Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quite Ignorant: or, Don't Forget Everything You Think You Know Just Yet

For my birthday a few months ago, my brother bought me The Book of General Ignorance. This is a spin-off from the QI (Quite Interesting) TV show, hosted by Stephen Fry, with help from Alan Davies. (I've only seen snatches of the show here and there; it's a comedy panel quiz, which purports to explode popular myths.) Both of those gentlemen being fully-paid up members of the British Atheist Comedians' Front, I anticipated there would be some swipes at religion between the book's covers. (Of course, they didn't write it, but no doubt the actual writers share their ideological colouring.) I've only got round to glancing at the book today, but my suspicions turned out to be well-founded.

Under the heading Was Hitler a Vegetarian? (it claims he wasn't; but as you'll see, I'm rather wary of accepting anything this book claims), we are treated to this obiter dictum:

Nor was he an atheist. Here he is in full, unambiguous flow in Mein Kampf(1925): "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." He was to use the same form of words in a Reichstag speech in 1938.

Three years later, he told General Gerhard Engel: "I am now, as before, a Catholic, and will always remain so."

Far from being a "godless" state, Nazi Germany enthusiastically worked with the Catholic Church. Infantry soldiers each wore a belt with "Gott mitt uns" (God is with us) inscribed on the buckle, and blessings of troops and equipment were regular and widespread.

First of all, there is the laughable naivety-- in a book dedicated to debunking myths, no less!-- of taking Hitler at his word. I seem to remember a few statesmen ended up rather red-faced for doing just that. Hitler said whatever it took to attain his ambitions, and he poured scorn on old-fashioned notions of honour; for instance, when he betrayed the Soviet-Nazi pact with his sudden, undeclared war on the USSR.

Then there is the scandalously bald assertion that "Nazi Germany enthusiastically worked with the Catholic Church". Presumably this refers to the Concordat Hitler signed with the Vatican in 1933. Of course, signing a Concordat with the Vatican cannot be defined as "working with" the Church, since a Vatican Concordat showed the Church had a problematic relationship
with the State in question.

Last year, getting tired of the frequent swipes about Catholic complicity with the Nazis, I invested in a book called Hitler, the War and the Pope by Ronald J. Rychlak. It is a thorough and painstaking response to books like John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, whose title speaks for itself. (Even the cover photograph of Cornwell's book, it reveals, is manipulated, to make it look as though Pope Pius XII is being saluted by Nazis; they are, in fact, Weimar soldiers, and the picture was taken when Pope Pius XII was not Pope, but the Papal nuncio to Germany.)

Amongst other things, the Rychlak book thoroughly demolishes the myth of a Catholic Hitler (also invoked by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion). Many passages could be quoted, but this one puts it quite succinctly:

Hitler did not receive Communion as an adult and had essentially excommunicated himself. The events surrounding Hitler's suicide make it clear that the Catholic religion had no influence over him, even at the time of his death. His wedding ceremony was carried out by a justic of the peace, not a priest. In addition, suicide has always been in violation of Catholic doctrine, and would have meant almost certain damnation to a devout Catholic. In 1945, cremation was also in clear violation of the Church's teaching. Moreover, despite his planning and the numerous directions that were left for others to carry out, Hitler made no arrangements for the last rites or any type of Christian burial. If the Catholic faith had meant anything to him, he certainly would have made some type of arrangement along these lines.

(Although, considering how little attention many professing Catholics pay to the requirements of their faith, one wonders if even this can be as definitive as we would wish it to be.)

Aside from the ridiculous claim that Hitler was any sort of Catholic, it is a cheap slur to assert that Nazi Germany "worked with the Catholic Church". Here is a sample of this close working relationship, according to Rychlak:

By 1935, Church leaders in Germany were regularly subjected to physical violence; hundreds of priests and other Church officials were arrested, driven into exile, accused of immorality, or charged with violating currency regulations. The trials, which ran for years, were designed to destroy the reputations of monks and nuns by showing their "perverted and immoral" lifestyles. Many of the trials were designed and publicized as a propaganda campaign to convince Catholic parents not to send their children to Catholic schools...The New York Times reported one incident in May 1936: A priest was summoned to a "sick call" at a hotel room, and when he arrived, photographers were there to film him with a prostitute hired by the Gestapo.

Enthusiastic? I guess so.

This is what Herman Goring had to say about his supposed enthusiastic bedfellows:

Catholic believers carry away but one impression from attendance at divine services and that is that the Catholic Church rejects the institution of the Nationalist State. How could it be otherwise when they are continually engaging in polemics on political questions or events in their sermons...hardly a Sunday passes but that they abuse the religious atmosphere of the divine service in order to read pastoral letters on purely political subjects.

And then, of course, there is the famous encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety) which had to be smuggled into Nazi Germany and was read from pulpits on Palm Sunday, March 12, 1937. (The encyclical caught the Nazis off guard; by the time worshippers were leaving Mass, it was already being confiscated, and even mentioning it was eventually made a crime.)

The encyclical contains such pro-Nazi sentiments as:

Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and raises them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God

Pope Pius XII, "Hitler's Pope", continually condemned racism and anti-semitism from Vatican Radio, gave refuge to thousands of Jews within the shelter of the Vatican and ordered convents and monasteries to do the same, and even met and encouraged the conspirators of the failed "General's plot" dramatized in the recent film Valkyrie. When he died, this is what the Jewish Post of Winnipeg had to say:

It is understandable why the death of Pope Pius XII should have called forth expressions of sincere grief from practically all sections of American Jewry. For there probably was not a single ruler of our generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope.

The Jewish Chronicle of London had this to say:

Adherents of all creeds and parties will recall how Pius XII faced the responsibilites of his exalted office with courage and devotion. Before, during, and after the Second World War, he constantly preached the message of peace. Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion.

Pinchas E. Lapide, the Israeli consult in Italy, said this:

The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together. Its record stands in startling contrast to the achievements of the International Red Cross and the Western Democracies....The Holy See, the nuncios, and the entire Catholic Church, saved some 400, 000 Jews from certain death.

Rychlak's book is packed with similar tributes, statistics, and facts, all of them exhaustively annotated and sourced. The Book of General Ignorance has no bibliography and I can't see citations or sources for any of its (mis)information.

An afterword states: "QI stands for Quite Interesting. We do not claim to be Quite Right."

Rather good thing, that. But then, what's the bloody point of the book (or the show) in the first place?

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