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J'accuse

UNDER HIS VERY WINDOWS The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy; By Susan Zuccotti; Yale University Press: 408 pp., $29.95

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE HOLOCAUST 1930-1965; By Michael Phayer; Indiana University Press: 304 pp., $29.95

March 04, 2001|MICHAEL R. MARRUS | Michael R. Marrus is dean of graduate studies and the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto, and the author of "The Holocaust in History."

Few could deny the extraordinary improvements in Catholic-Jewish relations since the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s: The efforts within the Church, led by Pope John XXIII, to abandon what has been referred to as the centuries-old "teachings of contempt" for Jews and to articulate a new respect for Judaism and the Jewish people. Yet notwithstanding these efforts, questions concerning the pope during World War II, Eugenio Pacelli or Pius XII, increasingly stand as an obstacle to further progress and indeed have prompted new disagreements and tensions as both a renewed wave of criticism on the one hand and a campaign to secure his canonization on the other are underway.

To some degree the debate over the conduct of Pacelli during the Holocaust has been conducted on a polemical level ever since the appearance about 40 years ago of "The Deputy," a sensational play by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, that accused the pope of heartlessness and greed in the face of the Jews' tragedy. Disenchanted Catholic writers--most recently John Cornwell, Garry Wills and James Carroll--have joined the chorus of criticism, arguing that the Vatican's failure to acknowledge its own moral shortcomings during the Holocaust is symptomatic of what they dislike about the Church today.

Shorty after the appearance of Hochhuth's play, in an effort to stem this complaint, the Vatican began to publish edited wartime documents--eventually amounting to 11 large volumes of diplomatic correspondence, letters and memorandums--which, the Holy See held, decisively refuted the charges of wartime "silence" and indifference to the plight of Jews and other victims of the war. Needless to say, the appearance of these formidable tomes, edited by four eminent Jesuit scholars and based on a selection of archival holdings, has not succeeded in putting the matter to rest and refuting the charges that the papacy was indifferent to the wartime plight of the Jews or, even worse, that it cooperated with the Nazis. Polemicists remain dissatisfied and assume that incriminating material probably exists and remains hidden; scholars who have used these documents (untranslated and with the bibliographical apparatus in French) naturally enough want to see more; and even those friendly to Pius XII have been thrust on the defensive, reduced to speculating that if the archives were indeed opened to all, they would not yield any more material than is now available for a balanced understanding.

Although the opening of Vatican archives would certainly tell us more than we now know, the decades of research since the end of the war, the documents available and the perspective gained through the passage of time enable historians to produce a more nuanced view than was possible 40 years ago. The appearance of "Under His Very Windows" by Susan Zuccotti, a veteran historian of the Holocaust in France and Italy, and "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust" by Michael Phayer, a specialist in German Catholicism at Marquette University, help carry the analysis to a new level. Both authors present a much more detailed and sophisticated assessment of the official Catholic outlook of the time than most previous works while remaining quite critical of the Church's leadership. They paint a portrait of a papacy obsessed with its fears of Nazi retaliation and relentless other wartime threats to the Church's existence, with the result that other concerns were pushed to the periphery. The result is less a story in black and white, and rather a more tangled account replete with shortsightedness, miscalculations, sporadic indifference, half-hearted efforts and failure of the imagination.

Phayer and Zuccotti put to rest some of the sweeping charges of the Vatican's alleged hostility toward the Jews sometimes advanced in polemical and popular discourses on the subject. There is no evidence of complicity, secret or otherwise, between the Vatican and Hitler's plan for a final reckoning, let alone the murder of European Jewry. And though particularly in Central and Eastern Europe there were some prelates who acquiesced in a program to persecute and eliminate the Jews, the Vatican opposed Hitler's policies, not least because the Nazis' anti-Semitic program challenged the rights of the Church, usually enshrined in diplomatic agreements known as concordats, to define converts from Judaism as Catholics and to maintain church control over such issues as marriage, education and conditions of religious life.

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