Pope Pius XII, between holiness and Hitler

Pope Francis’ recent release of Nazi-era documents from the Vatican archive and a new book are spurring renewed debate on the controversial silence of a pontiff who negotiated with the Third Reich and failed to condemn the Holocaust

Eugenio Pacelli before he became Pope Pius XII, during a 1929 visit to Berlin as the Vatican’s secretary of state.
Eugenio Pacelli before he became Pope Pius XII, during a 1929 visit to Berlin as the Vatican’s secretary of state.Keystone (Getty Images)
Daniel Verdú

Vatican diplomacy is well-known for using spare, well-chosen language to create ambiguous narratives that enabled it to build bridges in complicated situations. Throughout Vatican history, popes have maintained discrete silences in times of conflict, a tradition that continues today. A less charitable observer would say that the Vatican’s self-interested neutrality is actually a successful 2,000-year survival strategy, and point to the example of Pius XII. Some called him Hitler’s pope, but others say he was a saint who did the best he could in evil times. Pope Francis’ recent release of Nazi-era documents from the Vatican archive and a new book by historian David I. Kertzer have renewed the debate about the silence of Pius XII regarding the horrors of Nazism.

Kertzer’s The Pope at War is already a bestseller in the US and will be published in Spain in late 2022. The Holy See’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano (The Roman Observer), recently commented on Kertzer’s book, dismissing as old news its revelation of protracted, secret negotiations between Hitler and Pius XII to establish a non-aggression pact. “Unfortunately, the Vatican’s reaction has been negative, just as it was two years ago when I published my first piece on the archives. They are misrepresenting what I write in my book. For example, it’s not true to say that it is well-known that Hitler negotiated through the prince [Philipp von Hessen]. I found records of unbelievable things and secrets that have never been revealed. It’s sad that they [the Vatican] won’t own up to its past and keep denying everything. I expected a different approach from Pope Francis, but nothing has changed–he isn’t interested. He has other battles to fight,” said Kertzer in a phone interview with EL PAÍS.

The Vatican just published more documents online from the Pius XII archives initially released two years ago, as if to show that the pope had indeed helped the Jews. The 170 volumes include nearly 2,700 requests for help between 1939 and 1948 from Jewish families and groups, many of them Catholic converts.

Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, said on June 23 that the nearly 40,000 digital files attest to how “at the service of the Pontiff, tireless and tangible work was done to help Jews.” While much of the correspondence trail has been lost, many Jews–mostly converts to Catholicism–survived due to Vatican intervention, says the Holy See.

Catholic partisans hold up posters of Pope Pius XII during the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944.
Catholic partisans hold up posters of Pope Pius XII during the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944. Archivio Cicconi (Getty Images)

Eugenio Pacelli became pope after serving as secretary of state to Pius XI, a pontiff who opposed fascism and was feared by Hitler. Several articles were published in the Osservatore Romano toward the end of Pius XI’s papacy criticizing Nazi persecution of Catholics, fomenting discord in Nazi Germany where a large part of the population professed Catholicism. In his book, Kertzer writes that shortly before his death, Pius XI was about to publicly denounce the alliance between the Italian and German dictators. But his successor, Pius XII, who was congratulated by Hitler when he became pope on March 2, 1939, wanted to quickly alleviate this tension. He ordered an end to the critical Osservatore Romano articles, and initiated a de-escalation process that would ultimately lead to negotiations with Hitler through a special envoy, just as Germany was preparing to invade Poland.

Hitler’s special envoy was a man with an unmatched pedigree–Prince Philipp von Hessen, son-in-law of Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III and grandson of Germany’s Emperor Frederick III. “Half the citizens of the Third Reich were Catholics,” said Kertzer. “The Pope had a great deal of influence in Germany, but also in Poland or Czechoslovakia, which were already in that political camp. The Pope wanted better treatment of the Catholic Church in those regions, but Hitler saw two obstacles. The first obstacle was about racial politics–the pope never said that this was a problem. The second obstacle was about German clergy meddling in politics, specifically criticism by the clergy of Nazi policy. The pope promised that Catholic clergy would not interfere, and said, ‘Tell me who is doing this, and I will stop them’.”

