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Bad for the Jews

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 Vatican accepted this historical theory. It spoke of “anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and political than religious.” Such anti-Judaism, the Vatican said, had a racist element that was foreign to Christian teaching. The Vatican preferred the word anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism because some enemies of Jews are Arabs and the Arabs are Semites.

Kertzer does not believe this theory, which largely exempts Christians. He examines the part that leaders of the Catholic Church played in creating, or continuing, anti-Semitism during the century and a quarter between the restoration of the French monarchy after the fall of Napoleon and the dominance under Hitler of fanatical anti-Semites in Germany, where many of the better cultural and educational traditions of the continent were deeply embedded. He accepts that the Church opposed the Nazi killing of Jews yet contends that the teachings and actions of the Church helped to make the killing possible. He writes:

The transition from the old medieval prejudices against Jews to the modern political anti-Semitic movement that developed in the half-century preceding the Holocaust found in the Church one of its important architects.

A majority of Germans were not Catholic. But Kertzer goes beyond Germany in his indictment. Hitler, he points out, was an Austrian and learned his political anti-Semitism in Vienna; and Simon Wiesenthal sought to prove that a disproportionate number of Austrians took an active part in the killings. Why, Kertzer also asks, were the Polish people seemingly so indifferent to the torments afflicting another people in their midst?

The first part of Kertzer’s book is an account of the hardships of people living in the Jewish ghetto in Rome between 1814 and the end of the Papal States in 1870. He describes the prosecution of Jews for ritual murder in Damascus in 1840, and shows the willingness of the Vatican to believe in the probability of Jewish murder for ritual reasons in that case. This part of Kertzer’s book is finely written and based on much learning. A critical historian might observe that the papal government was the most inefficient in Western Europe and inefficiency in government is a useful source of liberty despite tyrannical restrictions decreed by law. Some Jewish leaders, moreover, liked ghettoes; they wished to keep their young pure in the faith, and if the walls of the ghetto hampered residents inside, they also protected them from the old attacks by mobs and allowed them to worship and educate young people in their own way.

For Kertzer it does not matter that the system worked less vilely than it was meant to work. He asks what was the effect upon Gentiles’ attitudes toward the Jewish people in their midst if the papal government that Catholics were supposed to respect behaved toward Jews in such ghettoizing ways. He accepts that killing Jews was wholly contrary to Christian teaching but thinks that the system “dehumanized” Jews in Christian eyes.

Nothing can forgive the kidnapping of Jewish children from their parents as happened in several families in the 1850s and 1860s. In some cases, which Kertzer describes in a gripping narrative, the police did not kidnap them because they were Jewish but because Catholics claimed they were Christian, having been baptized in extreme sickness by a well-meaning Christian midwife who wished to save them from damnation when they died. It was thought impossible that a Christian child could be allowed to be brought up in a Jewish household. Their cases lowered the reputation of the pope’s administration throughout northern Europe. But the question must be asked whether events in which the popes were guilty of breaches of human rights were likely to make the pope’s opinions about Jews more influential concerning other matters—for example, on how Christians should treat Jews.

Even before the end of the Papal States, Catholic opinion was conditioned less by papal decrees than by the newly established Catholic press. Like many other modern newspapers that made money partly from advertisements and partly by winning readers through appeal to prejudices, some Catholic newspapers traded on anti-Jewish prejudice, among other prejudices, whether in Milan or Vienna or Munich or Paris (where the nastiest of the Catholic papers were published). Kertzer is surely right to argue that a radical difference between old prejudices against Jews and new prejudices could “in no small part” be accounted for by the influence of the press. The newspapers were active in partisan politics, and political campaigns often depend on scapegoats. The opposition was personalized into villains—Freemasons, Bolsheviks, capitalists—and when Jews were identified with capitalists or Bolsheviks or Freemasons (and they were wrongly identified with all three), then the historic folklore of prejudices against the Jews could be brought to bear against them.

Pius IX, who was pope between 1846 and 1878, started by being friendly to the Rome Jews. However, after experiencing the revolution of 1848 and the Piedmont’s invasion of the Papal States in 1860, he became obsessed with the idea that the Catholic Church was under threat from the modern world; the attackers were what he called “the sects,” which included Freemasons, Jews, liberals, socialists, and Protestants. For liberal and Protestant opinion he therefore cared nothing. In his later years he made clear his conviction that the old prejudices of the Church against the Jews were justified by canonizing two saints, both from the fifteenth century. One, Lorenzino, was a boy of Vicenza found crucified on Good Friday. People in Vicenza believed the Jews must have done it and that miracles took place at his grave. A mob then drove the Jews out of town. The other canonization is not mentioned by Kertzer but it had a much bigger effect on public opinion at the time. Pedro d’Arbúes was a Spanish inquisitor who was alleged to have killed six thousand Jews and was then murdered in his cathedral by a handful of Jews. Their motive was not ritual but revenge. Devout, tolerant Catholics like the German theologist Johann Döllinger and Lord Acton never forgave Pope Pius IX for this canonization.

