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Deconstructing ‘Hitler’s Pope’: Exposing Misrepresentation Through Ellipses

In an episode of the old television program Seinfeld, several characters use the phrase “yada, yada, yada” to avoid going into detail about some previous activity. “Yada, yada” suggests to the listener that nothing of consequence happened. (“I went to the store, saw Harry, and yada, yada, the next thing I knew, we went to the ball game together.”) Of course, in the television program, yada, yada was used to cover up things that would have been quite significant to the listener (and embarrassing to the speaker).

An ellipsis is essentially the written equivalent of “yada, yada.” In casual writing, it has become fairly common to use “. . .” to indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought, or the idea of trailing off into silence. When it comes to formal writing (books, articles, and essays), however, an ellipsis is used to show that words have been omitted from a quotation.

This use of an ellipsis is proper and can be quite helpful. Often a quotation makes a great point, but it refers to a person or entity that has not been discussed in the writing that includes the quotation. Using that part of the quotation might confuse the readers, so an author might use an ellipsis to keep the point clear. Alternatively, a quotation my have certain redundancies that can be eliminated with the use of an ellipsis. That comes in handy for articles with strict word limits.

While using an ellipsis for these purposes is legitimate, integrity is essential. It is important that a writer using the ellipsis not change the meaning of the quotation. Introducing even a subtle change in the meaning of the quotation is wrong. Unfortunately, many critics of the Catholic Church— especially those who claim that Pope Pius XII failed to speak out sufficiently on behalf of the Jewish victims in World War II—sound like a Seinfeld character trying to avoid disclosing some indiscretion.

Cornwell’s Cherry Picking

Consider, for instance, John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope. In an epigraph before the main text, Cornwell presents a quotation from Thomas Merton, a well-known contemplative monk whose writings have inspired many people. As rendered by Cornwell, the quotation says: “Pius XII and the Jews . . . The whole thing is too sad and too serious for bitterness . . . a silence which is deeply and completely in complicity with all the forces which carry out oppression, injustice, aggression, war.” This is a fairly shocking condemnation of the pope from an esteemed Catholic thinker. If Merton had actually written this, it should indeed give us pause. But this is not a true quotation. Cornwell used ellipses to manufacture it.

Cornwell gave no citation, so his deception was hard to uncover. The full statement, which was written by Merton in his personal journal, is a complaint that he had been ordered not to publish his essay on nuclear war. The “silence” about which he complained was the “silence” that had been imposed upon him. It was unrelated to Pius XII. Merton actually wrote:

A grim insight into the stupor of the Church, in spite of all that has been attempted, all efforts to wake her up! It all falls into place. Pope Pius XII and the Jews, the Church in South America, the treatment of Negroes in the U.S., the Catholics on the French right in the Algerian affair, the German Catholics under Hitler. All this fits into one big picture and our contemplative recollection is not very impressive when it is seen only as another little piece fitted into the puzzle. The whole thing is too sad and too serious for bitterness. I have the impression that my education is beginning—only just beginning and that I have a lot more terrible things to learn before I can know the real meaning of hope.There is no consolation, only futility, in the idea that one is a kind of martyr for a cause. I am not a martyr for anything, I am afraid. I wanted to act like a reasonable, civilized, responsible Christian of my time. I am not allowed to do this, and I am told I have renounced this—fine. In favor of what? In favor of a silence which is deeply and completely in complicity with all the forces that carry out oppression, injustice, exploitation, war. In other words silent complicity is presented as a “greater good” than honest, conscientious protest—it is supposed to be part of my vowed life, it is for the “Glory of God.” Certainly I refuse complicity. My silence itself is a protest and those who know me are aware of this fact. I have at least been able to write enough to make that clear.

Merton wrote this passage in his journal in anger over having been told not to publish his essay. (The following day he tempered his comments.) Cornwell selected the phrases that are italicized above, linked them with ellipses, and committed academic fraud.

Lost in Translation

Unfortunately, that was not the only “creative” use of ellipses in Hitler’s Pope. Central to Cornwell’s thesis was a letter that was written in 1919. At that time, Eugenio Pacelli—the future Pope Pius XII—was serving as papal representative in Bavaria.

There Bolshevik revolutionaries temporarily took power and tried to set up a Soviet republic. Their leaders occupied the royal palace and began operating what might best be described as a rogue government. They created a “Red Army” that killed about 325 people. Of particular concern to all diplomats in Munich was the Bolsheviks’ violation of the sovereign immunity of foreign missions and representatives. Two legations were invaded, and a car was requisitioned from another. The Austro-Hungarian Consul General was arrested without cause and held for several hours.

Many foreign dignitaries left Munich, but Pacelli stayed at his post and became a target of Bolshevik hostility. Once, an angry mob descended on his car, screaming insults and threatening to turn the car over. On another occasion, in true gangland style, a car sprayed Pacelli’s residence with machine-gun fire. When he called in a protest, he was told to leave the city that night or he would die. Not only did he stay, he even “mounted the pulpit at the Munich cathedral against the orders of the Red committee” (Fulton J. Sheen, “The Pope as I Saw Him,” Catholic Digest, October 1955, 62).

