The Vatican's Shameful Secret
By Richard Morrison

The Roman Catholic Church's endorsement of anti-Semitism in the 19th century paved the way for the Holocaust, says the historian David Kertzer
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 seized, separated from their parents and forced into the Catholic faith. Its pet newspapers ran racist campaigns that are vile even by the poisonous standards of the era. And its priests enthusiastically endorsed and encouraged a revival of the atrocious medieval accusation that Jews were ritually murdering 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 concordat 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 Hitler's 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 XII.
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 susceptible 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 consolation for loyal Catholics to learn that this relentless exposé was inspired (if that is the word) by the Vatican's own attempt to put the record straight. 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 whitewash.
True, the document acknowledged that Jews had been persecuted 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 "misrepresentation" 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 enforcers. "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 archives."
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 race laws.
They were confined to grotesquely crowded and cholera-riddled 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 Catechumens" for a 40-day indoctrination designed to "persuade" them into Christian baptism.
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 restless 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 enthusiastically 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 Civiltà 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 barbarian 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 unchristian".
Unfortunately, he didn't stop there. "It is beyond doubt," he continued, "that many Jews exercise an extremely pernicious influence in almost all sectors of modern civilisation." He concludes, chillingly: "One can only hope that Aryans and Christians will increasingly come to recognise the dangers created by the Jewish spirit and fight them more tenaciously."
With "denunciations" like that from the Church, the Nazis had no need of endorsements.
But the worst anti-Semitic propaganda uncovered by Kertzer 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 says.
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 Russian authorities interested in keeping anti-Jewish feelings at a fevered pitch," Kertzer writes. The Catholic press in Italy and France weighed in with lurid allegations of Jewish ritual murder throughout history, and a Catholic 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 acquitted 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 archives he found a letter to the Pope written by Prince von Metternich, the Austrian statesman, which complains that the Vatican's treatment of Jews was "no 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 wellintentioned Catholics to change the Church's attitude to Jews as the tide of anti-Semitism rose throughout Europe. In 1926 a new Catholic association called the Friends of Israel was formed in Rome. Its founders argued that Jews should be treated with respect, not stigmatised as "the slayers of Christ". Within two years its membership included 3,000 Catholic priests, 278 bishops and 19 cardinals.
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 "reformers". 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 anti-Semitic feelings were being fuelled there by prominent Catholic clergy such as the notorious Jozef Kruszynski, who in 1920 penned the ominous words: "If the world is to be rid of the Jewish scourge, it will be necessary to exterminate 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 hostility in America, where it is already published. "I have had hate mail," 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 ourselves." 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 correspondence between Metternich and the Pope that has never seen the light of day."
What, though, of the oftexpressed view that the "Holocaust 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 plurality: 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 message, and possess the power to enforce it," he says. "Today, obviously, one thinks of Islamic fundamentalists. But there are plenty of ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups that I would hate to see in power, too."
Unholy War by David Kertzer, Macmillan

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