Return to index of reviews

A Moral Reckoning:
The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Alfred A. Knoph, New York
October 2002
352 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker

If you have an interest in the Catholic church, especially in the history of its intolerant views against Jews and its role in Nazi Germany, you will find this book revealing. No doubt this book will receive unfair criticism from Catholics who wish to propagandize the belief that the Church acted morally during World War II. Catholics have attacked Goldhagen's last book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners" just as they have attacked John Cornwell's and James Carroll's books about their revelations of Church history in respect to antisemitism, so no doubt they will attack this book.

Attack Goldhagen as you will, yea believers; this book represents a scholarly account of the actions and beliefs of the Catholic Church during World War II. Although Goldhagen borrows from Carroll's "Constantine's Sword," Garry Wills, "Papal Sin," and others, he also uses the Church's own Catechism to, in essence, rub the nose of the Catholic Church in the shit it has made of things. The book also includes devastating (to the Catholic Church) photos of nuns and priests giving the Hitler salute and attending Nazi ceremonies.

By framing the problem, Goldhagen charges that "Christianity is a religion that consecrated at its core and, historically, spread throughout its domain a megatherian hatred of one group of people: the Jews." Like Carroll, he connects the Catholic Church, with antisemitism and its effects which led to the Jewish holocaust. Goldhagen found that Pope Pius XII and many of his priests acted without remorse, turned a blind eye, and in some cases, where priests took direct action in the murder of innocent human beings during World War II. In Slovakia, for example, the Catholic Church supported the government and the comprehensive antisemitic laws modeled on the Nazis. President-priest Tiso preached using Nazi antisemitic beliefs that "expelling the Jews was a Christian act." In Croatia, many priests committed mass murder (Croats killed 200,000 Jews, Serbs, and Gypsies).

The Catholic Church served as the first international institution to sign and announce a major agreement with Hitler (the Concordant). The Church aided in the Nazi persecution of Jews by willingly supplying its genealogical records which allowed the Germans to send thousands of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. To this day, the Catholic institution has not acknowledged its past (and present) crimes.

Goldhagen asks the Church to acknowledge the harm it has done, to admit its mistakes and to take corrective actions through three forms of restitution: material, political, and moral. According to Goldhagen, only through repentance, breaking with the past, and by eradicating its antisemitism, can the Church absolve itself of its crimes. In breaking with the Past, Goldhagen sees that, "the state and therefore society must be protected from religion" and that "religion must be protected from itself." This of course agrees with the U.S. policy of separation of church and state (at least in the past). Eradicating antisemitism, however, brings it directly and confrontationally with the Bible. If you wish to know where the anti-Jewish feelings stem from, your inquiry would lead you the very heart of problem: the New Testament. For here we see that hundreds of verses constitute anti-Jewish sentiments, believed by millions of Christians as the "True" word of God. And although Carroll has asked to fully acknowledge and confront the Christian Bible's antisemitism, Goldhagen goes one step further by asking why not "go all the way and say that the falsehoods, and antisemitism must be removed?"

Although I admire this approach, I seriously doubt that the Church will listen to Goldhagen, much less remove any words from their Vulgate Bible. Even if the Catholic Church did this, what of the King James Bible or of the many other Protestant versions of the Bible? Goldhagen sees that the Catholic institution must correct its errors, but I would go a step future: If one feels willing to remove antisemitic verses from the Bible, why not go all the way and remove the dangerous beliefs from the minds of the people by teaching them how to think instead of what to believe? A religious institution certainly would not take this approach, but through the will of the people to know the truth, and through education, it may prove possible to inoculate a society from the dangerous ideas derived from superstitious beliefs.

A few quotes from the book:

Another biblically based antisemitic charge... is that Jews are children of the devil; the belief that Jews are Satan's children or minions became extremely widespread in medieval Europe and, along with the Christ-killers accusation, formed the basis for many further accusations and injurious actions against the Jews.

The Christian biblical charge identifying Jews with the devil remained a common theme through the Nazi period and was readily adopted by the Nazis...

Any author who proclaims that Jews are a "brood of vipers" or children of the devil, or that all the Jews voluntarily cursed themselves and their descendants, or any of the other numerous antisemitic libels contained in the Gospels and other books of the Christian Bible... cannot be deemed a believable historical guide to what Jews did or what they thought about Jesus or anything else.

If a member of the Church, whether he was a Pope or a rural parish priest, believed that the Jews of his time were guilty for killing Jesus, if the believed that Jews of his time were accursed for this alleged act, or if he believed any of the numerous other antisemitic charges current within the Church (such as that contact with Jews should be avoided or that the Jews were working to destroy the Catholic Church), then he was an antisemite.

When the Church's defenders do discuss parts of the Church other than the Pope, they pick those parts that displace the Church in the most favorable light rather than analyzing systematically all parts of the Church, including those that acted badly. They also erect an artificial cordon sanitaire around the Church's antisemitism that dissociates it from that of the Nazis, creating the fiction that the two had nothing to do with each other.

