Daniel Goldhagen
Daniel Goldhagen; drawing by David Levine


Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners1 must have been one of the most widely read American books on European history, and in Germany itself it was a best seller, even though it charges several generations of Germans with having been precisely what the title of the book says, the willing executioners of European Jewry. Many Americans, Europeans, and others have learned much of what they know about the Germans’ role in the Shoah from Goldhagen’s book and from the bitter controversy that erupted following its publication.2 His publisher claims that his new book “goes beyond anything previously written on the subject,” and that it “cuts through the historical and moral fog to lay out the full extent of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Holocaust.”

The historical and moral fog, the author makes amply clear throughout A Moral Reckoning, has been created by the Church as well as by historians he disagrees with. He views both the Church and those historians with scorn, and only assiduous critics of the Church escape his censure, among them James Carroll, John Cornwell, David I. Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Garry Wills, and Susan Zuccotti, whose writings, incidentally, provide most of the information incorporated into A Moral Reckoning.3 The fact that these important writers published their criticism of the Church and the papacy during the last few years testifies not only to the public’s continued interest in the Holocaust but to a newfound fascination with Jewish–Catholic relations or, rather, with the Church’s mistreatment of the Jews. The fascination seems partly the consequence of Pope John Paul II’s attempts to make amends toward the Jews without losing face and without giving up some of the basic tenets of Catholic theology. As history has shown over and over, in an authoritarian system it is reform efforts from above which lead to a sudden curiosity and political agitation from below.

Goldhagen has much to say about the New Testament, the Catholic catechism, and the major papal statements on Catholic–Jewish relations, but A Moral Reckoning is not a book grounded in research; it is primarily a moral treatise on the anti-Semitism of the Church. Arguing that this anti-Semitism is as old as Christianity, Goldhagen demands that the Church make many more amends and that, while doing so, it undertake a fundamental reform. Popes, bishops, abbots, priests, monks, and Catholic lay people are to transform what he sees as an intolerant and hate-filled theocracy into a tolerant democratic institution. Toward this fundamental reform, Daniel Goldhagen wants to show the way.

A Moral Reckoning is not well organized; it is also distressingly repetitious. Still, one can easily grasp its main themes which are, first, a “moral investigation” of the Church’s crimes against the Jewish people throughout history; second, a “moral judgment” of the Church’s crimes; and finally the need on the part of Church leaders for “moral repair” so that they may undo the damage their institution has inflicted on the Jews. A voluminous introduction includes an angry reply to the critics of Hitler’s Willing Executioners and gives a preview of the book’s major theses. Goldhagen’s basic contention, namely that the Gospels themselves are at fault and that, therefore, a fundamental rethinking of Catholic theology is necessary, is passionately laid out in the introduction.

The decisive first step on the road leading directly to Auschwitz, writes Goldhagen, is taken in the Gospel of Matthew, 27:25, which describes how, after the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, solemnly washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person,” namely Jesus, the assembled multitude exclaimed, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Ever since, this alleged event has been used by Christians to brand the Jews as an accursed race. As both Goldhagen and some of the sources he uses state, the accounts of Matthew and the three other Evangelists have shifted the responsibility for Christ’s crucifixion from the Romans to the Jews. Moreover, the Gospels’ anti-Judaic diatribes, which were written down many decades after Jesus’ death by men who had never laid eyes on him, have obscured Christ’s original message of love.

Therefore, as both Goldhagen and his main source on this issue, the former priest James Carroll, argue, Christians today believe in an inauthentic message. As a result of the teachings of Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark as well as Saint Paul and the early Church Fathers, the cross is not only a symbol of Christ’s loving sacrifice; it is also a symbol of intense hatred. In the words of Goldhagen,

Christianity is a religion of love that teaches its members the highest moral principles for acting well…[but] Christianity is [also] a religion that consecrated at its core and, historically, spread throughout its domain a megatherian hatred of one group of people: the Jews.

Christians committed many grave crimes against Jews: “The best-known and largest of these mass murders is the Holocaust.” Indeed, while Goldhagen rejects easy comparisons between, for instance, Hitler and Pope Pius XII, he sees very little difference between Catholic and Nazi anti-Semitism. It was, after all, the Catholic Church, especially through its Jesuit spokesmen, he argues, which had taught the faithful to abominate the Jewish race. While the Church itself would not shed blood, Christians throughout history and the Nazis in our time transformed its teachings into genocide.


