The Roots of the Holocaust
``The place where we are standing," Pope Benedict XVI said last week, ``is a place of memory." He was standing at Auschwitz, but what he said and did there raised questions less about remembering than forgetting. Is the new pope prepared to carry forward his predecessors' revolutionary moral reckoning with Christianity's co-responsibility for the Holocaust, or does he intend to initiate a new era of denial? Similarly, does he intend to roll back the doctrinal revolution that has taken place in the church's view of the Jewish religion, reasserting the ``replacement theology" that was the ground of the religious anti-Judaism that morphed into racial anti-Semitism?
The question about the Holocaust has a special edge because Benedict is German, and it first surfaced during his visit to Cologne last August. In addressing an audience of Jews in that city's synagogue, the pope roundly condemned the Nazi genocide campaign. But then he defined the lethal Nazi anti-Semitism that spawned the genocide as having been ``born of neo-paganism." He made no mention of anti-Semitism's other parent, the long tradition of Christian contempt for Jews and the Jewish religion, which both fed the hatred of the perpetrators and justified the inaction of the bystanders. Little was made of the pope's omission of reference to such Christian responsibility, as if to give him time to make his position clearer.
Last week, the time came. At Auschwitz, again, he was unsparing in condemning what the Nazis did. But now he implicitly exonerated the German people, effectively defined the Nazis' ultimate target as having been not Jews but Christianity, and complained not of the church's silence in the face of the horror, but of God's.
Benedict went to Auschwitz, he said, ``as a son of the German people, a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence, and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation." In Germany itself by now, there is an established tradition of a much fuller recognition of national complicity in the Nazi project. For a generation, Germans have declined to portray themselves as mere victims and dupes, and German church leaders in particular have been forthright in confessing their culpability in relation to the Holocaust. In his portrayal of the past, both at Cologne and Auschwitz, Benedict is becoming a German apart.
But it is as a Christian that the pope most surprises. Here is how he defined the Nazi aim in murdering Jews: ``Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people . . . by destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the tap root of the Christian faith." As if to dramatize this astounding claim that the ``ultimate" Nazi target at Auschwitz was the church, Benedict greeted 32 camp survivors, all but one of whom were Polish Catholics. A lone Jew represented the more than one million Jews who died there. With no apparent embarrassment, the pope prayed, ``Why, Lord, did you remain silent?"
Before Benedict became pope, the Catholic Church had begun a far deeper reckoning with Christian roots of the Holocaust, and that led to a profound shift in basic claims made about the Jewish religion. Most importantly, the church had affirmed the permanent integrity of God's covenant with the Jewish people, leading to the renunciation of the ancient impulse to convert Jews. But last March, in an address delivered at St. Peter's Square, Benedict issued ``a summons to all Israel to conversion," urging Jews ``to allow themselves to be reunited in a new covenant, full and perfect accomplishment of the old."
These are not minor matters. If the Holocaust is remembered as having been the work of a small ``ring of criminals," with no relation to the deep structures of Western Civilization's attitude toward ``the other," as centrally represented by Christian contempt for Jews, then sources of future crimes against ``the other" remain protected. Roots of anti-Semitism, in particular, can sprout again. Against this, the doctrines of Christian belief that made such hatred sacred must continue to be revised. The church must continue to affirm the independent integrity of the Jewish religion. Christians must continue to recall what their triumphalism led to in the past, because religious triumphalism still threatens the future. Pope Benedict XVI, heir to what his predecessors began, is the custodian of the most precious transformation in Christian history, but it is a fresh lit candle, and can be extinguished.
© 2006 The Boston Globe