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 Gordon Thomas, a Protestant, was given access to previously unpublished Vatican documents and tracked down victims, priests and others who had not told their stories before."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.

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