Saturday, February 16, 2013

Media spin and "The Pope's Jews"

There's nothing like a good story with villains-a-plenty, knights in shining armour, spies and plan nasty people set in and around the Vatican to get people clamouring to know more.  Add to the spice a couple of people who are loud in their support of the story and who needs history?  Just make it up!

I've been following the press articles on Gordon Thomas' new book "The Pope's Jews" (Thomas Dunne, 2012) and confess to be confused.  Conservative Catholic blogs such as Patheos are having a field day!  I am also a little less than impressed with Amazon who has selectively quoted from the Kirkus review of Thomas' book.

Amazon cited the Kirkus review: “An episodic, fast-paced narrative.”

The Kirkus review finished with: A valiant but not fully successful attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of “Hitler’s pope.”

Have the journalists who are writing on this book actually read it?  It appears to me that they rely heavily on what other people who may or may not have read the book have to say.  Certainly the lack of direct reference to the book suggests that familiarity with the text is not high on the agenda of someone like the Guardian's Dalya Alberge who penned Vatican hopes secret files exonerate "Hitler's Pope" that appeared on Saturday 9 February 2013.

I will point out a few points on this article that give ongoing cause for concern at sloppy writing attempting to grasp serious historical concerns without bothering to do even the most basic research work.  Alberge is not the only journalist who fails to do her homework, and she is by no means the worst, but to historians who work in this particular field, it grates that journalists rush articles when even a few moments of "googling" could help craft a more reliable and accurate piece of writing.

1.  "Pius XII has long been vilified as 'Hitler's pope' ..." - certainly not in any reliable historical circles.

2.  " ... Now a British author has unearthed extensive material that Vatican insiders believe will restore his reputation, revealing the part that he played in saving lives and opposing nazism. Gordon Thomas, a Protestant, was given access to previously unpublished Vatican documents and tracked down victims, priests and others who had not told their stories before."  

Brilliant!  Who are the "Vatican insiders"?  

How is Gordon Thomas' Protestantism relevant?  Does Alberge suggest that non-Catholics are less prejudiced to examine material related to Catholic history than Catholic historians?  Would Alberge argue that the biographer of Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury should be someone who is not an Anglican?  

Now the clanger!  "given access to previously unpublished Vatican documents ..."  Surely Ms Alberge knows that all the files of Pope Pius XII related to the 1939-1945 War remain under embargo and are not due for release until at least sometime later this year?   So, what then are these documents?  

"Victims, priests and others ..."  Unnamed - a little convenient I think; unless Alberge has not read the book.

3.  How can any of the claims that Pius "gave his blessing to the establishment of safe houses in the Vatican and Europe's convents and monasteries" be confirmed if the documents for the period are not available.  At most what historians have are records from some individuals involved in rescue work and the archives of some religious orders and dioceses.  The assertion that Pius was the head of continental rescue operation is, of course, nonsense.  Apart from the simple fact that it would have been physically impossible, there are no suggestions from the published records in ADSS and in other fonts, that it ever happened. (There is a link to ADSS on the right side of the blog)  The only organisation remotely along these lines was the Vatican Information Office.  A selection of the VIO work was published in 2006 and is readily available.

4. Alberge's next paragraph just muddies the waters.  Leaping from a papal-led rescue operation across the continent, we go to activities that are well-known from Italy and Hungary.  Individual dioceses and individual priests and bishops did undertake rescue operations, but to move from a local situation to a national or international scene without substantial documentation suggesting the pope was the operating force behind it simply does not stand scrutiny.

5.  Praise from Jewish groups.  For many rescued Jews the identities of the rescuers were never known - it was too dangerous and risked too much.  It was not unreasonable for rescued Jews who were saved by Catholic clergy and religious to turn to the visible head of the Church to give expression to their gratitude.  And would the pope have told Catholics not to rescue? Of course not.  Did he order Catholics to engage in rescue?  Not explicitly as such, but there are plenty of examples from the beginning of his pontificate in March 1939 where he forcefully reminded Catholics of their Christian ethical and moral responsibilities, which included helping whoever was in need.

