The Pope and totalitarian regimes

Pope Benedict XVI ignores the role of religion in the rise of the 20th century’s totalitarian regime

On the final day of his visit, which was also the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the Pope talked as someone "who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany". Earlier during his visit, in his address at Westminster Abbey, he touched on the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century and argued that what gave rise to them (and to the slave trade) was a "misuse of reason".

There was no mention of the contribution of the Christian Church to the rise of Hitler, or the acceptance by all religions, at least in their sacred texts, of slavery.

If we take Pope Benedict's remarks regarding the Holocaust as an example, there is little doubt that he views it as one of the darkest moments in European history. At the Cologne Synagogue, earlier this year, he said, "I bow my head before all those who experienced this manifestation of the mysterium iniquitatis [mystery of sin]."

Yet, as far as his views on the origins of the Holocaust are concerned, there are serious problems. Benedict XVI presents it as primarily, even exclusively, a neo-pagan phenomenon that had no roots in Christianity but instead constituted a fundamental challenge to all religious belief, including Christianity. Certainly, for Hitler and his Nazi Party, race and not religion was the dominant motive for destroying Jews, but the Holocaust took place in a Christian culture and much of the Nazi anti-Semitic legislation replicated laws against Jews which were created in medieval Christendom.

In other words, if race provided the mythology and motivation for anti-Semitism, secularised religious language provided the justification. In Mein Kampf, Hitler did not hesitate to use overtly Christian language to appeal to a pious audience. Thus he could affirm, "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the word of the Lord."

Many Christians came to agree with him and many more stood by as the Nazis enacted policies that built on the widespread racist and religious attitudes towards Jews in Europe that helped pave the way to Auschwitz.

Christianity provided an indispensable seedbed for the widespread support, or at least acquiescence, on the part of large numbers of baptised Christians during attacks on Jews and other marginalised groups, such as the disabled, the Roma and gay people. Christian anti-Semitism definitely had a major role, and Pope Benedict XVI's remarks can leave the impression, intended or not, that the Holocaust was simply the result of secularising modern forces in Europe at the time of the Nazis. He fails to deal forthrightly with Christian culpability.

Some liberal commentators, such as the American Catholic scholar John Pawlikowski, explain it as a result of the Pope's tendency to regard the Church as primarily an eternal and heavenly reality, basically unaffected by human history. This would explain Benedict's great reluctance to deal directly with the Church as a reality in human history.

The central problem for Pope Benedict resides in his fundamental vision of the Church. His ecclesiological perspective is one that sees the Catholic Church as a totally completed institution, incapable of any major redefinition, and without any need in the end to learn anything new theologically from a dialogue with other Christians, Jews or any other religious group.

This visit has been positive in many respects. Following his meeting with interfaith leaders, I certainly appreciated the pontiff's encouragement of the interfaith dialogue and his invocation of "abundant divine blessings" on all faiths.

His calls for respect and understanding, and his desire to raise religious and moral questions in Britain's diverse society, exceeded expectations. But this refusal to accept the Church's responsibility for this or other examples of mysterium iniquitatis will remain a major obstacle as it seeks to engage in wider society, with its mosaic of all faiths and none.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser