The Nazis, the Pope, the Shoah –Weighing Their Sins and Ours

California City (pop. 8,400) lies at the far end of a back road deep in the Mojave Desert. Skiers heading north along the east side of the Sierra Nevada toward Mammoth Lakes pass the cutoff to California City on their way. The sign for the town is easily missed. I learned of the existence of California City only when a friend of mine, serving time on a minor drug charge, was transferred to a prison there.

My ignorance of this California City prison is what came to mind as I read a recent exchange between Daniel Goldhagen and Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic . In the Jan. 21 issue, Mr. Goldhagen indicts Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church as sympathizers with Nazi genocide. In the following issue, Mr. Sullivan faults Mr. Goldhagen for “regarding the Catholicism of the time as morally indistinguishable from the Nazi party.” My reaction is more personal. If I myself had been a German Catholic in the early 1940′s, I ask, what would I have troubled to learn about what was going on? California City is not a reassuring answer.

I have not been a Roman Catholic since I married outside the church in 1980, but ex-Jesuit is as indelible an identification as ex-convict . Though never ordained, I was a member of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, for 10 years (1960-70); and in my public life, such as it is, this fact seems to stick in everyone’s mind far more reliably than, say, my 10 years with the Los Angeles Times or my Harvard doctorate or even my Pulitzer Prize. As a result, whatever I might wish, when I read an exchange like this one, I find it hard to hold myself mentally hors de combat .

In collective and summary terms, my position on the issue is that taken in “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” which was published first as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and later included in Christianity in Jewish Terms , edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky et al.: ” Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon . Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold, nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in-or were sympathetic to-Nazi atrocities against Jews. Other Christians did not protest sufficiently against these atrocities. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. If the Nazi extermination of the Jews had been fully successful, it would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians.”

Nothing in Mr. Goldhagen’s New Republic article requires any revision of this statement. But the statement does nothing to address the Lord Jim sort of question that an individual of my background might still put to himself. “What Would Jesus Have Done?” is the title of Mr. Goldhagen’s article. I ask: What would Miles have done? Is the logic of Mr. Sullivan’s faith and mine such that had we been living in Hitler’s Germany, we would have been among Hitler’s “willing executioners”?

Mr. Goldhagen seems rather to think so. The trouble is that when I try to be as tough with myself as prosecutors like him want me to be, the evidence that speaks loudest does not come from the Vatican archives or from my Catholic boyhood, but from my experience-more accurately, my avoidance-of American jails. In the mid-1990′s, when I was still with the Los Angeles Times , my drive home often carried me past the intersection of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Vignes Street, just east of downtown Los Angeles. Passing that intersection, I observed the construction over a period of several months of a strange, huge building in the shape of a double hexagon set back at some distance from the street. Hurrying home, I did not trouble to stop for a closer look, but I did ask a number of my colleagues if they knew anything about it. None did. My own guess, since the structure appeared to be windowless, was that it was a power plant.

Finally, one day when I had quit early, I parked my car and walked close enough to find a construction sign announcing that the double hexagon was a gigantic addition to the central men’s jail of Los Angeles County. It wasn’t windowless after all. It contained tall, slit-like windows designed-as I later learned-to be slightly narrower than the narrowest recorded human skulls, which turn out to be those of the Vietnamese. Make the windows narrow enough, an architect explained to me, and even the most desperate prisoners cannot bash their heads through the glass.

My sluggish curiosity would have served the Nazis well, I have to imagine, but it seems to me to owe little if anything to my Catholic background. If I were to ask Jewish, Protestant, agnostic or atheist friends to name for me the location of the three prisons nearest their homes, I doubt that many could do so. Few would deny, I suspect, that American prisons are places of considerable peril for their inmates, irrespective of the gravity of the crime being punished. On the day (Feb. 16) when I began writing this reflection, The New York Times contained the following report: “Three [Florida] state prison guards were acquitted today on charges that they stomped an inmate to death in his cell to keep him from exposing brutality behind bars …. Mr. [Frank] Valdes had broken ribs and other fractures and internal injuries, and his upper body was covered with boot prints …. Defense lawyers had argued that some of Mr. Valdes’s injuries were caused by his climbing the bars in his cell and throwing himself onto the floor and his bunk.”

One could look further into this, but one is unlikely to. One knows that blacks as well as Hispanics like Valdes are incarcerated for offenses that would not lead to incarceration for oneself, but one has so much else on one’s mind. Americans like me do not translate our casual awareness of the horrors of the American prison system into anything approaching an obligation to learn where our local prisons are, much less to inquire into what is being done to whom inside them. Good Germans we are, all of us.