6.  KGB plots and plays.  While it would be highly likely that the USSR would devote some time and energy to conducting a propaganda campaign against the vocally anti-communist Pope Pius XII, I doubt very much that it would have been anything more than a secondary issue.  There is also the reality that Hochhuth wrote a play, a piece of fiction, that took hold in the popular mind as being non-fiction.  Playwrights sometimes do that; Hochhuth happened to be very successful.  However, to inflate it into evidence of a Soviet-bloc conspiracy to destroy the reputation of the pope is going too far.  Pius' reputation was increasingly questioned in light of the development of Holocaust historiography and the questions that were asked about the role of the Catholic church during that time.

7.  John Cornwall and "Hitler's Pope" - a great piece of airport faction that even he has sought to distance himself from.  Yes, Cornwall did create a sensation, and even I thought for a time there was something in it, but what has come from it has been a decade and a half of serious scholarship and study that has seen a number of excellent books, monographs, papers and resources that have helped shed light and nuance on Pius XII.

 8. Rychlak and Doino:  I have written on these two apologists before.  The interested reader can find my responses to their work throughout the blog.

I may well have to read the book given the amount of press it is attracting, and I am prepared to moderate any comments above should that be warranted.  But, any modification would not be because of this article written by Dalya Alberge.  What this article shows is how powerful the myths surrounding Pius XII are and how much work remains to be done to demonstrate the simple fact that history is not black and white.








Saturday, February 9, 2013

Kertzer reviews Ventresca's new book on Pius XII

Since it's publication several months ago, Soldier of Christ by Robert Ventresca continues to make very positive headlines throughout the world.  Ventresca may have finally succeeded where many others have come to grief, in writing the a comprehensive and balanced biography of Pius XII using the available material.  In any case Ventresca's book, along with Frank Coppa's slighter volume, look like being the best biographies of Pius for some time to come.  It remains to be seen if another book written after the archives are opened will cause significant change.

Keeping in mind that the archival material for Pius XII's pontificate are still under embargo, until at least later this year according to earlier comments from the ASV, Ventresca's work may have some areas that will need expansion with the help from primary material that could emerge.  However, the review of Ventresca's book that appears in the current online edition of the Jesuit magazine America suggests that this book is balanced, non-polemical, scholarly and built on sound historiography.  The reviewer is David Kertzer of Brown University, Rhode Island, a recognised expert in Vatican-Italian-Jewish history.  

Kertzer's review is positive and offers Ventresca a major plaudit when he says that the author allows the reader to judge for themselves on some of the major issues that have coloured, and which still do, Pacelli's life and papacy.  

I have a copy that I have just started reading and I look forward to the rest of the book.

From H-Net: Simon Levis Sullam on Italy and the Holocaust

I am a subscriber to H-Net for a number of threads.   This article below was sent in by its author, Simon Levis Sullam.  Interested readers may wish to subscribe to this excellent news service here.

Sullam's article in an interesting and, I believe, important context-setting exercise for our continued study of Pope Pius XII. He was a Roman and an Italian who shared many of the social and cultural attitudes of the time.  Sullam's thesis that the largely accepted theory that Italy's behaviour during the Holocaust as it was implemented in the country between 1943 and 1945 should be challenged with historical rigour is to be applauded.  He cites several historians whose work sets out compelling reasons to dismantle the mythologies surrounding Italian involvement in the implementation of the Final Solution without neglecting the genuinely heroic role played by many ordinary Italians who put their lives at risk to help save their Jewish neighbours.