Concerned for the people under his charge, Pacelli sent his assistant, Msgr. Lorenzo Schioppa, to meet with the leaders of the new government. The hope was to get the new government to promise to recognize diplomatic immunity. Unfortunately, the meeting did not go well. The only “commitment” that the representatives could get was that immunity would be recognized as long as the communist government was not bothered. Schioppa was warned that if Pacelli did anything against the new government, he would be kicked out; the communists had no need for the pope.

Pacelli hand-wrote a six-page letter to Rome, reporting on this meeting. Eighty years after the fact, Cornwell used ellipses and horrible mistranslations and set them forth as “proof” that Pacelli was an anti-Semite. According to Cornwell, Pacelli described the Bolshevik-occupied palace as follows:

. . . a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien’s mistress, a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcée, who was in charge. . . . This Levien is a young man, of about 30 or 35, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.

In truth, this translation is grossly distorted. It uses pejorative words instead of neutral ones that are more faithful to the original Italian. For instance, the most damning phrase in the translation, “Jews like all the rest of them,” turns out to be a distorted, inaccurate translation of the Italian phrase i primi. The literal translation would be the first ones or the ones just mentioned. Similarly, the Italian word schiera is translated by Cornwell as gang instead of group, which is more accurate. Additionally, the Italian gruppo femminile should be translated as female group or group of women, not “female rabble.”

Cornwell also used ellipses in a most creative manner. This letter was published in full in its original Italian in 1992. Anglican historian John Conway reviewed the book in which it was included. Neither he, nor anyone else at that time, suggested that the letter was anti-Semitic. The anti-Semitic tone was introduced only by Cornwell’s mistranslations and ellipses that reduced a six-page letter to a single paragraph. (Given the centrality of that letter to Cornwell’s book, one might have expected the publisher to demand that he print the entire letter be included in that book. It wasn’t. It is available in the appendix to my book, Hitler, the War and the Pope, Revised and Expanded [Our Sunday Visitor, 2010]).

Selective Redaction

While John Cornwell used ellipses to make it appear that Pacelli constantly used the word “Jew” in a pejorative way, Susan Zuccotti, in her 2002 book Under His Very Windows, wanted to show that the Church never spoke out on behalf of Jews. As a result, several quotations in Zuccotti’s book were truncated so as to eliminate any evidence that might show the pope’s concern for Jewish victims. For instance, pursuant to Pope Pius XII’s request, Secretary of State Maglione met to lodge a protest with the German ambassador after a great number of Roman Jews had been rounded up.

The ambassador was known to be a friendly voice within the German leadership in Rome, and he was embarrassed about the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Maglione began his memo about the meeting by writing:

Having learned that this morning the Germans made a raid on the Jews, I asked the Ambassador of Germany to come to me and I asked him to try to intervene on behalf of these unfortunates. I talked to him as well as I could in the name of humanity, in Christian charity. The ambassador, who already knew of the arrests, but doubted whether it dealt specifically with the Jews, said to me in a sincere and moved voice: I am always expecting to be asked: Why do you remain in your position?

Zuccotti deleted the italicized clauses above, thereby eliminating the cardinal’s first two express references to the victims being Jewish. She also omitted the entire concluding paragraph, which recounted Maglione’s last words to the ambassador:

In the meantime, I repeat: Your Excellency has told me that you will attempt to do something for the unfortunate Jews. I thank you for that. As for the rest, I leave it to your judgment. If you think it is more opportune not to mention our conversation [to the German high command due to fear of retaliation], so be it.

So, even though Cardinal Maglione referred explicitly to “Jews” three times, Zuccotti’s readers never saw those references; she deleted them.

Similarly, Zuccotti quoted a report written by the Vatican’s nuncio in France to Cardinal Maglione, dated August 7, 1942. This memorandum related to the deportation of Jews from France to unknown areas. In quoting the report, however, Zuccotti deleted the crucial first line where the nuncio mentioned that he had used his position to intervene frequently for Jews in the name of the pope.

Gunther Lewy, another critic of Pius XII, quoted a German scholar to make a point criticizing the general nature of the Catholic Church. Lewy wrote: “To use the sociological categories of Ernst Troeltsch, Catholicism is an example of ‘that type of organization which is overwhelmingly conservative . . . it becomes an existing part of the existing order, . . . [and which knows to attain her end] by a process of adaption and compromise.’” As others have noted, if one were to reject the very notion of sacraments one might try to make Lewy’s argument. One cannot legitimately use Troeltsch for that argument, however. Lewy’s second ellipsis here covers eight pages of Troeltsch’s writings.