The first part of the book, which, according to the author, “recasts our understanding of how to think about the Pope’s and the Church’s actions during the Nazi period,” points to many acts of ferocious Catholic anti-Semitism ranging from the murderous Crusades to the killing of hundreds of Jewish survivors in post–World War II Poland. According to Goldhagen, anti-Semitism “has been integral to the Catholic Church” with its emphasis on “substitutionism” or “replacement ideology.” This is the belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism as the sole creed validly pointing toward salvation. By refusing to recognize the Messiah, the Jews have thrown away their chance of salvation. Moreover, by killing Christ and by eternally conspiring against Christian values, the Jews, in many Catholic accounts, have become Satan’s emissaries on earth. Indeed, as Goldhagen sees it, there is scarcely a difference between Catholic writers through the ages who called Jews the children of Satan and the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, who said the same thing.

For Goldhagen, the Vatican and the clergy generally should be indicted as racists; witness, for instance, the elite Jesuit Order’s time-honored exclusion of all applicants who could not prove five generations of non-Jewish ancestry, a restriction that, in 1923, was reduced to four generations. (There is no such restriction today.) Goldhagen readily acknowledges that the Vatican made attempts, from time to time, to distinguish its anti-Judaism from Nazi racism and on some occasions to denounce racism altogether. The best-known of these attempts were Pius XI’s 1937 anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (With Profound Anxiety), the same pope’s 1938 encyclical Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of Humankind), and Pope John Paul II’s 1998 statement We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. But these texts, in Goldhagen’s view, showed too much bias to be of any use. The first encyclical was publicly read in the churches of Germany, but its meaning was left unclear so as not to disturb the devotion of German Catholics to the Nazi regime. The second encyclical remained only a draft; and the third so badly obfuscates the Church’s anti-Jewish past, writes Goldhagen, that it cannot be accepted as a truly honest confession of the Church’s sins.

All three parts of A Moral Reckoning contain forceful and much-repeated indictments, in no particular chronological order, of the popes, especially of those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and particularly of Pope Pius XII (1939–1958), whose behavior toward Nazi Germany and the Holocaust has been the subject of worldwide controversy. Not unexpectedly, Goldhagen places himself among the Pope’s most radical critics, arguing that Pius XII was an out-and-out anti-Semite and an admirer of Germany whose hatred for “Judeo-Bolshevism” led him to side with the Nazi regime during the war. According to Goldhagen, “the greatest mistake was, after World War II, sparing the Church what Germany was not spared: the severe censure it had earned for its and its clergy’s crimes and other offenses.” Goldhagen points particularly to the sins of those German bishops who were severe and open critics of Nazism but who failed to rise to the defense of the persecuted Jews. Goldhagen’s argument here is reinforced by a recent biography of the Münster bishop Count von Galen, who vehemently condemned the Nazi practice of euthanasia but fully endorsed the German crusade against Russian Bolshevism and spoke up only on behalf of baptized Jews.4 Of the modern popes only John XXIII (1958–1963) merits Goldhagen’s praise as a “genuine friend of the Jews.”


Since Goldhagen presents little by way of fresh research on his subject—his criticism of the Church draws largely on earlier studies—his concluding advice to the Church should be considered the most original part of the book. As a first step, he demands that the papacy confront “its own and its clergy’s offenses and their degree of culpability,” and that it offer material compensation to the Jews, such as taking care of the elderly poor or returning the gold that Jewish organizations gave to the Church to rescue Jews during the war, and that may have been misused. Furthermore, the papacy should not canonize anyone who helped persecute the Jews, should erect memorials for the Jewish victims, and should issue a new encyclical on the Church’s relations to Judaism and the Jews.


Beyond all this, Goldhagen writes, there must be an absolute reform of the Church and its doctrine. The new, reformed Church, consisting of a democratic community of the faithful, must give up “its imperialist ambitions,” and it must cease missionary activities that exclude other creeds. The Church must accept the absolute separation of Church and State, and renounce its claim to being the single way to eternal salvation. The popes must abandon their claim of infallibility in doctrinal matters. Finally, the “Church needs to give up its state and cease having formal diplomatic relations with other states.”

All this, Goldhagen asserts, would not solve the problem of the Gospels and their libelous accusations against the Jews. Because Catholics believe that the Gospels have been divinely inspired, and yet the Gospels’ anti-Judaic propaganda contradicts Christianity’s message of love, he demands that a great assembly of all the Christian churches be convoked to resolve the contradiction. At this assembly,

Jewish religious and communal leaders ought to be full members of the congress for purposes of the deliberations, though the Jews would not have a formal say in the outcome. Put differently, Jews would have a full voice during discussion but no vote.

