Sunday, March 06, 2011

I've read Hitler's Pope so you don't have to.

Brief summary: John Cornwell is to "history," what Dan Brown is to "literature."

Longer review posted on Amazon.

Of late, I've been reading a number of books on the relationship of the Christian churches with Nazi Germany in relation to the claim that the Catholic Church was somehow complicit with the Nazi Reich, e.g, Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism,  The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. This interest has largely been inspired by the trope that Pius was "Hitler's Pope." What I've found is that real historians give no credence to the notion that Hitler was anything less than committed to the destruction of Catholicism or that the Catholic Church as a whole was the only institution that resisted "coordination" with the Nazi system, and paid a heavy price for that resistance.

I eventually decided to read Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" to see what the fuss was about. What I discovered was a very poorly sourced book heavily based on a few secondary authorities which was illogical in its reasoning, paranoid in its depiction of Pius, confused in its apparent thesis, and ignorant of the actual condition of Catholicism in Germany during the `30s. I dog-eared each page that contained an error of logic or a double-standard applied to Pius or a failure to support a factual claim with a footnote or a fact presented without context and by the time I finished, I had dog-eared almost every other page.

To deal with some of the highlights:

1. Cornwell's actual thesis - which informs his presentation - is buried until page 371.

An engaged reader might wonder why a book ostensibly dedicated to the thesis that Pius XII was Hitler's Pope would spend 50 to 60 pages on Pius XII's life after the end of World War II, or would spend eight pages criticizing the papacy of Pope John Paul II, who, after all, had nothing to do with Catholic-Nazi relations. The answer is found on p. 371 where Cornwell writes that "[i]t has been the urgent thesis of this book that when the papacy waxes strong at the expense of the people of God, the Catholic Church declines in its moral and spiritual influence to the detriment of all."

There's nothing wrong with Cornwell having such a thesis, but it is dishonest of him to bury that thesis in a book until the end of his book. Readers are entitled to know that Cornwell's critique of Pius is informed by his opposition to "ultramontanist Catholicism" - i.e., "centralist" Catholics (Hitler's Pope ("HP") p. 5) - from the start. By not making that bias apparent from the outset, readers are either confused by all of the "cheap shots" that Cornwell levels at Pius, no matter how irrelevant, or they are "well-poisoned" by those cheap shots, which have no purpose in explaining Pius so much as disposing the reader against Pius. Knowing from the outset that Cornwell's thesis is that a strong papacy is bad for Catholicism would put the reader in a position to judge the credibility of Cornwell's claims in their proper context.

2. Cornwell's ostensible thesis is incredibly, well, lame when he states is forthrightly.

The "buzz" around Cornwell's book is that he somehow shows that Pius was a crypto-Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer, but on page xviii of the preface to the 2008 edition, Cornwell writes, "[n]one of this indicates that Pacelli was a Nazi sympathizer or that he had anything but contempt for Hitler." That must come as a shocking statement for the many people who have relied on Cornwell, or at least the title of his book, for asserting that Pius was a crypto-Nazi or that fascism is simply another word for "right wing Catholicism."

Notwithstanding all of the red herrings to the contrary, Cornwell's thesis is not that Pius was a crypto-Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer, but that Pius was guilty of "colluding appeasement." Putting aside the adjective "colluding," which is an odd description of someone that Cornwell admits "colluded" in a plot against Hitler and "quietly worked to save the lives of the persecuted" (Preface, p. xviii), Cornwell's thesis is simply that Pius "appeased" Hitler.

That Cornwell thinks that this is enough to earn the title of "Hitler's Pope" shows (a) how shallow his historical insights are and (b) how deep his bias against the men who hold the office of pope is. On Cornwell's title, Chamberlain is "Hitler's Prime Minister," Stalin is "Hitler's Dictator," and the United States until the end of 1941 is "Hitler's Country."

