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Pius XII and the Jews
David G. Dalin
Even before Pius XII died in 1958, the charge that his papacy had been friendly to the Nazis was circulating in Europe, a piece of standard Communist agitprop against the West.
It sank for a few years under the flood of tributes, from Jews and gentiles alike, that followed the pope's death, only to bubble up again with the 1963 debut of The Deputy, a play by a left-wing German writer (and former member of the Hitler Youth) named Rolf Hochhuth.
The Deputy was fictional and highly polemical, claiming that Pius XII's concern for Vatican finances left him indifferent to the destruction of European Jewry. But Hochhuth's seven-hour play nonetheless received considerable notice, sparking a controversy that lasted through the 1960s. And now, more than thirty years later, that controversy has suddenly broken out again, for reasons not immediately clear.
Indeed, "broken out" doesn't describe the current torrent. In the last eighteen months, nine books that treat Pius XII have appeared: John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, Pierre Blet's Pius XII and the Second World War, Garry Wills's Papal Sin, Margherita Marchione's Pope Pius XII, Ronald J. Rychlak's Hitler, the War and the Pope, Michael Phayer's The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows, Ralph McInerny's The Defamation of Pius XII, and, most recently, James Carroll's Constantine's Sword.
Since four of these—the ones by Blet, Marchione, Rychlak, and McInerny—are defenses of the pope (and two, the books by Wills and Carroll, take up Pius only as part of a broad attack against Catholicism), the picture may look balanced. In fact, to read all nine is to conclude that Pius's defenders have the stronger case—with Rychlak's Hitler, the War and the Pope the best and most careful of the recent works, an elegant tome of serious, critical scholarship.
Still, it is the books vilifying the pope that have received most of the attention, particularly Hitler's Pope, a widely reviewed volume marketed with the announcement that Pius XII was "the most dangerous churchman in modern history," without whom "Hitler might never have . . . been able to press forward." The "silence" of the pope is becoming more and more firmly established as settled opinion in the American media: "Pius XII's elevation of Catholic self-interest over Catholic conscience was the lowest point in modern Catholic history," the New York Times remarked, almost in passing, in a review last month of Carroll's Constantine's Sword.
Curiously, nearly everyone pressing this line today—from the ex-seminarians John Cornwell and Garry Wills to the ex-priest James Carroll—is a lapsed or angry Catholic. For Jewish leaders of a previous generation, the campaign against Pius XII would have been a source of shock. During and after the war, many well-known Jews—Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, and innumerable others—publicly expressed their gratitude to Pius. In his 1967 book Three Popes and the Jews, the diplomat Pinchas Lapide (who served as Israeli consul in Milan and interviewed Italian Holocaust survivors) declared Pius XII "was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands."
This is not to say that Eugenio Pacelli—the powerful churchman who served as nuncio in Bavaria and Germany from 1917 to 1929, then as Vatican secretary of state from 1930 to 1939, before becoming Pope Pius XII six months before World War II began—was as much a friend to the Jews as John Paul II has been. Nor is it to say that Pius was ultimately successful as a defender of Jews. Despite his desperate efforts to maintain peace, the war came, and, despite his protests against German atrocities, the slaughter of the Holocaust occurred. Even without benefit of hindsight, a careful study reveals that the Catholic Church missed opportunities to influence events, failed to credit fully the Nazis' intentions, and was infected in some of its members with a casual anti-Semitism that would countenance—and, in a few horrifying instances, affirm—the Nazi ideology.
But to make Pius XII a target of our moral outrage against the Nazis, and to count Catholicism among the institutions delegitimized by the horror of the Holocaust, reveals a failure of historical understanding. Almost none of the recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust is actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Their real topic proves to be an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists.
A theological debate about the future of the papacy is obviously something in which non-Catholics should not involve themselves too deeply. But Jews, whatever their feelings about the Catholic Church, have a duty to reject any attempt to usurp the Holocaust and use it for partisan purposes in such a debate—particularly when the attempt disparages the testimony of Holocaust survivors and spreads to inappropriate figures the condemnation that belongs to Hitler and the Nazis.
The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII is simple. It requires only that favorable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavorable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test.
