Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust

The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t have an immaculate history; from the Spanish inquisition to the atrocities committed during the crusades, history has borne witness to myriad spectacles of moral failure on the part of Catholics. This point, I take it, is beyond reasonable contest. However, having acknowledged that, I have to say that I have grown aggravated by the mindless tendency to sensationalize and exaggerate these failures, as well as to fabricate some of them wholesale. Enough is enough, and the nonsense has to be called out. Nowhere is this trend more irritating to me than in the case of the wild accusation that Pope Pius XII (one of my favorite popes of all time) was a Nazi sympathizer. So, I will break with my usual habit of blogging about strictly philosophical and/or theological issues and write a little bit in defense of venerable Pope Pius XII.

The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the famed ‘four horsemen’ of the new atheism, wrote:

“None of the Protestant churches, however, went as far as the Catholic hierarchy in ordering an annual celebration for Hitler’s birthday on April 20. On this auspicious date, on papal instructions, the cardinal of Berlin regularly transmitted “warmest congratulations to the führer in the name of the bishops and dioceses in Germany,” these plaudits to be accompanied by “the fervent prayers which the Catholics of Germany are sending to heaven on their altars.” The order was obeyed, and faithfully carried out.

To be fair, this disgraceful tradition was not inaugurated until 1939, in which year there was a change of papacy. And to be fair again, Pope Pius XI had always harbored the most profound misgivings about the Hitler system and its evident capacity for radical evil. (During Hitler’s first visit to Rome, for example, the Holy Father rather ostentatiously took himself out of town to the papal retreat at Castelgandolfo.) However, this ailing and weak pope was continually outpointed, throughout the 1930s, by his secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli. We have good reason to think that at least one papal encyclical, expressing at least a modicum of concern about the maltreatment of Europe’s Jews, was readied by His Holiness but suppressed by Pacelli, who had another strategy in mind. We now know Pacelli as Pope Pius XII, who succeeded to the office after the death of his former superior in February 1939. Four days after his election by the College of Cardinals, His Holiness composed the following letter to Berlin:

To the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer and Chancellor of the German Reich! Here at the beginning of Our Pontificate We wish to assure you that We remain devoted to the spiritual welfare of the German people entrusted to your leadership. […] During the many years We spent in Germany, we did all in Our power to establish harmonious relations between Church and State. Now that the responsibilities of Our pastoral function have increased Our opportunities, how much more ardently do We pray to reach that goal. May the prosperity of the German people and their progress in every domain come, with God’s help, to fruition!

Within six years of this evil and fatuous message, the once prosperous and civilized people of Germany could gaze around themselves and see hardly one brick piled upon another, as the godless Red Army swept toward Berlin. But I mention this conjuncture for another reason. Believers are supposed to hold that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth, and the keeper of the keys of Saint Peter. They are of course free to believe this, and to believe that god decides when to end the tenure of one pope or (more important) to inaugurate the tenure of another. This would involve believing in the death of an anti-Nazi pope, and the accession of a pro-Nazi one, as a matter of divine will, a few months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the opening of the Second World War.”[1]

This is as naïve an analysis of Catholic theology, as well as of history, as it is possible to find.

Specialists on this issue, such as Ronald J. Rychlak,[2] had challenged Hitchens to debate the issue publicly, but Hitchens never accepted (for whatever reason), and lest one imagine that Rychlak, being Catholic, is unfairly biased, I can direct the reader just as easily to X-Catholic atheists, such as Mark Riebling (who, it just so happens, has done an interview on the topic with another one of the horsemen of the new atheism, Sam Harris).[3] It is worth noting, for a start, that Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (better known as Pope Pius XII) ascended to the papacy as a successor to Pius XI, whose legacy of opposition to the Nazi’s is as clear as is his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937), in which he denounced and condemned them unequivocally. One source reads:

