Several years ago, a colleague at work made the bold charge, “Well you know, Pope Pius XII was a Nazi.” He was serious.
I had not previously heard of this controversy. I went to the public library and found a book that looked like it might answer this question. Instead, it only said that Pope Pius XII had provided “ambiguous” leadership during World War II. I wanted to know more.
I found accounts written during and after the war that praised Pius for his brave resistance to Hitler’s National Socialists. I found tributes written at the time of his death noting the support he gave to Jewish victims of the Nazis. I also found analysis—most of it written 20 or more years after the end of the war—suggesting that Pius did not do enough to help Jews.
Had my interest in Pius XII been sparked within the last year instead of eight or nine years ago, I probably would have turned first to John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pope Pius XII (Viking Press, 1999). Without further research on my part, the book might have convinced me that the accusations were true—and that would have been a serious injustice.
Hitler’s Pope advanced the myth created in 1963 by Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play The Deputy that Pius did not oppose the Nazis. Cornwell’s book has become a bestseller, and media coverage of it has further shaped America’s opinion about the wartime pope. Anyone engaged in Catholic apologetics must be prepared to answer questions about the moral guidance provided by Pope Pius XII during World War II. In particular, one must be prepared to answer questions raised by Cornwell’s book.
Hitler’s Pope Is an Unreliable Book
As a preliminary matter, rest assured that Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church were resolute in their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis. Cornwell, a professed Catholic, claims that he set out to defend Pius XII and that he obtained permission to look at the Vatican’s secret archives. After viewing this “previously unseen material,” he says he became convinced that Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope.”
I traveled to Rome in December 1999, and I saw the documents that Cornwell used. In particular, I reviewed the transcripts of testimony given by people who knew Pius. Cornwell claimed these transcripts left him in a “state of moral shock.” He called them “explosively critical matter” that was revealed to him “at great risk” to the priest who made them available.
That same priest—Fr. Peter Gumpel—made the material available to me. In fact, as Cornwell finally admitted in an exchange I had with him last April in Brill’s Content magazine, these documents are not secret. More importantly, they are not in any way shocking. Every witness testified positively about the heroic virtue of Pope Pius XII. Many spoke of his concern for the Jewish people and the help that he gave them both before and after he became pope.
When Cornwell addressed the fact that there was nothing “shocking” in these transcripts, his only reply was, “[Pius XII’s younger sister, Elisabetha] tells us that he was accused of having had an affair with his housekeeper nun and that the housekeeper in turn had been engaged in a flirtation with the Vatican architect. Is that not explosive? What a dull fellow Rychlak is” (“A Different Read: Vatican Chronicles,” Brill’s Content, April 2000).
Dull perhaps, but smart enough to understand that this testimony—which was that Pius immediately ordered an investigation when he heard this rumor and was pleased when it was disproved—has nothing to do with the Vatican’s relationship to Jews, Nazis, or the Holocaust. The claim of having been left in a “state of moral shock” is but one of many obviously fictitious parts of Cornwell’s story.
Pius XII Was not Anti-Semitic
In support of his claim that Pius XII was anti-Semitic, Cornwell cites two letters Pacelli wrote from Munich.
The first was written in 1917. A rabbi had requested Pacelli’s assistance in obtaining palm fronds from Italy to be used in a festival. But with the war going on such assistance would have been in violation of Italian dictates. In his report back to Rome, Pacelli said that he declined help because the assistance sought was not in a matter pertaining to “civil or natural rights common to all human beings,” but rather in a matter pertaining to the ceremony of a “Jewish cult.” Pacelli noted that the rabbi understood the difficulty and thanked him for his efforts.
Use of the word “cult” may sound demeaning, but the Catholic Church uses this word even today to refer to its own rites and worship, such as “the cult of the Virgin Mary.” The word does not carry the derogatory connotation that it sometimes does in modern spoken English. Perhaps more importantly, in arguing that this letter is evidence of anti-Semitism, Cornwell overlooks Pacelli’s qualifying comment. The future pope clearly indicated that if this matter had pertained to civil or natural rights, he would have offered help. He did not, however, see similar duty to undertake risks merely in order to help a different religion conduct its own, non-Christian ceremony.
The second letter was written in 1919. That year, Bolshevik revolutionaries took power in Bavaria, and Pacelli became a target of their hostility. One time, his residence was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Another time, a small group of Bolsheviks broke into the nunciature, threatened Pacelli with pointed revolvers, and tried to rob him. Yet another time a mob descended on his car, yelling b.asphemies and threatening to overturn the vehicle.
The revolutionaries occupied the royal palace in Munich. In a letter to Rome, sent over Pacelli’s signature, they were described as follows:
“A gang of young women of dubious appearance, Jews like the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this rabble was a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcee [while their chief] is a young man of about 30 or 35, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.”
Cornwell maintains that the use of the words Jew and Jews and the unflattering descriptions of the revolutionaries show “stereotypical anti-Semitic contempt.”
