• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Pope, the Nazis & the Jews

The trouble with Cornwell’s book lies with its sensationalism. Pius XII was not “Hitler’s Pope”; the two hated each other, as Cornwell himself admits. In the autumn of 1939, he writes, Pius XII took some risks in supporting a German general’s plot to overthrow Hitler. Nor is Cornwell’s subtitle, “The Secret History of Pius XII,” accurate. The author was able to look into a number of unpublished documents connected to the beatification process of Pius XII, but these documents reveal nothing of great importance. Most of Cornwell’s information, including details on the Pope’s participation in the plot against Hitler, comes from secondary sources. There is nothing wrong with this in a book of such a wide scope. What is objectionable is Cornwell’s claim to have uncovered all sorts of dirty secrets which had caused him to go into “moral shock.” Pius’s actions are far too well known for that.

The errors in Hitler’s Pope are no more numerous than those in most other histories of the Vatican; what is difficult to swallow is the author’s self-assurance. He states, for instance, that, in the summer of 1914, when Pacelli was a middle-level official in the Vatican foreign service, he was able to bring about a concordat protecting Serbia’s Catholics. This, Cornwell writes, so angered Austria-Hungary, the traditional protector of the not-so-numerous Catholics in Serbia, as to make the war inevitable. In other words, Pacelli was responsible for the outbreak of World War I.

To bolster his claim, Cornwell quotes from the British writer Anthony Rhodes’s The Power of Rome in the Twentieth Century.2 Yet he does not mention Rhodes’s other statement, that “it is a Papal principle never to refuse a request for a Concordat,” and that Pacelli acted in accord with Pope Pius X’s instructions. The Austro-Hungarian leaders must have been furious over the Serbian concordat, but the list of their complaints against Serbia was long already. In the major Austrian histories of the period I have found no mention of the Serbian concordat as having been an issue. It was the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand at Sarajevo that gave the monarchy’s leaders their long-awaited excuse to crush Serbia.

It is equally difficult to accept Cornwell’s claim of Pacelli’s early anti-Semitism. No doubt, some of the Vatican publications, such as the Jesuits’ Civiltà Cattolica, often published diatribes against Judaism, but Pacelli was not one of the contributors, and there is little if any evidence of anti-Semitism on his part. Cornwell cites the “palm-frond incident” in 1917, when the Bavarian Jewish community, wanting to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, requested that Pacelli, as papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Munich, obtain palm fronds from Italy, a country with which Germany was at war. Pacelli refused, yet, Cornwell writes, it “might have brought spiritual consolation to many thousands [of Jews].” This, in my view, proves nothing.

Nor do I find convincing Corn-well’s second “proof” of Pacelli’s anti-Semitism, namely his derogatory views, in the spring of 1919, of the Soviet Republic briefly established by radicals in Munich. In his letters to Rome, Pacelli wrote at length about the “lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles” of some revolutionary women, who were “Jews like all the rest of them.” His description of one of the revolutionary leaders was full of Jewish stereotyping. But then, most leaders of the Bavarian Soviet Republic were in fact Jews, and conservative German Jews found these rather childish and yet often brutal young intellectuals similarly unappealing.

We can be sure that Pacelli did not particularly care for Jews; nor did most other clergymen. Priests saw the Jews as Christ-killers, or at least as the Chosen People who had proved deaf and blind to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The clergy tended to feel that Jews were behind the Enlightenment, Freemasonry, rationalism, the French Revolution, liberalism, capitalism, democracy, socialism, communism, anarchism, radicalism, anti-clericalism, secularism, materialism, evolutionary theory, and urban immorality: all mortal enemies of the Church and of Catholic teachings. But many priests who disliked the Jews for such reasons also became their brave protectors during the Holocaust; others, like Pius, did help the Jews but too little and too late; and still other priests, for example in Croatia, joined the ranks of the murderers. A few early expressions of anti-Judaic feelings prove little.

Cornwell charges Pacelli with love of luxury when, for instance, as newly appointed papal nuncio to Munich, he transported sixty cases of embargoed food across neutral Switzerland during World War I. But Cornwell himself writes later that “Pacelli traveled tirelessly in Germany…bringing food and clothing to the starving ‘of all religions’ on behalf of the Holy See.” So the sixty cases of groceries may not have been for Pacelli alone. In any case, papal ambassadors were known for setting a generous table.

Cornwell also makes factual errors. He writes, for example, that when Pacelli, a newly appointed nuncio to the entire German Reich, moved to Berlin in August 1925, and “began to throw parties,” one of his regular guests was the Social Democratic president of the republic, Friedrich Ebert. But Ebert died nearly six months before the nuncio could have begun throwing his parties. Errors regarding Hungary are particularly numerous in Cornwell’s book. It makes one wonder about statements regarding other countries. Cornwell writes that “practically every right-wing dictator of the period had been born and brought up a Catholic,” and he lists Admiral Miklós Horthy, who was Hungary’s regent between 1920 and 1944, as one of the Catholic dictators. But Horthy was neither a dictator nor a Catholic. He was born and brought up a Calvinist. (Cornwell elsewhere calls this reactionary monarchist the president of Hungary.)

