Few popes were met with greater public expectation than Eugenio Pacelli when he was elected in 1939. It was hoped that as both an admired religious leader and a well-known diplomat, he would prove a welcome agent of European stability, a “prince of peace.” Yet few popes exercised less political influence during a great world crisis than he did. Later generations, nevertheless, insist on assigning world-historical influence, whether blessed or evil, to a man whose politics were mainly characterized by inefficiency and hesitation. Immersed in mystical meditations—which among other things produced the 1950 dogma of the assumption into heavenly glory of the body and soul of Holy Mary—Pope Pius XII rarely made use of his considerable experience in international affairs. Neither as the autocratic ruler of a sovereign state nor as head of the world’s Catholic community was he able to change the course of world events, either during World War II or thereafter.

Pius XII had hoped since the 1930s for worldwide cooperation against Soviet communism, yet he was unable to prevent the outbreak of the war between the Western democracies and the Nazi–fascist alliance. Nor could he bring about a negotiated peace between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies so as to prevent the Soviet invasion of Europe. The Italian fascist state paid little serious attention to him or to the interests of his church. The German Nazis skillfully exploited Pius XII’s anticommunism and his awareness of the vulnerability of the Vatican state to establish firm control over the Church and the Catholic faithful in Germany.

Fearful of Hitler’s wrath, the Pope barely raised his voice against Nazi racism and anticlericalism, and spoke even less against Nazi anti-Semitism. He did not take a stand in defense of the suffering Polish Catholic nation, or of the Christian victims of the Nazi euthanasia program, or of the Jews of his own bishopric in Rome. He tried but failed to stop the American bombing of Rome and the Communist partisan attacks in the city against the German occupiers. The Western allies, when they finally reached Rome in June 1944, were mainly interested in using Pius XII for their own propaganda purposes.

Even the Communist governments, whom the Pope opposed with unrelenting passion, were able to ignore his numerous excommunications after the war. Changing his failed policies, the successors of Pius XII agreed to compromise after compromise with the Communist authorities in Eastern Europe so as to assure the survival of the Church there. Only several decades later, when the Soviet empire was beginning to show signs of incurable decrepitude, could another pope hasten its collapse. But the agile and dynamic Pole John Paul II could hardly have been more different from the ascetic, solemn, and pompous Roman nobleman Pius XII.

No doubt, it was wrong to expect so much from Pius XII, and yet even today the debate rages about his accomplishments. That can be seen as part of a great cultural war within Western civilization. Some call his performance magnificent; others see it as acceptable; still others regard it as abominable. Attempts to make him a saint are as relentless as are the moves to block the process. Some of the most popular books on the Pope bear such militant titles as Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII and The Myth of Hitler’s Pope.1 Among his defenders one finds both Catholics and Jews, such as Rabbi David G. Dalin, the Jesuit fathers Robert A. Graham and Peter Gumpel, Sister Margherita Marchione, Frank J. Coppa, Ronald J. Rychlak, and José M. Sanchez. Of them, Coppa and Sanchez are the most moderate and willing to take account of contrary views. The Pope’s numerous critics include James Carroll, John Cornwall, Robert Katz, David I. Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Garry Wills, and Susan Zuccotti; among them are several practicing Catholics and a former Catholic priest.2

A strong critic is Michael Phayer, whose Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War is based, in part, on documents recently uncovered in the US National Archives. Phayer attributes some importance to the Pope’s Christmas radio address in 1942, in which, in effect, he denounced genocide without making clear whose genocide or which genocide he was referring to, although many listeners would have concluded that he was condemning Nazi policy against Jews. More importantly, however, Phayer bitterly attacks such political acts of the Vatican as support of the murderous Croatian fascists, shady money dealings during the war, and the development of the “ratline,” which enabled a huge number of Nazi murderers to escape to South America. Indeed, Phayer characterizes Pius XII as the earliest and most fanatical cold warrior who expedited the fugitive Nazis to Peronist Argentina so as to have a group of reliable anti-Communist fighters available for the coming conflict with the Soviet Union. “Somehow, fighting communism justified the ratlines in the pope’s mind and in his code of ethics.”3


The harshest critic of all is Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, who in his book on the papacy demands that the Vatican atone for its past crimes by fundamentally revising its ideology and practices under a sort of Jewish tutelage.4 Remarkably, a large number of the important books on the subject appeared around the turn of the millennium when the debate about the failure of the world to stop the Holocaust was at its most intense. Inevitably, therefore, the books I have mentioned also concentrate on the Vatican’s policy toward the Jews. Unfortunately, because the Vatican archives on World War II are still almost entirely closed, researchers must be satisfied with consulting the eleven volumes of documents the Vatican has published on the subject.5