This is indeed a comprehensive program, which Goldhagen does not see as unrealistic in view of the fact that a much stronger power than the Vatican, namely postwar Germany, has already proven itself able to completely change its ways.

No doubt, Goldhagen’s ecclesiastic reform program is no more radical than that of, let us say, the fifteenth-century Florentine monk Girolamo Savonarola, and one can sympathize with the exasperation and the enthusiasm of both. One could wish, though, that today’s Church reform would have a less dogmatic advocate. A more balanced view might have made Goldhagen’s program less denigrating in tone and a little more realistic and persuasive.

There is, first of all, the problem of style. The amazing self-assurance of Hitler’s Willing Executioners has been replaced by even greater self-assurance. It is hard to find in A Moral Reckoning any trace of self-doubt or considered discussion of problems of evidence. Why, for instance, is Goldhagen absolutely certain that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was entirely responsible for the death of Jesus, and that Jews had no part in it whatever, when there is not a shred of contemporary evidence to show when, where, and if the crucifixion took place?

Then there are factual errors. On page 178, for example, the caption of a photograph refers to “Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, marching between rows of SA men at a Nazi rally in Munich.” Cardinal Faulhaber, the archbishop of München-Freysing, is remembered as a strong critic of the Nazi policy of euthanasia; the picture is intended to suggest he had Nazi sympathies, as the text also argues. The trouble, as Goldhagen has now acknowledged, is that the photograph is not of Faulhaber but of the papal nuncio, Cesare Orsenigo, who, as doyen of the diplomatic corps, was attending a May Day parade in Berlin.

About fascist Croatia during World War II, Goldhagen writes:

The most notorious camp was Jasenovac, where the Croats killed 200,000 Jews, Serbs, and Gyp-sies. Forty thousand of them perished under the unusually cruel reign of “Brother Satan,” the Franciscan friar Miroslav Filipovic-Majstorovic. Pius XII neither reproached nor punished him or other priest-executioners during or after the war.

The behavior of many Franciscans in Croatia was atrocious, and the Vatican’s support of the Croatian Catholic persecution of the Orthodox Serbs was despicable. But the author risks undermining his argument by exaggerated claims. Historians have shown that about 60,000 prisoners were killed at Jasenovac—an appalling figure that should be reported accurately. Goldhagen is apparently unaware that Filipovic-Majstorovic was expelled from the Franciscan Order and defrocked by the Church before he went to Jasenovac. Moreover, since he was executed in Yugoslavia at the end of the war, it would have been difficult for Pius XII to punish him after the war.

The list of those with whom Goldhagen disagrees is long, and all of them are treated with disdain, including Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg, the founder of Holocaust studies, whose balanced and scholarly account touched off a wave of criticism against him. Yet Hilberg’s aim was to establish a factual record, not make a “moral reckoning.”5 Referring to Hilberg’s discussion of German character, Goldhagen claims that he has put forward what “some might say” is a “quasi-racist idea”—a particularly unfair charge. And it is simply unacceptable for Goldhagen to brand the well-known and respected German historians Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Hans Mommsen as the “faithful and most prominent students” of the “Nazi historians” Theodor Schieder and Werner Conze. In reality, Mommsen, a longstanding Social Democrat, was among the first German scholars to identify clearly the Nazi past of Schieder and Conze, who had taught generations of liberal-minded German historians, and were once counted among the Federal Republic’s most celebrated historians.6

Goldhagen concedes good will or understandable human error only to those with whom he fully agrees. He admits, for instance, that during World War II, papal legates in Eastern Europe protested the deportation of Jews (and, as is well known, also handed out hundreds of letters of protection to Jews). But he attributes these protests mainly to cunning and fear. He objects to the Church’s conspiratorial view of Jews, yet he detects conspiracies and opportunism where others might see generous impulses or bungling.

Goldhagen might have mentioned that anti-Jewish feelings existed before the Gospels. The pagan Greeks and Romans were not competing with the Jews for religious influence, yet the historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that the Jews were “impious and detested by the gods”; Seneca claimed that “the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors”; and Tacitus charged that the Jews had secluded themselves and held themselves aloof from others and were guilty of odium humani generis—hatred for the human race. Tacitus also wrote that the Jews

regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful.7

Apion, a contemporary of Jesus, claimed that it is a Jewish religious practice annually to kidnap hapless Greeks, fatten them in their temple in Jerusalem, and sacrifice them while swearing an oath over their entrails of perpetual enmity toward the rest of humanity. Many historians have pointed to such instances of anti-Judaic prejudice and polemics in Greek and Roman literature. But then the Greeks and Romans did not accuse the Jews of being the killers of God, and pre-Christian anti-Judaism was less widespread and less violent than in Christian times. In general, Roman society was much more tolerant of religious diversity than Christian society would be.8

