Arbeit Macht Frei was an instance of the Big Lie, a promise of liberation to those who labored in the Nazi death camps. The iconic sign bearing those words arching over the entrance into the prisoners’ area of Auschwitz was stolen last week. Five men have been arrested, and the sign, cut into three pieces, has been recovered. But the event has lasting resonance. The theft was a mortal offense not just because of the death camp’s sacrosanct status, but because it amounts to a removal of evidence. Nothing must be lost of the physical facts of the Holocaust—precisely so that, far into the future, it will be remembered for what it was.
Pope Benedict’s action this week seeks to destroy the evidence, which is the point. If he were to have his declaration hoisted as a sign, it would say: “The Holocaust was the work of a few Nazis, period.”
The day after the theft at Auschwitz, as it happens, the Vatican engaged in its version of tampering with Holocaust evidence. While Hitler’s Big Lie stands in a moral category apart, the Roman Catholic hierarchy sponsored a large deceit of its own when it finally and formally declared that Pius XII was a figure of “heroic virtue,” advancing him along the road to sainthood. Obviously, the Vatican has come to a firm conclusion, but its assessment of the wartime pope, from the evidence that exists and the records that have been made public, is factually untrue. Pope Benedict XVI, presiding over this recasting of history, brings his own special edge to it as a German inclined to minimize guilt, and as a defender of absolute papal authority.
• Christopher Buckley: Holocaust? What Holocaust? The case against Pius XII is well established: He knew early on of Hitler’s plan for the Final Solution of the “Jewish problem,” and never raised his voice against it. The Vatican counters this indictment by honoring him, for example in its 1998 declaration “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” for “personally or through his representatives” having saved “hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.” It is true that thousands of individual Catholic clergy and lay people acted independently to help Jews to survive, whether nuns in Vichy France, monks in Tuscany, or functionaries in the Vatican itself—yet they are remembered as agents of the pope, acting at his orders.
Meanwhile, Pius XII is not to be held responsible in any way for the millions of Catholics, and other Christians, who, in the absence of his challenge to conscience, either actively participated in the genocide or did nothing to inhibit it. Neither is he charged, more perplexingly, with any responsibility for those senior Catholic officials who helped run the infamous post-war “rat line,” enabling the escape of Nazi war criminals (like Adolf Eichmann) to Latin America.
The archives that might bolster Vatican claims for Pius XII’s extraordinary interventions for hundreds of thousands of Jews have not been open to researchers. Records so far made public show a timid, if anguished, figure—a man who had come to loathe Hitler, but who restricted what opposition he could muster to inconsequential gestures behind the scenes. Heroic? It was one thing for Pius to have said nothing about the fate of innocents in distant countries, but, in October 1943, more than a thousand Jews were rounded up in the Roman Ghetto at the foot of Vatican hill, within sight of the pope’s windows, and still he did nothing. That is a fact. Those Jews died in Auschwitz.
But the actions, or lack of actions, that Pius took during the war leaves aside the even graver question of the moral and political consequences of his strong affirmation of Hitler in 1933 when, as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli and the Vatican’s foreign minister, he negotiated the so-called Reichskonkordat, which made the Vatican the first government to enter into a bilateral treaty with Hitler. In addition to giving Hitler enormous prestige when other governments were wary of him, that treaty, not incidentally, protected the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany while explicitly (and secretly) indicating the church would have nothing to say about the fate of Jews (unless they had accepted baptism). Pius never renounced the treaty. That too is a fact.
Despite charges brought against him by some of his fiercest critics, Pius XII was no war criminal, and no friend to Hitler. In many ways, he was like other world leaders at the time who had reason to know what was happening, and found reason to look away. But by what stretch of imagination was he an exemplar of “heroic virtue,” as the Vatican has just decreed? Albeit in a realm apart, this is the Big Lie all over again, and much more is at stake than the reputation of one man. Pope Pius XII’s infamous silence in the face of the Nazi onslaught against the Jewish people was not so much the crime, but the evidence—the evidence of a broad cultural failure, of something corrupt in the civilization that grew out of Christendom.
Pope Benedict’s action this week seeks to destroy the evidence, which is the point. If he were to have his declaration hoisted as a sign, it would say: “The Holocaust was the work of a few Nazis, period.” In fact, that has been a theme of his controversial papal statements on the subject. In Cologne, in 2005, he told an audience of German Jews that Nazi anti-Semitism “was born of neo-paganism,” as if it were unrelated to the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, embodied in the “Christ-killer” slander, and preached from nearly every Christian pulpit nearly every Good Friday for more than a thousand years. Speaking at Auschwitz in 2006, Benedict blamed the Holocaust “on a ring of criminals,” an exoneration of the larger German nation that is almost unheard of among the impressively self-critical Germans of Benedict’s generation. At the death camp, he went on to make the astonishing claim that by eliminating Jews, the Nazis were “ultimately” attacking the church. He complained of God’s silence, but not of the previous pope’s.
One needn’t lay particular guilt at the feet of the young Joseph Ratzinger for his having joined the Hitler Youth or having served in the Wehrmacht. Teenage Germans were not operating as free agents during the Third Reich. It is the mature Ratzinger who prompts troubling questions with his determination to rewrite history—precisely to protect what he would call the “hierarchy of truth” over which he presides. According to this schema, faith is over reason; Christian faith is over other faiths (especially Islam); Roman Catholicism is over other Christian faiths; and the pope is supreme over Roman Catholics, infallible in matters of “faith and morals.”
But the failure of Pius XII to pass the decisive moral test of the 20th century undercuts this hierarchy, and any meaningful claim to papal infallibility—which is why his failure must be denied at all costs. The evidence must be destroyed. That is why Pope Benedict and his circle go beyond defending the ineffectual Pius XII against slanders that say he was worse than others of his time, to declare him nothing less than an exemplar of “heroic virtue,” worthy of canonization. Why? Because—and even if they are convinced of it, that makes the point—“in the Big Lie, there is always a certain force of credibility,” as Hitler put it in Mein Kampf.
James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.