Pope Pius XII & the Holocaust
Pius XII's (1876-1958) actions during
the Holocaust remain controversial.
For much of the war, he maintained a public
front of indifference and remained silent
while German atrocities were committed. He
refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality,
while making statements condemning injustices
in general. Privately, he sheltered a small
number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials,
encouraging them to help the Jews.
- The Early Years
- Cries for Help
- Papal Reasons & Responses
- The Pope Protests
- Politics Behind the Policy
- Contemporary Developments
The Early Years
The Pope was born in 1876 in Rome as Eugenio Pacelli. He
studied philosophy at the Gregorian University, learned theology at Sant
Apollinare and was ordained in 1899. He entered the Secretariat of State
for the Vatican in 1901, became a cardinal in 1929 and was appointed
Secretary of State in 1930.
Pacelli lived in Germany
from 1917, when he was appointed Papal Nuncio
in Bavaria, until 1929. He knew what the Nazi
party stood for, and was elected Pope
in 1939 having said very little about Adolf
Hitlers ideology beyond a 1935
speech describing the Nazis as “miserable
plagiarists who dress up old errors with
new tinsel.” Pacelli told 250,000
pilgrims at Lourdes on April 28, “It
does not make any difference whether they
flock to the banners of the social revolution,
whether they are guided by a false conception
of the world and of life, or whether they
are possessed by the superstition of a
race and blood cult.” He believed
National Socialism was “profoundly
anti-Christian and a danger to Catholocism.”(1)
Even as Cardinal, Pacelli's
actions regarding Hitler were
controversial. Hitler took
power on January 30, 1933.
On July 20 that same year, Pacelli and German
diplomat Franz Von Papen signed a concordat
that granted freedom of practice to the Roman
Catholic Church. In return, the Church agreed
to separate religion from politics. This
diminished the influence of the Catholic
Center Party and the Catholic Labor unions.
The concordat was generally viewed as a diplomatic
victory for Hitler.(1a)
Pacelli was elected Pope on March 2, 1939,
and took the name Pius XII. As Pope, he had three official positions.
He was head of his church and was in direct communication with bishops
everywhere. He was chief of state of the Vatican, with his own diplomatic
corps. He was also the Bishop of Rome. In theory, at least, his views
could influence 400 million Catholics, including those in all the occupied
eastern territories - the Poles, Baltics, Croatians, Slovaks and others.(2)
As soon as he was appointed Pope, Pacelli did speak
out against the 1938 Italian racial laws that dealt with mixed marriages and children of
mixed marriages.(3) However, he issued
no such condemnation of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) which occurred in November 1938, and which
recent evidence shows he was informed of by Berlin's papal nuncio. As
the security of the Jewish population became more precarious, Pius XII
did intervene the month he was elected Pope, March 1939, and obtained
3,000 visas to enter Brazil for European Jews who had been baptized
and converted to Catholicism. Two-thirds of these were later revoked,
however, because of "improper conduct," probably meaning that
the Jews started practicing Judaism once in Brazil. At that time, the
Pope did nothing to save practicing Jews.(4)
Cries for Help
Throughout the Holocaust,
Pius XII was consistently besieged with pleas for help on behalf of the
In the spring of 1940,
the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac
Herzog, asked the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione
to intercede to keep Jews in Spain from being deported to Germany.
He later made a similar request for Jews in Lithuania.
The papacy did nothing.(5)
Within the Pope's own church, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer
of Vienna told Pius XII about
Jewish deportations in 1941. In 1942, the Slovakian charge d'affaires,
a position under the supervision of the Pope, reported to Rome that Slovakian Jews were being systematically deported and sent to death
In October 1941,
the Assistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican, Harold Tittman,
asked the Pope to condemn the atrocities. The response came that the
Holy See wanted to remain "neutral," and that condemning the
atrocities would have a negative influence on Catholics in German-held
In late August 1942,
after more than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews had been killed, Ukrainian Metropolitan
Andrej Septyckyj wrote a long letter to the Pope, referring to the German
government as a regime of terror and corruption, more diabolical than
that of the Bolsheviks. The Pope replied by quoting verses from Psalms
and advising Septyckyj to "bear adversity with serene patience."(8)
On September 18, 1942, Monsignor Giovanni Battista
Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, wrote, "The massacres of the Jews
reach frightening proportions and forms."(9) Yet, that same month when Myron Taylor, U.S. representative to the Vatican,
warned the Pope that his silence was endangering his moral prestige, the
Secretary of State responded on the Pope's behalf that it was impossible to
verify rumors about crimes committed against the Jews.(10)
Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, president of the Polish government-in-exile,
appealed to the Pope in January 1943 to publicly denounce Nazi violence. Bishop Preysing of Berlin did the
same, at least twice. Pius XII refused.(11)
Papal Reasons & Responses
The Pope finally gave a reason for his consistent
refusals to make a public statement in December 1942. The Allied
governments issued a declaration, "German Policy of Extermination of
the Jewish Race," which stated that there would be retribution for the
perpetrators of Jewish murders. When Tittman asked Secretary of State
Maglione if the Pope could issue a similar proclamation, Maglione said the
papacy was "unable to denounce publicly particular atrocities."(12) One reason for this position was that the
staunchly anti-communist Pope felt he could not denounce the Nazis without
including the Communists; therefore, Pius XII would only condemn general
The Pope did speak generally against the extermination campaign. On January 18, 1940, after the
death toll of Polish civilians was estimated at 15,000, the Pope said
in a broadcast, "The horror and inexcusable excesses committed
on a helpless and a homeless people have been established by the unimpeachable
testimony of eye-witnesses."(14) During his Christmas Eve radio broadcast in 1942, he referred to the
"hundreds of thousands who through no fault of their own, and solely
because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive
extinction."(15) The Pope never
mentioned the Jews by name.
