Guilt by Silence?
Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy has been called "the most controversial literary work of this generation," and in view of the controversy it has aroused in Europe and is about to arouse in this country, this superlative seems justified. The play deals with the alleged failure of Pope Pius XII to make an unequivocal public statement on the massacre of European Jews during World War II, and concerns by implication Vatican policy toward the Third Reich.
The facts themselves are not in dispute. No one has denied that the Pope was in possession of all pertinent information regarding the Nazi deportation and "resettlement" of Jews. No one has denied that the Pope did not even raise his voice in protest when, during the German occupation of Rome, the Jews, including Catholic Jews (that is, Jews converted to Catholicism), were rounded up, right under the windows of the Vatican, to be included in the Final Solution. Thus, Hochhuth's play might as well be called the most factual literary work of this generation as "the most controversial." The play is almost a report, closely documented on all sides, using actual events and real people, reinforced by 65 pages of "historical sidelights" written by Hochhuth and anticipating nearly all arguments that have been raised against it. The author himself seems at least as interested in literal, factual truth as he is in literary quality, for he says almost apologetically in his "sidelights" that for artistic reasons he had "to advance a better opinion of Pius XII than may be historically justified, and a better one than I privately hold." With this sentence, however, he touches upon one of the really controversial — that is, debatable — points at issue: is it true, as Hochhuth clearly thinks, that the Vatican would not have been silent "had there been a better Pope"?
There have been a few instances in which the Church tried to dodge the grave issues at stake either by imputing a thesis to the play which it does not contain — nowhere does Hochhuth claim that "Pope Pius was responsible for Auschwitz" or that he was the "arch-culprit" of this period — or by referring to the help given to Jews by the local hierarchy in some countries. The fact that local hierarchies did so, especially in France and Italy, was never in dispute. To what extent the Pope initiated or even supported these activities is not known, since the Vatican does not open its archives for contemporary history. But it may be assumed that most of the good, as well as the bad, done must be ascribed to local and often, I suspect, to strictly individual initiative. "During the deportation of Catholic Jews from Holland," Hochhuth reports, "a dozen members of various orders were actually handed over from Dutch religious houses." But who would dare blame Rome for that? And since another question Hochhuth raises — "How could the Gestapo have discovered that this one nun [Edith Stein, a German convert and famous philosophical writer] had Jewish blood?" — has never been answered, who would blame Rome for that? But by the same token, the Church as an institution can hardly book on her account the few great demonstrations of true Christian charity — the distribution of forged documents to thousands of Jews in southern France in order to facilitate their emigration; the attempt of Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg of St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin to accompany the Jews to the East; the martyrdom of Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest in Auschwitz, to quote only some of the best known examples.
What the Church as an institution and the Pope as her sovereign ruler can book on their account is the systematic work of information done by the nuncios all over Nazi-occupied Europe to enlighten at least the heads of government in Catholic countries — France, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania — about the true, murderous meaning of the word "resettlement." This was important because the moral and spiritual authority of the Pope vouched for the truth of what otherwise could be only too easily dismissed as enemy propaganda, especially in countries that welcomed this opportunity of "solving the Jewish question," though not at the price of mass murder. However, the Vatican's exclusive use of diplomatic channels meant also that the Pope did not think fit to tell the people — for instance, the Hungarian Gendarmerie, all good Catholics, who were busy rounding up Jews for the Eichmann Kommando in Budapest — and, by implication, seemed to discourage the bishops (if such discouragement was necessary) from telling their flocks. What has appeared — first to the victims and the survivors, then to Hochhuth, and finally through him to many others — as such outrageous inadequacy was the frightening equanimity which the Vatican and its nuncios apparently thought it wise to affect, the rigid adherence to a normality that no longer existed in view of the collapse of the whole moral and spiritual structure of Europe. At the end of the 4th act of The Deputy, Hochhuth uses a quotation from a public statement of Pope Pius, changing only one word: where Pius had said "Poles," Hochhuth has Pius say "Jews," as follows: "As the flowers in the countryside wait beneath winter's mantle of snow for the warm breezes of spring, so the Jews must wait praying and trusting that the hour of heavenly comfort will come." It is a prime example not merely of what Hochhuth has called "Pacelli's flowery loquacity," but of something more common, a disastrous loss of all feeling for reality.
