Hitler's Pope?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Sanchez is a professor of history at St. Louis University and the author of Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (2002).

By now, everyone knows the controversy over Pope Pius XII and his alleged silence on the Holocaust. Nearly six million Jews were killed by the Germans and the Pope's detractors claim that Pius never protested this murder, or did not protest it with the vehemence at his disposal as the leader of a church that counted many of the murderers among its adherents, or did not protest it with the force inherent in his position as the Vicar of Christ.

11This controversy has become one of the most heated historical issues of our time. It is also an emotional issue that separates Jews from Catholics, anticlericals from clericals, progressive Catholics from traditionalist Catholics, and it has become a focal point for issues that have nothing to do with Pius and the Holocaust. Books on the topic appear almost monthly, adding little new information or insight. As a result, there is a great deal of shallow thinking on the issue itself, so much so that detractors and defenders cite each other in ever diminishing circles.

11In fact, Pius was not as silent as his critics make him out to be. Pius did make generalized protests about the killing of all the innocent in World War II. In his Christmas message of December 1939, four months after the war began, he said:"Atrocities and illicit use of means of destruction even against noncombatants and refugees, against old people, women and children and the contempt of dignity, freedom and human life, are actions that call for vengeance in the sight of God." These are strong words. The Nazi hierarchy believed that Pius's words were directed against them and they looked upon the Pope as an Allied sympathizer.

11Given the enormous and random killing of the innocent (millions of non-Jews were killed by the Germans as well), Pius made few specific distinctions among them. When the Germans began implementing what they called the Final Solution, Pius publicly stated,"Every one of our public utterances has had to be weighed and pondered...in the very interest of those who are suffering so as not to render their position even more difficult and unbearable than before." He included among the suffering"those who, because of their nationality or descent are...threatened with extermination." All of these facts were well known by the time the controversy over his alleged silence started.

11Given the Pope's general protests and the clear rationale he gave for his actions, why then is there a controversy over Pius and the Holocaust? There are, I believe, six explanations for the controversy.

11Reason 1: Underlying all the controversy is the attempt to play the game of virtual or counter-factual history, the what-might-have-happened if the Pope had spoken out the way the detractors wish he had. This game can be played by anyone; any scenario can be concocted without fear of reproof, for who can argue against something that never happened? Thus, if Pius had excommunicated Hitler and had protested vigorously against the killing of the Jews, all German Catholics would have risen up in rebellion against the Nazi state and the anti-Semitism of the Poles and other Eastern Europeans would have magically disappeared; or alternately, Hitler would have invaded the Vatican and killed the Pope. The temptation to devise a scenario that suits the critics' prejudices and proclivities is a strong dynamic of the controversy.

11Reason 2: Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy. When Pius died in 1958 Jews everywhere praised him. Golda Meier, Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and later President of Israel, summed up these encomiums when she said,"during the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their victims." Then five years later, the German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth premiered his dramatic work, which indicted Pius as a cold, machiavellian pontiff who was more concerned with the effect that the war had upon the Vatican's financial holdings than he was with protesting anything the Germans did. The message was simple and Hochhuth stage-directed that a number of actors play dual roles: Pius was played by the same actor who played a German industrialist who used slave labor. There was little subtlety in this portrayal.

Hochhuth's play began the controversy and in the early 1960's there were protests against the play and protests against the protests. So great did the controversy become that Pope Paul VI entered the fray. He defended Pius, arguing that a papal protest would have caused even greater suffering, and he ordered the publication of documents from the Vatican Secretariat of State archives in order to show that Pius was not the venal person portrayed by Hochhuth and the other critics.

11This series of Vatican documents published in the years from 1965 to 1981 in 11 volumes, was edited by a team of four Jesuits. They were the only ones allowed into the archives, and detractors charged that they had not published any documents that would have placed the papacy in a bad light. In response, they argued that there were thousands of documents and they had to sift through to find the important ones, and that their selection was a true and valid representation of what the archives contained. As scholars began to peruse the documents, the controversy died down, although there were periodic flare-ups.

11Reason 3: The Vatican statement in 1998,"We Remember: a Reflection on the Shoah," by the Papal Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. This statement confessed that Christians did not do all that they should have done to protest the Holocaust, but it defended Pius, pointing out that"during and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives." Pius's detractors jumped on this statement, arguing both that it was incorrect in the numbers claimed saved, and that the Jewish leaders after the war were not adequately informed on the role of the papacy. Pius's defenders argued back just as strenuously that the Pope was responsible for saving more Jewish lives than anyone else in Europe.

11Reason 4: John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope (1999) and the critical works that followed it. Cornwell, not an academic historian, used the controversy in a polemic to advance his own agenda against Pope John Paul II. His title alone made the case (and had much to do with making the book a best-seller), arguing that Pius's ambition for power led to" collusion with tyranny." Following Cornwell, the controversy heated up with works by Susan Zuccotti (Under his Very Windows), Michael Phayer ( The Catholic Church and the Holocaust), and Ronald Rychlak,(Hitler, the War and the Pope) to name only the most important.

