January 18, 2021

Film, Book Explore Church’s Role in Holocaust


The Statement, now streaming on Amazon Prime, and The Popes Against the Jews.

By Jeffery Giesener

Jeffery Giesener

SAN DIEGO — In June 1944, seven Jews are forcibly taken from their homes in the French town of Dombey and ordered to stand against a wall by members of the Milice, the military police created by the Vichy government to carry out the policies of the Nazi occupiers. The French Milice Officer who gives the orders to execute these Jews is Paul Touvier. The film The Statement is based on the 1977 novel by Brian-Moore’s of the same title.

Paul Touvier was born in southeastern France. His family was lower-middle-class, extremely conservative and devoutly Roman Catholic. When Touvier was younger, he attended a seminary for a year intending to become a priest.

After joining the French 8th Infantry Division, Touvier fought against the German Wehrmacht until the bombing of Chateau-Thierry when he deserted. Touvier then returned to Chambéry in 1940. His life took a new course after the Milice (the Vichy French militia) established itself in Chambéry.

Touvier also had become known for womanizing and for his trading of contraband goods in the black market. Disgusted by his son’s liberal lifestyle, his father, also a devout Catholic, persuaded him to join the Milice, hoping that a little military discipline would “make a man out of his son.”

Touvier moved up the ranks in the Milice and was eventually appointed head of the intelligence department in the Chambéry Milice under the direction of the German Gestapo official, Klaus Barbie. In January 1944, he became its second regional head.

Back in Paris, on June 28, 1944, 15 members of the French Resistance, dressed as members of the Milice, assassinated Vichy France Minister for Propaganda Phillippe Henriot. Henriot was killed as he slept in the Chambéry Ministry building where he lived and worked.

As it was suspected that the assassins were from Lyon, France, Touvier was ordered to conduct reprisal killings. On 30 June 1944, Touvier found seven French Jewish prisoners already in Milice’s custody and he had them summarily executed by firing squad.

Touvier, after the war ended, was convicted of treason and sentenced to death in absentia for crimes against humanity. The first man to be convicted of such a crime. However, for decades, Touvier eluded capture with the help of a group of right-wing Roman Catholic priests, who continued to provide him with money and false identification papers and sheltered him in various safe houses, including several monasteries. Touvier’s pardon in 1971 by the French president, Georges Pompidou, set off a huge public outcry.

Be prepared… as the movie opens with a black-and-white flashback to these horrid executions. However, the film from there only has a modest amount of violence.

The film then jumps 44 years to 1992, where the much older Touvier (now for the movie purposes his name is changed to Brossard), is forced into a deadly, and thrilling cat and mouse game. Brossard (portrayed by Michael Caine)  is now desperately trying to live and survive from month to month.

You see him again being helped and housed at a series of Catholic Abbeys, where he is given refuge by right-wing members of the Church who believe that he was just “following orders” during the “killing” incident of 1944. He is also sent money, supported and given counsel by a group of former Vichy colleagues, including Commissaire Vionnel (Frank Finlay). Each of these persons want to keep Brossard and his intimate war knowledge secret.

After Brossard was identified, hunted and tracked on the road to one abbey, David Manenbaum (Matt Craven) attempts to assassinate him but he is tricked by the once seasoned military officer and current escape artist. Manenbaum is killed in his car. But Brossard notices in the car a typed statement, intended to be placed on Brossard’s dead body, that says, the killing of Brossard is an act of justice which was done in the name of the Jews who died at Dombey.

Brossard now realizes that his situation is getting more perilous and desperate day by day. But who or what organization is behind this assignation attempt, he questions?

As Brossard flees the scene, you experience another plot line exposing the tightening of a figurative noose around Brossard neck being cinched by a headstrong young judge, Annemarie Livi (Tilda Swinton). She initiates a new investigation of Brossard. She is determined to apprehend and convict Brossard for his war crimes once and for all. She is also determined to expose the Roman Catholic Church as his murderous accomplice. She ignores repeated warnings from more than one of her superiors who want her to drop the case against Brossard.

Now, a recently enacted law has made Brossard eligible for prosecution again, this time under the designation of crimes against humanity. The judge, unwilling to trust the police, calls upon Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam) to help her find and convict Brossard.

Judge Livi is the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father but calls herself an agnostic. She has nothing but scorn for Brossard, the Catholic clergy and the Church that have been sheltering Brossard.

To accomplish the joint prosecution, Livi and her allies have to keep hastily ahead of the members of several shadowy, unidentified organizations — possibly a militant Jewish group — who would like nothing more than to see Brossard’s dead.

It’s also possible this is not a Jewish group at all — but rather a conspiracy organized by his old Vichy colleagues to prevent a capture of Brossard revealing other, well-hidden former Milice members’ secrets. Or could it also be someone else sponsored by the Church? And there lies the tension of the movie.

