Reasonable Reads: “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy” by José M. Sánchez

The first two installments in our “Reasonable Reads” series featured reviews by Chris of works of fiction, neither of which he particularly enjoyed. It seemed about time to shake things up a bit, namely by having (a) me take a look at some (b) nonfiction that (c) I would actually end up recommending to you as something worth reading. On that note, I hereby offer up my thoughts on Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy by José M. Sánchez, a masterfully nuanced and methodical look at one of the greatest controversies in twentieth century world history.

I realized as I stumbled upon Pius XII in the religion section of my local library that I really didn’t know much about the fraught question of the papacy’s attitude toward Nazism during the Second World War beyond the fact that there was a question and that it was fraught. I remember hearing criticism of Pius in the wake of Benedict XVI’s decision to move him one step closer to being declared a saint in December of 2009. I suppose that at the time I had meant to do some digging and develop a more informed opinion, but somehow I never got around to it. When I came across Sánchez’s book and was reminded that I still knew very little about an episode that clearly elicits strong views to this day, I decided that it would worth it to finally bring myself up to speed.

Of course, one worries going into any book that purports to be a primer on a contentious topic that it will fail to present the facts of the matter as objectively as possible and instead serve to advance one particular reading at the expense of other plausible interpretations. Any work of history will necessarily have to emphasize certain events and deal less extensively with others, but the likelihood that it is actually partisan propaganda masquerading as neutral scholarship is directly related to the volume and intensity of the public debate surrounding its subject matter. I was happy to discover that Sánchez, a professor of history at St. Louis University in Missouri, is not a shill for any particular camp and is in fact extremely even-handed in his analysis. While the writing is hardly scintillating and often ponderous, Pius XII lives up to its billing as a concise and accessible guide to “understanding the controversy.”

Sánchez starts off by tracing the development of that controversy:

[Pius, who served as pope from 1939 to 1958,] was universally praised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as the spiritual leader not only of Catholics but of Western Civilization itself… Four years after his death, in the late winter of 1963, that image was tarnished by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who published his play, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy)… Hochhuth created a sensation by charging Pope Pius with violating the moral charge of his high office by not speaking out publicly and forcefully in defense of the Jews against the Nazi machine of destruction in World War II. (Sánchez, 1-2)

From there he moves to an overview of the available historical sources, an attempt to understand what and how much Pius knew about the Holocaust as it was unfolding, and a meticulous consideration of the various hypotheses that have been adduced as explanations for Pius’ behavior.

The issue of how informed the Pope was about what was really going on in Europe turns out to be central to Sánchez’ conclusions about how he ought to be judged by history. Ultimately, Sánchez maintains that Pius’ failure to offer an unequivocal public denunciation of the extermination of the European Jews was not rooted in anti-Semitism or sympathy for the agenda of Hitler and the Nazis, but rather than it was motivated by a desire to “not make things worse” and to prevent reprisals against Catholics (including Jewish converts) living in Germany or in territories occupied by the Germans.

To those who would reply that nothing could have been worse than the Holocaust, Sánchez notes that the gift of hindsight can easily blind us to the fact that the ultimate Nazi objective of slaughtering all the Jews in Europe was unknown to virtually everyone outside of Hitler’s inner circle until the end of the war. The Holocaust was the worst act of genocide in the history of the modern West, a crime against humanity utterly without precedent; who could blame those who failed to deduce that the persecution of some Jews was only a prelude to the mass murder of them all for not comprehending the Nazis’ horrific schemes sooner?

Did Pius know that these killings were simply the first step in the German plan to kill all the European Jews? To move from the fact of persecution, to the knowledge that they were killing many, to the belief that they were going to kill all is a big leap. It was not commonly believed by the Allied leaders, who with their espionage services were probably in a better position to know German aims. John Conway says that ‘it is possible to agree… that, like the majority of educated men in Western Europe, the Pope could not conceive of iniquity on such a scale, which was a failure of imagination, rather than of nerve.” (45)

Yet he does not argue that ignorance suffices to explain the lack of a strong public protest, nor does he excuse all of Pius’ actions during the war. (For example, he is sharply critical of Pius’ failure to denounce the campaign of forced conversion and ethnic cleansing directed against the Orthodox Serbs by the ostensibly Catholic government of Croatia under the fascist Ustasha, who we can only assume might have been actually cowed by a papal rebuke.) Instead, he contends that Pius’ personality and background as a Vatican diplomat led him to follow a path of (perhaps excessive) caution in his dealings with the Axis powers. He explains how Pius appears to have nurtured a hope throughout the war that the Vatican would eventually be called upon to mediate the conflict, and that he evidently held fast to this belief in the face of mounting evidence that there was in fact no chance whatsoever that a diplomatic solution was possible:

