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Was the Pope a Nazi?
Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, has been accused of complicity in the Holocaust because he failed to denounce explicitly the extermination of the European Jews. This allegation has strained relations between Catholics and Jews, and has led many prominent liberal Catholics to repudiate the "centralized model of papal power" which Pius exemplified. Yet whatever this pope's attitudes toward Jews, it is important not to conflate those attitudes with his policies toward the Nazis. In fact, Pius was a committed opponent of Hitler -- and even tried to help kill him.
On March 21, 2000, a helicopter landed on Mount Scopus, Israel, overlooking Old Jerusalem. Pope John Paul II shuffled out onto the helipad, leaning on a cane. He had come to Israel to realize a lifelong dream: To retrace the footsteps of Jesus, from birth to death to resurrection. The Holy Father was grimly aware, however, that his pilgrimage would be haunted by history. Two days earlier, Jewish protesters had spray-painted the landing site with red swastikas and the question: "Where were you Catholics during the Holocaust?"1
During the Holocaust John Paul, then known as Karol Wojtila, had belonged to a political branch of the Polish military resistance. To avoid arrest by German forces he had hid in the Krakow archbishop's palace from August 1944 until January 1945. He had witnessed the persecution and murder of Jewish friends from his hometown, Wadowice; he had seen, too, the indifference of many Polish Catholics to the fate of the Jews. Time had not erased the terrible memories. As pope he sought redemption by stressing the two faiths' common biblical roots, and by forging Vatican diplomatic ties with Israel. In Jerusalem he pushed these efforts a step farther. He went to the Western Wall, and prayed, and pushed a piece of votive paper into its fissures.2 Then, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, he offered an unprecedented expression of grief.
"As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter," he said in the candlelit Hall of Remembrance, "I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church... is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians, at any time, and in any place." After kneeling in silent prayer, the pope crossed the hall, its floor engraved with the names of death camps, to greet six Polish Holocaust survivors. When one of the survivors began crying, John Paul gently patted her arm.3
Jewish leaders were disappointed with the pope's declaration at Yad Vashem. "I waited for statements that would speak about people from the Church who had committed crimes against the Jewish people," lamented Meir Lau, Israel's Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi. Specifically, Lau had hoped that John Paul would censure the wartime pope, Pius XII, for silence and inaction during the Holocaust. "It is impossible to correct a crime of the past, without any mention, for example, of Pius XII, who stood on the blood of the victims and did not say a word."4
Over that one point, over that one pope, Catholic-Jewish detente would deadlock.5 Even as Catholicism's ambiguous relation to Nazism became the defining issue of his pilgrimage, the pope refused to fault his wartime predecessor.6 To the contrary, John Paul repeatedly hailed him as a "great pope."7 Proceedings were even underway to beatify Pius -- the last step before making him a saint.8 Israel had asked the Vatican to delay beatification for 50 years, so that historians could study the "Pius Problem." But John Paul would not bend to outside pressure, and his aides were unwilling to wait for scholarly consensus. "Why wait fifty years?" asked Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who was overseeing Pius' beatification. "Five-hundred years would not be enough for historians to agree."9
It was Pius XII's unlucky lot to head the world's largest religion, and smallest sovereign-state, during the bloodiest years of the bloodiest century in history. The princes of the Church had once thought him the ideal wartime pope: Before he was elected Pius XII, when he was still Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli,10 his realism and discretion had made him the dean of papal diplomats. As Pope, his courtly bearing befitted the Vatican's Renaissance-like world of "rustling silk, hushed conversations, and insults measured in the depths of bishops' bows."11 Yet the pressures on Pius, moral and political pressures more intense than those endured by any previous pope, took an undeniable toll. He had a nervous stomach, and by war's end, although he stood six feet, he weighed only 125 pounds. In public, he was seldom photographed smiling; in private, he was probably unhappy.12 To nuns in the papal household he was a pale, severe figure, "with black penetrating eyes lost in the glint of rimless spectacles,"13 who liked to keep important threads in his own hands, and who was happiest at his desk, surrounded by dictionaries.14 His deputies called him "Segregatus," Latin for "one who keeps himself apart."15 His only constant companion was a pet goldfinch, which he had found injured in the Vatican gardens and nursed to health. He slept little, knelt in prayer for hours. He seemed to have divorced his body, to develop his soul; to some, he seemed more a disembodied spirit than a man. At the time such descriptions were considered flattering, as prescriptions for a holy life. Many called Pius a living saint; Vatican bureaucrats took telephone calls from him on their knees.16 No one questioned British novelist Graham Greene's 1951 encomium on "a pope who so many of us believe will rank among the greatest."17 Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, Pius XII's reputation would be transvalued by one the strangest and most total makeovers in the annals of biography.