In a September 1940 broadcast,
the Vatican called its policy "neutrality," but
stated in the same broadcast that where morality
was involved, no neutrality was possible.(18) This
could only imply that mass murder was not
a moral issue.
The Pope's indifference
to the mistreatment of Jews was often clear.
for example, after being asked by French
Marshal Henri Philippe Petain if the Vatican
would object to anti-Jewish laws, Pius XII
answered that the church condemned racism,
but did not repudiate every rule against
the Jews.(16) When
Petain's French puppet government introduced "Jewish
statutes," the Vichy ambassador
to the Holy See informed Petain that the
Vatican did not consider the legislation
in conflict with Catholic teachings, as long
as they were carried out with "charity" and "justice."(17)
Robert Wistrich notes that “by
the end of 1942, the Vatican was among the
best-informed institutions in Europe concerning
the Holocaust. Except for the Germans or
perhaps British intelligence, few people
were more aware of the local details as well
as the larger picture.”(17a)
On September 8, 1943, the Nazis invaded Italy and,
suddenly, the Vatican was the local authority. The Nazis gave the Jews 36
hours to come up with 50 kilograms of gold or else the Nazis would take 300
hostages. The Vatican was willing to loan 15 kilos, an offer that
eventually proved unnecessary when the Jews obtained an extension for the
Pius XII knew that Jewish deportations from Italy were
impending. The Vatican even found out from SS First Lieutenant Kurt
Gerstein the fate of those who were to be deported.(20) Publicly, the Pope stayed silent. Privately, Pius did instruct Catholic
institutions to take in Jews. The Vatican itself hid 477 Jews and another
4,238 Jews were protected in Roman monasteries and convents.(21)
On October 16, the Nazis arrested 1,007 Roman Jews, the
majority of whom were women and children. They were taken to Auschwitz, where 811 were gassed
immediately. Of those sent to the concentration camp, 16 survived.(22
The Pope Protests
The Pope did act behind the scenes on occasion. During
the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944,
he, along with the papal nuncio in Budapest, Angelo Rotta, advised the
Hungarian government to be moderate in its plans concerning the treatment
of the Jews. Pius XII protested against the deportation of Jews and,
when his protests were not heeded, he cabled again and again.(23) The Pope's demands, combined with similar protests from the King of
Sweden, the International Red Cross, Britain and the United States contributed
to the decision by the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, to cease
deportations on July 8, 1944.(24)
In the later stages of the war, Pius XII appealed to several
Latin American governments to accept “emergency passports”
that several thousand Jews had succeeded in obtaining. Due to the efforts
of the Pope and the U.S. State Department, 13 Latin American countries
decided to honor these documents, despite threats from the Germans to
deport the passport holders.(25)
The Church also answered
a request to save 6,000 Jewish children
in Bulgaria by
helping to transfer them to Palestine. At
the same time, however, Cardinal Maglione
wrote to the apostolic delegate in Washington,
A.G. Cicognani, saying this did not mean
the Pope supported Zionism.(26) The
church did often help baptized Jews, but
was less enthusiastic about assisting Jews
who did not abandon their faith.
Politics Behind the Policy
Historians point out that any support the Pope did give
the Jews came after 1942, once U.S. officials told him that the allies
wanted total victory, and it became likely that they would get it.
