Politics & Policy

An Antidotal History

A review of Michael Burleigh's history of religion from World War I to the war on terror.

As they look down from the heights of our culture, writers at the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and much of the professoriat on both sides of the Atlantic contemplate the sorry role of the Catholic Church in 20th-century history. In July 1933 the Vatican, always more comfortable with dictatorships than with democracies, helped Hitler consolidate his power by throwing overboard the Catholic Center party, which had defended the rights of German Catholics since 1870, in order to conclude a Concordat with Nazi Germany, thus becoming the first international power to recognize Germany’s new Führer. In Italy the Church welcomed Mussolini’s racial laws. The Church’s centuries old anti-Judaism furnished justification and encouragement for Nazi anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust. Welcoming Hitler’s crusade against Soviet Communism, the wartime pope, Pius XII, remained silent in the face of Hitler’s Final Solution, thus meriting the title of “Hitler’s Pope,” the man co-responsible for the death of six million Jews.

In Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to al Qaeda, his masterly survey of religion and politics from the end of World War I to the present day, British historian Michael Burleigh shows what serious students of twentieth century history have long known: every one of these widely believed assertions is false. Though a Catholic himself, Burleigh does not spare criticism of Church leaders when he finds it merited. The previous holder of prestigious academic appointments on both sides of the Atlantic, aversion to what he calls “the left university” has led him to prefer free-lance authorship.

The Vatican and Hitler

Far from being a “pact with Hitler,” the Concordat was a defensive treaty guaranteeing Church rights. Why was it needed? Emergency legislation enacted shortly after Hitler took office on January 31, 1933, enabled him to suspend the Weimar constitution, thus rendering its guarantee of religious freedom null and void. During the three months of negotiations which preceded treaty’s signing, the Holy See tried repeatedly to find a way for the Center party to continue its activities. It abandoned the attempt only when the party dissolved itself on July 4, leaving the Nazis the sole party still in existence in Germany.

Nor was the Vatican the first power to sign a treaty with Hitler. That honor belongs to the Soviet Union, which concluded trade agreements with the Reich in May 1933. Church leaders were realistic about the Concordat’s supposed protections. “With the Concordat we are hanged,” Munich’s Cardinal Faulhaber remarked. “Without it we are hanged, drawn, and quartered.” In Rome the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII), told the British minister to the Holy See that he had signed the treaty with a pistol at his head. Hitler was sure to violate the agreement, Pacelli said — adding with gallows humor that he would probably not violate all its provisions at once. Between September 1933 and March 1937 Pacelli signed over seventy notes and memoranda protesting such violations, culminating in his draft of the papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, called by Burleigh “an immensely astute critique of everything that Nazism stood for.”

Burleigh calls Hitler “a lazy, dilettantish autodidact rather than a systematic thinker … a cavernous blank behind the impassioned postures … rabidly anticlerical, rarely missing an opportunity to make snide and vulgar comments, in private, about the pope, priests and pastors. His sallies into theological matters were unimpressive, the musings of a saloon-bar bore.” The Führer’s Fascist ally, Mussolini, by contrast, was “a virile and omnipresent figure: fencing, riding, skiing, or wrestling submissive lions and tigers in the zoo. … Like Hitler, Mussolini was also a ‘workerist’, although in common with the Führer he had successfully avoided honest toil most of his life.”

The Church’s response to Mussolini’s racial laws was unequivocal. “It is not possible for Christians to take part in anti-Semitism,” the aged Pius XI told a group of Belgian pilgrims in September 1938. “Spiritually we are Jews.” Both the pope and Pacelli materially aided Jews affected by the Italian racial laws, finding some of them jobs in the Vatican, helping others to emigrate abroad.

Uninformed Criticisms

Critics who claim that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was the logical consequence of the Church’s anti-Judaism seem unaware that this argument was regularly advanced by the Nazis and Fascists themselves, only to be as often refuted by Church spokesmen.

Six months after Pacelli’s election as Pope Pius XII, he issued his first encyclical, Summi pontificatus. The New York Times called it “a powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils which he considers it has brought upon the world. … It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical – the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism.” The head of Hitler’s Gestapo agreed: “The encyclical is directed exclusively against Germany, both in ideology and in regard to the German-Polish dispute” — a reference to the pope’s explicitly expressed sympathy for Catholic Poland, then at the beginning of its long agony at the hands of Nazis and Soviets alike. If Vatican Radio soon ceased broadcasting accounts of these atrocities, this was in response to pleas from bishops in Poland, who reported that the broadcasts had provoked reprisals which worsened the suffering of their people.