These actions lowered the prestige of the Vatican. Did they also lower the reputation of Jews in Christian eyes? Kertzer produces astonishing cases of educated people still believing that Jews needed Christian blood for ritual purposes; he cites notorious articles to this effect in the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, one as late as 1914, commenting on the trial of a worker at a Jewish-owned factory in Kiev who was charged with the ritual murder of a boy on the factory grounds. Perhaps he is inclined to overstretch the importance of that journal (“its influence was tremendous,” “crucial to the rise of modern anti-Semitism”), for it was less close to the pope under the aging Leo XIII, who was elected in 1878, than it was to Pius IX at the time of the Vatican Council of 1869. Still it had a circulation of 11,000, no mean number for a journal that was in part academic.

Some of Civiltà‘s positions, though repellent to us today, were not totally hostile in intention. The argument was roughly as follows: there are again mobs that attack Jews; there is in Germany a democratic political party which has anti-Semitism as the bastion of its platform. Why? Because misguided people have abolished the ghetto system, which was a protection for Jews. Kertzer points out, however, a particularly prejudiced feature of Civiltà‘s view. Formerly the Church wished to keep its members free from contact with religious Jews. But in Civiltà‘s world to come Jews would abandon their religion; and those who were Jews by race but no longer religious were seen as a particular danger to Christianity, for they were alleged to hate it without the moral conviction of their religion, which prevented them from expressing hatred. Kertzer also draws attention to the little-known circumstances that during the 1890s the Osservatore Romano, a newspaper directly under Pope Leo’s eye, joined the Civiltà in its chorus of anti-Judaism.

Kertzer does not contend that something in Christianity itself failed to make the Vatican act as it should. The Jewish roots of Christian faith were still powerful. Jesus and the apostles were acknowledged as having been Jews. Christians treasured the Old Testament. In the foundations of Christianity was the doctrine of the equality of all peoples as God’s creatures; morally fundamental to the religion was the superiority of charity to violence. Kertzer’s charge is not against the faith itself, but against the highest Christian authorities for failing to act when they had a duty to act.

The evidence is formidable. He has collected the publications that were circulated during the worst episodes of Catholic support for anti-Semitic articles. These include anti-Semitic writings by Catholic priests in France during the Dreyfus case, by Catholic priests in Poland, and by Catholic priests in Austria in support of Karl Lueger, who was elected mayor of Vienna on an anti-Semitic platform. The Austrian emperor initially opposed him but his success taught the Austrian youth Adolf Hitler what was possible with such a program. But the nub of Kertzer’s indictment is that, at the Vatican, the pope, the secretary of state, and the lesser monsignori refused to condemn or even discourage the worst of these attacks. That popes have not invariably followed the precepts of the religion they profess will not be challenged by anyone. But here they were confronted with what turned out to be the central moral problem of the twentieth century—though before 1933 no one had the least idea how great a moral challenge it would soon prove to be.

There were Catholics who did what they could to defend Jews, and Kertzer is fair in recording their actions. He finds interesting new material about the future Cardinal Galimberti while he held the particularly sensitive post of nuncio in Vienna when Lueger was mayor; and he judges one of Galimberti’s reports a “valiant” attempt to prevent the Church from embracing political anti-Semitism. He records with pleasure the work of the Jewish convert to Catholicism who in 1926 helped to found the society called the Friends of Israel; its members included 3,000 priests, 278 bishops, and 19 cardinals. It produced a booklet called Pax super Israel, which deplored Church support for anti-Semitic movements and said the stories about ritual murder were silly. The Vatican suppressed this movement although we do not learn from Kertzer precisely why. In the decree of suppression the cardinals of the Inquisition explicitly condemned anti-Semitism. Then there is the famous case of Pope Pius XI receiving Belgian pilgrims in 1938 and through his tears saying that anti-Semitism is hateful, inadmissible—“We are all spiritually Semites.” In the summer of 1938 Pius XI asked an American Jesuit to draft an encyclical against anti-Semitism and racialism; but he died before it appeared and it was never issued.

Such moments of sympathy for Judaism are few. The disquieting force of Kertzer’s indictment is not its criticisms of popes as persons. Even if we exempt popes from responsibility for the behavior of clergymen they could not or did not see how to control, the case is still grave. A handful of the polemicists in East European societies began to talk of the need for violence against Jews because, even apart from their influence against the faith of the land, they committed the sins of being capitalists or Bolsheviks. Church leaders in Austria or Poland went a certain way with the crowd. They agreed that Jews were a bad influence in their state. Nevertheless, they said, violence against them is un-Christian and it is Christian duty to protect Jews from it.

