In response to:

The Pope’s Many Silences from the October 20, 2022 issue

To the Editors:

Unfortunately, my new book The Pope and the Holocaust received a review in your pages [NYR, October 20] that rather reflects the bias of its author than the content of my work.

Tim Parks compares my book with David Kertzer’s The Pope at War and wonders why Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia or Italy’s invasion of Albania was not mentioned in my timetable. Obviously he ignores the fact that my book focuses on the Holocaust and not on World War II, two subjects that are certainly not identical.

Furthermore, he blames me for not mentioning the secret negotiations between Pope Pius XII and the Prince of Hessen, who was sent to the Vatican by Adolf Hitler to prepare the meeting of Reich foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop with the pope. Once again, since the Holocaust was not a subject of these preparatory talks, there was no reason to include them in my book. On the other hand, Kertzer, in The Pope at War, deliberately ignores the secret talks of Pius XII with the German resistance, the very group that planned a coup d’état and the assassination of Hitler as early as October 1939, but eventually failed dramatically on July 20, 1944, with the “Valkyrie” events.

To excuse this failure, Parks claims that “the sources Hesemann quotes are all postwar memoirs or reconstructions,” which is absolutely not true. I quote primary documents from the British government proving that Pius XII contacted that government, informing it about the German plans. I also quote a dozen 1940 Vatican documents from when the Holy See warned the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France about an upcoming attack (about which Pius XII learned from the high-ranking admirals and generals in the resistance), and a 1941 Vatican document mentioning that the Nazis heard rumors about the Vatican’s involvement in a conspiracy against the Reich. I quote the 1944 OSS interrogation of the pope’s secretary, Fr. Leiber, who mentions the involvement of Pius XII in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, and I quote the Kaltenbrunner Report to Hitler when the Gestapo, after interrogating and torturing the conspirators of July 20, 1944, learned about their contact with and support from Pius XII. None of these documents are “postwar memoirs.”

Furthermore, Parks denies that the 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatus by Pius XII condemns Nazi racism and anti-Semitism. Even Wikipedia states: “Summi Pontificatus sees Christianity being universalized and opposed to racial hostility and superiority.” Opposed to what Parks claims (“In fact, the text speaks only of victims of war, not of racism”), Pius XII wrote:

An error…today abundantly widespread, is disregard for the law of human solidarity and charity, dictated and imposed both by our common origin and by the equality in rational nature of all men, whatever nation they belong to.

This is clearly a call for solidarity and charity for the victims of racism.

Also, Parks is wrong when he claims that “no culprits are named and no victims identified.” The culprit, in Pius XII’s words, is “the totalitarian state,” what clearly refers to Nazism, fascism, and communism. As Pope Pius XII stated two years before the beginning of the Holocaust, “The blood of countless human beings, even noncombatants, raises a piteous dirge over a nation such as Our dear Poland, which…has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world.”

Parroting Kertzer, Parks claims that Pius XII was only interested in “Catholic Non-Aryans” or Jewish converts to Catholicism. As early as 1939, however, he requested visas for 200,000 German victims of anti-Semitism. That comes close to the real number of “Jews by race” in the Reich at that time (circa 233,000) but is far too high to refer only to the 13,000 or so “Catholic Non-Aryans” or converts. As I demonstrate in my book, the Catholic Church used its initiatives for converts as a cover, so that it was not accused by the Nazis of joining with their “arch-enemy,” the Jews, which would have given Hitler a cheap excuse for a campaign against the church, which is what he planned for after the “final victory.” Indeed, in Italy as in Romania, the Vatican issued tens of thousands of fake baptism certificates when the local governments were willing to spare the converts from persecution or racial laws.

Parks simply denies that Pius XII was involved in saving 6,400 of the 8,000 Roman Jews after the razzia of October 16, 1943. Indeed, the razzia was stopped after the protest of the German commander of Rome, General Stahel. The Vatican documents, as well as documents I discovered in other Roman institutions, prove that it was Pius XII, sending his nephew Carlo Pacelli and his aide Fr. Pfeiffer to General Stahel, who not only moved him to call Himmler and request to end the Judenaktion but also to print 550 placards that declared Roman monasteries, seminaries, and church institutions part of the (neutral and sovereign) Vatican State. That prohibited German soldiers and SS officers from entering those buildings for the next nine months of German occupation of Rome.


