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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:

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s suggestion, in his “A Lost Chance to Save the Jews?” [NYR, April 27], that publication by the Vatican of an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism might have “averted the Holocaust” is bad history and a transparent cheap shot at contemporary conservatism. His warmed over attack on Pius XII and the Catholic hierarchy adds nothing new to the controversy over whether European Jewry could have been saved from Hitler’s murderers. Nor does his suggestion that religion and nationalism are the primary sources of hatred and violence in the modern world. Surely Marxist internationalism, which O’Brien never mentions, would take top prize as the greatest killer of humanity in this century. O’Brien concludes his little polemic with an outrageous analogy between George Bush and Hitler, paralleling, disclaimer notwithstanding, Bush’s campaign of 1988 with Hitler’s in 1933.

O’Brien’s main thesis, that an outspoken Church could have stimulated German Catholics to protest atrocities against Jews as it did against Hitler’s euthanasia campaign, ignores some basic Holocaust history. Before World War II began the only Jews in Europe at immediate risk were the 750,000 or so in greater Germany and two-thirds of them had already fled to America, western Europe and elsewhere. After World War II started the Jews at greatest risk were the 3,300,000 in Poland, where no papal encyclical, or interdict for that matter, could save them. If O’Brien wants a real historical parallel, let him read about what happened to the 800,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944–5. Despite public protests by Churchill, Roosevelt, the Vatican, and the International Red Cross, heroic actions by Raoul Wallenberg and other professional diplomats, American bombing raids on Budapest, and Soviet troops preparing to liberate the city, the Nazis murdered half the Hungarian Jews just a few months before Germany surrendered.

The only way most European Jews (and other victims of Nazi tyranny) could have been saved was by preventing World War II in the first place. If the democracies (especially France and England) had armed to the teeth after Hitler came to power in 1933, and then (with American support) smashed his troops when they marched into the Rhineland in 1936, the war, if it came at all, would have been much more limited and much less destructive, especially to Eastern European Jewry. Military preparedness is the only effective weapon democratic nationalism has against expansionist totalitarianism, whether fascist or communist.

Dr. Sheldon Avery
Baltimore, Maryland

Conor Cruise O’Brien replies:

Dr. Avery describes my article “A Lost Chance to Save the Jews?” as a “warmed over attack on Pius XII and the Catholic hiererchy.” In the main, my article is a tribute to Pope Pius XI, and an expression of immense regret that the encyclical which he planned was never to be published. Implicitly and of necessity, the story of the encyclical prepared by Pius XI, and suppressed by his successor, reflects adversely on Pius XII. But that is in the nature of the story which interested me; it was not a primary part of my purpose in telling the story. Dr. Avery rebukes me, in an angry and overbearing fashion, for, among other things, failure to allude to “Marxist internationalism.” I was writing about the Holocaust, which I don’t suppose even Dr. Avery could impute to Marxist internationalism. Those who have read my article can make up their minds whether Dr. Avery’s references to my comments on the Bush campaign are or are not well-taken.

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