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The Vatican & the Holocaust: The Controversy over the Alleged Silence of Pope Pius XII in World War II

by Robert A. Graham, S.J.

Rev. Robert A. Graham, S.J. is a scholar and writer of distinction in Vatican history. Father Graham devoted more than a dozen years to the monumental task of editing an 11-volume series containing the documents of the Vatican Secretariat of State during World War II.

During World War II (1939-1945) Pope Pius XII lent a strong hand in support of the harassed Jews of Europe. The Vatican was one of the few remaining points of assistance left on the Axis-controlled continent. Increasingly, with the evidence of their own experience, local and world Jewish representatives learned to turn to the pope for help. This confidence was never disappointed. Uninfluenced by anti-Semitic propaganda or overawed by the ruthless Axis power visible on all sides, the Vatican, that is, Pius XII, intervened on behalf of Jews, individuals and groups, at strategic moments. This action it took either on its own initiative or following representations coming to it from numerous Jewish rescue organizations keeping vigilance over the unfolding drama. Such assistance was not sporadic or incidental or perfunctory but consistent — and persistent. It was not the accidental product of some curious circumstance, but the result of policy and principle. And the local Jewish leadership, with the world Jewish organizations, recognized this with gratitude. For as the war progressed, it was clear that in a continent writhing in suffering, Jews were easily among the most imperiled.

The full truth of what was happening would become known only later. But enough was known to produce, on the Vatican's side, innumerable interventions with governments still susceptible to admonitions. At the death of Pius XII, Jewish spokesmen, who knew the record, came forward with tributes to the late pontiff's services in the name of humanity, for the victims of the Holocaust.

At this point commences a stupefying paradox. The general assistance of the Vatican to Jews during World War II is fully documented, with chapter and verse, in the archives of both the Vatican and the Jewish organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, not to speak of the official U.S. War Refugee Board. How does it come about that, in later years, the wind changes abruptly and violently? The Pope is found violently criticized by those who a short time earlier had been effusive in praise. For it was not until 1963, five years after the Pope was in his grave, that the past was, so to speak, itself buried in silence, as if inconvenient. In the spring of that year, in Berlin, a theatrical piece written by a hitherto unknown young German playwright roused enormous polemics inside and outside of Germany. The debate is continuing, a quarter of a century later.

Had something new been discovered? Had some secret aspect of the war years come to light hitherto unknown? Nothing of the sort. But a new climate had developed which put the issue in a new psychological rather than historical perspective. The calendar may help us to discover what happened and, in the process, to improve our understanding of the curious controversy over the alleged "silence" of Pius XII.

The above-mentioned play, called "The Deputy" (Der Stellvertreter), by Rolf Hochhuth, was staged in February 1963, barely a few months after the close of the first session of the epoch-making Second Vatican Council. As is well known, this historic assembly of all the Catholic bishops, called by Pope John XXIII, aroused unprecedented interest in world opinion. Within the Catholic body politic the council opened entrancing perspectives, particularly the relations of the Catholic Church to other Christians — and to Jews. Ecumenism was on the march, after repeated false starts.

There were other relevant events at this time. U.S. public opinion was increasingly disturbed by the mounting moral challenge opened by the Vietnam war. The spectacles of lives and money consumed in a conflict seemingly without object raised profound moral scruples, not to say guilt complexes. Finally, shortly before, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel brought out, as never previously, the destruction of European Jewry in all its somber and tragic colors. Is it too much to suggest that perhaps, considering this junction of disparate circumstances, the figure of the Pope emerged as a sort of substitute, or surrogate, of the conscience of us all? The hypothesis is unprovable, but it helps to explain why the Hochhuth play triggered a controversy that is still going on, quite beyond the literary merits of "The Deputy".

Whatever its origins, a psychological transformation does not justify distortion of the historical reality. Facts remain facts and are not to be relegated to insignificance as if they did not happen. Yet this is what is happening: all that the Pope did for the Jews, and also all that the Jews said in praise of Pius XII, has been covered with a curtain of oblivion. The real silence has been the silence of polemicists who have succeeded in closing one eye to the reality, thereby leading the public into a grotesque conception of the role of Pius XII in World War II.

The language itself has suffered from this misinformation. Playwright Rolf Hochhuth criticized the pontiff for his (alleged) silence, but even he admitted that, on the level of action, Pius XII generously aided the Jews to the best of his ability. Today, after a quarter-century of the arbitrary and one-sided presentation offered the public, the word "silence" has taken on a much wider connotation. It stands also for "indifference", "apathy", "inaction", and, implicitly, for "anti- Semitism".

The image presented today is that of a Pope immobilized in the face of atrocities. Hence the self-revealing question, "Why did not the Pope do something?" Or, tendentious allusions to the "inaction" of the Vatican, as if the only action conceivable is that of making public and provocative statements regardless of their real and possibly disastrous and pernicious consequences for the Jews themselves. This is to cancel out too easily the factual record of the continuing real assistance of the Vatican to European Jewry, of which the appropriate documents and declarations of those concerned are convincing (but suppressed) witness.

It may surprise the contemporary generation to learn that the local Jewish communities, and the world Jewish bodies did not, for the most part, urge the Pope to "speak out." Their objective was far more concrete and down-to-earth. They invoked the real or supposed influence of the Holy See on governments in respect to certain situations arising at one or other points of the tragedy. Appeals to world opinion, high-sounding though they may appear, would have seemed cheap and trivial gestures to those engaged in rescue work. (There were many Allied propagandistic appeals, and threats, which had no effect and possibly hastened action by the Eichmann crew.) The crying need in those years was for effective pressure on persecuting governments, pressure that often enough could only be exercised by discreet and even roundabout methods.

