Monika Schaefer, a Jasper, Alberta woman, and daughter of post-war German immigrants, is currently in a German prison awaiting trial for Holocaust denial, a criminal offense in that and several other European countries, though not in Canada. The charge was triggered by a seven-minute video entitled “Sorry Mom, I was wrong about the Holocaust.” (I recommend you google it.)

In it Ms. Schaefer recounts that for years she excoriated her mother, and her mother’s entire generation of Germans. “You must have known. Why,” she asked, “didn’t you do something to stop these terrible things from happening?”

Her mother didn’t deny these things happened, but, she insisted, “We didn’t know. We just didn’t know.”

“Well,” says Monika, “now we know why she didn’t know. It’s because these things did not happen.”

I‘m not interested, at least not here, in the historicity of the Holocaust, nor in the dubious advisability of laws against historical revisionism. Here I’m only interested in the mother’s defense, and so the appropriateness of the daughter’s apology.

I’m prepared to concede that the average German citizen was not privy to the drafting of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, but only if Monika will concede that a goodly number of German citizens were delighted with their passage. I’ll concede that delight in the misfortunes of others is not a crime, but only if she’ll concede that authorship of those misfortunes might be. And if she’ll concede that complicity in a crime, if it is a crime, can itself be a crime.

In the absence of these concessions we’re not in a position to talk further. So assuming we can talk, let’s.

Note that I’m not asking her to concede that the Holocaust was not a Zionist myth. That’s not what this is about. I’m only asking her to concede that if the Steven Spielberg version of the events of 1939 to 1945 is more or less accurate, those events would have been a crime. And that if those events were a crime, then complicity with them would have been, perhaps a lesser crime, but a crime nonetheless.

Nor am I asking her to concede that if the Holocaust was a crime, it was the kind of crime to which anything that could count as the rule of law could respond. That is, I’m prepared to concede, if she likes, that the Eichmann trial was a violation of natural justice on every count one could imagine, including 1) the retroactivity of the offense for which Eichmann was tried, 2) the jurisdictional incompetence of the Israeli court that presumed to try him, and 3) the manner in which he was removed from Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial in the first place. None of this is what this is about. I’m only asking Monika to concede that if it was the kind of crime to which something that could count as the rule of law could respond, then complicity with that crime could itself be a crime, even if only a lesser one.

Can we continue to talk?

On the assumption that we can, I’ll concede that the average German citizen did not know that those erstwhile neighbors – those who disappeared from their homes during the night, never to be heard from again – had been shipped in cattle cars to extermination camps and gassed. That would have been a remarkable thing not to have come up at the breakfast table. In exchange I trust that she’ll concede that this never-being-heard-from-again would have been remarkable. So the average German citizen can claim she didn’t know about the exterminations, but she can’t claim she didn’t know about the internment camps. She knew about the internment camps because if she thought her erstwhile neighbors were not in internment camps, then at least a few of them would have made their way back to the neighborhood. Or they would have written. But none did.

Now then, I’ll concede that it would not be remarkable if the next door neighbor were to disappear in the middle of the night and never be heard from again, if he were to disappear for some explicable reason. But only if she’ll concede that it would be remarkable if his wife and children were to disappear along with him. So the average German citizen must have thought these women and children were being consigned to internment camps for no reason other than their race. In fact the race-only justification for that internment should have been clear from the Nuremberg Laws, which, by all accounts, were painstakingly promulgated.

So the only concession I need now is that the internment of women and children for no reason other than their race would have been regarded by the average German citizen in 1939 as a crime, as much as the average German citizen today would regard the internment of women and children for no reason other than their race a crime. To suppose they would not – to allow they’d have considered these internments perfectly reasonable – is to think what those who liberated the camps did think, namely that those who authored or sanctioned these internments could only have been moral monsters!