Because no group except the Roma suffered a loss comparable to that suffered by the Jews in the Nazi shoah , and because the Jews of America feel the Jewish loss as their own, the shoah has been massively and movingly memorialized in the United States as well as exhaustively studied. In the larger American context, however, there is something odd-not objectionable, but odd-about the fact that a crime by Europeans against other Europeans has been so actively commemorated by Americans. There would be something comparably odd about a cavernous museum just off the Champs-Elysées commemorating, with brilliantly original architecture and in poignant documentary detail, the slaughter of the American Indians. What about Algeria? the American visitor would silently ask. What about Vichy? Take me, please, to your Vichy museum .

Consider the following thesis: The history of the United States until the Emancipation Proclamation can be summarized in the six words stolen land developed by stolen labor . The atrocity of the deliberate extirpation (Thomas Jefferson’s word) of the North American indigenes conjoined to the introduction of African slaves to develop the “cleared” land is undeniably different from the Nazi shoah . Yet the American atrocity is our national shame. Will it ever be as fully memorialized in the heart of Washington, D.C., as Germany’s shame has been at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum? I link this monumental omission to my bland indifference to the appearance of the super-jail at Cesar Chavez and Vignes. That structure, as I eventually learned, was designed to confine as many inmates as there are guests in two or three major downtown hotels combined. In the current vernacular, who knew? But who cared, once he found out?

Near the end of Mr. Goldhagen’s indictment, nominally a review essay, he writes: “A major research project into the political, social, and cultural histories of each national Catholic Church’s attitudes and actions toward the Jews-before and during the Nazi period-remains an essential prerequisite for fully evaluating the role of the Catholic Church, and for the Church itself to fully to [sic] evaluate its role, during the Holocaust.” “Fully” one may easily concede; “adequately” is another matter. Historical analysis, like psychoanalysis, is in principle interminable. What matters most is that already published indictments of Pius XII and of the conduct of the Catholic Church during World War II should rest on adequate information, and they do. There is room, to be sure, on the library shelves for Mr. Goldhagen’s forthcoming book, A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church During the Holocaust and Today . And yet Michael Phayer’s scathing The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 is not deficient in its documentation. There was room, similarly, for James Carroll’s heartfelt and confessional Constantine’s Sword . And yet Monsignor Edward Flannery’s less confessional but more path-breaking The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism -published (with the imprimatur of Cardinal Spellman) as far back as 1965, updated in 1985, and still in print-employs a more than adequate documentary base to draw the same moral from the same terrible story.

The rather more pressing need, it would seem to me, even within shoah studies, is for a more thorough country-by-country inquiry not into the conduct of the Catholic Church in each country, but rather of each country’s wartime political regime vis-à-vis the genocide in progress. Mr. Goldhagen rightly indicts Pius XII for not denouncing earlier and louder than he did the catastrophic 1944 transportation of the Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz. But read Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies (1981): The plea at the time from Jewish leaders on the continent was not just for denunciations and warnings (from “leading Anglo-Saxon personalities, non-Jewish and Jewish” more than from the Pope), but also for Allied bombardment of the only rail line from Hungary to Auschwitz. The Allies could have managed that bombardment. Why didn’t they? Examples of such indifference are sickeningly numerous. If John Paul II is required to apologize for Pius XII’s sins of omission, may Tony Blair and George W. Bush not be made to apologize for the comparable sins of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt?

I do not mean to be facetious in speaking of apologies. Mr. Blair saw fit to offer an apology for the conduct of the United Kingdom during Ireland’s Great Hunger, an atrocity a century older than the Nazi shoah . “Never apologize, never explain” is no longer the diplomat’s proud motto. Nor do I mean, however, principally to harp on the inconsistent treatment of various wartime offenders against the Jews of Europe. The more troubling inconsistency, it seems to me, is that between American volubility about German or Euro-Catholic sins on the one hand, and American silence about American sins on the other. I applaud the efforts that have been made to hold the Vatican, on secular grounds, to a high ethical standard, and to show how official Catholic prejudice against the Jews softened up the residually Catholic parts of Europe for the Nazi “Final Solution.” I look forward to the further opening of the relevant Vatican archives, as of any other now closed archives that bear on this historic atrocity.

But Germany remains an easy target in America, and the Vatican is the easiest of targets almost everywhere. “What would Jesus have done” when the Cherokee were being driven west on the Trail of Tears, or when the Bantu were being loaded into the hold for the Middle Passage? Should the United States pay reparations to the victims’ descendants as Germany has paid reparations to Israel, calculating the purchase price (and compounding the interest) that should have been paid to the Cherokee for Georgia and the wages that should have been paid to the blacks for two centuries and more of unpaid labor? Try asking that at a dinner party and see how warm a welcome you receive from your fellow taxpayers. These are questions that make the American gorge rise, but like them or not, these are American questions, and-like the question about the morality of the gigantic and half-hidden American penal system-they are the ones we most need to ask.

Jack Miles, senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Knopf) .