The scope of Michael Phayer’s very valuable The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 is obviously narrower than that of Cornwell’s book, which deals with the papacy as whole. But Phayer, who teaches at the Jesuit-run Marquette University in Wisconsin, moves well beyond World War II. Highly critical of Pius XII, he pays much attention to the Vatican’s active assistance to escaping war criminals, to Pius’s efforts to promote clemency for war criminals, and to his refusal to confront anti-Semitism after the war. Phayer’s book is based on a large number of German and American archival sources, printed documents and memoirs, and a thorough reading of the eleven volumes of documents on the Holy See during World War II that the Vatican published between 1965 and 1967. He has written a fine and judicious book, which can be supplemented by Frank J. Coppa’s valuable compendium of essays on Napoleon’s, Mussolini’s, and Hitler’s concordats with the Vatican. This includes the texts of the concordats themselves.

George Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky discuss the major encyclical that Pius XII’s predecessor, Pope Pius XI, planned to issue, in 1939, as a strong refutation of Nazi racial theories and the persecution of Jews. Pius XI, the Italian-born Achille Ratti, had issued a papal letter in 1931 arguing that fascism and Catholicism were incompatible, and he had spoken out against nationalism, racism, and totalitarianism. The draft on anti-Semitism was drawn up by three Jesuits—from the US, Germany, and France. Clearly, the drafters of the document abhorred virtually everything connected with National Socialism. Yet even they stated that the Jews were responsible for their tragedy because, unlike the pagan peoples, they were given the light but failed to see it. Pius XI died while the encyclical was in draft form, and Pius XII, on succeeding him, buried the draft in the archives. Garry Wills’s introduction to this volume is enlightening; the fact that George Passelecq, a Benedictine monk in Belgium, and Bernard Suchecky, a specialist in contemporary Jewish studies, cooperated in publishing a book so critical of the papacy is a sign of the changes since Pius XII’s time.

Finally, Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch’s The Vatican and the Red Flag is an admirable book on the excruciating problems faced by the Vatican in trying to deal with Communist governments in Eastern Europe, and particularly with their persecution of Catholic priests and laymen. Luxmoore writes on Church affairs in Eastern Europe for several British, mostly Catholic journals, and his wife, Jolanta Babiuch, is a lecturer at Warsaw University. They start with what they call “the agonies of Pius XII” in confronting the mortal threat of Stalinism in the post-World War II period, and they carry their story up to the time of Karol Wojtylå?a, that is, John Paul II. The emphasis of their study, which is written more for specialists than the general public, is on Poland, where the Church dealt most successfully with its Communist enemies.


Eugenio Pacelli was born in 1876, in Rome, into a family of church lawyers. One of his brothers had an important part in negotiating the concordat with Mussolini in 1929. Eugenio was serious, studious, intelligent, and he always wanted to be a priest. As a young boy, he celebrated mass in his bedroom. It would be helpful to know how he dealt with the problem of celibacy, but of this we know nothing. There was some gossip in Rome that the Pope and his housekeeper, a rather overbearing German nun, were lovers, but there is no evidence for this. In 1899, he was ordained a priest and was soon recruited into the elite Vatican diplomatic corps. He earlier participated in the drafting of a new Canon Law which regulated the life of the clergy and enforced even greater conformity and discipline. He never served as a parish priest.

In 1911, Pacelli became one of the more important members of the Vatican foreign service; in 1914, he negotiated the concordat with Serbia; in 1917, he was made a cardinal, and in the same year he was appointed papal nuncio to Bavaria. This was one of the Church’s most important foreign posts, more than one third of the Germans being Roman Catholics, with a significant proportion of those in Bavaria. In the 1870s the “Center”—Germany’s Catholic political party—the Catholic trade unions, and other Catholic groups had successfully withstood Bismarck’s fierce anti-Catholic campaign. By World War I, Catholicism in Germany was thriving as perhaps never before. Pacelli himself learned to speak and write fluent German; he became the Vatican’s foremost German expert, and he developed a great fondness for that country.

In 1929, while Pacelli was still in Germany, his superior, Pius XI, concluded a concordat with Mussolini, who, even though an inveterate atheist, proved to be more friendly to the Church than had earlier liberal regimes. The Church was accorded a minuscule sovereign state and the right to organize religious life in Italy without much interference from government. Between 1870 and 1929 the popes had resided in buildings that legally belonged to Italy. In exchange for Vatican sovereignty, the Holy See gave up all claims to political activity and abandoned support of the once-dynamic Catholic party.

  1. 2

    Franklin Watts, 1983.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print