Thursday, July 5, 2012

More on Yad Vashem's decision on Pius XII

While I applaud Yad Vashem for taking a significant step that recognises the developments in understanding Pope Pius XII and his role/s during the Holocaust, I am concerned that the step has been taken by apologists as a definitive act that means they have "won" the "battle" over the war time pope.  And this is the language they are using - "won", "battle", "victory" etc.  This is not how history is done.  The crowing by some in the "canonise him now" camp is, at present, so loud, that any attempt to conduct a rational conversation is all but impossible.

Historians are not interested in "winning victories".  We are interested in establishing as best we can the truth of a particular period in the human story.  For those of us who have spent years researching the years of the Holocaust there are no "simple" solutions.  As the news from Yad Vashem broke and the apologists began publishing "I told you so" style responses, I was reading my way through some of the documents in ADSS concerning the Jews in France in 1941 and 1942 and the involvement of the nuncio, Valerio Valeri, the secretary of state, Luigi Maglione, and through the notations indicating he had seen the reports, the pope.  It is here that that the hard slog work is being done.  

I have not read anything in the popular blogs or news services that would indicate any awareness of the extremely complex realities that confronted the pope and the Vatican during the war years.  And that worries me.  There were no simple answers; there were no simple problems - it was a complex situation that nearly beggars belief.  But this was the reality in which they worked.

One of the oft resurrected chestnuts involves Golda Meir's famous statement of condolence on the death of the pope in 1958.  Yes, the Israeli foreign minister made a profoundly moving statement expressing the gratitude of the Jewish people for what Pius did during the war years; however, I see and read nothing that points to any understanding of things that Meir would have known nothing about, such as the conversations held between the nuncio to France in the early summer of 1942 as the massive round-up of non-French Jews in France began. And it is difficult reading because of the diplomatic tight-rope that Valeri walked, that Maglione walked and that ultimately, Pius walked.  

How do you deal with statements in ADSS 8.449 where Pierre Laval, the vicious Jew-hating Vichy minister tells the nuncio that according to Otto Abetz, the de-facto German ambassador to France, it was for the pope alone to speak on the Church's response to antisemitic laws and actions, not the nuncio?  Why did Laval say that unless he and, presumably Abetz, knew that Pius would be extremely reluctant to speak publicly?  And on what was that based, if it was true?  The statement was made a month after the Dutch bishops' protest in July 1942 and at the time of the protest sermons of Cardinal Gerlier, Bishops Saliege and Theas (ADSS 8.452, 454, 463) and before the Brazilian ambassador's initiative among the allied diplomats in the autumn of the same year to get Pius to speak out clearly and condemn the murder of European Jewry.  The outcome of the Dutch protest was the round-up and deportation of "non-Aryan Christians" including Edith and Rosa Stein.  The outcomes of the French protests was the opposite.  The deportations continued but with significant passive and growing active resistance from the French and evidence of major hiding operations, especially in the unoccupied zone.  (See the work of Lucien Steinberg and Renee Bedarida as two examples)

What did Pius know?  All of the above.  He also knew of the actions of French Protestant Christians, especially the work of Pastor Marc Boegner. I believe, based on the evidence available so far, that as far as France was concerned, the actions of the local bishops - six out of a hierarchy of over 100 - was judged sufficient to let the Vichy regime know what the pope thought about the persecution of the Jews.  And given the reaction of both Vichy and the Germans, the statements appear to have had the desired effect.  It is a simplistic answer, but I lack time to go further.

If all that seems confusing and convoluted, it is.  And this is why I get concerned when I see blog entries such as the one that follows in the next post, that make things look so simple.  If only they were.  And just in case I did not make the point clear enough, the reference to ADSS is to published material, not material from archives that have not been released.  So, if making my way through the available material is so fraught with difficulty and lack of clarity, I doubt the release of archives in 2014 will necessarily make the matter that much clearer.

On a personal note.  I was one of the participants at the 2009 symposium at Yad Vashem to look at recent developments in the study of Pius XII and the Holocaust.  There were no raised voices.  There was a lot of shared opinion and discussion of new material from the archives.  There was a sense that we are moving forward.  I only wish that the apologists and their fellow-travellers would read what we have written, instead of believing every conspiracy theory that flies their way.  

The change of the text next to the portrait of Pius XII is indicative of historians doing their job well.  It is a slow process.

Bishop Jules Saliege 

Bishop Pierre Theas

Pastor Marc Boegner

All three were honoured by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

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