Daniel Goldhagen. A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. 362 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-375-71417-7; $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-375-41434-3.
Reviewed by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Department of History, Kent State University)
Published on H-German (January, 2004)
When Daniel Goldhagen wrote his first book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, he seemed to take well-seasoned and still-current debates about German peculiarity and Nazi intentionality, and, through the stridency of his arguments, extend them to (ome said "beyond") their logical conclusion. As a result of what was widely regarded as partisan analysis and tendentious empiricism, combined with Goldhagen's extremely effective appropriation of a public discourse about the "reality" of the German past, debates about the Sonderweg and the "road to Auschwitz" waned among professional historians who felt both beleaguered and united by Goldhagen's assault. To a certain degree the work marked both the public zenith and academic nadir of these debates. Goldhagen's new book, A Moral Reckoning, is something of a departure in tone and purpose from his first book, but contains the same potential both to culminate and exhaust what has been a very emotional debate about the place of the Catholic Church--and by extension Christianity itself--in the Third Reich and the Holocaust. It is a work which, unlike Hitler's Willing Executioners, plainly admits to a moral agenda. As such, its success will have to be judged by philosophers, theologians, moralists and ethicists, as well as by historians. This reviewer will limit himself to interrogating the historical dimension of the book.
What became clear from Hitler's Willing Executioners is the amount of notoriety (or, from a publicist's point of view, attention) that could be avoided through writing a more nuanced, and more modest, introduction. Goldhagen has more successfully done this here, acknowledging more forthrightly his indebtedness to the research of others, but also making less sweeping generalizations of his historical subjects. Of course, this time the subject of his scrutiny is not a "community of fate," a national-ethnic group into which one is involuntarily born, but rather a "community of choice," a religious group one nominally joins or leaves of one's free will. This fact alone will spare Goldhagen some of the more hostile criticisms, for instance the charge of "racism," that his prior work engendered. At the same time, he is still prone to over-arguing the uniqueness of his own position, for instance by contending that, "[d]espite the tens of thousands of books written about this period, the Church has escaped full scrutiny" (p. 12). He makes a call to "lifting the moral blackout" among historians, who would rather judge the Vatican as a diplomatic and political, rather than ethical and moral institution, but in the process sells short those who--like John Carroll, John Cornwell and David Kertzer, to name just a few of the most recent examples--have been doing precisely this.
In ways that serve to harm rather than help his cause, Goldhagen also takes the opportunity to use his introduction as a soap box to defend his first book, justifying this approach by claiming his new book is its natural sequel. He insists that he made no charge of collective German guilt for the Holocaust in Willing Executioners, but rather that his conclusions about the Germans's eliminationist antisemitism came from close empirical scrutiny and a careful concession to individual agency. In this way, Goldhagen seems unprepared to back down from earlier rejoinders to his critics. That Ukrainians, Lithuanians and others were involved in mass murder during the Holocaust now get mention seems, nonetheless, to serve as an implicit indication that modulation in his prior arguments was necessary. So too when he now concedes that "many," but not "all," ordinary Germans were antisemites. Having nonetheless attempted to establish a pattern of "eliminationist" prejudice in Willing Executioners, he shifts his attention to its causes in Moral Reckoning. According to Goldhagen, it was so natural to turn from the German nation to the Catholic religion as part of this process of unveiling that the topic in fact "chose" him (p. 31).
We can see how, in attempting to "frame the problem" of the Church's role in the Holocaust, Goldhagen's Introduction provides a road map to both the strengths and weaknesses in the chapters that follow. Perhaps most importantly, Goldhagen carefully lays out some caveats about the Catholic Church as a whole. First, he admits that many clergy were opposed to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, never mind their actual murder--however much these same clergy may have subscribed to antisemitism, eliminationist or otherwise, before 1933. Second, stemming from this, he does not indict Christianity as such--indeed, he suggests throughout the book that Christians should have been, based on their beliefs, among the first to decry the Nazi genocide. This is both a strength of Goldhagen's overall analysis and a weakness. Strength because he remains cognizant of the multivalent reactions of Christians to antisemitism and the Holocaust; weakness because it becomes clear that these caveats are meant primarily to serve as a prophylactic against possible complaints that the remainder of the book will become little more than a litany of Catholic wrong-doing. This becomes especially clear when Goldhagen warns the reader (in italics, no less) that: "unless I specifically state that there were no exceptions within the Church to a particular state of mind or practice, it should be assumed that I am implying that exceptions existed" (p. 25).