There was a whole lot of appeasement going around during the 1930s. Cornwell provides no analysis for why Hitler got away with so very much from so very many people. For example, France and England could have ended Hitler at any time before 1939 by using force against Germany - as they had a legal right - when Hitler re-armed the Saar or consolidated Austria into the greater Reich. And this was before the famous appeasement in Munich. Stalin's relationship with Hitler was likewise unique in that it was the only relationship that Stalin got less than he gave.

Cornwell, however, isn't interested in these other appeasements. He doesn't even acknowledge that they happened because to do so would have directed the focus from Cornwell's thesis that it was ultramontane Catholicism that was the problem rather than that there were other factors, such as, say, the desire of people who had fought a devastating war not to fight another such war.

3. Cornwell begs the question about whether an anti-ultramontane policy would have resisted Hitler.

Cornwell doesn't seem to have spent any time looking at - or thinking about - the actual sociology of German Catholics in the 1930s. He simply asserts that German Catholics would have followed the Pope or that a localized German Catholic Church would have resisted Hitler in the same way that it had resisted Bismarck during the Kulturkampf sixty years before.

Cornwell, however, doesn't offer any evidence for either claim. The actual evidence is to the contrary, namely, it was the anti-ultramontane Catholics, i.e., Catholics who opposed the tendency of papal centralization who became Nazi supporters, while the ultramontane Catholics were typically the Catholics who followed the Catholic Church in opposing Nazism. A good source for this point is Derek Hasting's Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism. Hasting's book reveals how German Catholics were torn between their religious and national identities. German Catholicism not surprisingly had a strong current of Catholics who emphasized their national identities at the expense of their religious identities and who opposed the ultramontane Catholics who were relatively more loyal to the papacy. These anti-ultramontane Catholics were as critical of "political Catholicism" as Hitler and they were among the first supporters of the Nazi party, a support that ended when Hitler moved to a national stage as a protégé of General Eric Ludendorff, who was virulently anti-Catholic. The Catholics who remained in the Nazi movement are acknowledged by all actual historians as being lapsed or nominal Catholics.

In contract, Protestantism did not have such a division of loyalties. Hitler and Protestant leaders recognized that being Protestant and being a German nationalist were not in inherent conflict. Accordingly, there were Nazis who remained practicing Protestants. Goring, for example, seems to have remained a self-identifying Lutheran during his life.

Although Cornwell doesn't mention it - perhaps because he is ignorant of the history - it was Protestantism that was largely co-opted into active collusion with Nazism. There were some Protestant churches that joined the "Confessing Church" movement, but the majority of Protestant Churches belonged to the "German Christian" faction and affirmatively adopted Nazi oriented theological innovations such as removing the Old Testament from the Bible and segragating Christians of Jewish ancestry.

These innovations were not adopted by Catholicism. In fact, Mit Brennender Sorge, and, subsequently Summi Pontificatorum,threw down the gauntlet on precisely these innovations, although the reader would never know how hot button these issues were at the time from Cornwell. Nonetheless, anyone who knows the actual issues of the time - such as those who were living through it - realized that Pius XI and Pius XII were challenging Nazism directly in these encyclicals.

Another point is Cornwell's weird attitude about merits of "local control." At times, Cornwell acknowledges, and then promptly drops, the point that "local control" meant, among other things, that Catholic bishops were selected through a process that involved political entities, and, in the case of Prussia, Protestant political entities. Presumably, as a "progressive", Cornwell favors the separation of church and state, and, yet, Cornwell is "silent" about this problem. Moreover, this fact creates a problem for Cornwell in that it has to be factored into any discussion about the dynamics of the relationship between Bishops and Reich. Simply put, Bishops who are vetted, or selected, or not vetoed by a state agent, be it Protestant or Nazi, are not going to be independent from the state. It is noteworthy that one of the Bishops who showed independence, Bishop Von Galen, was appointed by Pius XI almost accidentally over the initial objections of the local community and the Prussian government. See Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich.

