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With his first book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen dramatically revised our understanding of the role ordinary Germans played in the Holocaust. Now he brings his formidable powers of research and argument to bear on the Catholic Church and its complicity in the destruction of European Jewry. What emerges is a work that goes far beyond the familiar inquiries—most of which focus solely on Pope Pius XII—to address an entire history of hatred and persecution that culminated, in some cases, in an active participation in mass-murder.
More than a chronicle, A Moral Reckoning is also an assessment of culpability and a bold attempt at defining what actions the Church must take to repair the harm it did to Jews—and to repair itself. Impressive in its scholarship, rigorous in its ethical focus, the result is a book of lasting importance.
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Christianity is a religion of love that teaches its members the highest moral principles for acting well. Love your neighbor. Seek peace. Help those in need. Sympathize with and raise up the oppressed. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Christianity is a religion that consecrated at its core and historically, spread throughout its domain a megatherian hatred of one group of people: the Jews. It libelously deemed them, sometimes in its sacred texts and doctrine, to be Christ-killers, children of the devil, desecrators and defilers of all goodness, responsible for an enormous range of human calamities and suffering. This hatred-Christianity's betrayal of its own essential and good moral principles-led Christians, over the course of almost two millennia, to commit many grave crimes and other injuries against Jews, including mass murder. The best-known and largest of these mass murders is the Holocaust.
The question for Christians, especially for the Catholic Church, is, What must a religion of love and goodness do to confront its history of hatred and harm, to make amends with its victims, and to right itself so that it is no longer the source of a hatred and harm that, whatever its past, it would no longer endorse? This is the question also of this book.
Who did what? Why did they do it? In what ways are they culpable? These are the three big questions of the Holocaust. In Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, I tackled the first two questions, focusing on the ordinary Germans who were the principal perpetrators of the Holocaust and showing that they slaughtered Jews because, moved by antisemitism, they believed that killing them was just, right, and necessary. This was also generally true of those Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, and others who participated in the mass murder. Because the book's purpose was to explain the perpetration of the Holocaust, not to judge the perpetrators, in it I stated openly that it "is a work of historical explanation, not of moral evaluation."For this reason the book left untouched the third, equally explosive subject of moral culpability. It also did not take up the principal post-Holocaust questions: Who is responsible for making amends with the victims, and what must they do?
In Hitler's Willing Executioners I presented no explicit moral judgments about culpability and no program of repair. It was, of course, obvious that I condemn the Germans' and their helpers' eliminationist persecution and mass murder of the Jews and their persecution and slaughter of other victim groups, including the mentally ill, Roma and Sinti (commonly called Gypsies), homosexuals, Poles, Russians. When the book appeared at the end of March 1996, those, especially in Germany, who abhorred the airing of the obscured facts and unwelcome truths that it contained attacked the book and me personally, including by leveling the fictitious charge that I was explicitly passing the moral judgment of collective guilt.These attacks, many manifestly disreputable, did, however, indicate something fundamental that lay behind the large furor around the book, something that deserves our attention.
Hitler's Willing Executioners unwittingly provoked a moral uproar, and a moral subtext continually enveloped-and partly derailed-the extensive written and verbal discussion around the book. The book sought to restore to Germans their humanity, which had heretofore generally been denied them by the standard dehumanizing characterization of them as thoughtless, automatonlike cogs in a machine. It therefore challenged the existing conventional view, and pointedly insisted that Germans be seen and treated for what they were: individual moral agents. It investigated their views of Jews, and of the justness of the eliminationist persecution, including physical annihilation. It brought forth and emphasized critical information that had for long been denied, obscured, and covered up-even though some of the information had for decades been available-that so many of the perpetrators knew that they could avoid killing but chose to torture and to kill their victims, and were often demonstrably gleeful about it. It showed that the conventional notion that the German people in general were terrorized is a myth and that, exceptions notwithstanding, Germans essentially assented to the violent eliminationist persecution of the Jews. All of this, however implicitly, forcefully made unavoidable the previously widely avoided moral question: Who is culpable, in what way, and for what?