In these monasteries, following a call of the pope published in his newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on October 25, 1943, about 4,300 Jews were hidden. Indeed, several chronicles of those monasteries, quoted in my book, explicitly mention the papal request to help the Roman Jews. Sadly enough, the pope was not able to save 1,007 of the arrested and deported Jews, but at the same time he managed to save 6,400 whose deportation was explicitly ordered by Himmler. For Kertzer and Parks, however, this undeniable fact does not count.

Again parroting Kertzer, Parks naively claims that a papal protest would have stopped German Catholics from killing Jews. He ignores that living in a dictatorship meant being exposed to severe censorship. The only media available to the Germans were the newspapers, the radio, and a weekly news show in the cinemas, all of which were censored by Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda. Germans neither learned about the Allied declaration on the Holocaust of December 17, 1942, nor would they have learned about a papal protest. Besides, they would have considered any claim about “killing factories” in German-occupied Poland as Allied propaganda and fake news. Only Nazis of the highest ranks and, of course, the bloodhounds of the SS knew what was going on, and they certainly did not consist of faithful Catholics. On the other hand, the Nazis’ propaganda would have accused the pope of being a spokesman for the “enemies of the Reich,” destroyed the infrastructure of the Church, and made all papal initiatives to save Jews impossible.

When the bishop of Utrecht protested against the deportations, retaliations against the church and the deportation of all converts were the result. When the pope sent a letter of solidarity to the Polish people, the archbishop of Krakow burned all copies to prevent retaliation by the Nazis. Also, a papal protest was a “one-bullet weapon”—he could (and did) always use the threat to protest to reach his goal here and there and stay in dialogue with Hitler’s allies such as Mussolini’s Italy, Vichy France, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria, which were willing to compromise, enabling the pope to reach his only goal: to save as many human (and especially Jewish) lives as possible.

At the end of the war, thanks to forty diplomatic interventions causing the delay or even the cancellation of dozens of deportations, the release of visas, and just hiding thousands of Jews, Pius XII and his church were able to save up to 970,000 persecuted Jews. When Parks writes, “it is hard to see how the fate of the Jews would have been worsened” by a papal protest, the simple reply is: yes, sadly enough, six million were murdered. But without the church and the pope, we would easily talk about seven million victims of the Holocaust!

Michael Hesemann
Neuss, Germany

Tim Parks replies:

In preparing my review of two books that take diametrically opposite positions on Pope Pius XII’s wartime record, I isolated a moment they both describe—the pope’s meeting with Ribbentrop in 1941—and went to the original source in the Vatican archives that both cite. I discovered that Hesemann had systematically distorted this source in the pope’s favor. That he does not attempt to correct my analysis of this distortion in his long letter is telling. It thus remains hard for me to feel confident about his assertions, including much of what he says here.

Hesemann is quick to see blame. Vis-à-vis his not mentioning Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, Italy’s invasion of Albania, or the secret negotiations between Pius and Hitler, I merely wrote: “Hesemann includes none of this material, focusing instead on the Holocaust, Pius’s support for Catholic Jews attempting to escape Germany, and his many appeals for peace.” Given, however, that our subject is the pope’s silence on the Holocaust, it might have been useful for readers to know that the pope had condemned none of the Nazi or Fascist aggressions. The decision not to speak out on the persecution of the Jews was in line with a decision not to speak out in general; the church received substantial subsidies from both the German and Italian governments and enjoyed many privileges. Much was at stake aside from the lives of Jews. And surely it would be useful for readers to know that the pope had secret contact with the Nazi regime, during which the Holocaust might have been raised. Kertzer’s account of those talks suggests that the pope only addressed the German state’s treatment of Catholics.

