Historical Memory

After 1945, the Catholic Church progressively opened up towards the ‘Third World’. Central figures such as Jules Isaac and Jacques Maritain paved the way for new theological and epistemological understandings of diversity which had long-lasting repercussions throughout the world. Isaac is well-known for his tireless work after the Second World War in the field of Jewish-Christian relations that would culminate in his decisive role for the groundbreaking declaration Nostra Aetate which re-defined the relation of the Church towards Non-Christian religions. In particular, his highly influential work Jésus et Israel established that anti-Jewish theological traditions were fundamentally out of tune with the Gospels themselves.1 Similarly, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain embodied a change of dominant political positions within Catholicism. His influence on human rights discourses can be seen in the United Nations Declaration of 1948 and in a number of national declarations, such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Preamble to the Constitution of the Fourth French Republic (which probably was a reflection of Maritain’s lengthy correspondence with Charles de Gaulle).

Despite these developments, the Church had to face a long-lasting historical legacy that was marked by traditional conservative perspectives and prejudices from which it would prove difficult to detach. Increasingly, the Vatican was forced to confront the policies it had taken towards Judaism during the Shoah. Although Pius XI had condemned Nazi ideology in the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, the Vatican had remained deafeningly silent about the deportation and extermination of Jews during the Second World War.2 Even during the German occupation of Rome, when hundreds of Jews had sought shelter in monasteries and Church institutions, Pius XII had proffered no clear policy in this regard and did not publicly condemn the deportation of the Roman Jews in October 1943.3 This silence gained public attention in the postwar period with the polemical works of André Schwarz-Bart The Last of the Just (1959)  and Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy (1963). In addition, historical research has since then uncovered the activities of Catholic circles around Bishop Alois Hudal, the head of the Austrian-German congregation in Rome, who aided German and Italian war criminals to escape to countries like Spain, Argentina, Syria, and Egypt.4

 Against this background, our project analyzes questions of historical memory and continuities of Eurocentric, apologetical, and right-wing ideas in papal policies after 1945. On the surface, it could be argued that the position of the Church during the war had been the same as in most other conflicts: neutrality, diplomacy, humanitarian action. A major difference, however, had been the Vatican’s close contacts to the fascist state apparatus in Italy, Francoism in Spain, and the Vichy-regime in France. More importantly, the Vatican would seek to maintain the validity of the 1929 Lateran Treaty with fascist Italy and the 1933 Concordat with Germany after the end of the war. Although many of these diplomatic provisions were concerned with religious schooling, ecclesiastical privileges, and Catholic holidays, they should also be seen in the context of powerful conservative networks within the Church.

Our researchers at Hebrew University will offer a new perspective – a Near Eastern entry point – that will complement existing studies on diplomatic and political history.5 Specifically, they will evaluate the Holy See’s reaction to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, which would not be formally recognized by the Vatican until 1993. As the memory of the Holocaust clearly loomed large over Catholic-Jewish relations in the 1950s, our team will engage with questions of continuity and discontinuity in antisemitism and racism in the post-war period, but also analyze their effect on Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the region. Thereby, our historians will retrace Jewish and Arab perspectives that are so often missing in the current historiographical discourse.

Archival research in Israel and Europe can uncover discrepancies between the Vatican’s self-perception as a force of freedom and the way it was understood outside of Italy. For instance, the theological issue of missionary activities towards Judaism continued to impede efforts at reconciliation after 1945. Although Catholic-Jewish relations were marked by a lack of official diplomatic communication, we will nonetheless seek to assess the unofficial contacts that existed between Israel and the Catholic Church in order to understand their implications for the status of the Holy Places, the Arab Christian minority, and interfaith relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians. One important example of such interfaith collaboration, in this context, is Neve Shalom / Wahat as-Salam – a cooperative village for Jews and Arabs founded by Father Bruno Hussar, who was born in Egypt to parents of Jewish descent.6

Our research on Jewish-Christian relations views diplomatic history through the prism of a political-theological discourse on the meaning of Christianity after WWII. Although this discourse was still shaped by conservative patterns, it slowly began to move towards reform and and Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church with Non-Christian religions. In this context, our research team at Hebrew University will not only attempt to uncover new facts and networks, but also pay close attention to public discussions in media and hidden conflicts via diplomatic channels.

Marcel-Jacques Dubois, Vanleer

See also:

Father Marcel-Dubois and Israel in the Post-Holocausts Christian Theology

  1. Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York, 1964). []
  2. David Kertzer, The Pope against the Jews:The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York, 2001);Renato Moro, La Chiesa e lo sterminio degli Ebrei (Bologna, 2002); Hubert Wolf, Papst und Teufel. Die Archive des Vatikan und das Dritte Reich (Munich, 2008);Nina Valbousquet, Rome, Zion, and the Fasces. Italian Catholics and Antisemitism in Europe, 1918-1946 (Oxford, 2020). []
  3. Matteo Napolitano, ‘Pio XII e gli Ebrei di Roma nel 1943’, Nuova Storia Contemporanea, 1 (2013), pp. 59-82. []
  4. Gerald Steinacher, Nazis on the Run – How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (Oxford, 2011). []
  5. Marshall Breger, The Vatican-Israel Accords: Political, Legal, and Theological Contexts (Notre Dame, 2004); Raymond Cohen, ‘Israel and the Holy See Negotiate: A Case Study in Diplomacy across Religions,’ The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 5/3(2010), pp. 213-234; Anthony O’Mahony, ‘The Vatican, Palestinian Christians, Israel, and Jerusalem: Religion, Politics, Diplomacy, and Holy Places, 1945–1950’, Studies in Church History, 36 (2000), pp. 358-372. []
  6. Bruno Hussar, When the Cloud Lifted: Testimony of an Israeli Priest (Dublin, 1989). []
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