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Pius XII: Years of Praise Years of Blame
following is the full text of a lecture delivered at Theological College,
The Catholic University of Americe, on October 10, 1989, by Rev. Robert A.
Graham S.J., under the auspices of the Catholic League for Religious and
It is over thirty years since the death, in 1958, of Pope Pius XII. That a Roman Pontiff so long dead should continue to arouse not merely interest but even continuing controversy is surprising. Perhaps general interest in World War II and its accompanying issues has much to do with this. In any case, the Vatican -- the Holy See, the Papacy -- and its wartime incumbent, Pius XII, have been "discovered." Evidently, what the Pope of Rome says, or does not say, does or does not do, can have significance even outside the circle of his own faithful.
Believe me, it was not always so. In the days of rabid anti-clericalism on the Continent, or of "No Popery" in the Protestant world, the general public had little time for things Catholic, least of all in world affairs. There are those who interpret the current controversy as simply an up-dated expression of traditional antiCatholicism, with which we are all too familiar. I would like to believe, on the contrary, that the new- born preoccupation with the Vatican, and with Pius XII, reveals a totally fresh, revised attitude on the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world. There are many indications to suggest this. The development is positive, constructive, and signals the readiness of our contemporary culture to welcome and even solicit, not to say demand, the presence of the Catholic Church, through the Pope -- and the bishops, too -- as a contribution to the moral and human development of our times. Credit the Vatican Council II for this transformation, if you will. Or simply the effect of the passage of time. In any case, the shift is evident and may have been inevitable. It is in this spirit that we address ourselves to the present theme.
"Pius XII: years of praise, years of blame." That is to say, there were years when Pius XII, born Eugenio Pacelli, pope since 1939, enjoyed a good press, as we say today, and others in which he had a bad press. His election on the eve of war was hailed with satisfaction by the Western democracies. He was in close contact with President Roosevelt. His pronouncements on the war were widely and positively publicized. When Rome was finally liberated in June 1944, officers and soldiers of all faiths crowded into the Vatican halls for a treasured papal audience. Jewish leaders, likewise, in visits to the Vatican, expressed their appreciation for all that the Holy Father had done for their afflicted people during the harrowing years of the war. At his death in 1958, world opinion -- not excepting Jewish leaders in Israel and out of it-was lavish with expressions of admiration.
This benevolence evaporated in February 1963. In Berlin, a play was produced which berated the Pope for his "silence" in the face of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews in their power. The play was entitled, Der Stellvertreter ("The Deputy"). The playwright was a young German hitherto unknown, Rolf Hochhuth. He was a disciple of Erwin Piscator, founder of the drama school called the "Political Theatre," whose method was to put living politicians or others recently deceased on the stage, for either pillorying or praise. Rolf Hochhuth turned his guns on Pius XII. He painted the wartime Pope in the most unflattering light, describing him as inspired by the most unworthy motives. He did admit that, on the plane of action, the Pope had aided the Jews but faulted him for not having publicly flayed the Nazis. Pius XII, said Hochhuth, was a "war criminal" because of his "silence."
This was strong medicine and provoked strong reactions pro and con. Surprisingly--or perhaps not surprisingly--the ripple spread beyond Berlin and soon hit the farthest shores, especially the United States. Pius XII became a villain overnight. You are right to ask why this complete aboutface, triggered by a play of no particular literary merit, apart from its provocative language. Nothing new had been discovered in archives, in the historical record, justifying any revision. One must search for psychological reasons, rather than historical grounds.
suggest several hypotheses. The most important is the timing. The first
session of the historic Second Vatican Council had terminated just a few
months previously. A new vision dawned not only on the Catholic Church, but
also on world opinion. This was also the time when America was deeply
troubled in conscience, by the drama, the tragedy, of the Vietnam war. Also,
just two years previously had taken place the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the
organizer of the Hitlerian program for the extermination of Jewsin Nazi
power. The surprise above all, was that suddenly all that Jewish leaders had
said in tribute to Pius XII, during and immediately after the war, and at
his death less than five years before the production of this play, was
relegated to the ashbin, consigned to oblivion. The gratitude of the world
Jewish leaders, for deeds to which their own archives are witness, was
transformed after 1963 into totally negative commentary. The
well-intentioned, informed witness of leaders of the world Jewish community
was downgraded to "disgraceful testimonials of a few Jews" (New York
Times, September 27, 1989, Letters).
