As 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 “Hitler’s Pope.”
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 Pius’s efforts to save Jews that he became a Catholic after the war and took Pius’s 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 Pius’s good deeds and blacken his name? The facts haven’t 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. Spain’s Francisco Franco saved tens of thousands of Jews but, like Pius, was a “reactionary” Catholic and is thus ineligible for liberal praise.
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 people’s 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 world.”
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 didn’t 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, it’s 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 he’d been “Hitler’s Pope.” Throughout the war, in fact, he ignored Hitler’s 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 Hitler’s accomplices.