Simon Levis Sullam


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The following is a piece I wrote for this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day
(27 January).  I sent it recently to various Italian newspapers. It deals
with the Italian involvement in the Holocaust and specifically with the
use of the category of genocide in writing the history of the period
1943-45. This approach, in my view, can allow the historian to say - and
should bring the Italian (and not only Italian) citizen to consider -
that, contrary to wide-spread common knowledge, ordinary Italians were
indeed involved as direct actors (co-protagonists) in the destruction of
the Jews of Europe. Despite many important books and much research
available today, I believe the story of ordinary Italians during the
Holocaust (ordinary men and women, in Christopher Browining's sense)
remains to be written in much greater detail.

Simon Levis Sullam

January 27, Remembrance Day: ordinary Italians and genocide 1943-45,

by Simon Levis Sullam*

What is a genocide and how does it occur? This is a question that we
Italians can and should ask as Remembrance Day (January 27th) approaches
again this year.  We should ask ourselves if what we remember and how we
remember is enough. And, we should take into consideration the sense of
saturation that this institutional recurrence can provoke in some of us. 
Can we try to ask some new historiographical questions this year, seventy
years after the beginnings of the deportation from Italy?  Is the category
of genocide useful for the historical interpretation of the Holocaust in
Italy, and specifically of the Italian participation in the deportations
and extermination of Jews in 1943-45?

In recent years the best historiography on the Holocaust has been
developing in growing relationship with research on genocides (from the
Armenian to the Cambodian genocide, from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia).
This has allowed us to compare, and at the same time, to better define and
contextualize  the “historical singularity of Auschwitz.” It has also cast
new light on the different national contexts and on the dynamics in which
the “Final Solution” was carried out: to compare does not mean to dwell on
similarities but to highlight specificities.


Twenty-five years ago, the historian of Fascism Renzo De Felice said in an
interview with Corriere della Sera, that Italy was outside  the “shadow of
the Holocaust” – and this phrase became notorious. Such a view – still
largely held as credible among the general public and even among
historians – can hardly be considered tenable today, especially if
Remembrance Day, as established by Italian law in 2000, is truly to make
sense. De Felice wrote, “Italian Fascism is immune from the charge of
genocide.” With this precise formula he meant to exclude not only Italian
liability, but even Fascist responsibility in the Holocaust.


The first and strongest refutation of De Felice’s position came a few
years later with the publication in 1991 of the monumental book, Il Libro
della Memoria (The Book of Memory), edited by Liliana Picciotto for the
CDEC Foundation (Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica
Contemporanea). The Libro della memoria provided a list of names and
biographical information about the individual fate of approximately 8,000
Jews who were victims of the Holocaust in Italy. The book also contained
precise details on the arrest of Jews carried out by Italians between 1943
and 1945. In 1995 David Bidussa drew on these data – and the numbers until
now neglected, revealed that the arrests were mainly carried out by
Italians – for his short but influential study, aimed precisely at
deconstructing from a historical perspective “the myth of the good
Italian”. Drawing on, among other evidence, the number of arrests in
Picciotto’s work, Bidussa revealed a part of Italy’s history – the period
of Fascist extremism and collaborationism of the Republic of Salò, from
1943 to 1945 – that resulted not only in the suppression of the Jews’
rights, but also in the direct Italian participation in the extermination.

Since 1988, Michele Sarfatti’s research on Mussolini’s racism and on
Fascism and the Jews, together with a series of studies on the Italian
path to anti-Semitism (which still continue), have helped rewrite a
history that clearly did not begin only in 1938, at German instigation,
nor can it be understood reductively as the “Nazification” of Italian
Fascism, as some also recently still claim.  It would be enough in this
regard to turn one’s attention, as some historians have been doing for a
while, to the history of Italian colonialism, which began well before
Fascism, so that we can understand that we Italians have had no need of
instructions or models when we chose to use violence.

But what can we achieve today by analyzing the deportations of Italian
Jews between 1943 and 1945, the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of
young and old people, women and children, within the context of the
international historiography on genocide?