None of them seemed to realize that to go around saying “These people have bad influences but you must not use violence against them” can promote violence; the negative portrait is more potent than the moral restriction. If you organize a demonstration against international banks at Genoa or Seattle, and appeal to the demonstrators to behave peacefully, some of them will con- sider the protest more effective if they disregard the exhortation to peace. If you say honestly “no violence” but then promote a situation that invites violence, you have no understanding of how crowds may behave. Ninety years ago Catholic bishops of Austria and Poland were in that situation.

What might a defending attorney say to Kertzer’s charges? First, the author is under an illusion about the Vatican. In theory popes are absolute rulers but in practice they can hardly control what ordinary Catholic priests say and do. Catholic officials and editors did bad things during the 1890s, the Dreyfus age, when Pope Leo XIII was weak and old. To collect nasty utterances of French or Austrian or Polish priests is telling but reflects less upon popes than Kertzer supposes.

Second, the more damning parts of the book rest on arguments from silence. Kertzer gives important information, recently found in the archives, about Achille Ratti, the nuncio in Poland at the end of World War I when Polish hostility against the many Jews in their midst was at its height. The mission was the more important because Ratti was elected the next pope, Pius XI. A search of the archives indicates he told Rome almost nothing about the Jewish predicament. According to Kertzer, this means he cared nothing. This form of charge is repeated several times. Without any military justification, Arthur “Bomber” Harris ordered Dresden bombed out of existence in 1945—a blatant war crime. There was no protest from the pope. Can we safely infer that that pope cared nothing that Dresden was turned into rubble and many of its people killed?

Third, the worst charges relate to language that could never have come from the Vatican itself. Kertzer cites a long anti-Semitic speech by Roberto Farinacci of the Fascist cabinet—yet Farinacci was a mortal enemy of the Catholic Church. Before 1912 the dreadful Vatican official Monsignor Umberto Benigni had, under Pius X, exercised inquisitorial power against liberal-minded Catholics whom he slurred as modernists. During the 1920s he turned his attention to the Jews, publishing in an anti-Semitic bulletin the first Italian edition of the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But Benigni had been sacked from the Vatican more than six years before this; he was a disreputable clergyman whose activities could not by then reflect on popes. Kertzer mentions Benigni’s colleague Giovanni Preziosi, who also published the Protocols—but Preziosi had been turned out of the priesthood eight years before; he took no notice whatever of the view of the popes.

Fourth, a part of the charge is that in some conditions the Vatican did what it could to protect Jewish converts to Christianity while it did nothing for Jews who were of the Jewish faith. This is true of Mussolini’s law seeking to prevent intermarriage with Jews. Pope Pius XI could say with truth that if the law stopped a Christian Gentile from marrying a Christian Jew it was a breach of the Lateran Treaty which they both signed in 1929. Here the pope took a strong position to protect Christian Jews while remaining silent about Jews not Christian. Therefore, so Kertzer implies, he was not concerned to protect Jews who were not Christian. This is a record that should be of concern to Catholics. The only defense of Pius XI is that he had solid legal ground to change the law in the case of Christian marriage while he had no legal grounds on which to protest non-Christian marriage. Is it safe to infer from this that the pope, because he helped a small number of people, could not have wished to help a larger number of people if he or his advisers thought that to be possible?

Kertzer is particularly successful in showing that the Vatican used bad judgment in picking minor officials. The worst case is that of the priest Ernest Jouin, a leader of French anti-Semitism. Benedict XV made him one of his domestic chaplains on March 13, 1918. Jouin’s worst anti-Semitic attacks were made after that date, but he could still claim to be honored by a pope. The next pope, Pius XI, allowed him an audience and—so Jouin claimed—praised him for the good work he did; and soon he rose another, slightly higher rung on the Vatican ladder to the position of apostolic prothonotary. Probably the pope had not read a word of Jouin. The head of the Vatican civil service, then Cardinal Gasparri, had a duty to be aware of both Jouin’s articles and the consequence of giving him little boosts in reputation. Yet he awarded him mini-medals. In such cases, Kertzer proves that the Vatican did not take the care it should have taken to restrain anti-Semitic clergy.

What Kertzer does not prove is the connection between his evidence about the Vatican and the Holocaust. Reinhard Heydrich, the principal designer of the strategy of extermination, had no interest in race theory; his only concern was power. There is no evidence that Catholic prejudice had any effect upon his mind. Alfred Rosenberg, another Nazi promoter of anti-Semitism, from time to time picked up anti-Semitic material from Catholic fanatics. But his loathing for popes was equal to his loathing for Jews and Bolsheviks. He believed that popes contaminated humanity by propagating a sense of sin.

The Holocaust was born in Germany, with roots in the German nineteenth century. It was not born in the last years of dilapidated papal Rome. Nor was it born in the anti-Semitism of some members of the clergy. Yet Kertzer’s book is valuable. It shows the extent to which anti-Semitic fanatics were tolerated in the Catholicism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It makes a case that calls for an answer.

  1. *

    The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (Knopf, 1997).

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