Nazism was less harmful than communism

“When I look at what Pius XII and General Franco did to save Jews, I have a deep sense of disgust when I hear all these accusations of Catholic inaction. It would be good if other communities stood up for the truth in this matter,” says professor Paweł Skibiński, a historian.

TVP WEEKLY: After reading your book “Kościół wobec totalitaryzmów 1917-1989” [The Church and Totalitarianisms 1917-1989], I have the impression that you see the relationship between the Church and totalitarianisms as a clash between good and evil. Is that correct?

First of all, as a researcher, I analyse the material with a certain worldview baggage. I do not hide that I am a believing person, so it is difficult for me to treat the Church as a neutral phenomenon from an ethical point of view. This does not mean that I do not see the mistakes of people in the Church or political ambiguities. However, the essence of the community and institution itself, which I consider fundamentally good, is a different matter. This cannot be proven because it is a matter of worldview attitude, which, of course, does not exempt me from the obligation to verify facts.

The second issue concerns totalitarianisms. In my opinion, they are not normal systems of government where one can look for various nuances and have discussions about them. We are not talking about the type of problem that involves debating the advantages of a republic over a monarchy, or vice versa. We are talking about a historical phenomenon that has consequences to this day, which has left a huge mark on humanity throughout the 20th century, and which carries ethically unacceptable consequences. In this sense, I really don’t see any possibility of ethically evaluating totalitarianisms as a whole other than as evil.

So, was it a clash between good and evil? Not in the sense that on one side there was good and on the other there was evil, but rather that this clash also took place within people, including within people of the Church.

Yes, collaborating with totalitarian regimes - if they were truly totalitarian - was for the person collaborating with them burdened with great risk of irreversible involvement in evil. This follows from the analysis of the nature of these regimes. They deeply violate human nature by denying him the right to elementary freedom and to his own ethical evaluation of reality, enslaving him and tempting him with various apparent pleasures of life: for example, wealth obtained at the expense of others or sexual freedom without any limitations, or obtaining physical security at any cost. I’m not surprised that people collaborated with these systems, but it involved them in compromises that were degrading in the long run.

Why did these two great totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism, focus so much on the Church and religion?

In my opinion, the reason why these two great totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism, focused so much on the Church and religion is because their ambitions were so far-reaching that they primarily saw the possibility of managing the entirety of reality, which cannot be done without also taking control of the space usually reserved for religious reflection. It is impossible to manage the whole person, along with their privacy and intimacy, if the ruler does not attribute supernatural qualities to themselves. These ideologies attributed such qualities to themselves. They promised eternal happiness, a kind of secular salvation.
Paweł Skibiński’s book was published by the Pilecki Institute.
Salvation in earthly life, rather.

I don’t know if it was only limited to earthly life. For example, the “metaphysics” of communism, which is perhaps the most developed in these aspects, was highly abstract. Specifically, it showed who the enemy was and what to do with the enemy, but the promised reward was very vaguely outlined. I can’t say whether it was limited only to earthly life. We know that this ideology was based on some vision of metaphysics, which was officially denied.

For me, it’s outrageous from a logical point of view, but it best shows that what is inconsistent and brutal cannot be good. After all, totalitarian ideologies, both Nazism and communism, are largely chaotic. They supposedly organise reality, but in reality, they only respond to a series of specific questions that are important in the short term, introducing enormous chaos elsewhere and preventing the recognition of reality. And they do this deliberately in order to manage this chaos. To entangle people so much that the chaos consumes them.

  Therefore, in my opinion, it is appropriate to speak of the clash of totalitarian regimes with Churches, especially the Catholic Church, as a clash essentially religious in nature. A person who truly cares about Christianity cannot be a supporter of a totalitarian regime. Conversely, a person who truly delves into the totalitarian space cannot be a Christian.

Hitler expressed this excellently, as you quoted: “German Christianity is nonsense. Either one is a Christian or a German.”