The need to refrain from provocative public statements at such delicate moments was fully recognized in Jewish circles. It was in fact the basic rule of all those agencies in wartime Europe who felt keenly the duty to do all that was possible for the victims of Nazi atrocities and in particular for the Jews in proximate danger of deportation to an unknown destination. In Geneva at this time, for instance, the World Council of Churches found itself obliged to refrain from any public statements about Nazi atrocities, on the grounds that this would bring to naught whatever real good they were presently accomplishing. Yet, behind the scenes, without fanfare, the Council, under the Secretary General Visser 't Hooft, deployed, like the Vatican, effective assistance to the Jews.

The drama faced by the International Committee of the Red Cross, with its seat likewise in Geneva, is perhaps even more striking. The Committee is officially charged by international agreement with supervising the application of the Red Cross Conventions on Prisoners of War. But the needs of civilian internees (read, Jews) increasingly alarmed the members of the committee. The Red Cross had no real knowledge of the extermination camps at this time (in the autumn of 1942) but the harshness of German procedures, and even more so the sinister disappearance of so many thousands into the maw of deportation, suggested the necessity of an open and public protest on the part of the Committee. With profound regret, the Geneva Red Cross decided that a public protest, a) would have no effect, b) would compromise what real good the Committee was already doing for the internees, without benefit of public declarations. And indeed in the following war years, the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to achieve a great deal in its efforts at alleviating suffering.

There is no one who today questions the reasonableness of the silence of the World Council of Churches, or of the Committee. But the same factors were operative in like manner for the Vatican: no good would be accomplished by public protests, and on the contrary, what good was yet possible would be compromised by provocations. In his own reaction to the negative decision of the Red Cross, the Geneva representative of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhart Riegner, accepted its validity. If something could yet be done to save the threatened Jews, then this should be followed up, in place of a protest: "I believe — he (Carl Burckhardt) told the Committee representative — a protest is necessary only in the case where there is really nothing more to be done at the time. But if one can still exercise some influence and if one wishes to refrain from a protest, it is necessary to act and not to satisfy oneself with passively recording news of deportees. Riegner's stand, preferring action to words, is in contrast with the contemporary prevailing obsession with open protests, as if they were an end in themselves.

The Vatican, too, had to face the possibility — even the probability — that its own direct protests against the deportation of Jews would undermine the slender basis it had already for effective interventions. Any one who pretends to pass moral judgment on the actions of persons and institutions during the stress of World War II owes it to the truth to consider adequately the real margin left for action. This courtesy, or justice, has demonstrably not been extended to Pius XII. The result has been the construction of images totally out of relation to reality. It is significant that the argumentation against Pius XII is uniformly of a negative nature: the Pope did not do "enough." He did not say "enough." This open-ended approach can be applied, at will, to almost any other institution of personality, and it reeks with subjectivity and arbitrariness. Under such a formula of enough, nobody is immune from criticism.

Even the word "silence" is relative. Pius XII was not "silent" during World War II. He was not even "neutral." In this the Holy See differed from the above-mentioned World Council of Churches and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which found themselves unable to make any statements, even the most generic, protesting Nazi atrocities. The Pope's public statements, from his first inaugural encyclical of October 1939, were clearly directed against the National Socialist regime, and were so understood on both sides.

It is true that the papal language, in these circumstances, was indirect, round-about and imprecise. But there was no doubt, for those who cared to read, as to what he meant. Take, for instance the Papal discourse of June 2, 1943. Pius XII first assured his listeners that he regarded all peoples with equal good will. "But" — he went on — "do not be surprised, Venerable Brothers and beloved sons, if our soul reacts with particular emotion and pressing concern to the prayers of those who turn to us with anxious pleading eyes, in travail because of their nationality or their race, before greater catastrophes and ever more acute and serious sorrows, and destined sometimes, even without fault of their own, to exterminating constraints."

The Pope went on to say that the rulers of nations (that is, the Nazis) should not forget that they could not dispose of the life and death of men at their will. Such words, despite their indirectness and circumlocution carried a message we should be able to understand and appreciate today. They are fully confirmed in the record, as we know it.

A year later, on June 2, 1944, the Pope returned to this theme. The tone of concern is obvious: To one sole goal our thoughts are turned, night and day: how it may be possible to abolish such acute suffering, coming to the relief of all, without distinction of nationality or race. This is not indifference, or apathy or inaction.

It is sometimes said that Pius XII should have been more prophetic during World War II. If what is really meant is that he should have excommunicated Hitler and be done with it, the proposal is anything but "prophetic". Such an idea could emanate only from someone with an outmoded, simplistic concept of the role of the papacy, drawn from some overblown literary tradition. But, in the real sense, Pius XII, standing in the heart of the Axis world when Britain stood alone and the United States was far away and frozen in isolationism, did exercise a real prophetic mission with his inspiring discourses to a world disoriented and dispirited by the apparent triumph of evil. For a world hungry for guidance Pius XII was far from silent or lacking in the prophetic quality.

A great injustice has been done to the memory of Pope Pius XII. An even greater wound has been administered to history. The controversy over the wartime role of the Pope is riddled with misrepresentations and falsehoods, expressed too often in bitter tones that surprise and disappoint those who perhaps mistakenly believed an era of détente and a mutual desire for understanding had arisen. We have been witnessing a staggering disregard and a bland, unembarrassed disavowal of formal statements of those in the best position to know the facts. In the process a mountain of fantasy has been created, without any real foundation in the record.

Sooner or later, the facts will assert their rights. With time, the wheel will come full circle and return to the point from which it departed in 1963. This was the time when in his lifetime as well as after his death Pius XII was recognized by the most authoritative spokesmen for what he was in reality, one of the best friends the Jews had, in one of the most tragically dark days of the long, long history of the Jewish people.

Source: The Catholic League