As Livi’s and Roux’s investigations go deeper into Brossard’s whereabouts, they learn about another secret group called the Chevaliers, a right-wing Catholic conservative extremist group who supported the Nazis as opponents of the Communists.

The judge realizes that she is on the right track when she is called for a meeting with Minister Bertier (Alan Bates), an old family friend, who asks her not to continue the Brossard case, warning that she is out of her league and risks great danger to herself. Of course, this threat only emboldens her resolve to capture the war criminal and dig into the war secrets of the Church.

Even more important, she has strong aspirations to expose those French, sitting in high government and Church officials who have been supporting and protecting Brossard for so many decades.
No more spoilers here…

The Statement is directed by Norman Jewison from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood. The film is dedicated to the seven men who were executed in Dombey and the 77,000 other French Jews who perished under German occupation and the Vichy Regime.

But I would like to highlight and address another issue raised in the film: that of the conservative Catholic complicity with Nazism (the Roman Catholic Church viewed Communism as a much greater threat than Hitler).

The ongoing effacement of the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the demonization of Europe’s Jews in the decades leading up to their mass murder/Holocaust has been a continuing campaign of the institutional Catholic church. It has been of particular importance to the church’s right wing. The Catholic Church is hardly alone in its attempts to deny its role in making the Holocaust possible. It isn’t uncommon to read and research the Italian impression that they were allies of the United States and Britain and not Hitler in the Second World War.

In the book, The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, published in 2001 and written by David Kertzer; he uses both archival sources and the church’s own publications for the period 1880–1940 to show the fallacy of the distinction made between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

Kertzer in his book discusses, “it is unfortunately true that some Christians participated in a religiously grounded anti-Judaism, linking Jews to the death of Jesus, so the church’s argument goes, but this had nothing to do with the typically modern phenomenon that was anti-Semitism. The latter arose in the late nineteenth century, a product of modernity at a time when the church deemed modernity as its enemy. Modern anti-Semitism, in this view, contrasted with Christian anti-Judaism in that it was not based on religious arguments, but squarely on social, political, and racial ones.”

Kertzer continues, “While this is a comforting narrative for the Church, it bears no relation to what actually happened in those fateful decades. The fact is that the Catholic Church repeatedly tried to spread the fear against that Jewish people in which their belief that Jews were determined on reducing all Christians to their slaves. Catholics were warned to beware of their Jewish neighbors, deeming these Jews were members of a secret world conspiracy responsible not only for capitalism but also for communism.”

Kertzer says, “It is these combined movements identify with modernity that contributed and produced the horrors of the Holocaust, movements long since denounced by the church. And there is no denying that important nineteenth-century purveyors of modernity—most notably, socialism and nationalism— played significant roles in the demonization of the Jews. To this might be added “twentieth-century racial science.”

Kertzer gives an example, “as Mussolini’s Fascists were marching on Rome in October 1922, La Civiltà Cattolica published a feature article titled “The world revolution and the Jews.” Keep in mind that the Jesuit journal was established by Pope Pius IX in 1850 to spread the pope’s views on social and political issues to the Catholic world, that its editor is appointed by the pope, and that no article could be published before its text was reviewed and approved by the Vatican. The leaders of the Russian Revolution, the journal argued, were not “indigenous Russians” but rather “Jewish intruders.” Indeed, it claimed, of the 500 or so leaders of the Bolshevik regime, “those of the Jewish race comprise a full 447.” This argument, along with these bogus numbers, was directly taken up by the Nazis and comprised one of the central elements of the Nazi demonization of the Jews.”

Kertzer goes on to ask, “just how does all this fit into the church’s official historical account? In the decades leading up to and including the war, there was no clear distinction between race, religion, nationality, and what would later come to be known as ethnicity.”

“The imposition of Italy’s racial laws in 1938 is often represented as the importation of a foreign, pagan, Nazi ideology that had no previous place in Italy. Yet a look at the draconian laws—evicting all Jewish children from school, dismissing all Jewish teachers and professors, civil servants, etc.—clearly shows they are little more (in fact less) than the restrictions imposed by the papal states on Rome’s Jews up until their military defeat in 1870. And indeed, La Civiltà Cattolica had been calling for exactly this kind of reimposition of restrictions on Italy’s Jews in the years leading up to the racial laws. This is a history that neither the church, nor indeed Italians generally, are willing to face.”

The quotations are from David I. Kertzer’s book. He is the Paul Dupee University Professor of Social Science at Brown University, where he is also Professor of Anthropology and Italian Studies.

You won’t be disappointed in the film The Statement however, I was additionally looking for deeper insights and appropriate Jewish issues brought forward around the circumstances leading up to the killing of these French Jews which the film unfortunately does not speak to.

Please share your thoughts, comments and research with me in the comments section below this post. I will be sure to answer your comments.

Jeffery Giesener, former CEO of SourceMob, has both public and private company experience. Today, retired and enjoying life in San Diego, he’s a freelance writer who has a passion for both cinema and baking his Mom’s (OBM) European recipes.


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