While opening the Vatican archives on Pius XII may not resolve division, it will bring…
Dismantling the myth of ‘Hitler’s Pope’
“Hitler’s Pope.” This is the charge often levelled at Pope Pius XII, who was pope from 1939-58. It is not new. It started in the 1960s with the play “The Deputy” and has waxed and waned in popularity over the years. This charge has led to controversy over Pius XII’s canonization cause. Pope St. Paul VI opened the cause in 1967, and Pope Benedict XVI declared him venerable in 2009.
The Vatican opened up its archives and libraries to researchers at the beginning of March so that truth could be ascertained and, if possible, his cause could move forward. Unfortunately, the Vatican had to close the archives and send the researchers home because of the global pandemic. The archives have since reopened.
Recently, the Washington Post ran an article repeating the claim that Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope,” arguing that Pius knew about the Holocaust and did nothing to stop it. This claim that Pius XII was somehow in cahoots with Hitler is a myth, and it ignores Pius’s actions, contemporary reactions and the historical context the Vatican was in during the 1930s and 1940s.
Early opposition to Nazism
It is important to note that Pope Pius XII was a career diplomat and relatively soft-spoken, particularly when compared to his predecessors Pius IX and Pius XI, and one of his successors, John XXIII. His two main concerns during his tenure as Vatican secretary of state and his wartime papacy were the preservation of peace and the survival of the visible Church. He had to weigh what his actions and words would mean for the millions of Catholics spread throughout Europe and the world. Pius also constrained himself, publicly at least, to proper diplomatic channels and refrained from public actions or words that could be seen as brazen violations of the concordats with Germany and Italy. Furthermore, Pius believed in making appeals to the faith of Catholics and other Christians, and that if he, even obliquely, highlighted the differences between Nazism and Catholic doctrine then, to quote Our Lord, “Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Mt 11:15).
Pius XII’s opposition to the Nazis and Nazism began when he was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican secretary of state from 1930-39 under Pope Pius XI. As secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli launched more than 50 protests in three years over Nazi breaches of the Reichskonkordat, the treaty between the Holy See and the German government that offered certain protections to the Catholic Church. Pacelli had been instrumental in negotiating this treaty with the government before the Nazis, the Weimar Republic. The concordat with Germany was one of 40 concordats negotiated by the Vatican after the First World War; in many instances, such as the one with Germany, the purpose of the concordat was to secure the rights of the Catholic Church and the laity in the face of hostile governments. Pacelli also made his dislike of Nazism known in nondiplomatic settings. In April 1935 at Lourdes, France, Pacelli condemned the Nazi’s racial philosophy as “contrary to the Christian faith” and “a superstition of race and blood.” Pacelli called the Nazis “false prophets with the pride of Lucifer” in a letter written to Cardinal Karl Joseph Schulte of Cologne, Germany, one month before his visit to Lourdes.
|WHO WAS POPE PIUS XII?|
Original name: Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli
Born: March 2, 1876, in Rome
Died: Oct. 9, 1958, at Castel Gandolfo, Italy
Reigned as pope: March 2, 1939-Oct. 9, 1958
Career: Ordained a priest on April 2, 1899; spent much of his early priesthood serving as a diplomat and assistant within the Vatican’s Secretary of State office; appointed as nuncio to Bavaria in 1917; appointed as nuncio to Germany in 1920; was made a cardinal-priest in 1929 and soon after became the Vatican’s secretary of state, overseeing foreign policy across the world on behalf of the Holy See; was elected to the papacy in 1939, succeeding Pope Pius XI.
One of Cardinal Pacelli’s most important tasks as secretary of state was helping Pope Pius XI and leading German bishops write the 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”). Pope Pius XI and Pacelli decided to write this encyclical after a period of intense Nazi persecution of Catholics and numerous breaches of the concordat. This encyclical was addressed to the priests and laity of Germany and designed to remind them that the Church, the Catholic faith and God were above the rules and laws of man and secular government. The encyclical condemned Nazi racial ideology, neo-paganism, Nazi efforts to remove the Old Testament from German Bibles and education, the elevation of Adolf Hitler to nearly divine status, Nazi insistence that blood and race, not Christ, saved man, and Nazi attacks against the Church. It repeatedly condemned “the so-called myth of race and blood” (No. 17).
