A German Pope’s dangerous dance with Holocaust deniers

Following the rehabilitation of Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, the Catholic Church under German Pope Benedict XVI must not sanction the deeds and ideology of the Society of St. Pius X, argues the German Jewish Council’s Stephan J. Kramer.

A German Pope's dangerous dance with Holocaust deniers
Photo: DPA

Bishop Richard Williamson and Rev. Floriano Abrahamowicz, members of the controversial Society of St. Pius X, have sparked an inexcusable scandal by denying the mass murder of Jews during the Nazi dictatorship. This is certainly not a simple misunderstanding.

People who fundamentally question this genocide and misrepresent the gas chambers as “an instrument for disinfection” should face criminal prosecution rather than promotion to bishop of the Catholic Church. It comes, however, as no surprise to see such thinking emanating from the Pius brotherhood – they inhabit the same niche within the Catholic Church as the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NPD) does in German society.

The brotherhood has stirred trouble far beyond France’s borders since the 1970s. It includes almost 500 priests, has an estimated 600,000 supporters and is dangerously close to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right-wing extremists. They even celebrate requiems for the functionaries of his far-right party Front National. The Pius brotherhood also constantly makes public provocations with its anti-Semitic and revisionist theories. Many French Catholics, including the late Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz, have struggled tirelessly against these fundamentalists. Such efforts deserve praise.

But now a German Pope has made gestures of reconciliation towards the Pius brotherhood – a surprise for many. This decision has caused much consternation in both France and Germany and the German Bishops’ Conference responded quickly and unambiguously. However the lifting of excommunication is to be understood in theological terms, it must not be considered a rehabilitation of the Pius brotherhood and the Holocaust deniers. There should be no place in the Catholic Church for members of the clergy seeking to play down “Final Solution” or even question that it ever took place.

The Pope himself – if rather belatedly – has assured the Jewish community of his “complete and indisputable solidarity” and of efforts to safeguard “against forgetting or denying the Holocaust.” This is comforting, but does not remove all doubts. The gesture of reconciliation towards the Pius brotherhood was no accident. It is instead one among a number of decisions and statements made by Benedict XVI during his near four-year papacy that have been criticised even by many Catholics as moving backwards on issues – for example, regarding lay movements, abortion, celibacy, the position of women in the Church and ecumenism.

More than anything, the introduction of the Tridentine Mass creates feelings of bitterness since it has a distinctly anti-Semitic side: in an intercession prescribed in the traditional Good Friday ritual, Catholics must now, once again, pray for the conversion of the Jews, who live in “blindness” and “darkness.”

Still, I believe breaking off dialogue between Jews and Catholics in Germany would be unwise. The feelings behind such a step are understandable, however it is not helpful. A new Ice Age would not affect the enemies of the Jews. Quite the opposite: they will rejoice. In contrast, the friends of the Jews within the Catholic Church will be wrongly alienated and marginalised by such a decision.

Stephan J. Kramer is the Secretary General of the German Jewish Council. Translation by The Local.


German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.