History Versus Hagiography

Robert Ventresca

History Versus Hagiography
Italian Police Commissioner Giovanni De Gennaro (R) receives a certificate of honor and a medal from Yad Yashem Chairman Shevach Weiss, at a ceremony to honor late Italian police chief Giovanni Palatucci, 10 February 2005. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the many dilemmas a professional historian will face in the course of his or her work, few are as vexing as the question of how, or even if, moral judgement fits with historical interpretation. This is especially true of inescapably controversial figures or episodes in the past that seem to demand of the historian some moral and ethical insight or conclusion, especially if the past is still alive in contemporary memory. That is, they demand some lesson about the deeper or ultimate meaning of the historical question under study beyond a mere empirical narration of facts or the logical explanation of cause and effect.

I will talk about a case — the Vatican’s role during the Holocaust — to make some broader points about moral judgement. I do not believe historians ought to avoid it per se, as if historical interpretation were somehow amoral. But we need to understand why it is so important to differentiate the stages of scholarly inquiry, and especially how a full and proper historical interpretation can inform moral judgement about past events and their meanings. We must let history do its essential task of showing what happened and why, so that we can then conduct a reasonable, informed analysis about what might have been, and what ought to be.

Few questions are thornier than the issue of papal intervention, or lack thereof, on behalf of persecuted Jews during the Holocaust. Arguably the most contentious claims reflect competing narratives about the presumed role of the pope and the Vatican in rescue and relief initiatives on behalf of Jews, especially in Italy, and Rome in particular. Narratives of papal rescue and relief often blur the lines between wartime experiences and their framing in postwar memory. Nowhere is this more evident than in the self-congratulatory narrative attributing to Pius XII a decisive role as “rescuer” – a narrative that the Vatican itself crafted before the war had even ended.

Sensitive to charges of papal inaction on behalf of persecuted Jews, senior papal diplomats offered specific examples of the thousands of Jews in Rome — up to 6,000 — who had been given “refuge and succor” by the Vatican during German occupation of the city, primarily in the form of material aid, asylum, and safe passage. This narrative also came from Pius XII himself, who utilized self-ascribed claims of rescue and relief to justify his policy of impartiality and cautious public diplomacy. It was also useful in deflecting the constant entreaties reaching the pope during the war, very often from other ecclesiastical authorities, for the Vatican to do more for persecuted European Jews.

Immediately after the war, the pope and senior advisors saw diplomatic advantage in publicizing the many public expressions of Jewish gratitude. This, in turn, set the stage for a similar response in the 1960s to Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, a drama about the pope’s role during the Holocaust, first performed in Berlin in February 1963, five years after Pius’ death. Although it was a fictionalized historical account, Hochhuth’s play sparked a dramatic rethinking of Pius XII’s wartime role. More than any single work of sound historical interpretation, Hochhuth’s work cast the indelible image of the wartime pope as a moral coward and political failure whose cautious diplomatic approach played into Hitler’s murderous hands.

To this day, Pius apologists are still wrestling with the ghosts stirred by Hochhuth’s Deputy. Typically, they point to the many Jews after the war who expressed gratitude for papal rescue and relief during the Holocaust. What these apologists present us with is a selective arrangement of historical fragments, which they construe as persuasive vindication of the wartime pontiff’s decision-making. In this respect, the apologists’ account represents mythology and hagiography than critical history.

The problem permeates scholarship in the field. Indeed, one is struck by how often in the literature on Pius XII we find a juxtaposition of “supporters” and “defenders” pitted against “critics” and “skeptics.” The former make untenable claims that the pope and the Vatican played a decisive role in saving several hundred thousand Jews during the Holocaust. The most exaggerated of these – which even some respectable scholars and the Vatican repeat – have achieved the status of established fact in apologetic circles, all the more because they come from Jewish sources. This camp would have it that upwards of 800,000 Jews were saved during the Holocaust by means of direct or indirect papal intervention.

That said, few scholars lend serious credence to this claim, given the specious method by which it was derived, not to mention the apologetic-polemical end to which that inflated figure has been used. However, other longstanding claims of papal assistance are more credible and warrant sustained, critical scholarly attention, if only to place them in a proper context. As I argue in my book, Soldier of Christ, there is ample evidence to show that the pope and his advisors did authorize or tacitly allow papal representatives and ecclesiastical entities around the world to mobilize their resources to help those facing persecution. This was hardly tantamount to a policy or a directive of Jewish rescue and relief, and it certainly does not stand as evidence of an intentional scheme to furtively mobilize church resources on a massive scale to help persecuted Jews. Still, it was a measure of decisive assistance just the same. The challenge is finding a framework for calibrating that assistance in quantitative and qualitative ways.

As an example of just how complex this question is, we can look to the controversy this past summer over the wartime record of Giovanni Palatucci, an Italian police official long regarded as a righteous rescuer but now implicated by new research as a possible collaborator in the Holocaust. In the span of a few short months, an established version of history was called into question as mythology. On one side we have the established public memory of Palatucci – an ordinary Catholic rescuer who did extraordinary things to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust in the town of Fiume, now Rijeka, Croatia. On the other, we have the counter-memory of an unassuming functionary who dutifully carried out his administrative tasks on behalf of murderous fascist regimes, to deadly ends.

