Why did God allow Adolph Hitler to live? I don’t mean by this question to ask why He created such a man. Most of us at some point (maybe even several) in our lives feel that we have made a horrible hash of God’s gift of existence. And thus understand that if God was not going to create sinners, He probably would not have created human beings at all. No. I think we want to ask ourselves something that used to exercise the old Christian philosophers and theologians. Granted the evil He knew Hitler would do, what good did God expect would come from it?
At cynical moments, I am tempted to say that God gave us Hitler so that the notion of good and evil would not perish utterly in our time. It’s a sad commentary on our postmodern condition, but if you can portray something as Hitler-like—what we might call a reductio ad Hitlerum—you are actually permitted to make a moral judgment. For all our relativism, we still allow ourselves moral condemnations if something resembles the evils of Hitler or Nazism.
But can we recognize good? In addition to the heroism and clarity of millions who fought, and often enough died, to stop the Nazi juggernaut, there were tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who practiced active resistance to its most flagrant evils, such as the attempted genocide of Jews in Europe, even when that quiet decency might lead to their own executions. Sir Martin Gilbert, the great British historian of World War II and biographer of Winston Churchill, has just published a much-needed corrective: The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (Henry Holt). Gilbert reminds us at the outset that despite numerous Nazi collaborators there were many people in dozens of countries who also collaborated with one another to prevent evils. Saving Jews sometimes involved long chains of protectors; in one instance, Gilbert traces more than 50 people across national borders involved in hiding and protecting just one Jewish person. And this is all the more remarkable because a single betrayer could provoke deadly reprisals against Jews and Christians alike.
In recent years, owing to sweeping and imprecise charges against Pius XII and Christianity as a whole, some have reacted by making equally sweeping and imprecise claims in the opposite direction. But there is no need to overstate the case or the numbers of the Righteous. Mere truth-telling is enough. Gilbert points out that by the beginning of 2002, 19,000 had been identified and 800 more are discovered every year. If he wrote just one page on each of them, he says, it would take “fifty books the size of this one” (i.e., about 500 pages each). These “Righteous gentiles” have been duly honored at Yad Vashem, the museum, archive, and study center on the Holocaust in Israel. Sadly, except for an occasional popular phenomenon such as Schindler’s List, they are all but invisible in the usual accounts of World War II and the Holocaust.
You get the impression reading these pages that Martin Gilbert, the great and fair historian that he is, wants to make up for some glaring injustices by devoting his attention late in his life to pointing out amid much evil the presence of much good. He conducts an impressive survey of what occurred from the border of the Soviet Union through East and Central Europe, around the Scandinavian countries, and down through Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Vatican. Though there were purely secular rescuers, it is remarkable how many of the stories Gilbert recounts involved religious figures. For instance, he says of one case when children were protected and survived: “Those who had hidden Jewish children, saving them from deportation and death, included Roman Catholics—among them Franciscans, Benedictines, and Jesuits—Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Baptists, and Lutherans, as well as Muslims in Bosnia and Albania. They were priests and nuns, nurses and nannies, teachers and fellow pupils, neighbors and friends, as well as employees and colleagues of their parents.”
Reactions varied from country to country. Poland has the largest number of Righteous of all the European countries, followed by Holland, France, Ukraine, Hungary, Italy, and Germany itself. Few people know that the rector of Berlin’s St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, Rev. Bernhard Lichtenberg, was arrested and died on the way to Dachau merely for praying for Jews and others in concentration camps. Others took more active measures; 2,000 of Berlin’s Jews survived because tens of thousands of people, sometimes as many as 20 households in rotation per person, collaborated in hiding them. Still a minority in Germany to be sure, but one to be remembered and celebrated.
National cultures played a large role in such efforts. For example, Gilbert makes a point of emphasizing that Italians were notably wanting in anti-Semitism: Even the Fascists went out of their way, for the most part, to prevent German mistreatment of Jews in Italy and even in other countries such as France, Croatia, and Greece. And the Vatican was quintessentially Italian in this respect. This is not the place to go into the large question of Pius XII’s activities during the war. But Gilbert quotes in passing from the German reaction to the pope’s famous Christmas message in 1942. The Reich Security Main Office, which handled deportations of Jews, responded: “In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist [i.e., Nazi] New European Order…. Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice towards the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”
Today, anti-Pius scholars may have difficulty finding evidence that he spoke out, but at the time the Nazis themselves did not. And Catholic clergy in Rome “acted with alacrity,” Gilbert says, to hide and forge papers for Jews when the Germans invaded following Mussolini’s demise. Of Rome’s 5,730 Jews, 4,238 were hidden in religious institutions of various kinds and 477 in the Vatican itself. This meant that the Germans were able to capture less than a fifth of Roman Jews. Inside the religious institutions, people shared rations, gave up beds, and exposed themselves to the same dangers as hidden Jews. These activities were replicated by numbers of clergy and laypeople all around the country. Or as the Gestapo chief put it, “The behaviour of the Italian people was outright passive resistance which in many individual cases amounted to active resistance.”
Almost everything associated with the Holocaust is controverted, often enough even within Jewish circles divided into different factions. It is no surprise then that Gilbert found not only people deeply grateful to their rescuers and quite willing to talk about them but also others who refused to answer his queries, saying that the good were too few and that focusing on them would distract from the greater evil. Such balance sheets may ultimately have to be left to another world. But there is no question that Martin Gilbert has put us all in his debt by giving us about as just a picture of the relative proportions of good and evil during the Holocaust that we are likely to get in this world.