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NS-Vergangenheit The Politics of Holocaust Denial

Denkmal in Erinnerung an deportierte Juden, Große Hamburger Straße in Berlin; Foto: H. Kulick

POPE MOVE IGNITES HOLOCAUST ROW. This was the BBC News headline on 24 January 2009 after the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had rehabilitated four bishops previously excommunicated from the Catholic church. The bishops are members of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), an ultraconservative organisation that upholds tradition and opposes liberalising the church. The SSPX makes no secret of its fundamentalist and radical right-wing views on religion and politics. The Pope argued that he wanted to reintegrate the SSPX in the interests of church unity. But he knew that one of the bishops he welcomed back, Richard Williamson, is a notorious Holocaust denier.

The Pope’s decision to rehabilitate Williamson raised an outcry in many parts of the world. Veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi, quoted in „The Times“, summed it up: „The Pope has made an openly declared and unshakeable anti-Semite a legitimate Bishop.“ Vatican leaders hastily dissociated themselves from Williamson’s views, saying they were purely personal. The Pope reaffirmed his solidarity with the Jews, but refused to condemn the controversial bishop. The row continued. Jewish organisations, Israeli religious leaders, representatives of other religions, politicians, civil rights groups and even some voices from inside the Catholic church have denounced the Pope’s tolerance of Williamson.

Just days before his readmission into the church, Bishop Williamson appeared in an interview on Swedish TV which is now widely available online. He claimed that historical evidence „is hugely against six million [Jews] having been gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler … I believe there were no gas chambers.“ He went on to estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 perished in Nazi concentration camps „but not one of them by gassing“.

Dishonouring the Memory

Bishop Richard Williamson is no ordinary liar. He is deliberately dishonouring the memory of everybody who was murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps — especially those who died in the gas chambers. Actually I try to avoid people who insult me as a Jew, but if I were to meet Richard Williamson I would tell him what it was like for me growing up in the 1950s as a Jewish child surrounded by adults mourning for relatives and friends killed by the Nazis, grieving for everybody who perished in the Holocaust. I would tell him how from an early age, at Jewish gatherings I would try to catch glimpses of guests‘ forearms to see if they had tattooed numbers. I would ask him to imagine what it is like to be a small child lying in bed at night afraid that somebody would come and take me away to make soap from my bones and lampshades from my skin. I would tell him that his denial of the suffering that the Nazis inflicted on the Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, political opponents and countless other victims is terribly painful for the survivors still living today, and hurtful for the descendants of the bereaved and everybody who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust.

But Bishop Williamson knows all this already. He doesn’t need me or anybody else to tell him. He is 68 years old, highly educated and well aware of the huge literature on the Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. He has eyes to see the masses of documentary evidence and archive film footage, and ears to hear the many eyewitness interviews. After that, if he still he has any doubts about the history of the „final solution“ he can view the vast collection of files kept by the Nazi murderers themselves to record every detail of their extermination programme. The massacre that nearly wiped out the Jews of Europe was not the first genocide in history, but it was the first to be planned and executed as an industrial enterprise using modern technology — including Zyklon B in the gas chambers.

Williamson knows exactly what he is saying, and he knows it is a punishable offence to deny the Holocaust in some countries, including Germany. Yet Germany was the setting of his infamous statement about the gas chambers broadcast on Swedish TV. The French daily „Le Monde“ (22 January 2009) published part of an interview with Lars-Göran Svensson, the producer of the TV broadcast. Svensson described it as „sheer coincidence“ that the programme had been broadcast just before Bishop Williamson was rehabilitated. In fact, he explained, it was recorded last November. The TV reporter had travelled to Germany to interview Williamson. According to Svensson, at the end of the interview the bishop got worried. „Watch out,“ he told the reporter, „this is against German law… if people get wind of it they could put me in prison before I left the country. I hope that’s not what you intend.“

It was certainly no coincidence that Williamson chose to do this interview in Germany, once the home of Nazi dictatorship. His denial of the gas chambers is an attack not just on the Jews and other victims, but also against the many Germans of today who are sincerely trying to use the history of the Nazi past to build a different society where fascist dictatorship could never take hold again. His divisive tactics hit both Germans and Jews where they are very vulnerable, and separate them once again into victims and aggressors. Following the outcry over Williamson, prosecutors in Regensburg in Germany — where the Swedish TV with the bishop interview took place — have opened an inquiry. Regensburg, incidentally, is the city where Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, once studied and taught.

