History and the Holocaust: Holding the Vatican to Account
Historical narratives in the Middle East have often been the most malleable of things, twisted and adapted to suit the needs of political or monied interests. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in his ambitious and sweeping tome, Jerusalem: The Biography, during the 1990s, the PLO banned Palestinian historians from admitting that there had been a Jewish Temple built upon the Haram al-Sharif. This instruction came from the top, and at Camp David in 2000 when peace was within pen’s reach, Yasser Arafat is said to have “shocked” American and Israeli negotiators by suggesting that the Temple was in fact located on the Samaritan Mount Gerizim. Any Jewish claim to the Mount or indeed the city itself was therefore a kind of modern fabrication.
The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has too suffered from the existence of propagandistic and nationalistic historical narratives from which deviation was (and in some cases still is) deemed unacceptable. It was not until the 1980s in Israel that, thanks in the rise of the New Historians including Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, the hypothesis that the Land’s Arab population in 1948 fled their homes of their own will, or that they were instructed to do so by their leadership, was publically challenged and discredited by worthy scholars. On the other side of the fence in Palestinian schools, whilst textbooks have had passages which incite violence expunged, the State Department found that they often showed “imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy”, with some failing to depict “the current political reality, showing neither Israel nor the settlements”. It very much remains the case that one man’s atzmaut is another man’s nakba.
Within Israel and the wider West at least, those whose pursuit is the study of the Holocaust have by contrast been committed to the search for a truthful historical narrative. This is not to say the Holocaust is not open to historical debate – see the division which exists between the intentionalists and functionalists over the very origins and nature of the Shoah, as an example. It is certainly the case, however, that the volumes of research published on the Holocaust have led to the creation of a clear narrative arc, replicated in museums and memorials around the world, including in Jerusalem’s most astonishing and draining exhibit at Yad Vashem.
The most recent alteration to the main display, however, places such claims into doubt. Writing in Ha’aretz, Nir Hasson reports that a wall panel explaining the role, or lack thereof, of the Vatican and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Holocaust has been edited in order to portray Pope Pius XII in a more flattering light. Whilst the previous inscription noted that Pius XII, whose accession occurred in 1939, “shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared” and “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews”, the new panel adds what might be deemed colour, adding that some argue his silence “left the initiative to rescue Jews to individual clerics and laymen” who carried out “a considerable number of secret rescue activities”.
It is true, for example, that Pius XII did not sign the Concordat with the Nazi regime, making it the first state to recognise Hitler’s new government even after the bloody Machtergreifung eliminated basic political rights for all citizens, began turning political enemies to dust, initiated a boycott of Jewish businesses, and barred Jews from the professions – that dishonour can be attributed to his predecessor, Pius XI. And, it is a matter of record that Catholic priests, including the future Pope John Paul II, acted clandestinely during the Second World War and the Holocaust to undermine the authority of the occupying regime, and even in some cases to shelter and smuggle Jews who faced confinement in the ghettos and enslavement and termination in the camps.
Knowing this, however, should not and cannot absolve the Vatican from its responsibility, passive or otherwise. The Reichskonkordat granted an air of diplomatic respectability that deserved it not, all for the sake of preserving the privileged status of the Catholic Church in German society. Pius XII closed his airs to pleas from the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, to aid the Jews of Lithuania and Spain, and did nothing to halt the massacres occurring across the Ukraine in spite of a clear letter from that nation’s Metropolitan, Andrej Septyckyj, to note but two examples. It was only in 1944, once the tide of the war has evidently turned, that Pius XII abandoned his silence of neutrality in order to protest against the scale of the undertaking afflicting Hungarian Jewry.
This is not to suggest that historians of the Holocaust, or the curators of Yad Vashem, should not be open to new historical evidence, however spurious and even if it comes from the mouths of people we do not necessarily wish to hear from. Even a historian as repugnant as David Irving who stands up and denies that the Holocaust ever happened “not only has the right to speak”, Christopher Hitchens once proposed, “but that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection”, since it might at least encourage people to question why they know exactly what they think they already understand. “Every time you silence someone,” he rightly surmised, “you make yourself a prisoner of your own action since you deny yourself the right to hear something”.
Dan Michman, director of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, maintains that changes to the museum’s narrative were made “in response to additional research after the Vatican allowed scholars to examine documents dating up to 1939”. At once, it still remains the case that all material relevant to the study of the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust remains under lock and key in the Holy See. The museum added that “no negotiation or coordination with the Vatican regarding the wording of the wall text” – it would be a shame if we were to discover otherwise, that Israel’s hall of memories was exposed to tampering and outsider interference on account of political pressure.
After all, one of the purposes of historical debate and the search for truth is to hold to account those who bore witness to atrocities yet watched with disinterest as millions were guided towards the slaughterhouse. This applies to many theatres, including those in our near past like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, but in the case of the Shoah – a crime unique in its scale, its cold, industrialised methods, and the wicked, callous, and brutish ideology behind its execution — the quest for historical truth matters all the more.
Historians have, for instance, uncovered Britain and the United States’ wilful ignorance with regard to the nature and extent of the killing, namely the revelation that those allied against the Nazi regime possess reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz-Birkenau, leaving open the possibility of an aerial strike on the gas chambers or railway junction in order to render the camp inoperable and prevent additional slaughter. They chose not to act, and to that extent, the Allied Powers were responsible, if only in small part, for the scale of the Holocaust in abdicating its responsibility to protect and failing to act when morality and decency demanded it. Yet whilst some nations and institutions might be called complicit, some were evidently more complicit than others, and this includes the Vatican and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.
On account of their descent from the perpetuators of the offence, millions of German schoolchildren undertake multiple years of Holocaust education in their formative years: hours of historical and social classes; visits to sites of mass extermination; lectures from survivors. Those uninformed of the horror of their nation’s past upon graduation from high school would have to have worked incredibly hard to be so unaware. Tony Judt therefore describes Germany in Postwar as “at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country’s singular crime”.
The Vatican meanwhile, having been an officially anti-Semitic institution for almost its entire existence, even maintaining that the Jewish people were responsible for deicide for twenty years after the end of the Second World War, has displayed evidence of backsliding with regard to Holocaust remembrance. The previous Pope, the aforementioned John Paul II, issued a formal apology in 1998 for failing to speak up during the Holocaust and even raised the question of whether anti-Christian against Jews made its implementation easier. Yet in 2009, the present Pontiff Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson – who once said, “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler”, adding “I believe there were no gas chambers” – and three other members of the Society of Saint Pius X, a schismatic entity which rebelled against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Amongst these was the order which relieved the Jews of having murdered Jesus of Nazareth.
Upon the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in 1993, President Clinton stressed the importance of preserving a “shared history of anguish” as to “keep it so vivid and real that evil can be combated and contained”. Memory and history was to be a tool, and as such “we must all compete for the interpretation and the preservation of history”. The search for historical truth, then, in a region traditionally absent of it and ignorant of its awesome power is vitally important. It would be unfortunate if Yad Vashem and Holocaust museums around the world painted an inaccurate or clouded picture of the Shoah, thus preventing Catholics and non-Catholics alike from gaining a fuller understanding of the Vatican’s role in the twentieth century’s greatest historical crime.