As the Greek and Roman examples suggest, it is not difficult to find damning quotes from well-known writers and other public figures; the historian’s task is to avoid generalizations that go beyond the evidence. The great Jewish historian Salo Baron often objected to what he called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history” that treats Judaism “as a sheer succession of miseries and persecutions.” Baron added: “Above all, despite the divergences between Judaism and Christianity, there was a basic unity of thinking, which made all conflicts a struggle between brethren, rather than a war between strangers.”9

Indeed, if hatred of Jews was all-encompassing and dominated relations with them, how did they survive? Fortunately, as Baron and others have shown, hatred was not always paramount, not even in such supposed centers of iniquity as Eastern Europe where, in reality, millions of Jews lived, more often than not in peace with their neighbors.

Christian enmity toward Jews was partly inherited from pagan times but largely originated from the fierce controversy among Jewish sects about whether or not the long-awaited Messiah had appeared on earth. As the Christian sect became triumphant, its language became more radical and venomous. Yet despite periodic and murderous persecution, the small and defenseless Jewish minority was not eliminated in a militantly Christian world. Many Jews were allowed to thrive. For centuries, Jews in Eastern Europe lived under the protection and supremacy of the rulers or the landowning nobility, or both, which put them in a far better position, materially and legally, than the serfs who made up as much as 90 percent of the population. Again, in the words of Salo Baron, “medieval Jewry, much as it suffered from disabilities and contempt, still was a privileged minority in every country where it was tolerated at all.”10 Certainly this protection could turn into brutal exploitation, expulsion, or even murder; but neither were the lives and possessions of the rest of the population much more secure. Before the Jewish emancipation in 1867, for example, most Jews in the Catholic Habsburg Monarchy were legally the direct subjects of the Imperial-Royal Treasury; this was a privileged position, and it often caused envy and hostility among those less fortunate. In 1939, when the Germans first invaded the East, most European Jews lived in predomi-nantly Catholic Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech lands, Slovakia, and Croatia.

There can be no doubt that, for the Catholic Church, the Jews were seen as the enemy, the nation that had refused to see the light; their historic, philosophical, and theological proximity to Christian beliefs and practices made them more dangerous to the spiritual hegemony of the Church than any other beliefs could be. But the Church and the lay Christian powers associated with it could also have wiped out the Jews, as they wiped out the heretical Bogumils in Bosnia or the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. Who indeed would have defended the Jews had the popes declared that the people of Judas should be eliminated from the face of the earth? Yet the papacy never called for an anti-Jewish crusade, if for no other reason than because it needed to be able to point to the eternal enemy. Jews were often publicly humiliated in the ghetto of Rome but still, century after century, they lived, worked, and often prospered there; in fact the Roman ghetto was the only major center in Europe from which Jews were never expelled. Only in October 1943 did the Germans deport as many Jews as they could to Auschwitz. By not standing up on their behalf, Pope Pius XII criminally abandoned the centuries-old tradition and obligation of the Church. On the other hand, it is also a fact that the Germans were unable to deport the majority of the Roman Jews because they were being hidden in monasteries, convents, and private homes.11

Nor was clerical anti-Judaism identical to modern racist anti-Semitism, even though the French racist writers or the German völkisch thinkers borrowed heavily from the Church’s anti-Judaic vocabulary. David Kertzer, for instance, whose work Goldhagen heavily draws on, misinterprets, in my opinion, the significance of the kidnapping, in Bologna, of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy. In 1858 a Christian servant girl secretly baptized Mortara, which led the Church to consider the boy its own. He was forcibly taken from his parents, put in the personal custody of Pope Pius IX, the infamous Pio Nono, and brought up to become a devout priest.12 Instead of proving the Church’s radical racism, as Kertzer argues, this cruel and stupid act should be seen as part of the age-old Church struggle to defeat religious competition from the Jews and to save souls. The Church made Mortara a priest; the Nazis would have killed him as a child. His kidnapping was horrifying, but to conflate the two kinds of treatment shows a profound misunderstanding of the history of modern racist anti-Semitism.

