Holocaust? What Holocaust?

With the Pope’s 180 on Bishop Willliamson, the Vatican and White House are in retreat. A remarkable week.

Juan Mabromata, AFP / Getty Images

UPDATE: It’s not every day that the Pope issues a “Whoops!” statement. Pope Benedict is known for wearing red Prada slippers, and he stuck both of them in the papal puss when he un-excommunicated the odious Bishop Richard “Holocaust? What Holocaust?” Williamson. Now, Benedict is demanding that Williamson repudiate his denials about the six million before he can be fully admitted back into the Vatican.

It’s been quite the week for about-faces, what with President Obama’s untidy cabinet appointments. Bishop Williamson’s offenses are hardly on the same scale as Tom Daschle’s chauffeur-gate and Nancy Killefer’s housekeeper-gate, but there it is—the Vatican and White House in retreat.

The Pope’s one-eighty is really quite dramatic. The Vatican is like a very large ship: it moves slowly, turns with enormous difficulty, and is hard to stop. The announcement is also very reassuring, suggesting as it does that Il Papa is susceptible of reason. Always nice to see that in high places.

This will not quite be the end of it. Doubtless, there will be shouts and murmurs of “What did the Pope know and when did he know it?” (With respect to His Excellency’s appalling interview with Swedish TV.) But it’s a very good start. Bene, your Holiness. Optime est.

My previous post on this subject below:

Why on earth would Pope Benedict XVI want to rehabilitate a Holocaust denier?

The running title of this blog is “What Fresh Hell.” This week’s heaping helping of fresh hell comes courtesy of Bishop Richard Williamson, one of four bishops whom Pope Benedict XVI has just un-excommunicated. A plainer way of putting it would be: rehabilitated.

The ecclesiastic quartet were elevated to Episcopal rank in 1988 by a whack-job (or “extreme right wing,” if you prefer) French archbishop named Marcel Lefebvre, as a means of protesting the modernist trends of the post-Vatican II church.

This repugnant episode is surely to the Vatican what Abu Ghraib was to the Pentagon. No, actually, worse.

Pope Benedict, the German cardinal formerly known as Josef Alois Ratzinger, lifted the excommunication in the interests of bringing the Lefebvre contingent back into the church. Mother Church is understandably sensitive when it comes to schisms.

This come-to- il Papa moment would almost certainly have gone unnoticed, even on a slow news days, were it not for the interview that Bishop Williamson had just given to Swedish TV. You really must view it for yourself.

Note, as you watch it, that as he speaks, he averts his eyes from the interviewer. I wasn’t surprised by that. I suppose were I to insist, in front of a television camera, that the Holocaust was largely a fiction, and that at most 300,000 Jews perished in the camps, “not one by gassing in a gas chamber,” I think I might look away, too.

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Bishop Williamson is English-born, and speaks in the accent of his homeland (Fatherland?), in a mellifluous, educated way, which is perhaps what makes this arpeggio, coming at the end of the interview, so very chilling:

“There’s certainly been a huge exploitation. Germany has paid out billions and billions of deutsche marks, and now euros, because the Germans have a guilt complex about their having gassed six million Jews. But I don’t think six million Jews were gassed. Now be careful, I beg of you,” he says, now looking at his interviewer, “this [that is, Holocaust-denying] is against the law in Germany.” He points over his shoulder at an imagined onlooker, “If there were a German here, you could have me thrown into prison before leaving Germany. I hope that’s not your intention….”

And now, euros? Wow. Though he doesn’t smile, the “I hope that’s not your intention” line seems to be intended in a jocose sort of way. You’re not going to turn me in to the Gestapo, are you? Ho, ho, ho.

I’m no longer a practicing member of Mother Church, but the old reflexes die hard. Once an altar boy, always an altar boy. But really, I have to say, out loud, as it were, What—the fuck—were you thinking of, Your Holiness? This repugnant episode is surely to the Vatican what Abu Ghraib was to the Pentagon. No, actually, worse. Actually, not even on the same scale.

Hillaire Belloc—one of the great Catholics of his day—said of the Vatican, “What can one expect of an institution run by 800 Italian clergymen?” Pope Benedict, of course, is not Italian. He is German, which somewhat … complicates things.

To his credit, he moved swiftly to dissociate the church from Bishop Williamson’s silky asseverations. He professed his “full and indisputable solidarity with Jews.” He spoke of his visit in 2006 to Auschwitz, where he gave witness to the "brutal massacre of millions of Jews, innocent victims of blind racial and religious hatred." The official Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said, “These are declarations that we don’t share in any way.” Perhaps it sounded more forceful in the language of Dante and Petrarch, but fair enough. Up to a point. Why, one wonders, hasn’t Bishop Williamson been re-excommunicated?

These attempts to insert the proverbial ten-foot-pole were hardly sufficient for various antidefamation groups and committees and Nazi-hunting agencies. The German government is now contemplating bringing criminal charges against the bishop. Personally, I don’t think one ought to be liable to be sent to jail for hate speech. (Vladimir Putin recently made it a crime merely to criticize the government.) Idiotic and hateful sentiments ought to afforded every opportunity of dissemination, so that all may hear and heap scorn and odium on them. Don’t jail someone for being pathetic. Putting them on YouTube is far more effective.

Read Buckley's Harrowing Visit to Auschwitz

I sometimes wonder what it would feel like, as a Jew, to hear these profanations to the memory of the six million. Being of Irish ancestry, I suppose the analogy would be hearing a member of the British parliament say that there wasn’t a potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s—just a few localized crop failures. The Irish are certainly making a lot of fuss and bother about all this. It’s time someone told the truth.

I’ve been to Auschwitz, about ten years ago, with my late father. There is something about seeing Konzentrationlager Auschwitz that makes you want to give witness. I wrote a long description of the visit, which I’ve never published. I won’t reproduce it here, but if you care to read it, just click on this link.

It is, as you might imagine, graphic and disturbing. Some of those to whom I’ve showed it told me they had to get up and walk around the room after finishing it. But I doubt it would be enough to make a dent in Bishop Williamson, who seems to be made of sterner stuff.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.