The Magazine

History as Bigotry

Daniel Goldhagen slanders the Catholic Church.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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A Moral Reckoning
The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Knopf, 362 pp., $25

IN ITS JANUARY 21, 2002, ISSUE, the New Republic devoted twenty-four pages to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "What Would Jesus Have Done?"--one of the most virulent attacks against the Roman Catholic Church ever printed in a major American publication. Last fall, Goldhagen expanded that essay into a book, a curious and furious production entitled "A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair," about the Vatican's role during the Holocaust.

Goldhagen is no stranger to controversy. His 1996 "Hitler's Willing Executioners" argued that blame for the Holocaust should be placed on all Germans--for "eliminationist" anti-Semitism was widely spread among prewar Germans and intrinsic to the German character. The Nazi exterminations could occur because the vast majority of Germans were already predisposed to kill Jews. Though Goldhagen gained international celebrity, his book's simplistic argument was widely criticized by serious scholars and historians.

In "A Moral Reckoning," Goldhagen's argument is, once again, simplistic. It's dishonest and misleading as well. He identifies Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church, as the preeminent source of anti-Semitism in the world--ancient, medieval, and modern. While indicting Pius XII as an anti-Semite and a collaborator with Nazi Germany--and ignoring any contradictory evidence--Goldhagen goes on to attribute anti-Semitism to the entire Catholic Church and its leadership, even the present-day Church under John Paul II.

Indeed, the book is so flawed--its facts error-prone, its arguments tendentious, and its conclusion, equating Christianity in its essence with anti-Semitism, both bizarre and dangerous--that most scholars in the field have simply tried to ignore it. "Hitler's Willing Executioners" sold very well and was widely praised in its early reviews. "A Moral Reckoning," however, has flopped badly, despite a large publicity effort by which the publisher Knopf tried to recoup its advance. More prepared this time, reviewers have also been considerably less kind to Goldhagen, and the reviews have generally run from lukewarm to outraged. In the Sunday Times, the British historian Michael Burleigh held his nose long enough to brand the book "vile" and "a strip cartoon view of European history."

Despite my fury at Goldhagen's misuse of the Holocaust to advance an anti-Catholic agenda, I had hoped to join the vast conspiracy of silence in which most Holocaust scholars have, delicately and politely, pretended that "A Moral Reckoning" doesn't exist. But the book hasn't quite disappeared with the same speed with which, say, H.G. Wells's 1943 "Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church" fell down the memory hole. Rather, "A Moral Reckoning"--like Paul Blanshard's 1949 diatribe "American Freedom and Catholic Power"--is carving a permanent niche for itself out on the far edges of American culture.

Where Blanshard was a much-reprinted staple for the old anti-Catholic Evangelical world, Goldhagen seems to be turning into a staple for leftists whose hatred of Catholicism derives from the Church's opposition to abortion and the rest of the liberationist agenda. The huge outpouring of books in recent years attacking the wartime pontiff Pius XII--from John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" to Garry Wills's "Papal Sin"--were bad enough (and Goldhagen, who seems in "A Moral Reckoning" never to have consulted anything except secondary sources, relies heavily upon them). But when Goldhagen extends that attack to the demand that the Catholic Church, as we know it, be abolished as a disgrace and a danger to us all, he establishes a new marker for just how bad it can get--and the maddened anti-Catholics have responded by taking him to their breast, for his diatribe is more vicious and extreme than that of any other recent papal critic.

WITH ALL THAT IN MIND, it is perhaps worth putting on record some of the failings of "A Moral Reckoning." Indeed, Goldhagen invites the reader to "acknowledge the incontrovertible facts and plain truths contained in this book." It's an invitation he shouldn't have issued. In the June/July 2002 issue of First Things, Ronald J. Rychlak published an extensive and damning list of errors in the New Republic article--astonishingly few of which Goldhagen has bothered to correct.