Specious Misquotation

A current argument relates to a presentation that Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli gave at an International Eucharistic Congress in Hungary in 1938. This debate came to a head in 2010 on the Australian Jewish blog Galus Australia. According to papal critics, Pacelli referred to Jews as enemies of Christ and of the Catholic Church. They quote Pacelli as having said:

Jesus conquers! He who so often was the recipient of the rage of his enemies, he who suffered the persecutions of those of whom he was one, he shall be triumphant in the future as well. . . . As opposed to the foes of Jesus, who cried out to his face, “Crucify him!”—we sing him hymns of our loyalty and our love. We act in this fashion, not out of bitterness, not out of a sense of superiority, not out of arrogance toward those whose lips curse him and whose hearts reject him even today.

Calling the Jews enemies of Christ would seem to support the charges of the critics. There is, however, that tricky ellipsis right in the middle of the quotation. It makes us wonder, especially since Time magazine (June 6, 1938) praised Pacelli for having made his opposition to the Nazis clear.

Despite the central position of this quotation to the argument of many papal critics, most notably Michael Phayer, it seems that no one has traced it back to its origin. When we do, we find the first use of the quotation in question was in Moshe Y. Herczl’s book, Christianity and the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry (1993). Herczl was not present at the speech which Pacelli presented. In fact, he did not even look at Pacelli’s script. He wrote in Hebrew, but he cited a Hungarian newspaper for his source, not the original French text (which can be found in the Vatican’s Discorsi and Panegirici collection) or the even Italian version that appeared in the Vatican newspaper.

The text of the speech as it was published in Discorsi and Panegirici reveals that the quote in question does not appear in that manuscript. The ellipsis was used to link very diverse passages from different pages of Pacelli’s speech to result in something resembling the quotation. Of course, that resulted in a complete distortion of Pacelli’s words.

Early in the talk, Pacelli spoke about biblical history. He recalled the Passion of Christ, and he mentioned the defiance of disciples, the solitude of Gethsemane, the crowning of thorns, the cynicism of Herod, and the opportunism of Pilate. He referred to the masses that called for the Crucifixion and said they had been “deceived and excited by propaganda, lies, insults and imprecations at the foot of the Cross.” Those identified as enemies of Christ included Pontius Pilate, Herod, the Roman soldiers, the Sanhedrin, and their followers. He did not name “all Jews” or even “the Jews.”

About two pages later in the Discorsi and Panegirici manuscript, Pacelli referred to those who were persecuting the Church at that time (1938) by doing things like expelling religion and perverting Christianity. Jews were not doing this, but Nazi Germany certainly was. The future pope was equating the Nazis—not Jews—to those who persecuted the Church at earlier times.

Pacelli then returned to the theme of how Christ suffered, and he said: “As opposed to the enemies of Christ who crucified him, we offer our fidelity and love.” Nowhere did he single out Jews. Nor did he use words resembling “those who cried out to his face, ‘Crucify him!’” There is no legitimate way to argue that Pacelli was talking about Jews when he spoke about the enemies of Christ. The ellipsis covered two pages of text in Discorsi and Panegirici, and the quotation was a fabrication that does not reflect what Pacelli actually said.

Herczl did not see Pacelli give his talk. Half a century after it was given, he relied upon a Hungarian newspaper, Nemzeti Ujsag (National Journal), as his source. That paper had a long and controversial history. A noted scholar in the field, Randolph L. Braham, said Nemzeti Ujsag was an important voice that “advanced the cause of National Socialism, including the hatred of the Jews.” According to Herczl, at the time in question Nemzeti Ujsag called itself “The Political Christian Daily Newspaper.” That is pretty much in keeping with what National Socialists were claiming at that time (and what Pacelli complained about in his talk). Wikipedia, referring to the paper as it was in 1938, called it “a Hungarian extremist newspaper.”

It is unclear who first used the ellipsis in this case, the newspaper, Herczl, or someone else (Herczl died before the book was published). It is most likely that the newspaper fabricated the quotation to support its anti-Semitic position. Pacelli, after all, was criticizing the exact political position that the paper held.

Herczl and those who followed him should have been skeptical of this source. Neither he nor anyone else would have accepted what that paper said about Jews. Yet, with several other reliable sources available, why did Herczl turn to an unreliable source for this crucial information about a third party like Pacelli? More importantly, why have critics like Michael Phayer and John Cornwell relied upon this English translation of a Hebrew manuscript quoting a Hungarian newspaper on a speech originally made in French by a native Italian speaker (who was fluent in several languages)? There is no excuse.

The Problem with Proof-Texts

Catholic apologist Tim Staples says that when someone quotes a Bible verse in an attempt to disprove some aspect of the Catholic faith, you need to read the five verses before and after that one. Staples can cite verse after verse that, when read out of context, seem to contradict Catholic teachings. He shows, however, that when the verses are read in context (with the adjoining verses), the truth becomes clear. It looks like we have to do the same thing anytime we see an ellipsis used by a papal critic—in case they try to skip over something by saying “yada, yada.”

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