Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Connecting the Church and the Shoah

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Connecting the Church and the Shoah

Article excerpt

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965. By Michael Phayer. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2000. Pp. xix, 301. $29.95 clothbound; $14.95 paperback.)

The cover of this book bears a crude caricature by Fritz Hirschberger: two men are standing on the body of a person stretched out on his back with a pained look on his face; he is identified as a Jew by a star of David; the man on the left, with his legs spread far apart, is wearing boots and a uniform with a swastika; the one on the right is a faceless bishop or cardinal. Next to this image is printed "A.D. 1933-1945. The Concordat." Is there a causal connection between the Reich Concordat of July 20, 1933, and the behavior of the Catholic Church during the Nazi slaughter of the Jews in 1941-1945? It is a fundamental thesis of Michael Phayer that such a connection existed.

Phayer came forward with a book on Protestant and Catholic women in Nazi Germany in 1990. Then he treated in articles some aspects of the postwar reflection of Catholics on the Shoah. Now he has presented a history of the Catholic Church between 1930 and 1965 focused on the killing of the Jews. He sums up his opinion thus:"Pope Pius XII could not have halted the Holocaust, but even without a public protest, he could have communicated with church leaders throughout Europe, admonishing those who disdained the Jewish people and encouraging all of them to urge Catholics to provide shelter for Jews. The consequence would have been fewer Catholic collaborators and bystanders, on the one hand, and more Catholic rescuers and fewer victims,on the other" (p. 217).1 Hence, at the center of his discussions is a non-event. It is the question of the allegedly completely insufficient divulgation of the Vatican's supposedly good knowledge of the course of the Shoah to the papal diplomats, especially in the area under Hitler's rule, as well as to the episcopates of the countries concerned. As Phayer presumes, they were not led by the Pope to organize relief measures for the persecuted either by regular communication or by continual instructions; instead they were left alone.

This basic idea is not the result of Phayer's historical analysis but rather constitutes a political leitmotiv which is inserted into the individual chapters of the book. Thus there is no systematic discussion pro and contra the thesis. The plausibility of the author's premises and conclusions is not subject to discussion but is presumed to be entirely evident. Therefore Phayer offers no really historical study but rather an indictment. Although his book contains 225 pages of text with more than one thousand footnotes, in which more than 300 titles of secondary literature are cited, as well as 176 references (if I have counted correctly) to unpublished sources,2 in this book so rich in source materials the historico-political rather than a scholarly historical orientation prevails. Certainly, in the historical disciplines, especially in contemporary history, "scholarship" and "politics" are not always to be sharply divided from each other like chemical substances. But when the striving for objectivity which is and remains the normative idea of all science, also of contemporary history, is so obviously dominated by an historico-political intention, i.e., to reveal the leadership of the Church by Pius XII as wrong, then, in spite of all recourse to printed and unprinted sources, we are dealing essentially with a political and not a scientifically historical book. It offers a new version of the leyenda negra established by Hochhuth and passed on since 1963, though it belongs in the same context. Phayer does not blame the Pope, as did Rolf Hochhuth (1963) and John Cornwell (1993),3 for not issuing a flaming protest due in 1942 at the latest against Hitler's killing of the Jews, but he blames the Vatican under Pius XII for not informing the universal Church about the Shoah4 and thereby preventing the rescue of many Jews, which would have been possible with a different behavior. …

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