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.

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.

The same spirit marked the concordat with the German Reich in 1933, which was negotiated by Pacelli himself. By then he had left Germany and been Cardinal Secretary of State, i.e., the second most important person at the Holy See, for some three years. Most of the writers under review condemn the two concordats as a surrender to dictatorships. Yet defenders of the Vatican point out that the Vatican was weak; even though everyone knew that the agreements would be violated, the concordats were better than nothing in protecting the legitimacy of the Church and the rights of Catholics to worship under regimes that were explicitly hostile.

This defense seems to me convincing; Cornwell’s claim to the contrary, it was most unlikely that, without the concordat, the German Center Party would have put up resistance to the Nazis. Well before Hitler’s assumption of power the Center Party had begun to shift to the right, and Catholic voters threatened to defect to the National Socialists if the Center did not make its peace with Hitler. The few who disagreed with this, such as former chancellor Brüning, and some Catholic youth groups, were quickly shunted aside without much, if any, protest by other German Catholics.

The concordat was often violated by Nazi denunciations of the Church, as well as by the closing of Catholic schools; the dissolution of Catholic associations; Hitler Jugend attacks on Catholic youth; and the imprisonment of scores of priests charged with sexual crimes or currency speculation. German bishops openly defended Catholic rights and objected to the Nazi proposal to eliminate the deformed and retarded, but, with very few exceptions, the bishops did not speak up in defense of the persecuted Jews.

The Italian and German bishops were in a quandary. As Michael Phayer explains, with only a few convinced Fascists and National Socialists among them they were much less anti-Semitic than some of their Eastern European counterparts. But they still preferred the Fascist-Nazi regimes to what they saw as the only other possibilities: soulless Western materialism or Communist atheism, both of which, and especially communism, threatened the very existence of the Church. The Fascists and National Socialists advocated the values of the traditional family and opposed divorce and abortion; they had many of the same enemies as the Church, and notwithstanding Pius XI’s criticism of fascism, they seemed to want to build the kind of authoritarian, corporate state with a unifying social purpose that many of the bishops found desirable. In addition, there was the call of patriotism. In 1935, the Italian bishops supported Mussolini’s war against Abyssinia, even though the Italian army openly boasted of its success in using gas against the local population, many of whom were Coptic Christians. In Germany, too, the bishops at first lined up behind Hitler’s national program.

By the mid-1930s, however, the protests of the German bishops against the anti-Catholic propaganda and other practices of the Nazis had enthusiastic support from Pope Pius XI and much milder support from Cardinal Pacelli. In 1937, Pius XI issued the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”), which strongly condemned the deification of race and of the German people, as well as the cult of the German state. The Nazi authorities tried to confiscate the encyclical; but it was successfully distributed among the faithful and was openly read from the pulpits. This again showed that, with regard to the Church, the Nazis were quite lenient, at least for the time being; such a development would have been inconceivable in the Soviet Union.

In 1938, as mentioned earlier, Pius XI gave orders for the drafting of his major encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism. It was to be entitled Humani Generis Unitas, “The Unity of the Human Race.” But this straightforward and resolute man died early in 1939, and his successor, Pius XII, preferred diplomatic methods. In any case, he had long come to the conclusion that Soviet communism was the main enemy of the Church, and that Germany ought to be regarded as being in the forefront of that struggle. He tried to prevent the outbreak of World War II, which he perceived as an unreasonable conflict between non-Communist powers. He never protested, not even in secret communi-cations to the Germans, against the devastation of Catholic Poland, the beloved daughter of the Church, by the invading Wehrmacht. He remained silent when the Nazis moved against the Polish intelligentsia, shooting and torturing priests, professionals, politicians, and Catholic professors. As Michael Phayer has shown, the Nazis killed about 20 percent of the Polish clergy. Pius XII’s silence in this matter remains more incomprehensible than his extreme lateness in objecting to the persecution of the Jews.

How much did the Pope know about Nazi atrocities? Experts are divided on the question but it is clear that, despite many delays, the Vatican was aware of the extensive killing of Poles and Jews, and, quite specifically, of the genocide, beginning in 1941, against the Serbian Orthodox, Jewish, and Gypsy populations in Croatia. Zagreb was close to Italy; the Croatian Ustasha leaders at least pretended to be devout Catholics; they were received in the Vatican and were visited by Vatican dignitaries. The Italian occupation forces which opposed the Croatian fascists and protected the Jews reported regularly on the Ustasha massacres, as did, incidentally, the local SS, which disliked the troubles caused by the Croats with their murderous campaigns.