Paradoxically, this is an approach that we have known since the time of Locke, of course taken ad absurdum. We know it from earlier secularising ideologies than totalitarianism, but the totalitarians really took it to heart and carried it out to the end. Therefore, I perceive moments of cooperation between Catholics and totalitarian systems, for example our concessionary Catholics in the times of the communist Polish People’s Republic or the cooperation of Catholics in the Balkans or in Hungary during the Holocaust, as a degradation of their own faith. I do not see any formulas of cooperation between Catholics and these systems that would promote any deepening of Christian religious reflection. On the contrary, by undertaking this cooperation, one is aligning oneself with a very determined and brutal enemy.

Now let’s talk specifically about these two enemies: first, Nazism, which lasted shorter, but in a sense, you could say it was more intense, if that’s the right word.

It was more efficient in terms of killing, but less harmful in the long run.

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What actually drove people who were Catholics and had a Catholic upbringing to cooperate with Nazism? For example, Andras Kun left the Franciscan order to join the Arrow Cross (a fascist, anti-communist, and anti-Semitic group founded in 1935 in Hungary, and collaborating with the Third Reich during WWII - ed.) and murder Jews in Budapest, but he still received his formation. What made these people be seduced by Nazism in different ways?

I think we need to remember two things here. First of all, we are talking about very complex paths of the human spirit. Some disappointment, some internal frustration with matters of faith would not be anything new and could lead to actions that are difficult to accept. Somewhere in the background, there is usually a person’s spiritual failure. The second aspect, which is more “systemic,” is, of course, the dormant need for power in people. What seduced these people was, of course, the unlimited power they received. Power over life and death.

Of course, it was justified, for example, by the good of one’s own community. Let’s not just look at obvious criminals like Kun, but let’s look at people who got involved, like Father Tiso. The leader of independent Slovakia made good moves, but he still approved the genocide of Jews. At one point, he was able to withdraw from it, but then returned to the crime. It’s clear that he was struggling in a situation with no way out.

Did he have a sense that he was doing good? For his nation, his community?

I think this is a paradox of a politician who believes that certain things need to be done because, all in all, in the balance of good and evil, good will prevail. When you look at it from the outside, it’s hard to believe.

However, among collaborators, we also have to deal with completely depraved people who simply want power and reach for it, and Hitler’s domination over Europe gives them the opportunity to do so. And the brutal but simple ideology based on racism, which says that a certain category of people should be eliminated, gives the possibility to somehow justify it rationally.

But why were people with a Catholic background sensitive to this type of ideology?

Well, that’s the question that even the classics of European philosophy asked themselves in a slightly different sphere: are those who philosophise protected from evil? Of course, they are not. The temptation to be like God, that is, to have real power over the life and death of another human being, is enormous. Especially if it is within reach, and politics becomes primarily a tool for realising one's own ambitions for power.

But we are talking about people of the Church.

We are talking about people who, even if they are clergy, also hold political positions.

Bishop Hudal?

Formally no, but for example, the racist pronouncements of the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal had a philosophical-political character. As a bishop, he did not hesitate to enter the political arena.

When a Catholic enters Yad Vashem, they immediately experience a certain shock, because at the beginning of the exhibition there is a quote from St. Augustine directed against Jews. And in this narrative - I do not want to delve into its causes, because that is a separate problem - the conclusion is drawn about the continuity of Christian anti-Semitism, which culminates in the Holocaust. How do you perceive this?

I perceive such an approach as a lie, not because I believe that Christian anti-Semitism did not exist or that it is a positive factor, but because there is no connection between this form of anti-Semitism and the extermination of Jews. I would rather say that the Holocaust is a condensed evil of secularisation. The rejection of both the Jewish and Christian religions. Secularisation not understood as an individual choice concerning religion, the personal dimension of bickering with God or experiencing problems of faith, but secularisation understood as a systematic separation of man from God. To put it briefly: it’s not about me having a problem with God, it’s about God not existing for me.
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (second from left) during an audience with Pope Pius XII, May 14, 1957. Photo: PAP/DPA
So that “Gott mit uns” on belt buckles, the famous one we have been fed for so long, is not actually God?

