New York Review of Books
The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965by Michael Phayer
"Very valuable . . . a fine and judicious book . . . " Istv�n De�k, New York Review of Books
"A well-reasoned but damning overview of the Vatican's response to Nazi atrocities during and after WWII. . . . A fair and even-tempered account of a volatile subject." Kirkus Reviews
"Phayer makes an important addition to the literature of Holocaust… See more details below
"Very valuable . . . a fine and judicious book . . . " Istv�n De�k, New York Review of Books
"A well-reasoned but damning overview of the Vatican's response to Nazi atrocities during and after WWII. . . . A fair and even-tempered account of a volatile subject." Kirkus Reviews
"Phayer makes an important addition to the literature of Holocaust studies: he provides evidence that Pope Pius XII . . . knew in early 1942 what was happening to Europe's Jews . . . yet he remained silent. . . . " Publishers Weekly
Throwing the spotlight relentlessly on Pius XII ("Hitler's Pope") has skewed the question surrounding Catholicism and the Holocaust, depriving us of a record of what the entire church did or did not do. Such a record is provided for the first time in the Michael Phayer's compelling book. Phayer shows that without effective church leadership under Pius XII, Catholics acted ambiguously during the Holocaustsome saving Jews, others helping Hitler murder them, the majority simply standing by. After the Holocaust, with Pope John XXIII at the healm, the church moved swiftly to rid itself of centuries-long antisemitic tradition.
Author Biography: Michael Phayer is Professor of History at Marquette University. His two most recent books, Protestant Catholic Women in Nazi Germany and (with Eva Fleischner) Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust, deal extensively with Catholic-Jewish relations before and during the Shoah.
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Catholic Attitudes toward Jews before the Holocaust
Beliefs and feelings of European Catholics toward Jews varied considerably on the eve of the Holocaust. Antisemitism, it is true, was prevalent everywhere. But the kinds and degrees of antisemitism differed widely from east to west and from north to south. Scholars have pointed to the vehement antisemitism of the Church Fathers and have drawn up concordances comparing antisemitic policies of medieval Christian rulers with those of the Nazis. Although these facts cannot be contested, traditional Christian antisemitism did not cause the Holocaust. However, along with more modern varieties of antisemitism, it conditioned some European Catholics to become part of Hitler's murderous machinery.
The Vatican itself was a principal reason why Catholic attitudes toward Jews lacked uniformity. Although the church had defined the dogma of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals at the First Vatican Council (1870), the popes did not speak officially about Jews. In fact, the Holy See's attitude appeared to be changing under Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), but under Pius XII (1939-1958) this trend reversed. This shift meant that even if the Vatican had possessed the influence to dictate Catholic feelings toward Jews (which it did not), little attitudinal change would have occurred. Still, the promising direction that Catholic-Jewish issues had taken under Pius XI (only to end abruptly under Pius XII) had positive and negative effects on how Catholics responded to the Holocaust.
Just whatwas the "new direction" of Pius XI, and what evidence is there for it? Perhaps anticipating fascist antisemitism, the Vatican issued an important statement on antisemitism in 1928. The directive broke no ground theologically, referring as it did to the Jews as blind for rejecting their messiah and as the former people of God, but it condemned all antisemitic hatred and stated that the Vatican wished to protect Jews from unjust treatment. Acting consistently with the 1928 directive, Pius XI published his famous encyclical in 1937, Mit brennender Sorge, which condemned racism (but not Hitler or National Socialism, as some have erroneously asserted). Consistent with the directive of the previous decade, the encyclical affirmed Christianity's roots in the Old Testament but called attention to the crucifixion of the Savior by the Jews.