Guilty of outrageous Provocation

This is not the first time Williamson has been guilty of outrageous provocation. He has been propagating open racism, anti-Semitism and vitriolic attacks on the Catholic leadership since the 1980s, even before he was illegally consecrated as a bishop by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the renegade right-wing French Catholic cleric who founded the SSPX. According to the London „Times“, Williamson has said publicly that „the Vatican is controlled by Satan and the Jews are bent on world domination.“ His particular blend of political, racist and religious polemic is illustrated by a commentary he wrote on the Gulf War in the SSPX Newsletter of 1 February 1991. Addressing himself to „Dear Friends and Benefactors“, Williamson wrote that until the Jews „re-discover their true Messianic vocation, they may be expected to continue fanatically agitating, in accordance with their false messianic vocation of Jewish world-dominion, to prepare the Anti-Christ’s throne in Jerusalem. So we may fear their continuing to play their major part in the agitation of the East and in the corruption of the West. Here the wise Catholic will remember that, again, the ex-Christian nations have only their own Liberalism to blame for allowing free circulation within Christendom to the enemies of Christ.“

This is hate speech. Aside from its historical echoes of medieval crusades against the infidel and the dark days of the Inquisition, Williamson’s message is very similar to the anti-Semitic ravings of another infamous Holocaust denier, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It has nothing to do with religion or any kind of God. It is politics, a dangerous kind of populist demagogy that distorts truth in the same way as the world’s most evil dictators have always used the big lie to appeal to ordinary people’s fear and anger. The logic of denying the Holocaust or any aspect of it is to deny the enormity of Nazi crimes — particularly against the Jews. It denies the unique and specific suffering that the Nazis inflicted on the Jews, and consequently ignores the historical events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It originates from and leads directly to anti-Semitism. Williamson ends up with the same position as those who want to see Israel wiped off the map and the Jews of the world annihilated.

SSPX: „a font of anti-Semitic propaganda“

The organisation Williamson represents, the SSPX, is more than merely a traditionalist strand within the Catholic Church. It vehemently and actively opposes the Vatican on key fundamental issues. Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, expelled the four SSPX bishops in 1989 because they were a threat to Church unity that could cause a split. Like the Vatican, the SSPX is a political organisation in its own right, with a hierarchical structure, open and secret assets and financial operations and — an essential ingredient nowadays — a big media machine. SSPX’s official website in four languages operates from its base in Menzingen, Switzerland (see http://www.fsspx.org/). Individual branches in other countries run their own websites, e.g. http://www.fsspx.info/news/ (Germany), and http://www.sspx.org/, where the homepage of the SSPX „District of America“ lists the following information for the USA: „67 priests; 7 deacons; 13 brothers; 80 seminarians; 24 sisters; 850 Third Order members; 100 chapels; 18 priories; 3 houses of formation; 4 retreat houses; 25 schools & 1 college; 1 publishing house: Angelus Press.“ The large number of schools is particularly striking. Total SSPX membership in the USA was estimated at around 13,000 in 2006.

However, probably no one outside the Catholic Church would be interested in a bunch of fundamentalists who want to preserve tradition if they weren’t trying to revive some of the worst aspects of Church history as well. The SSPX vehemently opposes the separation of church and state, its leaders have disinterred the old anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews murdered Christ (deicide), and they want to resurrect the old idea of converting the Jews. Some SSPX members have even suggested that Jews should be put in ghettos. In fact, the SSPX stands against the basic freedoms and modern democracy of the 21st century. The society’s mentor, Pope Pius X, was renowned for his radical conservatism. His 1906 encyclical „Vehementer Nos“, condemned the French law of 1905 that separated church and state: „As for the Church, which has God Himself for its author, to exclude her from the active life of the nation, from the laws, the education of the young, the family, is to commit a great and pernicious error.“ In other words, the church has a God-given right to interfere in politics and secular life in general.

It hasn’t escaped the notice of some commentators that the acronym SSPX shares its first two initials with one of the most infamous murder gangs in history: the SS. (Another odd coincidence for Holocaust deniers.) But the SSPX doesn’t stop at the past; it is deeply implicated in present-day racism and anti-Semitism. In 2006 the Southern Law Poverty Center (SLPC), a widely respected civil rights organisation based in Montgomery, Alabama, published an „Intelligence Report“ by Heidi Beirich on the SSPX in the USA. It doesn’t make pleasant reading. The report, titled „Radical Powerhouse“, begins with a clear assertion:

„The Society of St. Pius X, which has chapels and schools across the United States, remains a font of anti-Semitic propaganda.“

The author goes on to explain:

„It is in The Angelus, published monthly by the SSPX press, and on SSPX’s website, that the radical anti-Semitism of the order is most evident today. One example now on the website is a 1997 Angelus article by SSPX priests Michael Crowdy and Kenneth Novak that calls for locking Jews into ghettos because ‚Jews are known to kill Christians.‘ It also blames Jews for the French Revolution, communism and capitalism; suggests a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy has destroyed the Catholic Church; and describes Judaism as ‚inimical to all nations.‘