Actually, it should say “Wir sind Gott” - we are God. This is a more accurate way to describe this attitude. We are the “collective God,” we decide everything without limitations.

Although historical Christian anti-Semitism, although sometimes brutal, although not accepted by our sensitivity, could of course in individual cases have caused people holding such an attitude to agree to the Holocaust or even participate in it. But this anti-Semitism was not the cause of the Holocaust. There were too many opposite cases - Christian anti-Semites who did not accept the Holocaust, and even actively opposed it.

Let’s look at the famous “Protest” by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. After all, it is a dramatic text written by a woman who holds an anti-Semitic stance. Politically, culturally, and religiously, she disagrees with Jews. And yet, she is deeply convinced that it is her moral duty to save those people, with whom she disagrees, from the threat of the Holocaust. Kossak-Szczucka’s discourse is not the discourse that prevailed in the so-called “religion of the Holocaust.” It is the discourse of a Catholic who faces a serious moral challenge.

In my book, I also tell the stories of other people who, coming from a similar critical or even hostile point of view towards Jews, participated in the rescue of people of Jewish nationality from extermination.

This is the story of Father Godlewski, the parish priest of All Saints Church in Warsaw.

This also applies to many politicians and these are not isolated cases. For example, many activists of the ONR (National Radical Camp) were involved in rescuing people of Jewish origin. This is a very difficult issue to discuss with Jews about where this cultural Christian anti-Semitism came from, but this is a completely separate issue.

However, we cannot agree on one thing: there is no obvious continuity between the Holocaust and the earlier cultural and religious dispute between Christianity and Judaism, between Christian communities and the Jewish community. These are two different things.

To conclude this thread, we cannot avoid the question of Pius XII, called by many the “Pope of Hitler,” and his “silence” towards the Holocaust. The narrative that the Church could have done something but did not, only saved individual human lives.

I would ask those who make such claims what they expect the Church to have done. I believe that the Church could not have done much. This narrative involves a certain intellectual manipulation, in which certain behaviours are demanded but not specified. In classic books of this type (such as “Hitler's Pope” by John Cornwell), written by disillusioned Catholics or people from Jewish or leftist backgrounds, there is no answer to the question of what the Pope should have done.

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To issue a clear declaration that a crime is taking place and Catholics should not participate in it.

But the question arises, what would that actually achieve? A careful observation of this period indicates that we were dealing with such declarations from the Catholic side, which only multiplied the suffering of the innocent.

There is the Dutch case, when an open protest by the Dutch episcopate against the extermination of Jews ended in tragedy for the remaining Dutch Jews, specifically Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin, who were deported to concentration camps and eliminated. Along with them, among others, St. Edith Stein lost her life. The protest cost the lives of several thousand people, and in exchange for this, the Dutch bishops had a clear conscience. Pius XII believed that such a price should not be paid, meaning that pretexts for exacerbating Hitler’s criminal activity should not be given.

Do we know that he held this belief or are we just guessing?

We know about the actions of the Pope. On one hand, he did not publicly protest against the Holocaust, but on the other hand, his actions contradicted the accusation of indifference. At least two specific things should be credited to him. The first is inspiring the Vatican diplomacy to engage in real help to the Jews, in evacuating them from areas affected by the Holocaust, such as Hungary, Greece, and Bulgaria. The second is the Pope’s attitude towards the Jewish population in Italy: it is estimated that more than 50,000 people were saved as a result of Catholic institutions opening their doors to those fleeing from the Holocaust. This also includes Vatican institutions. Several thousand Jews were hiding in Castel Gandolfo alone. For months, it turned into a huge refugee camp for the Jewish population. This was a personal decision of the Pope.

And now, someone who says that Pius XII did nothing about the extermination of the Jews, but at the same time does not mention those who did even less (like Churchill or Roosevelt - leaders of the democratic community or the leaders of the democratic Swiss state, who sent Jews into German hands), I think it is not a fair approach.