While the letter does read badly, it appears to have been largely accurate. Russian Jewish Bolsheviks led the 1919 Munich terror. The revolutionaries were frightening. They murdered people. They had attacked Pacelli. Moreover, the description was not Pacelli’s, since he had not witnessed the scene that was described in this letter. His assistant, Monsignor Schioppa, had gone to the palace, and the letter related Schioppa’s description.
The anger reflected in this letter does not stem from racial or even religious differences but from the Bolshevik activity in Munich. There was clear animosity between the Church and the revolutionaries, and those revolutionaries are the focus of the comment (not all Jewish people, as some reviews inaccurately reported). It should also be noted that the message was written fourteen years before Hitler came to power and the Jewish persecution began. In fact, at the time this letter was written, the people being described were not repressed. They were in charge of the government! When all of these factors are taken into consideration, the letter provides no evidence of anti-Semitism.
Rather than focusing on indirect evidence and fabricating an argument, one could look to direct evidence from that same World War I period. On December 15, 1915, the American Jewish Committee of New York petitioned the Holy See for a statement on the “ill-treatment” suffered by Jewish people in Poland. The response came from the office of the Vatican Secretary of State, where Eugenio Pacelli was employed. It said:
“The Catholic Church . . . considers all men as brothers and teaches them to love one another. . . . This law must be observed and respected in the case of the children of Israel, as well as of all others, because it would not be conformable to justice or to religion itself to derogate from it solely on account of religious confessions” (emphasis added).
This is a much better indication of Catholic teaching—and therefore of Pacelli’s belief—on anti-Semitism and the proper relation that should exist between Catholics and Jews.
Use of the Bully Pulpit
If Pope Pius XII gave aid to Jewish victims during the war and was praised at the time, how is it that the legend of his silence became so widespread? Surely, the argument goes, this story would never have taken hold if the Pope had spoken out against the Nazis.
Well, Pius did not repeatedly use the bully pulpit of the papacy to denounce Hitler and the Nazis. The Pope knew well that any of his acts or comments might bring retaliation—not against him but against Catholic clergy and laity in Germany and every occupied nation.
The U.S. deputy chief of counsel at the Nuremberg war trials, Dr. Robert M.W. Kempner, wrote, “Every propaganda move of the Catholic Church against Hitler’s reich would have been not only ‘provoking suicide’. . . but would have hastened the execution of still more Jews and priests.” German field marshal Albert Kesselring testified: “If [Pius XII] did not protest, he failed to do so because he told himself, quite rightly, ‘If I protest, Hitler will be driven to madness—not only will that not help the Jews, but we must expect that they will then be killed all the more.’”
“The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican,” reported one bishop who was imprisoned at Dachau (where about 2,500 priests died and another 1,000 were held captive). “We all had the impression that our wardens made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked. . . . Whenever the way we were treated became more brutal, the Protestant pastors among the prisoners used to vent their indignation on the Catholic priests: ‘Again your big naive pope and those simpletons, your bishops, are shooting their mouths off . . . why don’t they get the idea once and for all, and shut up. They play the heroes, and we have to pay the bill.’”
With concerns like this, Pope Pius XII had to weigh carefully the force of his words. He did not want to make statements that would cause others to suffer unless those statements would have some beneficial impact. He knew that was highly unlikely.
Fr. Robert Leiber, who worked closely with Pope Pius XII for many years, said, “During the war the thought never entered anybody’s head that Pope Pius XII could have been able to put a stop to the annihilation of the Jews by means of public protest.” The Nazis would have kept news of any condemnation from the German public.
The Nazi hierarchy sent its ambassadors a “guideline on silencing the Vatican” that made clear the Nazi propaganda machine would be put in gear to counter any statements from the Vatican. In occupied France, the media put forth only censored versions of the Pope’s proclamations, including his Christmas messages. When the Allies invaded France, General Eisenhower said, “You see this country has suffered an intellectual blackout ever since the fall of France. The people have heard only what the Germans and Vichy wanted them to hear.”
Pius knew that any condemnation from him would only bring more suffering without putting a damper on Nazi abuses. In that situation, the only logical response was to engage in undercover operations, shelter victims, and pray for peace.
The Right Decision
Rather than engaging in empty political posturing, Pope Pius XII showed himself to be a man of action. He directed all who were under his command to give aid and shelter wherever they could. He fed and clothed Jewish refugees. Jewish babies were born in his apartment he had vacated for mothers who were hiding there. He distributed false identification so that Jews could avoid deportation by the Nazis. He passed confidential information to Allied leaders.
Pope Pius XII believed his approach would best serve victims of the Nazis. Most Jewish leaders at the time agreed, as did Polish Archbishop Adam Sapieha, almost all German religious leaders, the International Red Cross, and most Jewish rescue organizations. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish people owe their lives to this wise approach, which is why, at the time of his death, Pius XII was praised for his efforts.
People who have heard the allegations against Pius need to be gently corrected. He was not “Hitler’s Pope.” He was a wise and brave man who did what was within his power to shelter, protect, and save all that horrible era’s victims, regardless of race, nationality, or religion. His life was indeed one of heroic virtue.