As for the idea of fighting a new Kulturkampf, Cornwell nowhere addressed the differences between Bismarck and the Nazis. As bad as he was for Catholicism, Bismarck was not Hitler. Bismark did not make the totalitarian claims that Hitler made. Bismarck was not dealing with a people facing a depression and a lost war. Bismarck didn't have the tools of social control that Hitler had. At the time of Bismarck, Catholics were newly incorporated into the German Reich and didn't identify themselves with the then still foreign Prussian Reich. Bismarck wasn't willing to murder masses of his own citizens. Cornwell doesn't acknowledge any of this, much less account for it in his indictment of Pius.

4. Cornwell's book is poorly sourced.

Cornwell claims that his book is based on new material from previously unread archives. Yet, a reader who pays attention to the footnotes will see that primary archival material is rarely the source of Cornwell's claims. Like a college freshman writing a term paper, Cornwell will use only one source for particular portions of his book. Cornwell definitely does not engage in the process of compiling and harmonizing from different and competing sources, which is a good sign of someone who is not cherry-picking sources based on their adherence to his a priori thesis.

Also, Cornwell generally relied on secondary sources, such as books written by other authors, who may or not be relying on primary sources. He refers to archival sources or primary source material, such as contemporaneous newspapers on rare occasions. When he does, he seems to be cherry-picking. For example, Cornwell spends time pondering Pius' attitudes toward the Jews, and although he mentions the Israel Zolli, the Grand Rabbi of Rome who converted to Catholicism, in part because of Pius' intervention with respect to saving the Jews of Rome, rather than use Zolli's autobiography, he quotes from an American journalist. If Cornwell was actually interested in Pius' relationship with the Roman Jewish community, why wouldn't he have looked at Zolli's book? On the other hand, Cornwell does manage to quote from a survivor of the Nazi round-up of Roman Jews in order to lay a claim of anti-semitism at the feet of Pius. So, we get that, but we hear nothing from Zolli about how he felt at the protection he was offered by Pius.

In addition, Cornwell is hit or miss on providing support for his claims. He makes numerous factual assertions, apparently without support. For example, Cornwell claims that Pius required that papal servants kneel when they took calls from him. Is this true? It might be, but Cornwell doesn't tell us what source the claim comes from. Beyond the fact that providing authority is a check on authorial bias, this practice is unscholarly since it prevents readers from going to the underlying text for their own research. This kind of omission happened repeatedly throughout the book.

5. Cornwell's thesis about the quid pro quo between the Concordat and the Enabling Act is undermined by Cornwell's silence on other pertinent facts.

Cornwell's thesis is that Pius XII - as Secretary of State to Pius XI - threw political Catholicism "under the bus" in order to get a concordat. In other words, Pius was the proximate cause of the vote by the Catholic Center Party in favor of the "Enabling Act" which permitted Hitler to pass laws without a parliament. Without Pius' involvement, it seems, the Enabling Act wouldn't have been passed.

Two responses: What???? And, So what?

Cornwell rips the passage of the Enabling Act out of any context with the events that were occurring in Germany during the period. Cornwell avoid complete scholarly malpractice by mentioning the Reichstag Fire, but he doesn't mention that even prior to the vote on the Enabling Act, Hitler's cabinet had passed, and Hindenburg had signed, a decree that permitted Hitler to suspend civil liberties in order to deal with the fear of a Communist take-over generated by the Reichstag Fire. Cornwell doesn't mention that Hitler used that authority to arrest, imprison and torture not only Communists but Social Democrats, who had been partners with the Center Party in governing Germany. Likewise, Cornwell barely mentions that Catholic supporters of the Center Party members had been arrested and tortured under that same authority.

And all of this was before the Enabling Act.

Likewise, Cornwell doesn't mention that the Center Party had to pass through jeering Brownshirts to their vote on the Enabling Act, nor does he mention the fact that by voting against the Enabling Act, the Center Party would be subject to arrest for opposing German interests, just as the Communists and Social Democrats had been arrested.

