The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965
Few twentieth-century statesmen have been more enigmatic, contradictory, or controversial than Pius XII, who was Pope from 1939 to 1958 during one of the world’s, and the Catholic Church’s, most trying periods. Pius was an ascetic; his face pale, his hands nearly translucent. He did not drink, smoke, or have any other obvious vices. His breakfast was a piece of bread and a glass of warm milk; for the rest of the day he ate not much more than that. He saw himself as Christ’s most humble servant, yet no other pope in recent times has surrounded himself with more pomp and none enforced a more rigid etiquette. He did not doubt that he was God’s sole vicar on earth, responsible for the spiritual welfare of all humanity, yet, at least according to his critics, he hardly ever spontaneously addressed an ordinary human being: when he took a walk in the Vatican gardens, he expected that workers would vanish into the bushes as he passed.
Firmly believing in miracles and in the deepest mysteries of the Catholic faith, Pius solemnly proclaimed the Assumption of Holy Mary in 1950. According to this teaching the Mother of God ended her terrestrial existence by being assumed, body and soul, into heavenly glory. As John Cornwell states in his fascinating but in some respects flawed book Hitler’s Pope, this was “the only solemn and irreformable decree made by a pope according to the definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.” Today every Catholic must believe unconditionally not only that Mary was born without the original sin burdening the rest of humanity; not only that she remained a virgin despite conceiving and giving birth to Christ as well as to Christ’s four brothers and to his sisters (Mark 6:3); but that, after she died, her body and soul were immediately reunited.
Mystical experiences were not unknown to this pope: he once witnessed the phenomenon of the spinning sun associated with the cult of Our Lady of Fátima in Portugal. Considered a saint in his lifetime, the pontiff was also an accomplished politician whose approach to the great questions of the day, including his response to the Holocaust, was largely one of diplomatic maneuvering. It was not for him to risk martyrdom for the Jews or even for his fellow Catholics.
The Church’s supreme leader rejected nearly all recent social and political ideas, yet he was the first pontiff to use the mass media systematically for propaganda purposes; he had a flattering film made about himself during the war. No one questions his piety, yet he has also been accused of cynicism, callousness, and opportunism. He is seen as both a ruthless autocrat and a weakling, a fool who did not understand the nature of totalitarian regimes and a cunning authoritarian himself, an anti-Semite and a savior of Jews. The writers of the books under review, and many, many others, strive to understand him, yet …