- History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich, and the Catholic Church by David Cymet
This book is rather difficult to review, not so much because of its subject matter or the author’s error-laden and insufficiently nuanced treatment, but because of the imperative to judge it according to its own stated objectives while simultaneously holding it to scholarly standards that both author and publisher seem at times to have short-changed. David Cymet, an architect by training, sets out to contribute to recent debates over the Catholic Church’s response to the Holocaust, separating, as his title indicates, history from apologetics. The result is an impassioned, yet in my view deeply flawed indictment of both the silence and complicity of the Church, and particularly of Pope Pius XII.
The strongest parts of the book narrate familiar developments. Cymet’streatment of Hitler’s youth and early adulthood is solid enough, as is his discussion of the [End Page 305] Nazi rise to power. Relying heavily on the work of Guenter Lewy, Michael Phayer, and several other (primarily English-language) scholars, Cymet proceeds to the 1933 Reich Concordat, the attitudes of the German episcopate toward the 1935 Nuremberg Laws and initial rearmament, and Catholic responses to Germany’s role in the Spanish Civil War. He rightly notes that the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge criticized only aspects of Nazi policy, primarily racism and the violation of Church interests rather than persecution of the Jews (pp. 93–100). After describing the formulation of antisemitic legislation in Catholic countries such as Poland, Italy, and Slovakia, Cymet chronicles the acceleration of Nazi anti-Jewish policy under cover of war, detailing the brutal activities of the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Eastern territories as well as the establishment of the death camps. In a chapter devoted to Vatican response, Cymet sketches out the sources of information flowing into the Vatican—information retained largely in silence—before engaging in a lengthy account of the 1943 Jewish deportations from Rome (pp. 387–401). The book then discusses the Vatican’s stance during the postwar years of Pius XII’spontificate and closes with a reflection on the continued inadequacy of Vatican response more recently.
Many of Cymet’s critical points are reasonably well-supported, if far from original. He argues effectively, following David Kertzer and others, that there were important connections between the long trajectory of Christian antisemitism and the Nazis’ pseudo-scientific racial obsessions. Similarly, his indictment of the shameful protection of key perpetrators by postwar Vatican officials is presented intelligently. Stripped of its needless sensationalism, Cymet’s case against key aspects of Church response is doubtlessly compelling.
Unfortunately, the book’s flaws will be difficult for scholars to overlook. There is virtually no sustained engagement with the rich historiography—either apologetic or critical—of the past few decades, puzzling in a volume whose stated goal is to redress perceived inaccuracies and imbalances in that literature. To be sure, several of the relevant major works are mentioned either in footnotes or the bibliography, but typically are there because they provided quotations. The brief preface touches on responses to Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial 1963 play Der Stellvertreter and provides in a single paragraph (p. xiv) a list of twenty-two scholars who have written on Catholic responses to the Holocaust; but otherwise the closest thing to a sustained historiographical analysis appears in a very brief section entitled “Reflexions in the Literature on Pius XII’s Jewish Policy” (pp. 400–406). The book offers few arguments or insights that are original. The text is littered with misspellings and typos. Hitler’s first name is alternately spelled “Adolf ” and “Adolph,” Rolf Hochhuth’s name is misspelled in a variety of ways, and Guenter Lewy makes frequent appearances both under his own name and that of “Lewy Güenther.” That misuse of the umlaut signals the author’s apparent lack of familiarity with German, manifested in frequent misspellings: Aufklerung, Arbeterpartei, Schrifften. . . . The publisher should have subjected...