Germans and people in other countries were suddenly grappling with the problems of moral judgment in a way that many of them never had; human beings had replaced abstract structures and impersonal forces as actors, and they, Germans and others, were shown to have been animated by views that most people today abhor, and, in substantial numbers, to have willfully done terrible, criminal things. The facile moral excuses and rationalizations-that Germans had been terrorized, had not known about the crimes, and so on-that had exculpated so many people and comforted so many more were, however implicitly, exposed as hollow. Moral charges were in the morally charged air.
Because of the barrage of false views imputed to me, I wrote a foreword to the German edition of the book (since reprinted in other editions, including the English-language paperbacks) that contained the following: "Because the analysis of this book emphasizes that every individual made choices about how to treat Jews, its entire mode of analysis runs contrary to, and provides powerful argument against, any notion of collective guilt. "I clarified, if briefly, my views about "collective guilt," which I have always emphatically rejected, but the question of how we might judge the perpetrators and other involved people for their actions during this period-the moral issues-I left aside, so in the discussion about my book they remained mainly subterranean.
It is true that in answering the first two principal questions of the Holocaust-who did what, and why did they do it?-the book provided the necessary foundation for answering the third question: In what ways are they culpable? It also makes it possible to move to the next stage of investigation-the post-Holocaust stage-which is to ask: Based on the answers to these three principal questions, what social, political, and moral responses and measures should we conclude are desirable or even necessary? That Hitler's Willing Executioners implied and set the stage for such a further investigation was recognized by Jürgen Habermas. In his speech "Goldhagen and the Public Use of History" Habermas explained:
Goldhagen's investigations are tailored to address precisely those questions that have polarized our public and private discussions for the past half century. . . . The truly fundamental question at issue [is]: What does it mean to assign the responsibility for historical crimes retrospectively-if it is just this reckoning that we are now undertaking with the goal of generating an ethical-political process of public self-understanding? Goldhagen provides a new stimulus to a reflection about the proper public use of history.
With this book, I take up the moral issues and their social and political implications that remained unaddressed though immanent in the first book, exploring them in a general way while focusing empirically on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. It is precisely my hope to further generate a general ethical-political process of public understanding and self-understanding, which in the particular instances of the Church and other relevant institutions also includes institutional self-understanding. What Hitler's Willing Executioners did for explaining the contours and causes of the Holocaust, for restoring the human beings to the center of our understanding of its perpetration, this book is intended to do for clarifying moral culpability, for judging the actors, and for thinking about how they and others might best right their wrongs.
Lift the Moral Blackout
In the vast realm between the sound bite of media talk shows and op-ed pages on the one hand and the technical discourses of philosophical and theological tracts on the other, the serious investigation of issues of morality and judgment is rarely to be found. Sustained, accessible moral argument and evaluation-especially when it is sustained moral judgment-is not in vogue. It is fine to judge maleficent or lascivious politicians in moralizing, snap, and flip ways. It is fine to judge the perpetrators of spectacular domestic and other crimes who provide the daily theater of pathology that spices up the personal and social lives of our voyeuristic societies. These are sport, big-game hunting, where the hunters risk nothing and gain satisfaction and glory.
But it seems to be decidedly not fine to discuss seriously in public how to judge the people with whom so many feel affinity, who have or may have committed grievous offenses such as ordinary Germans and the ordinary citizens of other countries during the Holocaust. Serious moral inquiry cuts close to the bone of the investigator. It leads to where our principles, once we establish them, and logic lead us. It is a journey, once embarked upon, over which we have little control, and which sometimes, often, touches down along the way, or even terminates in unpleasant places with disturbing views of others and ourselves, and disquieting conclusions about what others or we must do.
Our moral culture is degraded partly by the flipness of our public culture, partly by the abdication of many people in the academy of their obligation to engage moral issues, or engage them in a way that both meets a high standard and is accessible to those who are not professional philosophers. One does not have to be a cultural conservative-I am not-to recognize and criticize all this. Our moral culture is also degraded because in our pluralistic world-a world generally to be celebrated-the genuine difficulties of confronting value pluralism, especially the problem of people not wanting to seem to be imposing their values on others, have made many people skittish about applying serious moral discussion to the public sphere. People who are not guided by religious values often seem reluctant to enter this realm, the realm of religion par excellence. Whether out of distaste for engaging religion or out of a belief that, without a religious grounding, they are at a serious disadvantage, those who could talk the talk have left much of the turf of serious moral discussion to the religious.