Let us also remember that it was not only Pius XII who was inspired by Catholicism in his attitude towards the Holocaust. We have the case of a much less known leader in Poland, namely the leader of Spain - General Francisco Franco, who decided to use the law in force in Spain allowing automatic granting of Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews to bring tens of thousands of people from Balkan countries and send them to Argentina or the United States. This was a matter of state policy implementation. An example is Angel Sanz Briz, an ambassador to Hungary, highly honoured by Jewish communities, called the “Angel of Budapest”.

What is interesting from the point of view of this conversation is that Spain under Franco was a Catholic country.

It was a religious state. Franco got involved because he believed that something was happening that, for moral reasons, could not be accepted.
General Franco (second from left) did not collaborate with Hitler in the extermination of Jews. Photo: Keystone Press/Alamy/Alamy/Forum
So on one hand, Franco sends the Blue Division to the Eastern Front to support Hitler’s offensive against the Soviet Union, but on the other hand, he refuses to cooperate with Hitler in the extermination of Jews.

To the extent that he is able, but he is more effective than all the democratic powers combined. So when I look at what Pius XII and General Franco did to save Jews, I have a deep sense of disgust when I hear all these accusations of Catholic inaction. It would be good if other communities stood up for the truth in this matter.

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Nazism, now it’s time to talk about the other totalitarianism that was probably a longer-term challenge for the Church and Catholics - communism.

The problem is that the legacy of communism is still alive. In civilised countries, parties that appeal to Nazi ideology or even elements of it are rare and have no place. Nazi views are shameful and one must rather explain possible accusations of ideological affinity with Nazism. However, communist parties exist. I have just returned from Spain, where communist parties function quite well, and the communist worldview has been expanded in certain aspects to a significant part of the left. Moreover, cooperation between Catholics and communism is considered a natural element of the political spectrum of Catholicism. Hence, there is, for example, a great understanding for such priests as the Colombian Camilo Torres, a member of the ELN organisation, who engaged in communist-inspired terrorist activities while remaining a clergyman.

On the other hand, such examples are often abused, which are no longer as unambiguous as that of Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was killed during mass and had a certain moment of fascination with socialism as a possible solution to the social problems of his country, but ultimately disavowed it before his death, which the supporters of the radical left do not mention anymore.

So what was at the root of this fascination among Catholics? In your book there is a whole panorama of such attitudes, with liberation theology and South America at the forefront, but not only.

In my opinion, there were two things. Again - a desire for power, dressed up in the costume of modernity. And the second thing was naivety, based on the belief that communism was scientifically proven. Maybe brutal, maybe problematic in certain situations, but scientifically correct. As a result, especially - though not exclusively - among those who were not entirely consistent in their faith, but considered themselves called to political activity, there were Catholics who were eager to engage in communism. I see both the weakness of Catholic communities and the strength of the seductive charm of communist ideology in this, and I do not consider it an element that mitigates, but rather sharpens, our view of these attitudes.

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We are dealing with a situation in which until roughly the time of World War II, popes and leaders of Catholic circles took a very critical stance towards communist ideology and especially towards what was happening in the Soviet Union in relation to religion and the Church. That is, towards the attempt to annihilate or subordinate Churches to their power, as happened with the Orthodox Church after 1941. On the other hand, from the end of the 1940s, which perhaps culminates during the Second Vatican Council, there is an openness to dialogue with communism, with Marxism.

Undoubtedly, the Second Vatican Council is a certain step, but it is certainly not a culmination, which occurs at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s and actually precedes the election of Pope John Paul II. Undoubtedly, certain omissions in the council documents allowed for the intensification of this wave, but it is much earlier and has been evident since World War II.

The war and the admission of Stalin into the group of allies, that is, “the good ones”, in my opinion, was decisive. In France and Italy, a positive sensitivity to communism made itself felt immediately after 1945. Let us remember that a significant part of the Italian Christian Democratic Party, the so-called Christian Democratic Left, opposed the vision of Alcide De Gasperi (a Christian Democratic politician, prime minister - ed.), who saw the clash between political blocs as a struggle for freedom, where Catholics should stand on the side of freedom, that is, on the side of the Americans. The Christian Democratic Left said that it had more in common with Stalin than with Americans.

