Five years ago David Kertzer wrote a well-received book about the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna who, in 1858, was taken from his family with the approval of Pope Pius IX on the grounds that he had been baptized by a Catholic house servant. For historians of the papacy that was a bad moment in the reign of Pius IX. David Kertzer’s account of it showed how strong secular opposition could be used by a conservative pope to vindicate a defiant and politically damaging position in the name of what he considered to be higher, Christian truth.
This led Kertzer to undertake research into the history of Jews in Rome during the last decades of the Rome ghetto, which ended when the Piedmontese army occupied Rome in September 1870 and the Papal States were no more. Kertzer’s work convinced him that history concentrates too narrowly on the pope’s record between 1939 and 1945. He believed that anti-Jewish prejudice among Christians was a necessary background for the Holocaust and that the Vatican bore a heavy responsibility for this prejudice. Hence he continued his studies into the modern age, the years between 1870 and the early years of World War II.
All popes are officially against the Jewish religion as not fully adequate, so Kertzer’s subtitle is more informative: “The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism.” This word “modern” refers to more than a period of time. The author tackles a dilemma of the first importance. Modern anti-Semitism is different from the superstitions and mob madnesses that produced massacres and lynchings in me- dieval towns, even though in certain places such behavior may be found much later—whether in Russia in the three decades after 1880, or in Poland during the last century. But there is a gulf between ignoramuses who believed that Jews kidnap Christian babies and kill them because they need their blood for ritual purposes and the German officials who sat around a table at Wannsee in January 1942 to plan how to get rid of Jews; they understood railways, and timetables, and how civil services work, and how public opinion can be controlled. The huge massacres of Jews were carried out not by illiterates and young men looking for loot, but by a more or less educated government which certainly did not believe in stories of ritual blood.
Western Europe, not steadily but with small leaps, had pursued Jewish emancipation, and Germany during the eighteenth century was in this respect the most advanced of the European states. Hence some historians have put forward, not without evidence, the argument that the anti-Semitism which produced the Holocaust was not continuous with the mobs of the Middle Ages but a new phenomenon associated with the rise of modern nationalism. The corruptions of weakened democracies gave absolute power to semiliterate thugs. This view had the effect of relieving Christians of historical responsibility for modern forms of murder. In 1998 the …