„Another document reproduced on the SSPX’s current website is a 1959 letter from Lefebvre’s close friend, Bishop Gerald Sigaud, who also rejected the Vatican II reforms. ‚Money, the media, and international politics are for a large part in the hands of Jews,‘ Bishop Sigaud wrote. ‚Those who have revealed the atomic secrets of the USA were … all Jews. The founders of communism were Jews.‘

„The Angelus Press sells anti-Semitic tomes like Hilaire Belloc’s ‚The Jews‘, which blames Jews for Bolshevism and corrupt financial practices, and Monsignor George Dillon’s ‚Freemasonry Unmasked‘, which purports to explain a centuries-old Judeo-Masonic plot to destroy the Catholic Church. More recent SSPX publications include the 2005 pamphlet ‚Time Bombs of the Second Vatican Council‘, by Franz Schmidberger, the former superior general of the SSPX. Schmidberger denounces Third World immigration into Western countries as ‚destroying our national identity and, furthermore, the whole of Christianity,‘ and accuses the Jews of deicide.

„Other extremists published in the pages of The Angelus (…) include the late Father Denis Fahey; John Vennari, head of Catholic Family News and Robert Sungenis, the particularly virulent leader of Catholic Apologetics International.

„Through it all, SSPX denies all allegations of anti-Semitism.

„But even some fellow radical traditionalists have accused SSPX of that and worse. ‚Fidelity‘, a magazine run by [Catholic] hard-liner E. Michael Jones (…) in 1992 charged a principal SSPX leader in Kansas City of Hitler worship and promoting Nazism to his students. Although the man accused by ‚Fidelity‘ hotly denied the charges, the students quoted by Jones stood by their allegations. (…)“ (For the full SPLC report, see http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?sid=397)

Dialogue and Democracy

Public outcry and legal threats are evidently no serious deterrent for Holocaust deniers like Bishop Williamson. On the contrary, they seem to relish the publicity. The Pope has been shamed into hastily reaffirming his friendship and solidarity with the Jewish people, but his words will remain hollow until he revokes Williamson’s rehabilitation and expels him from the Church again. Williamson waited a week while the official SSPX website celebrated the rehabilitation of its four bishops and published long lists of the media coverage they were receiving due to the scandal. Then, on 30 January, came Williamson’s apology in a letter to a high-ranking Vatican official: „Amidst this tremendous media storm stirred up by imprudent remarks of mine on Swedish television,“ he wrote, „I beg of you to accept, only as is properly respectful, my sincere regrets for having caused to yourself and to the Holy Father so much unnecessary distress and problems.“ Note that his apology was directed not to the victims of the Holocaust, but to the Vatican and the Pope.

Attention has since shifted to the Pope’s role in the scandal, with growing demands that he expel Williamson from the Church again. Some Israeli religious bodies have broken off relations with the Catholic Church, as has the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor. Germany has reacted especially strongly: some of the country’s Protestant leaders and some liberal Catholic clerics have joined in the condemnation, and the German mass media have almost unanimously attacked the Pope for tolerating Holocaust denial.

One immediate effect is a big question mark over the Vatican’s motives and commitment to dialogue between different faiths. Among many commentators to raise the issue of inter-religious dialogue was Jonathan Romain, a prominent member of Britain’s liberal Jewish community. Writing in the „Guardian“ (26 January 2009), he said:

„(…) If Williamson can be dismissed as somewhere on the spectrum between mad and bad, then serious questions must be raised about the Vatican’s judgement in rehabilitating him. It does not speak well about its own sense of propriety. It speaks even less well about its sensitivity to Jewish-Catholic relationship, which had flourished after Pope John XXIII initiated Vatican II in 1963 and which had received a boost under the papacy of John Paul II. However, developments since the election of Benedict XVI – such as the re-introduction of a prayer calling for the conversion of the Jews – have made Vatican-watchers wonder whether interfaith dialogue is still a priority. This latest move seems to reinforce the doubts.“

Clearly, the Pope has a problem. He can’t allow members of his Church to propagate open racism and anti-Semitism, and still pretend that the Vatican wants dialogue with Jews and other non-Catholics. A „Times“ article of 26 January 2009 raised doubt about Benedict XVI’s credibility: „The Pope has twice visited synagogues, in the US and his native Germany, and sought to make amends with the Islamic world after a speech at Regensburg two years ago in which he appeared to suggest that Islam was inherently violent and irrational. However, he recently declared that inter-religious dialogue ‚in the strict sense of the word‘ between Christians, Jews and Muslims was ’not possible‘.“