A number of events took place in 1938 which indicate an increasingly confrontational attitude on the part of Pope Pius XI toward fascist racism. The Anschluss, or Nazi seizure of Austria, occurred in the spring, in conjunction with which Hitler made a triumphant entry into his former city of residence, Vienna. To welcome him, the reigning prelate of that country, Cardinal Theodore Innitzer, rang the bells of the city's churches and flew the Nazi flag from them. Furious at this, Pius ordered Innitzer to Rome for a dressing down, which was communicated in detail through diplomatic channels to the United States so that world governments would know where the Vatican stood regarding Hitler's Germany. Shortly thereafter, when Benito Mussolini decked out Rome's streets with Nazi swastikas on the occasion of Hitler's state visit in May, the pope snubbed the dictators by leaving the city. While Hitler was still in Rome, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano carried a front-page article roundly condemning Nazi racist ideas about the purity of blood and forbidding Catholics to teach such notions.
By summertime Pius was warming even more to the task. After the Italian government put out a racist declaration in July, Pius XI pointed out the contradiction between Catholicism and racism to two audiences. To one group he said that "catholic" means universal, not racist and separatist; a week later, Pius told a group of 200 seminarians that there is only one human race and that Catholic Action, a religious activist group, should oppose racism. Both addresses were published in L'Osservatore Romano. Pius then resolved to speak authoritatively about the problem of antisemitism and racism. We know this because in August Pius XI asked American Jesuit John LaFarge to start work immediately on a draft of an encyclical on racism.
Pius XI's words to a group of Belgian pilgrims in September 1938 were of great significance for many Catholics during the Holocaust. Speaking more positively and theologically than the 1928 directive had, Pius XI began to build a bridge between Christians and Jews when he told the Belgian Catholics that Christians are children of Abraham, which should make antisemitism abhorrent to them. Instead, Christians should learn from Abraham faith, reliance on God, and obedience to his will. Jewish leader Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich believes that had this attitude struck root in the Christian west before the Holocaust, it might have been prevented or diminished in its fury.
Historian Ronald Modras has pointed out the unique circumstances surrounding Pius's words "Spiritually we are Semites," spoken to the Belgian pilgrims. Pope Pius spoke spontaneously after reading a text in a Mass book about Abraham, who he referred to as "our Father, our Ancestor." "Antisemitism," the pope went on, "is not compatible with the sublime thought and reality which are expressed in this text." The pope then paused, overcome with emotion, before continuing. "It is not possible for Christians to participate in antisemitism." Pius's identification of Christians and Jews as belonging to the same tradition became widely known among Catholics in western Europe.
The spontaneity with which the pope spoke was remarkable. Equally remarkable were the circumstances surrounding the publication of his words. Realizing that since he had spoken to the Belgian group before the beginning of a general audience his statement would not be printed in the official publication Acta Apostolicae Sedis or in the Vatican's newspaper, Pius asked that the Belgian Catholics, who were in the communication field, see to its publication. Because of this, Pius's phrase"we are Semites"provided inspiration for Catholic rescuers during the Holocaust.
Pope Pius XI's repeated denunciations of racism in 1938 were inconsistent with his silence toward the end of the year in connection with the great destruction of German Jewish life and property that took place during the November pogrom of 1938, or "Kristallnacht." Undoubtedly, the pope's previous utterances against fascist racism led many churchmen, including some of the most prominentCardinals Schuster of Milan, Van Roey of Belgium, Verdier of Paris, and the Patriarch of Lisbonto condemn stringently the Nazi violence of November. But why would the pope have kept silent after speaking out with much less provocation during the preceding months? It has been suggested that Pius was dissuaded by the caution of his secretary of state and successor, Eugenio Pacelli. This is a possible explanation, since the pope was nearing the end of his lifehe would suffer a debilitating heart attack within a fortnightand Pacelli was viewed as his probable successor. Still, when Italy's racial laws were decreed almost simultaneously with the November events in Germany, Pius XI reacted negatively, asking why "Italy was disgracefully imitating Germany."