Some Croatian bishops (though not Archbishop Stepinaå«c of Zagreb) called openly for the forced conversion of the Orthodox. Franciscan monks beat, tortured, and machine-gunned their Serbian victims. As Michael Phayer, along with many other authors, demonstrates, the Vatican was well informed about what was happening in Croatia, yet it did nothing. Some have claimed, without documentary evidence, that, for the Pope, the campaign in Croatia meant the first step toward the reconversion of the Eastern schismatics. If this is true, it would only serve to damn him.

The attitude of the Pope toward the Holocaust remains a controversial issue but, overall, the Pope’s behavior in this respect can be deemed less reprehensible than in respect to the Polish Catholics and the Orthodox believers in Croatia. Even though he was very late in reacting, the Pope did do something on behalf of the Jews. All claims to the contrary, he sometimes took the initiative in helping them, and, according to statements by a variety of Catholic officials, at many other times he approved the action of the Catholic saviors of Jews.3

To be sure, Pius’s behavior regarding the Holocaust was often deplorable. In October 1943, for instance, the German SS prepared to deport the Jews of Rome. Jews were at the time already in hiding, in private homes, monasteries, and convents. But over a thousand were marched away “under his very windows,” to use the title of a book to be published by Susan Zuccotti, a specialist on the Holocaust in Italy.4 The Pope had been alerted to what was happening, especially by German diplomats to the Holy See who feared that many Italians, driven by indignation at the treatment of the Jews, would revolt. Yet Pius did nothing. He sent no warning messages to the Jewish community, messages which, unlike messages from German diplomats, would surely have been believed; nor did he try to address the SS command. One not very charitable explanation for his behavior is that he did not wish to alienate the Germans, whose presence he desired in Rome as long as possible in order to prevent a Communist-Partisan takeover. A more charitable explanation is that by not protesting the deportation of a thousand or so Roman Jews, he helped to save the six or seven thousand others. He had long since learned, he claimed later, that an open confrontation would only harm the persecuted all the more.

The Pope’s defenders often refer to the example of the Netherlands where both Catholic and Protestant churches were trying to save the lives of at least the Jewish converts. This was promised to them by the German High Commissioner in exchange for their agreement to remain silent about the Jewish persecution generally. The Protestant churches respected the deal and Protestant Jews were spared. However, the Archbishop of Utrecht openly condemned the persecution of the Jews, whereupon the Catholic Jews were deported. Apparently, the Pope believed that 40,000 Catholic Jews were killed as a consequence of the Archbishop’s pastoral letter. But there were not 40,000 converts in the Netherlands; rather, it seems that only about one or two hundred Catholic Jews were arrested.5 It is impossible to tell whether the Pope was in fact moved by what happened in the Netherlands—or what he believed had happened—or whether he used it as an excuse for his silence.

The question is often raised about what exactly the Pope could have done, for instance, in the case of the Roman Jews. Cornwell admits: “Pacelli had only limited scope for action…. [His] first priority was to maintain his limited independence.” This is certainly true; still, it is hard not to feel that the Pope could have gone to the railroad station where the Jews were waiting, crammed in boxcars. If he had solemnly appeared at the station, in full regalia and with some of his colorful retinue, and if he had indicated that he was against deportation, he might have caused the release, according to Zuccotti, of the 1,023 Jews, mostly women and children; this seems possible since some 236 had already been released by the SS, for various reasons. At the very least, the news of such an unheard-of gesture would have spread in Europe, and Catholics everywhere might have had second thoughts about what their governments and they themselves were doing. Instead, the 1,023 Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Of those, according to Zuccotti, only fifteen came back after the war.

Zuccotti and other historians have shown that there is no evidence of the Pope’s having given any direct instructions to the Italian clergy regarding the defense of the Jews. On the other hand, there is plenty of impressive evidence of the cooperation that took place between Italian Jewish organizations and local archbishops, bishops, priests, and nuns, all of whom seem to have worked out their own methods for protecting the Jews. The result was the survival of 83 percent of the Italian Jews.