It is precisely votaries of various religions who are willing, even eager, to take on the task. And as the most populous and centralized religion, Catholicism, under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church and its various national churches, is in many parts of the world the most prominent participant in, and exemplar of, sustained moral discussion directed at the broad interested public. Through the frequent encyclicals, declarations, and letters of Popes, the pronouncements of national churches and their bishops, and the individual statements of many Church intellectuals, the Church and its clergy are active moral commentators on a wide range of matters, both public and personal. Latin American bishops in the 1970s propounded liberation theology, a moral argument grounded in theology in favor of antiestablishment politics for the poor to bring about social justice and an end to oppression. After 1979 they were silenced by the newly ascended Pope John Paul II, whose politics clashed with theirs. In the 1980s American bishops published a treatise arguing for the immorality of nuclear weapons, and another against the economic inequality produced by the American economy. John Paul II has made considered public pronouncements on a large array of moral and political issues, ranging from personal conduct to our duties to one another, to the necessity of including moral considerations in our economic systems, to issues of war and peace. National Catholic churches regularly address political issues relevant to their countries. These and other interventions in the public sphere have been morally forceful because of the Catholic Church's traditions of cultivated intellection and of intimate engagement with public life.
Although serious moral discussion of many important aspects of Western public life, particularly politics, was never much in vogue except among the rebellious, it flagged significantly in the West during the cold war. To be sure, the 1960s saw an upsurge in moral condemnation by the young of perceived injustices of their societies and especially of the Vietnam War. In Germany the generation known as sixty-eighters took their parents to task for what they did or failed to do during the Nazi period. But in general during the postwar decades the security concerns of the cold war seemed to trump many important moral concerns or at least to shunt them to a lesser status in both international and domestic affairs. If morality conflicted with reasons of state, as it so frequently does, then the acute danger seen to be posed by the Soviet Union made it for the West an unaffordable luxury, seemingly not worth seeking out in the first place. This, of course, was never the right position to take. In today's post-cold war world, it is even less justifiable. Considered moral investigation, the foundation for virtuous action, must reclaim its central place in public life.
The moral blackout has been deep in the discussion of the Nazi period. For a long time people failed to investigate and publicly discuss, sloganeering aside, the relevant moral issues intensively, if at all.West Germany had to be rehabilitated. It was better not to shine upon it the withering light of moral scrutiny. Without the cessation of public inquiry soon after the Nuremberg trials, the Germans would have been difficult to enlist in the struggle against communism, which at the time was seen to override all other considerations. Investigating the widespread criminality of large segments of the Western populace and their institutions, especially in Germany, would have created for the Soviets a devastating propaganda and moral bonanza. And after all, within Germany and many other countries whose populations participated to some significant degree in the persecution and the mass murder, such investigations would have tarnished (further) the national self-image and led to the condemnation of many of their citizens for having persecuted or killed members of a people, the Jews, who were still widely demonized and hated. For this there was little appetite. Looking forward rather than backward was the safe and chosen path.
The unwillingness to undertake genuine public moral investigation in discussing the Nazi period, particularly the Holocaust, went one step further with the removal of the actual, involved human beings from consideration as attention and conceptual primacy were focused on structures, collectivities, and irresistible forces. Two tacks, their seeming differences notwithstanding, were complementary in producing this mind-set that prevented genuine moral inquiry.
The first is the collective-guilt charge that was really shorthand for a series of related notions that Germans' guilt resided in their national character-in something that was a common property of theirs, essential and unchanging; their guilt was therefore deemed collective and intergenerational. During World War II and in its immediate aftermath such charges were frequently heard; prior to the cold war, they were a kind of common sense. Since then such notions, although held by many people, even in Germany, have been by and large delegitimized in public discussion, uttered publicly only by the insistent few.8 Complementing the collective-guilt charge itself have been all those, especially in Germany, who attack people by claiming that they are falsely charging Germans with collective guilt. Someone who refuses to toe the exculpatory line-that ordinary Germans were more or less blameless for all the horrors of the Nazi period-can be saddled with the charge of advocating collective guilt.