All historians agree that Pius wanted to mediate the war and therefore was less critical of the Germans than he should have been… Michael Marrus says that as time went on, Pius “clung to the wreckage of his prewar policy” of diplomatic mediation even when it no longer had a chance of success… It should, however, be pointed out that Pius did not consider his policy one of indifference to the warring powers. He told Cardinal Faulhaber that his attitude was not one of neutrality, which he said was ‘passive indifference,’ but rather one of impartiality, ‘which judges according to truth and justice.’ This is a subtle distinction that gets lost in the great moral issues of World War II. (111-112)

A subtle distinction indeed – one that reminds me of my own effort to draw a subtle distinction between “centrism” and “moderation.” It seems that Pius was on to something here, at least in a philosophical sense. Yet it is clear that this stance was impractical, not least of all because of the fact that neither side was interested in seeking the Pope’s mediation. When the deadliest war in human history is raging all around you, isn’t it at least possible that trying to stay completely out of it will be seen as an act of cowardice? Even if you are not actually a coward?

Just as I’ve argued that the pursuit of moderation necessarily involves negotiating the tension between the need to appear open-minded and willing to engage with anyone and the reality of having to sometimes admit that one side is right and the other wrong, the pursuit of “truth and justice” during World War II presented Pius with a moral dilemma that was simply too much for him to handle.

Since we can never know what might have come to pass had someone other than Pius occupied the Chair of Peter during the Holocaust, we can never really know whether his silence was due primarily to his own introspective and deliberative nature, or to situational factors that would have backed even the most resolute and decisive pontiff into the same unfortunate corner. Sánchez writes that

[the] dilemma was compounded by the geographical existence of the Vatican in Fascist Italy. In the Lateran Accords that ended the Roman Question and provided for mutual recognition between the Italian state and the Holy See, the Holy See promised to maintain neutrality in conflicts between states, at the same time reserving to itself the prerogative to speak out on moral questions – another dilemma in itself. (38)

While it might seem self-evident that these objectives are bound to come into conflict in the course of almost any armed dispute, Sánchez observes elsewhere that World War II was, again, completely unlike the wars that had come before it. This was not a struggle over competing territorial claims or political legitimacy: it was a cosmic clash of good and evil. The diplomatic protocols that Pius had internalized over his long career as a papal ambassador were now moot. If even a man who had decades of political experience couldn’t get it right, why should we assume that someone else would have done any better?

I thought about Pius as I read news reports of the current Pope’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and by all governments. How would Francis have acted if he were the leader of the Church during the Holocaust? Or perhaps the more tantalizing question is: would Pius have denounced the Assad regime if he were leading the Church today? The questions raised by Pius XII and the Holocaust are ones that are highly relevant in our own time, and in fact may never cease to be relevant.

Sánchez is a scrupulous historian who is consistently aware of the limitations of his project, and his work is thought-provoking and carefully researched. The sole weakness of the book – or perhaps some may see it as yet another strength – is its almost mechanical prose, which repeatedly crosses the line from clear and systematic argument into what seems like the dry recitation of a bulleted outline. The chapter entitled “Vatican Diplomacy Has Always Been Cautious” begins by reporting how “Pius’ defenders [argue] that he was simply following papal tradition in exercising a cautious diplomatic policy…” The one called “A Crisis of Conscience for German Catholics” opens by saying that “[o]ne of the strongest arguments critics have made is that Pius did not protest against the Nazi terror because such a protest would have caused a crisis of conscience for German Catholics…” The first sentence of “Pius Wanted to Serve as Mediator in the War”? “From the time of the loss of the Papal States in 1871, the papacy attempted to play a role in mediating conflicts between states.” In summarizing his judgments about the various possible explanations for Pius’ failure to explicitly denounce the killing of the Jews, Sánchez begins three paragraphs with the formulation, “Argument X does/does not appear to have substance.” I certainly learned a lot from this book, but I felt at times as if I were reading a study guide for an AP Twentieth Century Vatican History exam.

That said, I suppose it’s only natural for authors trying to bring civility and levelheadedness to an otherwise combustible controversy to err on the side of pedantry, and I certainly don’t think it would be fair to dismiss the book on those grounds alone. Pius XII and the Holocaust is in fact an exemplar of the very notion of reasonable read. It deservedly becomes our first enthusiastic recommendation.

Reasonable Reads: “Skios” by Michael Frayn

What happens when an author subverts his plot to fully achieve his theme?

Plot: A farcical account of one man’s decision to impersonate a renowned doctor who is giving an address to a wealthy foundation on the fictional island of Skios.

Quick Summary: The final chapter of Skios turns the aforementioned plot on its head and frames the entire preceding narrative as insignificant.  This raises the question: what are the benefits and consequences of an author negating an entire story to fully realize his or her predominant theme?

Expanded Discussion: For the first 238 pages of Skios, Michael Frayn crafts a light and amusing meditation on chance and inevitability.  It’s a classic story in the vein of Twelfth Night about the follies and consequences of assumed identity.  Oliver Fox, a laid-back ladies’ man who leaves everything to chance, is presented with the opportunity to impersonate Dr. Norman Wilfred, an academic who is giving a keynote address on an exclusive Greek island.  Oliver’s ruse is successful; he charms event organizer Nikki and has the foundation’s president eating out of his hand.  Elsewhere on the island, the real Dr. Norman Wilfred finds himself stuck in a remote villa with Oliver’s intended female liaison and begins to question the surreal nature of his situation.

Oliver and Norman represent the twin poles of random occurrence and “perfectly rational” causality, two philosophies which clash through the text. (123)  It’s a strong dichotomy that’s weaved throughout Frayn’s yarn, providing a backbone for his satirical portraits of power, wealth, and romance.  Oliver’s instantaneous and unplanned decision to impersonate Norman is successful because of the unquestioning crowds who accept every word he says, regardless of their quality or depth.  Even Nikki, who is well aware that Norman is an older man, lets herself be swayed by Oliver’s charm.  Frayn’s breezy reflection on how chance and rationality intersect succeeds because of his characters’ adherence to their circumstances.

As the final chapters opens, it seems like shenanigans and a minor frenzy will ensue when Oliver and Dr. Wilfred finally come face to face.  Instead, Frayn concludes his book in an unusual manner: he provides a brief summary of what would have normally happened to the characters, but then identifies a trivial event with “no imaginable significance or place in any self-respecting causal chain.” (243)  This trivial event, in which a minor character unexpectedly reaches for a piece of dessert and lights himself on fire, sets off an entirely new sequence of occurrences to actually conclude the book.  And this sequence is substantially different from the first one- a gun battle suddenly erupts in the fire, creating mass chaos and leaving a number of people dead.

The shift in tone is jagged and more than a little bizarre.  Frayn had alluded to some sort of mob movement on the island earlier in the book, but the violence of the last chapter is completely unexpected and rejects the preceding levity.  It’s also an abrupt ending to the story.  All of the characters either experience hasty conclusions or just disappear entirely.

Frayn’s decision to end Skios in this way is his means of weighing in on the chance vs. rational causality debate, and he emphatically sides with chance.  In this respect, Frayn succeeds in providing a forceful realization of the book’s core theme by shifting the narrative to reflect his verdict.  The events of the book were so unexpected that even his narrator couldn’t foresee them; ipso facto, chance is the order of the day.

This is a clever way to end the book, but it also feels flimsy and somewhat inconclusive.  Frayn doesn’t bridge any unassailable tenets of exposition by shifting his narrative so abruptly; after all, it’s his story and his characters can do whatever he wants.  But the incongruity between the majority of the novel and its conclusion makes the final sequence a hollow realization of the theme.  Readers spend time and energy in a narrative with the expectation that the characters, setting, and plot are consistent in some fashion, even if this consistency is defined by inconsistency (i.e. from the start of a book, the setting changes every chapter).  To establish a set of constructs for almost 90% of a story and then have those constructs upended is, in some ways, to undermine the reader’s trust in the author.

This is especially the case in Skios, where Frayn presents the narrator as being both omniscient in knowing what would have happened but also unable to foresee the actual conclusion until it occurs.  After crafting a very specific plot with carefully detailed elements, it’s grating to have the author abdicate his authority and have a “random inconsequential event” shape the end of the book.

It also raises questions over why it was worth investing time in reading about all of Frayn’s characters and this story in particular.  His satire imparts some bemusing profiles of power but, after the conclusion, it’s essentially unwedded to the plot and primary theme.  The idea of a rogue incident changing the course of a narrative could have been applied to any story and it’s unclear why Frayn couples it with his social commentary on wealth and influence.