A more likely explanation for Pius's uncharacteristic silence would be that he intended to speak to the outrages of the November pogrom definitively in an encyclical. The pope was expecting the draft of an encyclical on racism which he had commissioned in August (Humani Generis UnitasThe Unity of Humankind). Unbeknownst to the pope, one of the draft's authors, American Jesuit John LaFarge, had already delivered it to the general of the Jesuit Society, Wladimir Ledóchowski. When the co-author of the draft, German Jesuit Gustav Gundlach, attempted to find out why the draft had not been forwarded to the pope, Ledóchowski gave him no explanation and told him that he need not concern himself with the matter any further! Nonplussed and disillusioned, Gundlach wrote to LaFarge expressing his fear that the draft had fallen victim to Vatican intrigue occasioned by Pius XI's approaching death, adding that his deep trust in General Ledóchowski had turned out to be misplaced.
LaFarge and Gundlach decided finally to bypass their superior, Ledóchowski. This strategy worked, but the manuscript evidently did not reach the pope's desk until weeks or days before his death in February 1939. With Pius too ill to make whatever changes he felt necessary before publishing the encyclical, it ended up as unfinished business. Immediately after the pope died, the manuscript disappeared.
Copies of the draft, discovered years later, revealed that its views on antisemitism were quite unexceptional culturally and theologically. But, despite its weaknesses, it did condemn both racism and racial antisemitism explicitly. One draft likened German antisemitic racism to American anti-Negro racism, and bemoaned the fact that this prevented the church from becoming "a house of God ... for all races." We have no idea, of course, how the pope might have changed the encyclical so that it would express his reaction to the November pogrom, his oft-repeated warnings about racism, or his "Spiritually we are Semites" assertion of September. Gundlach knew that the death of Pius XI closed the door on the ill-fated encyclical draft. He wrote to LaFarge that the election of Pacelli to succeed Pius XI meant that diplomacy would now take precedence over justice.
Fascism, Antisemitism, and Pius XII
A clue signaling that Pius XII would not share his predecessor's vocal opposition to racism and antisemitism occurred in Hungary in 1938 on the occasion of the International Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest. The congress met in the spring at a time of increased antisemitism in Hungary, whose first antisemitic laws were at that moment being passed by the legislature. The Vatican secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, addressed the congress, making reference to Jews "whose lips curse [Christ] and whose hearts reject him even today." Such a statement given in Hungary at the time of the new legislation would have fed the country's antisemitic inclinations. Certainly it ran counter to Pius XI's September statement urging Catholics to honor their spiritual father Abraham.
Soon after Pacelli became pope, a situation arose in Vichy France which illustrated the Vatican's lassitude regarding fascist antisemitism. In 1940 the first antisemitic decrees took place, eliminating Jews as public employees. Catholic reaction was ambiguous: two bishops and some priests endorsed the law; others opposed it. In the summer of the following year, the Vichy government issued a second antisemitic decree. This time Catholic reaction against it was sharp enough to cause the conservative rightist government to inquire about the Holy See's views.
Vichy's ambassador to the Vatican, Léon Bérard, reported back to his government that he had spoken with very competent authorities, and that the Holy See had no insurmountable difficulties with the statute and did not intend to become involved in the matter. The Vatican's nuncio to France, Valerio Valeri, became embarrassed when Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain presented him with this information at a public gathering. Thinking that Bérard had probably oversimplified the Vatican's position, Valeri checked the accuracy of the report through Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione. Valeri learned that Bérard had consulted with top Vatican personnel, Monsignors Domenico Tardini (Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs) and Giovanni Montini (who became Pope Paul VI in 1963). Although Maglione told Valeri that he thought the statute was unfortunate, the Vatican did not choose to change its position or overrule the report given by Bérard to Pétain.
Shortly after the episode in France, new antisemitic lawsa Jewish Codewere promulgated in Catholic Slovakia in September 1941. The code differed from France's law in that it disallowed marriage between Jews and non-Jews. This time the Holy See disapproved. The Vichy law, racist though it was, lacked the marital proscription and got past the pope without remonstrance. The Vichy incident underscored the low priority the new pope gave to racism. With the Holocaust about to begin, the Vatican, invited by the French government to provide direction regarding treatment of Jews, failed to do so.