With the advantage of hindsight, today’s well-paid journalists, and tenured academics living comfortably in ivy covered digs, reproach the pope for speaking so elliptically that his words could not be understood. Commenting on Pius XII’s reference, in his 1942 Christmas address, to “the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation and race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction,” one critic writes:

Pope Pius’s radio talk contained 27 words about the Holocaust out of twenty-six pages of text. The part about the Holocaust, buried in a sea of verbosity, did not mention Jews. … No one, certainly not the Germans, took it as a protest against their slaughter of the Jews.

Contemporaries judged otherwise. The German ambassador to the Holy See protested that the pontiff was “clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews.” In Berlin an official report called the Pope’s speech “one long attack on everything we stand for. Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews … and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminal.” The New York Times commented on the speech: “This Christmas more than ever [Pope Pius XII] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”


Condemning with Prudence

There are many situations in which it is not necessary to speak explicitly in order to be understood. During the July 2000 Republican political convention President Clinton’s name was scarcely mentioned. Instead we heard about “restoring dignity and integrity to the office of the president.” No one was in any doubt what those statements referred to.

Moreover, conditions in a tyrannical totalitarian regime sharpen people’s hearing to a degree hardly conceivable to those who live in open societies like our own. There was a striking example during the short-lived Czech overthrow of Communist rule in 1968. Television showed the new prime minister addressing parliament. His opening word brought prolonged, tumultuous applause. He had addressed his audience not as “Comrades” but as “Fellow citizens.” A single word constituted a declaration immediately intelligible to all.

In December 1942 Pius XII told the Jesuit rector of Rome’s Gregorian University: “They deplore the fact that the pope does not speak. But the pope cannot speak. If he spoke, things would be worse.” His words reflected awareness that a public protest by the Catholic bishops in Holland the previous July had resulted in an immediate step-up in the Nazis’ deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. In June 1943 the pope described his dilemma in an address to the College of Cardinals: “Every single word in Our statements addressed to the competent authorities, and every one of Our public utterances, has had to be weighed and pondered by Us with deep gravity, in the very interest of those who are suffering, so as not to render their position even more difficult and unbearable than before, be it unwittingly and unintentionally.” This leaves unmentioned the fact that the pope could hardly condemn Nazi atrocities without mentioning Soviet ones as well. Never abandoning the hope that he might act as a peacemaker, Pius tried to remain impartial; but morally indifferent he was not. “Pius ostentatiously refused ever to declare the war in Russia a ‘crusade,’” Burleigh writes, “just as his predecessor had denied the same blessing to Spain’s Nationalists in the mid-1930s.”

Accusations of Indifference

Pius XII’s training as a diplomat, and his undoubted negotiating skills, “may have led him to place too much faith in Vatican diplomacy. It encouraged him in a diplomatic posture to which neutrality was appropriate, but, once it was clear that the time for talking had passed, he did so arguably at the expense of his obligations as universal witness.” Such criticism is responsible, and fair. The Black Legend of a cynical and indifferent pontiff is neither.

How did this Legend arise? Burleigh answers succinctly. During the war “the Soviets hired a professional anti-religious slanderer, Michail Markovich Sheinmann, to smear the reputation of the pope, an approach subsequently elaborated by the left-wing German playwright Rolf Hochhuth in his 1963 play The Deputy, which still influences uninformed views of Pius XII. … There are many criticisms one might make of the Catholic Church, but responsibility for the Holocaust is not among them. … Making use of the Holocaust as the biggest moral club to use against the Church simply because one does not like its policies on abortion, contraception, homosexual priests, or the Middle East, is as obscene as any attempt to exploit the deaths of six million European Jews for political purposes.”

Following the war Pius XII supported both Protestants and Catholics in Germany who rejected the notion of collective guilt. Critics who find this rejection shameful do not hesitate, however, to applaud the rejection of collective guilt by the Second Vatican Council, which declared in 1965 that “neither all Jews indiscriminately at [Jesus’] time, nor Jews today” can be charged with guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion. One cannot have it both ways.