However, if we are Catholics, people - I will come back to this - of Catholic formation, we know that dialoguing with evil leads to nothing.

But communism was no longer seen as evil! Pius XI before the war defined the Church’s position on communism: it is godless and evil. The change, in my opinion, occurred during World War II. The actual anti-Nazi cooperation of the Communists with the Christian Democrats caused many Catholics no longer to perceive their Communist allies as representatives of objective evil.

Because we won the war together?

There is a certain inconsistency here, because nobody revoked the encyclical from 1937 “On Atheistic Communism,” and moreover, Pius XII emphasised in 1948 that active cooperation with communists leads to excommunication, but at the same time, the ranks of those who engaged in this active cooperation with communists are growing. As if they thought that this was a political decision of the pope that they did not need to obey.

So the pope showed the direction, but they went in a different direction?

In essence, yes. This is obviously a question of the orthodoxy of this attitude, which at some point becomes a majority attitude that the pope does not openly oppose, fearing for the unity of the Church. We see this happening under Paul VI, who himself is much more critical of communism than the average stance of contemporary Catholics in the West. However, he does not sharpen his stance, simply fearing that it will not lead to purification, but to the deepening of chaos. Perhaps he lacked courage, or perhaps he was simply aware that he was not capable of doing so.

On the other hand, John Paul II largely accomplished this through methods that we still do not fully understand.
Year 1979. Pope John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland. The Pope on his way to the Victory Square (now Pilsudski Square) in Warsaw, where he celebrated mass. Photo: PAP/Bogdan Łopieński.
I must say that the title of the chapter in your book about the pontificate of John Paul II, “Exorcism for the world,” fascinated me.

There is something fascinating about how John Paul II behaved towards communism, which had obvious political consequences, but mainly moral-intellectual ones. He largely morally denounced communism without attacking it directly. We don’t have such a document until 1991, in which John Paul II directly condemns communism. Later, the encyclical “Centesimus Annus” calls totalitarian regimes, including communism, evil. Earlier, the pope did not formulate it as plainly, and at the same time, he deconstructed the entire communist reality, both ideological and factual, and systemic. He analysed each of these factors and showed that Christianity cannot agree to these solutions, while at the same time, proposing something else in return. For example, in this spirit, I read “Laborem exercens” from 1981, an encyclical on work. After all, this is the moment when John Paul II takes away the monopoly of representing the world of work from the communists, which they had usurped for decades.

This is the moment when May 1st started to be celebrated with marches on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, at least in Poland.

The experience of our Solidarity showing that the world of work is not linked to communism is very important, but John Paul II’s position goes far beyond a comment on the Polish reality. It is a theological comment with philosophical and socio-moral consequences, which also leads to political consequences. The pope did it consciously, and at the same time, he did not directly enter the political space but said: listen, work has many aspects, including the spiritual aspect, and if we forget about it, the dignity of the working man is in danger.

What did the pope consider the greatest threat to the Church?

It is interesting that he did not consider communism as the greatest threat. He saw communism as a real and significant threat, but one that would eventually end. The greatest threat was the existential degradation of man, partly due to communism but not only. And hence, there is a certain continuity of this pontificate between the early period when communism flourished and the later period when it was seriously weakened, but one cannot say that it disappeared completely.

Can it be said that what is happening around the person of John Paul II currently has some connection to this?

In a certain aspect, it is a revenge. A revenge of communism for the defeat inflicted upon it by the pope. Because John Paul II made a very serious shift in the centre of gravity in the collective consciousness of a generation, and in a way that was difficult to challenge, because it was not aggressive or polemical, but positively showing a Christian alternative.
Main photo: During Pope John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland, a meeting between the Pope and youth took place in front of St. Anne’s Church in Warsaw. Photo: PAP/Bogdan Łopieński
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