A Pius Legend


For nearly twenty years after World War II, Pope Pius XII (reigned 1939–1958) was respected worldwide for saving countless Jewish lives in the face of the Nazi Holocaust. When he died on October 9, 1958, Golda Meir, future Israeli prime minister and then Israeli representative to the United Nations, spoke on the floor of the General Assembly: "During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and commiserate with the victims."

Among the organizations praising the Holy Father at the time of his death were the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Synagogue Council of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the American Jewish Congress, the New York Board of Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National Council of Jewish Women.

Yet, at the beginning of the new millennium, when Pope John Paul II issued his historic apology for sins committed in the name of the faith, he was attacked for his "silence" in regard to the "silence" of Pius XII. Lance Morrow in Time magazine referred to the Church’s "terrible inaction and silence in the face of the Holocaust" and wrote that any defense of Pius or the Church as "moral pettifogging." There was no need for him to prove or defend that statement. The charges against Pius XII were simply "fact," and disagreeing was on par with denying the Holocaust itself. Pius is now routinely accused not only of silence but even complicity in the Holocaust. He has been called "Hitler’s Pope."

Our purpose in this column is not to defend Pius. That has been done ably by many others. Rather, we want to look at the sources and reasons behind the creation of the Catholic urban legend of Pius that has become part of contemporary conventional wisdom.

Theater of Fiction

The view of Pius XII as Nazi collaborator did not begin as a case study of historical revisionism. It did not even begin within historical studies themselves or from available historical documentation, including transcripts of the Nuremberg trials, or government records made public.

The myth of Pius XII began in earnest in 1963 in a drama created for the stage by Rolf Hochhuth, an otherwise obscure German playwright. Born in 1931, Hochhuth was part of a post-World War II movement called "documentary theater" or "theater of fact." The trend grew out of an American form of theater popularized during the Depression. The point was to adapt social issues to theatrical presentation by using factual reports. The "facts" would be more important than artistic presentation. Documentation and transcripts would provide the script for the play. This genre was also seen in Vietnam War morality plays based on the Pentagon Papers, or presentations with dialogue directly culled from the White House tapes of Richard Nixon.

In post-war Germany, Hochhuth and others employed "theater of fact" as a means to explore and expose Nazi history. Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, for example, used excerpts from testimony provided from officials of the Auschwitz death camp. Hochhuth, though, created a more traditional theatrical presentation, though it was presented in the style of "theater of fact." In 1963’s The Deputy, Hochhuth charged through a fictional presentation that Pope Pius XII maintained an icy, cynical, and uncaring silence during the Holocaust. Pius was presented as a cigarette-smoking dandy with Nazi leanings, more interested in Vatican investments than human lives. (Hochhuth also authored a play charging the complicity of Winston Churchill in a murder. No one paid much attention to that effort.)

The Deputy, even to Pius’s most strenuous detractors, is readily dismissed. John Cornwell in Hitler’s Pope describes it in this way:

[It is] historical fiction based on scant documentation. . . . The characterization of [Pius XII] as a money-grubbing hypocrite is so wide of the mark as to be ludicrous. Importantly, however, Hocchuth’s play offends the most basic criteria of documentary: that such stories and portrayals are valid only if they are demonstrably true.

Yet The Deputy, despite its evident flaws, prejudices, and lack of historicity, laid the foundation for the charges against Pius XII five years after his death. Why? Because there was fertile ground for an anti-Pius reaction.

Politics over People

Pius XII was unpopular with certain schools of post-World War II historians for the anti-Stalinist, anti-communist agenda of his later pontificate. This was a period where leftist sentiments in the West were still tied to a flirtation with Stalinism, though Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s opening up to the world of the true Stalin legacy would slowly erode such views.

