The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism
By David L. Kertzer
Knopf, 355 pages, $27.95

Probably the best-known aspect of the uneasy relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people in modern times was the behavior of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, a subject of endless debate. Students of modern anti-Semitism also recall other incidents of Catholic hostility towards the Jews”the Mortara case (the kidnapping and forced baptism of a Jewish infant in Bologna in 1858), the behavior of many French Catholics during the Dreyfus affair, the association of some Catholic intellectuals and priests with the extreme right in Europe in the period of “modern” anti-Semitism from 1870 to 1945. Nevertheless, there has until now been no general history of Catholic hostility to the Jews in modern times which argues for the importance of the Catholic Church, especially the Vatican, in engendering modern forms of anti-Semitism.

This gap is not coincidental. Modern “racial” anti-Semitism, emphasizing the ethnic separateness and evil of Jews in European societies, has always been distinguished from premodern forms of anti-Semitism, which were religious in nature, founded in the rejection by Jews of the divinity of Jesus. Although there is widely admitted to be some overlap between the two, post-1870 racialist anti-Semitism, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, is also almost always seen as categorically different from previous varieties of anti-Semitism, often anti-Christian and “pagan,” and founded in social Darwinist pseudo-science and national xenophobia.

It is the argument of David Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews that there was less difference between the two forms than has previously been understood. The author argues for a consistent pattern of Catholic, indeed direct Vatican, involvement in engendering modern forms of anti-Semitism. Professor Kertzer focuses on events that are well-known, such as the Mortara case and the Dreyfus Affair, and on aspects of this question that are less well-known, such as the Church’s response to “ritual murder” charges (the absurd claim, first advanced in the Middle Ages, that Jews murder Christian children at Passover in order to use their blood to bake matzoh ) and the thoroughgoing anti-Semitism of much of the Catholic press. Prof. Kertzer skillfully and not unsubtly traces the differences in attitude towards the Jews among the Popes between about 1740 and 1940.

Although an excellent and well-written piece of historical research, The Popes Against the Jews goes out of its way to magnify the role of anti-Semitism within the Catholic Church. Indeed, it greatly magnifies the importance of the Jews for the Church, and compounds this by viewing every aspect of the Church’s attitude towards the Jews with post-Holocaust eyes. During the previous 1200 years or so”to the Church, a century or two is a short period of time”the Church had lost the entire Middle East and north Africa to Islam, nearly all of eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity, and much of northern Europe and its outposts overseas, the most economically advanced portion of the world, to Protestantism.

Since the eighteenth century, moreover, it faced the entirely new threat of secularism in the guise of often rabid anticlericalism and explicitly anti-Catholic socialism and atheism. Compared with these threats to its position and, often, to its existence, the Jews were thought by the Church to pose little to no danger.

Viewed with post-Holocaust eyes (and, I might add, with Jewish eyes: Professor Kertzer is at pains to note that he is the son of a rabbi), the attitude of the Catholic Church to the Jews may seem central, but in reality there has never been a time when this was so. Indeed, in premodern Catholic Europe it is striking that the Jews, unlike other non-Catholic groups, were accepted and tolerated. Down to the reunification of Italy, for instance, the four synagogues in Rome were the only non-Catholic places of worship permitted in the city. Indeed, Judaism was the only non-Catholic religion permitted in Catholic Europe and its domains overseas, notwithstanding the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and notwithstanding their marginal status.

In modern times, the Church was engaged in a general antimodernist crusade that never singled out the Jews. Almost without exception, the Church considered other groups to be its main enemies, not the Jews. This was the case even with Church leaders who might well be described as anti-Semitic. For instance, although Professor Kertzer makes much of the linkage in Catholic thought between the Jews and Freemasons (describing the importance of the Masons very well), Freemasonry was regarded as among the Church’s main enemies everywhere, even in areas such as Latin America, where there were virtually no Jews but many virulent anticlericalists. It was simply not the case that most Church leaders regarded the Jews and Freemasons as virtually synonymous threats to the Church.

Those individuals in the Church who came closest to making this association”for example, the French Assumptionists at the time of the Dreyfus Affair”were rather unrepresentative figures. The Assumptionists, who published the rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper La Croix at this time, were virtually disowned by Pope Leo XIII in 1900. They certainly did not represent Vatican opinion. Prof. Kertzer’s handling of this matter illustrates a general tendency in (and weakness of) this work”that is, to blend the attitudes of specific popes towards the Jews with the views of notorious anti-Semites within the Church. There is nothing wrong, of course, with presenting a history of Catholic anti-Semitism, but only if proper distinctions are made between individual Catholics working in the vast Church bureaucracy and the official pronouncements of the Church’s leadership.

The Popes Against the Jews ends pointedly with the roundup of over a thousand Roman Jews by the Nazis for Auschwitz. Yet Kertzer never clarifies the connection between the Church’s view of the Jews and the Holocaust. Prof. Kertzer understands perfectly well that the resemblances between the attitudes of the Church towards the Jews and Nazi anti-Semitism are extremely minimal, and, indeed, quite rightly takes pains to point out that “the Nazi goal of a racially purified society . . . is clearly contrary to Catholic theology.” He also, to his credit, warns us “to be careful not to view history backwards.” Most pointedly, he tells us that he does not “mean to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is alone to blame for the Holocaust. Such a conclusion would be ludicrous.” Nevertheless, the author never actually discusses what Nazism owed to the Catholic Church and its teachings, which is, of course, precisely nothing.

Nazism was the systematic policy of expansionist German racial nationalism. Hitler and his minions despised the Church and would have been happy to eliminate it as a force in “Aryan” Europe. Himmler had far-advanced plans to do just that. Since race rather than religion was the sole criterion of value in Nazi eyes, Catholic helot races suffered under Nazi rule as badly as anyone apart from the Jews, arch-Catholic Poland being the obvious example. While Prof. Kertzer claims that “Hitler himself admitted to being inspired” by the Catholic anti-Semitic Mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, there is not one word here about the numerous non-Catholic influences on Hitler, such as Richard Wagner, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and a host of crackpot pan-German ideologues discussed in such works as Brigitte Hamann’s outstanding Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship (1999).

Kertzer accurately notes that a very high percentage of those who took a direct part in the Holocaust (including Hitler himself, of course) came from Austria, “an overwhelmingly Catholic country.” But there was an even more basic reason for the high percentage of virulent anti-Semites and racists among the Austrians: the locale of its Germanic population at the gateway to millions of “sub-human” and helot Slavs, Czechs, and Jews in Eastern Europe. It was an ultra-nationalistic ideology that lay at the heart of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Religion had nothing whatever to do with his uniquely evil brand of racial superiority and hate.

Indeed, insofar as the Catholic Church was internationalistic and opposed to secular ultra-nationalism, it represented a direct threat to Nazism. Anyone familiar with Mein Kampf knows the venomous hostility Hitler expresses toward the arch-Catholic Hapsburg monarchy, a hatred only slightly less vicious than that which he shows to Jews and Communists. Within independent Austria after 1918, the Catholic-backed Christian Socialist Party, representing traditionalist local Catholicism, was so hated by the Nazis that in 1934 Hitler had its leader, Engelbert Dolfuss, assassinated.

The Catholic Church did not distinguish itself during this period in its attitude towards the Jews, and such affairs as the Mortara case show the Church at its least admirable. But The Pope Against the Jews is a one-sided case for the prosecution, distorting the central antimodernist ideology of the Catholic Church in this period into something that it clearly was not.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. His books include The Myth of Rescue ( 1997) and (with Hilary Rubinstein) Philosemitism (1999).