During his own time he had been thought an opponent of Hitler. Though as Cardinal Secretary of State he had negotiated a concordat (1933) with the Third Reich, the future Pius XII was only carrying out the appeasement policies of then-Pope Pius XI, who had earlier signed a concordat with Mussolini, and who vowed "to negotiate with the Devil himself" to preserve Church freedoms.18 Pacelli was pessimistic about the Nazis by 1934, and to the punch of public criticism he was beaten only by Churchill.19 "The Church will never come to terms with the Nazis," Pacelli told 250,000 pilgrims at Lourdes, in April 1935, "as long as they persist in their racial philosophy." In the same speech he condemned "superstitions of race and blood" as "contrary to the Christian faith."20 Reich propagandists did not fail to perceive or to publicize his hostility. A few weeks before he was elected Pius XII (March 2, 1939), the Nazi press included him in a rogue's gallery of "Agitators in the Vatican against Fascism and National Socialism."21 The morning after his election, The New York Times noted that the new pope was greeted with "applause around the world, except in Germany," where the Berlin Morgenpost granted that he was "not regarded with favor... because he was always opposed to Nazism."22 In 1942 the Reich Propaganda Ministry printed ten million copies of a pamphlet attacking "the present pro-Jewish pope."23 By July 1943 Hitler was plotting to kidnap Pius XII, to silence and neutralize him.24 S.S. chief Heinrich Himmler advocated his public execution.25
Jews were as nearly laudatory as the Nazis were hostile. Zionist newspapers celebrated his election,26 and praised his posture throughout the war. His first encyclical,27 Summi Pontificatus, was especially revered.28 "The spirit, the teaching and the work of the Church," Pius wrote in October 1939, ''can never be other than that which the Apostle of the Gentiles preached: 'there is neither Gentile nor Jew.'"29
Jewish groups hailed Pius' use of Vatican radio to denounce German atrocities,30 and extolled his sheltering of Italian-Jewish scholars in the Vatican's libraries.31 In 1945 the World Jewish Congress gave Pius more than $1 million (at present value) for charity works, in "gratitude to the august Pontiff for his work in support of persecuted Jews."32 Albert Einstein was among the many prominent Jews who publicly expressed admiration.33
Nations warring with Germany considered Pius an ally. British and U.S. propagandists reprinted his 1942 Christmas address, which denounced the persecution "of 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."34 Practically every public statement the pope made during the war was praised for its outspokenness by The New York Times. "The voice of Pius XII," that paper averred in December 1941, "is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness.... he is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all."35 Nor was Allied praise merely wartime "PR," masking a less charitable view: Pius was identified as an anti-Nazi in secret intelligence-reports to President Roosevelt.36 Even the weekly of the Communist International -- no friend of the Church -- termed Pius "the leader of the Catholic [anti-Nazi] resistance movement."37
The consensus frayed only after the war, as Stalin caged Eastern Europe.38 Aiming to discredit the ancient regimes, communist propagandists systematically accused Catholics and other "reactionary" groups of collaborating with Hitler. Bishops were hauled into show trials, and on January 14, 1946, in the Czech-communist magazine Prace, Pius himself was branded a Nazi stooge.39 He had been "soft" on Nazism, it was claimed, because of his "obsessive panic" over atheistic communism.40 The Soviet line was toed by some Western leftists; in 1950, for instance, Leon Poliakov suggested in Commentary that Pius's anti-communism had caused him to keep "silent" on the Holocaust.41 World opinion was largely unaffected, however, and even Poliakov doubted whether stronger-worded protests would have deterred a madman like Hitler. The allegation of "silence" had so little impact that when Pius died (Oct. 9, 1958), Golda Meir was among the many Jewish leaders who openly mourned him. "When fearful martyrdom came to our people," she said, "the voice of the pope was raised for its victims."42