The Palatucci case illustrates just how the intertwining threads of “the true, the false, and the fictional” to borrow from the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, are brought together to form diverse, even competing, iconographies that selectively represent an otherwise complex historical picture. Consider how the story of how Palatucci first came to be recognized formally by Yad Vashem and other authoritative bodies as a “Righteous Among the Nations” for his role in helping Jews in Fiume survive, reportedly through such activities as issuing forged residence and transit documents. It is said that he even hid one couple in his office attic. Palatucci was eventually arrested and tortured by the Gestapo and then imprisoned in Dachau for treason. He died there in February 1945, at the age of 35. It is unclear whether he was executed or died from malnutrition or related illnesses.

Public praise for Palatucci’s role quickly surfaced immediately following the war. Formal ways of memorializing his efforts followed suit. Some Jewish refugees who fled Europe to Palestine in 1939 via Fiume credited Palatucci for their survival. In 1953, they named a street and a park in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan in his honor. In 1955, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities, a national umbrella organization of Jewish groups in Italy, posthumously awarded Palatucci with its gold medal for his efforts. By 1990, the testimonial from at least one survivor, together with other evidence that “hundreds” of Jews were helped directly or indirectly by Palatucci, was enough for Yad Vashem to declare him a Righteous Among the Nations. This title is dedicated to those “non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

Beyond the Jewish community, both secular and ecclesiastical authorities in Italy have offered authoritative endorsements of Palatucci’s wartime role as rescuer. In 1995, the Italian government posthumously awarded Palatucci its “Gold Merit” of civil merit. And, in 2000, Pope John Paul II honored Palatucci as one of the “martyrs” of the twentieth century for his reputed role in Jewish rescue, and for having died a prisoner of the Nazis while holding fast to the virtues of his Christian faith. In 2004, his cause passed the initial diocesan stage of canonization, which means that Palatucci also now bears the solemn honor of “Servant of God” and is a candidate for sainthood.

Despite these honors, doubts about Palatucci’s status as righteous rescuer had been circulating for several years. But the debate took a serious shift earlier this year when researchers affiliated with various reputable institutes claimed that an investigation of the relevant documentation painted a very different picture of Palatucci: Far from blocking the implementation of Italian racial laws in defence of Jews, Palatucci was notoriously diligent in tracking Jewish residents and refugees in and around Fiume, and in enforcing existing racial laws. To substantiate the claim, several scholars point to, among other things, the fact that an estimated 80 percent of Fiume’s 500 Jews in 1943 were deported to Auschwitz, a higher percentage than any other Italian city. (For more, read Alessandra Farkas, “Shadows cast on the heroism of Italian Schindler,” originally in Corriere della Sera but reproduced in English in The Times of Israel, June 14, 2013.)

Amid rising doubt, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities has asked the Center for Jewish Contemporary Documentation in Milan to set up a research commission to work with established institutions and researchers to sift through a wide range of evidence from various sources to reach some definitive conclusions on the Palatucci case. As historian Michele Sarfatti of the Center for Jewish Contemporary Documentation in Milan observed recently, the problem here is that the public praise, honors, and “memorials” have by and large “preceded historical research.” Accordingly, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and even the Vatican have pledged to review the “new documentation” to set the record straight, to the extent this is even possible.

Given the inherent complexity involved in any story of rescue during the Holocaust, and the sensitivities at hand when the narrative under scrutiny involves a candidate for sainthood, it is little wonder that the controversy over Palatucci’s place in history and memory, like that of Pope Pius XII, is polarizing. It is telling how the legitimate historical investigations into Palatucci’s role during the Holocaust have quickly turned into a predictably polemical debate involving Pius XII. A case in point is a recent piece in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano by the Italian historian Anna Foa. She wrote that it is understandable in the course of historical study to continue subjecting what she calls “hagiographic interpretations” of Palatucci’s case to heretofore “scarce” historical research. Yet she maintained that this case is really being revisited to “mar” the Church of Pius XII: “[I]n targeting Palatucci, the intention was essentially to hit a Catholic involved in rescuing Jews, a champion of the idea that the Church spared no effort to help Jews.” This, Foa concludes, “is ideology, not history.”

Sadly, as Foa’s comments illustrate, historical study of Palatucci’s role during the Holocaust, like the study of the role of Pius XII and the Catholic Church writ large, will continue to get caught up in the polemical vortex of the so-called “Pius war.” Consequently, serious students of the subject find themselves working within — and sometimes perpetuating — an adversarial-polemical mode of discourse and analysis. Even worse, despite their best intentions, professional historians are susceptible to proffering ideology or a form of advocacy as opposed to historical interpretation. This is a blurring of the lines between moral judgement and historical evaluation, engaging in speculative, counter-factual discussions of what might have been or what ought to have been instead of what was, and why.