“When Pius XI died in 1939, the Nazis abhorred the prospect that Pacelli might be elected his successor.
Dr. Joseph Lichten, a Polish Jew who served as a diplomat and later an official of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, writes: “Pacelli had obviously established his position clearly, for the Fascist governments of both Italy and Germany spoke out vigorously against the possibility of his election to succeed Pius XI in March of 1939, though the cardinal secretary of state had served as papal nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1929. . . . The day after his election, the Berlin Morgenpost said: ‘The election of cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.’ “[4]
Former Israeli diplomat and now Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Pinchas Lapide states that Pius XI “had good reason to make Pacelli the architect of his anti-Nazi policy. Of the forty-four speeches which the Nuncio Pacelli had made on German soil between 1917 and 1929, at least forty contained attacks on Nazism or condemnations of Hitler’s doctrines. . . . Pacelli, who never met the Führer, called it ‘neo-Paganism.’ “[5]””[4]

For example, in April of 1935 Pacelli delivered a speech at Lourdes, France, stating before an audience of no less than 250,000 pilgrims that “[Nazi’s] are in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.”””[5] When he finally ascended to the papacy, Pius XII confirmed every worry the German elites had about him when he continued to write scathing speeches against Nazism. Not only did he remain vigilant, but he alerted the world to the philosophical horrors of Nazism long before the discovery of the death camps, particularly in one Christmas address so clear it became a cry heard around the world.

“”The New York Times at the time observed of Pius XII’s Christmas address, “This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent.” Pius XII’s message was carefully analyzed by Reinhard Heydrich’s branch of the SS, which saw the pope’s message as an attack on the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitism. Calling the Christmas address “a masterpiece of clerical falsification,” the SS reported that the “Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order” and noted his assertion that “all peoples and races are worthy of the same consideration.” “Here,” they argued, “he is clearly speaking of the Jews.”””[6]

How are we to believe that this man was Hitler’s Pope? This is the same man who helped write the first draft of Mit brennender Sorge,[7] who orchestrated the secret rescue of as many as 800,000 Jews,[8] who was consulted in the (unsuccessful) plot to oust Hitler from power,[9] who sanctioned the plot to assassinate Hitler,[10] and the same man whom Hitler allegedly[11] plotted to forcefully enter the Vatican and detain.[12] This was the man upon whose death in 1958 Israel’s Foreign Minister at the time, Golda Meir, issued the following statement by way of condolence communicated to the Vatican:

“When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.””[13]

In 1955 the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, in an act permeated with symbolism, gave a special performance at the Vatican in honour of the Pope. No less eminent a scholar than Rabbi David G. Dalin observes:

“on May 26, 1955, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra flew to Rome to give a special performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, at the Vatican’s Consistory Hall, to express the State of Israel’s enduring gratitude for the help that the Pope and the Catholic Church had given to the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. That the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra so joined the rest of the Jewish world in warmly honoring the achievements and legacy of Pope Pius XII is of more than passing significance. As a matter of state policy, the Israeli Philharmonic has never played the music of the nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner because of Wagner’s well-known reputation as an anti-Semite and as Hitler’s “favorite composer,” and as one of the cultural patron saints of the Third Reich, whose music was played at Nazi party functions and ceremonies. Despite requests from music lovers and specialists, the official state ban on the Israeli Philharmonic’s playing Wagner’s music has never been lifted.”[14]

This is the man whose example of Christian charity, virtue and faith was so great that, in the absence of intellectual argument (of which, I note in passing, he was eminently capable), he managed, by example alone, to convert the chief Rabbi of Rome (who also happened to be a doctor of philosophy) Israel Zolli, who, upon conversion to and reception into the Catholic Church in February of 1945, took as his baptismal name ‘Eugenio Maria Zolli,’ in clear homage to the pope.[15] Pius XII actually agreed to Zolli’s request to become his godfather. This conversion, it is worth underscoring, was sincere, as Zolli stresses in his book originally titled “Before the Dawn” and later released under the title “Why I Became a Catholic.”[16] It came about as an indirect result of Zolli observing the actions of Pius XII throughout the second world war, which included housing Zolli in the Vatican, as well as making the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo a refuge for a significant number of Jews, even allowing his own bed to be used at least 17 times for Jewish mothers to give birth within the safety of the Apostolic Palace.[17]