Two early pioneers who sought to improve Catholic-Jewish relations in the 1930s, Austrian John Oesterreicher and German Karl Thieme, thought they detected a sharp break in papal policy when Pius XII succeeded Pius XI. In the face of Nazi antisemitism, the Austrian and German wanted to put together a pro-Jewish statement for European dignitaries to underwrite. But Thieme doubted Pius XII would sign on. The new pope seemed too fearful of Nazism. Oesterreicher wrote in June 1939 that it was inconceivable why Pius XII, after all his concordatory work as secretary of state had been violated by the Nazis, "would stick with diplomatic approaches instead of speaking out truthfully." Oesterreicher referred disdainfully to the new pontiff's feckless flattering of Hitler and remarked that if he was still trying to get the Führer to abide by the Concordat, it was time to either laugh or cry.
For centuries, dating back to medieval times, the Catholic church has attempted to regularize relations between itself and other states through treaties known as Concordats. They serve the purpose of safeguarding the rights of the church in a foreign country. As secretary of state under Pope Pius XI from 1930 to 1939, Eugenio Pacelli forged several Concordats. The most important one for our purposes linked the Vatican in 1933 with the new Nazi regime in Germany under Adolf Hitler. In addition, Pacelli played an important role in the negotiations leading to the Lateran Treaty in 1929 between the Vatican and Mussolini's fascist Italian government. The treaty is also of great importance for this study because it settled the "Roman Question" by creating Vatican City as an independent and sovereign state in the center of the city of Rome. During the Second World War Pacelli, as Pope Pius XII, became preoccupied with preserving his state, Vatican City, from bombardment.
Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, a Vatican insider, spoke critically of the new pope in 1940, revealing his perception of the disappointing difference between Pius XI and his successor. Tisserant told his fellow countryman Cardinal Suhard of Paris that Pius XII's policies in diplomacy were self-serving, "and this is extremely sadparticularly for one who has lived in the reign of Pius XI." When Germany invaded Poland and proceeded to terrorize the Polish people, the English minister to the Vatican, Francis Osborne, made the same disadvantageous comparison of Pius XII to his predecessor. "The Holy Father appears to be ... adopting an ostrich-like policy toward these notorious atrocities. It is felt that as a consequence of this exasperating attitude, the great moral authority enjoyed by the Papacy throughout the world under Pius XI has today been notably diminished."
Catholic Attitudes about Jews beyond the Vatican
In Catholic Europe beyond Rome, attitudes toward Jews differed considerably. The exception to this general statement concerns naturalized Jews, the outsiders in every country. These were the hapless Jews who had emigrated from one state to another after the Great War or who found themselves stateless as a result of Nazi-sponsored border changes at the beginning of the Second World War. In France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Rumania, and Hungary, these Jews experienced greater hostility from indigenous nationals than did native Jews.
In Germany itself, an influx of Jewish immigrants after the Great War stirred up antisemitism. In Austria, the young ne'er-do-well Hitler reacted strongly, some would say neurotically, when he encountered Orthodox or Chassidic Jews in Vienna before the Great War. Later, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, many Jews fled into Ukraine. The leader of the Greek Catholic church wrote to the Vatican that the Jews gave "the activities of the [Russian or Soviet] authorities a character of sordid avarice which one is accustomed to seeing only among Jewish petty merchants." Romanian Jews, who were culturally Hungarian and former Hungarian nationals, found they were unwelcome in their one-time home country after being returned as a result of a border revision with Romania. More than 100,000 former Transylvanian Jewsbranded as aliensfound themselves in a similar position. After Vichy passed antisemitic legislation, French bishops affirmed the natural rights of Jews, but many of those who reacted against the law made a distinction between the rights of French Jews and those of immigrant Jews.