This debate goes to the heart of the question of why we need history. The historian Eric Hobsbawm put it well when he wrote in On History, “We swim in the past as fish do in water, and cannot escape from it.” As he saw it, we need history so that we can gain an appreciable “sense of the past” as we make our way in contemporary society. As part of that, understanding change over time frequently demands that we “dismantle” the various historical mythologies, or “mythic history,” that define collective memory of the past.

I am borrowing the term “mythic history” from the historian Philip Jenkins, who argued in The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice that much contemporary criticism of Catholicism – what he termed “attacks” – draws upon history and forms of “mythic history” that frame popular understanding of the Catholic Church’s place in major historical events and processes. The claim warrants serious, critical examination, but before doing so, some definition is in order. Most dictionaries define “myth” as a “figment,” as a belief that may be widely-held yet is essentially “untrue.” The adjective “mythic” can be used to describe something that is “fictitious, untrue.” We might also consider the term in the classical sense of mythos: narratives, stories, and legends that are grounded in concrete historical realities but include elements that are partly untrue or unknowable, or exaggerated and intentionally selective so as to impart some deeper lesson. Taken this way, we can conceive of mythic history as a version of the past that is partly or largely untrue and yet also widely-held and deeply engrained in popular understanding. As Jenkins noted, “there are some historical facts that everyone knows, that are simply too obvious to need explanation.”

What Jenkins means to say is that people think they know the facts; they think that their assumptions about even immensely complex historical realities are complete and accurate no matter how superficial, selective, or even mistaken those assumptions may be. So by virtue of their widespread currency, versions of mythic history have unmistakable influence. This is all the more so when mythic history is produced, transmitted, and sanctioned by established purveyors of cultural authority, be they in government, academe, or so-called media of record. Mythic history finds its most widespread and influential expression in keywords and phrases. Richard Slotkin has described these in his book Gunfighter Nation as “mythic icons” — a single word or phrase that evokes what in reality is “a complex system of historical associations.”

These icons assume a practical function as rhetorical devices in written or verbal discourse. They come in the form of a single word, short phrase, or simplified interpretation whose primary function is not to explain the past as it essentially was, but to offer a generalized and selective picture of the past to impart some lesson of how things got to be the way they are. This has the effect, obviously, of reducing complex historical realities to simplistic motifs, which then can be used to practical effect in informing and shaping socio-cultural values and discourse.

It might be tempting for professional historians to avoid trading in mythic history and to dismiss these versions as “popular,” as opposed to “academic” versions of the past, and therefore irrelevant to the academy. But such an attitude reflects a kind of tacit (or indeed avowed) elitism that reinforces the cult of specialization that has made much academic history so inaccessible to the broader public. The historian Wilfred McClay was on to something when he said that much academic history written today exhibits a misplaced privileging of “tedious professional jargon” as the measure of credibility and sophistication.

This tendency, together with excessive specialization, has emptied much of our work of what McClay describes as “an appreciative sense of the past.” In other words, professional historians have given up on the “founding myth” of academic history, the ideal of objectivity, and as a result they can scarcely perceive for themselves an objective, intelligible, meaningful truth about the past, let alone convey such understanding to a popular audience. (I also recommend Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession.)

And yet surely it is one of the most basic tasks of the historian’s craft to offer as accurate a picture of the past as possible. As Carlo Ginzburg observed, history is an exercise that pertains to everyday life, “untangling the strands of the true, the false, and the fictional which are the substance of our being in the world.” Historians need to rediscover the elemental roots of their craft and contribute to contemporary debates by distinguishing fact from fiction; by dealing in what was, why, and to what effect precisely so as to have something meaningful to contribute to moral and ethical debates.

Another task of the historian is to convey an appreciable sense of the complexity of the past. Historians are fond of saying that the essence of our craft, the real thrill of historical study, lays not merely in uncovering “facts” about the past and stringing them together in narrative interpretations, but in thinking critically and flexibly about the complexity of historical experience. We tell our students to “embrace the complexity,” to embrace even the confusion that may result from starkly contradictory historical interpretations. After all, historical reality, like life, can be messy, filled with ambiguities, uncertainties and contradictions. (A useful essay on this is Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” in Perspectives on History, January 2007.)

As the controversies over Pius XII and Giovanni Palatucci show, this is precisely why mythic icons leave out too much, and intentionally so, to be meaningful and properly critical representations of complex historical realities. Clearly, that is not what mythic icons are intended to be. But, then, a kind of caveat emptor for the reading public is in order: beware of mythology or hagiography masking as history.

I was asked once by an interviewer where the truth lay in the starkly contradictory interpretations of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” and “Righteous Gentile.” My answer was that the historical reality, the truth as it were, lay somewhere in between. In retrospect, that answer was sorely imprecise and evasive, perhaps even unintentionally misleading. I now would say simply that such labels — mythic icons — have no real value as historical categories. If anything, they hinder historical judgement and, with it, the possibility for informed reflection on the ethical and moral dimensions of historical understanding.



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About The Author:

Robert A. Ventresca is Professor of History at King’s University College at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. He is the author most recently of Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).