German churchmen also criticized the Allied policy of de-Nazification. The Protestant Karl Barth spoke for many when he asked what was the point of the exercise, “since enthusiasm for Nazism seemed to have evaporated long before the end of the war.” Burleigh comments: “For once, clergymen demonstrated cold-blooded realism while the Allies foundered around in a woolly-minded self-righteousness. In reality, there was a more urgent, pragmatic reason for not carrying out wholesale purges of former Nazis, namely that a blanket juridical purge would make reconstruction almost impossible, a lesson apparently not learned in contemporary Iraq.”

Wooly-minded self-righteousness was evident again in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which flourished in the 1960s. Burleigh dismisses it as “largely a stage upon which Christian and humanist radical eggheads could flaunt their wooly moralism and vulgar anti-Americanism, in the conceited delusion that the hard-headed realists in Moscow or Washington would take notice of them.”

Northern Ireland and Iraq

Burleigh’s chapter on Ireland severely criticizes the Catholic hierarchy, in particular the militantly republican Cardinal O’Fiaich [o-FEE]. In Northern Ireland, as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Burleigh writes, “both communities have an extraordinary capacity to find excuses and mitigating circumstances for what to anyone else seems like psychopathic violence, whether committed drunk or sober, a mania that has a long history on the island.”

Burleigh’s account of the blood-soaked Irish “Troubles” reads like a dress rehearsal for events in contemporary Iraq. The only thing lacking is beheadings. In both cases radical terrorists inflict ghastly atrocities on their own people, always in the name of some higher justice, with lavish financing from abroad. In the case of Northern Ireland the money and weapons came from Libya’s loony Col. Muammar Gadaffi, and from sentimental Irish Americans contributing to Noraid, an organization with similarities to certain Islamic charities today.

“We are horribly wrong in imagining that Northern Ireland is some atavistic throwback to the religious wars of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries,” Burleigh writes. “Its model of the state surrendering ‘communities’ to the tender mercies of their so-called leaders may presage the future, except that it will involve minorities who worship another God. The dreary [church] spires of Fermanagh and Tyrone will continue to haunt us … but they may well be outnumbered by the gleaming domes of Europe’s proliferating mosques, in areas from which the state has quietly retreated.” After almost four decades of strife, Northern Ireland is now enjoying an “ambiguous peace, rather than goodwill, although it is anyone’s guess whether this will hold.” One wonders whether this is not the best we can hope for in Iraq.

Religion and Secularism in Europe

In his concluding chapter on “Europe after 9/11” Burleigh notes that Europe’s public culture today “is dominated by sneering secularists, who set the tone for the rest of the population and can make light work of the average bishop rolled out to confront them. … Much of the European liberal elite regard religious people as if they come from Mars.”

As an example he cites the case of the distinguished Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione. Nominated in 2004 as a European Union justice commissioner, he was rejected because of his Catholic convictions, despite his assurance that he would continue to separate his private beliefs from his public duties, as he had done in every earlier appointment. “That the political thugs and gangsters of the [Basque] ETA, IRA-Sinn Fein and various neo-Fascists are represented in the European parliament, is apparently deemed less shocking than the appointment of a single Catholic professor.”

Are things so different in the United States? How else to account for the rise of the religious Right? “It did not arise from nowhere,” Burleigh writes, “nor did it do so without liberal provocation. … The politicization of conservative American religion began with the 1963 Supreme Court ban on prayers in public schools, and gained momentum through Roe v. Wade a decade later.”

Meanwhile, the shadow of Islam has made the expansion of Europe to include Turkey, a secular state with a Muslim majority and for decades a reliable member of NATO, “an urgent desideratum,” in Burleigh’s view. Even Pope Benedict XVI is not opposed, provided that Turkey guarantees freedom of religion for all (a crucial condition, not yet fulfilled). This may explain his being named “Person of the Year” by over 69 percent of those responding to a year-end poll by Islamonline.net. (The runner-up, at 11.5 percent, was Hamas leader Ismael Haniya, Palestine’s new prime minister.) The Catholic Church, it seems, is still not about to fade away.

John Jay Hughes is a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a church historian. His memoir No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace, will be published later this year.

<em>Sacred Causes</em>, by Michael Burleigh



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