Christian's mass murdering of Jews began in 414, when the people of newly Christianized Roman Alexandria annihilated the city's Jewish community. During the First Crusade of 1096 the slaughter of Jews reached an especial frenzy... From 1348 to 1350, during the black plague, Germans slaughtered the Jews of roughly 350 communities, virtually every city and town, rendering Germany almost judenrein, "Jew-free." In 1391 Spaniards slew Jews all over Spain, and during the last phases of the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews were killed, often burned at the stake.

Completed, signed, and publicized to the world in July 1933 and formally ratified that September, the Concordat was Nazi Germany's first great diplomatic triumph. It included the Church's liquidation of the democratic Catholic Center Party (the forerunner of postwar Germany's governing Christian Democratic Party), effectively legitimating Hitler's seizure of power and his destruction of democracy, which Pacelli and Pius XI welcomed.

Neither as Secretary of State nor later as Pope did Pacelli instruct Church officials to stop preaching the Church's antisemitism, which they continued to spread in their sermons and in the Church's own newspapers and other publications, many of which he could have easily influenced because they were under his supervision or ultimate control. This made him responsible for them.

Why, as a moral or practical matter, did Pius XII excommunicate all Communists in the world in 1949, including millions who never shed blood, but not excommunicate a single German or non-German who served Hitler-- or even the Catholic-born Hitler himself-- as the millionfold willing executioners of the Jewish people?

The German Catholic Church, without hesitation, abandoned the Jews to their countrymen's ever-intensifying eliminationist persecution. Genealogical records, essential for determining who was a Jew according to Germany's new race laws, so that the regime would know whom to persecute and eventually to kill, were stored in churches.

How could we not maintain that the German priests who gave succor to the genocidal executioners were at least collaborators with the Nazi regime, in not partners in this mass-murdering onslaught? (Why did the Pope not instruct them to counsel all Catholics among the executioners that they must stop murdering Jews?) This virtually unknown and unmentioned chapter of the Catholic Church and its clergy's role in the Holocaust has barely been investigated.

This incredible state of affairs was even more starkly etched in Croatia where many priests themselves committed mass murder, including as commanders of approximately half of the twenty death camps set up by the Nazi-like Ustasha regime: "Dozens, perhaps even hundreds of priests and monks shed their priestly apparel and donned Ustasha uniforms, in order to share in the 'sacred work' of murder, rape and robbery."

The Church, more than probably any other major non-Nazi institution in Europe, taught people a hate-filled, dehumanizing, and eliminationist view of Jews-- that they were a guilt-laden and pernicious people-- a view that lead many of its adherents to support and often willingly to participate in the Jews' persecution.

Why should only the Church, Pius XI, and Pius XII, bishops, and priests be immune from our moral judgment, and be immune specifically for their conduct with respect to one of the greatest crimes in human history?

The empirical and analytical foundation for judging the Church now exists. The Church, the Pope, the national churches, bishops, and priests generally failed during the Holocaust. They failed because they believed the Jews to be evil and harmful, and because they did not object in principle to punishing Jews substantially and therefore at least to many of the eliminationist measures taken by the Germans and their helpers.

The men whom Bishop Hudal and many others at the heart of the Church believed to be more innocent than the Jews included some of the greatest criminals of all time: Adolf Eichmann... Franz Stangl... Kurt Christmann... Walter Rauff... Klaus Barbie... Ante Pavelic... Dr. Josef Mengele.

The efforts of Bishop Hudal and the other clergy were deeply appreciated. Eichmann, who landed safely in Argentina, decided to inscribe himself in his newly minted passport as a Catholic even though he was a Protestant. He explained: "I recall with deep gratitude the aid given to me by Catholic priests in my flight from Europe and decided to honor the Catholic faith by becoming an honorary member."

Why in the first days of May 1945 did Germany's Cardinal Bertram, upon learning of Hitler's death, order that in all the churches of his archdiocese a special requiem, namely, "a solemn requiem mass be held in commemoration of the Fuhrer," so that his Catholic flock could pray to the Almighty, in accord with the requiem's liturgy, that the Almighty's son, Hitler, be admitted to paradise?

Pius XII lived for thirteen years after the war, but he did not publicly condemn the extermination of the Jews explicitly. Nor did he repudiate the Church's antisemitism.

...80 percent of the antisemites in Germany still grounded their antisemitism in Christian antisemitic characterizations of Jews.

The Christian Bible presents its Christian faithful with a relentless and withering assault on the Jews and Judaism. The structure of the Gospels in particular is antisemitic. The Jews are presented as the ontological enemy of Jesus and therefore of goodness. They are the impediment in the books' story of Jesus.


Introduction: FRAMING The Problem
Part One: CLARIFYING the Conduct
Part Two: JUDGING the Culpability
Part Three: REPAIRING the Harm
Conclusion: MUSTERING the Will

To obtain this book, click below:

A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair

Other books by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen:

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (hardcover)