Understanding the Vatican During the Nazi Period
by Michael Marrus
It is not always fully appreciated that the Vatican
was neutral during the Second
World War, having committed itself from the very outset to a policy
of conciliation that marked church diplomacy in the inter-war period.
To the Vatican, neutrality meant remaining apart from the two power
blocs and, most important, maintaining an environment in which the church
could operate as freely and openly as possible. Particularly since the
presentation of Rolf Hochuth's angry play, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) in 1962, this posture has been subjected to withering criticism.
The Vatican has responded with the publication of a voluminous collection
of documents on the role of the Holy See during the war, generating
one of the most extensive historical discussions of the many ethical
questions associated with the history of the Holocaust.
Historians generally see the policy of Pius
XII as consistent with a longstanding tradition of Vatican diplomacy.
During political storms of the depression years, this tradition was
interpreted by Eugenio Pacelli, Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius
XI and later to become the wartime Pope. Pacelli exemplified a profound
commitment to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the Holy See; he
saw his role as avoiding association with power blocs and forging diplomatic
links with conservative or even fascist regimes. As fascism extended
its influence in Europe during the 1930s, the Vatican remained aloof,
occasionally challenging fascist ideology when it touched on important
matters of Catholic doctrine or the legal position of the church, but
unwilling to interfere with what it considered to be purely secular
concerns. Beyond this, the Vatican found most aspects of right-wing
regimes congenial, appreciating their patronage of the church, their
challenge to Marxism, and their frequent championing of a conservative
|"For the professing Christian, of all the
questions that arise out of the study of the Third Reich and the
Holocaust the most terrible are these: What were the churches doing?
How could such a monstrous crime be committed in the heart of Christendom
by baptized Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox who
were never rebuked, let alone excommunicated? Where were the Christians?"
Franklin H. Littell, "Foreword" in Bonifas, Prisoner 20-801:
A French National in the Nazi Labor Camps, p. vii.
The Vatican quarreled with both Hitler and Mussolini on race, but hardly out of concern for the welfare of
Jews. Throughout this period the Church seldom opposed anti-Jewish persecutions
and rarely denounced governments for discriminatory practices; when
it did so, it usually admonished governments to act with "justice
and charity", disapproving only of violent excesses or the most
extravagant forms of oppression. Much more important for church policy
was the clash between the pseudobiological bases of racism and the fundamental
principles of Catholicism and church authority. The tendency of fascist
movements, especially Nazism, to use race as a foundation of their regimes
directly challenged the Church's claims in the fields of baptism, marriage,
and, more broadly, the definition of who was and who was not a Catholic.
The Holy See sometimes muted its opposition, usually preferring conciliation
and diplomacy even on fundamental questions such as these. Nevertheless,
conflict could break through the surface. One notable occasion was March
1937, when the papal encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern)
condemned the false and heretical teachings of Nazism. The Holy See
openly protested Mussolini's turn toward racism the following year.
Yet at the same time the Vatican strove to avoid an open breach
as it was to continue to do throughout the war. As always, the goal
was political neutrality and the safeguarding of the institutional interests
of the Church in a perilous political world.
Church policy toward Jews during the war can be seen
in this historical perspective. For the first few years persecution
seems to have caused few ripples at the Vatican and awakened no more
interest or sympathy than in the 1930s. Church diplomats continued to
speak in favor of "justice and charity", but were largely
unconcerned about the persecution of Jews by Nazi or collaborationist
governments. A striking illustration comes from the autumn of 1941,
when the French Ambassador to the Holy See, Léon Berard, sent
an extensive report to Vichy on the Vatican's views. According to this
diplomat the Holy See was not interested in the French antisemitic laws
and worried only that they might undermine Church jurisdiction or involve
occasional breaches of "justice and charity". So far as the
French were concerned, the Vatican essentially gave them a green light
to legislate as they chose against Jews.