Attitudes toward sedentary Jews, on the other hand, varied from country to country. The ambiguity of the Vatican's own position regarding antisemitism accounts for some of this diversity. Even in Italy, in closest proximity to the Vatican, variations were commonplace. Some priests gladly sought to "aryanize" Jews by providing them with baptismal certificates, even back-dating them if necessary. Other priests did not. Of course, in the church each bishop oversees the spiritual affairs of his own flock, but from time to time the Holy See has attempted to assert greater influence locally. This was especially the case after the First Vatican Council in 1870, which had increased papal authority substantially. But this remained without effect on Catholic-Jewish relations throughout the Catholic world, simply because the Vatican itself had not given the matter of antisemitism a high priority.
The countries of eastern Europe, newly established after the Great War, vibrated with a national Catholic identity that excluded Jews. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in Poland, whose government even failed to fulfill its obligations, stipulated by the Paris Peace Conference, toward minorities. The print media of the church and the private sector built up a laundry list of grievances against Jews. Readers learned to equate the word "Jew" with "Bolshevik," "Freemason," "liberal," and "international capitalist." Consequently, Jews took the blame for prostitution and pornography or whatever other woes plagued the country. The Franciscan pressabove all their Maly dziennik, Poland's largest circulating dailyidentified Jews with Communists. Catholic priest Stanislaw Trzeciak wrote obsessively about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and his ideas were widely circulated in the Catholic press. Even after the Protocols were exposed as fabricated plagiarism, they continued to be popular in Poland.
In both Poland and Hungary, the belief that Jews were "Christ-killers" was common. Less common, but widespread, was the accusation of blood libel. Catholic newspapers nurtured both myths. The particulars of the blood libel myth varied, but the basic notion was that Jews engaged in ritual murder of Christian infants or children to use their blood to make unleavened bread or Passover wine. In 1882, Hungarian Jewess Tisza Eszlar was accused of murdering a Christian child. Courts of law found her innocent, but Catholics believed in her guilt and kept the libel story circulating. The Vatican had held no truck with this nonsense for several centuries, but it did nothing to disabuse Catholics in eastern Europe of the hateful tales. In fact, the Jesuit journal Cività Catholica, published at the Vatican, accused the Jews of being "Christ-killers" and of ritual murder as late as 1941 and 1942. As in Poland, Hungarian Jews were identified with Marxists and liberals. Newspapers such as the National Journal and the New Generation made them the scapegoat for Hungary's misfortunes during the Great War.
Religious antisemitism of the sort associated with the ritual murder myth no longer had currency in Germany. Religious antisemitism and Nazi racial antisemitism are clearly distinct, but this does not mean that historically the two could not be linked. In May of 1943, at which time Hungarian Jews had not yet been molested by Germany, the two Nazis most responsible for the implementation of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, plotted to use the ritual murder myth to their advantage to exterminate eastern European Jews. Himmler, Reich Führer for the Establishment of the German People, wrote to Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Reich Main Office for Security, instructing him to spread ritual murder propaganda in Hungary so that it would be easier to extract their Jews.
The ritual murder myth was beginning to decline in Austria, but the Anderl von Rhinn shrine in the Tyrol, which depicted Jews siphoning off the blood of the slain youth, was still popular. Unofficial religious devotion still pilloried Jews as "Christ-killers," as in the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, but these events did not bestir deep antisemitic feeling. In interwar Germany, "assimilated Jew" was a negative term referring to secular, educated, deracinated people of Jewish heritage. The idea that such Jews threatened civilization found its way into influential Catholic journals such as the Jesuit organ Stimmen der Zeit. But the same journal also published articles proclaiming the religious nature of Judaism and denouncing antisemitism. Other Catholic journals, including Junge Front, also supported Jews. In Germany, in contrast to eastern European countries, there was no obsession with Jewish issues. On the contrary, the German Catholic press took little interest in such questions.
