Historical narratives in the Middle East have often been the most malleable of things, twisted and adapted to suit political interests. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in his ambitious and sweeping tome, “Jerusalem: The Biography,” during the 1990s, the PLO banned Palestinian historians from admitting that there had been a Jewish Temple built upon the Haram al-Sharif. This instruction came from the top, and at Camp David in 2000 when peace was within pen’s reach, Yasser Arafat is said to have “shocked” American and Israeli negotiators by suggesting that the Temple was in fact located on the Samaritan Mount Gerizim. Any Jewish claim to the Mount or indeed the city itself was therefore a kind of modern fabrication.
The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, too, suffered from the existence of propagandistic and nationalistic historical narratives from which deviation was (and in some cases still is) deemed unacceptable. It was not until the 1980s in Israel that, thanks in part to the rise of the New Historians including Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, the hypothesis that the land’s Arab population in 1948 fled their homes of their own will, or that they were instructed to do so by their leadership, was publicly challenged and discredited. In Palestinian schools, whilst textbooks have had passages which incite violence expunged, the State Department found that they often showed “imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy,” with some failing to depict “the current political reality, showing neither Israel nor the settlements.” It very much remains the case that one man’s atzma’ut is another man’s nakba.
This manipulation of historical truth continues in various forms. As Nir Hasson reports, in Yad Vashem – Israel’s central Holocaust memorial and museum – a wall panel explaining the role, or lack thereof, of the Vatican and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Holocaust has been edited in order to portray Pope Pius XII in a more flattering light. Whilst the previous inscription noted that Pius XII, whose accession occurred in 1939, “shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared” and “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews,” the new panel adds what might be deemed color, adding that some argue his silence “left the initiative to rescue Jews to individual clerics and laymen” who carried out “a considerable number of secret rescue activities.”
It is true, for example, that Pius XII did not sign the Concordat with the Nazi regime, making it the first state to recognize Hitler’s new government even after the bloody Machtergreifung eliminated basic political rights for all citizens, began turning political enemies to dust, initiated a boycott of Jewish businesses, and barred Jews from the professions – that dishonor can be attributed to his predecessor, Pius XI. Knowing this, however, should not and cannot absolve the Vatican from its responsibility, passive or otherwise, since the Reichskonkordat granted an air of diplomatic respectability to a regime that did not deserve it, all for the sake of preserving the privileged status of the Catholic Church in German society, be that its right to “manage and regulate its own affairs independently” compensation from the state, or immunity from distraint.
Alterations to Yad Vashem ought not to absolve Pius XII, either, of his deafening silence during the Shoah. He closed his ears to pleas from the chief rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, to aid the Jews of Lithuania and Spain, and did nothing to halt the massacres occurring across the Ukraine in spite of a clear letter from that nation’s Metropolitan, Andrej Septyckyj, to note but two examples. Atrocities occurred in some of the most Catholic regions of Europe – France, Austria, and Poland; Bavaria, Bohemia and Slovakia – yet it was only in 1944, once the tide of the war has evidently turned, that Pius XII abandoned his silence of neutrality in order to protest against the scale of the undertaking afflicting Hungarian Jewry, another overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
Holocaust study is not a subject immune to schism and debate – see the division which exists between the intentionalists and functionalists over the very origins and nature of the Shoah, as an example. And, it would be awful if historians of the Holocaust, or the curators of Yad Vashem, were not be open to new evidence even if it comes from the mouths of people we do not necessarily wish to hear from. Even David Irving, who stands up and denies that the Holocaust ever happened, “not only has the right to speak,” as Christopher Hitchens once proposed, “but that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection,” since it might at least encourage people to question why they know exactly what they think they already understand. “Every time you silence someone,” he rightly surmised, “you make yourself a prisoner of your own action since you deny yourself the right to hear something.”
But it is certainly the case that historians of the Holocaust – a crime unique in its scale; its cold, industrialized methods; and the wicked, callous, and brutish ideology behind its execution – have an especial obligation to commit themselves to the search for, and the protection of, a truthful historical narrative. That the volumes of research published on the Holocaust have led to the creation of a clear narrative arc, replicable in museums and memorials around the world, is unique and worth saving. Many theaters in our near past, in particular Bosnia-Herzegovina, cannot purport to possess such a narrative, and the country suffers all the more for its absence.
One of the purposes of historical debate and the search for truth is to hold to account those who bore witness to atrocities yet watched with disinterest as millions were guided towards the slaughterhouse. As the Vatican resists calls for transparency, reform, and openness, it would be unfortunate if Yad Vashem and Holocaust museums around the world painted an inaccurate or clouded picture of the Shoah, thus preventing Catholics and non-Catholics alike from gaining a fuller understanding of the Vatican’s role in the twentieth century’s greatest historical crime.