Smearing a Pope
March 28, 2000
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 Hitlers
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 Piuss efforts to save
Jews that he became a Catholic after the war and took Piuss
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 Piuss good deeds and blacken his name? The facts
havent changed; but popular perspective has.
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.
Spains Francisco Franco saved tens of thousands of Jews but, like
Pius, was a reactionary Catholic and is thus ineligible for
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 peoples 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
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 didnt 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,
its 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 hed been
Hitlers Pope. Throughout the war, in fact, he ignored
Hitlers 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 Hitlers accomplices.
Archive Table of Contents
Return to SOBRANS home page