In the heady atmosphere of leftist academic circles, particularly in Italy in the late 1950s and throughout the ‘60s, the general charge against Pius was that while he was not pro-Nazi during the war, he hated Bolshevism more than he hated Hitler. For the most part, this was based on the Pope’s opposition to the Allied demand for unconditional German surrender. Pius believed such a condition would only continue the horror of the war and increase the killing—a position that could be disagreed with but is hardly cause for stating that he was soft on Nazi Germany. But his stand in opposition to extending the war for any longer than necessary was later interpreted as a plan on the pontiff’s part to maintain a strong Germany as a bulwark against Soviet communism.

Additionally, the Pope was blamed for helping create the anti-Soviet atmosphere that resulted in the Cold War in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Hochhuth’s charge of papal "silence" fit the theory that Pius refused to publicly criticize Germany in order that the country could serve effectively as an ongoing block to Soviet expansion.

The theory, of course, was as much fiction as Hochhuth’s play. There was no documentary evidence to even suggest such a papal strategy. But it became popular, particularly among historians with Marxist sympathies in the 1960s. Even this theory, though, did not extend to an accusation that the Pope "collaborated" in the Holocaust or to any charge that the Church did anything other than save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. The evidence was simply too clear on that. But it did provide a mercenary rationale of "politics over people" in response to the Holocaust and applied such barbarous reasoning to the Pope.

The Deputy, therefore, took on far greater importance than it deserved. Leftists used it as a means to discredit an anti-communist papacy. Instead of Pius being seen as a careful and concerned pontiff working with every means available to rescue European Jews in the face of complete Nazi entrapment, an image was created of a political schemer who would sacrifice lives to stop the spread of communism. The Deputy was merely the mouthpiece for an ideological interpretation of history that helped create the myth of a "silent" Pius XII doing nothing in the face of Nazi slaughter.

There was also strong resonance within the Jewish community at the time The Deputy appeared. The Jewish world had experienced a virtual re-living of the Holocaust in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. A key figure in the Nazi Final Solution, Eichmann had been captured in Argentina in 1960, tried in Israel in 1961 and executed in 1962. For many Jews, Eichmann’s trial was a reliving of the horror that the Nazis had implemented. At the same time, the state of Israel was threatened on all sides by the unified Arab states. War would erupt in a very short time. The Deputyresonated with a worldwide Jewish community that saw Israel as surrounded by enemies, fighting for its ultimate survival.

Despite the fact of a two-decades-old acknowledgement of papal support and assistance to the Jews during the war, Hochhuth’s unfounded charges took on all the.aspects of revelation. In a column after Pope John Paul II’s apology, Uri Dormi of Jerusalem fittingly described this impact:

The Deputy appeared in Hebrew and broke the news about another silence, that of Pope Pius XII about the Holocaust. The wartime Pope, who on Christmas Eve 1941 was praised in a New York Times editorial as "the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all," was exposed by the young, daring dramatist.

An Axe to Grind

An interesting twist on this is how anti-Pius Catholic urban legends have even been used by internal critics of the Church. When Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope was released in the United States in 1999 it generated intense media coverage focused on the alleged "silence" of Pius XII. Yet Cornwell’s basic aim was to discredit John Paul II by discrediting his predecessor, Pius XII.

It was striking that little attention was given to this important conclusion. Cornwell was using the Holocaust to advocate and argue for a particular position within the Church on the role of papal authority. His book was written as an advocacy paper against the leadership of John Paul within the Church and in favor of a particular so-called liberal vision of how the Church should function. It was surprising that few were struck, particularly Jewish commentators, by this use and abuse of the Holocaust for internal Church debate.

Similarly, in his book Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll used (and abused) the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to put forth a laundry list of liberal bromides for alleged Church reform. He essentially used the Holocaust and the alleged "silence" of Pope Pius XII to argue for women’s ordination and an end to priestly celibacy.

Catholic urban legends persist because they serve a contemporary purpose. The anti-Pius myth, created by an otherwise obscure and discredited German playwright, persists because it serves a purpose in contemporary society, and not because it bears any reflection to historical reality.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 9.