The Mortara affair created a worldwide protest, including from governments of countries with a Catholic majority; this, in turn, reinforced the Church’s siege mentality. The Church leaders saw themselves as squeezed between godless socialism and religiously indifferent liberalism; what others saw as the eroding of the Church’s undue privilege, Catholic clergymen perceived as interference with their divinely inspired duties: the care of souls, the education of youth, the supervision of public morality. Soon also, priests and nuns would be killed en masse, in Mexico, in Russia, in Spain, in Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland, and they would be brutally persecuted in Communist countries. These were cataclysmic developments that the author of A Moral Reckoning could very well have also considered.

Goldhagen, Kertzer, Carroll, and others, who see the Church’s anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism as out-and-out racist, reproach the Church for differentiating between baptized and unbaptized Jews and for attempting to protect only the former from the wrath of the Nazis. But if the Church were as racist as the Nazis, why then did it differentiate between the two groups? Indeed, those who equate Nazi with Church anti-Semitism risk underestimating the unprecedented savagery of racist, Nazi anti-Semitism.

More circumspection and good will would have greatly enhanced Goldhagen’s case. For instance, he does not have a good word to say about the unrelenting Polish fight against the Nazis; on the other hand, because of their defense of Danish Jews, he holds up the Danish king, government, Evangelical Church, and society as models of humanity. No one wishes to deny the fundamental decency of Danish society toward the 7,500 Jews in their country. But again, the historian should avoid presenting history as a matter of black and white. Careful research on the wartime Danish situation has shown that Denmark contained only 7,500 Jews because it had admitted virtually no Jewish refugees from Germany. The historian Myrna Goodman calls the Danish record with respect to refugees “dismal.” Wealthy Denmark could have trained a fighting force to deter a German invasion; instead, it practically disbanded its operetta army before the Germans arrived and chose to surrender virtually without firing a shot. Subsequently, as Goodman states:

German policy toward the Danes was moderated in an effort to maintain peaceful relations with them. Denmark was making substantial contributions to the German war economy. Danish farmers were supplying enormous amounts of food to the Germans and Danish factories produced diesel engines, airplane parts and armored vehicles, vital to the German war effort.13

As a concession to Danish sensibilities the German authorities, and especially the navy and coast guard, took no action to stop the departure of the Jews in hundreds of fishing boats, in October 1943, to neighboring Sweden. Thereafter, however, Denmark continued its invaluable assistance to the German war effort. Had all other countries behaved as the Danes did, the war would have lasted even longer and many more Jews as well as non-Jews would have perished. It is simply wrong to measure other countries’ wartime behavior against what happened to the Danish Jews.

One must say all this in order to put into historical context Goldhagen’s otherwise justified praise of the Evangelical Church in Denmark and his unconditional condemnation of the Church in Catholic countries. What is striking is the failure of many historians to take adequate account of the cowardly and often criminal wartime behavior of thousands of Protestant clergymen toward the Jews.

A revolution is sweeping today’s Catholic theology regarding Jewish– Catholic relations; the Church now accepts Judaism as a valid and legitimate religion and says it wants to make amends for the Church’s sins against the Jews. The papacy still advocates baptism as a unique saving grace; we are dealing here with a faith and a church, not a fraternal association.

The eternal struggle between the altar and the sword, between the Church and the State, was central to the history of Western civilization. In Western Christianity there was always a tension, and often a choice between dynastic or national authorities on the one hand and the internationalist Church on the other. The Roman Church frequently served as a refuge from the increasingly aggressive demands of the state. It was the Church leaders’ terrible mistake in modern times to surrender to nationalist sentiments and to bless the arms of all warring nations, including the arms of Nazi Germany. Those who want the Church to get out of politics unconditionally might recall that, for instance, in China the Catholic Church lost its autonomy and became an integral part of state bureaucracy. In Germany in 1933 the German Catholic Center Party was potentially the last bastion of defense against Hitler’s dictatorship. It was abandoned by the Vatican’s Concordat with the Nazi regime. In this and other cases it was not the fact of the Church’s involvement in politics that was shameful but its failure to support Catholics who opposed an evil regime.

Critics of Goldhagen find themselves in the disagreeable position of having to raise questions about his attack on the Church, whose record during World War II was indeed generally shameful. World War II could have become the Church’s finest hour, its last opportunity to show leadership and to shake up the dormant conscience of the peoples of Europe, particularly concerning the Jews; that Pius XII and so many other bishops and priests failed to do so was a catastrophe, for had it been otherwise, the memory of those heroic days might help today’s church to overcome its near-permanent crisis. Increasingly short of dedicated novices, the Church in Europe and North America, although not in the third world, may be facing a long-term decline. All this, however, should be investigated with some sense of historical complexity and some deep understanding of Western civilization’s oldest institution. Goldhagen’s book is of little help in this respect.

This Issue

December 19, 2002