Yet, under those circumstances, somehow the future Pius XII was responsible for the vote.

That's the "What???" part. The "So What?" part is that Hitler obviously already had all the authority he needed by the time the Enabling Act was passed in order to consolidate power. Hitler's obvious next move would have been to outlaw the Center Party as he had the Communists and then pass the Enabling Act with whoever was left.

Cornwell's failure to discuss this pertinent history is just dishonest.

Another problem for Cornwell is that there is no evidence of Pacelli's involvement. Hubert Wolf 's Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich has actually looked at the archives and has found no internal evidence in the form of notes or correspondence showing that Pacelli was involved in either the vote for the Enabling Act or the self-liquidation of the Center Party. Moreover as Wolfe - who is a real historian observes "[r]umors that the Vatican was behind this move have absolutely no basis in fact and fail the test of logic." [Id. at p. 174.] This is certainly true. It would take a belief in the heroic charity of Pius XI - or his incredible naivity - to conclude that he would have given the Nazis - who Cornwell concedes Pius neither liked or trusted - what they wanted before he got what he desparately wanted.

6. Cornwell's "Uncharitable" Depiction of Pius.

From a scholarly standpoint, the principle of "charity" means attempting to understand the subject from his own perspective and that of his time. Cornwell's allegiance to his "urgent thesis" strips him of "charity" in this sense and makes his portrait of Pius laughable.

Thus, we have Cornwell implying that Pius started not only World War II, but World War I, as well. According to Cornwell, Pius drive for a concordat with Serbia heightened Austria's resentment and made it more likely to pull the trigger when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated.

So, forget all that stuff about Gavril Princip and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the instability of Austria's Slavic minorities, and Serbia's exploitation of that instability to destabilize Austria, the real culprit was Eugenio Pacelli.

This is just silly. Austria was unstable. It was a declining empire. Serbia was emerging. The Concordat recognized that fact. Presumably, if the Serbian Concordat had been deferred out of concern for Austria's feelings, Cornwell would argue that Pacelli's reactionary allegiance to an unstable empire insulted Serbia causing its involvement in terrorism which, then, triggered World War I. Either way, the culprit would still be Eugenio Pacelli to a fanatic like Cornwell.

Then, there is the gratuitous slander of Pius for bringing food by a sealed train into war-torn, embargoed Germany! This is depicted as showing that Pius was ...what? Selfish? Self-indulgent? Not a man of the people? Yet, this is the same person who Cornwell's acknowledges and criticizes later on for his ascetism, who ate very little during the war.

Might an explanation be that Pius knew he was going into a country that was not able to import food? And how else was he going to get there except by sealed train. Germany in World War I was not overladen with food. Bringing in a shipment - whether it was for him or to be shared - made perfect sense.

But what does this have to do with whether Pius was "Hitler's Pope"? Nothing. It is simply a bit of "spin" that might induce readers to dislike the character of Pius, and, presumably, that of all other popes.

Part of that tactic is a good deal of Anti-Catholic tropes. Cornwell trots out loving details about "cults" of Mary and saint-making and papal coronations that would appeal to the anti-Catholic sympathies of English readers. Although "cult" is a perfectly acceptable term, Cornwell knows that too modern ears is offensive. In fact, he plays that card against Pius with respect to Pius' apparent refusal to assist German Jews with their "cult." What Cornwell misses throughout the book is that Pius is constantly explaining his conduct in relation to "natural law," but Cornwell spends no time explaining why Pius might or might not have felt justified in his actions based on Catholic natural law. Apparently, as a "progressive," natural law is not something that Cornwell feels he needs to spend time on.