To claim in the face of such evidence that Pope Pius XII was, in any way, sympathetic to Hitler or Nazism is flatly incredible. Whence, then, this impression of him as Hitler’s Pope? The answer may surprise you. It comes primarily from a piece of propaganda in the form of a play popularized in Germany, written by Rolf Hochhuth in 1963, titled Der Stellvertreter (which is usually translated as “The Deputy” but may be better translated as “The Vicar”).[18] This eight-hour long piece of… egregious historical revisionism was used by the Soviet Union to promote communism in Germany. It was, however, only after this play was performed on Broadway that the caricature of Pope Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope gained notoriety in the West.[19] It catalyzed a slew of literature in the English-speaking world, among the most influential fruits of which we find John Cornwell’s book “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,” published in 1999.[20] Since then it has shoved its way into the collective subconscious of misinformed westerners everywhere. Misinformation, it seems, travels faster than the speed of thought.

To be fair, while the play is undoubtedly the primary source for the popular perception, the impression is at least partly promoted by some criticisms of Pius XII suggesting that he could have done more. The Encyclopedia Britannica has an entry an excerpt of which reads as follows:

“Pius XII… played a much more controversial role during the war, [and] has been criticized for failing to speak out more forcefully against the genocidal policies of the Nazis. His strongest statement against genocide was regarded as inadequate by the Allies, though in Germany he was regarded as an Allied sympathizer who had violated his own policy of neutrality. Pius also approved efforts to help the Jews and ordered that the Jews of Rome be given refuge in the city’s religious houses. After the war, the Vatican was involved in extensive humanitarian efforts. Pius, however, was criticized for not having done more. A cautious and experienced diplomat who feared that bold actions would cause more harm than good, he was not a prophet at a time when the world may have needed one.”[21]

This criticism is slightly uncharitable, and it fails to appreciate some of the complexities inherent in negotiating the political and religious terrain with which Pius XII was presented. It is true that Pius XII urged the allied forces to seek alternative solutions to war (see Summi Pontificatus). It is also true that Eugenio Pacelli, acting as the Vatican’s secretary of state, negotiated and agreed to the Reichskonkordat in 1933, a concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich.[22] It is fair to say that Pius XII also attenuated his tone during the second world war, particularly when he saw the Nazi’s target for imprisonment and death Catholic laity, nuns, and clergy by the hundreds in response to his own rhetoric. Hitler’s Nazi Germany showed itself to be incorrigible in the face of criticism, and Pius XII readjusted himself accordingly, focusing his energy on the ‘underground network’ he used to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

If this criticism, with all the advantage of hindsight and the luxury of idealism, is all there is to say against Pope Pius XII, then even if we conceded it without qualification it would go no considerable distance toward justifying the moniker ‘Hitler’s Pope.’ Once we clear away the debris of misinformation and bring into focus all the evidences which bear on his actions, his attitude and his general character, we can see with stunning clarity just how astounding, even scandalizing, it is to refer to this Pope as a Nazi sympathizer. Almost literally, nothing could be further from the truth. As far as asking people in the Church to pray for Hitler, that is not only standard (the Bible in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 commands Christians to pray for their political leaders, however awful they may be – and all the more the more awful they are), but to do the contrary would have been to send a very strong condescending message from the Vatican to Nazi Germany, and the Vatican had to be meticulously diplomatic in its actions (and inactions) to prevent or mitigate the complete political turmoil in Germany. As I indicated above (and others have made the point more competently than I have), the Pope could only vocally oppose Hitler to an extent before it would lead to more casualties, and Pius XII took it as his priority to save lives rather than to save face.

