No Excuse

In Defense of Christian Hungary

Religion, Nationalism, and Anti-Semitism, 1890–1944

Paul A. Hanebrink

Cornell University Press, $39.95, 352 pp.

Pius XII failed to speak out against the Nazi murder of Jews because he feared making things even worse. German bishops failed to condemn Nazi atrocities because they feared for the church in Germany. Polish Christians failed to shelter Jews because if caught the penalty was death-not only for the rescuers, but for their entire families.

So runs the list of reasons for the passivity of Catholics in the face of Nazi terror. There were, of course, important exceptions. Like Berlin’s Msgr. Bernhard Lichtenberg, who was arrested by the Gestapo after he openly prayed for Jews in 1941. Or Alfred Delp, SJ, who was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. Or the little-known Joseph Schmidlin, SVD, who taught Catholic theology at Münster and refused to greet other professors with “Heil Hitler,” as required by law. In 1935, he wrote the pope demanding a break of relations between the Vatican and Hitler, whom he called a “devil.” These three priests paid with their lives for their uncompromising defiance. Dozens of other vowed religious risked death by sheltering Jews. But these were cases of individual heroism, hundreds among millions, exceptions that proved the rule. The rule for Catholics in Nazi-controlled Europe was passivity verging on complicity. If one surveys the devastated continent of 1945-with cities in rubble, millions dead, seas of refugees-one has to wonder: What difference did Christians make?


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About the Author

John Connelly, author of From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard), teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.