"Silence Means Consent"

By Ferrand, Pierre | Midstream, April 2001 | Go to article overview

"Silence Means Consent"


Ferrand, Pierre, Midstream


Back in 1935, my father published in France a collection of articles by various hands entitled, Why Is The World Silent? They dealt with the kidnapping by Nazi agents, on Swiss soil, of the courageous Jewish journalist Hans Jacob. It was part of a worldwide protest against the inaction of the Swiss authorities in the face of that blatant violation of international law. My father's preface to the book ended with the phrase, "Silence means consent."

Jacob had been an associate of Karl von Ossietzky, who was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize for Peace while being held in a German concentration camp. Like his friend, Jacob was particularly hated by the Nazis because, in a number of articles, he had carefully documented Germany's illegal rearmament during the Weimar Republic, as well as Nazi militarism thereafter.

The Swiss, stung by the international uproar, did finally protest to the German government. The Nazis, anxious to make a success out of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, released Jacob, who was allowed to go to France. I remember him as a guest in our Paris home during my boyhood.

Nazi thugs kidnapped Jacob again in the fall of 1940, when he was a refugee in Lisbon fleeing from the Germans, and he died soon afterwards in the protective custody of the SS. In a world vaccinated against compassion by escalating violence, this incident caused no stir.

The problem of when and how to oppose crimes against humanity is not an easy one. Obviously, it was wiser and more constructive for Oskar Schindler, as a private individual, to try to help his Jewish employees to survive than to try to make speeches against Hitler and racism on the street corners of Nazi-occupied Europe. This righteous gentile, a Catholic, did what he could, and his silence did not mean consent.

As John Donne said over 300 years ago, we are "involved in mankind," and the obligations of public figures cannot be limited to private acts of decency alone. Leaders (and institutions) who have any claim to moral authority have a clear responsibility to protest and to act. The greater their claim of moral standing, the greater their duty in this respect. This applies particularly to the Papacy before and during World War II.

The point of Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play, The Deputy, an international sensation, was that Pope Pius XII failed in moral leadership, particularly because he kept silent about the genocide of the Jews he must have known about.(1)

Hochhuth was a Protestant, but the same basic charge was made in 1999 by a practicing Catholic, John Cornwell, in his book, Hitler's Pope.(2) In addition, Cornwell endeavored to place Pope Pius XII's silence in the context of the history of the papacy since the French Revolution. In his book, Cornwell claims that decades before his reign, Pope Pius had been a leading figure in promoting the so-called "ultramontanist" doctrines and practices of papal rule -- centralized, autocratic, and monolithic. To impose this pattern on Germany's Catholics, as papal secretary of state, he negotiated the 1933 Concordat with Hitler, silencing the strong Catholic minority in the Reich which, Cornwell suggests, would have otherwise vigorously opposed Nazism. This silencing made possible the pope's silence about the Shoah. While Cornwell does not deny Pope Pius XII's private virtues, he feels that his policies were disastrous for the Church and are being revived in our day by conservative Catholics.

One does not need to endorse Cornwell's version of 19th- and 20th-century history to agree that Pope Pius XII was ultramontanist with autocratic tendencies and did not always feel uncomfortable with dictators. Pius was probably no more antisemitic than many other Catholics of his generation. Still, like St. Thomas Aquinas, he did not approve of genocide as a way to solve the "Jewish problem."(3)

One reason for the uproar is the fact that the process of declaring Pope Pius a saint of the Church is already far advanced. …

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