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 exposÚ
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 CiviltÓ 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 CiviltÓ 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
- 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
- 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
- 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'
- "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