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The Vatican and Hitler

In response to:

A Lost Chance to Save the Jews? from the April 27, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In “A Lost Chance to Save the Jews?” [April 27], Conor Cruise O’Brien has not taken into account key scholarly research on the Vatican, Nazi Germany and the Jews. He argues that if the Vatican had published the draft Encyclical Humani Generis Unitas in 1939 condemning racism and antisemitism, the Holocaust might have been averted. This might-have-been is based on the contention that Hitler wanted to avoid confrontation with the churches, which would have undermined the morale of the German armed forces. Hence he might well have “soft-pedaled” the persecution of the Jews and postponed genocide till after the war. In support, O’Brien cites Christian protests in 1941 against the killing of mentally and physically ill Germans which, he claims, stopped the Nazi “euthanasia” program, and the 1937 Papal Encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, a public protest against Nazi church policies, which enraged Hitler, but did not lead to Nazi retaliation.

Would that protest were so effective! Protests against the “euthanasia” program did not stop it. The killings went on as before, but more secretively, less visibly (Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, chapter 4). Nor did Mit Brennender Sorge temper Nazi harassment of the Catholic Church (Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler, chapter 14).

It is true that Hitler never went to the brink in his campaign against Catholicism. Under the Nazis, the church was much diminished, but not suppressed. But if Hitler was reluctant to force Germans to choose between church and state, so was Pius XII. Vatican policy took its lead from the national churches, and in the case of Germany Catholic opinion was more or less favorable to the Nazi regime and to its anti-Jewish policies during the 1930s. The Vatican’s chief concern was preserving Catholic institutions and keeping Catholics—Nazis or otherwise—within the fold. It is preposterous to suggest that Pius XII would have tested the faith of German Catholics by launching a campaign against antisemitism. The pope was even mute in the wake of the mass killing of Polish priests by the Nazis, surely dearer to his heart than the Jews. Moreover, if Hitler was inhibited by a need to maintain the morale of the German armed forces, so was the pope. While hardly desiring a Nazi-dominated Europe, the prospect of a Bolshevik-dominated Europe was considered even more of a threat to the church.

O’Brien’s might-have-been disregards the papacy’s practical concern with maintaining religious institutions, based on its view of the church as the necessary channel for grace and salvation. Clearly this took priority over promoting Christian love, self-sacrifice and martyrdom. The role cast for the papacy as humanity’s courageous moral conscience in a time of crisis, is a recent phenomenon, perhaps in part a reaction to twentieth century horrors. If a pope ever took up this challenge, he would rank as even more of an innovator than Gorbachev.

Professor Jacques Kornberg
Department of History
University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada

Conor Cruise O’Brien replies:

Professor Kornberg gives two examples of the “key scholarly research” which he says I have not taken into account: the works by Helmreich and Lifton, which he cites. I used Helmreich in a history course I gave at the University of Pennsylvania last semester, and took his work into account in preparing my article. I don’t agree with Kornberg’s interpretation of chapter fourteen, but I may be wrong (and so may Kornberg). Helmreich’s presentation and chronology are often confusing, and not less so in this chapter than elsewhere. For the Catholic part of the story, I have found Donald J. Dietrich’s Catholic Citizens in the Third Reich more useful, and also more representative of recent scholarship, than Helmreich. Dietrich’s book was published in 1988, Helmreich’s in 1979.

As regards Lifton, I am a little surprised to find a professional historian citing The Nazi Doctors as an example of “key scholarly research,” and treating it as conclusive for the large and complex question of euthanasia in the Third Reich. Lifton is a distinguished psychiatrist, but the historical value of The Nazi Doctors is limited. Reviewing that work in The American Historical Review (Vol. 94, No. 2, April 1989), Geoffrey Cocks wrote:

Lifton is right in stressing the equation of what Rudolf Hess called “applied biology” with National Socialism, and his interviews with former Nazi doctors constitute a valuable resource. But there are limitations to his approach (see the symposium in The Psychohistory Review, Fall 1987). Lifton interviewed twenty-eight doctors, five of whom had worked in the camps, twelve nonmedical professionals, and eighty former prisoners at Auschwitz who served in the medical blocks. We also learn something through these interviews about the Nazi medical higher-ups who fled, committed suicide, or were executed after the war. But is this a sufficient data base on which to build an ambitious characterization not only of Nazi doctors but of German history and the human “symbolization of life and death” in general?

Hitler issued his oral order for general euthanasia of the unfit in October 1939. After repeated protests from the churches, especially the Catholic Church, Hitler withdrew that order in August 1941 (Dietrich, chapter seven). Euthanasia continued to be practiced by Nazi doctors, but on a more hole-and-corner fashion—“more secretively, less visibly,” as Kornberg puts it—once the program no longer had the all-covering blessing of the Führer. Much more investigation needs to be done, but it seems a reasonable hypothesis that the hole-and-corner murders—some of them chronicled by Lifton—were less destructive in scale than the systematic mass gassing which had been originally planned for the unfit, and was carried out for the Jews. Consequently, it seems probable that the Church protests, leading to the withdrawal of the 1939 order, did in fact save great numbers of lives. Might similar Church protests, concerning the Jews, have saved great numbers of Jewish lives? We don’t know, because the protests were not made.

Kornberg says: “It is preposterous to suggest that Pius XII would have tested the faith of German Catholics by launching a campaign against antisemitism.” No doubt, but I made no such suggestion. What I said was that Pius XI was preparing to launch just such a campaign—as he was—shortly before his death. (See Dietrich, pp. 160, 193.) (Curiously, Kornberg makes no reference to Pius XI at all, although it is Pius XI, and not Pius XII, who is central to the article on which Kornberg sets out to comment. Kornberg seems to imagine that I was trying to defend Pius XII. Most readers will have noticed that I wasn’t.) And I still think that the fate of great numbers of Jews might have been different, had the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas actually been promulgated. The history of “the papacy”—which Kornberg strangely treats as an immutable monolith—would then have been different, having been changed by the weight and momentum of the encyclical itself.

And I find it odd that, in some of the letters I have received about this, correspondents appear to be equally angry with Pius XII, for his failure to protest, and with me, for suggesting that a papal protest, if made, might actually have had some effect.

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