Still, what the Vatican did during the war years, when the Pope was the only man in Europe free from any taint of propaganda, was considerably more than nothing, and it would have been enough if it were not for the uncomfortable fact that the man on St. Peter's chair is no ordinary ruler but "the Vicar of Christ." Regarded as a secular ruler, the Pope did what most, though not all, secular rulers did under the circumstances. Regarded as an institution among institutions, the Church's inclination to accommodate "itself to any regime which affirms its willingness to respect Church property and prerogatives" (which Nazi Germany, but not Soviet Russia, at least pretended to do) has understandably almost become, as Gordon Zahn, a distinguished Catholic sociologist, has said, "an unchallengeable truism in Catholic political philosophy." But the Pope's negligible secular power — as ruler of fewer than a thousand inhabitants of Vatican City — depends "upon the spiritual sovereignty of the Holy See" which is indeed sui generis and wields an enormous, though imponderable "world spiritual authority." The matter is succinctly summed up in Stalin's remark, "How many divisions has the Pope?" and in Churchill's answer, "A number of legions not always visible on parade." The accusation leveled by Hochhuth against Rome is that the Pope failed to mobilize these legions — roughly 400 million all over the earth.
The answer from the side of the Church up to now has fallen into three parts. First, there are the words of Cardinal Montini before he became Pope Paul VI: "An attitude of protest and condemnation ... would have been not only futile but harmful: that is the long and the short of the matter." (This seems a very debatable point, since more than 40 percent of the Reich's population was Catholic at the outbreak of the war and almost all Nazi-occupied countries as well as most of Germany's allies had Catholic majorities.) Second, much less profiled but actually the argument that validates the first claim, these legions could not be mobilized by Rome. (This argument has more force. The view that the "Catholic Church [compared with the Protestant Church] bears the greater guilt, for it was an organized, supranational power in a position to do something," as Albert Schweitzer has argued in his preface to the Grove Press edition of the play, may have overestimated the Pope's power and underestimated the extent to which he depends upon the national hierarchies and the extent to which the local episcopate depends upon its flocks. And it can hardly be denied than an ex cathedra pronouncement of the Pope in the midst of the war might have caused a schism.)
The third argument on the side of the Church rests on the necessity for the Church to remain neutral in case of war, even though this neutrality — the fact that in modern wars the bishops always bless the armies on either side — implies that the old Catholic distinction between just and unjust war has become practically inapplicable. (Obviously, this was the price the Church had to pay for the separation of Church and State and the resulting generally smooth and peaceful coexistence of an international spiritual sovereignty, binding the local hierarchy in ecclesiastical matters only, with the national secular authority of the state.)
Even if the Pope had seen in Hitler's wars "the classic example of the unjust war," as Zahn has characterized it, which he evidently did not, since according to one of his secretaries, Father Robert Leiber, he "had always looked upon Russian Bolshevism as more dangerous than German National Socialism" (quoted from the very informative article by Guenter Lewy, "Pius XII, the Jews, and the German Catholic Church," in Commentary) — he almost certainly would not have intervened. The point of the matter is rather that despite his conviction "that the fate of Europe depended upon a German victory on the Eastern front" (Lewy), and though very prominent figures in the German and Italian hierarchy tried to persuade him "to declare [the war against Russia] a holy war or crusade," the Pope maintained publicly what another historian, Robert A. Graham, S.J., has called a "significant silence." And this silence is all the more significant as the Pope had broken his neutrality twice — first at the occasion of Russia's attack on Finland, and shortly thereafter when Germany violated the neutrality of Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
However one may try to reconcile these apparent contradictions, there can hardly be any doubt that one reason why the Vatican did not protest against the massacres in the East, where, after all, not only Jews and Gypsies but Poles and Polish priests were involved, was the mistaken notion that these killing operations were part and parcel of the war. The very fact that the Nuremberg trials also counted these atrocities, which had not the slightest connection with military operations, among "war crimes" shows how plausible this argument must have sounded during the war. Despite a whole literature on the criminal nature of totalitarianism, it is as though the world has needed nearly two decades to realize what actually had happened in those few years and how disastrously almost all men in high public position had failed to understand even when they were in possession of all factual data.
Yet even if we take all this into account, it is not possible to let the matter rest there. Hochhuth's play concerns Rome's attitude during the massacres, certainly the most dramatic moment of the whole development; only marginally does it concern the relations between German Catholicism and the Third Reich in the preceding years and the role played by the Vatican under Pacelli's predecessor, Pope Pius XL To a certain extent, the culpability of "official Christianity in Germany" has been settled, especially its Catholic page. Prominent Catholic scholars — Gordon Zahn, already mentioned, at Loyola University in this country, the eminent historian Friedrich Heer in Austria, the group of writers and publicists around the Frankfurter Hefte in Germany, and for the early period of the Hitler regime the late Waldemar Gurian, professor at Notre Dame University — have done a remarkably thorough job, fully aware, of course, that German Protestantism would fare hardly better, and possibly even worse if studied in the same admirable spirit of truthfulness.