The real Pius-controversy began in February 1963, when Rolf Hochhuth's play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) premiered on a Berlin stage. Hochhuth, an anti-clerical43 Protestant and former member of the Hitler Youth,44 filtered the Stalinist critique through a psychological prism.45 Pius was to Hochhuth a ruthless executive, "an over-ambitious careerist," a moral coward who cared more about Vatican stock-holdings than about Hitler's victims.46 The play was especially critical of Pius for failing to save the Jews of Rome: For nearly nine months, Hochhuth charged, the pope had "looked on in silence while the victims were being loaded on trucks in front of the very door of the Vatican."47 As one of the Deputy's leads, a young Jesuit, laments: "A Vicar of Christ who sees these things before his eyes and still remains silent because of state policies, who delays even one day... such a pope... is a criminal."48
Hochhuth's play started an intellectual firestorm. His portrait of Pius was protested by a former Deputy-Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials,49 by both the British and German wartime ambassadors to the Holy See,50 and by the Director of International Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.51 American Jewish organizations pressured one Broadway producer into to dropping the play, and tried to dissuade another from backing it.52 In Paris some ticket-holders rushed the stage and tried to keep the actors from going on.53 But the outcry only publicized what might have otherwise died on the media vine.54 The Deputy was quickly translated into 20 languages, and the controversy captured the popular imagination. After two decades of shamed silence, a clamorous inquiry into the Holocaust had begun.55 The capture of genocide-planner Adolf Eichmann (1960), the publication of Raul Hilberg's seminal Destruction of the European Jews (1961), and the discovery of Anne Frank's diary (1962) created a craving for explanations. Lodging blame with Pius XII helped explain the inexplicable.56
In later years it would sometimes be forgotten that Pius' reputation was ruined by a work of fiction. In the play's afterward, Hochhuth admitted that "...the action does not follow the historical course of events.... I allowed my imagination free play."57 But fiction had often done more to mold mass consciousness than dry chronicle of fact. Frank Norris' The Octopus had led to regulation of big business; Harriet Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had changed white minds about slavery; Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew had bred anti-Jesuit hysteria in Europe. Hochhuth's play influenced popular opinion in a similar way.58 Though a Mike Wallace television documentary on Pius, produced just before The Deputy, did not mention the dispute, no later biography could fail to consider it.59
Over time the critical voices became a chorus. Scholars reevaluated Pius XII's public statements, and found them wanting.60 Words which had once seemed bold turned out to be mere generalities, church-centered and oblique.61 Most damningly, it was alleged that the pope had never mentioned the Jews at all in his wartime remarks. Though Pius had used the word in his first encyclical, his supposed papal failure to say "Jew" became the great dogma of the academic sub-discipline which could be termed "Pius Studies." Thus Michael R. Marrus, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto:
-- and David I. Kertzer, Professor of Social Science at Brown University:
-- and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Associate Professor of European Studies at Harvard:
In a work which won the National Jewish Book Award, Susan Zuccotti actually quoted surrounding passages of Summi Pontificatus, then pronounced:
Even the Vatican's relator in the Pius beatification proceedings, Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, seemed unaware of the Pope's words.