|"Why, it has been asked repeatedly,
did the Pope not utter a solemn denunciation of this crime against
the Jews and against humanity? . . . Why, it has been demanded,
did he not give a clear moral and spiritual lead to Catholic priests
throughout Europe? In June 1941, when the Vichy French government
introduced Jewish laws' closely modeled upon the Nuremberg
Laws, the Pope responded to appeals from French bishops by stating
that such laws were not in conflict with Catholic teaching. Later
efforts by the British, Americans and Poles to persuade the Vatican
to publish a specific condemnation of Nazi extermination of the
Jews fell on deaf ears. The Pope, came the reply, could only issue
a general condemnation of wartime atrocities." "A strong
and openly voiced papal line might have silenced those Catholic
bishops throughout Europe who actively and fervently collaborated
with their Nazi masters. . ." Ronnie S. Landou, The
Nazi Holocaust, pp. 216-217.
When mass killings began, the Vatican was extremely
well informed through its own diplomatic channels and through a variety
of other contacts. Church officials may have been the first to pass
on to the Holy See sinister reports about the significance of deportation
convoys in 1942, and they continued to receive the most detailed information
about mass murder in the east. Despite numerous appeals, however, the
Pope refused to issue explicit denunciations of the murder of Jews or
call upon the Nazis directly to stop the killing. Pius determinedly
maintained his posture of neutrality and declined to associate himself
with Allied declarations against Nazi war crimes. The most the Pope
would do was to encourage humanitarian aid by subordinates within the
Church, issue vague appeals against the oppression of unnamed racial
and religious groups, and try to ease the lot of Catholics of Jewish
origin, caught up in the Nazis' net of persecution. And with distinguished
exceptions, the corps of Vatican diplomats did no better.
As Léon Papéleux makes clear, the Vatican's
posture shifted during the course of the war, as did that of other neutrals:
the Holy See gradually became more forthcoming in its démarches
on behalf of Jews and more overt in its assistance to the persecuted.
But the Pope remained reluctant to speak out almost until the very end.
In the autumn of 1943, with Rome under German occupation, the Nazis
began round ups of Jews virtually on the doorstep of the papal palace.
On a knife's edge, the Pope seems to have balanced carefully, fearing
at any moment that the SS might descend on the Vatican itself. In his signals to Berlin, the German
Ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsäcker, portrayed a pro-German
Pope, alluding to his reluctance to protest the assault on the Jews.
Was Weizsäcker delicately trying to subvert the intentions of the
SS by suggesting the high price the Reich might have to pay for the
persecutions? Was he trying to protect the Pope from direct Nazi moves
against him? Or was he accurately reporting the perspectives of the
Holy See? Interpretations of this episode vary widely from those
who see Pius playing a delicate, complicated game with Nazi occupiers,
expressing himself cryptically, to those who read the incident as a
further indication of Church reluctance to take any risks on behalf
|"...For a long time during those frightful
years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever?
Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not
utter a cry of condemnation when faced with force. It seems that
that voice did speak up. But I assure you that millions of men like
me did not hear it and that at that time believers and unbelievers
alike shared a solitude that continued to spread as the days went
by and the executioners multiplied.... ...What the world expects
of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear,
and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that
never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, should rise in the heart
of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction
and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today".
French author, Albert Camus, in a statement made at the Dominican
Monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948.
Our understanding of Church policy now extends considerably
beyond Hochuth's accusations and related charges of pro-German and antisemitic pressures at the Vatican. It is true that Pacelli had served many years
as Papal Nuncio in Germany and feared mightily during the war that the
defeat of the Nazis would lead to the triumph of Bolshevism in Europe.
But Vatican documents do not indicate a guarded pro-Nazism or a supreme
priority of opposition to the Soviet Union. Nor do they reveal a particular
indifference to the fate of Jews, let alone hostility toward them. Rather,
the Vatican's communications, along with other evidence, suggest a resolute
commitment to its traditional policy of reserve and conciliation. The
goal was to limit the global conflict where possible and above all to
protect the influence and standing of the Church as an independent voice.
