Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. A Moral Reckoning: the Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair – Book Review
Harold M. Green
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. 362 pp. Cloth, $25.00.
It is over forty years since Rolf Hochuth’s The Deputy premiered in Berlin on February 20, 1963, setting off shock waves in the press, in the pulpit, and in the groves of academe. As a direct result of this play, scholarly and semi-scholarly works burgeoned, dealing favorably and unfavorably with the conduct of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican before and during the Holocaust. Such works include Guenther Levy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964); Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches Under Hitler (1979); John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (1999); Michael Thayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (2000); Ronald J. Rychlak, Hitler, the War, and the Pope (2000); Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows (2000); and, Garry Wills, Papal Sin (2000). Add to this list the Vatican’s own twelve volume rejoinder to Hochhuth, published as Actes et documents du Saint Siege relatifs alas seconde guerre mondiale, condensed by Pierre Blet (1999), and the material on the subject becomes quite formidable.
The most recent addition to this literature is Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning. This sequel to Hitler’s Willing Executioners builds upon his book-review essay, “What Would Jesus Have Done? Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust,” written for the New Republic (January 21, 2002). Drawing upon secondary sources, it is a carefully researched selection from a complex historical reality which transcends history and enters the realm of moral philosophy, bringing into bold relief the nagging question that Pius XII himself asked in 1952: “What should we have done that we have not done?”
No adequate appraisal of the book under review is possible without reference at the outset to Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). In his previous work, Goldhagen maintained that all previous views of the Holocaust had to be reconceptualized, and that only he had succeeded in accomplishing this. Conventional explanations for the genocide–peer-pressure, coercion, and fragmentation of tasks–he supplanted with a thoroughgoing voluntarism. In Goldhagen’s confrontation with the German past, one is led to the inescapable and frightening conclusion that the Holocaust was the final tragic result of a “cognitive eliminationist” mindset which arose among all strata of society in the course of German history. Ordinary Germans, driven by an intense fear and hatred of Jews, needed no coercion or inducements to participate willingly in killing them.
A common thread linking Hitler’s Willing Executioners with A Moral Reckoning is Goldhagen’s insistence on individual agency, moral accountability, and a repudiation of such metaphysical and sociologistic concepts as “collective guilt” and “national character.” Having made the salto mortale from state to church, Goldhagen finds this same “cognitive eliminationist anti-Semitism” at work in European Catholicism and demonstrates how, in many instances, the Catholic hierarchy from bishops down to ordinary parish priests in Nazi Germany and its satellites was deeply involved in persecuting and ultimately killing Jews. Monsignor Tiso, president of Slovakia, and the Franciscan friar Filipovic-Majstorovic, who ran the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, are but two egregious examples of such complicity.
Even worse, according to Goldhagen, was the failure of the Catholic Church to condemn anti-Semitism in the immediate post-war period. Why, he asks, did a number of Protestant churches that participated in the 1948 World Council of Churches Assembly condemn anti-Semitism while Pius XII remained silent? (p. 202)
The basic thrust of A Moral Reckoning, however, is not a mere recitation of recent history but rather an exhortation to modify this history. While Hitler’s Willing Executioners attempted to understand and describe the phenomenal reality of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, A Moral Reckoning is prescriptive. Goldhagen’s own words set the tone for the most important section of the book, Part Three: “What must a religion of love and goodness do to confront its history of hatred and harm, and to perform restitution?” (p. 31) In seeking material, political, and, especially, moral restitution from the Catholic Church, as well as the eventual abolition of its legal-political structure and function, Goldhagen brings to full circle a prediction made in 1940 by Cardinal Eugene Tisserant when he wrote: “I fear that history will reproach the Holy See with having practiced a policy of selfish convenience and not much else.”
A Moral Reckoning is a seminal work but its message is diluted by stylistic problems. It is poorly written, repetitious, and tends to ramble in places, taxing the readers’ patience. While lacking the measured cadence and broad historical sweep of Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany and the conciseness of Rychlak’s Hitler, the War and the Pope, Goldhagen’s latest work provides a valuable introduction to and synthesis of the literature on church and state during the Holocaust.
Harold M. Green
Liberty, New York
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