The Holocaust wasn't Christian

Pope Benedict obscured the truth in his Auschwitz address by ignoring anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church's failures.

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
May 31, 2006

CERTAIN RARE moments provide politicians and religious leaders the setting to etch emblematic statements or gestures in historical consciousness. At a commemoration ceremony in 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt dropped spontaneously to his knees with evident emotion and contrition (even though he himself had been an enemy of Nazism) at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. John Paul II, upon becoming in 1986 the first pope ever to visit Rome's synagogue, unforgettably referred to the assembled Jews, humbly, as "our elder brothers."

Pope Benedict XVI had such a moment before him on Sunday at Auschwitz. In this time of resurgent Holocaust denial by the president of Iran and others, Benedict's visit was historically and politically important. This German pope reaffirmed with his presence and words the falsity and mendacity of Holocaust denial. He came, he said, as "a duty before the truth."

Yet the good he did by visiting Auschwitz was overshadowed by the address he delivered there, which offered none of Brandt's genuine emotion nor John Paul's humility and which failed to heed his own self-proclaimed duty to truth. Instead, Benedict clouded historical understanding, evaded moral responsibility and shirked political duty.

Benedict falsely exonerated Germans from their responsibility for the Holocaust by blaming only a "ring of criminals" who "used and abused" the duped and dragooned German people as an "instrument" of destruction. In truth, Germans by and large supported the Jews' persecution, and many of the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators were ordinary Germans who acted willingly. It is false to attribute culpability for the Holocaust wholly or even primarily to a "criminal ring." No German scholar or mainstream politician would today dare put forth Benedict's mythologized account of the past.

Benedict did say correctly that the "rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people." But he then turned the Holocaust into an assault most fundamentally not on Jews but on Christianity itself, by falsely asserting that the ultimate reason the Nazis wanted to kill Jews was "to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith" meaning that their motivation to kill Jews was because Judaism was the parent religion of Christianity.

As every historian, and even the casual student, knows and as the church's historians ordinarily take pains to emphasize the German perpetrators saw the Jews as a malevolent and powerful "race," not a religious group. Their desire to annihilate Jews had nothing to do with anti-Christianity.

Benedict's failure to say that Auschwitz was overwhelmingly a death factory designed for Jews, or that the Germans slaughtered Jews because they hated Jews, is part of his overall failure to confront the centrality of the Holocaust in the Germans' mass murdering. It is of course laudable to acknowledge and remember that the Germans murdered other peoples, but 1 million of Auschwitz's 1.1 million victims were Jews. Yet Benedict, not even mentioning this, devoted fewer than 200 of almost 2,300 words explicitly to the slaughter of the Jews.

Benedict's historical fabrication to Christianize the Holocaust is also a moral scandal because it obscures the troubling truth about the Catholic Church: Its churches across Europe tacitly and actively participated in the Jews' persecution. Pope Pius XII, the German bishops, French bishops, Polish church leaders and many others, animated by anti-Semitism, supported or called for the persecution of the Jews (though not their slaughter). Some, such as Slovakian church leaders and Croatian priests, actively endorsed or participated in the mass murder.

In this and other ways, Benedict severed and obscured all connection between the Catholic Church, Christianity and the Holocaust, which is a huge step backward from the positions that John Paul II adopted.

Stunningly, Benedict walked through the gates of Auschwitz and did not once mention the prime mover of the Holocaust: anti-Semitism (let alone the anti-Semitism of Christianity that was for centuries ubiquitous in Europe and that culminated in Nazism and the Holocaust). Whatever differences existed between Nazi anti-Semitism and its Christian anti-Semitic seedbed, anti-Semitism is the unavoidable causal, historical and moral link connecting the church, the Nazis and Auschwitz.

Since Vatican II, the church has forcefully condemned anti-Semitism, even declaring it a sin. Yet Benedict stood in Auschwitz negligently silent.

At length Benedict wondered about where God was. A churchman's question. But he conspicuously failed to ask where the church was. Benedict's appeal to the mysteries of God's ways thus obscured even the most discussed aspects of the church's and Pius XII's conduct during the Holocaust: Why they didn't speak out. Why they didn't do more to help Jews.

Benedict has shown much goodwill in continuing to improve the church's relations with Jews today. But with his whitewashing of the past exonerating both the German perpetrators and the church, universalizing the Holocaust and deemphasizing its purely anti-Jewish thrust he turns the clock back on what the Catholic Church had, in the decade before his papacy, been acknowledging: that the church must confront the anti-Semitism of its past, that many Catholics participated in the Jews' persecution; that the church should have aided the assaulted people more.

And, most of all, that the church must, in the words of the French bishops' 1997 declaration, confess its "sin" and utter "words of repentance." Only then can Benedict rightly approach the victims to ask for reconciliation.

DANIEL JONAH GOLDHAGEN is the author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" and "A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair."

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