Furthering the notion that any intervention by Pius XII was based on
practical advantage rather than moral inclination is the fact that in late
1942, Pius XII began to advise the German and Hungarian bishops that it
would be to their ultimate political advantage to go on record as speaking
out against the massacre of the Jews. (27)
One of the only cases in
which the Pope gave early support to the
allies was in May 1940. He received information
about a German plan, Operation Yellow, to
lay mines to deter British naval support
Pius XII gave his permission to send coded
radio messages warning papal nuncios in
Brussels and The Hague of the plot. The German
radio monitoring services decoded the broadcast
and went ahead with the plan.(28) This papal intervention is surprising due
to the pope's persistent claim of neutrality,
and his silence regarding almost all German
In Hitler's Pope, John
Cromwell argues that the pope’s
behavior can be partly explained because
Pacelli was an anti-Semite, however, Robert
Wistrich argues he was anti-Jewish only in
the traditional sense of believing that Jews
killed Jesus. Meanwhile, defenders of the
pope have pointed to statements by Israel's
consul in Italy in the 1960s, Pinhas Lapide,
and by Golda Meir praising the
pope as evidence of his efforts to save Jews
during the war, but Wistrich says their remarks
were not backed by verifiable evidence of
papal action. What is clear is that the pope
could have done more. In fact, Catholic Poles
were the most outspoken critics of his silence.
Pius did not speak out effectively after
Germany overran Poland and the restrained
remarks that did come from the Vatican about
the oppression of the Catholic Poles ceased
after Germany protested. (28a)
Wistrich also notes that
while there is some controversy about the
pope’s assistance to the Jews, the
Church's role in helping Nazi murderers escape,
and seeking clemency for convicted Nazi criminals,
is well-documented. It is less clear, however,
how much the pope knew about this.
The International Catholic-Jewish
Historical Commission (ICJHC), a group comprised of three Jewish and
three Catholic scholars, was appointed in 1999 by the Holy See's Commission
for Religious Relations with the Jews. In October of 2000, the group
of scholars finished their review of the Vatican's archives, and submitted
their preliminary findings to the Comission's then-President, Cardinal
Edward I Cassidy. Their report, entitled "The Vatican and the Holocaust,"
laid to rest several of the conventional defenses of Pope Pius XII.
often-espoused view that the Pontiff was unaware
of the seriousness of the situation of European
Jewry during the war was definitively found
to be inaccurate. Numerous documents demonstrated
that the Pope was well-informed about the
full extent of the Nazi's anti-Semitic practices. A letter from Konrad von Preysing,
Bishop of Berlin, that proved that the Pope
was aware of the situation as early as January
of 1941, particularly caught the attention
of the commission. In that letter, Preysing
confirms that "Your Holiness is certainly
informed about the situation of the Jews in
Germany and the neighboring countries. I wish
to mention that I have been asked both from
the Catholic and Protestant side if the Holy
See could not do something on this subject...in
favor of these unfortunates." The letter,
which was a direct appeal to the Pope himself,
without intermediaries, provoked no response.
In 1942, an even more compelling eyewitness
account of the mass-murder of Jews in Lwow
was sent to the Pope by an archbishop; this,
too, garnered no response.
The commission also revealed several documents that
cast a negative light on the claim that the Vatican did all it could
to facilitate emigration of the Jews out of Europe. Internal notes meant
only for Vatican representatives revealed the opposition of Vatican
officials to Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine. "The Holy
See has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home...[because]
Palestine is by now holier for Catholics than for Jews." Some Catholic
higher-ups violated this position of the Vatican by helping Jews to
immigrate when they were able to; most did not.
Similarly, the attempts of Jews to escape from Europe
to South America were sometimes thwarted by the Vatican. Vatican representatives
in Bolivia and Chile wrote to the pontiff regarding the "invasive"
and "cynically exploitative" character of the Jewish immigrants,
who were already engaged in "dishonest dealings, violence, immorality,
and even disrespect for religion." The commission concluded that
these accounts probably biased Pius against aiding more Jews in immigrating
away from Nazi Europe.
The claim that the Vatican needed
to remain neutral in the war has also been refuted in recent months.
In January of 2001, a document recently declassified by the U.S. National
Archives was discovered by the World Jewish Congress. The document was
a report in which Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Pius XII's
secretary of state, detailed and denounced several abuses committed
by the Soviet Army against German inhabitants of the Soviet Union. The
report was widely viewed as demonstrating that the Vatican had no compunctions
about speaking out against atrocities, even when doing so would violate
The preliminary report released
by the IJCHC also asked the Vatican for access to non-published archival
documents to more fully investigate the Pope's role in the Holocaust.
