The confused historian who claims that Catholics are responsible for the Holocaust

Daniel Goldhagen, author of A Moral Reckoning

Melanie Phillips has got a typically forthright and thought-provoking piece on her blog, commenting on Baroness Warsi’s recent speech about anti-Semitism. You can read it here.

As I am neither Muslim nor Jewish, I should probably not comment on the question raised, which is essentially this: is Islam intrinsically anti-Semitic? Melanie Phillips says it is, and marshals some compelling evidence, whereas Lady Warsi takes the opposing view, seeing anti-Semitism as hijacking Islam for its own purposes. The only thing I would say about this is that when it comes to the interpretation of religious texts, those texts have to be interpreted in the context of the faith community from which they emerged, and in the context of the faith community that receives them today – though that in itself may be obvious to a Christian, but deeply controversial to many Muslims and some Jews.

But the controversy, seen from outside, is nevertheless interesting to Catholics. Is Catholicism intrinsically anti-Semitic? There are Catholic anti-Semites, no one would deny, but few could assert that Catholicism is an anti-Semitic religion per se. There has been only one writer who I have read who has come close to arguing this, and that is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. The book in question where he does so is entitled A Moral Reckoning, which is, to put it mildly, a very bad book. I wrote as much at the time in the print edition of this paper, in an article that is not online.

One of the things Goldhagen implies is that the verse “His blood be on us and on our children” is anti-Semitic. This occurs at Matthew 27:25 and is tellingly attributed to “all the people”. Now, if this is truly anti-Semitic, that would be a grave matter. Goldhagen suggests that this verse be excised from the Bible. But this verse has to be understood properly. In the Old Testament the children of Israel sprinkle the blood of the Paschal lamb on their doorposts and lintels (see Exodus 12:7), thus ensuring their salvation when the Angel of Death visits Egypt to unchild it. All the Matthean verse is doing is calling to mind the parallel and pointing out that Jesus is the new paschal lamb, and that all sprinkled with his blood (as all Christians are) will be saved. The sprinkling of blood on people by Moses himself occurs also at Sinai (see Exodus 24:8), and has nothing to do with the attribution of guilt. Rather it is to do with the attribution of saving grace.

After reading Goldhagen’s book, almost 10 years ago, I was struck by the way he never ever quotes any Catholic ephemera from the pre-War years: by which I mean parish magazines, prayer cards, parish newsletters, leaflets and manuals of devotion, all the things that a good historian would make ample use of. If one wanted to find evidence of Catholic anti-Semitism, that would be the place to find it. Nor does he have any quotes from sermons in ordinary parishes. I spoke at the time to many elderly Catholics who were children or adolescents in the 1930s and asked them if they had ever encountered, for example, anti-Jewish sermons or any literature that could be construed as fostering hatred of Jews. All answered in the negative.

Goldhagen’s thesis, which has been amply refuted, is that Catholics were morally responsible for the Holocaust by creating the conditions which made the Holocaust possible. In fact, it is worth pointing to three countries were the fewest Jews were murdered: Bulgaria, Denmark and Italy – one Orthodox, one Lutheran, one Catholic. What does that tell us about anti-Semitism and religious belief?

Incidentally, the only anti-Semitic literature I have ever seen outside a museum was some Soviet propaganda postcards from the 1980s and some leaflets being distributed outside a mosque in Turkey after Friday prayers in the 1990s. Both featured the standard hook-nosed caricatures reminiscent of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. A sobering thought that such stereotypes are still with us. How little the world has learned.