Holy Collaborators?

Book cover
A Moral Reckoningby By Daniel Jonah GoldhagenKnopf. 362p $25.

I cannot identify any constructive role for this new book by Daniel Goldhagen, currently an affiliate of the Minda Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Unlike his previous book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, whichfor all its problemswas based on original research into archival material, here there is no new factual material not readily accessible to the general reader. Goldhagen draws extensively from recent books by David Kertzer, Susan Zuccotti and Michael Phayer, and an older book (1964) by Guenter Lewy, using the results of their research (though rejecting their interpretations where they do not fit his case). Despite his claim to be the first to subject the church to full scrutiny, current books by the Catholic authors John Cornwell, James Carroll and Garry Wills (not to mention Rosemary Ruether a generation ago, in a context that did not include the Holocaust) have already made the indictment of the church and the papacy that Goldhagen makes herenot quite as vehemently, to be sure, but more compellingly because they come from authors with some degree of identification with the institution they are criticizing.

Nor is A Moral Reckoning a dispassionate weighing of the issues and evidence in the ongoing debate over the church’s role during the Nazi period. It is a book of advocacy that takes a firm position, musters every conceivable piece of evidence to support it, attempts to subvert or refute any evidence that might challenge the author’s stance and either ignores or dismisses, frequently with contempt, scholars who hold a different view. Any mention of a positive statement made or act performed by a church official is immediately undermined by a statement that trivializes it or casts aspersions on the individual’s character or motivation. This is comparable to the prosecutor’s opening statement in a criminal case, or a legal brief for the plaintiff in a major class-action lawsuit.


As someone on record in print lamenting the failure of Pope Pius XII to make the kind of simple, clear, explicit condemnation of Christians participating in the murder of Jews that was made by his predecessor Pope Clement VI during the attacks of the Black Death period, I will not assume the opposing role of a defense attorney. But if I were a member of the jury, with full access to the evidence that both Goldhagen and his opposing counsel presented, I would be highly skeptical of the prosecutor’s case.

It is a case made with considerable rhetorical energy. Goldhagen presents himself as the lonely voice of one who speaks the truth against those who attempt to intimidate people who would speak plain truths. By contrast, the Catholic Church [has] yet to tell the truth, insists on not telling the truth, cannot even speak the simplest truths. His language seems intended to overwhelm resistance by its hyperbolic power. Christianity spread throughout its domain a megatherian hatred of the Jews. Until his book, there was a moral blackout about the church’s offenses. He deplores Pope John Paul II’s recent moral fiasco of politically supporting [Syrian President] Assad’s antisemitic incitement.

The favorite tool in Goldhagen’s arsenal of rhetorical weapons is the word antisemite. Pius XI was a committed, self-professed antisemite, the author writes. And Pius XII was an antisemite. The French bishop of Marseilles, one of the bishops best disposed toward the Jews, was nevertheless an antisemite. Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg, whose outspoken sermons and prayers in Berlin expressing sympathy for the Jews led to his arrest and ultimate death on the way to Dachau, had earlier made an antisemitic appeal to Hitler. Maximilian Kolbe, who in Auschwitz did nobly volunteer to give his life to save another inmate (a non-Jew), was the expressly antisemitic editor of an antisemitic Catholic journal. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, it was hard to be a Catholic priest and not to be antisemitic, since among the many other commonly held antisemitic charges, it was a central Catholic doctrine, based in Scripture, that contemporary Jews were guilty for the death of Jesus.

More than just sins of omissionthat the church thundered silence, which can reasonably be construed as approval of the mass murderGoldhagen accuses it of deep active involvement in the annihilation of the Jews. The church was directly implicated in crime by providing the motive [to murder Jews] for many of the criminals. It was thereby as guilty of criminal incitement to murder as was Julius Streicher, convicted at Nuremberg of crimes against humanity. During the Nazi period the church willfully, actively, and consistently [did] harm and promote[d] suffering against the Jews. Church officials, high and low, contributed to and in some cases engineered aspects of the mass murder itself.

Consequently, he concludes, the church must undergo a program of repentance and restitution: material, political and moral. It must cease to be a political institution, give up its state and its formal diplomatic relations with other states. And it must abandon some of its doctrines, including its universal claim to be the single way to eternal salvation, and its supersessionist theology. Goldhagen stops short of calling for the actual removal of some 450 antisemitic verses from what he calls the Christian Bible (the New Testament), but he clearly believes this would be the best solution to the church’s Bible problem.