Allow me now, briefly, to anticipate one possible objection to this conclusion on which I insist. Perhaps it occurs to the reader that I, being a Catholic, have a vested interest in defending the Pope, in shielding the Pope from criticism, and as such I turn out to be (even if through no fault of my own) as unreliable as any inordinately biased source. Two responses come to mind. In the first place, if you think that I am guilty of misrepresenting the historical portrait, then I sincerely invite you to peruse and explore the literature on this topic and see for yourself what you make of the matter. Second, perhaps it is worth clarifying that Catholics believe in papal infallibility, but not in papal impeccability. We believe that Popes are guarded by the Holy Spirit against teaching error through the exercise of their papal authority. We do not hesitate to believe that many popes have been astonishingly and spectacularly sinful. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Pius XII was actually horrendously evil, that he was Hitler’s pope, that he had horns growing out of his head, et cetera. What consequences would follow from this for the credibility of the Catholic worldview? Precisely none. Nothing of relevance follows about the truth or falsity of the Catholic worldview as a whole, or about any doctrine in particular. Infallibility does not entail impeccability, and Catholics regard the Pope as infallible only when, under very specific conditions, he invokes his papal authority. Nowhere does Pius XII teach anything (positive) about Hitler’s ideals, or his national socialism, so there is simply nothing here for me to defend out of any misguided sense of Catholic propriety.

The reason I defend this Pope is that I have grown to have a warm affection for both his character and his intellect. Of the veritable library of encyclicals he managed to produce during his pontificate, Humani Generis, Mystici corporis Christi, Orientales omnes Ecclesias, Sempiternus Rex Christus, Musicae sacrae, Ad Apostolorum principis, and Divino afflante Spiritu stand out as being among the most beautiful and (for me) intellectually formative encyclicals I have ever read. Pope Pius XII was a towering intellect with a solid commitment to the exploration of the beauty, truth and goodness of his faith. He also happened to have the moral fortitude and heroism of a saint. This is the reason I rush to his defense.

[1] Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Atlantic Books, 2008.

[2] See some of his extended interviews here: http://www.catholic.com/profiles/ron-rychlak

[3] https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/rethinking-hitlers-pope

[4] http://www.catholic.com/documents/how-pius-xii-protected-jews

[5] http://www.catholic.com/documents/how-pius-xii-protected-jews

[6] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/not-hitlers-pope/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_XII_and_the_Holocaust

[8] http://www.catholicleague.org/the-real-story-of-pius-xii-and-the-jews/

[9] Peter Hoffmann, History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945. (McGill-Queen’s University Press: 1996) 161, 294.

[10] http://www.catholic.com/audio-player/40725

[11] This is hotly disputed, and may be propaganda from British and allied forces.

[12] Owen Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, Cambridge University Press: 1988. And Dan Kurzman, “Hitler’s Plan to Kidnap the Pope,” June 26, 2007, accessed November 25, 2016. http://www.catholicleague.org/hitlers-plan-to-kidnap-the-pope/. Additionally, note the oddity of the British using this as pro-allied forces propaganda if Pius XII really was in league with Hitler. Thus, even if this was originally propaganda, it is propaganda which provides evidence that Pius was not a Nazi sympathizer.

[13] Rabbi David G. Dalin, “A Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Jews,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/a-righteous-gentile-pope-pius-xii-and-the-jews.html

[14] Rabbi David G. Dalin, “A Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Jews,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/…/a-righteous-gentile…

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Zolli

[16] https://www.amazon.ca/Why-Became-Catholic-Eugenio-Zolli/dp/0912141468/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1480144352&sr=8-3&keywords=Why+I+became+a+Catholic

[17] http://www.catholic.com/audio-player/40725 (29 minutes in).

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deputy

[19] http://www.catholic.com/audio-player/40725

[20] Cornwell, John. Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. Penguin, 2000.

[21] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-Catholicism/The-age-of-Reformation-and-Counter-Reformation#toc43758

[22] Which can be found here, but only in Italian and German: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/index_concordati-accordi_en.htm


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