With regard to visas, the pope requested visas for baptized Catholic Jews, not all Jews. This was in line with a general tendency throughout the 1930s to seek to exempt Catholic Jews from the Race Laws. Kertzer gives many examples. In my article I reported Hesemann’s belief that the pope hoped these visas might be extended to all Jews. That may be so, but it remains in the realm of speculation. Hesemann’s own account very soon focuses on only three thousand visas that the Brazilian government promised, strictly for Catholic Jews with baptism certificates dated prior to 1937, but never delivered.


On the conspiracy against Hitler and the pope’s initial vouching for the good faith of the conspirators to the British government, Hesemann is right that he does quote government sources, and for my mistake I apologize. I must have lost them in the many pages quoting colorful accounts of this conspiracy, none of which have much to do with his focus on the Holocaust. In any event, it stretches credibility to suggest, as Hesemann does in his book, that the pope was silent on the persecution of the Jews for so many years because he felt his speaking out might compromise a conspiracy that soon went cold and in which he played no further part.

As for the 1939 encyclical, I chose not to rely on the authority of whichever kind soul volunteered the Wikipedia entry; rather I read the document itself. When it comes to victims, the text does indeed mention only victims of war, not racism. There is no mention of victims of racism in the typically vague sentence that Hesemann quotes. At what moment in history would that sentence not hold good? In what way does it speak to the very special moment the pope was facing? Nor is it “naming” to put the blame on “the totalitarian state.” Does Hesemann not see how much clarity might have been achieved had the pope used the words “Germany” or “Hitler” or “Nazism” or “Jews”? But more curiously, why does he insist that these vague laments buried in the middle of a long document amount to a condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism, if throughout his book he is at pains to tell us that the pope did not condemn it because he felt that doing so would worsen the situation of the Jews?

Neither I nor Kertzer, as I recall, claims that had the pope spoken out, fewer Jews would have been killed. Rather there is the conviction that awakening consciences to outrage and atrocity can change the course of events. Is this not what moral leadership involves? Is this not why religious leaders denounce atrocities and genocide? I wrote that “what is evident from both these books is that Mussolini and Hitler were indeed extremely anxious that Pius not speak out” and that “Hesemann cites Ribbentrop’s warning Hitler in 1943, when Germany was invading Italy, that ‘if we attack the Vatican, we will surely have a civil war in Germany, just one hour after the first bomb is released.’” If Catholic feeling was so strong, might the pope not have explored what leverage he had against Nazism? This need not have gone through Nazi-controlled media; Catholic priests could make statements from the pulpit. Clearly Ribbentrop had very little faith in the Reich’s ability to keep the news from the public.

At no point do I deny (or affirm) “that Pius XII was involved in saving 6,400 of the 8,000 Roman Jews after the razzia of October 16, 1943.” Those figures do not occur in my article. Rather I wrote: “Hesemann sets out to list, at great length, those many heartening occasions when Jews found refuge in churches and monasteries and the pope might be said to have been involved.” And I state that Kertzer, who has spent much of his life studying the Vatican archives, finds no evidence that the pope was active in saving Roman or Italian Jews after the razzia. To be absolutely clear: no one disputes that many priests and nuns and indeed church organizations acted on their own initiative to save Jews, but evidence of the pope’s involvement is hard to find. If we wish to make the pope responsible for every Jew the church saved, then he also becomes responsible for every priest who spoke and wrote in favor of fascist and Nazi regimes and was not disciplined, every church institution that turned away Jews. Again Kertzer gives many examples.

The tone of Hesemann’s letter is very much the tone of his book. He is locked into a polemic that prevents him from wondering if there might not be some good faith on the side of those who are concerned that for years the world’s foremost religious figure did not speak out against one of the most appalling collective crimes in history. He believes he has demonstrated that had the pope spoken out, things would have been worse, that he bartered his silence for Jewish lives. I read his book attentively and was not convinced. Crucially, Hesemann never considers that there might be a moral imperative that goes beyond his highly speculative number-crunching about how many Jews the pope may personally have been responsible for saving. Nor does he consider the damage done to the church by Pius’s long silence and the dangerous example it set: Are we not to denounce anti-Semitism today because denunciations might spur on the anti-Semites? The same goes, of course, for every other outrage.