Continually apprehensive of schisms within the Church, Pius strove to
maintain the allegiance of Catholics in Germany, in Poland, and elsewhere.
Fearful too of threats from the outside, the Pope dared not confront
the Nazis or the Italian Fascists directly. Notably, the papacy maintained
its reserve not only against Jewish appeals but in the face of others
as well. The Holy See turned a deaf ear to anguished calls from Polish
bishops to denounce the Nazis' atrocities in Poland;
issued no explicit call to stop the so-called euthanasia campaign in the Reich; deeply offended many by receiving the Croatian
dictator Ante Pavelic, whose men butchered an estimated 700,000 Orthodox
Serbs; and refused to denounce Italian aggression against Greece.
Beyond this, there is a widespread sense that, however misguided politically,
Pius himself felt increasingly isolated, threatened, and verging on
despair. With an exaggerated faith in the efficacy of his mediative
diplomacy, Pius clung to the wreckage of his pre-war policy "a
kind of anxiously preserved virginity in the midst of torn souls and
bodies," as one sympathetic observer puts it.
Individual churchmen of course reacted otherwise, and
there is a long list of Catholic clergy who saw their Christian duty
as requiring intervention on behalf of persecuted Jews. Often the deportation
convoys galvanized priests to action. In some cases, as with the intervention
of the apostolic delegate Giuseppe Burzio in Catholic Slovakia, such
appeals may well have made a difference. In Bucharest, Nuncio Andreia
Cassulo pleaded with the Rumanian government for humane treatment for
the Jews and actually visited Jewish deportees in Transnistira. In Budapest
Nuncio Angelo Rotta intervened repeatedly with Admiral Horthy on behalf
of Hungarian Jews and may
have helped secure papal intervention in the summer of 1944. Angelo
Roncalli, the apostolic delegate in Turkey and the future Pope John
XXIII, was among the most sensitive to the Jewish tragedy and most vigorous
in rescue efforts despite his reflection, at the time, of traditional
Catholic attitudes toward Jews. Elsewhere, on the other hand, church
leaders replicated the posture of the Vatican itself or even
deferred with greater or lesser sympathy to those directing the machinery
of destruction. Outstanding in this respect was the timid and pro-Fascist
Cesare Orsenigo, the Nuncio in Berlin, who appeared wedded to the views
of the German government. The Pope did not dictate policy on such matters
to his subordinates and allowed them to go their own way. His timidity
in this respect may be one of the most important charges against him.
In retrospect, some historians have come to appreciate
the tactical caution of the Holy See. Günther Lewy, for example,
suggests that a "flaming protest" by the Pope against the
perpetrators of genocide would almost certainly have failed to move
the German public and would likely have made matters worse especially
for the half-Jews as well as for practising Catholics in Germany. Others
claim that much of the present condemnation of Vatican policy springs
from mistaken assumptions about church doctrine. It may be quite correct
to say, as does Father John Morley, that the Vatican "betrayed
the ideals it set for itself". But sincere churchmen at the time
could certainly judge those ideals otherwise. As Leonidas Hill reminds
us, "the theology of the Church lays far less emphasis on saving
lives than on saving souls through the consolations of religion".
Seeing the institutional church as a supreme value in its own right,
those in charge of its fortunes tended unhesitatingly to put these ahead
of the victims of Nazism.
For Further Reading
Harry James Cargas, Holocaust
Scholars Write to the Vatican. CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. NY: Viking Press, 1999.
Minerbi, S.I. 'Pius XII', in: Gutman, I. Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust. (Macmillan, 1990), Volume 3, pp.1135-1139.
Conway, John S. The
Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-45. N.Y.: Basic Books,
Michael R. Marrus (Canada), Dean of Graduate Studies
at the University of Toronto, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of many
essays and books, including The Holocaust in History, The Unwanted:
European Refugees in the Twentieth Century and, with Robert O.Paxton,
Vichy France and the Jews. Professor Paxton is one of the scholars on
the joint Catholic-Jewish Vatican Committee examining the eleven volumes
of documents from the Vatican archives related to World War II.