Heer notes that it is a matter of public record that Catholics who tried to resist Hitler "could count on the sympathy of their church leaders neither in prison, nor on the scaffold." And Zahn tells the incredible story of two men who, having refused to serve in the war because of their Christian faith, were denied the sacraments by the prison chaplains until just before they were to be executed. (They were accused of "disobedience" to their spiritual leaders — suspect, one may assume, of seeking martyrdom and of the sin of perfectionism.)
All this proves no more and no less than that Catholics behaved in no way differently from the rest of the population. And this had been obvious from the very beginning of the new regime. The German episcopate had condemned racism, neo-Paganism, and the rest of the Nazi ideology in 1930 (one of the diocesan authorities went so far as to forbid "Catholics to become registered members of the Hitler party under pain of being excluded from the sacraments") and then it withdrew all prohibitions and warnings promptly in March 1933 — that is, at the very moment when all public organizations (with the exception, of course, of the Communist party and its affiliations) were "co-ordinated." To be sure, this came after the election of March 5th when, as Waldemar Gurian noted in 1936 in his Hitler and the Christians, it had become "clear, especially in Bavaria, that even Catholics had succumbed to the National Socialist whirlwind." All that remained of the former solemn condemnations was a not too prominent warning against "an exclusive preoccupation with race and blood" (italics added), in one of the pastoral letters signed by all bishops and issued from Fulda. And when shortly thereafter the help of the churches was enlisted in determining all persons of Jewish descent, "the Church co-operated as a matter of course," and continued to do so right to the bitter end, Guenter Lewy reported in Commentary. Hence, the German shepherds followed their flocks, they did not lead them. And if it is true that "the conduct of the French, Belgian and Dutch bishops" in the war years "stands in marked contrast to the conduct" of their German brethren, one is tempted to conclude that this was, at least partly, due to the different conduct of the French, Belgian, and Dutch people.
However, what may be true with respect to the national hierarchies is certainly not true for Rome. The Holy See had its own policy with regard to the Third Reich, and up to the outbreak of the war this policy was even a shade friendlier than that of the German episcopate. Thus, Waldemar Gurian observed that prior to the Nazi seizure of power, when in 1930 the German bishops had condemned the National Socialist party, the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, "pointed out that the condemnation of its religious and cultural program did not necessarily imply refusal to co-operate politically," while, on the other hand, neither the Dutch bishops' protestation against the deportation of Jews nor Galen's condemnation of euthanasia were ever backed by Rome. The Vatican, it will be remembered, signed a Concordat with the Hitler regime in the summer of 1933, and Pius XI, who even before had praised Hitler "as the first statesman to join him in open disavowal of Bolshevism," thus became, in the words of the German bishops, "the first foreign sovereign to extend to [Hitler] the handclasp of trust." The Concordat was never terminated, either by Pius XI or by his successor.
Moreover, the excommunication of the Action Franchise, a French group of the extreme right whose teachings of a catholicisme cerebral had been condemned in 1926 as heresy, was withdrawn by Pius XII in July 1939 — that is, at a time when the group was no longer merely reactionary but outright fascist. No prudence, finally, and no considerations for the difficult position of local, national hierarchies prevailed when, in July 1949, the Holy Office excommunicated all persons "who were members of the Communist Party, or furthered its aims," including those who read Communist books and magazines or wrote for them, and renewed this decree in April 1959. (That socialism is irreconcilable with the teachings of the Church had been stated before, in 1931, by Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesima anno. Encyclicals, incidentally, are not identical with ex-cathedra pronouncements in which alone the Pope claims to be "infallible." But there can hardly be any doubt about their binding authority for the majority of the believers.) And even long after the war, when we read in the official Catholic Encyclopedia in Germany (Herder) that communism "is the greatest and most cruel persecutor of Christian churches since the Roman Empire," Nazism is not even mentioned. The Nazi regime had started violating the provisions of the Concordat before the ink on it was dry, but all the time it was in force there had been only one strong protest against the Third Reich — Pius XI's encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Care) of 1937. It condemned "heathenism" and warned against elevating racist and national values to absolute priority, but the words "Jew" or "anti-Semitism" do not occur, and it is chiefly concerned with the anti-Catholic and especially the anticlerical slander campaign of the Nazi party. Neither racism in general nor anti-Semitism in particular has ever been absolutely condemned by the Church. There exists the strangely moving story of the German-Jewish nun, Edith Stein, already mentioned, who, in 1938, still unmolested in her German convent, wrote a letter to Pius XI, asking him to issue an encyclical about the Jews. That she did not succeed is not surprising, but is it also so natural that she never received an answer?