So, for instance, when Cornwell sets out in Hitler's Pope to prove Pius an anti-Semite (an accusation even the pontiff's bitterest opponents have rarely leveled), he makes much of Pacelli's reference in a 1917 letter to the "Jewish cult"—as though for an Italian Catholic prelate born in 1876 the word "cult" had the same resonances it has in English today, and as though Cornwell himself does not casually refer to the Catholic cult of the Assumption and the cult of the Virgin Mary. (The most immediately helpful part of Hitler, the War and the Pope may be the thirty-page epilogue Rychlak devotes to demolishing this kind of argument in Hitler's Pope.)
The same pattern is played out in Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows. For example: There exists testimony from a Good Samaritan priest that Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini of Assisi, holding a letter in his hand, declared that the pope had written to request help for Jews during the German roundup of Italian Jews in 1943. But because the priest did not actually read the letter, Zuccotti speculates that the bishop may have been deceiving him—and thus that this testimony should be rejected.
Compare this skeptical approach to evidence with her treatment, for example, of a 1967 interview in which the German diplomat Eitel F. Mollhausen said he had sent information to the Nazis' ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsäcker, and "assumed" that Weizsäcker passed it on to Church "officials." Zuccotti takes this as unquestionable proof that the pope had direct foreknowledge of the German roundup. (A fair reading suggests Pius had heard rumors and raised them with the Nazi occupiers. Princess Enza Pignatelli Aragona reported that when she broke in on the pope with the news of the roundup early on the morning of October 16, 1943, his first words were: "But the Germans had promised not to touch the Jews!")
With this dual standard, recent writers have little trouble arriving at two pre-ordained conclusions. The first is that the Catholic Church must shoulder the blame for the Holocaust: "Pius XII was the most guilty," as Zuccotti puts it. And the second is that Catholicism's guilt is due to aspects of the Church that John Paul II now represents.
Indeed, in the
concluding chapter of Hitler's Pope and throughout Papal Sin and
Constantine's Sword, the parallel comes clear: John Paul's traditionalism
is of a piece with Pius's alleged anti-Semitism; the Vatican's current stand on
papal authority is in a direct line with complicity in the Nazis' extermination
of the Jews. Faced with such monstrous moral equivalence and misuse of the
Holocaust, how can we not object?
It is true that during the controversy over The Deputy and again during the Vatican's slow hearing of the case for his canonization (ongoing since 1965), Pius had Jewish detractors. In 1964, for example, Guenter Lewy produced The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, and, in 1966, Saul Friedländer added Pius XII and the Third Reich. Both volumes claimed that Pius's anti-communism led him to support Hitler as a bulwark against the Russians.
As accurate information on Soviet atrocities has mounted since 1989, an obsession with Stalinism seems less foolish than it may have in the mid-1960s. But, in fact, the evidence has mounted as well that Pius accurately ranked the threats. In 1942, for example, he told a visitor, "The Communist danger does exist, but at this time the Nazi danger is more serious." He intervened with the American bishops to support lend-lease for the Soviets, and he explicitly refused to bless the Nazi invasion of Russia. (The charge of overheated anti-communism is nonetheless still alive: In Constantine's Sword, James Carroll attacks the 1933 concordat Hitler signed for Germany by asking, "Is it conceivable that Pacelli would have negotiated any such agreement with the Bolsheviks in Moscow?”—apparently not realizing that in the mid-1920s, Pacelli tried exactly that.)
In any case, Pius had his Jewish defenders as well. In addition to Lapide's Three Popes and the Jews, one might list A Question of Judgment, the 1963 pamphlet from the Anti-Defamation League's Joseph Lichten, and the excoriating reviews of Friedländer by Livia Rotkirchen, the historian of Slovakian Jewry at Yad Vashem. Jeno Levai, the great Hungarian historian, was so angered by accusations of papal silence that he wrote Pius XII Was Not Silent (published in English in 1968), with a powerful introduction by Robert M.W. Kempner, deputy chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.
