Brian Bethune: Did Hitler try to kidnap the pope?

Roundup: Talking About History

Did he do all that he could have done, all that he should have done? Controversy over the conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust has raged for over 40 years. Pius's once sterling reputation for having done what he could behind the scenes for persecuted Jews first came under sustained attack in 1963, when Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy cast his failure to publicly denounce the Nazi genocide in an anti-Semitic light. The bitter debate has never really stopped since, fuelled by Pius's ongoing canonization process: by last March the man who ruled the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958 was only a small step removed from beatified status, the last rung before full sainthood. Even those, Jewish and Catholic alike, who might otherwise contemplate letting past tragedies go gently into the history books, are unwilling to ignore the present-day sanctification of a man about whose motives and actions so much uncertainty swirls.

One key issue concerns the practical value of public denunciation, especially weighed against possible repercussions. What would have happened, for example, if Pius had excommunicated Hitler, a baptized Catholic? Would German Catholics have stopped the entire genocide machine in its tracks, or would open enmity have simply caused the Nazis to turn their murderous impulses on the Vatican or on Catholics in general, while doing nothing for Jews? That's where A Special Mission (Perseus) by American journalist Dan Kurzman, the first serious investigation of Hitler's little-known plan to kidnap Pius in order to keep him quiet about the Final Solution, brings a new twist to the story.

Pius the Vicar of Christ and Hitler the Antichrist loathed and feared one another as rival claimants for Europe's hearts and souls, says Kurzman. Stalin may cynically have asked of another pope, "How many divisions does he have?", but Hitler knew 40 per cent of his army was Catholic and that a 10th of the elite SS had refused to abandon the faith despite strong Nazi party pressure. Pius, for his part, was aware of the depth of anti-Semitism that cut across German society and that nationalism had long trumped religion in Europe. Had not Catholics on both sides of the Western Front dutifully mown down their co-religionists by the millions in the previous world war? Neither leader wanted to issue a command that might backfire. Hitler, when not in a rage, feared creating a martyr; Pius, whose overriding concern was piloting his Church safely through the maelstrom, was wary of provoking a violent psychopath....

Despite Kurzman's insistence that the kidnap plot was a vital factor in Pius's decisions, it's difficult to evaluate its importance. In the event, Pius never did directly denounce the Holocaust, but he and his city escaped the war largely unscathed, with Rome's monasteries and convents (and the papal summer home of Castel Gandolfo) stuffed with Jewish refugees. Six decades later, the thousand-year Reich is history, and the Roman Catholic Church is a going concern....

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