Pius XII: Saint or Sinner?
A review of Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell, Viking; 1999; $29.99
By Mitchell Bard
Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958), better known as Pope Pius XII, was on the fast track to canonization but now may have been derailed, at least temporarily, by a new book. The book goes further than any before in accusing Pius XII of failing to condemn the Nazi annihilation of Jews or to take action that might have ameliorated the plight of European Jewry in World War II.
The Jewish community and the Catholic Church have a longstanding dispute over the pope's wartime record, which Jews hold was, at best, one of benign neglect and Catholics maintain was morally exemplary. Now author John Cornwell has exacerbated tensions by supporting the Jewish view of the pope's failures and attributing them for the first time to anti-Semitism.
Had a Jewish scholar written this book, it probably would have garnered far less attention. Cornwell, however, is an award-winning journalist and author, and senior research fellow at Jesus College at Cambridge, who set out to write a book sympathetic to Pius XII but was shocked by what he discovered in secret Vatican archives.
Silence, yes, but indifference?
Alas, the discoveries he documents do not justify the book's sensational title. Much of the book hardly deals with the Jews or the Holocaust at all. It is rather an eye-opening account of the foreign-policy machinations of Pacelli and other Vatican officials.
Cornwell devotes so much attention to Vatican intrigue because he believes many of the episodes involving Pacelli before he became pope reveal his motivations for the actions he took -- and did not take -- during the war. Pacelli, Cornwell concludes, primarily was interested in advancing Catholicism in general and enhancing papal power in particular.
The most damning example is Pacelli's role in negotiating a treaty with German dictator Adolf Hitler known as the Reich Concordat. The agreement essentially said Hitler would allow the Vatican to maintain a measure of religious control over the churches in Germany in exchange for German Catholics staying out of politics. The result was that German Catholics (and later Catholics in occupied countries) who might have protested Hitler's policies remained silent at the Vatican's instructions. Hitler saw the agreement as "particularly significant in the developing struggle against international Jewry."
Pius XII was silent during the war. As early as March 1942, he was informed about the "catastrophic situation of the Jews in a number of Catholic countries, or countries with large Catholic populations." Allied leaders repeatedly asked the pope to speak because they believed his words could make a difference, but he refused to do so -- even when deportations of Italian Jews began in the pope's backyard.
According to a document recently unearthed in the U.S. National Archives, Pius XII told the United States in 1942 that he believed reports of German atrocities against Jews were exaggerated. The document also indicated the pope felt he could not denounce Nazis without also criticizing the Soviet Union.
The pope's defenders usually say Pius XII was not indifferent to the Jews' plight, that he did not speak out because he was convinced it would make matters worse, and that, quietly, he did take heroic measures to save Jews. Responding to Cornwell, Father Pierre Blet, a Catholic scholar who spent 15 years examining documents relating to the period, maintained that "the public silence was the cover for a secret activity through Vatican embassies and bishoprics to try to stop the deportations." Blet admitted Pius "liked Germans" but objected to the suggestion he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Lives that could have been saved
The pope did act behind the scenes on occasion. During the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, he advised the Hungarian government to be moderate in its plans for treatment of Jews. Pius XII privately protested the deportation of Jews and, 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 to cease deportations July 8.
In the later stages of the war, Pius XII also appealed to several Latin American governments to accept the "emergency passports" of several thousand Jews. Thirteen Latin American countries decided to honor these documents despite threats from the Germans to deport the passport holders. The church also answered a request to save 6,000 Jewish children in Bulgaria by helping to transfer them to Palestine.
But such examples only enhance the feeling the pope could have saved many more lives. Moreover, any support he gave the Jews came after 1942, once U.S. officials told him the allies wanted total victory and it became likely they would get it. Cornwell found no documents to support the claim that the pope was silent to protect a secret operation.
Defenders also point to his one public statement as evidence of his concern for the Jews. This is a reference to his 1942 Christmas message, which said, "Humanity owes this vow to 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 gradual extinction." The statement conspicuously fails to mention the word "Nazi" or "Jew."
But what of the most sensational accusation -- that the pope's behavior was in part motivated by his antipathy toward the Jews? Cornwell only offers a few specific examples, none of which is convincing.
In one case, Pacelli is involved in denying a Jewish request for palm fronds for the Feast of Tabernacles. He also mentions instances where Pacelli refers to the Munich chapter of the German Communist Party as chaotic, filthy and full of Jews and, in another instance, describes communist leader Max Levien as a Jew, "pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive. ..." These few examples in which Pacelli used intemperate, stereotypical language do not seem sufficient to back the serious charge that he was an anti-Semite.
Neither Nazi ally nor adversary
Cornwell's book has stimulated one positive development: the decision by the Vatican to finally open its archives. If anything, new revelations could only be damning because Vatican researchers have had access to these materials all along and have published information sympathetic to the pope. Even if more such evidence exists, it would not change the record of the pope's public silence.
Of course, no one can know for certain what difference a public stand by the pope would have made, but here is the view of Guenter Lewy, quoted by Cornwell: "A public denunciation of the mass murders by Pius XII, broadcast widely over the Vatican radio and read from the pulpits by the bishops, would have revealed to Jews and Christians alike what deportation to the East entailed. The pope would have been believed, whereas the broadcasts of the Allies were often shrugged off as war propaganda."
In the end, this book supports the conclusion of other studies, which have found that Pope Pius XII was not a saint. He was not Hitler's pope, but neither was he Hitler's adversary. Had he been, history might have been different.