While it is measured in tone, the encyclical clearly shows German Catholics where the Nazi government opposes Catholic doctrine and faith. Some historians believe that Pacelli himself wrote the eighth point, which states that “whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State … to an idolatrous level … is far from the true faith in God.”
In 1937, Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago criticized Hitler and the Nazis in a public speech. As Paul O’Shea relates in his book “A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe,” the Nazis demanded that the Vatican reprimand Mundelein, which Pacelli said was not possible as long as Nazi breaches of the concordat continued. Pacelli also leaked to the press that the Vatican did not disapprove of Mundelein’s speech and favorably compared the speech to the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge.
Cardinal Pacelli also reprimanded Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna when the cardinal offered support for the Nazis’ annexation of Austria and the installation of an Austrian National Socialist government in April 1938. A month later, writes O’Shea, Cardinal Pacelli publicly condemned “the array of the militant godless shaking the clenched fist of the Antichrist against everything that we hold most sacred.” After Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, an intense anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany in November 1938, Pacelli appealed to the Vatican’s nuncios around the world, especially in the Western Hemisphere, to use their influence to get governments to accept refugees from Germany.
Public addresses, actions
Now let us turn our attention to Pius’ public words and actions during his papacy. War was clearly on the horizon when Pacelli became Pope Pius XII on March 2, 1939. Pius desired peace above all and sought to use the best force at his disposal, the Vatican diplomatic corps, to bring peace to fruition. As such, he attempted to use the Vatican’s nuncios in European capitals to achieve an understanding among the European powers that would prevent war. He attempted to convene a conference of nations for this purpose soon after his election. When this attempt failed and war broke out, Pius attempted to convince Mussolini and his government to not join Hitler in the war.
Pope Pius XII also gave a number of speeches concerning the war and violence against noncombatants. His first public speech on March 3, 1939, was broadcast via radio, and he pleaded for peace. This was a common element of Pius’ public speeches; he consistently made appeals for peace and, failing that, for innocent noncombatants to be spared. He made another radio address pleading for peace on Aug. 24, 1939, this one addressed to “governors and peoples in the imminent danger of war.”
After the war began, Pius issued the encyclical Summi Pontificatus in October 1939. In the encyclical, he condemned racism and anti-Semitism by discussing man’s common origin in God, Christ’s sacrifice for all mankind, and St. Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is “neither Gentile nor Jew.” He called the “forgetfulness of … our common origin and … the equality of rational nature in all men” a “pernicious error” (No. 35). Pius also condemned the totalitarian state as a danger to world peace. His most famous public address during the war was the 1942 Christmas radio address. In that address, Pius said that mankind had a solemn vow to work toward peace and restoring the law of God. Man owed this vow to specific groups of people affected by the war, particularly “those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death.”
Pope Pius XII would, in the summer of 1943, release another encyclical, Mystici corporis Christi. This encyclical again condemned racism and anti-Semitism, with declarations such as: “[The love of God] embraces all peoples, whatever their nationality or race”; “[Christ broke] ‘down the middle wall of partition … in his flesh’ by which the [Jews and Gentiles] were divided”; and “our peaceful King who taught us to love not only those who are of a different nation or race” (Nos. 6, 32, 96). The encyclical also condemned forced conversions. This is pertinent, because during the war, priests and Church officials, with and without Pius’ permission, used baptismal documents to help Jews escape.
Pius also offered words and actions in defense of Europe’s Jews. These defenses were often more private than his main encyclicals and radio addresses, or carried out by other parts of the Vatican, particularly its radio network. Pius offered to pay whatever the Nazis demanded as a ransom for Rome’s Jews in September 1943. Pius also personally told the Vatican’s clergy to offer refuge in churches to any who needed it when the Nazis began to arrest Rome’s Jews on Oct. 16, 1943. Between the churches, convents, and monasteries in Vatican City and Rome, over 5,000 of Rome’s 6,700 Jews escaped arrest. Pius then protested to the German ambassador, who halted the arrests, and then the Pope secured release of 252 children who had been arrested.
Taking necessary steps
Outside of Rome, both throughout Italy and in Hungary, Pius allowed Vatican baptismal documents to be given to Jews to allow them to flee persecution. He also opened up his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to cumulatively thousands of Jewish refugees. Hugh O’Flaherty, the Irish priest who saved thousands of Jews in Rome, said that everything was done with the cooperation of the pope. Pope Pius personally wrote to the government in Slovakia to protest their deportations of Jews. He also instructed his secretary of state to convey his anger and displeasure to France’s Vichy government after the government began to arrest priests who sheltered Jews. Pope Pius also authorized his nuncios to act to save Jews in their respective capitals. His nuncio to Hungary, Angelo Rotta, conspired with diplomats of other neutral nations to hide and rescue tens of thousands of Jews, hiding some of them in buildings marked with the Vatican seal. He instructed his nuncio in Bulgaria to take “all necessary steps” to save Bulgarian Jews. Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope St. John XXIII, and Archbishop Giovanni Montini, the future Pope St. Paul VI, both said, upon accepting awards for their role in saving European Jews, that they were merely following the orders of Pope Pius.
Vatican Radio did not solely broadcast Pius XII’s speeches. It also spent hours broadcasting the speeches and speech transcripts of Catholic clergy throughout Europe that condemned the Nazis in general and their treatment of Jews in particular. Vatican Radio programs made repeated condemnations of Hitler and the Nazis throughout the war. Pius himself told the radio station to broadcast the French bishops’ condemnations of the Nazis’ deportations of the Jews, writes Henri de Lubac in his book “Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism: Memories from 1940-1944.” Vatican Radio also broadcast into Germany a program that defined “the rights of the Jews under the Natural Law.” Soon after that, another broadcast declared, “he who makes a distinction between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God and is in conflict with God’s commands.”
Pope Pius also conducted a number of actions in relative secrecy. He used his diplomatic contacts to alert the Allies in the spring of 1940 to the planned Nazi invasions of the Low Countries and of Norway. The most notable and remarkable diplomatic missions that Pope Pius XII undertook during the Second World War were the attempts to overthrow Hitler. He was involved in three of the attempts planned by members of the German military intelligence service. Pius was both an active participant in these plans and the middle-man between the British government and German dissidents. Pius personally attested to the anti-Nazi qualities of the German plotters to British intelligence agents; this led to the British supporting the plots. Pius’ private secretary, Father Robert Leiber, had direct contact with German resistance agents who travelled to Rome. Leiber’s notes reveal Pope Pius’s feelings on the matter. In the notes, Pius stated that the conspirators should work toward “any government without Hitler” (Mark Reibling, “Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler”). He believed that Hitler’s crimes and those of his regime provided a moral justification for tyrannicide.
Praise for the pope
Now, what did Pope Pius XII’s contemporaries think of his words and actions? In 1937, the Nazis swiftly reacted against Mit Brennender Sorge. The government forbade the printing, reproduction and distribution of the encyclical. It closed down the publishing houses responsible for printing it, continued the shuttering of Catholic youth organizations and brought Catholic clergy and religious brothers and sisters to trial on trumped up “morality charges.”
The Nazis were not pleased with Pius’ election to the papacy. One Nazi intelligence officer claimed that Pius XII had “summoned the whole world to fight against the Reich” via Mit Brennender Sorge, writes Reibling. Josef Goebbels, the Nazis’ chief propaganda minister, reported that Hitler was already considering whether or not to break the concordat with the Vatican in the days after the papal election. Pius XII wrote letters to all world leaders shortly after his election; Hitler was the only one not to respond. The Nazis would later ban people from listening to Vatican Radio during the war throughout their occupied territories. In 1940, the Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, the ambassador to the Vatican, met with Pius to confront him about siding against Nazi Germany. Pius retorted by listing the Nazis’ crimes.
