by Mitchell Bard
(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
Silence, yes, but
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Sources: Mitchel Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise