The visit: How a German Pope's tour of Auschwitz reopened old wounds

He appeared to do what was necessary. He stood in the drizzle while the wind tugged at his skull-cap. He trudged alone in his long white cassock under that sign that gives a jolly little jump in the middle, the one that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work is Liberty). He went there, he said, as "a son of Germany," and to hammer home the point, he spoke while he was there in German (for most of his Polish trip he spoke either Italian or the Polish he has taken such trouble to master).

He spoke of "this place of horror", where "unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man". Wasn't this enough? No, it was not. On Sunday Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Auschwitz on the last day of his first pastoral journey, and the speech he made there has provoked a storm of indignation, disappointment and bewilderment from Warsaw to Madrid, from Rome to Paris to Jerusalem, that continues to rumble.

He stood in the extermination camp where millions died, but he did not utter the word "anti-Semitism", he did not offer an apology on behalf of Germany or the Church, he said nothing about the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi years, nor did he, the former member of the Hitler Youth, offer any sort of account of his own dawning awareness of the horror created by the people democratically elected to rule his country.

The only victims he mentioned by name were Christians. And in explaining why the Holocaust happened, he offered a metaphysical explanation according to which the true, intended victim of the genocide of the Jews was not actually the Jews but Christianity. For anyone seeking proof that Benedict is a man wedded to the abstruse conceits of theology at the expense of this flesh-and-blood world, his speech at Auschwitz offered confirmation. The occasion was a grand one, but he failed to rise to it.

"I come here," he said inside the camp, "as a son of the German people ..." But not guilty on that account; rather "a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honour, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power."

The German people, in other words - Ratzinger and his family and all the rest - were not to blame for Auschwitz. No wonder no apology was forthcoming: in their own way, they, too, were victims of the Nazis. To any ordinary Germans of his generation, he offered a form of consolation which historians no longer regard as remotely valid.

For the distinguished German philosopher Juergen Habermas, the phrase "ring of criminals" was "a phrase too far". "Maybe Joseph Ratzinger derived this vision of the Nazi period from his family environment, the honest Catholic family of his parents," Habermas told La Repubblica, the Roman daily. "But [the late West German chancellor] Willy Brandt himself on a comparable occasion did not hesitate to kneel down, as a son of the German people. After the war our generation had to ask itself how it was possible for a regime that was criminal from its first days to gain such a large measure of support from the population ... For decades, phrases like this have nourished a mendacious apologetic within the public rhetoric of our country. Being German, Ratzinger knows that. Which is why it is incomprehensible to me that, in a place that does not tolerate any misunderstanding, he did not avoid a phrase that is so susceptible to creating misunderstanding."

Le Monde agreed. "The speech by the Pope has caused unease ... By putting the extermination project on the sole count of a 'ring of criminal' Nazis, the Pope has given the sentiment of exonerating the German people from all responsibility, which no historian could accept," the Parisisan paper commented.

While listing the many nationalities who died in the camp, the Pope did not seek to minimise the fact that, in the case of the Jews, the Nazis sought their extermination. But he adduced a curious reason for it. "The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Deep down," he theorised, "those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.

"If this people," he went on, "by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone - to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith."

The Holocaust, then, according to Benedict, was only incidentally the extermination of the Jews. The true goal was the extermination of God and Christianity. So the German people were the Nazis' victims, used and abused by them, and Christians and Christianity even more so. In Ratzinger's Christo-centric vision, the Jews find themselves bit players - bystanders at their own extermination. The true victim was a metaphysical one.

"The visit was extraneous, annoying and infuriating," declared Sever Plocker, an Israeli commentator on YNetnews.com, the site of Yedhiot Ahronot, the mass circulation Israeli daily. "The German pope failed to do the most basic thing he should have done at Auschwitz: he failed to kneel next to the ovens ... and ask forgiveness for the murder of six million Jews, in the name of Germany or the German Catholic Church. Benedict XVI may have said repeatedly that he "couldn't have stayed away from Auschwitz" but why exactly? Was it to tell us Jews, and the Poles as well, that the good German people were really held hostage by the Nazi gang? This message is historically incorrect and ethically invalid. Even the Pope's remarks about Jews contained deeply disturbing messages. Did Hitler really want to destroy the Jews in order to completely do away with the roots of Christianity, as the Pope said? It is doubtful that this can be proven."

The Pope echoed the cry of Elie Wiesel and many other Jews when he said at Auschwitz: "Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate this?" But in the context of his attempt to exculpate the German people - his people - this satisfied few. "He ignored the truly important question," said Sever Plocker. "Where were the people? How could the German nation have allowed themselves to develop such an intense hatred for the Jewish people and for other nations? God may have remained silent, but the Gemans were the ones who murdered all those people."

For Gian Enrico Rusconi, writing in La Stampa, the Turin daily, it was the absence of the Church that was more remarkable than the absence of God. "Where was the Church in Auschwitz? Why the silence of Pope Pius XII? These are the decisive questions for us today. Let us think what a liberating and illuminating effect such a question would have had for everybody if it had been publicly expressed by Benedict XVI, instead of flying into theological mystery with his evocation of 'the silence of God'.

"This was an opportunity lost by Benedict XVI, who continues to be presented as a subtle theologian and a sensitive intellectual. In fact he has reacted according to the same logic that guided [Pius XII]: the primate of the institutional Church is above every suspicion and every question."

Pope Benedict XVI, previously Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope in April 2005. Known to liberal Catholics before his election as "God's Rottweiler", or more politely, "the enforcer of the faith", he was widely seen as Pope John Paul's hard man, the theology wonk who provided the doctrinal nuts and bolts that the charismatic but theologically challenged Karol Wojtyla needed.

He also applied the brakes when John Paul's ecumenical urges got the better of him: the experiment at Assisi when the Pope prayed with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and African animists, was not repeated. Some of the late pope's most hardline policies, such as the rejection of South American Marxist-allied liberation theology, were also laid firmly at Ratzinger's door. So when he was elected pope, Catholic liberals let out a unanimous roar of pain. John Paul, in their books, was dreadful, with his line on gays and abortion and condoms. What could be worse? In a word, Ratzinger. And they got him.

Yet the first year in office was quieter and less controversial than many would have predicted. His first and to date only encycle was on the theme of love - specifically married love. He was for it. He pronounced the ban on gay men becoming priests, but that had been under preparation for years and it contained loopholes. He is widely thought to be contemplating a small but significant relaxation of the Church's ban on condoms, permitting them for use by married couples where one has Aids.

Last week he pleased many ordinary Catholics by banning Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, who has long been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse, from public activity - the strongest sign yet that the Church is toughening its stance on sex crimes by clergy.

For many on the liberal side of the Church, he is beginning to seem a slight improvement on his predecessor. But the grand gesture, John Paul's speciality, seems far beyond him. Marco Politi, Vatican-watcher of La Repubblica newspaper, said: "The feeling is growing that the courageous time of active regret of John Paul II is finally over."

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