As expected, Pope John Paul II, in his sweeping apologies for the
mistreatment of Jews by Christians through the ages, said nothing about
the “silence” of his predecessor, Pius XII, about the Holocaust
of the Jews during World War II. Many commentators, Jewish and gentile,
are therefore calling the new apologies insufficient.
Even the New York Times, forgetting its own praise of Pius during
the war for his condemnations of racial persecution, has joined the
chorus of calumny. Pius has become the target of a virulent hate campaign
that began with the play The Deputy in 1963 and has recently gained
new impetus from a book smearing Pius as “Hitler’s Pope.”
Hitler himself would have found this judgment surprising; he called
Pius a “mouthpiece of the Jews.” Israel Zolli, Grand Rabbi
of Rome during the war, agreed with Hitler on this point: he was so
grateful for Pius’s efforts to save Jews that he became a Catholic
after the war and took Pius’s baptismal name, Eugenio, as his
own. When Pius died in 1958, many Jewish leaders, including Golda Meir,
praised him profusely.
What has happened since 1958 to obscure Pius’s good deeds and
blacken his name? The facts haven’t changed; but popular perspective
True, Pius never specifically condemned “the Holocaust”;
he never heard the term used as we now use it. It came into use only
after the war — in fact, only years after his death. Franklin
Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who did virtually nothing to save
Jews from Nazis, never referred to the persecution as “the Holocaust” either
and said very little about it in any terms. But, being liberal heroes,
they have been pardoned. Spain’s Francisco Franco saved tens
of thousands of Jews but, like Pius, was a “reactionary” Catholic
and is thus ineligible for liberal praise.
A thoughtful book by the historian Peter Novick, The Holocaust in
American Life (published by Houghton Mifflin), reminds us not only
that the term the Holocaust is of recent origin but also that it represents
a very recent way of thinking.
During the 1940s, the persecution of the Jews was not neatly separated,
in people’s minds, from the enormous welter of violence that
was World War II. Novick observes that “throughout the war (and,
as we will see, for some time thereafter) what we now call the Holocaust
was neither a distinct entity nor particularly salient. The murder
of European Jewry, insofar as it was understood or acknowledged, was
just one among the countless dimensions of a conflict that was consuming
the lives of tens of millions around the globe. It was not ‘the
Holocaust’; it was simply the (underestimated) Jewish fraction
of the holocaust then engulfing the world.”
He repeats the point emphatically: “What we now call ‘the
Holocaust’ ... seemed to most people at the time simply the Jewish
portion of the worldwide holocaust that had consumed between fifty
and sixty million victims.”
Even Jewish groups didn’t make the kind of vocal protest Pius
is now being condemned for failing to make. They preferred to speak
in more general terms of the various victims of Nazism. Novick quotes
them as speaking in rhetorically inclusive lists — “the
Czechs, the Poles, the Jews, the Russians” or “Catholics,
Protestants, Jews” — that gave the impression that the
Jews were only one among many Nazi target groups. Only much later did
Jewish suffering gain preeminence in popular understanding. Wartime
decorum resisted singling out specific ethnic groups; that was felt
to be the Nazis’ game.
From a Catholic perspective, it’s more surprising that Pius
said so little about Communism, the bombing of cities, and nuclear
weapons. He could easily have discouraged Catholics from fighting for
the Allied cause if he’d been “Hitler’s Pope.” Throughout
the war, in fact, he ignored Hitler’s pleas for a condemnation
of Communism, though before and after the war he was militantly anti-Communist.
Millions of Catholics fought and died on the Allied side. One wonders
whether they would have been so ready to make sacrifices if they had
known that after the war countless of their fellow Catholics would
fall under Communist rule, while their Pope and their Church would
be smeared as Hitler’s accomplices.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on March 28, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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