First of all, historians concur today that genocides do not take place
exclusively in colonial or ex-colonial contexts or in conquered
territories. We cannot imagine them as taking place only in distant
places, for different reasons unfamiliar to us (Cambodia or Rwanda, or
even the Armenian-Turkish border or Tito’s decaying regime with the rising
inter-ethnic conflict in post-1989 Yugoslavia). Indeed, there is an
intrinsic relationship between intimacy and genocide: genocide actually
strikes our next-door neighbors – thus it can involve us and it does
involve us all – as Jan T. Gross has shown in his book, Neighbors (2001),
dedicated to the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish
compatriots in 1941, before the arrival of the Germans.

But on the Italian territory, one might object, no massacre took place;
not at the hands of Italians. This is generally true if we consider only
physical extermination by mass shooting – as in the first phase of the
Holocaust in Eastern Europe (readers may recall on this, for instance,
Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, 1996) – or the industrial
extermination in gas chambers that took place in the heartland and at the
hands of the most civilized, (Judeo-)Christian, Europe.

However, historians of genocide such as Donald Bloxham or Jacques Semelin
have explained that, in addition to detention in prison camps and
consignment of people in the hands of “willing executioners” (or even
consignment to an Eichmann-style “desk executioner”), preexisting behavior
can become genocidal acts, especially in the context of war.  This
behavior includes the identification, arrest and separation of groups on
the basis of ethnicity, religion, social difference or other criteria (and
let’s not neglect perceived physical or mental differences, one of the
first criterion for the extermination policy that started the Holocaust in
Europe).  Acts of this nature clearly concerned the tens, hundreds,
perhaps thousands of Italians who contributed to the design, organization
and implementation, on political, bureaucratic and police bases, of the
“Final Solution of the Jewish question” in Italy from 1943 to 45, after
the Italian Social Republic had declared the Italian Jews “foreigners” and
“enemies.”

Ordinary Italians in the police, the armed forces and among the volunteers
of the revived Fascist Party, but also ordinary citizens who were simple
collaborators and informers (as Mimmo Franzinelli documented in an essay
included in La Shoah in Italia, 2010, 2 volumes by various authors), got
up one morning in the autumn of 1943 or the winter, or the summer of 1944,
shaved or did their make-up (there were women executioners directly
involved), drank their coffee, greeted their families and then went out to
hunt for Jews who had been their next-door neighbors, their classmates,
their colleagues (perhaps their friends?). They seized property,
imprisoned Jews, transferring them to transit camps and delivering them,
finally, into German hands. They sent these Jews, not to some “unknown
destination,”  but consciously, to certain death, as Liliana Picciotto
began to shown in her L’alba ci colse come un tradimento (Dawn Caught Us
As a Betrayal, 2011).

Although it is a duty to remember the thousands of Italians who saved
their fellow Jewish citizens, individual stories of ordinary Italians who
participated in the genocide – Italy’s history inside the shadow of the
Holocaust – remains to be written. It is a process that, in many ways,
began at the very earliest with the promulgation of the Racial Laws in the
autumn of 1938, thus involving thousands of Italian “executioners,” even
if what eventually developed out of those laws was not already written
into them.

This is why we commemorate Remembrance Day and – I write as a historian
first and foremost to my fellow historians: the seventy years since those
events and the twelve years since the promulgation of Remembrance Day in
Italy have not been enough to show us the urgency and necessity of writing
that particular history; the history  of “ordinary” Italians and genocide:
our history.

Translated by Paul Arpaia, Indiana University of Pennsylvania/Editor of
H-Italy, and Alessandro Cassin, Primo Levi Centre, New York.

*Simon Levis Sullam teaches modern fistory at the Ca ‘Foscari University
of Venice and is the author, among other works, of  L’archivio
antiebraico. Il linguaggio dell’antisemitismo moderno (Laterza 2009) and
the co-editor of Storia della Shoah (UTET 2006-2007) and La Shoah in
Italia (2010)).

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