SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, a leftist, sparked considerable outrage in Europe when he praised the work of David Irving, Great Britain’s notorious Holocaust denier. In 1963, Hochhuth got his start with The Deputy, a play that demonized Pope Pius XII as a cold-blooded Nazi sympathizer who refused to condemn the Holocaust. During his pontificate (1939-1958), however, the pope earned substantial praise for opposing the Nazis and saving many Jews during World War II. The Deputy, which was performed around the world, succeeded in permanently transforming the pope’s image.
Following The Deputy, authors such as Guenther Lewy, Saul Friedlander, and Carlo Falconi published books that, to varying degrees, backed up Hochhuth’s portrait. The pope’s defenders such as Jacques Nobecourt, Pinchas Lapide, and Jeno Levai responded with books of their own, but were unable to restore his reputation. Upset that the Roman Catholic hierarchy wasn’t changing with the times on such issues as artificial contraception and abortion, anti-Catholics and Catholic dissidents found the allegations against the Vatican politically useful and often repeated them.
In the last ten years, the debate over Pius XII’s conduct during the Holocaust has intensified. Many new books have been published. Among Pius XII’s critics are Catholics such as John Cornwell (Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, 1999), J. Michael Phayer (The Catholic Church and the Holocaust: 1930-1965, 2000), Garry Wills (Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, 2001), and James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 2001). Recent Jewish authors who are critical of the Vatican include Susan Zuccotti (Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, 2001), David I. Kertzer (The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, 2001), and Daniel Goldhagen (A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church’s Role in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, 2002). Another critical book, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (1997), was co-written by two Belgians, Georges Passelecq, a Catholic monk, and Bernard Suchecky, a Jewish historian.
In The Pius War, an impressive collection of previously published reviews, a team of scholars, journalists, and lawyers reveal the shortcomings of these books, which often escape the attention of gullible reviewers in the liberal press.
THE TWO CO-EDITORS OF this book, Rabbi David G. Dalin and Joseph Bottum, both published comprehensive reviews of many of the new books. “The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII is simple,” Rabbi Dalin observes. “It requires only that favorable evidence be read in the worst possible light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavorable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test.”
In her book, Susan Zuccotti seeks to discredit the many tributes Pius XII received from Jews by insisting that most, if not all of them, were all motivated by ignorance and dishonesty in praising him. Zuccotti’s tactics alarm Rabbi Dalin, who warns, “To deny the legitimacy of their gratitude to Pius XII is tantamount to denying the credibility of their personal testimony and judgment about the Holocaust itself.” Based on his reading of the evidence, Rabbi Dalin concludes that Pope Pius XII should be honored as a “Righteous Gentile.”
A German scholar, Rainer Decker, looks at John Cornwell’s over-hyped Hitler’s Pope. Despite Cornwell’s claim that he conducted extensive research in the Vatican’s archives, a check of the book’s endnotes shows that the author relied mostly on secondary sources. In addition to Cornwell’s highly selective use of sources, Decker identifies many omissions, errors, and distortions of fact in the book. It wouldn’t be cruel to ask Cornwell, “Who do you think you’re fooling?”
Robert Louis Wilken is unimpressed by James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. Wilken points out that Carroll does not really tell us anything new because he extensively relies on the work of others, including Cornwell. “Constantine’s Sword is a six-hundred-page indictment of the Church for its attitudes toward and treatment of the Jews, deploying historical information to support its accusations,” the reviewer writes. “It is an effort not to understand but to use history to advance a tendentious agenda.”
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