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  • The Holocaust and Catholic Conscience: Cardinal Aloisius Muench and the Guilt Question in Germany
  • Donald J. Dietrich
The Holocaust and Catholic Conscience: Cardinal Aloisius Muench and the Guilt Question in Germany, Suzanne Brown-Fleming (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2006), xvi+240pp., cloth $45.00, pbk. $20.00.

In this scholarly work based on Muench's papers and letters, Suzanne Brown-Fleming has helped reveal the post–World War II Catholic response to antisemitism and Nazism in Europe and the United States. Catholics only slowly came to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust—the theme of this study of Aloisius Muench, who acted as a liaison between German Catholics and the government of the United States. Muench also represented Pius XII, who failed adequately to respond to the antisemitic and war crimes issues of the era. Germans had to confront the brutalities inflicted by the Nazis in Europe and also had to heal their own compliant consciences. Pius responded ambiguously during the war to the horrors of the Holocaust and after 1945 sought in the arena of world opinion to absolve German Catholics as a group of their guilt for supporting Hitler's Reich. Muench, a first generation German-American, unfortunately assumed his official roles carrying his own antisemitic baggage.

Over the years numerous scholars have probed the role of Catholics both inside and outside Germany during the years 1933–1965. Brown-Fleming's work deepens our understanding of how Catholics coped in the postwar period, as anti-semitism not only lingered, but also continued to shape Catholic responses to the past. Muench's papers help reveal the candid conversations among European and American Catholics as they grappled with their own responses to the Nazis. As new postwar and Cold War issues began to occupy center stage and Germany began to be rebuilt as a bastion against the Soviet Union, Muench's own philo-German and antisemitic biases mirrored and at times even nurtured Catholic prejudices against Jews, as well as the benign ecclesial attitudes toward even war criminals.

This book reminds readers of the lack of interest regarding the Holocaust in the immediate postwar world. Brown-Fleming notes, for example, that only 300 letters out of 15,000 from the Muench collection even gave a nod to this tragedy. Equally astounding was Muench's open sympathy toward Germany as well as his Vatican-supported clemency campaign on behalf of convicted criminals such as Konstantin von Neurath and Rudolf Hess, for whom he sought mercy on the basis of Christian charity. The dark side of his appeals was a continuing and virulent antisemitism that stereotypically painted Jews as a vengeful people motivated by greed for money and influence. Muench was particularly appalled by those to whom he referred as "Thirty-Niners": Jews who had fled Germany, become U.S. [End Page 315] citizens, joined the army, and returned supposedly to wreak vengeance on the defeated Germans.

Guilt and responsibility were indeed much discussed by Christians after 1945. Protestant leaders acknowledged a solidarity of guilt, but allowed individuals to remain anonymous. Taking an opposite stance, Catholic bishops denied the collective German participation in supporting Nazism as they pointed to the deeds of those who had conspicuously resisted, including the bishops who had protested the hostile actions of governmental officials. Muench and Pius XII reinforced the German Catholic position of rejecting collective responsibility. The Allies themselves never insisted on the assumption of collective guilt per se, but did want to instill in Germans a sense of responsibility for Nazism. Such disparate positions in 1945–47 can only remind readers that coming to grips with the past is not for the faint of heart. Muench's own papers cast him as a proponent of the church's own failure, until Vatican II, to confront its prewar and postwar contribution to anti-Judaism and antisemitism. After reading Brown-Fleming's book one appreciates how astounding a reversal of traditional Catholic perspectives on Judaism the Second Vatican Council's philosemitic Nostra Aetate (1965) was.

Muench was so antisemitic that he even inserted himself into property restitution issues, taking the side of...


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pp. 315-317
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