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The Pope, the Nazis & the Jews

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965

by Michael Phayer
Indiana University Press

The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI

edited by Georges Passelecq, and Bernard Suchecky, Translated from the French by Steven Rendall, with an introduction by Garry Wills
Harcourt Brace, 329 pp., $14.00 (paper)


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 the enigma remains, as do so many other enigmas surrounding the Holy See. A fine evocation of the papal mystery comes from Sir Francis D’Arcy Osborne, the British minister to the Holy See, who spent World War II in the neutral Vatican, an excellent place from which to observe the doings of the Church hierarchy during a crucial period. Osborne wrote in 1947:

I long ago realized that it is almost impossible for a layman and a non-Catholic, and indeed for most Catholics and ecclesiastics outside the Vatican City, to form a valid judgment or express an authoritative opinion on Papal policy…. The atmosphere of the Vatican [is not only] supranational and universal…it is also fourth-dimensional and, so to speak, outside of time …for example, they can regard the Savoy dynasty [Italy’s rulers after 1861] as an interlude, and the fascist era as an incident, in the history of Rome and Italy. They reckon in centuries and plan for eternity.1

Indeed, the royal House of Savoy and Italian fascism have long since disappeared from the scene; the papacy is still with us.

Not all the books take Pius XII as their subject but all give him much attention as they examine the situation of the Church in the twentieth century. To begin with, none disputes the physical and material weakness of the Papal State. Pius XII was scorned for not having done more for one or another cause during World War II. But the survival of the Vatican state depended entirely on the good will of outsiders, first on the Italian Fascist government, and later on the Nazis, when, after Italy’s attempted surrender to the Allies in September 1943, German troops occupied Rome and surrounded the Vatican. It was not merely that the Pope had no military divisions, to use Stalin’s derisive expression, but that the Holy See did not have the slightest means of independent existence: its water, electricity, gas, coal, and money all came from the outside. Its sewage and garbage were taken away by municipal services over which it had no control. Had there been a German blockade, the Pope, his cardinals, and his officials would have had nothing to eat. Still, one-hundred-odd Allied diplomats delegated to the Holy See had to be sheltered on its premises, and, following the German takeover, hundreds of Jewish refugees were hidden either in the Vatican or in other buildings under Vatican control.

Every criticism of Pius XII, and undoubtedly he deserves many, must nonetheless take into account that without Italian or, later, German permission, such Vatican newspapers as L’Osservatore Romano could not have been published, the Vatican Radio would have fallen silent, and all communications between the Vatican and the rest of the world would have been cut. Those of us who complain about the failure of the Pope to “speak out” must also consider the question of how and how long he could have done so.

No doubt the suppression of Vatican independence would have caused outrage among Catholics in Fascist Italy and in Nazi Germany, yet it is extremely unlikely that the outrage would have turned into an open revolt. After all, the German and the Italian clergy and Catholic laymen had long lived under regimes that systematically violated Catholic rights. In his periodic outbursts against the Vatican, Hitler threatened to kidnap Pius XII, and to “clear out that gang of swine” in the Vatican and to occupy the place.

Two reasons he did not do any of these things are that Pius XII and the Church proved sufficiently accommodating, and that the Führer preferred to be cautious so long as there was a war and so long as the all-important “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was still being carried out. Even when Pius XII subsequently proved not at all accommodating, as was the case after World War II with regard to Communist parties and governments in Eastern Europe, the most powerful weapon he had at his disposal was excommunication. This, as Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch demonstrate in their excellent book The Vatican and the Red Flag, did not help Catholics; the angry Communist regimes imprisoned large numbers of loyal Catholic clergymen and laymen.

All the recent studies agree that, for much of modern history, the papacy has been on the losing side, assaulted, in an increasingly secularized and nationalistic society, by forces believing that the popes wield immense power. Back in 1077 the penitent Emperor-King Henry IV appeared before Pope Gregory VII, at Canossa, begging forgiveness from the real ruler of the Christian world. Yet the Great Schism of the eleventh century and the Reformation of the sixteenth century split Christianity; modern secularism threatened to wipe it out altogether. Popes Pius VI and Pius VII were held in captivity by Napoleon; Pius IX had to flee for his life from revolutionary Rome in 1848; the Papal States, encompassing central Italy, were seized in 1870, and the sole territorial guarantee of papal independence was lost. Thereafter, the pope lived as a prisoner in the capital of a foreign country and was the object of widespread contempt and ridicule.

In the late nineteenth century, nearly all European countries, including Catholic France, Italy, and Spain, turned against the Church, abolishing many of its privileges, confiscating much of its property, dissolving monastic orders, banning processions and outdoor services, conscripting priests, legalizing mixed marriages, placing marriage, a Holy Sacrament, under state control, and taking away what the Church perceived to be its absolute right and duty: the education of the young. Even Habsburg Austria-Hungary, the Church’s traditional protector, did much to alienate the papacy at that time.

During World War I, Pope Benedict XV failed in his effort to mediate between the warring partners and thus to save Austria-Hungary. In 1918, the Habsburg monarchy fell apart; among the successor states, Czechoslovakia was bitterly hostile to Rome. Yet all this was only a prelude to the Vatican’s troubles. In Soviet Russia, the far from unimportant Catholic Church was virtually eliminated; at the same time, thousands upon thousands of Orthodox Christian bishops, priests, and laymen were shot. Characteristically, the Vatican at first detected signs of hope in the Bolshevik Revolution. Following a firmly established papal tradition, it stood ready to negotiate a concordat (or agreement between the Vatican and a secular government) with Lenin and Trotsky. The goal was to profit from the chaos in Russia for the reconversion of the schismatic Eastern Orthodox to the only true, Roman Catholic, faith. Even Pius XII harbored illusions in this regard and, during World War II, secretly sent missionaries to the East in the footsteps of the German army. In consequence the Soviets executed scores of missionaries, especially Jesuits.

Between 1926 and 1928, the Mexican government hounded priests, monks, and nuns, and practically forbade the practice of religion. Priests and lay Catholics answered in kind: Cristero guerrillas blew up trains and killed soldiers. Beginning in 1936, when Eugenio Pacelli was the Vatican representative in Berlin, anarcho-syndicalists in Spain tortured and murdered priests, monks, and nuns, of whom about eight thousand perished during the Civil War. Official Mexican governmental policy toward the Church eventually mellowed, and in Spain, General Franco’s counterrevolution wiped out not only the anarchists but also the Spanish Republic itself, some of whose leaders had also been hostile to the Church. Invoking the name of “Christ the King,” Franco’s nationalists carried out their own massacres, which, in their brutality, exceeded those of the anarchists and Communists; but the killing of priests and nuns remained part of Spanish memory.

The best-known author of the new books on Pacelli’s life and career is John Cornwell, whose Hitler’s Pope has recently been a best seller. A British journalist and author, he has written a clear and informative book in which Pius XII comes very much alive. Cornwell is particularly knowledgeable about Catholic mysticism and religious dogma. The main direction of his argument, with which there is no reason to disagree, is that in his pursuit of Catholic unity, Pius made the Church more centralized, autocratic, and rigid. More controversially, Cornwell also argues that the Pope deliberately abandoned the Catholic political parties in Europe, which he saw as competitors for his absolute power, but which were willing to stand up to fascism and National Socialism.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Mark Aarons and John Loftus, Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, the Nazis, and the Swiss Banks (St. Martin’s, revised edition, 1998), p. vii.

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