Monday, June 9, 2014

Sects, Lies, and Photographs; or, He's No Saint!

[NOTE:  This book review appeared in slightly different form in the comments section for the book on Amazon.]

BOOK REVIEW:  Why Did the Vatican Honor the Swastika:  A Catholic Couple's Five-Year Search for Understanding by Stephen and Diane Galebach

[For more details on this subject, see my previous articles: ]

Declaration of interest: Steve and Diane Galebach are friends of mine. Steve was a roommate at Yale, and I was honored to attend their Full Wedding Mass. (The most intriguing aspect of which was that, moving as it was, as a non-Catholic I was unable to determine the exact moment of matrimony. Had an earthquake sent everyone scrambling three-quarters of the way through it, I'm not sure the happy couple would have known exactly where matters stood, wedded-bliss wise.) I also read and commented on Steve's earliest drafts recounting his work. The present book bears almost no resemblance to the manuscripts I reviewed.

No matter. This is an extraordinary book that earns five stars on its merits. It is a book of serious, deep – and, most important, original -- research into the relationship between pre-World War II antisemitism in Germany, Argentina, and elsewhere, and the Roman Catholic Church, personified in its Vatican leaders and local cardinals and archbishops. Its structure is unconventional, and the title doesn't hide the ball. Scholarly as it is, it is not presented as a scholarly history. Instead, it discloses its evidence chronologically as the Galebachs and their extraordinary brood uncovered it. University historians may roll their eyes, but shame on them. This book is dense with meaty new discoveries and astonishing connections. And the prose is pellucid.

It begins with Steve's discovery of the cover photograph of Argentine Cardinal Copello blessing a Nazi flag at the Eucharistic Congress in Buenos Aires in 1934. He discovered it in an issue of the Nazis' chief organ of race hatred, Der Stűrmer. Stunned by this discovery, the Galebachs set out to determine whether this was a one-off, a rogue or addled cardinal straying off the reservation. Although they don't come right out and say it, the result of their extraordinary journey of discovery points powerfully to a conclusion that the Vatican rejects: At the very least, the role of the Church and, in particular, one Eugenio Pacelli, cardinal, nuncio to Bavaria/Munich, Vatican secretary of state, and soon Pius XII, in not just the rise, but the establishment of state antisemitism in Germany and elsewhere must be much more thoroughly examined before the elevation of Pius XII to sainthood is given any further consideration.

There is too much here to summarize. Catholic or not, Jewish or not, Third Reich buff or not, you will see things here that will astound you yet are absolutely rock-solid established by the source documentation. Pius supporters worried about some of the evidence of his dealings with the Nazis in previous histories claim that these apparent circumstances lack "context." No longer. I got your context right here.

Minor cavils:

I fear that the personal-journey and self-referential tone of this book will harm its acceptance by historians. It shouldn't; the research is massive and sound. But its topical Q&A-style of proceeding leads to repetition and some confusion ("is this the same article they wrote about a few chapters back?"). Following its somewhat topical, Q&A style of proceeding, there is a lengthy chronological presentation of the evidence. I might have urged them to flip this: present a history of the subject focusing on their new evidence, in which Pacelli's and Copello's actions were placed in this-follows-that context (or, if you will, the Nazis' actions placed in the context of the Church's position on the Jews), followed by a bibliographic essay where the travelogue and interview anecdotes could have been parked.

I would also have liked to see the book structured as evidence in support of a thesis, rather than as a historical whodunit. Indeed, the Galebachs lose interest in the photograph as they go along, and the book somewhat peters out right at the end without explicitly drawing all the threads together. The title asks a question – what is the Galebachs' answer? Perhaps the rather obvious conclusion, my conclusion from the book, anyway – that the Roman Catholic Church was deeply complicit in the rise of state antisemitism around the world in the pre-war years, and Pacelli was smack in the middle of it, rendering him, as Pius, unfit for sainthood – was too stark even for them. They write with great eloquence about holding Church leadership to account, but don't explicitly state to what that account sums. I think this choice bespeaks their admirable modesty -- but their work and perspicacity has earned them the right to speak their minds on what they have found.

These are minor points. It's their book, deeply and personally felt and astonishingly original, shot through with new documents, new actors, and new insights. Five years of their time and resources. I suspect new evidence will begin coming into their hands as historians of the Church and the pre-war years finally take notice, and I would expect some fascinating emendations in the near future.

The book is beautifully written, not strident, not crazy-devout, not flavored with special pleading. It is an important contribution to the understanding of the Holocaust. It deserves a mainstream publisher or university press – and a wide readership.

No comments:

Post a Comment