Many issues are still open regarding the life and doings of Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII. Was he, for instance, an anti-Semite? Critics claim to detect early signs of anti-Semitism in the contemptuous remarks he made, as a papal legate in Bavaria in 1919, about some Jewish female revolutionaries. But Pacelli’s contempt for these women seems to me more a sign of traditional Catholic clerical dislike both of Jews and of politically active leftist women—the two being seen as linked—than a manifestation of some unusual, radical anti-Semitism. Yet it is true that the boundaries between the types of hostility can be very thin indeed. Or was it a betrayal of German Catholic politics for Pacelli, as Vatican secretary of state, to negotiate a concordat with Hitler in 1933? This agreement allowed for the free practice of religion in the Third Reich but surrendered the possibility of a specifically Catholic politics, thus abandoning the Center Party, the great German Catholic political party.

In my view, the Vatican was willing to sign a concordat with any state, even with the Soviet Union, so long as it guaranteed the continuation of religious life and that of the Church as an institution. Besides, it was not the papacy that had abandoned the Center Party, which used to be the mainstay of the Weimar Republic; in fact, the Center Party had deserted the cause of constitutional politics during the last years of the republic by moving steadily to the right and by voting unanimously in March 1933 for the notorious Enabling Act, which made Hitler dictator in perpetuity.

Another question: How can we evaluate Pius XII’s setting aside of the draft proposal for a major encyclical—prepared for Pius XI, his predecessor—that would have condemned racist anti-Semitism? What exactly, moreover, were the goals of the papacy’s policy toward the Nazis and the Western Allies during the war? In his recent book, A Special Mission, Dan Kurzman attempts to clarify some specific aspects of these complex relationships. Kurzman has written many successful popular histories, among them books on the heroic defense of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the sinking of the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine in the last days of the war, the Arab–Israeli war in 1948, and the Bhopal chemical factory catastrophe.

As a dedicated investigator of modern papal history, Kurzman aims at impartiality: he would not characterize Pius XII as “Hitler’s pope”; rather, he regards Pius as a cleric who hated Hitler and was willing to support efforts to overthrow him. He also sees the Pope as a specially designated target of Hitler’s fury. It was this knowledge of Hitler’s murderous plans toward him personally that caused Pius XII, Kurzman argues, to exercise restraint in all his actions. Trying to protect the precarious sovereignty of the Vatican, the Pope did not protest publicly the persecution of the Jews. But Kurzman also blames the papacy for its failures, especially for not doing more on behalf of the Jews of Europe.

The main trouble with Kurzman’s interesting book is the author’s credulity; he uncritically accepts the validity of controversial documents and unquestioningly believes in the statements made to him by his principal German interlocutor, the former SS General Karl Wolff, who died in 1984. The book’s documentation is modest; the short notes and index contain a great number of vague or inaccurate references. Moreover, it is difficult to believe the arguments of an author who so manifestly lacks the language abilities needed for his work. Kurzman seems to know Italian but no German; he misspells German names and uses almost no German-language sources. He refers, at least a half a dozen times, to Erna Hanfstaengl, the sister of the German-American Nazi Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, as Frauline [sic] Hanfstaengl—as if “Frauline” (correctly Fräulein) were a German first name.


Kurzman’s main point is that Hitler had always held the Catholic Church to be his enemy. And in fact, he writes, Pius was willing, in 1939, to transmit to Britain the messages of some high-ranking German officers who were plotting the overthrow of the Führer. It was not the Pope’s fault that the British government did not believe the German generals and that, in any case, it had no wish to cooperate with the German resistance.

In September 1943, after the Italians threw Mussolini out of power, King Victor Emmanuel III and the new prime minister, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, secretly negotiated the surrender of Italy to the Allies. The Germans, however, quickly intervened and captured the entire Italian army; they freed the Duce, created a puppet fascist republic in northern Italy, and in an amazingly effective military campaign, stopped the Allied advances in southern Italy. According to Wolff, and thus also according to Kurzman, the Führer held the Pope in part responsible for the Italian “betrayal,” and therefore ordered Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man, General Wolff, to prepare a plan for taking over the Vatican, hitherto a neutral state, and kidnapping the Pope. Moreover, the Führer envisaged the eventual murder of the Pope.

