- The Roman Catholic Church's endorsement of anti-Semitism
in the 19th century paved the way for the Holocaust, says the historian
- It is a sordid and shocking story, if true. The Roman
Catholic Church is accused of fuelling the rise of anti-Semitism in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its own ghettos and anti-Jewish laws
were models for the Nazis. The Vatican allowed Jewish children to be
separated from their parents and forced into the Catholic faith. Its pet
newspapers ran racist campaigns that are vile even by the poisonous
of the era. And its priests enthusiastically endorsed and encouraged a
revival of the atrocious medieval accusation that Jews were ritually
Christian priests and children.
- To all this a succession of Popes - from Pius VII in
Napoleonic times to Pius XII, who negotiated a mutually beneficial
with Hitler - turned a blind eye. Thus was the road to the Holocaust paved
with godly intentions.
- This is the substance of Unholy War, a savage new book
by the American historian David Kertzer, a professor at Brown University.
The charge that the Vatican protested too little and too late about
treatment of the Jews is hardly new, of course. Two years ago the British
author John Cornwell caused something of a furore when he put the case
for the prosecution in Hitler's Pope, a venomous biography of Pius
- But Kertzer thinks the Vatican's complicity in the rise
of modern anti-Semitism began much earlier and goes much deeper. "This
outpouring of books on Pius XII and the Holocaust misses the point,"
he says. "The Holocaust was going to happen anyway by the time he
became Pope. The important point is that anti-Semitism was nurtured by
the Church for so many centuries before that, making so many people
to Nazi ideology."
- It is a point that Kertzer hammers home in 300 pages
of damning and highly detailed case studies. And it will be scant
for loyal Catholics to learn that this relentless exposé was
(if that is the word) by the Vatican's own attempt to put the record
In 1998, after 11 years of heart-searching, it published We Remember: A
Reflection on the Shoah. To many, including Kertzer, it read like a
- True, the document acknowledged that Jews had been
by the Catholic Church at certain times in past centuries. But it attempted
to draw a distinction between this longstanding "anti-Judaism"
- which, the report argued, the Church had largely stamped out by 1800
- and the modern anti-Semitism that reared up in the latter part of the
19th century and prepared the way for the Nazis.
- The latter, the Vatican argued, had nothing to do with
religion. It was a political and racial poison "based on theories
contrary to the constant teaching of the Church".
- Kertzer says he was immediately struck by this
of the facts. "I knew there was something terribly wrong with the
history the Vatican was recounting."
- Astoundingly, his own research was aided by an unlikely
ally: the Vatican itself. In the same year that it published its Holocaust
report, the Church announced that for the first time scholars could examine
the secret archives of the Inquisition, the Vatican's doctrinal law
"I do credit the Vatican for that," Kertzer admits. "There
are lots of Protestant Churches that would rather not have their behaviour
during the Holocaust examined, and we don't have access to their
- So why did the Vatican authorities open the archives?
They must have known of the dark truths waiting to be discovered in those
dusty vaults. "That's a good question," Kertzer says. "One
theory put to me by an American Catholic priest is that there is now a
faction within the Vatican that wants all this stuff to come out. They
knew the Church itself would never be able to reveal it, but were quite
keen for an outsider like me to find the material."
- And the material is dynamite. Kertzer looks first at
the period, from the defeat of Napoleon to the unification of Italy in
1870, when Jews found themselves governed directly by the Church in the
Papal States. He finds that the Jews were subjected to the same kind of
official indignities that the Nazis later imposed with their Nuremberg
- They were confined to grotesquely crowded and
ghettos, forced to wear yellow badges, forbidden from doing business or
consorting with Christians, publicly humiliated during carnivals, compelled
to listen to sermons denouncing their faith, and frequently snatched by
Inquisition hit-squads and sent to the infamous "House of
for a 40-day indoctrination designed to "persuade" them into
- That makes gruesome enough reading. But it pales beside
what happened later in the 19th century, when the Church was emasculated
politically by the new Italian state and felt itself besieged by the forces
of "modernity" . Perhaps to bolster its popularity with the
working classes, it started to depict the newly emancipated Jews not only
as rich, greedy capitalists but also (with a wondrous lack of logic) as
dangerous socialists, intent on destabilising Christian society.
- This was the period when Catholic priests
distributed notorious fakes such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,
as evidence of a Jewish plot for world domination. And it was also the
time when the Catholic press - influential journals such as La
Cattolica and L'Osservatore Romano, widely believed to reflect the Pope's
own views - unleashed a flood of vitriolic anti-Jewish articles.
- In 1880, La Civiltà Cattolica described Jews as
"obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests . . . a
invasion by an enemy race". By the 1920s, its articles could have
been dictated by Hitler himself. "Vienna will be nothing but a Judaic
city; property and houses will all be theirs, the Jews will be the bosses,
the Christians their servants," it warned its readers in 1922.