While the Pope was unwilling to intervene with the Nazis on behalf of the Jews, he had no such hesitation with regard to the minor Eastern European governments. He directly appealed to the anti-Semitic Monsignor Tiso, who was the president of Slovakia; and he successfully ordered the intensely anti-Semitic Slovak bishops to adopt measures first to try to save Jewish converts and then all Slovak Jews. Moreover, Pius XII was also the first head of state to protest against the extensive deportation of Hungarian Jews between May and July 1944. It is true that the Pope’s cable on behalf of the Jews to Admiral Horthy and the mostly Catholic members of the Hungarian government was written after most Hungarian Jews in the countryside had already been deported, and after the Allies had occupied Rome. But other statesmen, such as the King of Sweden and President Roosevelt, were even slower in protesting. Duly impressed both by the protests and by the Allied landing in Normandy, Horthy forbade further deportations. In the end, about 40 percent of the Hungarian Jews survived.

Most of the apostolic nuncios under German occupation were active on behalf of the Jews, and so were many priests. In Budapest, for example, Monsignor Angelo Rotta again and again addressed protests to the Hungarian government on behalf of the Jews and he distributed to them forged Vatican passports and letters of protection. Even if he did not have written instructions, Rotta must have acted in a way he thought the Vatican wanted him to act.

Michael Phayer emphasizes the heroism of many nuns and Catholic lay women. Just one example: the Hungarian nun Margit Slachta, who was the mother superior of the Social Mission Society, protested the mistreatment of Hungarian Jews as early as 1941. A year later she traveled to Slovakia from where she described the treatment of Jews as hellish and satanic. She tried to awaken the generally indifferent or anti-Semitic Hungarian bishops to the danger of the Slovak Holocaust spilling over into Hungary, and she personally gave documents to Pius XII on the destruction of Jews in Poland and Slovakia.

In 1944, after the Holocaust had spread to Hungary, she and her order of “Grey Sisters” hid thousands of Jews, or gave them forged papers. Thugs from the fascist Arrow Cross militia shot a member of her order and threw the body in the Danube, together with the Jews she had protected. After the war, Margit Slachta led a Catholic women’s party which was ridiculed and viciously slandered in the left-wing press. In the 1947 national elections, votes for her party, and for all anti-Communist parties, were falsified at the orders of Minister of Interior László Rajk, a fanatical Communist later executed as an alleged Titoist agent. In 1949, Slachta emigrated to Buffalo where she died in 1974, at the age of ninety. Today she is largely forgotten even in Hungary.6

After World War II, and again in 1958, at the time of Pius XII’s death, Jewish organizations, political leaders, and ordinary people inundated the Vatican with letters of thanks for Catholic efforts on behalf of Jews. The respected Israeli historian and religious thinker Pinchas E. Lapide went so far as to claim in his The Last Three Popes and the Jews that “the Catholic Church, under the Pontificate of Pius XII was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000, Jews.”7 Ever since the publication of Lapide’s book, his figure of 860,000 has been used by practically every defender of Pius XII, and it has come in handy to Patrick Buchanan in his recent political campaigns. Lapide did not give any factual basis for his estimates, but he is right in accusing other international institutions of even more foot-dragging; and he justly condemns the International Red Cross in Geneva for having remained silent about the treatment of Jews in concentration camps.8

By November 1944, when the Hungarian Jews suffered a second wave of persecution, Rome had long been under Allied rule. For the papacy this only meant a change of overlords. Before the arrival of the Americans, the Pope’s main preoccupations were that the Eternal City not be bombed; that no colored troops enter the city; and that the Communist Partisans not be allowed to take over. In general, he was not to be disappointed.

Now, however, there began one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Vatican: its systematic assistance to Nazi war criminals enabling them to escape, mostly to Juan and Eva Perón’s Argentina. This episode, too, has been the subject of many books, films, and television shows, and a great deal of myth-making. Phayer and Cornwell show clearly that important prelates at the Vatican were involved in a project that allowed hundreds of mass murderers to escape the gallows, including Dr. Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, the Croat Führer Ante Pavelicå«, and Franz Stangl, the Austrian commander of the Treblinka death camp. The partial involvement of the US and other Allied secret services in this matter seems undeniable. (Some historians even claim that, indirectly, the Soviets plotted the escapes—for what reason remains unclear.9 ) In any case, the infamous Rat Line, the “underground railroad” of the war criminals, often led through buildings under Vatican protection. Money, tickets, and forged documents were provided by prelates at the Holy See.