Rumors regarding Hitler’s planned coup against the Vatican in 1943 and 1944 have been known to historians for a long time and many specialists mention it in their books, but Kurzman is the first to build the story into a systematic Nazi plot. He even provides details on how the kidnapping was to be executed, his source for this being a letter written by one high-ranking Italian Fascist dignitary to another. The date of the letter is left unclear in the book but, according to Kurzman, it states, on the basis of information received from an SS official, that a group of soldiers from the 8th Waffen SS Cavalry Division, also called the Florian Geyer Division, would storm the Vatican in Italian uniforms. They would then kill all the members of the Curia and kidnap the Pope. If he tried to escape, he would be shot. In order to keep the entire affair hush-hush, the SS soldiers wearing Italian uniforms would subsequently be massacred in the Vatican by troops from the Hermann Göring Parachute Panzer Division, who were expected to have mistaken their compatriots for Italian assassins.

Kurzman takes seriously this flight of Italian fantasy, which is unsubstantiated by convincing evidence. It is hard to believe that the parachutists would not have recognized their comrades in the SS, and would have been willing to kill them. In all the history of the German armed forces there is no evidence of such behavior. The Florian Geyer Division, moreover, fought throughout the war on the Eastern Front and never in Italy. Finally, one must ask oneself why Hitler would have wanted to kidnap and even kill the Pope, who was more of an enemy of the Soviet Union than of Nazi Germany. There can be little doubt that, after the war, the Führer would have dealt harshly with the churches, especially the theoretically supranational Catholic Church; for the time being, he did not wish to offend Catholic sensibilities.
Karl Wolff claimed to Kurzman that he saw his principal task as preventing Hitler from going through with his plan; therefore he not only quietly sabotaged the Führer’s orders but went to see the Pope to ask him not to provoke Hitler, especially by taking actions to protect Jews. Wolff had made a name for himself as one of the principal killers of Jews during the first years of the German army’s Russian campaign. He ended his military career by surrendering the German armed forces in Italy to Allen Dulles, head of the OSS in Switzerland, a few days before the end of the war. Because of this surrender as well as his talent for making people believe him, he was given relatively brief prison sentences and succeeded in projecting the image that he was now a helpful, cooperative former soldier. This is the kind of impression he obviously wished to make on Kurzman as well when he talked to him, although it is not clear just when he did so.

According to Kurzman and other writers, Wolff was not the only high-ranking German trying to prevent the kidnapping of the Pope, which would, they feared, have a catastrophic effect on the Germans’ standing in Italy and the world. Two German diplomats in Rome, Ernst von Weizsäcker and Eitel Friedrich Möllhausen, also attempted to prevent Hitler from ordering the invasion of the Vatican, not as protectors of the Hitler regime but as its dedicated opponents, or so they claimed after the war. Still, their efforts were in the same direction as those of Karl Wolff. They both advised Pius XII to do nothing to provoke Hitler’s wrath. Wolff and the German diplomats also worried about possible destruction of the artistic and cultural treasures in the Vatican and Rome in general. In advising the Pope to take no action against Germany, however, they all ultimately served German interests and not those of Germany’s enemies—provided, of course, that Hitler ever seriously meant to carry out the kidnapping plan.

The Pope’s latter-day defenders argue that by remaining silent he not only protected the Vatican from a German takeover but also allowed the Pope and the Vatican to hide thousands of victims of National Socialism, among them especially Jews. And it is true that most of the Roman and, in general, Italian Jews survived, more often than not under the protection of archbishops, bishops, abbots, mothers superior, clergymen, and nuns.

Critics, however, particularly the historian Susan Zuccotti, who thoroughly documents the deportation of over a thousand Roman Jews in October 1943 (as well as some seven hundred to eight hundred more later), point out that the Pope would have had many ways to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the deportation of the Jews from “under his very windows” without thereby provoking a German invasion of his state. He might, for example, have encouraged the directors of Church institutions in Rome to offer help to fugitives and provided financing and supplies to sustain hospitality. Or he “could have intervened behind the scenes…with political and police authorities…in the new Italian Social Republic and even with certain German diplomats, on behalf of Jews in Italy.”6

The question of what the Pope could have done and should have done will bedevil historians for a long time to come. The vulnerability of the Vatican is indisputable, surrounded as it was by German soldiers following the fall of Mussolini. Practically all those residing in the Vatican and the affiliated churches and monasteries within Rome would have died of starvation and even of thirst had the Germans decided to cut off their supplies. The Germans could also have denied permission to the municipal authorities in Rome to remove the garbage from the papal state. It would have been similarly easy for the Germans to cut the Vatican radio off the air as well as to deprive L’Osservatore Romano, the official papal newspaper, of its paper supply. Finally, there is the question of how much the Pope knew about developments in Hitler’s Europe, specifically the Final Solution, which began to unfold in 1942. Ironically, the Pope’s defenders, who highly praise his abilities as a diplomat, argue that the papal diplomatic service was not as efficient as it seemed in providing information to the Vatican.