To repeat: it wasn’t the gas chambers, because maybe there weren’t any. It wasn’t the emaciated condition of the survivors. That could have been photo-shopped. It was the very being of these people in those camps in the first place. That couldn’t be a Zionist invention, because given that they were no longer next door, where else could they have been? So the average German citizen, including Ms. Schaefer’s mother, knew about it, and she knew it was a crime.

What remains to be determined is whether that knowledge, and the silence that accompanied it, does or does not constitute the lesser crime of complicity.

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of complicity ever since I spent my sabbatical in 2006 at the Gregorian Institute in Rome studying the proceedings of the Cause for Beatification of Pius XII. (The Cause failed, by the way.) I will not report on any of my conclusions here, except to make the following two concessions:

First, it’s widely accepted – and I accept it too – that if the alternative to complicity is serious self-endangerment, then it’s not complicity. So the question becomes, at what point, and with respect to what, did the average German citizen fear for her own safety?

Were she a Catholic, the time to speak out would have been prior to the signing of the Concordat of 1933, but only if she could have reasonably anticipated that its terms would have prevented her speaking out against the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. (The Concordat was, in essence, a rendering unto Caesar.) But with respect to non-Catholics, we’re left with a purely empirical question. Between their ascension to power in 1933 (or perhaps even earlier) and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, had the National Socialists already instilled sufficient fear to exculpate silence? I’m in no position to answer that question, but presumably some historian is.

The second concession is that any speaking out that one can reasonably anticipate will be to no avail cannot be morally mandatory. In fact in some cases it’s morally counter-indicated. So we face not an empirical question but a counterfactual one. Had she spoken out, and had a critical mass of others done likewise, would that have put the brakes on the Nazi program? I’m in no position to try to answer that question either, but maybe some braver soul will.

So though we can’t conclude that the average German citizen was complicit in the minimum crime for which the German state is culpable, namely the internment of people for no reason other than their race, we can conclude that Monika’s mother can’t say she didn’t know. Thus at the very least she’s guilty of perjury. A lesser crime perhaps. but a crime nonetheless.

The case of Pius is very different. From what I read, it was hard for the Examiners to deny Pius knew what was happening. In fact the Devil’s Advocate went so far as to suggest he might have been secretly pleased by it. But, it was argued, he can be exculpated for his silence on either or both of the grounds cited above. Put aside that he would have violated the Concordat which, as the then-Secretary of State for the Holy See he had himself negotiated with the German state in 1933. Had he spoken out he would have imperiled the Church over which he had the cura, and he would have done so to no avail.

Once again we have an empirical question followed by a counterfactual one. But in this case, and on both questions, I am prepared to pronounce. As to the first, the Church is not its buildings, nor its clergy, nor even its community of believers. It’s what those believers believe. And if anything has imperiled those beliefs it was the Church’s silence.

And as to the second, had Pius threatened to excommunicate any and all persons giving succor of any sort to what was going on, the Reich would have been torn internally asunder. The German people, and their collaborators in those territories under occupation, would have had to make a choice between their Fuhrer and their God. If Pius believed, whether rightly or wrongly, they would have chosen the former over the latter, then I’m at a loss as to over what he thought he still had the cura.

Some analysts argue that if Pius is ever canonized it will put Christian-Jewish relations back centuries. But if I were a Catholic, that would be the least of my worries. The Concordat that then-Cardinal Pacelli signed in 1933 was signed by a man. But according to Catholic doctrine, his elevation to pope in 1939 was the work of the Holy Spirit. Since God could hardly have overlooked Pacelli’s signing of the Concordat, his elevation amounted to God ratifying the Concordat. But if God thought it appropriate to render unto Hitler then, what must He think of liberation theology today?

Actions have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are theological. Theology has consequences. Try denying that to women seeking reproductive autonomy in this–is-a-Christian-country-dammit! America.

By contrast, I’m not sure what harm’s being done by Monika’s unwarranted apology to her mother. My advice has always been, if someone’s offended, apologize even if you’re not in the wrong, because an apology costs you nothing. But apparently that’s not always the case. Monika’s apology has cost her considerably.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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