Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Problem of Historical Judgement

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. However Osservatore Romano should have known better.

Most Catholics accept that Pope Pius XII was a very good man and not the figure portrayed by Hochhuth and others. Many of us do wish to see Pope Pius XII raised to the altars.

However the Osservatore`s recent attempt to bolster up the reputation of Pope Pius XII at the expense of the American and British Governments of the time on the basis of selective evidence is not what one would expect of a distinguished and proper newspaper of record.

Recently Osservatore Romano (14th August 2009) published an article by Raffaele Alessandrini entitled Washington e Londra di fronte alla tragedia degli ebrei europei: Silenzi e omissioni al tempo della Shoah

It is highly critical of the stance taken by the Washington and London Governments during the Second World War about the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jews during World War II.

The article reviewed historical information in support of an argument frequently made by Vatican experts: While critics have focused on Pope Pius' supposed "silence" on the Holocaust, little attention has been given to documented evidence that the U.S. and British governments ignored or minimized reports of extermination plans.

A summary of the Osservatore Romano article in English is available through the Catholic News Service

The article relies mostly on extracts from the diary of Henry Morgenthau Jr., U.S. secretary of the treasury during the war. The Diary was published in the late 1960s and is therefore "not new" evidence.

In particular it quotes from a British Foreign Office cable which warned of "the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy occupied territory" and advised against allocating any funds for the project.

Morgenthau described this message as "a satanic combination of British chill and diplomatic double talk, cold and correct and adding up to a sentence of death." This is quoted in full in the article.

The implication and spin of the article and this last sentence in particular is obvious.

It is unfair criticism of the stance taken by the United Kingdom Government at the time. I cannot speak of the American position as I do not know enough of the American history of the time. Others will no doubt take up the cudgels on behalf of their country.

From January 1942 to the end of 1944, the British Government came under heavy domestic pressure to aid the refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution especially Jewish refugees.

The pressure came not only came from Jewish groups but also from Christian Churches withuin the United Kingdom especially the Archbishops and Bishops of the Anglican Church.

This can be seen from a number of Debates in Parliament at the time:

1) House of Lords debate on 23 March 1943
This was on a motion by the Archbishop of Canterbury (HL Deb 23 March 1943 vol 126 cc811-60)

2) House of Commons Debate 19 May 1943
This was about the Government`s Refugee Policy after the Bermuda Conference. In the debate the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake) and The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden) were put under the grill. See here

3) House of Lords Debate 28 July 1943
This was the House of Lords debate on the policy of the Government after the Bermuda Conference

The three debates in the United Kingdom Parliament highlight the problems faced by the Government at the time and the steps they took towards the just and effective resolution of a massive and almost insoluble problem: how to prevent the Nazi Government carrying out a systematic genocide of unarmed and innocent people who were within the territory firmly within the control of the Nazis.

The Government was not headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chichester or Miss Rathbone, the MP for the Universities who headed a Committee to try to aid the refugees.

In 1942 and 1943 the position of Britain was still dire in the extreme. All it could do was to try to assist "at the edges" which it did while the true forces of Satan were at work gathering people into concentration camps and exterminating them there.Until the middle of 1943, the Germans controlled Europe and were going towards Russia. Apart from Egypt, they still controlled North Africa and looked as if they would advance further East.

The extracts also illustrate how in wartime Democracy still functioned and the Government came under intense scrutiny and criticism for its policy, its actions and its omissions. The debates illustrate not a Satanic government but a Government which had to listen to, take account of and debate with Christian leaders who had a forum where they could express their convictions and beliefs without the threat of the firing squad or the Gestapo lurking in the background.

It is said that politics is a question of ordering priorities. The Government`s priority was the survival of the United Kingdom and its people and the defeat of the Axis powers. Sadly and unfortunately it could only sit with others and watch with horror as the evil on the Continent of Europe unfolded and only offer limited yet still effective assistance in so far as it could.

But to imply that the British Government at this time with or without others could in some way have stopped or greatly mitigated the Holocaust is mischievous in the extreme. Whether it could have done more than it did is always debatable. But can one argue that what it did do in the circumstances was so unreasonable in the circumstances that it shocks the conscience ? It is submitted that that is certainly not the case.

In regard to Pope Pius XII what is needed is a definitive and official biography written by a serious historian of repute who has access to all the sources. Someone of the stature of the late Professor Denis Mack Smith not a Cornwall. Someone who can look at the big picture and be a master of detail looked at in the context of the times and maintain a judicious balance in making judgements on the basis of all the evidence. Someone with the intellect and empathy capable of getting into the mind of Pope Pius XII, one of the most complex, enigmatic and sophisticated individuals of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately the writer of the article in The Osservatore Romano is not the one