Kurzman and all those who write on the Vatican during World War II devote a great deal of attention not only to the Pope’s inability to protect the nearly two thousand Roman Jews whom the German and Italian fascists had succeeded in deporting to their death in Auschwitz but also to the Pope’s failure to help victims of German revenge following a Communist attack, in March 1944, which killed thirty-three German military policemen in Rome’s Via Rasella. This affair still evokes bitterness on the part of former non-Communist resisters, and feelings of triumph on the part of the Communists. Critics of the attack note that not one of the Communist partisans was ever caught. On the other hand, the next day 335 other Italians were executed, in the so-called Ardeatine Cave massacre: ten Italians for every German soldier who had been killed. (Note that five extra Italian victims were thrown in for good measure.)

The role of the Vatican in the Ardeatine Cave affair is highly controversial, ranging from claims that the Pope had been notified in advance of the German plans, yet did nothing, to claims that he was told only when it was too late for him to do anything. It seems clear that the Pope had been outraged by the Communist attack and that he desperately feared a Communist takeover of the Vatican before the arrival of the Americans. These might have been among the reasons why he did not try to intervene with the Germans to save Italians from execution. The Vatican managed to get a few names taken off the list of the innocently condemned; but defenders of the Pope rarely mention that similarly innocent citizens were made to take their place. Even after the massacre, the papal newspaper and radio failed to raise their voices against the killing of innocents.

In fact, the Pope and his entourage were unable to stop or even influence a single major Nazi—or Allied—action. One reason for this was that the Catholic clergy and laity were far from being united on any of the major questions of the day. Rather than a supranational institution with unconditional loyalty to the bishop of Rome, as the Nazis and many secularists had always feared, the Catholic Church was divided along ideological and, even more seriously, national lines.

The clergy of Poland, for example, tended to be anti-Nazi, anti-Soviet, and anti-Semitic, as were the Polish people in general. German clerics were opposed to communism and the Jews; they also supported the war effort. Yet the same priests were often highly critical of Nazi racism, the Nazi euthanasia program, and the Nazis’ exclusive claim to the right to bring up young people. The French Church hesitated between collaboration and resistance as did the French people, with collaborationist attitudes being common in the first years of the war and anti-German positions becoming popular in the last years.

In all these countries there were some Catholic clergy and teachers who took risks to protect Jews. The Italian clergy, as Susan Zuccotti explains in her masterful Italians and the Holocaust, generally behaved more courageously than the Vatican in protecting potential victims of the Nazis. Whether or not this happened under the orders, or with the encouragement, or with the silent consent, or against the wishes of the Pope is another source of contention. Zuccotti writes that there is no evidence of the Pope having ordered such acts of mercy, while the historian Ronald J. Rychlak argues that such orders did in fact exist but that to put them into writing would have been suicidal. Rychlak also points to the postwar testimonies of Jewish leaders who assert that there was close collaboration between the Vatican and Jewish rescue organizations.

Zuccotti has replied that the Jewish leaders referred to by Rychlak were not on the scene at that time and could not have known whether the collaboration came from the Vatican or from the lesser clergy. In fact, many of the claims that papal orders were given to help Jews are supported by evidence of recent origin. It is worth pointing out that in areas occupied by the Italian army, members of the Italian armed forces, from generals down to ordinary enlisted men, showed much courage in protecting Jewish residents and refugees against the wrath of the Germans and their local allies.

Pius XII made it his supreme purpose to assure the survival of the Catholic Church in a time of turmoil. In this, he was successful, although it is still not clear just how, when, and by whom that survival was threatened. In providing help to the victims of Nazi persecution, the Pope undertook much less than could have been expected of a person of his exalted position. And even when he tried, he accomplished little or nothing. His story is, unfortunately, one of the more depressing to come out of the war.

This Issue

June 12, 2008