This request was refused by the Vatican, which allowed them access only
to documents from before 1923. As a result, the Commission suspended
its study in July 2001, without issuing a final report. Dr. Michael
Marrus, one of the three Jewish panelists and a professor of history
at the University of Toronto, expained that the commission "ran
up against a brick wall.... It would have been really halpful to have
had support from the Holy See on this issue."(29)
In 2004, news was disclosed of a diary kept by James
McDonald, the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees coming
from Germany. In 1933, McDonald raised the treatment of the Jews with
then Cardinal Pacelli, who was the Vatican secretary of state. McDonald
was specifically interested in helping a group of Jewish refugees in
the Saar region, a territory claimed by France and Germany that was
turned over to the Germans in 1935. The Pope's defenders cite his intercession
on these Jews' behalf as evidence of his sympathy for Jews persecuted
by the Nazis. According to McDonald, however, when he disccused the
matter with Pacelli, “The response was noncommittal, but left
me with the definite impression that no vigorous cooperation could be
expected.”(30) Pacelli did intercede in January 1935 to help
the Jews, but only after McDonald agreed that American Jews would use
their influence in Washington to protect church properties that were
being threatened by the Mexican government.(31)
In 2005, the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera,
discovered a letter dated November 20, 1946, showing that Pope
Pius XII ordered Jewish babies baptized by Catholics during the Holocaust not to be returned to their parents. Some scholars said the disclosure
was not new and that the Pope's behavior was not remarkable. The more
important story, according to Rabbi David Rosen, international director
of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was that
one of the recipients of the letter, Angelo Roncalli, the papal representative
in Paris, ignored the papal directive.(32)
In 2006, an Israeli scholar,
Dina Porat, discovered correspondence between
Haim Barlas, an emissary of the Jewish Agency
sent to Europe to save Jews in the 1940s,
and Giuseppe Roncalli, who later became Pope
John XXIII. Roncalli expressed criticism
of the Vatican’s silence during the
war. In June 1944, Barlas sent Roncalli a
copy of a report compiled by two Jews who
escaped from Auschwitz documenting the mass
murder at the camp. Roncalli forwarded the
report to the Vatican, which had claimed
it did not know about the report until October.
Earlier, Roncalli had written to the president
of Slovakia at the behest of Barlas asking
him to stop the Nazi deportations of Jews.(33)
The Pope's reaction to the Holocaust was complex and inconsistent. At times, he
tried to help the Jews and was successful.
But these successes only highlight the
amount of influence he might have had,
if he not chosen to remain silent on so
many other occasions. No one knows for
sure the motives behind Pius XII's actions,
or lack thereof, since the Vatican archives
have only been fully opened to select
researchers. Historians offer many reasons
why Pope Pius XII was not a stronger public
advocate for the Jews: A fear of Nazi reprisals,
a feeling that public speech would have
no effect and might harm the Jews, the
idea that private intervention could accomplish
more, the anxiety that acting against
the German government could provoke a schism
among German Catholics, the church's traditional
role of being politically neutral and
the fear of the growth of communism were
the Nazis to be defeated.(34) Whatever his motivation,
it is hard to escape the conclusion that
the Pope, like so many others in positions
of power and influence, could have done
more to save the Jews.
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Reuters. "WJC Says it Has New Evidence Against
Pius XII." By Joan Gralla. 1/11/01.
1. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII's Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
Michael, The World
Must Know, p. 40.
2. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 197.
3. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
4. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
5. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
6. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
7. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 206.
8. Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators
Victims Bystanders, p. 267.
9. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
10. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust,
p. 133; Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
11. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust,
12. Hilberg, Raul, The
Destruction of the European Jews, p. 315.
13. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1137; Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators Victims
Bystanders, p. 264.
14. Gilbert, Martin, The Second
World War, p. 40.
15. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
16. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
17. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 200.
17a. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII's Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
18. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 200.
19. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust,
20. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 202.
21. Gilbert, Martin, The
Holocaust, p. 623.
22. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 201.
23. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1138.
24. Gilbert, Martin, The
Holocaust, p. 701.
25. Perl, William, The Holocaust
Conspiracy, p. 176.
26. Gutman, Israel. Encyclopedia
of the Holocaust, p. 1138.
27. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust,
28. Gilbert, Martin. The Second World
War, p. 59.
28a. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII's Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
29. The Jerusalem Post. "Vatican Blocks Panel's
Access to Holocaust Archives." By Melissa Radler. 7/24/01
30. Peter Carlson, “A Diplomat's Diary,” Washington
Post, (April 22, 2004).
Telegraphic Agency, (April 23, 2004).
32. Jerusalem Report, (February 7, 2005).
Post, (December 4, 2006).
of the Holocaust, p. 1139.