History Lite: Goldhagen, the Holocaust & the Truth

By Lawler, Justus George | Commonweal, May 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

History Lite: Goldhagen, the Holocaust & the Truth


Lawler, Justus George, Commonweal


Before the war with Iraq there were at least three petitions, which gathered thousands of signatures, that the pope should take up residence in Baghdad as hostage against the American bombing of the city. Forty years from now, when the reasons for the invasion will certainly be debated by historians and journalists, and such obvious factors as imperial arrogance, regime change, oil, Saddam-obsession, etc., will have lost their cachet, it is likely that some revisionist will point to the failure of John Paul II to put his life on the line as a--if not the--major factor in the precipitation of the conflict. What may seem on its face a farcical suggestion assumes an air of probability when one looks at how the tragedy of the Holocaust has found a--if not the--perpetrator in the person of Pius XII. At least fifteen recent books in English explore this phenomenon.

This notion of the centrality of Pius to the Holocaust found its consummation in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's A Moral Reckoning, reviewed by James J. Sheehan in Commonweal (November 8, 2002). As most readers will remember, Goldhagen's book originated in a review of several works on the church and the Holocaust, "especially books by James Carroll, David Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Garry Wills, and Susan Zuccotti, on which I often draw for the new evidence they have unearthed." What is curious about this list is that the two authors Goldhagen quotes most extensively--Carroll and Wills--are the only two who rely almost exclusively on secondary or tertiary literature, none of which entailed the "unearthing" of new evidence.

Thus when Karl Rahner and Pierre Benoit are accused by Goldhagen of being in the "mid-1960s...prominent Catholics [who] could not restrain themselves from expressing their animosity toward Jews," he bases this judgment on Wills, who never examined the actual writings of the two priests and instead took this "new evidence" from Charlotte Klein's Anti-Judaism in Christian Theology, which was published a quarter-century ago. Moreover, not only did Klein doctor the texts, but what Goldhagen calls the "deicide charge" is rejected by Benoit and is described by Rahner as "pseudo-theology." Again drawing on Wills's "new scholarship," Goldhagen approvingly quotes him at length as being "astounded" that Vatican II's Nostra aetate was "rejected by hundreds of Catholic bishops." What neither Wills nor Goldhagen mentions is that the final vote on the decree had only eighty-five votes against it, and many of these were by delegates from the Middle East fearful of Arab reprisals against Christians for implicitly appearing to support the state of Israel. And where Wills/Goldhagen found the earlier vote "astounding," Yves Congar in his recently published Journal du Concile (he had forbidden publication prior to 2000) wrote with elation of "une enorme majorite," and added, "The church and the council have declared their view."

There is a Quaker saying about such intentionally warped texts: "the water tastes of the pipes." Few would question that the Christian church was a major factor in engendering the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. Similarly, few would question Goldhagen's judgment: "In many ways, Catholic bishops and priests across Europe supported political transgressions...those who did are morally blameworthy." It doesn't follow from this ethical truism that "Pius XII bears such moral blame" and thus is a "Nazi collaborator." Nor does it negate the fact, underlined in Martin Gilbert's The Righteous, that "Catholic bishops and priests across Europe" also opposed such transgressions. These accusations and omissions not only taste of the pipes; they poison the wells.

Goldhagen's book is so filled with contradictions that it suggests a disconnect in the author's mind or a parody of the genre, sic et non:

Sic: "The Catholic Church itself could change its Christian Bible." Non: "The Christian Bible is not even subject to the exclusive control of the Catholic Church. …

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