Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to a synagogue in New York this week will evoke his visit to the oldest synagogue in Germany nearly three years ago. On that occasion, addressing leaders of Cologne’s Jewish community, Pope Benedict properly addressed the question of the Shoah. He deplored Hitler’s campaign to eliminate the Jewish people, and he condemned Nazi antisemitism – words which still need to be spoken. That this Catholic leader is himself a German, having had his own youthful glimpse of Hitler’s death-regime, made his remembrance of that history all the more compelling.
Yet there was something troubling in what Pope Benedict said on that occasion. As it happened, I was in Cologne while the pontiff was there. With the filmmaker Oren Jacoby, I was at work on a documentary film based on my book “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History.” We were filming in the Rhineland because so much of that history was centered there. Europe’s first pogroms occurred in the 11th century when mobs poured from the Cologne cathedral on Good Friday looking for “Christ-killers.” Blood libel charges arose there during the plagues of the 14th century. The Dreyfus family had its origins nearby, as did the German Catholic celebrations of the 1933 treaty between the Vatican and the Third Reich. Nazi antisemitism had its own diabolical character, but it built on the deep-seated contempt for Jews that had become second nature to Christians, and even a shallow acquaintance with German history (both Lutheran and Catholic) shows that.
But in condemning Nazi antisemitism before that Jewish congregation in Cologne, Pope Benedict defined it univocally as having been “born of neo-paganism.” That was true, a reference to the odd mysticism that underwrote the Teutonic myths on which claims for Aryan racial superiority rested. But Nazi hatred of Jews was born of two parents, and the other one – the long history of Christian anti-Judaism – the pope did not mention. This was not a slight omission. It is urgently important, in going forward into the 21st century, that the context out of which the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people grew, and within which it nearly succeeded, not be forgotten. The crimes of Hitler were not the crimes of Christianity, but the Final Solution depended, both for the recruitment of active perpetrators and for the passivity of a continent’s worth of bystanders, on the ingrained anti-Jewishness of Christian theology, liturgy, and tradition. You would not know that from what the pope said in the Synagogue in Cologne.