In response to
the new attacks on Pius, several Jewish scholars have spoken out over the last
year. Sir Martin Gilbert told an interviewer that Pius deserves not blame but
thanks. Michael Tagliacozzo, the leading authority on Roman Jews during the
Holocaust, added, "I have a folder on my table in Israel entitled ‘Calumnies
Against Pius XII.' . . . Without him, many of our own would not be alive."
Richard Breitman (the only historian authorized to study U.S. espionage files
from World War II) noted that secret documents prove the extent to which "Hitler
distrusted the Holy See because it hid Jews."
Still, Lapide's 1967 book remains the most influential work by a Jew on the topic, and in the thirty-four years since he wrote, much material has become available in the Vatican's archives and elsewhere. New oral-history centers have gathered an impressive body of interviews with Holocaust survivors, military chaplains, and Catholic civilians. Given the recent attacks, the time has come for a new defense of Pius—because, despite allegations to the contrary, the best historical evidence now confirms both that Pius XII was not silent and that almost no one at the time thought him so.
In January 1940,
for instance, the pope issued instructions for Vatican Radio to reveal "the
dreadful cruelties of uncivilized tyranny" the Nazis were inflicting on Jewish
and Catholic Poles. Reporting the broadcast the following week, the Jewish
Advocate of Boston praised it for what it was: an "outspoken denunciation of
German atrocities in Nazi Poland, declaring they affronted the moral conscience
of mankind." The New York Times editorialized: "Now the Vatican has
spoken, with authority that cannot be questioned, and has confirmed the worst
intimations of terror which have come out of the Polish darkness." In England,
the Manchester Guardian hailed Vatican Radio as "tortured Poland's most powerful
Any fair and thorough reading of the evidence demonstrates that Pius XII was a persistent critic of Nazism. Consider just a few highlights of his opposition before the war:
To these must be added highlights of Pius XII's actions during the war:
As these and hundreds of other examples are disparaged, one by one, in recent books attacking Pius XII, the reader loses sight of the huge bulk of them, their cumulative effect that left no one, the Nazis least of all, in doubt about the pope's position.
A deeper examination reveals the consistent pattern. Writers like Cornwell and Zuccotti see the pope's 1941 Christmas address, for example, as notable primarily for its failure to use the language we would use today. But contemporary observers thought it quite explicit. In its editorial the following day, the New York Times declared, "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas. . . . In calling for a ‘real new order' based on ‘liberty, justice, and love,' . . . the pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism."
So, too, the pope's Christmas message the following year—in which he expressed his concern "for those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction”—was widely understood to be a public condemnation of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Indeed, the Germans themselves saw it as such: "His speech is one long attack on everything we stand for. . . . He is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews. . . . He is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals," an internal Nazi analysis reads.
This Nazi awareness, moreover, had potentially dire consequences. There were ample precedents for the pope to fear an invasion: Napoleon had besieged the Vatican in 1809, capturing Pius VII at bayonet point; Pius IX fled Rome for his life after the assassination of his chancellor; and Leo XIII was driven into temporary exile in the late nineteenth century.
Still, Pius XII was "ready to let himself be deported to a concentration camp, rather than do anything against his conscience," Mussolini's foreign minister railed. Hitler spoke openly of entering the Vatican to "pack up that whole whoring rabble," and Pius knew of the various Nazi plans to kidnap him. Ernst von Weizsäcker has written that he regularly warned Vatican officials against provoking Berlin. The Nazi ambassador to Italy, Rudolf Rahn, similarly describes one of Hitler's kidnapping plots and the effort by German diplomats to prevent it. General Carlo Wolff testified to having received orders from Hitler in 1943 to "occupy as soon as possible the Vatican and Vatican City, secure the archives and the art treasures, which have a unique value, and transfer the pope, together with the Curia, for their protection, so that they cannot fall into the hands of the Allies and exert a political influence." Early in December 1943, Wolff managed to talk Hitler out of the plan.
what actions Pius XII might have taken, many (I among them) wish that explicit
excommunications had been announced. The Catholic-born Nazis had already
incurred automatic excommunication, for everything from failure to attend Mass
to unconfessed murder to public repudiation of Christianity. And, as his
writings and table-talk make clear, Hitler had ceased to consider himself a
Catholic—indeed, considered himself an anti-Catholic—long before he came to
power. But a papal declaration of excommunication might have done some good.
