Questions of Complicity
Three Popes and the Jews.
by Pinchas E. Lapide.
Hawthorn. 386 pp. $6.95.
Until further archival sources become available, it would seem that everything possible has been said about the silence of Pius XII in the face of the Nazis' murder of six million Jews. The news value of this recent addition to the literature, therefore, is probably due less to its content than to its authorship. Pinchas Lapide is an Orthodox Israeli Jew, a Canadian-born journalist and former diplomatic official of the Israeli government, who sets out to refute the charges against the late Pope contained in Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy as well as in recent works by other writers. Mr. Lapide is described as the author of eight previous books as well as many articles, and he is said to have been personally acquainted with all three of the popes involved in his study—Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII.
The first three chapters of his book survey the sordid history of Jewish-Christian relations from ancient to modern times. From “perfidious Jews” to forcible baptism, from “God-damned Jews” to ghettos, and from “Christ-killers” to the massacre of thousands during the Crusades, there led, according to the author, “a chain of logical events, each of which evolved from its heinous predecessor. . . . Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Aquinas would probably have recoiled from the gas chambers, but their anti-Jewish writings willy-nilly became milestones on the scarlet road which Christian hatred has paved from Golgotha to Auschwitz.” Lapide estimates that the number of Jews killed by Christian hands prior to 1925 exceeds seven million souls. Those still unconvinced by the link between Christian anti-Judaism and Hitler's Final Solution of the Jewish question are directed by the author to the testimony of a Protestant pastor tried by a German court in 1958. When this former member of the SS Einsatzkommando was asked by the judges why he had acquiesced in atrocities against the Jews, he replied that to his mind “these acts were the fulfillment of the self-condemnation which the Jews had brought upon themselves before the tribunal of Pontius Pilate.”
All this, of course, covers familiar ground, as does the discussion of the records of Popes Pius XI and John XXIII. Moreover, these parts of the book are marred by the careless handling of certain matters of detail. Thus the murder of Dr. Erich Klausener, head of Catholic Action in Berlin, took place during Hitler's Blood Purge of June 30, 1934 and not in September 1933, as the author maintains. Then, too, Mr. Lapide might have told us from where he derives the perfectly preposterous story that Archbishop Bertram, senior of the German episcopate, sought to join the Nazi party in 1932. But these and similar slips can perhaps be written off as minor faults that do not touch the main argument. It is when the author discusses the pontificate of Pius XII, to which the bulk of the book is devoted, that his tendency to weave together fact and fiction becomes predominant. Since limitations of space rule out a point-by-point analysis, I must confine myself to a brief discussion of certain basic issues.
Mr. Lapide's image of the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Pius XII bears some resemblance to the general picture of Catholicism popularized in this country by Paul Blanshard, a picture of the Church as a monolith directed strictly from the center in Rome and run with an iron hand by the pope. Such an image is an indispensable part of Mr. Lapide's effort to demonstrate that the Catholic priests and laymen who acted to rescue Jews in numerous places, as well as the local bishops who occasionally protested against Nazi atrocities, were all acting on papal orders and directions. It is, of course, undeniable—and admitted even by Hochhuth—that thousands of European Jews owe their lives to the courageous help of individual Catholics who hid them or otherwise helped them in their hour of supreme distress. This was especially true of Western Europe, where solidarity with the Jews was often regarded as a sign of patriotism and resistance to the Germans. It is equally well established that the episcopate of the Allied countries, as well as certain French, Belgian, Dutch, Hungarian, and Slovakian bishops, protested against the deportation and slaughter of the Jews. But if we are to accept Mr. Lapide's assertion that everything important that took place in the Catholic Church during World War II was the result of the Pope's commands, or at least his approval, must we then not also assume Pius's responsibility for the sad record of the German Catholics who cooperated with the Nazis? Is it reasonable to think that what Lapide calls “the rigid discipline for which Pius XII was famous” accounts for the pro-Jewish utterances and actions of some bishops but not for the anti-Semitic sentiments of others?
Seeking to meet the criticism directed against Pius XII, the Vatican recently began the publication of certain selected materials in a series entitled “Acts and Documents of the Holy See concerning the Second World War.” The impression created by these documents—and those which are to be found in German diocesan archives—does not jibe at all with the picture of a monolith painted by Lapide. The Pope's communications to the local Church dignitaries do not consist of orders; they are politely worded letters of one who considers himself primus inter pares. Pius XII occasionally made suggestions but he never commanded; moreover, the historical record shows that many of his recommendations were blithely ignored. The Pope was well aware of the strong hold of nationalistic sentiments over Catholics in both of the warring camps, and therefore he took the greatest possible care to avoid the appearance of taking sides. In other words, the papal policy was to preserve the confidence of all Catholics in the head of the Church by following a course of careful neutrality and non-interference in the affairs of the national churches. Such a position ruled out the Pope's endorsement of either the German crusade against Communist Russia or the struggle of the Western allies against Nazi tyranny. And it was this concern for the papacy as a supra-national symbol of unity and peace, coupled with the fear of Nazi reprisals against the Church in Germany, that precluded a forthright condemnation tion of the murder of the Jews.