Ideological Frontiers

It’s a good thing that the Pope’s opinion is unlikely to have an impact on all the many people around the world who are seriously trying to encourage dialogue between people of different races, nations, colours and creeds. But this kind of vitally necessary discussion is not the only problem facing the Pope. The Vatican, an extremely powerful worldwide institution, is one of the world’s least democratic and transparent organisations. This, combined with growing support for secularity and personal freedom in many democracies, is part of the reason why the Church is losing members and influence. The real numbers game for the Church today is not about how many victims died in the Holocaust or the gas chambers, but about how to stop the dramatic drift away from organised religion and the resultant loss of the Vatican’s power. An influential report on religious attitudes worldwide, the Pew survey of 2008, recorded growing antagonism towards Christianity in countries like France and Spain, which were formerly bastions of Catholicism. (You can download the Pew Report on religious attitudes at http://www.pewglobal.org)

Caught between the old and the new, the Pope seems on a collision course with his own policies. On one side he is flirting with the ultra-conservative wing of his Church. He followed up the Williamson row by appointing Gerhard Wagner, a radical conservative bishop dubbed the „Harry Potter hater“, as an auxiliary bishop in Linz, Austria. Wagner won notoriety by claiming in a parish newsletter in 2005 that God had sent Hurricane Katrina to punish New Orleans by sweeping away brothels and abortion clinics. Instead of showing compassion for the terrible human disaster, Wagner described New Orleans as „a city of sin“. With Wagner’s promotion hot on the heels of the Williamson affair it looks as if the Pope is testing the frontiers in a possible ideological war between arch-conservatives and liberals that is already threatening to divide his church internally. He started with a Jew-hater (Williamson), and the reaction proved that large sections of world public opinion are not prepared to let the Jews become scapegoats again. Let’s pause here to applaud everybody who has spoken out and condemned Williamson and the Vatican’s tolerance of him. The widespread coverage of this story has revealed some remarkable and comforting solidarity with the Jews. The Vatican has been shamed. Wagner’s appointment means the battleground has shifted to safer terrain for the Catholic church: sexuality, abortion, prostitution, the persistent „sins“ of the modern age.

Like any other organisation seeking power and influence today, the Catholic church has to keep pace with the real world we live in. Pope Benedict has recently been trying to update his image to appeal to the younger generation by launching a Vatican show on You Tube. He has also graciously forgiven John Lennon for claiming the Beatles were more famous than Jesus (rather late: Lennon was assassinated almost 30 years ago). And the Vatican has apologised for persecuting the great Renaissance scientist Galileo (very late: poor tortured Galileo was convicted of heresy 400 years ago!). But in the battle for hearts and minds, a powerful figure has just emerged on the horizon to challenge the Pope in the world popularity stakes. The new US president, Barack Obama, stands for democracy, transparency, grass roots activism, ethnic and sexual equality, and genuine dialogue between leaders and ordinary people. With his emphasis on open government, consultation and cooperation, President Obama seems the antithesis of the authoritarianism of Pope Benedict XVI and the secret councils of the Vatican.

Next Step: The Pope v. Obama

This contrast produced yet another coincidence: on the same day the Pope welcomed back the four SSPX bishops, the Vatican loudly criticised President Obama’s decision to lift the ban on funding abortions for international groups. Spokesmen for the Pope and the Catholic church said they were disappointed that this was one of President Barack Obama’s first acts in office. Speaking to the Italian daily „Corriere della Sera“, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, urged Obama to listen to all voices in America without „the arrogance of those who, being in power, believe they can decide on life and death.“ He might have stopped to consider the arrogance of Bishop Richard Williamson, who seems to have no scruples about deciding how many people did not die in gas chambers.

The Pope v. Obama is one of the ideological stand-offs we are likely to see in the coming months and years of global economic and ecological crisis. Divisions in society are becoming sharper and more intense. Meanwhile, the episode of Bishop Williamson and the Catholic church shows how important it is for people fighting racism and anti-Semitism everywhere to stop any lies about the Holocaust immediately, whether they come from bishops, presidents or anybody else looking for scapegoats. However ridiculous, hurtful and shameless their claims, Holocaust deniers can’t be dismissed. They are deliberately trying to rekindle the flames of hatred that have led though the ages to torture, murder and genocide.

Thanks to Thomas Schliesser for sources, comments and free thinking. More Information.

Karen Margolis

Dieser Beitrag ist ursprünglich auf dem Portal „Mut gegen rechte Gewalt“ erschienen (2002-2022).



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