New Pope Should Address Holocaust Complicity

In his autobiography, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called the Nazis "fanatical ideologues" that "tyrannized us." He should know. He was a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth and a teen soldier in the German army. That should give him a special sensitivity to Hitler's slaughter of millions of Jews. That also should make him willing to do what Pope John Paul II hinted that he would do but didn't. And that's to come clean on the Vatican's role in the Holocaust.

Two years ago, Jewish scholars and leaders publicly lambasted the church for releasing a skimpy 11 volumes of wartime documents that revealed almost nothing about the Vatican's dealings with Hitler. They demanded that the Vatican open all its books on that period. The Vatican foot dragged for six months before finally agreeing to release more documents. But then there was a wall of silence.

There was great hope that when John Paul II took over the Vatican reins in 1978 he would fully disclose the Vatican's dealings with the Nazis. Over the years, he raked Catholics over the coals for saying and doing nothing about colonialism, slavery, and the pillage of the lands of indigenous people. But his continuing unwillingness to confront the Vatican's complicity in Hitler's Holocaust was another matter.

Vatican defenders cloud papal guilt in the Holocaust by incessantly reminding that the Nazis murdered thousands of Catholics in and outside of Germany who aided the Jews. They also remind critics that Pius XII poured millions into relief for war refugees, gave sanctuary to Jews inside the Vatican, and played a huge role in post war recovery efforts and the restoration of democracy in Western Europe.

In 1998, the church made a mild stab at public atonement for past injustices when it formally apologized for centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism and the failure to combat Nazi persecution of the Jews. The Vatican made no mention of Pius XII's silence on Nazi atrocities. It's this continuing blind spot that riles many Jewish and church scholars.

The Vatican continues to keep mute on its Holocaust involvement for a painful reason. Its silence was not due to the moral lapses of individual Catholics, or that the church was ignorant of, or duped by, Hitler's aims. It was a deliberate policy of appeasement crafted by church leaders. Before he ascended to the papacy in 1939, Pius XII was the Vatican's ambassador to Germany and secretary of state during the crucial period when Hitler rose to power, and knew full well what Hitler was up to.

In his well-documented work, Hitler's Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII, John Cornwell, Jesus College, Cambridge University professor notes that the Vatican signed its ill-famed concordat with Hitler in 1933 to prevent him from grabbing church property and meddling in church affairs. In return the Vatican pledged the absolute obedience of Germany's Catholic priests and bishops to Hitler. As Pope, Pius XII sent a letter praising "the illustrious Hitler," and expressing confidence in his leadership.

Even as evidence piled up that thousands of Jews were being shipped to slaughter in Nazi concentration camps, Pius XII refused to reverse the Vatican's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil political course. He ignored the pleas of President Roosevelt to denounce the Nazis. He declined to endorse a joint declaration by Britain, U.S and Russia condemning the killings of Jews, claiming that he couldn't condemn "particular" atrocities. He was publicly silent when the Germans occupied Rome in 1944 and rounded-up many of the city's Jews. Many were later killed in concentration camps. He continued to send birthday greetings to Hitler each year until his death. He did not reprimand the Catholic archbishop of Berlin for issuing a statement mourning Hitler's death.

Pius XII's one and only known pronouncement during the war on the mass murders was a tepid, vaguely worded statement denouncing the deaths "of hundreds of thousands." By then there were millions, and he did not mention Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Jews in the statement.

In an Alice in Wonderland twist on reality, Vatican defenders say that airing old dirty laundry and fingering the culprits within the church who aided and abetted Hitler's ravages could damage the many efforts the church has made to heal the rift between Jews and Catholics. However, Ratzinger's bearing the Papal chest on church sins for the Holocaust would not be an academic exercise in moral flagellation. The thousands of Holocaust victims still alive bear the eternal scars of the Vatican's Hitler-era acquiescence to genocide. The killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Kosovo were grim testimony that the world still has not rid itself of the horrors of genocide.

Ratzinger experienced first hand the horrors of Nazi rule. An honest public admission from him that the Vatican said and did nothing while Hitler murdered millions would be a refreshing and needed step toward exorcising the wrongs of the past.

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