A consensus thus emerged that Pius had been "silent" -- just as Hochhuth had charged. From this alleged silence, papal complicity in the Holocaust was inferred. The editors of The New York Times, who during the war asserted that Pius "put himself squarely against Hitlerism,"67 now faulted him for his "failure to stand squarely against the evil that swept across Europe."68 The Holocaust Museum in Washington put up an exhibit about Pius' alleged silence; the Bronx Museum of Art purchased a painting, "Nazi Butchers," featuring Pius in full papal regalia. He became the anti-hero of a black legend, replete with wild, unsupported accusations.69 Jewish activists alleged on Larry King Live that Pius had used a "ratline" of convents and monasteries to smuggle 30,000 Nazi war-criminals to South America, where Vatican gold purportedly financed lavish Fourth-Reich hideouts.70 People were willing to believe the worst; the Pius debate had created a serious image-problem for the whole Church.
The image problem was aggravated by one highly problematic image. An April 1997 article in The New Yorker, by the liberal Catholic James Carroll,71 featured a vintage photo of what appeared to be Pope Pius XII, saluted by German soldiers. The prominence in the foreground of a combat helmet, of the style made famous by German soldiers in World War Two, lent the clear impression that Pope Pius XII was being given a Nazi honor-guard.72 The Vatican in fact received angry letters from people who saw the photograph and thought the pope was serving as some kind of adviser to Hitler.73
What readers did not know, and The New Yorker did not impart, was that the photograph was taken in 1927, six years before Hitler took power, and twelve years before Pacelli became pope. The papal nuncio was simply receiving the dignified treatment accorded all diplomats by a democratic government, under which Jews had full rights. Nevertheless, the photograph became a favorite of those who sought to portray Pius XII as complicit in the Holocaust. In March 1998 it was spread over two pages in the New York Times Magazine, illustrating an article packed with criticism of Pius by a host Jewish leaders.74 In October 1999 the photo appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, accompanying yet another article by Carroll.75 A month later it graced the cover of a bestselling book by British journalist John Cornwell, where it seemed instantly to prove that Pius was, as claimed in the provocative title, "Hitler's Pope."
Cornwell's publishers heightened the effect of the image by quite underhanded means. The caption from the rear cover of the dust jacket on British editions stated falsely that the photograph was taken in March 1939, the month Pacelli was made pope. Given that caption, and the fact that Pacelli was dressed in diplomatic robes resembling the finest in papal wear, a fair-minded person could have concluded from the photo -- as did at least one reviewer of the book76 -- that Pius visited Hitler just after being elected pope.77
Even more subtle and ingenious was the device used by Cornwell's American publisher, the Viking Press. They also used the photo, but altered it. Everything in the frame except the faux-Pius was digitally defocused, and the result seemed even more dramatically to validate Cornwell's thesis. The soldier to Pacelli's left was so badly blurred that it was impossible even for a well-trained observer to recognize that he wore a Weimar rather than a Nazi uniform. Further, the photo had been cropped, so that the car door -- characteristic of automobiles from the 1920s -- had disappeared. The cropping and the blurring removed any clues that the photo did not date from the Nazi period.78 The apparently incriminating image, so effectively associated the scandalous title, sealed the reputation of Pius XII as a partner in the massacre of millions.79
By March 2000, as John Paul II knelt and prayed in the dark hall at Yad Vashem, the Pius Problem could be summed up in one question: Why hadn't the pope done more to resist Hitler? Critics posited cowardice, insensitivity, political calculation, anti-Semitism, and apathy; some just said Pius was a Nazi, and left it at that.80 Catholic apologists countered that the pope was silenced and paralyzed by a desire to save lives, since "a strong condemnation would have increased the persecution."81 Both sides in the debate generally agreed, however, that Pius did little or nothing to oppose the Nazis.82
Both sides were wrong. The entire Nazi era was marked by dramatic, if secret, Church resistance, in which the pope played a pivotal role. The signature element in this resistance was Pius XII's participation in the conspiracies to kill Adolf Hitler.
[TO BE CONTINUED: This article is a selection from the preface of Vatican Assassins? The Pope, the Jesuits, and the Plot to Kill Hitler, forthcoming from HarperCollins.]