Then again, it might not. Don Luigi Sturzo, founder of the Christian Democratic movement in wartime Italy, pointed out that the last times "a nominal excommunication was pronounced against a head of state," neither Queen Elizabeth I nor Napoleon had changed policy. And there is reason to believe provocation would, as Margherita Marchione puts it, "have resulted in violent retaliation, the loss of many more Jewish lives, especially those then under the protection of the Church, and an intensification of the persecution of Catholics."
Holocaust survivors such as Marcus Melchior, the chief rabbi of Denmark, argued that "if the pope had spoken out, Hitler would probably have massacred more than six million Jews and perhaps ten times ten million Catholics, if he had the power to do so." Robert M.W. Kempner called upon his experience at the Nuremberg trials to say (in a letter to the editor after Commentary published an excerpt from Guenter Lewy in 1964), "Every propaganda move of the Catholic Church against Hitler's Reich would have been not only ‘provoking suicide,' . . . but would have hastened the execution of still more Jews and priests."
This is hardly a speculative concern. A Dutch bishops' pastoral letter condemning "the unmerciful and unjust treatment meted out to Jews" was read in Holland's Catholic churches in July 1942. The well-intentioned letter—which declared that it was inspired by Pius XII—backfired. As Pinchas Lapide notes: "The saddest and most thought-provoking conclusion is that whilst the Catholic clergy in Holland protested more loudly, expressly, and frequently against Jewish persecutions than the religious hierarchy of any other Nazi-occupied country, more Jews—some 110,000 or 79 percent of the total—were deported from Holland to death camps."
Bernard of Luxembourg, an inmate of Dachau from 1941 to 1942, notified the
Vatican that "whenever protests were made, treatment of prisoners worsened
immediately." Late in 1942, Archbishop Sapieha of Cracow and two other Polish
bishops, having experienced the Nazis' savage reprisals, begged Pius not to
publish his letters about conditions in Poland. Even Susan Zuccotti admits that
in the case of the Roman Jews the pope "might well have been influenced by a
concern for Jews in hiding and for their Catholic protectors."
One might ask, of course, what could have been worse than the mass murder of six million Jews? The answer is the slaughter of hundreds of thousands more. And it was toward saving those it could that the Vatican worked. The fate of Italian Jews has become a major topic of Pius's critics, the failure of Catholicism at its home supposedly demonstrating the hypocrisy of any modern papal claim to moral authority. (Notice, for example, Zuccotti's title: Under His Very Windows.) But the fact remains that while approximately 80 percent of European Jews perished during World War II, 80 percent of Italian Jews were saved.
In the months Rome was under German occupation, Pius XII instructed Italy's clergy to save lives by all means. (A neglected source for Pius's actions during this time is the 1965 memoir But for the Grace of God, by Monsignor J. Patrick Carroll-Abbing, who worked under Pius as a rescuer.) Beginning in October 1943, Pius asked churches and convents throughout Italy to shelter Jews. As a result—and despite the fact that Mussolini and the Fascists yielded to Hitler's demand for deportations—many Italian Catholics defied the German orders.
In Rome, 155 convents and monasteries sheltered some five thousand Jews. At least three thousand found refuge at the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Sixty Jews lived for nine months at the Gregorian University, and many were sheltered in the cellar of the pontifical biblical institute. Hundreds found sanctuary within the Vatican itself. Following Pius's instructions, individual Italian priests, monks, nuns, cardinals, and bishops were instrumental in preserving thousands of Jewish lives. Cardinal Boetto of Genoa saved at least eight hundred. The bishop of Assisi hid three hundred Jews for over two years. The bishop of Campagna and two of his relatives saved 961 more in Fiume.
Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, then assistant vice rector of the Seminario Romano, hid Michael Tagliacozzo and other Italian Jews at the seminary (which was Vatican property) for several months in 1943 and 1944. In 1985, Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial, honored the cardinal as a righteous gentile—and, in accepting the honor, Palazzini stressed that "the merit is entirely Pius XII's, who ordered us to do whatever we could to save the Jews from persecution." Some of the laity helped as well, and, in their testimony afterwards, consistently attributed their inspiration to the pope.
