From the outset it was unrealistic – if not altogether foolish – to look for any show of emotional empathy or heartfelt contrition from the German pope during his historic address at Yad Vashem. Those who harbored such expectations didn’t base them on Benedict XVI’s actual personality but on a kindly spiritual Santa, a figment of their wishful thinking.
Josef Alois Ratzinger, however, is a product of his time and upbringing. It would have been out of character for him to conduct himself otherwise. He conformed to his predisposition and didn’t break conventions, as we perhaps kidded ourselves that he might.
This has nothing to do with whether or not he was forced to join the Hitlerjugend or his conscription (willing or not) into Nazi military service. It perhaps has more to do with his postwar milieu, when coercion was no longer a pretext. The worldview of this devotedly religious, ultraconservative youth was shaped in American-occupied Bavaria. There the Church that guided Ratzinger made it its mission to shirk charges of collective German guilt. It became Church doctrine to assert that guilt was an individual issue to be judged by God. Accordingly, churches throughout post-Holocaust Germany held prayers of forgiveness for all “who had gone astray.”
After that, the past was to be sidelined – the quicker the better.
Germans avidly did their darndest to misremember. The US Army’s Information Control Division conducted opinion polls in November 1945 which showed that only 20 percent of Germans considered their country responsible for the war. Repeat polling in January 1948 showed no perceptible change. Germans were neither ashamed nor repentant.
Moreover, the Church in effect did its utmost to foil denazification, perceiving it as leftist and atheist. Nazis were tolerantly regarded as redeemable and deserving of absolution and a second chance. Clerics, under whom the young Ratzinger studied, directed Catholics not to cooperate with Allied denazification tribunals, while the Church supplied Nazi businessmen and civil servants with testimony to the effect that they were mere nominal party members, small cogs in the machine.
Thus many Third Reich stalwarts were acquitted and remained the honchos who called the shots day-to-day, also in the “New Germany.”
Before long, the convenient mythology of German victimhood and lack of any culpability arose. Holocaust atrocities were committed by indeterminate “others,” called Nazis. Something bad happened about which nobody knew and for which nobody is blameworthy. That essentially was the recurrent refrain of Benedict’s frosty homily at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2006. Anyone who recalled his clichés then couldn’t have been surprised by his insensitive omissions at Yad Vashem three years later.
If any doubt lingered about how snugly this pontiff fits into the moral mold of his native land, his assertions at the largest German death camp eliminated it. According to Benedict, Germans “were used and abused” by “a ring of criminals.” Like most of his smug compatriots, he evidently subscribes to a laundered version of history, where the Holocaust is reduced to a crime without readily identifiable perpetrators. Moreover, these anonymous felons “ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.” Ergo, 1.5 million Jewish children were martyred in the context of an onslaught on Christianity.
To hear the bishop of Rome, no occupied country colluded in deporting its Jews, none spawned greedy looters and collaborators, while the occupiers themselves were an alien band of no distinct ethnicity, known generically as Nazis, or “a ring of criminals.”
Even Germans mustn’t be required to assume collective onus for them. Sanitized history portrays Germany as yet another pitiably occupied nation. The Allies “liberated” – not vanquished – it. Germans prefer to bellyache about their suffering, avoiding excessive emphasis on the fact that without millions of ardent followers and enthusiastic accomplices, no “ring of criminals” could have sadistically slaughtered multitudes.
With blitzkrieg intensity, bloodstained Germany was transformed into spotless progressive New Germany, which goes out of its way to profess bigheartedness and beneficence. The pope, as he described himself, is indeed “a son of Germany.”
For Germans collectively, World War II’s calculated, systemized, industrialized bloodletting constituted something akin to reform school. Dutiful Germans recited their lessons, did their homework, sat for their exams and graduated with honors. What more can Jews demand of them? They paid their dues. They emerged edified from the cataclysm.
By their yardstick, Jews didn’t equally purify themselves nor rise to Germany’s ethical standards, overcome the distasteful past as elegantly as all Europeans, surmount residual unpleasantness and let bygones be bygones. Hence, even Germans feel free to carp about Israeli self-defense and urge Israel’s return to the Auschwitz borders (as dovish Abba Eban dubbed the 1949 armistice lines).
Benedict’s righteous platitudes and missed opportunities at Birkenau presaged more of the same at Yad Vashem. If nothing else, he demonstrated unwavering consistency.
Standing at Birkenau – 95% of whose inmates were Jews – he listed the various nationalities of Auschwitz prisoners, as if the tragedy were identical and the proportions equal. He managed not to point out that Jews were annihilated like vermin, not in a violent fit but in painstakingly premeditated fashion – orderly, methodical and mass-production-style. They weren’t even a warring side.
In the same vein, at Yad Vashem, he couldn’t bring himself to admit that Holocaust victims were “murdered.” This meticulous scholar certainly understood the difference between “killed” and “murdered” (hence his afterthought attempted correction before departure).
But at least both in Poland and Jerusalem Benedict referred to Jews. In 2005, while condemning global terrorism, he lamented bloodshed in Britain, Egypt and Turkey. For some reason, Israel wasn’t included. Subsequent attempts to whitewash the oversight only made matters worse. The Vatican contended that Benedict alluded only to “recent incidents.” Yet a suicide bombing in Netanya on July 11, 2005 came after the July 7 targeting of London’s mass transit passengers and the human toll in Netanya was greater that that of the Turkish outrage which followed later.
Even if this betrayed a subconscious tendency to discount Jewish lives, we can nevertheless take facetious satisfaction in noting that things have improved. Eventually, in obligatory circumstances, Jews were accorded obligatory papal mention. In a way, even this can be construed as progress and in our existence that’s nothing to scoff at, especially as far as Jews are concerned.
On more serious reflection, though, our lesson from the visit – whose importance we exaggerated, as only affection-craving Jews can – is that we ought to know the characters at play well but to care about their utterances and opinions of us a whole lot less.
We really shouldn’t bother about what the pope pontificated here, to which precise phraseology he resorted or whether he inched closer to an apology. We don’t need his approval. As David Ben-Gurion maintained decades ago: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim [the nations] say, but what the Jews do.”