Hitler's Mein Kampf was also ignored by the German Catholic press. The Nazi brand of antisemitism was rejected in no uncertain terms, and Nazi violence toward Jews when Hitler finally achieved power in January 1933 was not supported in Germany, although some Austrian Catholic newspapers did. Unlike the Polish Catholic press, which generally reported that the national pogrom of 1938 was wrong but "understandable," German Catholic papers did not give the event coverage. Readers would understand this as being tacitly negative, because the press supported religious Jews. Before the Concordat between the Vatican and Germany was signed, Catholic newspapers had predicted that the church and National Socialism would be enemies if Hitler came to power.
Nazism fared better among Austrians, for whom a certain measure of hatred toward Jews was more or less part and parcel of the believing Catholic. At least three Catholic churches in the country had stained-glass window depictions of Jews carrying out ritual murder. By the time of the Anschluss (1938), many Austrian priests were outspokenly antisemitic; others, only moderately so. This prejudice was mirrored in the Christian Socialist party and in newspapers that showed some tolerance for Nazi violence toward Jews. In commenting on Hungarian antisemitic laws and on Jacques Maritain's book The Impossibility of Antisemitism, the Catholic weekly Schönere Zukunft warned that conversion to Christianity did not expunge the Jew's race. Christian nations had to be on guard, because even good Jewish converts could ruin a country's social and economic life. Still, the overall position of the Catholic press held that Nazi racism was inconsistent with Catholic teaching. A young Catholic priest and Jewish convert, John Oesterreicher, combated antisemitism in Austria, whose church leader, Cardinal Innitzer, approved of his work. But Oesterreicher found that there were limits to what he could realistically try to accomplish because of the great number of "brown Catholics" or "Nazikatholiken" in Austria. Eugon Kogon wrote that it was precisely antisemitism that attracted Austrians to Nazism.
After Cardinal Innitzer's 1938 papal dressing down, he opposed compromises with Nazism more forthrightly than did his counterpart in Germany, Cardinal Bertram. The star decree illustrates this. Wishing to further stigmatize Jews, Hitler ordered them to wear the Star of David in public, beginning in the fall of 1941. This meant that Catholics would worship at services alongside Jewish converts who would be clearly marked by the star. Some Catholics refused to kneel next to a converted "Jew" to take the Eucharist at the communion rail. (Prior to 1965, the sanctuaries of Catholic churches were partitioned off from the laity by a railing at which communicants knelt side by side to receive the Eucharist during mass.)
Cardinals Innitzer and Bertram responded differently to the dilemma that the star decree created among Catholics. The German prelate directed priests to avoid any announcements that would be embarrassing for converted "Jews," such as declaring a portion of the communion rail off-limits for them. However, should Nazi party members create a scene in church to protest the presence of Jews, the latter were to be directed to attend an early morning mass which would not be frequented by Nazis. Thus, in case of a confrontation, Nazis would be accommodated at the expense of Catholics of Jewish descent. At the time of the decree, there were still about 8,000 Jews living in Vienna, many of them converts or married to Catholics. Innitzer ordered that no distinction based on race should be allowed in prayers or liturgy, and he told parish personnel not to make distinctions based on race.
The following year, 1942, another crisis arose when the Nazis threatened to dissolve by decree all Jewish-Gentile marriages. Marriages between Jews and Catholics and between converted "Jews" and Catholics were considered valid by the church, that is, sacramental. Both Bertram and Innitzer reacted strongly. A protest from Cardinal Bertram, together with planned simultaneous local protests on the part of both Protestant and Catholic churches, forestalled the divorce decree. Innitzer went so far as to request that Pope Pius intervene in the matter by contacting Hitler himself.
In spite of such conflicts between Nazism and the church, one Austrian bishop stood out conspicuously for his adulation of Hitler. Alois Hudal, who by his own admission harbored Nazi war criminalsincluding the most infamous ones such as Adolf Eichmannafter the Second World War, was obsessed with Jews. Hudal accused the Jews of undermining European society in general and German society in particular. Hudal defended the Nazi movement and the Nuremberg racial laws as well. In 1936 Hudal published a booklet, The Foundations of National Socialism, and in 1942 a second pro-Nazi pamphlet, Europe's Religious Future. The latter piece was in answer to an Italian publication written by Francesco Orestano which appeared in Gerarchia, a fascist journal founded by Mussolini. The Italian asserted that after the German conquest of Europe, Teutonic culture would have to integrate itself with European culture, meaning, among other things, that Nazi antisemitism would have to be mitigated. Hudal responded that Jews inspired both liberalism and Bolshevism, and that Christianity must use Nazism to fight these corrupting elements.