Jerusalem’s Palestine Post celebrated Pius XII’s election and declared that “he must have had a large part to play in the recent papal opposition to pernicious race theories.” London’s Zionist Review believed that Pius XII’s staff appointments within the Vatican “confirm[ed] the view that the new pope means to conduct an anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist policy.”
Diego von Bergen said that the encyclical Summi Pontificatus was a direct attack on the Third Reich. The New York Times reprinted the entire encyclical with the headline: “Dictators, Treaty-Breaking and Racism Are Condemned by the Pope in His First Encyclical.” New York’s Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the equivalent of the Associated Press, said of the encyclical, “The unqualified condemnation which Pope Pius XII heaped on totalitarian, racist and materialistic theories of government in his encyclical Summi Pontificatus caused a profound stir,” and even though observers expected a papal attack, few “had expected so outspoken a document.”
The French dropped tens of thousands of copies of Summi Pontificatus by air into Germany, and the Nazi Gestapo investigated anyone who had a copy of it. The Time magazine article on the subject referred to Pius with the headline “No Dove.” The Times of London declared in October 1942 that “a study of the words which Pius XII has addressed … to the Catholics of various nations leaves no doubt. He condemns … the persecution of the Jewish race.” On Aug. 6, 1942, The New York Times ran a front-page article with the headline “Pope Is Said to Plead for Jews Listed for Removal From France.”
The New York Times praised Pius’s Christmas addresses in 1941 and 1942. The Times declared that Pius was “a lonely voice in the silence and darkness” and “the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.” Pius had “put himself squarely against Hitlerism” and he “left no doubt that the Nazi aims are also irreconcilable with his own conception of a Christian peace.” The paper praised both his speech and his impartiality in 1942, stating that “the ‘impartial’ judgment is like a verdict in a high court of justice.” Because Pius claimed impartiality, “the clear stand he takes on the fundamental issues of the conflict has greater weight and authority.” The Times made it clear that they believe, and their readers should, that Pius is taking the side of the Allies, even though he is claiming impartiality. Members of the RSHA, the Nazi’s security apparatus, believed that Pius was “clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews … he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice towards the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals” (Owen Chadwick, “Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War”).
By the time of Pope Pius XII’s death on Oct. 9, 1958, countless people and organizations, including Jewish organizations, had praised his actions and words during the war. Upon his death, Golda Meir, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims.”
Could Pope Pius XII have done more in terms of actions or words? Perhaps. However, for much of the war, particularly early on, Pius and the Vatican were an island in the sea that was Nazi-dominated Europe. Pius’ best weapon was the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. By remaining “impartial” and not officially taking a side, Pius was able to keep his nuncios in their respective capitals and use them behind the scenes to save as many lives as they could. Pius also had to weigh the possibility of Nazi recriminations if he spoke out. According to his personal secretaries, this was one of his key considerations. When the Dutch bishops spoke out against the Nazi persecutions, the Nazis responded by arresting more than 200 people, including St. Edith Stein, and sending them to the camps.
Pope Pius XII’s record as Vatican secretary of state and pope, both in terms of words and actions, as well as the contemporary reactions from the Allies and the Nazis, show that the idea of him being “Hitler’s Pope” is a myth that deserves to be put to rest.
Spencer York is a Ph.D. candidate in history with a focus on the Catholic Church in the United States. He writes from Illinois.
|‘THE CHURCH IS NOT AFRAID OF HISTORY’|
The following is an excerpt from a March 2019 address to the officials of the Vatican Secret Archive — since renamed the Vatican Apostolic Archive — in which Pope Francis announced the decision to open the archives to researchers.
“I take this decision having heard the opinions of my closest advisers, with a calm and trusting spirit, certain that serious and objective historical research will succeed in evaluating in its proper light, with appropriate criticism, the praiseworthy moments of [Pius XII] and, no doubt also the moments of grave difficulty, of anguished decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some may appear reticent, and which were instead human and hard-fought attempts to keep alive, in periods of intense darkness and cruelty, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in the possible favorable opening of hearts.
“The Church is not afraid of history but, rather, she loves it, and would like to love it more and better, as God loves it! Thus, with the same confidence of my predecessors, I open and entrust this patrimony of documents to researchers.”