However, the reluctance of the Pope to be drawn into a public protest against the Final Solution did not necessarily entail a policy of silence or inaction on the part of the local Church hierarchies—quite the contrary. It appears that by the end of 1942 the Vatican was well aware of the inevitability of an ultimate Allied victory. At this point, considerations of expediency began to reinforce whatever moral revulsion the Pope may have felt at the massacre of the Jews. Thus Pius began to drop carefully phrased hints to bishops of countries under Nazi rule that it was in the interest of their people, as well as that of the Church, to go on record against the slaughter of the Jews. For example, in October 1942 he wrote an Austrian churchman that it was not only a Christian duty to intercede for those suffering in the conquered territories; such intercession would also be advantageous to the cause of Germany. “We know enough of the situation and mood of the other side,” the Pope stated, “to realize how useful—we are almost inclined to say: how urgently necessary—also from patriotic considerations such an action is on the part of the bishops.” He added that he was deeply concerned about the retribution which threatened to fall upon the German people. Similarly, in June 1944 the papal nuncio in Hungary pointed out to the Hungarian primate that a failure to stand up publicly for Christian principles, and against the suffering of fellow-citizens from racial ordinances, would damage the prestige of the Hungarian Church. On the other hand, it was argued repeatedly that the Pope himself could not be more outspoken without making matters worse.
Then as now there were those who did not accept Pius's rationale for this self-imposed restraint. Thus on at least two occasions, Bishop Preysing of Berlin, a man of courage and compassion, urged the Pope to issue a public appeal on behalf of the Jews. Such an intercession, Preysing wrote to Pius on March 6, 1943, was the last hope for the innocent victims, as well as the fervent wish of all men of good will. Earlier that year, Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, President of the Polish government in exile, appealed to the Pontiff for an unequivocal denunciation of Nazi violence in order to strengthen the willingness of the Poles to resist the Germans and help the Jews. The Polish people, Raczkiewicz wrote, “implore that a voice be raised to show clearly and plainly where the evil lies and to condemn those in the service of evil. If these people can be reinforced in their conviction that divine law knows no compromise and that it stands above any considerations of the moment, they will, I am sure, find the strength to resist.” And in September 1944, Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, directed a similar request to Pope Pius with regard to the Hungarian Catholics. We will never know whether any sizable number of Polish or Hungarian Catholics would have been influenced by a papal appeal, for the Pope refused to heed any such requests.
As German resistance on the Eastern front weakened, the Vatican became increasingly preoccupied with the fear of an expanding Communist Russia. The Pope also began to worry about the prominent role played by Communists in the anti-Fascist resistance within Nazi-occupied Europe. In a note of August 20, 1943, the Apostolic delegation in Washington informed the American Department of State that Communism was making steady headway in Italy and Germany: “These facts are a clear warning of the grave peril that Europe will find itself overrun with Communism immediately on the cessation of hostilities.” Here, then, was another important reason for Pius's refusal to condemn Nazi atrocities. Such a condemnation, he feared, might further weaken Germany's stand in the East against Bolshevism; it could also lead to the Pontiff's later being blamed by the German people for their country's defeat, as had happened to Pope Benedict (1914-22).
Mr. Lapide's analysis pays no heed to any of these broader considerations. The author simply argues that the Catholic Church saved at least 700,000 and probably as many as 860,000 Jewish lives, that the credit must go largely to Pius XII, and that any public protest by the Pope would have severely damaged, if not made impossible, this quiet work of rescue. The evidence presented by Mr. Lapide, or that available from other sources, neither confirms nor refutes his statistics and the inferences he draws from them. We do not know how many of the Catholics who came to the aid of their Jewish fellow-citizens were moved directly or indirectly by the Pope's carefully guarded public pronouncements; just as we do not knew to what extent the heritage of Christian anti-Judaism inhibited humanitarian instincts. And we will never know what might have happened if Pius XII had issued a public appeal on behalf of the Jews. The record indicates that some public protests had beneficial results, while others worsened the situation.
In any case, the question of results can hardly be decisive for Catholics themselves. Many of them are distressed that the Pope failed to uphold the absolute moral essence of the Church and was guided, at least in part, by raison d'église. To them, the mere maintenance of the sacramental life is pointless, if the Church ceases to be a witness to the gospel. To the non-Catholic, the apparent preoccupation of the papacy with preserving the Church will drive home the costs of institutionalizing religious and moral sentiments. He may well conclude that human morality cannot and should not be made subordinate to the claims of institutions—be they sanctified in the name of Caesar or of God.