When Italy’s racial laws were enacted by Mussolini in 1938, the Vatican said little. Nor did Pacelli make a public statement when the Nazi occupation army took 1,038 Jews from the Rome ghetto on October 16, 1943 and held them for 30 hours in Palazzo Salviati, just 500 meters from the Vatican, before deporting them to the Auschwitz extermination camp. “It’s important to understand that [Italy’s] racial laws were enacted before the war, and were partly justified by comparing them to what the popes had done for centuries–avoid contamination by Jews. The Nazis used that same justification for years. It was Christians, not pagans, who murdered little Jews in the Shoah [Holocaust]. The pope had a responsibility to speak out,” said Kertzel.

Pius XII was never pro-Nazi. On the contrary, he considered Nazism to be a political movement with pagan roots that mistreated Catholics. Nor was he “Hitler’s pope” as author John Cornwell dubbed him in his 1999 book. But Kertzer claims that he never spoke out to avoid offending a genocidal Germany. “He didn’t protest the racial laws because he wasn’t against them. Of course, he didn’t want the extermination of a people, but he never publicly denounced it because that would have meant taking a side in the war. As can be seen in the archives, by the latter half of 1942, the Vatican had accumulated a great deal of information about the genocide. But when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Pius XII if he had any evidence, they [the Vatican] decided against providing it on the grounds that Roosevelt would use it as anti-Hitler propaganda. And they didn’t want to do that. As a historian I understand their logic, but Pius XII cannot be considered a moral leader because his behavior isn’t consistent with one.”

Historical accounts of Pius XII are as contradictory as his handling of the Nazis. The most vocal critics of the pope’s position were the Russians. But other critics included philosophers like Emmanuel Mounier, according to Giovanni Maria Vian, a historian and former editor of L’Osservatore Romano. Many people like historian Enzo Forcella (La resistenza in convento; Einaudi, 1999) insist that Pius XII helped as many Jews as he could by supporting efforts by various Catholic entities to shelter and protect them. The recently released archival documents reveal that the Holy See’s Secretariat of State assigned a diplomat named Angelo Dell’Acqua to deal with requests from all over Europe to shelter Jews, and tasked him with “giving as much help as possible.” But his silence was also deafening.

El papa Pío XII recibe en audiencia a una delegación de militares franquistas en junio de 1939.
A military delegation from Francoist Spain at an audience with Pope Pius XII in June 1939.

Pope Benedict XVI put the brakes on the posthumous process leading to Pius XII’s canonization by letting him remain in the first stage with the title “Venerable,” while the release of the opening of the Pius XII archives moved forward. In 1998, during the papacy of John Paul II, the Catholic Church published, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.” But it was roundly denounced, especially by the Hebrew world, as lacking any clear and unapologetic self-criticism. The silence of Pius XII has been the subject of several works: The Deputy (Grijalbo, 1977) by Rolf Hochhuth; Hannah Arendt’s 1964 essay The Deputy: Guilt by Silence? (Paidos, 2007); and the Costa Gavras film Amen (2002).

Kertzer believes the problem has deep roots. “There has been no change in approach since Pope John XXIII. We have seen a complete denial of the history of the Catholic Church’s antisemitism–its modern antisemitism–and of the fact that the Nazis and the fascists used it to justify what they did. It’s an uncomfortable history that some, like the German and French episcopates, have faced head on. For me, this is part of a broader denial of the history of World War II. Italy, for example, hasn’t faced its own history. I sometimes get the impression that Italians think they fought with the Allies in WWII, and not with Hitler. Italy doesn’t even have an institute for the study of history of fascism. And at that time [WWII], the curia was all Italian,” he said.

Sincere public condemnations of one side or the other have never been the Vatican’s style. Nor are they easy to come by today, and many have criticized Pope Francis for this failure. “The invaders [of Ukraine] aren’t Catholics, even though they use Christianity to justify the invasion. But it’s dangerous for the pope to say that NATO bears some responsibility for the war. In the government-controlled Russian media, the pope is being quoted as saying that he supports the war. Like Pius XII, he wants to say things that both sides can use for their own purposes. It’s easy to end up being used as propaganda.” Perhaps in the future, the public release of the current pope’s archives will offer valuable facts about these times.

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