Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) may have “unwittingly provoked a moral uproar,” but there’s nothing unwitting about this provocative work, an unblinking consideration of the role of Catholic doctrine in the machinery of the Holocaust.
Goldhagen’s debut, angrily debated in Germany and elsewhere, dismissed the notion that the Germans and other Europeans were “herdlike, simply frightened, optionless people,” incapable of opposing or even comprehending Hitler’s savage war against the Jews. Here, he extends his argument to show that much of Catholic (and, by extension, other Christian churches’) doctrine provided justification for that war in the eyes of its faithful perpetrators. For centuries, after all, priests had been preaching that the Jews were the tainted murderers of Christ and “an insufferable devilish burden,” and few earlier bloodlettings had been without the blessings of popes and prelates; small wonder, then, that although German bishops protested the state’s euthanasia program against the ill and infirm, they never publicly spoke against the elimination of their Jewish compatriots. Extending with better evidence the arguments of John Cornwell and other recent scholars, Goldhagen sheds particularly harsh light on Pope Pius XII, who suppressed his immediate predecessor’s encyclical condemning Nazi anti-Semitism and professed a “special love” for Germany as against a special hatred for the godless Bolshevism that he suspected the Jews of spreading; Pius, he adds, knew all about the gas chambers and yet lent the Church’s support to Italy’s consent to the deportation of its own Jewish population as late as 1943. The Church must acknowledge its complicity in the Holocaust, insists Goldhagen. Moreover, he adds, “if the Catholic Church is to undo the harm it has produced, then it must work assiduously to combat, to reduce, and to teach people the falseness and, in its terms, the sinfulness of anti-Semitism”—a hateful doctrine whose origins lie in New Testament passages depicting Jews as “a brood of vipers” and worse.
A skillful, persuasive blend of history and polemic, sure to incite controversy and to earn its author much attention.