I will leave a detailed analysis of the accuracy of his presentation of Catholic doctrine to others. One cannot, however, help noting that in this abundantly documented book, there is no evidence provided for the assertioncrucial to his argumentthat the guilt of all Jews for the crucifixion was a central Catholic doctrine and teaching it was official Catholic Church doctrine. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, the authoritative statement of Catholic doctrine during the Nazi period, says something quite different, in a passage quoted by the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a section entitled All sinners were the authors of Christ’s Passion (No. 598). Goldhagen quotes this new catechism dozens of times for his own rhetorical purposes, but not this authoritative challenge to his repeated assertion.

The book’s argument suggests a surprisingly naïve sense of the possibilities and consequences of defying the Nazis during most of the war. Goldhagen properly rejects what he calls the myth of utter coercion under Nazism, which claims that all freedom had been lost under the totalitarian system, but he replaces this with a different myth of no Nazi coercion. His dismissal of any assertion that the pope would bring danger upon himself and the Church for speaking out as nothing more than a convenient fiction goes considerably beyond what any of us can know.

He states that it was the Church’s and its clergy’s moral duty to prevent Jews from being slaughtered, as ifwith German forces controlling most of a continentthe proper statement from the Vatican could have prevented the Nazi regime from implementing its policy of genocide. Had every bishop and priest been instructed by the pope to protest, he asserts, there is a good chance that the German government would not have tried to implement, or been able to implement, its murderous intentions. While in some policies (the euthanasia program is a notable example), the Nazi regime did show sensitivity to ecclesiastical protest and public opinion, the likelihood that it would have caved in to the pope’s instruction to protest the mass murder of Jews seems about as good as the likelihood that it would have withdrawn from Poland if a similar protest had been made in the fall of 1939.

A characteristic argument begins thus: Aside from the indisputable fact that the Church’s antisemitism was the trunk that never ceased bringing nourishment to the modern European antisemitism that had branched off from it.... But this is neither indisputable nor a fact. It is a metaphor masquerading as a fact, its plausibility deriving from the image of the tree, not from any data about the underlying reality. Although he condemns his opponents for not adhering to proper social scientific methodology, the heart of Goldhagen’s argumentabout the nexus between the traditional Catholic teaching of contempt and the willing participation in the mass murder of Jewsis based not on data at all, but on his surmises about the motivation of the murderers and his hypothesizing about ambivalence in those church leaders who condemned it.

There is no data showing that those brought up with a traditional Catholic education were more likely to support or join the Nazi party in Germany. The Catholic Church was decisively not the core of Hitler’s power base. The writing and speeches of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels reveal a lethal antisemitic ideology fully independent of the traditional Christian notion of the Jew as Christ-killer. Memoirs, diaries and in-depth interviews of those who participated in the killings provide no evidence that they acted as they did because they thought of their victims as deserving death based on a verse in the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, Goldhagen concedes at one point that German racial antisemitism did not derive from the church’s teachings.

Yet he insists that the church was implicated in crime by providing the motive for many of the criminals. From this strong indictment, the following sentences meander through convoluted paths to a most nebulous conclusion: that More than a few of the perpetratorsGerman, Croats, French, Lithuanians, Poles, and othersderived their motivating antisemitism, wholly or in part, from what their trusted religious and moral shepherds had taught them. The evidence for this? A statement by one Polish bystander in Lanzmann’s film Shoah. (Note that in this list of nationalities, he omits Italy, homeland of the papacy, the one country where the masses could actually read the antisemitic statements from Civiltà Cattolica and L’Osservatore Romano that Goldhagen reproduces from Kertzer’s book. Yet Italy has one of theleastantisemitic populations in Europe.)

Perhaps the most astonishing passage in this book is an analogy to justify his accusation of legal guilt for the church. You place the straw around the houses of one town, teach the people of the next town to hate and fear the inhabitants of the first town. An incendiary comes along to give your followers a match. Your followers together with others light the flames...systematically but slowly destroying them all. Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust was only to provide the match? In addition to the historical absurdity of this suggestion, it almost sounds like an argument not from a prosecutor of the church, but from a defense attorney for Hitler.

Goldhagen’s attempt to shift the status of church leaders from bystanders to perpetrators of the Holocaust blurs this important distinction, ultimately diffusing the guilt of the Nazis. Despite the complexities and occasional ambiguities in the conceptual framework of perpetrators, victims, bystanders and rescuers, there is a broad consensus that these categories are valid and useful. The culpability of church leaders, the American government or the American Jewish community is fundamentally different from the culpability of the leaders of Nazi Germany or members of the Einsatzgruppen. To suggest that the church was as guilty of incitement to murder as was Julius Streicher, to imply that Hitler’s role was only to provide the match that enabled Roman Catholics to kindle the straw that the church placed around the houses of Jews, is not to speak the truth, as Goldhagen so frequently claims for himself. In addition to being counterproductive to the purpose he espouses, it is to wander into a conceptual and moral wilderness.

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