papal or American. This intervention included requests for clemency for Nazi criminals. Running through both the letters and Muench’s responses and discussions with American authorities was a strain of anti-Semitism, sometimes virulent, sometimes mild. Much of it was directed against the Thirty-niners, those Germans, mainly Jews, who left Germany before the outbreak of war in 1939, and who returned with the military occupation authorities to play a major role in occupation policies. The Germans disliked them and so did Muench, and so also did some American occupation authorities. Brown-Fleming’s account of this story is based on large amounts of material in the Muench archives at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

The author’s conclusion is that Muench’s openly partisan, philo-German position provided psychological comfort to many German Catholics, and that he viewed Jews as harmful, believing them to be in control of American policy-making in Germany and fearing them as avengers who wished to harm victimized Germans. This was damaging to the Church and faith he sought to defend. Finally, Muench legitimized the Catholic Church’s failure during this period to confront the nature of its own complicity in Nazism’s anti-Jewish ideology.

Given the anti-Semitic attitude of most of the American and German clergy during this period, along with the dominating anti-Communism of the early cold war, Muench’s attitude is not surprising. But there is so much guilt by implication and by association in this book that it is difficult to accept it as an objective academic work. Among the many examples of this is the author’s examination of Muench’s One World pastoral letter. She says that Muench’s use of the term Christian’ charity implies that virtues such as love,’ mercy,’ forgiveness,’ and justice’ are strictly Christian virtues, and therefore the law of love was the law of Jesus Christ, which by definition excluded Jews. But nowhere in the pastoral (which is included in an appendix) does Muench say that Jews are excluded from the love of Christ. Further, the author places the worst possible interpretation on Muench’s response (or lack of response) to routine letters from relatives of war criminals asking for his intervention. The book is filled with examples of guilt by association: virulent anti-Semites wrote to Muench; that he did not respond to these letters with disavowals makes him, in the author’s eyes, guilty of the same views.

Finally, there is an undercurrent running through the book that Muench’s attitude was the attitude of Pope Pius as well. Brown-Fleming says that Pius was a stout Germanophile, probably evidenced best by his insistence that he and Muench speak in German during their audiences. More likely, German was the language they both had in common and both spoke well; the pope’s predilection for German culture, stemming from his 12 years as nuncio to Bavaria and Germany is well known. The author includes a gratuitous appendix on the historiographical problem of Pius and the Holocaust that rounds up all the usual anti-Pius addicts (Cornwell, Carroll, Kertzer, Zuccotti, Rubenstein and others) and praises all in varying degrees.

That centuries of Christian (not just Catholic) anti-Semitism paved the way for the Holocaust is an accepted fact; that Pope Pius did not forthrightly condemn the Holocaust as it was happening (for various reasons) is true; and that in the postwar period the pope, through his emissary Aloisius Muench, was sympathetic to the plight of German Catholics, is also true. Would we expect anything different? The popes were just as sympathetic to the plight of German Catholics during the Nazi regime as well. Nor has the modern papacy ever endorsed the notion of collective responsibility for secular crimes.

However much we may wish that popes and their representatives were more prophetic, it is axiomatic that they have generally been more concerned with protecting the institutional church. The complexities of papal policy do not lend themselves to facile interpretations.

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