In spite of his appreciation of Nazism, Hudal won an appointment as the rector of the Collegia del Anima in Rome, the school of theology for Austrian seminarians. There he remained throughout the Nazi era, acting on occasion as an intermediary between Pius XII and Nazi occupational forces, and, after the war, helping Holocaust perpetrators to escape justice.
French Catholics no longer believed in blood libel stories, but, like other Europeans, they were antisemitic for religious or social reasons, as distinct from racial antisemitism. French church leaders, both bishops and cardinals, condemned Nazi racism as it developed during the 1930s. This, together with the Vatican's own denunciation of racism in 1937, had considerable impact on French Catholics, except for the radical right.
In addition, there was a layer of secular antisemitism in France, which especially targeted post-World War I immigrants. This bias fed on newly published editions of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion which accused Jews of sedition and treason. Both kinds of antisemitism were fanned by radical right-wing Catholics, who had nurtured a dominant strain of antisemitism dating back to the previous century, when Eduard Drumont published La France Juive. In the 1930s Action Française, along with individuals like Charles Maurras, perpetuated antisemitism with great effect, particularly among the older clergy. Articles in the journal Études were consistently antisemitic but lacked the strident tone of the Catholic right. A middle-of-the-road Catholic publication was mildly antisemitic. Another journal, the Semaine religieuse of Evreux, published an article under SS duress justifying Nazi antisemitic measures in France. These journals were balanced, to a much greater extent than in eastern European countries, by other prominent Catholic writers and intellectuals such as those on the theological faculty of the university of Lille. Jacques Maritain published The Impossibility of Antisemitism in 1937, and a French-speaking Belgian Jesuit wrote a book that discredited the Protocols.
The same balance characterized the English-language Catholic press. Although the American Catholic press largely ignored the torment of the Jews, two leading weekly journals, Commonweal and America, took notice of Nazi antisemitism from the beginning of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 to the end of the Holocaust. After describing accurately the November pogrom of 1938, America editorialized that "We have no words to express our horror and detestation of the barbarous and un-Christian treatment of the Jews by Nazi Germany." America's continuous coverage of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaustfifty-six articles and forty editorialsresulted, no doubt, from the influence of John LaFarge, one of its editors.
On the eve of the Holocaust, no one was as farsighted as Maritain regarding Judaism. The French philosopher broke entirely new ground by insisting on the permanence of Yahweh's covenant with Israel and on the necessity of Christian-Jewish reconciliation for the survival of western civilization. In The Impossibility of Antisemitism, Maritain condemned the prejudice of Maurras and even rejected his own views of 1921, which had justified antisemitic legislation.
Maritain was not content to remain on a theological level in his fight against antisemitism. In 1939 he published A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question, a scathing attack on antisemitism as it was found in various European countries. He pointed out the stupidity of stereotyping Jews as bankers or financiers when they numbered some 16 million, many of whom lived in poverty. Drawing on information in the American journal Catholic Worker, Maritain alluded to the fact that various U.S. rabbinical associations had condemned Russia's persecution of Christians. Unfortunately, the reverse was not true: the influence of Nazism in eastern Europe, in countries which were largely Catholic, was bringing about an increase of antisemitism.
Antisemitic Legislation in Catholic Fascist Countries
After Germany's 1935 Nuremberg Laws were promulgated, copycat legislation became the order of the day in much of Europe. As we have seen, Maritain's own countrymen were party to it in Vichy France, as was Hungary, starting in 1938 at the time of the World Eucharistic Congress. There was an essential difference between Catholics in eastern and western Europe in this regard, however. Catholic priests and bishops in the west were not active in political circles or parliaments that adopted antisemitic legislation, but in the east they were.