- So repulsive was this propaganda that, as the Nazis began
to acquire power, some Catholic bishops took steps to distance themselves
from it. The Bishop of Linz, for instance, issued a pastoral letter which
declared that "to hate the Jewish people . . . is inhuman and
- Unfortunately, he didn't stop there. "It is beyond
doubt," he continued, "that many Jews exercise an extremely
influence in almost all sectors of modern civilisation." He concludes,
chillingly: "One can only hope that Aryans and Christians will
come to recognise the dangers created by the Jewish spirit and fight them
- With "denunciations" like that from the Church,
the Nazis had no need of endorsements.
- But the worst anti-Semitic propaganda uncovered by
surrounded the ghastly "blood libel" trials, in which Jews were
framed for the murder of Christians, and accused of draining their victims'
blood for Passover rites. "I was flabbergasted to discover that, until
well into the 20th century, Jews were still being accused of ritual murder
and the Church was not condemning such an accusation," Kertzer
- The most notorious case happened in Kiev in 1913, when
a Jewish factory worker, Mendel Beilis, was charged with the ritual murder
of a boy. "It had all the markings of an attempt to frame him by
authorities interested in keeping anti-Jewish feelings at a fevered
Kertzer writes. The Catholic press in Italy and France weighed in with
lurid allegations of Jewish ritual murder throughout history, and a
priest was mysteriously summoned as an "expert witness" - even
though Orthodox Christianity was the dominant religion in Kiev.
- But in this instance the campaign misfired. Beilis's
plight quickly became the subject of a crusade throughout liberal Europe,
and pressure on the Russian Government grew. In the end, Beilis was
by a jury which (according to some) was acting on direct instructions from
the embarrassed Tsar.
- Kertzer accepts that not all Catholics were anti-Semitic,
and that some boldly made their feelings known to the Vatican. In the
he found a letter to the Pope written by Prince von Metternich, the
statesman, which complains that the Vatican's treatment of Jews was
longer in harmony with the times in which we live". That was in 1843.
Sadly, the Pope refused to budge.
- Sixty years later, three distinguished English Catholics
- Cardinal Vaughan, Lord Russell (then the Chief Justice) and the Duke
of Norfolk - similarly protested to the Vatican about its continued tacit
encouragement of ritual murder accusations against Jews. It was a brave
and honourable gesture, but again it had no effect. Indeed, Kertzer has
discovered a series of contemptuous notes in the Vatican archives which
describe the English Catholics as "poor dupes" who have come
under the influence of "the powerful Jews in London" (ie, the
Rothschild banking dynasty).
- Kertzer chronicles one other notable attempt among
Catholics to change the Church's attitude to Jews as the tide of
rose throughout Europe. In 1926 a new Catholic association called the
of Israel was formed in Rome. Its founders argued that Jews should be
with respect, not stigmatised as "the slayers of Christ". Within
two years its membership included 3,000 Catholic priests, 278 bishops and
- But even this mild revolt was too much for the Vatican,
Kertzer says. In 1928, the Inquisition ruled that the Friends of Israel
was guilty of heresy, and closed the organisation down.
- In Kertzer's hands, no pontiff emerges with credit -
not even those, such as Pius XI, customarily depicted as
Indeed, Pius XI is subject to some of Kertzer's most scathing paragraphs.
Before he became Pope he was sent as a papal envoy to Poland. Violent
feelings were being fuelled there by prominent Catholic clergy such as
the notorious Jozef Kruszynski, who in 1920 penned the ominous words:
the world is to be rid of the Jewish scourge, it will be necessary to
them, down to the last one."
- Yet, far from condemning such rabble-rousers, the future
Pope seems to have sympathised with them. His report back to Rome includes
the words: "One of the most evil and strongest influences felt here
is that of the Jews." This is the view of the man who would be Pope
during the years when the Nazis came to power.
- Not surprisingly, Kertzer's book has provoked some
in America, where it is already published. "I have had hate
he says, "but also a certain amount of criticism from Jews. It's the
old idea: let's not rock the boat, let's not draw attention to
But how did he, the son of a rabbi, feel about discovering such an apparent
depth of anti-Jewish sentiment right at the heart of the Church? "Of
course part of me was horrified. After all, I have dedicated my book to
my foster-sister - one of the sole survivors of Auschwitz. But as a scholar
you can't help being thrilled when you discover, for instance, vital
between Metternich and the Pope that has never seen the light of
- What, though, of the oftexpressed view that the
industry" of books, TV documentaries and films is only re-opening
old wounds which, nearly 60 years on, should now be left to heal? Kertzer
repudiates such a sentiment. The theme of his book, he believes, is still
relevant and embraces far more than the tragic relationship between the
Catholic Church and the Jews. It is about the importance of religious
of respect for others' beliefs.
- "I think the book shows that religions always become
dangerous when people start to think they have unique access to God's
and possess the power to enforce it," he says. "Today, obviously,
one thinks of Islamic fundamentalists. But there are plenty of
Jewish groups that I would hate to see in power, too."
- Unholy War by David Kertzer, Macmillan