But soon there were other developments in the opposite sense, equally surprising and equally unpredictable. Faced with the realization; that the Vatican's attitude had a genuine international dimension beyond confessional or sectarian concerns, world leaders and world opinion paid more attention to this hitherto ignored world force. By 1963, Pope John XXIII, the "papa buono," the "good Pope," was succeeded by Paul VI, who had been the close collaborator of his master, Pius XII. In the fall of 1965, he was invited by the United Nations Secretary General, Uthant, to address the UN General Assembly in New York. The spectacle of this frail white- clad figure at the UN rostrum, preaching peace to representatives of the world powers, was something that could not have been dreamed of in the time of the League of Nations, so systematically was the Holy See excluded from the world assizes. Something had changed; even the Soviet chief delegate Andrei Gromyko pressed forward to greet the Pope. Some years later, as we know, the U.S. Senate confirmed with hardly a dissenting voice the nomination of an American ambassador to the Holy See. This, too, was inconceivable before. In 1951, President Truman tried in vain to name General Mark Clark to the same post, to enormous protests. Today, on Massachusetts Avenue in the Capital city, the quondam "Apostolic Delegation" is now officially designated the "Vatican Embassy."
All this has gone on over a period of more than a quarter-century. Has it even become "ancient history"? We need to draw some conclusions. As can be imagined, various misconceptions have arisen about the real conduct of Pope Pius XII during World War II. False or highly tendentious interpretations have insinuated themselves into the controversy. Some images, quite unfaithful to the reality, have taken shape in popular imagination. A few of these misconceptions, of these misleading images, can be briefly reviewed.
and a myriad of other papal interventions for Jews, undertaken either on
appeals from the world Jewish rescue agencies--some of which now are among
his detractors--or on the Pope's own initiative, are found in four of the 11
volumes on the war published by the Vatican some years ago laying out the
record of papal work as the Good Samaritan, doing good without distinction
of race, religion, or any other category. The Pope chose the secret way in
preference to the supposedly "prophetic" way of public condemnations, of
more than dubious probable effect.
As far as the Vatican is concerned, one key is found in the audience that Pope Pius XII had with his old friend Don Pirro Scavizzi, a parish priest of Rome, war veteran, and chaplain on the hospital train sent by the Order of Malta to pick up wounded Italian soldiers on the Eastern front in 1942. The priest was able to tell the Pope about the mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazi police. This no doubt helped to establish in the Pope's mind the inhuman character of the Nazi occupation of Russia. But Don Pirro did not visit concentration camps and did not return to the East after 1943.
nuncio in Berlin reported that the "most macabre stories" circulated in the
German capital about the fate of the Jewish deportees. Did the nuncio,
Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, know anything more? Was he perhaps afraid to
commit to paper, vulnerable to interceptions, what was a State Secret? But
already, in March 1942, the papal representative, a charge d'affaires, Msgr.
Joseph Burzio, in Bratislava, (Slovakia), reporting with indignation the
planned deportation of Jews, said the departure meant "certain death" for
many. Was he referring to the conditions of the expulsions of so many old
and sick persons and little children? Or did he know of the gas chambers
that awaited them? The most disquieting sign, in this dark passage, was the
total disappearance of the deportees. This aroused the greatest foreboding,
without being definite. In the end of 1942, a French Capuchin priest, in
close contact with community leaders, brought back their own description of
what had happened in France. The French Jews did not know that their
co-religionists had already been gassed. They only asked for "information."
In these years much information about the Germans in Poland came to the Vatican from the Polish ambassador to the Holy See, Casimir Papee. The diplomat, informed from London, referred constantly to the dire plightof the Jews. But, again, in the light of what we learned later about Auschwitz, he told little. In March 1944, the Nazis took military control of their ally, Hungary. With this a halfmillion Jews who had hitherto enjoyed liberty and relative immunity fell into the Nazi maw. At this time the abovementioned Burzio, charge d'affaires in Slovakia, forwarded to Rome the famous "Auschwitz Protocol." This was put together by two young Slovak Jews who had escaped from the camp and had made their way back to their homeland. There they encountered at first disbelief and then acquiescence in the face of the facts. The first thing was to warn the Hungarians. The camp guards had been overheard saying, "Soon we shall have fat Hungarian sausages." The gas chambers were being enlarged and improved. As we know, soon 400,000 Jews, unwarned, were to perish in a shockingly brief space of time. Adolf Eichmann had done his work.