How much did the Pope know about the Rat Line? The sources are murky on the subject, as they are on the Pope’s familiarity with the actions undertaken by his underlings on behalf of the Jews. I would argue that Pius XII approved of both undertakings: saving innocent Jews and saving war criminals. The Pope and the German bishops also campaigned assiduously for the release of war criminals imprisoned in Germany. All this, Michael Phayer and others argue, was part of the Vatican’s attempt to muster all available forces, however tainted, for the battle against communism. The Western Allies rather quickly came to share this papal point of view.

Pius XII must have been the first cold warrior. In contrast to his ambivalence during the Nazi years, he now freely used his chief weapon, excommunication. Anyone joining the Communist Party, or even working with Communists, was automatically under interdict and would, according to the edict, surely land in Hell, unless able to show genuine repentance. In Italy, the American government and the Vatican coordinated efforts to prevent a Communist victory in the 1948 elections. In Eastern Europe, as Luxmoore and Babiuch show in The Vatican and the Red Flag, papal policy was much less successful, and the edict was not followed by most of the Eastern European clergy. Under Cardinal Stefan Wyszyå«nski, the Polish Church broke with papal policies in order to arrive at a modus vivendi with the Stalinist regime in Poland, without, however, surrendering to it. Other Church leaders in Eastern Europe were less skillful, or enjoyed less popular support. Hungarian, Czechoslovak, and other clergy went to prison, and some were executed. Wyszyå«nski himself served time in prison. Others surrendered. Some of the worst fellow travelers were the so-called Peace Priests and like-minded Catholic lay intellectuals who followed the regime’s orders. As under the Nazis, the Protestant churches proved even more subservient than the Catholic.

Life under communism gradually and fitfully began to change, starting with the East German and Polish disturbances of 1953 and continuing with the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, and the Polish unrest of the 1970s. Meanwhile, in the years between 1958 and 1963, Pope John XXIII attempted to reform, modernize, and decentralize the Church. Among many other things, he proclaimed that present-day Jews were innocent of the killing of Jesus, and he became less rigid in papal policy toward the Communist regimes.

The election of the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtylå?a as Pope John Paul II, in 1978, presented a tremendous problem to the Communist leadership. Unable to mobilize the masses themselves, they had to watch helplessly as John Paul spoke to millions of the faithful, who took the occasion of his visit to Poland to demonstrate their opposition to communism. Thus, finally, without a single military division, the Pope did much to defeat the Soviet system.

It is impossible to compare the situation in Poland in the 1970s with that in Rome in, let us say, 1943. In the 1970s, there was no war; the Soviets would have run a large risk if they had intervened militarily, and the Eastern European Communists had long since lost any sympathy either for Marxist ideology or for Communist economics. In 1943, the Holy See was surrounded by German soldiers; the Nazi leaders were fanatics and millions of Germans were ready to die for their cause. This explains much of Pius XII’s behavior during and immediately after the war, but it does not explain everything.

Pius XII died in 1958, at the age of eighty-two, plagued by many illnesses, of which incessant hiccuping must have been the most excruciating. He was not an evil man. In fact, his behavior must be judged to have been a little better than that of millions upon millions of other Europeans who were even more indifferent toward their Jewish fellow citizens and other victims of the German and Soviet tyrannies. But then Eugenio Pacelli was the Pope, and while little was expected of the others, much was expected of him. Many of his medieval predecessors who had stood up to emperors and kings had thereby helped to preserve a duality of power that was instrumental in the development of Western civilization.

True, that duality had long been eroded by Vatican obscurantism, the rise of nationalism, and the modern state. But could not this Pope have made a single, historic public gesture? If he had, he would likely have saved more Jews, Poles, Serbs, and others than he did through his diplomatic skills. Unfortunately, he proved weak and fallible. He demonstrated no personal courage; he gave no example of the Imitatio Christi, which is what the world expects from the head of a church that traces its authority back to the apostles. Pope John Paul II’s current attempt to make Pacelli a saint must be judged a very strange undertaking indeed.

This Issue

March 23, 2000