What, then, should we make of Skios?  How should we consider a book that to some extent trivializes its own plot and characters to realize his theme?   In the end, I appreciate what Frayn accomplishes with Skios, since I’ve never read a story in which author so forcefully undermines his plot to hit home a message.  But it’s a tempered, dispassionate appreciation for technique rather than story.  As a concept, Skios is an exercise in the unorthodox that was worth reading, but as a narrative, it isn’t particularly memorable or essential.


Reasonable Reads: “You” by Austin Grossman

(Editor’s Note: I thought Matt might have a good time with my Chris Christie comparison, and he certainly did.  While I cook up a response to his essay, here are a couple of new pieces I’ve been working on.  

“Reasonable Reads” will be our book-club discussion heading, and we’ll kick the series off with a light read: Austin Grossman’s You, a book I checked out on a whim last month.  I plan on deep-diving into Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul in the next installment.

Plot: Russell, an itinerant late twentysomething, moves home to Boston in 1997 and goes to work for a video game company founded by his high school friends.  The company’s co-founder Simon recently passed away, and as Russell cuts his teeth in the game development world, he revisits his old relationships and reflects on his current station in life.

Quick Summary: A fast-paced but dull and drawn-out story marked by flat characters, mishandled plot strands, and muddled exposition.

Expanded Discussion: I picked up You because it looked like a quick summer read and because it promised to discuss an idea I’m interested in learning more about: the unique narrative experiences that video games can provide.  As books and multimedia are adapted and optimized for digital devices, it seems that games will play a greater role in influencing storytelling’s evolution.  I was hoping Mr. Grossman would encase enlightening thoughts on this theme within an engaging story.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.   None of the characters give the reader any reason to feel invested in the story.  Simon’s isolationist history and quest for the ultimate experience is the closest Grossman comes to developing an engaging narrative thread, but Simon is dead, a passive engine who exists to move the tired endeavor along.   Russell, our driver, is an uninspired protagonist who shows no sense of enlightenment as the story progresses.  The plot hinges on Simon and Russell’s shared search for transcendence in gaming amidst personal turmoil, but Russell’s actions and personality consistently undermine his supposed realization of what this transcendence entails.  We’re left with annoyingly brash and banal comments that make it clear how Russell has learned nothing from the previous experiences he constantly complains about.  “F*** parents, f*** having a real job.  Maybe this is what we do,” he declares at one point in the story, a maddeningly juvenile remark from a 27 year old who is supposedly learning about what it means to be an adult.

Grossman’s development of the story is hindered by his characters’ lack of depth, and the book’s construction mirrors this imprecision.  The history of Russell’s employer Black Arts is interspersed throughout the narrative to parallel Russell’s increasing knowledge of the company, but this decision creates frequent confusion about the mythology’s relation to the main story arc.  Grossman also blends the two stories so that the four game sages appear in Russell’s “real life” to help him learn about the company (and life itself).  This leads to frequent cringe-inducing scenes such as the one when a wizard tells Russell about his dating prospects with a programmer at the company.  These scenes are unnecessary, dull, and only further dilute the tenuous maturity Russell asserts on account of his new position.  They also feel like a narrative cop-out.

I understand that the incorporation of the game characters in Russell’s life, as well as the shifting between first and second-person narration, is supposed to manifest how games require that element of personal investment to effectively fuse the ideal and the real.  But the entire process is done too sloppily to be effective, resulting in pervasive and stagnant narrative ramblings about two-thirds of the way in.  Page after page sees Russell play through various games in the hope of finding a major computer bug, a decision that torpedoes any interest in the four fictional characters.  These constant game jumps preclude the reader’s emotional investment in a lush dreamscape to foil the Massachusetts testing zone, effectively extinguishing the thrill of video game immersion that Grossman is trying to capture.  The incorporation of a “real-world stock crisis” within the last one hundred pages is a gimmicky throw-in that adds a diluted, cheap sense of tension to the climax.

It’s frustrating that Grossman handles his characters and story like this.  At the core of the book lie some very worthwhile and intriguing themes, including how to deal with the ennui of young adult life and the potential for interactive media to lead to something greater than the self.  “In the whole mechanized game world, you are a unique object, like a moving hole that’s full of emotion and agency and experience and memory unlike anything else in this made-up universe,” he writes, a wonderful condensation of what makes games unique as a narrative medium.  Unfortunately, any such insightful observations are subsumed in the text with minimal subsequent development.   The book includes some worthwhile questions and ideas about game theory, but these ideas are shortchanged at the expense of a bloated plot.

Skip You.  There are plenty of other titles that warrant your attention first.