11Reason 5: The place of Pius XII in papal history. He was sandwiched between two very strong Popes. Before him came Pius XI, a combatative fellow if ever there was one, someone everyone believes would have told Hitler off once the Holocaust began (although in 1937 he protested Hitler's statism and violations of the Reichskoncordat, the detractors argue it was not specific enough concerning the persecution of the Jews). After Pius XII came John XXIII, who more than anyone else destroyed the imperial papacy. How could anyone compete with Pope John? Pius's shy personality and his putative omniscience on all matters, secular as well as spiritual, made him an anticlerical's dream, simply waiting to be knocked down from his pedestal. Present papal plans to beatify and canonize Pius contributed to the controversy.

11Reason 6: The controversy is polemic driven. That is, the critics attack Pius because they want to make a point that has nothing to do with his behavior. And this is the open secret about the controversy. Most of the controversy is not about Pius at all, but rather about other issues: the direction in which the present Pope is taking the Church, the Church's responsibility for fostering anti-Semitism over the past two millennia and even the very structure of the Church (and most recently Pius has been blamed for the silence of the Church hierarchy on the issue of sexual abuse for the alleged example he set for the silence on the Holocaust). Detractors use the controversy as a vehicle for advancing other agendas. The symbolism inherent in the office of the Pope is a powerful magnet for attracting criticism.

11And so, the final chapter on this controversy has not been written, nor will it be soon. The Vatican has promised to open the archives on the period; the first archive to be opened will be from the pontificate of Pius XI (when the future Pope Pius XII was Secretary of State), and then some of Pius XII's wartime archives, especially those related to humanitarian activities of the Vatican. Will they reveal anything? Absent any incriminating documents, detractors will claim that the archives have been sanitized, while defenders will say that there never were any. And the controversy will go on, generating much more heat than light.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

B. Reidlinger - 5/15/2003

You make reference and light of "Hitler's Pope" and subsequent works and conveniently forget to mention a work of much broader scope by James Carrol. The book is entitled "Constantine's Sword". This marvoulous work chronicles and documents the Church's history of treatment of the Jews (or mis-treatment I should say). It has been nothing short of diabolically evil and systematic overall, "from the cross to Auschwitz". In the context of this work, Pius XII contribution to anti-semiism in the Church is just a small part. The entire history of the Church and this subject does not help Pius XII's cause I'm afraid. By the way, James Carrol is a former Roman priest and practicing Roman. It is refereshing to see objectivity and historical accuracy untainted by the Church in a practicing Roman.

Dan Morrow - 4/3/2003

Kudos. VERY nice summary, however . . . if I may.

.Prof. Sanchez writes, "Underlying all the controversy is the attempt to play the game of virtual or counter-factual history . . . . "

The question of Pacelli's silence . . . and other problematic behaviors . . . were major topics of investigation in my youth (I am 60) well before "counterfactual" history became even vaguely "legitimate" in the "professional" circles of my youth. Hence, I would respectfully disagree that it is a MAJOR cause . . . much lessTHE causal factor in the controversy. Of course I'm old. And counterfactual history is hot, and fun. But I STILL wouldn't rank this FIRST in my list of causes.

Second, what I think is an omission.

The Pope-to-be had a history of prejudice that extended beyond his theologically sanctioned anti-semitism into "scientificly" supported racism pure and simple
Pacelli, as nuncio, gave full support to efforts public and private to convince Pius XI to weigh in against the French for using black troops to occupy the Rheinland. My own most recent research focuses on a Munich-based organization, the "Emergency League Against the Black Shame." Pacelli, from the documentation I've seen bought many of the "eugenics" arguments being bandied about Munich by some of the leading lights of the University's medical community at the time . . . including the supposed "natural incliniation" on the part of "black" troops to rape white women . . . the threat of "mogrelization" of the "white" race posed by these troops (either through violent intercourse OR interactions with "loose" whte women) . . . the epidemeological threat posed by the spread of vicious "tropical diseases" by the dreaded "african" troops . . . and other "problems" too numerous, and too outrageous to mention . . . problems that were, sadly, both "legitimate" in some educated circles (cf "eugenics") . . . and later reflected in Pius XII's oft cited appeal to keep American black troops out of Rome. (I was quite suprised to find, early in my research, a WWII Italian poster, worthy of the German "Black Shame" propaganda of the 1920's, showing a cartoon cariacture of a leering black soldier, drunk, and with his arms draped around the Venus de Milo.

All that said, nice work . . . and what a NICE WEB SITE!
Love it!
Keep up the good work.
It REALLY helps us old "civilians"


Dan Morrow

Daniel S. Morrow
Executive Director
Computerworld Honors Program
Center for Innovative Technology
Suite 108
2214 Rock Hill Road
Herndon, Virginia 20170

Phone: 703-481-1804
Fax: 703-467-0861
email: 70754.334@compuserve.com
Web site: http://www.cwheroes.org

Shirene - 12/7/2002

I think what Hitler did was the most horrible event ever to be told...
Right now my Language Arts class and I are studying and researching about a topic (that we choose) of what happened during World War II. So far I learned more about Hitler, which is what I'm now studying about.
I'm sure Hitler will be mentioned all around the world, for, I think, a very long time.

A. Bartelt - 9/26/2002

Apparently Jose Sanchez didn't read "La Popessa", by Paul Murphy and Rene Arlington (Viking, 1983).

Gerry Regan - 5/8/2002

This is an important summary of the issue. I appreciate HNN making it available, truly shedding "light" rather than heat.