Claiming to be aware of historical contingency and nuance, Goldhagen feels himself freed to go about the rather heavy-handed task of exposing every antisemitic diatribe he can find. For the ethicist, what follows in the body of this work is stern stuff, and exceptionally convincing. Goldhagen leaves no stone unturned, overwhelmingly laying to rest any lingering claim among historians that the Catholic Church was anything other than a leading propagator of antisemitism throughout modern European history. He is careful to extend his analysis beyond simply the Vatican, or German Catholicism, to cover almost all national Catholic churches in Europe. The overwhelming evidence Goldhagen brings to bear on this point in the chapters that follow is, for this reviewer, entirely compelling. However, from the historian's point of view, the form he takes in laying out his study rather heavily determines the content to follow. One wonders if it would not have been possible to embed his initial caveats into the body of the book, narrating a more compelling story of contestation between the forces of philosemitism and antisemitism in the Catholic establishment, to show a contingent process by which the forces of antisemitism in his view so tragically prevailed. This would serve to make the narrative not only less predictable, but also more compelling, as a lesson on how justice might finally triumph over injustice in the future--his larger ethical motive, after all. As it is, Goldhagen's method is squarely deterministic, hammering the reader with one antisemitic utterance after the other.
Equally, if not more, problematic is Goldhagen's concept of "eliminationist" antisemitism, a holdover from his first book. As a category of analysis, it both underpins his argument and effectively deconstructs it. Again, he begins with a caveat that would seem to indicate a sensitivity to the complexities of the issue: "When I refer to eliminationist antisemitism or, especially during the Nazi period, to an eliminationist persecution, program, or onslaught, it does not necessarily mean killing, because killing is but one of many eliminationist means" (p. 24, Goldhagen's emphasis). Apparently, "eliminationism" could also mean restriction of certain activities, ghettoization, forced conversion, or expulsion. In other words, any one of the many instances of Christian antisemitism he will list in the later chapters should not in itself be construed as a literal call to genocide, even though genocide was a congruent, and actual, outcome of that antisemitism. By insisting that all these forms can be called "eliminationist," Goldhagen implicitly suggests that genocide is just the most extreme endpoint in a continuum, that the difference between these forms of antisemitic practice is one of degree rather than kind.
Having employed this definition of "eliminationist antisemitism," Goldhagen then engages in syllogistic argumentation: the Church was antisemitic, antisemitism caused the Holocaust, therefore the Church caused the Holocaust. This is an untenable eliding of a variety of antisemitic actions. The physical destruction of an entire people, whether racially or religiously conceived, is separated by a qualitative chasm from other forms of persecution which, however horrifying and immoral, have the effect of keeping the victims alive. This is especially the case in the long heritage of Christian antisemitism, where, in spite of localized slaughter of Jews throughout the Christian past, their conversion held a place of particular importance in the eschatological process of salvation. The ongoing refusal of the Jews to recognize the Messiah among their midst may have served in the minds of Christians only to add insult to the injury of having killed God's son in the first place. But for centuries the punishment to be meted out to this "obstinate" people was primarily an eternal wandering, a righteous expulsion from one "host" country to the next, until such time as the Jews awoke en masse to their past errors and proclaimed Jesus the true Messiah.
In this particular progression, the Jews as a collectivity were to be kept alive, not just because of their special eschatological fate, but also as living witnesses to those who reject Christ. As horrific as intermittent slaughter was, it neither led to nor implied extinction. It was the religious and cultural identity of Jews which was to be "eliminated," not their collective physical existence, without which Christian eschatology could not proceed. That Christians possibly came to abandon this process in exchange for a more conclusively violent "solution" is not out of the question--this reviewer, for one, has been centrally concerned with interrogating the role of Christian antisemitism in the perpetrators's worldview. But Goldhagen does not ask such questions. Even if he ultimately rejects the conventional distinction between religious and racial antisemitism, he needs more fully to address why the distinctions made between these two categories are spurious. Certainly his neglect of the myth of the "Wandering Jew," who for all his suffering was to be kept alive, serves to undermine Goldhagen's central thesis that the Church committed not just a sin of omission in the Holocaust, but a sin of commission.
Does Goldhagen succeed in his task? If he seeks to more broadly implicate the Catholic Church, by pointing to its own tragically long and deep history of Jew-hatred, then he has performed his job well. While he too often underemphasizes those within the Church who have worked toward the kind of change he calls for--John XXIII, for instance, receives no mention until page 159--he allows that this is a community of choice, where positive choices for change are possible, even probable. The findings are not particularly original, but the fact that Goldhagen reaches a larger audience than most academicians of this subject will mean that an important ethical message will have reached more people. However, if the goal is to place the Catholic Church front and center in the ideological origins of the Holocaust, then the effort must be deemed less successful. It is not enough to infer that the Catholic Church or its religious values "must" have played a role in the Holocaust. The antisemitic expressions voiced in the day by leading Catholics, while proving that Christian Jew-hatred was a necessary precondition for the Holocaust, do not prove direct causality. As antisemitic as the Pope was, his public silence in the face of genocide is not tantamount to approval of genocide. Where Goldhagen tries to fill empirical gaps with syllogistic reasoning, he pleads rather than proves his case. The larger issue of the religious roots of the Holocaust remains open. Such questions are better answered not by examining the reactions of bystanders, but by scrutinizing the motivations of the perpetrators themselves, their own estimation of the religious rather than "racial" origins of their prejudice.
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Richard Steigmann-Gall. Review of Goldhagen, Daniel, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.