Another instance of Cornwell's Anti-Catholicism is found on page 337, where Cornwell claims that visiting certain basilicas in Rome would give Catholics "a complete amnesty from time to be spent in Purgatory." Well, sure, that's the traditional anti-Catholic trope, but it is strange for someone who claims to be Catholic to put it that way, and not mention the little detail of going to confession. Likewise, what is a Catholic doing claiming that shops were selling "holy objects" including a "plaster statue of Pius with an arm that automatically raised its arm in blessing." (id. (unfootnotef.)) Holy object? Really? Cornwell is providing "cover" for Anti-Catholics to argue that Catholics consider that this bit of kitsch is a "holy object." I would expect this kind of observation from a Jack Chick tract, but not from someone who claimed to be a devout Catholic.

Then, there is Cornwell's fatuous attempt to minimize Pius's personal involvement in rescuing Roman Jews by giving them refuge in Vatican buildings. Cornwell spends essentially no time on this, except to assert that if Pius is to be given credit for that act of charity, he deserves the blame for permitting Ustashe and Nazi criminals to use the same buildings.

Cornwell doesn't explain how this even makes sense. Pius knew that he was giving refuge to the Jews. He knew he was taking a risk. In contrast, with respect to the use of the building by Nazi and Ustashe criminals, Cornwell provides no evidence that Pius knew of this activity, which apparently was being managed by Bishop Hudal. On the other hand, as Cornwell notes, after the Allies liberated Rome, the Axis embassies moved into the Vatican, and the Allies who had previously taken refuge with the Pope moved out, and escaped British POWs were replaced by escaped German POWs. Cornwell never manages to factor into his thinking that Pius might have taken the idea of neutrality as seriously as Switzerland and Sweden.

7. Pius' alleged Silence.

A brief point here is that Cornwell employs a surprising double standard - well, not really surprising given his "urgent thesis." Namely, notwithstanding the fact that the Nazis counted Pius an enemy for his statements and the Allies used Pius' speeches for anti-Nazi propaganda, because Pius didn't mention Hitler or the Nazis or the Jews by name, Pius was "silent" or "complicit" in Nazi atrocities.

Yet, when it comes to Pius pronouncement in Humani Generis, Cornwell is able to translate various passages into an attack on Nouvelle Theologie, even though Pius never mentions Nouvelle Theologie by name!

Amazing! When reading something in the context that Pius wrote the text is important to Cornwell's "urgent thesis," he's able to provide the context. When reading the text in context detracts from his "urgent thesis," Cornwell becomes a dense literalist.

8. Conclusion.

This book is really awful. It is not scholarly in the slightest. It is misleading and biased.

So why do I give it two stars? Three reasons:

First, I want people to read this review.

Second, reading the book is useful in a limited way: if this is the best that the people who favor the "Hitler's Pope" thesis can manage, then it shows how weak that thesis is.

Third, even Cornwell can't suppress the truth. Although he spends 330 pages insinuating that Pius was somehow sympathetic to the Nazis, he can't account for why Pius involved himself in an anti-Hitler plot that put at personal risk. Cornwell observes:

"As Pacelli faced the extreme moral choices and crises in the continuing conflagration, two things seem clear in the light of his central part in the conspiracy to topple Hitler during the twilight war: whatever his decisions, good or bad, they were his own; and he was unafraid on account of his personal safety. His hatred of Hitler was sufficient to allow him to take grave risks with his own life - and as Robert Leiber indicated, the lives of a great many others. When the risk seemed right, he was capable of acting promptly. His exterior personality seemed delicate, oversensitive, even weak to some. Pussilanimity and indecisiveness - shortcomings that would be cited to extenuate his subsequent silence and inaction in other matters - were hardly in his nature." (p. 240.)

This is an amazing concession from the author of "Hitler's Pope," and, yet, Cornwell never integrates this observation into the rest of his book. Cornwell's "urgent thesis" apparently would not allow it.


marian said...

Thanks for doing this research Peter.

Peter Sean Bradley said...

Thanks. If you'd be so kind, head over to the Amazon site and give me a "helpful" vote. Some idiot gave my review and "unhelpful" vote, probably because my fact based historical analysis doesn't fit his/her prejudices.

Who links to me?