Hence, the political record of Vatican policies between 1933 and 1945 is reasonably clear. Only its motives are open to dispute. Obviously the record was shaped by the fear of communism and of Soviet Russia, although without Hitler's help Russia would hardly have been able or even willing to occupy half of Europe. This error in judgment is understandable and was widespread, and the same can be said about the Church's inability to judge correctly the total evil of Hitler's Germany. The worst one can say — and it has been said frequently — is that Catholic "medieval anti-Semitism" must be blamed for the Pope's silence about the massacres of the Jews. Hochhuth touches upon the matter in passing, but wisely left it out of his play because he "wanted to keep only to provable facts."
Even if it could be proved that the Vatican approved of a certain amount of anti-Semitism among the faithful — and this anti-Semitism, where it existed, was quite up to date although not racist: it saw in the modern assimilated Jews an "element of decomposition" of Western culture — it would be quite beside the point. For Catholic anti-Semitism had two limitations which it could not transgress without contradicting Catholic dogma and the efficacy of the sacraments — it could not agree to the gassing of the Jews any more than it could agree to the gassing of the mentally ill, and it could not extend its and-Jewish sentiments to those who were baptized. Could these matters also be left to the decision of the national hierarchies? Were they not matters of the highest ecclesiastical order, subject to the authority of the head of the Church?
For, in the beginning, they were understood as such. When the Nazi government's intention to issue race laws which would forbid mixed marriages became known, the Church warned the German authorities that she could not comply and tried to persuade them that such laws would run counter to the provisions of the Concordat. However, this was difficult to prove. The Concordat stipulated "the right of the Catholic Church to settle her own affairs independently within the limits of universally binding laws" (italics added), and this meant of course that a'civil ceremony had to precede the receiving of the marriage sacrament in Church. The Nuremberg laws put the German clergy into the impossible position of having to withhold the sacraments from persons of the Catholic faith who according to ecclesiastical law were entitled to them. Wasn't this a matter of Vatican jurisdiction? In any event, when the German hierarchy decided to conform to these laws, which implicitly denied that a baptized Jew was a Christian and belonged to the Church like everybody else, with equal rights and duties, something very serious had happened.
From then on, the segregation of Catholics of Jewish descent within the German Church became a matter of course. And in 1941, when the deportations of Jews from Germany began, the bishops of Cologne and Paderborn could actually recommend "that non-Aryan or half-Aryan priests and nuns volunteer to accompany the deportees" to the East (Guenter Lewy in Commentary) — that is, those members of the Church who were subject to deportation anyhow. I can't help thinking that if there was any group of people during the years of the Final Solution who were more forsaken by all mankind than the Jews traveling to their death, it must have been these Catholic "non-Aryans" who had left Judaism and who now were singled out, as a group apart, by the highest dignitaries of the Church. We don't know what they thought on their way to the gas chambers — are there no survivors among them? — but it is difficult to gainsay Hochhuth's remark that they were "abandoned by everyone, abandoned even by the Deputy of Christ. So it was in Europe from 1941 to 1944."
Indeed "so it was," and against Hochhuth's "historical truth ... in its full ghastliness" all protests that passivity was the best policy because it was the lesser evil, or that disclosure of the truth comes "at the wrong psychological moment," are of no avail. To be sure, no one can say what actually would have happened had the Pope protested in public. But, quite apart from all immediate practical considerations, did no one in Rome realize what so many inside and outside the Church at that time realized, namely, that — in the words of Reinhold Schneider, the late German Catholic writer — a protest against Hitler "would have elevated the Church to a position it has not held since the Middle Ages"?
It has been Rolf Hochhuth's good fortune that a considerable part of Catholic learned and public opinion has sided with him. Professor Gordon Zahn has praised the play's "impressive historical accuracy." And Friedrich Heer in Austria has said all there needs to be said about truth which, alas, always comes at the "wrong psychological moment" and, in the period under discussion, would have come at the wrong physical moment as well: "Only the truth will make us free. The whole truth which is always awful."