Again, the most
eloquent testimony is the Nazis' own. Fascist documents published in 1998 (and
summarized in Marchione's Pope Pius XII) speak of a German plan, dubbed
"Rabat-Fohn," to be executed in January 1944. The plan called for the eighth
division of the SS cavalry, disguised as Italians, to seize St. Peter's and
"massacre Pius XII with the entire Vatican”—and specifically names "the papal
protest in favor of the Jews" as the cause.
A similar story can be traced across Europe. There is room to argue that more ought to have been attempted by the Catholic Church—for the unanswerable facts remain that Hitler did come to power, World War II did occur, and six million Jews did die. But the place to begin that argument is with the truth that people of the time, Nazis and Jews alike, understood the pope to be the world's most prominent opponent of the Nazi ideology:
This last example is particularly significant. As a matter of state policy, the Israeli Philharmonic has never played the music of Richard Wagner, because of his well-known reputation as "Hitler's composer," the cultural patron saint of the Third Reich. During the 1950s especially, the Israeli public, hundreds of thousands of whom were Holocaust survivors, still viewed Wagner as a symbol of the Nazi regime. It is inconceivable that the Israeli government would have paid for the entire orchestra to travel to Rome to pay tribute to "Hitler's pope." On the contrary, the Israeli Philharmonic's unprecedented concert in the Vatican was a unique communal gesture of collective recognition for a great friend of the Jewish people.
Hundreds of other memorials could be cited. In her conclusion to Under His Very Windows, Susan Zuccotti dismisses—as wrong-headed, ill-informed, or even devious—the praise Pius XII received from Jewish leaders and scholars, as well as expressions of gratitude from the Jewish chaplains and Holocaust survivors who bore personal witness to the assistance of the pope.
That she does so
is disturbing. To deny the legitimacy of their gratitude to Pius XII is
tantamount to denying the credibility of their personal testimony and judgment
about the Holocaust itself. "More than all others," recalled Elio Toaff, an
Italian Jew who lived through the Holocaust and later became chief rabbi of
Rome, "we had the opportunity of experiencing the great compassionate goodness
and magnanimity of the pope during the unhappy years of the persecution and
terror, when it seemed that for us there was no longer an escape."
But Zuccotti is not alone. There is a disturbing element in nearly all the current work on Pius. Except for Rychlak's Hitler, the War and the Pope, none of the recent books—from Cornwell's vicious attack in Hitler's Pope to McInerny's uncritical defense in The Defamation of Pius XII—is finally about the Holocaust. All are about using the sufferings of Jews fifty years ago to force changes upon the Catholic Church today.
It is this abuse of the Holocaust that must be rejected. A true account of Pius XII would arrive, I believe, at exactly the opposite to Cornwell's conclusion: Pius XII was not Hitler's pope, but the closest Jews had come to having a papal supporter—and at the moment when it mattered most.
Writing in Yad Vashem Studies in 1983, John S. Conway—the leading authority on the Vatican's eleven-volume Acts and Documents of the Holy See During the Second World War—concluded: "A close study of the many thousands of documents published in these volumes lends little support to the thesis that ecclesiastical self-preservation was the main motive behind the attitudes of the Vatican diplomats. Rather, the picture that emerges is one of a group of intelligent and conscientious men, seeking to pursue the paths of peace and justice, at a time when these ideals were ruthlessly being rendered irrelevant in a world of ‘total war.’” These neglected volumes (which the English reader can find summarized in Pierre Blet's Pius XII and the Second World War) "will reveal ever more clearly and convincingly"—as John Paul told a group of Jewish leaders in Miami in 1987—“how deeply Pius XII felt the tragedy of the Jewish people, and how hard and effectively he worked to assist them."
The Talmud teaches that "whosoever preserves one life, it is accounted to him by Scripture as if he had preserved a whole world." More than any other twentieth-century leader, Pius fulfilled this Talmudic dictum, when the fate of European Jewry was at stake. No other pope had been so widely praised by Jews—and they were not mistaken. Their gratitude, as well as that of the entire generation of Holocaust survivors, testifies that Pius XII was, genuinely and profoundly, a righteous gentile.