The Arrow Cross, Hungary's very antisemitic far-right political organization, was supported by individual priests and even bishops such as Jozsef Grosz, who was promoted in 1943 by Pius XII to the bishopric of Kalocsa, the second most important bishopric in the country. Clergymen such as Cardinal Justinian Serédi and Bishop Gyula Glattfelder, who served in Hungary's Upper Chamber of Parliament, voted in favor of antisemitic legislation first passed in 1938. These laws began with economic and social restrictions on Jews, and culminated during World War II with a government initiative to expel Jews from Hungary. When Russia occupied the Baltic countries in 1939, Lithuanian Jews asked Bishop V. Brizgys to issue a pastoral letter forbidding Catholics from participating in pogroms. "The church cannot help you," the bishop replied; "I personally can only weep and pray."
Slovakia, a new Nazi rump state formed by Hitler when Germany annexed the western half of federated Czechoslovakia, exhibited many of the same problems for Jews. Pronounced antisemitism existed well before the state fell under the Nazi shadow. During the interwar period, antisemitism characterized the Catholicism of the Slovak people. Catholic Action sought to exclude Jewish influence in business and social matters. A leading political party, the Slovak People's Party, founded and dominated by Catholic clergymen, used antisemitism to win public favor. American diplomat George F. Kennan was a witness to the antisemitic terror practiced by the party's vigilante wing, the Hlinka Guard. In 1939 a Jesuit wrote that Jews should be segregated in ghettos and marked by a badge. "The church," he wrote, "advocates the elimination of the Jews," which most likely meant their expulsion, not extermination.
With the People's Party ruling Slovakia, Monsignor Jozef Tiso, the president, promulgated the first antisemitic legislation in 1939 and 1940. It had the distinction of placing race over grace by declaring that those people who were baptized after 1918 were to be treated as Jews. Up to this point in time, the Vatican was not concerned about the events in Slovakia. It was pleased to see a new Catholic state in eastern Europe. Pope Pius XII extended an apostolic blessing to President Tiso.
The Vatican found the next year's antisemitic steps less to its liking. The Codex Judaicum, passed in September of 1941, was based on the Nuremberg Laws; the legal rights of Jews were ended. The Vatican's concern was for the rights of Jewish converts. Restrictions on marriages between Jews and Catholics upset Rome because of the principle of sacramental grace. The Slovakian bishops also deplored the Jewish Code on this score, but went further, telling Tiso that he acted against the principles of religion by persecuting people on the basis of their race. As a result of this disagreement, the Vatican "retired" Tiso's title of monsignor, thereby demoting him.
In Poland the attitude toward Jews by church authorities of the dominant Catholic culture aggravated Jewish life. Church leaders, including the titular head of the bishops, Cardinal August Hlond, believed that at best, Polish Jews could not be assimilated into the country's life, and that at worst, they poisoned it. Church leaders therefore believed that Jews should emigrate or, failing this, that their influence on domestic life should be strictly limited by law.
Polish Catholic elites followed the same pattern. Catholic students in all major universities succeeded in getting "ghetto benches" established for Jews in classrooms. Although the Catholic press fed its readers a steady diet of antisemitism, church pronouncements and literature were explicitly nonviolent regarding Jewish policy. Nevertheless, church authorities tended to overlook street violence against Jews, which became more frequent after 1935, and the Polish church did not denounce the attack on Jewish life and property that took place in Germany in November 1938. In fact, several church papers, including that of one of Poland's most important churchmen, Prince Adam Sapieha of Cracow, condoned the violence.
Meet the Author
Michael Phayer is Professor of History at Marquette University. His two
most recent books, Protestant Catholic Women in Nazi Germany and (with Eva
Fleischner) Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust,
extensively with Catholic-Jewish relations before and during the
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