Under date of June 26, 1944, Pius XII sent an open, that is a normal telegram to Admiral Horthy, Regent of Hungary. Reports had gotten out of the deportation "to an unknown destination" of Hungarian Jews. The Pope implored the Regent to give ear to the prayers of the unfortunates. The Pope's appeal was the first to reach Horthy, to be followed by like messages from the King of Sweden, and the International Red Cross. Horthy, using what limited authority he still held--and with the timely assistance of an Allied bombardment of the city--suspended the deportations.
On what information did the Pope act? For a long time it was naturally supposed that the Auschwitz Protocol had occasioned the move. In fact, the diplomatic pouch containing the report of Msgr. Burzio was blocked en route, probably because of the Allied liberation of Rome in June, with the consequent interruption of air contacts with Switzerland and Spain. The document reached the Vatican only in late October. In this same month of October the gas chambers at Auschwitz were blown up. The Russians entered the camp in January 1945.
Did the Pope "know" of the Auschwitz drama? He did not know more than the Jews themselves, in America or Britain. But he knew as much as the governments. If that is any answer. The signs reaching the "outside" world were ambivalent. The official government propaganda was generic on this subject. In December 1 942, the six or seven exile governments in London issued a protest against Nazi war crimes. But the crimes in question were not the deportation and extermination of Jews. No other declaration of this kind was issued later. In October 1943, the Allied Foreign Ministers met in Moscow and there issued a statement on war crimes and their future punishment. Nothing was said of the extermination of the Jews, or about Jews in general. The War Crimes Commission set to work, with surprising results. The massacre of Jews at Auschwitz was practically ignored. The indictment issued right after the war reveals that those in charge knew nothing of the real drama of Auschwitz. Only a few years ago, one of the leading American figures in the Nuremberg trials, Telford Taylor, admitted that he himself had known nothing of Auschwitz. He added that he believed that none of his associates - many of them Jews - knew either. Yet this group had the official mission of gathering as much evidence as possible against the Nazi chiefs. They had access to intelligence sources, not available to others. Their intelligence advisers did not serve them very well. We find a document of the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, (Research & Analysis, No. 3114) dated August 13,1945, and headed "Nazi plans for dominating Germany and Europe. The criminal conspiracy against the Jews. Draft for the War Crimes Staff." The incriminating evidence on Jews consisted of excerpts from speeches of Hitler and Goebbels. There was no mention of concentration camps and nothing about Auschwitz. The authors got their materials from the. New York Times and the Institute of Jewish Affairs.
At the same time, the U.S. propaganda services were not keen on circulating, for home or foreign consumption, information that could possibly be construed as "atrocity stories." This lesson came home in the case of the above-mentioned Auschwitz Protocol. The U.S. War Refugee Board readied the text for publication in full in November, 1944. Before it could be published, the Board was exhorted, or pressured, not to release it. Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information (OWI), claimed that its publication would damage the credibility of his services. The document was released nevertheless and even appeared in the New York Times, but summarized in an emasculated form depriving it of its legitimate significance.
Turning to the press in the United States we look in vain for satisfactory identification of the Auschwitz camp and its dead. The New York Times did indeed publish reports from neutral newspapers. But it did not vouch for them. The New York Times never offered editorials on Auschwitz. Once, in the beginning of 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote in the New York Times Magazine a lament over the refusal of the public (American or British) to understand the tragedy of European Jewry. Yet he, so knowledgeable, revealed in the article how littie he himself really knew of Auschwitz and of the gas chambers. Be it added that in those days Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was writing a syndicated column entitled, "My Day." These features have recently been gathered in book form. There we find no mention of Auschwitz, or anything near it. Were other columnists of the time (George Sokolsky, Walter Lippmann, Max Lerner) any more explicit or knowledgeable?
the Jewish community itself, confusion and ambiguity reigned. Is it possible
that even the top level knew
The foregoing is simply a sketch to show how little the world of 1944 really knew about the drama of the Jews at Auschwitz in that year. Further details could be added. It is all the more astounding in that only today can we understand better, with the help of the passage of time, what the ambiguous signals were telling us. Few even knowledgeable people, in the government, in the press, in the Jewish leadership, gave evidence of knowing what was transpiring. What person of normal, decent sentiment could accept, comprehend, believe, a situation so unprecedented in history and so contrary to accepted standards even in wartime? We have lost perspective, especially in relation to the attitude of Pope Pius XII. Isn't it time to recognize this and call a halt to the intemperate and often cruel attacks on a venerable religious figure, one of the few friends of the Jews in the heart of Europe working consistently to be the good Samaritan to the afflicted traveller on the road to Jericho?
Supplement to the
Catholic League Newsletter 11
Vol. 16, No. 12