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What the Pope Meant

I have seen a number of responses to Pope Benedict’s speech at Auschwitz, but none of them compares with this one in the author’s ability to miss entirely what the Pope was trying to say. Many things about the speech irk Prof. Muller, but none so much as Pope Benedict’s claim linking the Holocaust to an attack on the Christian Faith as well:

“Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone — to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”

It is important to see that Ratzinger is here offering a couple of precise claims about the historical intent of those who planned and executed the Final Solution. And the claims are that their intent was essentially theological, and that it was “ultimately” directed at Christianity.

Via Cliopatria

With some people, you can’t win for losing. Here Pope Benedict very plainly intends to exhort Christians to understand that the Holocaust, which has its significance for Pope Benedict as an attempt to obliterate the Jewish people and overturn God’s promise, was an attack also on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Who is the God of the Christians, and thus was an attack on all of Christianity as well. It was an expression of profound solidarity and an expression of a view very similar to the reflections of Karl Barth in the bombed-out ruins of Nuremberg University that the Germans went against Israel, the Chosen People, and inevitably lost because they had also gone against God. In saying this, Barth was stating the significance an attack on the Jewish people was supposed to have for Christians. There is no reasonable way that the Pope could give an address and not speak as a Christian, or that he could speak without deriving his judgements from the teachings of the Catholic Faith. For attempting to understand the significance of the Holocaust in Christian terms, Pope Benedict is supposed to have desecrated the memory of the murdered Jewish people when he is in fact making his best effort to honour them with a speech delivered in the only idiom a Christian bishop could use, the idiom of Christianity. Whether or not this accords with more traditional understandings that the Church is the New Israel is not the question here, and it is not one that was raised by Pope Benedict.

It is unfortunate that this most irenic message expressing theological solidarity (which must be the greatest kind that a Christian pontiff can offer) has been taken as an insult and an attempt to exploit the Holocaust as a chance to score rhetorical points for Christian martyrs. There is nothing more powerful in the traditional Christian mind than to witness to a common experience of martyrdom. Surely if Pope Benedict held up Catholic martyrs to Nazism as examples, it was because he was exhorting his flock to embody the virtues that these people possessed and to identify a common enemy. It is a pity that this message was lost on so many.

Even before this, however, there is the usual prelude of complaining that Pope Benedict attempts to exonerate the German people and pin the blame squarely on the German government. Thus Prof. Muller:

Of course, scholars debate the extent of the responsibility that ordinary Germans bore for the crimes of the Third Reich. Some subscribe to Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis that “regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became – and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be – Hitler’s willing executioners.” Others favor my UNC colleague Christopher Browning’s views that there was nothing uniquely German about the crimes of the Reich, and that mundane principles of social psychology better explain ordinary Germans’ collaboration with evil than any uniquely German tendency to violence and anti-semitism. And some prefer other accounts of the degree of responsibility shouldered by average Germans.

But no respectable scholar sees the evil of the Third Reich as the responsibility of a cabal of criminals who intimidated and terrorized an unwilling German people into achieving the cabal’s goals.

Having read Goldhagen’s book, which has such gems as citing St. John Chrysostom’s Contra Iudaeos entirely out of its Antiochian context and indeed outside the context of all history to indict all Christians en bloc of Jew-hatred (which is also not a terribly fair reading of St. John or the rhetorical and Scriptural traditions in which he was working), I find it more than a little embarrassing that serious people cite it as a real explanation of anything that took place in Germany. This is a book that talks indifferently of Christian conversion, liberal assimilation of Jews, anti-Semitic hate and organised mass murder as if they were all the same thing–all are different forms of eternal “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” It is a book that has no sense of changes in German culture stemming from the rise of German nationalism after unification. For Goldhagen, German culture, like Christian culture, is static, unchanging and essentialised anti-Semitism in action. If it were not written as a polemic against anti-Semitism, I think it is fair to say it would be dismissed by scholars as junk or the worst kind of popular history. Unification is one of those paltry details that Goldhagen essentially ignores, even though it and the succeeding campaigns against Reichsfeinde have everything to do with shaping the content of modern German nationalism, of which Nazism was an extreme derivative. The parallels of nationalist anti-Catholic prejudice and anti-Semitism are only too relevant for understanding modern Germany and the Holocaust.

Nevermind that most Germans did not vote for the Nazis and an overwhelming majority were not party to genocide–because some Germans went along with the regime, there is the sense that all must be regarded as equally culpable and the failure to roundly condemn the whole German people suggests your lack of moral vision. The acceptable reverse racism directed against all things German has been abating over the last 15 years, but there will always be Goldhagenian holdouts committed to weaving a new Black Legend around all of German history and culture.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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