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Jesus, Jews, and the Shoah - "A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair" - Book Review

A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Knopf, 352 pp., $25)

I began this book as an admirer of its author. Goldhagen's 1996 work, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, forcefully rejected the leftist paradigms that had come to dominate study of the worst event in human history. Where other historians posited exculpatory social structures, collectivities, or "irresistible forces," Goldhagen presented Germans as individual moral agents, as thinking and choosing beings. From this first effort, it was clear that Goldhagen had one of those rare minds that, across labyrinths of sophistry, and through mazes of irrelevant facts, could cut right to the point.

In one area, it is true, that earlier work was marred by some dubious speculation. "European anti-Semitism," Goldhagen wrote, was "a corollary of Christianity": Because Jews rejected the revelation of Jesus, they challenged Christians' certitude in that revelation. Doctrinal Christianity was shaped by that early challenge and, over the centuries, warped by it. Such a thesis, even if true, would be difficult to prove; but to his credit, Goldhagen sharply differentiated Christian from Nazi attitudes. The Volkisch worldview, he stressed, "contradicted and did not admit the Christian one that had held sway for centuries." That firm and clear distinction -- and the book's overwhelming focus on German secular racism -- ensured that Hitler's Willing Executioners was far from a bigoted attack on Christianity per se.

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In the afterword to the paperback edition of that book, however, signs of a "Goldhagen Problem" emerged. In the U.S. he was attacked by venerable Holocaust scholars, whose works he had eviscerated; but in a tour of Germany, where the book became a bestseller, Goldhagen was hailed as the scholarly equivalent of a rock star. His self-celebratory account of that "huge success"; his gloating reminders of the "frequent and vigorous" applause bestowed by "large audiences"; his inability to refrain from noting that German newspapers hailed his visit as a Triumphzug (triumphal procession) -- these would have been turned, by any writer with a modicum of self-consciousness, to the purpose of some humbling and endearing ethos. But in the afterword to Hitler's Willing Executioners, that shoe never dropped; and in A Moral Reckoning that same self-righteousness, now cancerously advanced, ruins what should have been a sober and important work, in a field where one is greatly needed.

A Moral Reckoning is, among its other faults, a 352-page exercise in intellectual bad manners. Reading it is like listening for three days to Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe. Goldhagen's sour, jut-lipped attitude is apparent even in the introduction, where -- in a single two-page stretch -- he preemptively deems his critics "philosophically bizarre," "strange," "odd," and "silly" (this last word he uses repeatedly). His own views, of course, are "obvious," "overwhelming," or, most typically, "facts."

That Goldhagen should have written this book with attitude need not have been fatal. Many good writers, from Montaigne to Mencken, have been impolitic, colicky, or sassy. But Goldhagen's smug and disrespectful stance does not inspire confidence that he will turn each issue carefully, catching all sides of it in reason's light. That he should attempt to do so is vital; for, as he himself allows, "some of the evidence can be read in multiple ways."

The book begins with an attack on the World War II-era Pope, Pius XII, originally written for The New Republic under the taunting title, "What Would Jesus Have Done?" Goldhagen does not actually answer that question, but he does imply that a wartime Jesus would have done more than Pius, who "was serving . . . the closest human analogue to the Antichrist, Hitler," and who "tacitly and sometimes materially aided in mass murder." As other critics do, Goldhagen alleges that Pius was silent on the fate of the Jews. During the Holocaust, Pius "chose again and again not to mention the Jews publicly. . . . [In] public statements by Pius XII . . . any mention of the Jews is conspicuously absent."

In fact, Pius used the word "Jew" in his very first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. There he insisted that all human beings be treated charitably -- for, as Paul had written to the Colossians, in God's eyes "there is neither Gentile nor Jew." In saying this, the Pope affirmed that Jews were full members of the human community -- which, in Hitler's Willing Executioners, had been Goldhagen's own criterion for establishing "dissent from the anti-Semitic creed" [emphasis added].

That Goldhagen gets Pius wrong is perhaps due to his near-total reliance, in the treatment of the wartime period, on secondary sources hostile to the Catholic Church. The biased and arguable interpretations in these works are gulped down whole. Since an exhaustive listing of Goldhagen's derived misreadings has already been published by Ronald J. Rychlak (in First Things, June/July 2002), it seems best to draw over this unfortunate section the curtain of oblivion. More interesting by far is Goldhagen's implication that it was Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, who made the Holocaust possible.

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