Monday, April 19, 2010

How A Pius Man Came to be: An essay in five parts

How A Pius Man came to be: Part 1

I read a book once....

Anyone who knows me is aware that this isn't new.

However, it was written by an author who I had just gotten into. I was a history major, it was a history book written by someone who taught philosophy and wrote novels on occasion. It was on Pope Pius XII and his history during the holocaust—essentially: what did he do, what did he know, and when did he know it.

The interesting thing is that it was less of a researched book and more like a composite collection of primary documents. The major source was from a book written in the 1960s from an Israeli Diplomat to the Vatican, who had also fought in World War II with the British. The second collection of sources were from contemporary newspapers. Most specifically, the New York Times.

Okay. Interesting book.

Two months later, I started a graduate course called the History of Total War. The term paper was supposed to be about the events of a major conflict.... Hmm, let's work on Pius XII. I read one book, time to work on another.

And it was insane.

The primary material all pointed to one, glaring and obvious conclusion. Everything written from the 1940s-1960s pointed in one direction. Testimony from Jews in the camps, in Rome, in positions of power within the global community, the newspapers, the books by journalists, the books by diplomats in Rome, even statements and documents from the Nazi hierarchy pointed one way and one way only.

Then we hit the 1960s, and everything from the previous twenty years was chucked down the memory hole so fast, you would have thought Rod Serling had put it as a twist to a Twilight Zone episode.

Since then, we've had a “debate.” One side believes that Pope Pius XII either: did nothing about the Holocaust; said nothing about the Holocaust; or was actively responsible for the Holocaust. On the other side, you have folks who think Pius XII was a saint, spoke out against the Holocaust, acted against it, was a grand spymaster. In the middle—and there are few in the middle—refer to him as “cautious and prudent.”

Along the way, I came across authors who were not historians. I've come across people who had used proven forgeries from criminals convicted for the forgeries used as “evidence” in this debate. I've even come across historians who had done jail time for publishing their lies. And I've come across some deliberate liars: for example, one idiot said that “X person should have done Y thing”... but cited articles where it was STATED that X did Y, making the author either brain dead or a liar.

One of the most interesting things about this is why I refer to it as a “debate,” in quotes. One side of this conflict doesn't acknowledge the other. One side will take the opposition's statements and theories, vivisect them with a scalpel, the end result looking like shredded wheat, and the second side acts as though there are no alternate theories, interpretations or evidence.

And some of these people are hilarious. Both sides have biases. Cynthia Ozick, for example, is an eighty year old Jew who thought that nuns would kidnap and convert her when she was young, and her opinion hasn't changed much. St. Margherita Marcchione is a Catholic nun. John Cornwell hates his father, his seminary, his country, jumped over the wall of the priesthood in Britain (for which he has my sympathy), and more or less hates Church theology, the entire hierarchy, and possibly every Catholic. James Carroll wants the Catholic church to become the Unitarians. Though there is one lawyer from Missouri with a degree in history—I'm not sure where his bias comes in.

Anyway, by the time I was finished reading both sides, I thought it was fairly clear who was right. Hell, I had enough primary documents to work on that alone. I left motivations alone, because I wasn't going to break out my Ouija board and try to have a séance with a dead pope to ask him what he was feeling or thinking at the time. These are the actual events; to the best of our knowledge, this is what happened, and this is how the people reacted to it AT THE TIME.

For example, Mit Brennender Sorge, a papal encyclical condemning Fascism, released by Pope Pius XI, was unequivocally pointed at the Nazis. How do we know this? Well, check the title. Most encyclicals are written in Latin. This was written in German, not Italian, not Spanish. No one was going to mess with the translation when it hit Germany's borders. It had to be smuggled into the country after it had been banned from the press. When the Hitler Youth beat up parishioners coming out of church, attacked priests, went after Catholic groups, and banned the encyclical all together, one can possibly conclude that the Nazis took it personally.

The average reader is probably looking at the above paragraph and thinking “this guy needed a masters degree for that sort of thing? Duh.” The average reader would be right. No, I wasn't going for high intellectual value. Much of the paper was a plain, simple, narrative telling of events, and many of the conclusions were as “duh” worthy as the above paragraph.


I won't tell you the name of the book that started this whole mess. But after I finished the paper, it was good night and good luck. End of Fall semester.

Then came some of the other books. Novels where the history was so bad, it was painful to read. “What sort of idiot thinks Churchill was a Catholic?”

Or “An entire convent of nuns commit mass murder, and can keep their mouths shut with that secret for sixty years? What?”

The Da Vinci CodeAnd there was The Da Vinci Code. Yes, you know I had to get there. That anyone was getting their history from it was... interesting.

It had been a theory of my family for years that we are better informed by our fiction reading than by our news media.

Tom Clancy had airplanes running into buildings in the early 1990s.

David Hagberg sent his protagonist assassin after Osama bin Laden before anyone considered bombing him.

Dale Brown, in 1990, came up with unmanned aerial drones armed with missiles—twelve years before predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles started wiping out terrorists.

But people were getting their history from fiction? And they were getting it from a man who wanted to be a songwriter when he grew up, took one art history course, and whose major was in literature. Huh.

Did that inspire me on a rampaging crusade? Sadly, no. Didn't care. It was an odd little book, and even ignoring the “history,” I didn't find it entertaining. In fact, I prefer James Rollins as far as historical puzzles go—he gives me some grounding in why he's saying what he's saying. Simply, Dan Brown just wasn't fun for me. My problem, no one else's.

Then I read a completely different novel, also using historical events as a background to the primary action. Premise... nothing new, really. Evil Nazi Catholic church, blah blah, snore. Okay, so what? Big deal.... But, hmm, wait, I know that character's name. It's historical. I know that name too. Hmm....

Skip to the back of the book to read the author's note, which collected the works used to create that novel. I had normally assumed that this author had read one side of the argument, and wrote another evil Catholic church story based on that. But, no, I had read these books. All of them. He had done his homework, and had completely and utterly come to the wrong conclusion, directly contradicting details that both sides agreed on, then saying it was true. I could take it if he had just said “I'm writing fiction, not commenting on a historical debate.” But he took a side and lied about facts that everyone agreed on.

Dominoes fell in my brain. People not only read this crap, they believed this crap. Most readers would have almost no intellectual background to separate the wheat from the chaff (seriously, how many people have history degrees focusing on the religious and cultural activities of Europe in World War II?)

My reaction was somewhere akin to the quote of the eminent physician and research scientist, Doctor Bruce Banner. Hulk smash.

Fine. Simple. Easy. Two could play at this game. If people got their history from entertainment, I would take up the strangest project ever imagined. I would write a thriller that was (a) thrilling, (b) factually accurate about the Catholic Church in the Holocaust.

Now how the HELL was I going to do that?

That's covered in part two.

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